Archive for December, 2011

Count Them Words

One of the major knocks against Nanowrimo, and one that I’ve agreed with in the past, is its focus on word count to define a novel.  But note: that complaint, at least when I make it, isn’t about the general practice of counting words, it’s more about the particular choice of calling 50,000 words a novel, when most modern novels are closer to twice that.  The issue is the number, not counting.

Because you know what?  Word counting fucking rocks.

Seriously, if there’s a better motivational tool for my process, I’ve yet to find it.  There’s something about watching that number gradually rise (now that I’ve switched to Scrivener, it’s always at the bottom of the screen), having hundreds pass by barely noticed, seeing that number tick up into four digits, approaching triple zeroes for the second time in a writing session.  It’s all about those numbers, those beautiful, beautiful numbers.

I’ll admit to being a bit of a numbers geek.  Alright, a lot of a numbers geek.  I follow two different site hit tracking programs, not because I distrust either one or have any desire to monetize viewership, but because they show me numbers.  Real, tangible numbers I can track and chart and affect in some slight way every day.  I love my Prius not just because it’s fun to drive and has a shockingly roomy interior, but because in the dashboard just to my right as I drive is a graph.  A graph!  It tracks my MPG in five minute increments, and while I don’t get into hypermiling, there is a sense of accomplishment to see a nice tall bar.  Do you understand how exciting it is to drive along and see a graph?  Of course you don’t, because you’re probably not as crippling obsessed with numbers as I am.

I do long division for fun.

I try to determine whether the numbers in license plates in front of me are divisible by three.

I’m not kidding.

I’m just a little nutty, and I realize this.  I accept and embrace it.  Few people are probably nearly as numbers obsessed or motivated as I am, but you don’t need even one tenth my crazy to find word counts motivating.  It’s something seated deep down in our psyche, our love of round numbers, crossing arbitrary benchmarks.  There’s just as much liklihood of your purchase at the store ending in twenty-three cents as being a rounded dollar, but isn’t the latter so much more interesting when it happens?  Just think how damnable is it to hit that word count button and see a milestone so close and yet so bloody far.  That pushes me, it gets me wanting to write one more paragraph, one more scene, just to get that count up.  But then I get close to another milestone.  And another.

Scrivener is just fueling the obsession.  I can track word counts for a writing session, a day, a scene, a chapter, and the book.  And while there’s typically some overlap (yesterday my day and chapter numbers were the same), I’ve still got enough different word counts I’m tracking that one of them is close enough to push me forward.  Do you know just how much it killed me last night to walk away from my manuscript when it was at 14,864 words?  I can smell 15,000, my fingers are twitching to get back to it, and that’s probably going to drive me to do some writing tonight, which is unusual as I typically don’t write the nights my writers’ group meets.  Is that irony?  I’ll admit I suck at irony.

I suppose one of my favorite features of Scrivener is how passive it’s made this obsession of mine.  In Word it always required an active choice to check word count.  There was a button to hit, a disruptive window would pop up with far too much information.  If I wanted a partial word count, I had to find a starting point, highlight, then hit that button.  It doesn’t sound like much, but it was something that pulled me out of writing, especially on those nights that I was feeling particularly numeric, when I knew I was getting close to a BIG milestone.  Something with 4 consecutive zeros in it.  Thanks to Scrivener I’ve always got scene count, and can get chapter and manuscript counts with one click, then back to writing.  It feeds me.  It stokes the fires of my insanity, but in this case that’s a good thing.  Because it keeps me motivated, keeps me pushing forward, and keeps me driven.  And it makes my obsession less disruptive to my process.  Which frees me so much to keep writing.

So count those words!  Just like WordPress is counting the 790 in this post.

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Amazon Price Check

For anyone who hasn’t been following the tech blogs this week, or any of the other sites that have talked about the Amazon scanner promotion, a brief background.  Amazon is looking to encourage what it calls “comparison shopping” by those who have smartphones and the Amazon Price Check app.  Simply take your smart phone into a regular store, scan the bar code, and see what the price of the item is on Amazon.  This past Saturday, they were even offering 5% off up to three items, maxing out at $5 each.

It was seen by many as an aggressive move, another shot across the bow of brick-and-mortar retailing from a company already largely credited with destroying book selling giant Borders (though I still contend they did as much to hurt themselves as Amazon ever did to them).  And it created a backlash against the company as many accused them of using everyday people as price spies, and encouraging people to go into mom-and-pop stores that they had no intention of shopping at just to get up to $15.  How much of this is true, it’s hard to say.  I can’t imagine no one walked into a store intending to do a quick price scan, and didn’t buy something anyway.  Someone somewhere generated a sale they otherwise wouldn’t have.  And most people buying from Amazon that day were probably already going to buy from Amazon anyway, and were just looking for a quick sawbuck.

I’m not defending Amazon.  I’m just not looking to engage in nearly the rhetoric I’ve seen against a company that is always looking for a new way of changing the way consumers approach products.  This is the same company that created Amazon Studios, a project that I’m thrilled to say I was wrong about when I approached it with some cynicism at its launch.  It’s a company that is now directly publishing and selling books, a move that I’m still cynical about.  It’s a company that took a flagging market in eBooks and has turned it into a commercial success.  This campaign was largely a PR miss for them, but that’s something they can brush off.

What I found much more intriguing about this promotion was the way it embraced smart phone technology.  There’s no doubt that the devices are rapidly changing the way we live life, and are an increasing share of the phone market.  Hell, I have two of them.  Nearly three if you count my iPod Touch.  And one of my desires when buying a new phone was one that could do on-the-fly barcode reading, something that my old Pre could just never quite handle due to the fixed focus lens.  It’s a step towards a world where we’re in more direct contact with companies, and where information can be delivered to us on the fly.

Consider the QR Code.  Those are the little black-and-white squares showing up in more and more advertising, especially in places where people tend to have smart phones on them.  They can be quickly scanned and decoded by most modern smart devices, delivering a website address or up to 250 characters of text on the fly.  And that’s really the intriguing part of all of this, on the fly voluntary advertising.  People have to make an active decision to pull out their phone and scan the code, transforming what is typically passive advertising into much more active advertising.

Why?

Because it’s fun, and cool.

As someone occasionally obsessed with new channels for self promotion, this strikes me as intriguing.  I’ve already heard of tech conventions that include, on every badge, a QR Code containing all the typical business card information for that participant.  It cuts out the in-between activities of adding someone into your phone’s contact list by directly dropping them in with a quick scan.  On my own, I’ve played with the idea of QR codes that contain links to my blog, links to my book on Smashwords (when that was a thing) and have even considered the idea of original fiction short enough to put into a QR Code.  Hell, people have created twitter-length fiction, QR gives an entire 110 extra characters for just a bit more plot depth.  That’s almost twice the length.

Where does all of this lead us?  I can’t help but wonder when the active will become passive again, with QR giving way to augmented reality.  I also can’t help but wonder when it won’t be just a barcode that Amazon wants you to scan, but a product itself.  Can I take a picture of my desk and see how much each item on it would cost to replace?  It creates new lines of self promotion, something that every author engages in at least a little of.  Just that slightly intriguing different take on letting the world know who you are, just enough to get eyeballs.  And it digitizes things one step further.  It changes the way people interact with their world, with their commerce, and with content distribution.  QR codes could easily point someone to a short story, or even a novel, available free for quick download.

I can’t say that Amazon is changing the world for the better or worse by asking people to scan barcodes.  I can’t say that QR codes are going to be anything more than a fad.  But it is all a new form of digital interaction with our world that is already the new normal for many, and something that any self-individual, writers included, needs to keep up on.

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Beginnings and Endings

I suppose this is part two of considering human psychology when creating descriptions.  It’s part of my attempt to think more about descriptions and use them better.  I will conquer my white box syndrome!

Does anyone remember the emails and websites that abounded a few years ago centered on a supposed Cambridge study stating that words are still legible if the first and last letters are in the correct place, even if the other letters are scrambled?  That was a hoax, it was phooey.  It was a conjuration based on keeping words short and giving the brain some sort of context.  Two and three letter words were unchanged, four letter words were barely scrambled it all, and from that simple extrapolation could fill in the holes.  Sentences made entirely of words six letters or longer were still nearly unreadable except by the most diehard Jumble fanatics.  I’m sorry to burst bubbles, especially since one form of the email suggested that only the most intelligent had this ability.

But beneath the bullshit, there’s a little grain of truth.  It’s likely why the story had such legs.

We focus on beginnings and endings, first bits and last bits.  Those are our anchors when we read, when we comprehend, and a lot of middle bits are combinations of what’s actually there and our basic pattern recognition instincts.  This is something the writer needs to be aware of, because it’s a potentially powerful tool.  It’s where the writer can hide stuff in plain sight.  Those little details that are essential to establish, but shouldn’t be spotlighted.  The clown with a machete.  The ones that the reader sees on a re-read and realizes that the answer was right there all along.  Those shouldn’t be sitting in the first or last sentences of a paragraph.  Those shouldn’t be the first or last items on a list.  They should be woven in and hidden away.

Not only is this a fantastic way to hide things in plain sight, it also meshes more realistically with how we encounter everyday life.  In most situations in life we don’t immediately notice what will ultimately be the most important detail.  Things aren’t magically sorted in ascending or descending order.  We remember details, we come back to them, and we realize that while the information about how to hide details is good information, the far more pertinent information to our survival is the clown with the machete.

Realize that this is a tool that can quickly become a cheat.  Some details do immediately stand out and wouldn’t be naturally lumped in with the rest of the information about a situation.  You’re not going to look around a room and just casually notice the gun toting maniac along with the sofa, pile of bodies, and grandfather clock running half an hour slow.  Assess the situation, how much the important detail would stand out at that moment, then hide it appropriately.  It’s a tool, and like any tool, it can be overused, or misused.  Moderation in all things.

And watch out for those clowns, man.  They’re scary.

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Photographing the Moon

Ever gone outside and seen a beautiful full moon dominating the sky?  Or the blood-red moon of a lunar eclipse?  Perhaps you’ve tried to take a picture of it, just to then go inside later with your digital camera and found several black pictures with little white dots.  The moon has been shining especially bright here in Northern Virginia the last few nights, so I thought I’d demonstrate with my own picture, at right, taken on my phone last night.

That’s disappointing, isn’t it?

Stand outside and point your arms straight out, left and right.  The angle formed between your arms is 180 degrees.  Point one of them straight up.  That angle is 90 degrees.  Now, point one hand at the left edge of the moon and another at the right edge.  That’s probably hard, because your arms are so much thicker than the apparent size of the moon.  If you could do it, the angle would only be about half a degree.  Which is 0.28% of that original arms-spread-wide stance.  The field of view on a camera is about 40 degrees, give or take, which means the half-degree of the moon is anywhere from just 1.25% of the width of a picture to 2%.

And yet we look up at the sky, and it appears so massive.

There’s a bit of psychology in play here.  I’m not even talking about the classic optical illusion where the moon appears larger on the horizon, when compared to points of reference of known size, than when alone in the sky.  Even our perceptions of how large the moon is in an otherwise empty sky doesn’t quite match what we see when we photograph the moon.  It all comes down to how we perceive the world in general, and how our senses keep us alive and sane.

Right now you are being bombarded with sensory input you aren’t aware of.  The smell of the air.  The feel of cloth on your skin.  Probably the dull hush of the heater, the hum of your computer.  All of this lives within a realm that your senses write down as a baseline and ignore.  Instead, we focus on the important things, we filter our inputs.  In the case of the moon, we filter it as far more important, and therefore perceive it as far larger than it actually is.  But this breaks down when we introduce an impassioned observer into the mix, when we tell a mechanical device to interpret the scene and show us what’s actually there.

Photography causes this illusion, this misconception, to break down.  So we look at a moon that looms in the sky, then at a blurry dot that disappoints in a picture.  It’s why there are any number of websites devoted to instructions for photographing the moon, which is one of the harder pictures that most people have tried, and failed, to properly take.

What, you’re likely asking, does any of this have to do with writing?

I’m getting to that.  I’ve been thinking about moon photography lately because it strikes me as the perfect analogy to how a mechanical being would interpret the world.  Those filters would be among the hardest bits to program, telling a system what input to disregard and what input is important enough to pay attention to.  Get it too wrong in either direction and you’ve got a being that is either paying attention to almost everything or practically nothing.  In short, the hardest bits of the human experience to reproduce are the ones we’re not even consciously aware of.

Writers are programmers.  Readers are our robots.

Alright, that sounds like a really bizarre analogy, but I stand by it within the context of the previous paragraph.  We, as writers, need to determine what sensory inputs are necessary for the reader and which are extraneous.  Too few inputs (my frequent problem) and readers are left with faceless characters standing in a void.  Too many inputs and they overwhelm the story and do too much to spread out the growing drama or tension of a situation.  It’s not quite a tightrope, there’s wiggle room, but it is one of the bigger challenges that I’m still facing as a writer: how much is enough, and how much would be too much.  I’ve yet to do the latter myself, but I do know it exists, as I have seen it in stories.  Find that balance, and your reader is aware of how spectacular the moon is in the night sky without being aware of how little of the sky it actually takes up.

Meanwhile, I’m going to work a little more on my photography.

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What I’ve Learned From #10queriesIn10tweets

First, if you are an aspiring novelist and do not know that hash tag, then head over to Sara Megibow’s Twitter account and hit follow.  She is an Associate Literary Agent at the Nelson Literary Agency which, as quoted from her Publishers Marketplace listing, “specializes in representing young adult and middle grade fiction, science fiction and fantasy, romance (all genres except category or inspirational), commercial fiction, women’s fiction (including chick lit) and high concept literary fiction.”

Don’t write in one of those categories?  I don’t care!  Follow her anyway!  (Please note: this is “follow her anyway” not “query her anyway,” but I get ahead of myself.)

Why?  Because this isn’t about networking, it’s about something she does most Thursdays called 10 Queries in 10 Tweets in which she grabs the top ten queries off her to-read pile, and tweets responses while keeping the details private.  In the end that means ten tweets showing not what people are submitting, but what they’ve done right and wrong when submitting.  Which is something that applies across genres, because the mistakes anyone make to one agent are the mistakes I don’t want to make to any agent.

I first found her 10 Queries tweets in mid-November, which has been fantastic timing as 2012 will hopefully see me querying agents for the first time.  It’s fascinating to see how little it takes to be rejected at the query phase.  For this post I’ve gone back through her five most recent 10 Queries periods, her 50 most recently tweeted query rejections and acceptances, to crunch some numbers about what got rejected and why.  I created a few broad categories, then tried to fit the rejections into them based on her words and my impressions.  Please note, these are my own categories, and my own attempts to fit what I read in her tweets into these categories.

First, I’ll point out that four queries were accepted during those sessions, averaging just under one per.  That’s not four people who have found an agent, that’s four people given the opportunity to send a sample of their manuscript to an agent.  That’s about an 8% pass-through rate within that relatively small sample size.  Of the 92% of the queries that failed, they lumped into three big categories:

Poorly Written Queries (18 queries, 36%).  A stunning percent of these queries are poorly written in a mechanical sense, not a qualitative sense.  Bad spelling, bad grammar, run-on sentences, all of these were cited in the tweets as reasons to reject a give query.  This strikes me as akin to showing up for a job interview in a dirty t-shirt and shorts.  These are people querying a literary agent, someone who is going to represent their writing, and their first impression is a poorly written one.  She says very clearly in these tweets that a poorly written query indicates a poorly written manuscript.

No Pitch (6 queries, 12%).  In one of her tweets, Megibow says she wants pitches to “sound like the back cover of a novel.”  Apparently some authors are coy about including actual plot details.  I was one of those the first time I tried to query a novel, to a contest not an agent, back in the old days when I thought my first Nano novel was good enough to sell.

Didn’t Read the Rules (5 queries, 10%).  This covers a few different sins.  It includes someone who sent a screenplay query to a literary agent.  It includes someone who included a sample with the query to an agent who follows the standard query, sample, manuscript progression.  It includes people sending the wrong genre of fiction to an agent who has clearly listed what both she and her agency represent.

I’m rather shocked by all three of these categories, as they are easy traps to avoid.  Look, I’ll admit, I’ve not seriously queried agents yet, so I can’t come out and say “this is how you should or shouldn’t do it.”  I’m not going to play the false authority game.  But I will give the lessons that I’ve taken out of 10 Queries that I will apply to my own queries when the time comes:

  • I will spell check, grammar check, and even have someone beta read my query letter before I send it.
  • I will pitch my plot.  I will keep my readers in suspense but understand an agent needs to know what he or she will be representing.
  • I will research agents.  I will read their websites, make sure they rep what I’m writing, and not bother the ones who don’t.  I will include attachments only when and where requested.

These strike me as three very rational and reasonable considerations when querying an agent.  However, at least one of these three steps was missed by over half the 10 Queries tweets since the start of November.

In short, if I’m to be rejected, let me be rejected for my plot and ideas, rather than being rejected out of hand over something foolish.

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Hell on a Christmas Carol

Last night I stumbled on the George C Scott version of A Christmas Carol as it started on AMC.  It stands as my favorite adaptation of the story that involves an all human cast (Muppets forever), so I decided to sit down and give it a watch.  Being it was modern television, there were little bugs at the corners of the screen advertising the network and other shows.  Being it was AMC, the show being advertised was Hell On Wheels, their new (and fantastic) period drama about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.  I was thrown by the juxtaposition of the two works, so I decided to look them both up.

Hell on Wheels takes place in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, 1865.  The Railroad was authorized years earlier, but the eastern leg was held up due to a lack of able bodied men to work the project.

A Christmas Carol was first published in 1843.  The novel actually had a lot to do with the adoption of Christmas in the United States, which had previously seen the holiday as overly British in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War.

22 years difference.  With A Christmas Carol as the earlier story.  I’m not at this point going to pretend I’m the first person to observe the stark differences between life in the United States and Great Britain during the Victorian Era.  And I’m certainly not going to be the last to make that observation.  And it’s not even the difference between the US and UK, it’s the difference between rather polite city society and the frontier that the United States was pushing forward.  But it wasn’t until that little bug, sitting on the corner of the screen, that I really considered what different worlds existed on either side of the Atlantic Ocean in a time when the US was the little sister to the great powers of Europe.

It’s the kind of relationship that informs a lot of Steampunk.  While there are the outliers, most of the entries into the genre I’ve read (important distinction) take place either in Victorian England or the American frontier.  In short: they take place either in the worlds of A Christmas Carol or Hell on Wheels.  And it paints the Victorian era as a dichotomy, the civilized English (and, by extension, Europeans) and their grubby American cousins still trying to wrest a country out of their savage continent.  It really is amazing that both realities were interposed, considering how quickly America caught up and how much more homogeneous the two sides of the Atlantic are.  Oh, certainly there are differences, but not the differences of the Victorian.

So we stand with this oddly dualist world view of the Victorian era that disregards 99% of the world, which I will not turn into an “Occupy Steampunk” joke.  But I will turn into an opportunity.  I find Steampunk interesting when it gets away from Victorian England and Frontier America.  Move it into the rest of Europe.  Take it into Asia.  Explore the coasts of North America rather than the dusty interior.

And if anyone has any recommended reading where this happens, I’d be glad to have them.  Just keep in mind…I’m oddly airship adverse.  Because I’m a bad Steampunk.

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Side Story

There’s a clear challenge when working on a collaborative project in that it’s hard to find ways to both be actively, productively working on it at the same time.  I’ve found various ways to work on side projects associated with Nickajack while my wife is working on the actual text of the novel itself.  I’ll populate a timeline I’ve created, I’ll research the city and era, I’ll flesh out characters, all these little bits and pieces that we’ll need as part of the novel but won’t show up in the text of any specific chapter or scene.

Yesterday my wife was working some edits on chapter one ahead of the first submission of any bits of Nickajack to beta readers.  I’m actually a little anxious about this, but that’s another topic entirely. This is about the run of writing a side story.

I’m sure writers have always crafted little short stories meant to take place in the same world as their novel, or with the same characters, just to get a taste for what’s going on outside of the main plotline.  Making these stories available to the reading public strikes me a much more recent innovation, fueled by the digital self publication options available to the modern author.  It’s just so much easier to write something and make it available than it has been at any point in human history.  Added to this is the concept of short stories sold on an à la carte basis, which was certainly an offspring of modern digital distribution.

And it’s something that publishers are slowly catching up with.

Most authors are free to do this sort of work, writing little side stories and completely controlling the distribution, pricing, and ultimately profits on the stories.  But in his Shared Desk podcast (Episode 3, starting at 26:45, but the whole episode is worth a listen) Tee Morris foresees a near future when publishers realize they’re leaving money on the table by not including distribution of these side stories within the overall contract for a novel.  I can see it from both angles.  Publishers are looking to protect the branding of a franchise they own the rights to and ensure that any release under the umbrella of a franchise name, whether a novel or a short story, portrays that franchise in a positive and polished light.  However, moves by publishers to control distribution of associated short stories will likely either come with quotas or full editorials processes and scheduled releases, which could affect the willingness of authors to consider these side projects.

In short, this is a fast moving market, and if we ever do succeed in publishing Nickajack, it will be interesting to see what our contract allows for with regard to stories like I wrote last night.

But that’s not why I wrote the story.  Whatever the history of the side story, whatever the future might hold, I churned out a quick 900 words last night for the pure fun of it, and I’m damn glad I did.  It let me get into the world just a little more, into the history, and even into the head of one of my main characters, even though he doesn’t appear at all in the short.  It was rather a lot of use out of a relatively short number of words.  I envision several more of these.  Not enough to distract me from the novel, but enough to keep my brain going on those nights when I’m kicked out of the manuscript.  And, hopefully, one day if the novel is picked up they’ll be something I can share with those who enjoy the world.

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Krampus!

That delightful fellow to the right, dear readers, is the Krampus.  Think of him as the anti Santa Claus.  He’s the one that delivers switches and coal to the bad little girls and boys.  And if they’ve really been bad enough, he will put them in a sack and take them back to his lair.

This is the time of year that the Krampus arrives to Bavarian regions and cities, shaking rusty chains, ringing bells, and reminding kids that they better be good for far more than goodness sake.  It’s the rather darker side of Christmas that doesn’t make its way into the American traditions, pagan rights that were pushed aside as the holiday was turned from a festival of darkness into a festival of light.  Traditions that date back to when this time of year was about fearing for the dying light and railing against the lengthening night.

It makes all the sense in the world that this is when demons would walk the earth.  To hell with Halloween, night on Christmas is roughly 30 minutes longer.  Which is far more cold miserable darkness to peer out the window and wonder just what might be out there, prowling.  Unseen.

In the Netherlands, as made famous by David Sedaris, Santa does not arrive with the Krampus.  Saint Nicholas, Turkish bishop now living in Spain, arrives instead with six to eight black men.  These men will kick them, beat them with switches, and collect the naughtiest children and take them back to Spain.  I’m not entirely sure if this is meant to be a punishment.  It all depends on which part of Spain.

In the United States the punishment for naughty children is to not get any presents from Santa.  Which is largely an empty threat, one that I doubt many parents actually follow through on.  Coal is threatened, but only as a supplement, a hollow warning that has none of the actual deterrent power of beatings and demonic kidnapping.  And so the entire notion of behavior-based rewards to break down.  Be nice, or Santa won’t bring you any gifts, except he will anyway.  That’s not a life lesson.  Behave or a horned demon with long fangs and glowing yellow eyes will stuff you into his sack and take you back to his lair in the mountains.  I think that’s a story that better prepare anyone for the trials of this modern life, and provides much more incentive for good behavior.

This is really what happens if you let a horror writer loose with international Christmas traditions.

So let’s all be good, at least for a few weeks.  At least while he’s prowling the lengthening night, looking for those who are misbehaving.  Because the Krampus has plenty of room in his sack.

Krampus photo retrieved from Wikipedia.  Originally released to Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license by Flickr user Annia316.

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High Stakes Game!

I watch the crappy movies that Syfy channel runs on Saturdays.  Oh, not every Saturday, but they’re a fantastic way to turn my brain off and get some writing done, because if I stop paying attention for half an hour, I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything.  It’s also where I get a certain amount of fodder for my Writer Reviews file.  Today’s not going to be an official Writer Reviews post, but I would like to look at one of the Syfy movies that ran, oh, about a month ago.  I wish I could remember the title, but they all end up blurring together and, with the exception of Asylum releases, tend not to have overly evocative titles to begin with.

The plot of the movie concerned an antimatter storm churning in the earth’s atmosphere, rapidly increasing in size and threatening a city in, let’s say, Texas.  Yes, this is about the long term impact these movies have on me.  Eventually the movie hit the point where stakes had to be introduced.  Typically in this type of movie the stakes are the very planet itself.  Standard stakes in a natural disaster movie.  In this case, however, the astrophysicist working with the military determined that the storm wouldn’t just stop when the earth was destroyed, but that it would accelerate and destroy the entire universe!

At this point, I lost any connection I may have had with the movie.  The idea that some mistake at some nuclear power plant somewhere on earth could destroy the entire universe just doesn’t sit with me.  Largely because the universe is so old and massive that if something so localized could destroy the whole of it, we probably wouldn’t have gotten to this point.  Logic dictates that the universe simply can not be that fragile.  It’s a complete failure in setting the stakes for the movie, and left me feeling less tension, not more.

And that’s really the goal of stakes.  They define what can be lost through failure.  When properly deployed, they determine the audience’s emotional investment and attachment with the story, and the amount of tension in the story.  But this doesn’t mean that higher stakes will result in more investment and tension.  Stakes have to be appropriate to the story in question.  I don’t buy a movie-of-the-week disaster story with end of the universe stakes.  I wouldn’t buy a period love story with even city-wide destruction stakes.  Gone With the Wind not withstanding.  The stakes have to be appropriate to the story in question.

This is all a round about way to talk about American Horror Story.  I love this show.  Love this show.  It’s probably one of my two or three absolute favorite shows on television right now, right up with Hell on Wheels and just outpacing Fringe and Castle.  I’ve talked about all four on this blog in the past, but I’m revisiting American Horror Story because this week’s episode established the stakes for the rest of the season.

The pope says rubber man’s baby means the end of the world.  Part of why I love the show is getting to write sentence’s like that.

The stakes of the show have been very clear through the first seven episodes.  It’s about a family, and the question was always whether something was going to happen to make one of them snap and kill everyone else.  That’s the history of the house, it creates death.  That’s to be expected, the standard stakes in a haunted house story are the occupants of the house.  Their sanity, their lives, their relationships, all of them are on the line as the shit starts going down.  We’re even conditioned to expect the worst in this show, because even if they end up dead they might still come back next season.  Most stars of shows are safe because they’re the marquee names, but once ghosts are in play, all bets are off.

But now the pope says rubber man’s baby means the end of the world.  It’s such a sudden and jarring amplification of the stakes at play that it threw me out of the episode.  Oh, not the show.  Certainly not the show.  It’s still fantastically campy and wonderful and toeing every line that it can toe without being on HBO instead of FX.  Perhaps this is why the show disappointed me so much with the new stakes being set so late in the season, it’s an odd bait and switch.  That said, this is a show about being campy in every way possible short of buying a tent and a propane lantern, so I’ll be staying with it even as it dives off the deep end, because I suspect it’ll be a fun trip.  But that doesn’t make it appropriate in all circumstances.  Remember that horror and comedy are flip sides of the same coin, and exaggeration in either can work well if guided by the right writers.  I’m firmly of two minds about this, and thus will adopt a wait-and-see approach.  It does do, however, leave fewer directions to go with the already green lit second season.

That’s the problem with stakes in any kind of serial, whether a TV series, a series of movies, or a series of books.  It’s always easier to increase stakes than it is to decrease.  It’s not impossible to decrease stakes.  Please don’t say I ever said that.  It’s just harder to move in that direction, and takes a very deft hand.

Be aware of the stakes you’re setting in your story, ask yourself if you’re pushing them too far.  Ramp them back if need be.  There are fantastic stories out there that have very small stakes, largely because the smaller the stakes the more personally they’ll play on each character, so the richer each character can be.  If you’re feeling the need to increase the stakes, ask why, make sure that the stakes work in the scale of the story.  It’s certainly possible to create a story with universe saving stakes, but it needs to be universe scaled.

The fate of the world depends on it.

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Burn it. Burn it with fire.

This statement might put me on some sort of future arsonist watch list, but there are a lot of problems that could be solved by copious amounts of fire.  The management of this blog absolutely does not recommend nor endorse solving any real world problems with copious amounts of fire, excepting those problems that can be solved through the completely legal application of copious amounts of fire, such a hot dogs needing to be warmed or bonfires needing to be started.

Alright, that should have me in the clear.

I’m pulling this idea largely from my wife, who has seen far more horror movies than I have.  There are frequently points in those movies where the problems being faced by the protagonists could be very easily solved by the application of fire.  This could be because a largely wooden house is trying to kill you.  This could be because the monsters are in an isolated area with lots of trees around.  Just watch horror movies, and think to yourself at what point the problem could be caused if the good guys would just rub some sticks together then walk away just quickly enough to outpace the fire line.  It’s a non-trivial percentage.  Even when it’s not fire, it may be some other simple solution that the characters are overlooking in the moment.

As a writer, this can be a problem.  Because viewers and readers pay attention to such things, and consider such options.  Or, if this isn’t something all readers and viewers do, and something just my wife and I do…perhaps I should be placed on a future arsonist watch list.  That’s not the point.  The point is: there is a potentially extreme but easily accomplished solution to a problem, there needs to be a reason why it won’t work.  There needs to be a reason not to just burn everything down to the ground and let the fire brigade sort through the ashes at the end.

Recent show that did this well?  Fringe.  During their October 7th episode “Alone in the World” (available on Hulu at the time of writing this post) the team is faced with a lethal subterranean fungal growth.  The solution?  Copious amounts of fire!  It was the first idea anyone on the team suggested, the first that they thought to try, high fives were exchanged on our sofa watching the episode because it’s great to see someone go for the simple solution.  However, it turned out the fungal growth was psychically linked to a young boy who would also be killed by this apocalypse of burning.  Another solution was needed, but fire was suggested, attempted, and found to not work.

So while working on a plot, it’s essential to be aware of any simple solutions to complex problems presented in the piece, and it’s good to have a reason why they just won’t work.  Because someone reading the book, someone watching the show or movie, they’re going to come up with that simple solution.  And they’re going to be irate with either the characters or the work as a whole when it’s not at least suggested and dismissed as untenable.

Because sometimes, you really can just burn it with fire.

Fire picture released under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license by Wikipedia editor Fir0002.

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