How Writers Can Make Gatekeepers Work for Them

"Nobody can see the great Oz, even I haven't seen him"

“Nobody can see the great Oz, even I haven’t seen him”

The gatekeepers who once decided what art was worth publishing are losing relevance. We need not kneel at their feet to gain entrance to the public square. There are paths in everywhere.

Director J.J. Abrams told the audience at the Anaheim Star Wars Celebration that they could all be filmmakers. “Everyone has a camera in their pocket now… The technology has been democratized. Everyone has access… If you want to do it, the only thing stopping you from doing it is you.”

It’s great to think everyone will be creating art instead of passively consuming it, but it will be harder for people who want to make it their career to pay the rent. Professionals will find themselves in direct competition with amateurs. Audiences will be confused when dabblers and experts use the same channels to distribute their work.

This is why Edgar Allen Poe despised the printing press. He said, “The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information by throwing in the reader’s way piles of lumber in which he must painfully grope for the scraps of useful lumber.”

I don’t believe the multiplication of books has given us only wood shavings, but it has made new classics harder to find.

Blogs on writing focus on words of encouragement. Come, join the self-publishing revolution. We give the impression that everyone who wants to make it as an author can, so long as they’re committed to self promotion.

I’ve watched writers who helped perpetuate this idea turn on it like they just saw a glitch in the Matrix, launching into Twitter-tantrums, telling off their followers, calling us all part of the problem. They lashed out at amateurs giving their work away for free, while professionals struggled to make a living. They called the situation hopeless. They called it quits.

If only they’d reached out to the gatekeepers instead of shunning them.

"You're wasting my time"

“You’re wasting my time”

Who Separates the Hobbyist from the Artists?

If everyone writes a book, how will audiences discover the next masterpiece? When they have too many choices, they settle for nothing. Options can be overwhelming. People need help whittling them down.

Wattpad, a social network for sharing fiction, seems like a great democratic option for writers. The charts are driven by users. The more people who read and comment on a work the higher its placement.

At the time of this writing a search under the word, “horror” brings up three pieces of One Direction Fan Fiction. The first page of what’s hot in the horror category features two pieces promoting Unfriended, the new found footage movie. If we’re starting from the bottom we can’t rely on these voting metrics to elevate our work. We need endorsements from people in the know.

We need gatekeepers.

They haven’t disappeared. Their role has evolved. Print may be dying, but the printers still matter. They used to be the sole source of marketing and distribution, now readers rely on them for content curation.

Don’t shut the Gate on Yourself

I self published my first novella for free. I have two unpublished novellas I’m planning on releasing on Amazon. I want to find a traditional publisher for my current work in progress, because a published product seems vetted. It helps readers hear the signal through the noise. In this era of industry change the most responsible thing an author can do is leave all options on the table.

In the past grant sponsors, writing contest holders, agents, and publishers were the only gatekeepers, but just as the definition of an artist has expanded so has the definition of a gatekeeper. Gatekeepers no longer require publishing power, they just need an audience who trusts their opinion.

Now that we’re all artists, everyone is a critic. This is why YouTube is producing celebrity media experts, because audiences want critics with credentials, mavens they can trust to recommend entertainment that’s worthy of their time. If you’re publishing on your own you shouldn’t cup your hands together and shout, “I have a book!” You should find a tastemaker with a megaphone.

"Well bust my buttons"

“Well bust my buttons”

Why Gatekeepers Matter More than Ever Before

When I first started sharing stories online, I made the mistake of only posting links on my friends’ walls. I figured they’d share it based on the quality of the content. It turned out very few of my proximity friends were interested in horror fiction. I thought if just one of them got the word of mouth going, they’d be an evangelist spreading the gospel of my writing. When that didn’t happen, I assumed the marketplace of ideas had spoken and I’d had a bad one.

My next strategy was to post links to my blog on every social media outlet in the hopes that some of them would stick. My delivery schedule didn’t leave me time to mingle. I’d copy and paste the same promotional material on all my walls. The people following me in multiple spaces saw the same tag lines at the exact same time. I left links on subreddits that banned me for ignoring the rules. I hijacked hashtags without looking up their meaning, like #wwwblogs which stood for “Women Writers Wednesday.” Whoops, sorry.

Some social media gurus encourage this behavior. They come off like pyramid schemers, saying the only thing preventing you from getting more readers is your commitment to self promotion. Many of us strain our backs planting as many seeds as we can, when our efforts would best be served finding fertile land.

If you’re a Young Adult Author your target audience uses Snapchat, the photo messaging application where messages disappear after they’ve been read. As of April 2015, 71% percent of its users are under 25. Your audience is there, but if you think it’s a place to find new readers you’re wasting your time. Consider the nature of the medium, unless you’re running a time sensitive promotion, you’re writing with disappearing ink.

Social media advisor Gary Vaynerchuk told Time that this shouldn’t matter. “Last time I checked, when I’m listening to a car commercial on Z100, that shit disappeared.”

It did, but he wasn’t using the radio to have a conversation. That distinction matters.

As of September 2014, 71% of adults were using Facebook. This seemed like a good place for me to set up an author page and get the word out about my next book. This was until they tweaked their algorithm so less than 5% of the people who ‘Liked’ my page saw my posts. I know this because Facebook shows my link stats above the option to pay to promote them.

If Twitter introduces a similar algorithm driven feed, like many have speculated, I’ll have to pay maintain my reach or it will be cut to stumps.

The internet isn’t a democracy. It’s a republic. We elect Facebook and Twitter to be our social networks. They decide how much of our speech is free. They have the power to push content creators to other side of a paywall. When that happens, we’ll need those gatekeepers again.

I love the notion that artists online can all be dandelions casting thousands of seeds to wind in the hope that a hundred of them will take root, but if our offerings are treated like weeds, we’ll need someone who can vouch for them.

"Well that's a horse of a different color."

“Well that’s a horse of a different color.”

You May Already Be A Gatekeeper

Many of us lack the courage to submit our work to critics capable of discerning between polished pieces and experiments. It’s doesn’t take much courage to wait for an audience to discover our stories, but it takes guts to send them to someone who’s qualified enough to eviscerate them. We need to get over our fear of gatekeepers if we ever want a place in the public square.

It’s our job to find them. Follow publishers on twitter. Keep a watchful eye for holiday-centric contests and story pitching hashtags.

Find critics in your medium, not just the book reviewers on Goodreads, but the ones on YouTube too (for Young Adult writers check out the reviewers at Chez Apocalypse). Interact with them. Suggest obscure works you think they’d enjoy before asking them to examine your own.

There are gatekeepers at every level. Many of them are fellow travelers. High profile bloggers are always looking for contributors. Bookmark people giving writing advice about the genres you work in. Seek out people who are already covering your niche.

Podcasters are always looking for guests in their own backyard. Find someone in your neck of the woods with mutual interests and share your podium with them. If you’re a geek find out who’s covering the local conventions and try to meet up with them.

Your author platform may not big enough to land you on the bestseller list, but you might have a following worth envying. If so, you have the power to be a gatekeeper. Lower your drawbridge and let other artists in.

How to turn a Complex Story into a Simple Synopsis

1. Profile

A lot things go into telling a simple story

My least favorite type of writing has always been summarizing. Whether I was pitching a screenplay or a synopsis for a book, I got too concerned about what producers and publishers were looking for. I hated whatever I put on paper. It felt like I was cutting out the tastiest parts to make it palatable, misrepresenting the material by packaging it for mass appeal.

When my screenwriting professor videotaped the pitch for my first script, I ranted for twenty minutes. This was no elevator pitch. The lift for the tallest building in the world doesn’t take that long to get to the top. I had to lower my time to two minutes or less.

Since then I’ve learned the memorization techniques I needed to keep myself on task and how to select the parts of my story that were worth focusing on. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Brand Your Book

When our stories are medleys of multiple genres, we have to pick one to encompass each of them. When our themes branch off in too many directions, we need to identify the root from which they stem. When we have an ensemble cast, we have to choose a clear protagonist to be their delegate.

My work in progress is a horror story, a legal thriller, a relationship drama, a dark comedy, and a mystery. Since it features supernatural elements I’m calling it a supernatural thriller, because the genre’s conventions are the most prevalent.

In my case the opening might read:

We the Damned is a supernatural thriller in the spirit of…

2. Close Up

Familiar Only Different

If I included all of my story’s layers my synopsis would seem convoluted. This is why I reign it in with a comparison. I give my audience a point of reference then I diverge from it. My work in progress is similar to The Devil and Daniel Webster in that it’s about a trial for a man’s soul, beyond that the two stories couldn’t be anymore different.

In The Devil and Daniel Webster the devil takes center stage. In my story the Devil has no screen time.

In The Devil and Daniel Webster the defense attorney uses patriotic rhetoric to challenge Hell’s jurisdiction. In my story the defense attorney’s strategy is to challenge hell’s definition of a wasted life. In The Devil and Daniel Webster the Devil is a symbol for America’s sins. He was there when the first Native American was gunned down. He stood on the deck of the first slave ship. In my story the demons are a symbol for depression. They’re more concerned with the human condition than a history lesson.

In We the Damned the trial for Mr. Black’s soul is a framing device. The real story comes from the ghosts on the witness stand. They tell the tale of Pilgrim Valley, a town manipulated by unseen forces. The story hints early on that the demons, the ghosts, and the trial are not what they seem.

Despite those differences my opening may reference my influence. It could read like this:

We the Damned is a supernatural thriller in the spirit of The Devil and Daniel Webster.

This would lead into the…

3. Adjusting Tie

Logline

A logline is one or two sentences that setup the dramatic arc of your story, introducing the situation, the players, and the stakes.

I used to treat my loglines like lumps of concrete. I’d write a longwinded sentence and start chiseling away at it, hoping my sculpture would reveal itself. The end result was an incoherent mess. These days I treat my loglines like prototypes, whose parts can be mixed and matched.

Upworthy comes up with 25 different headlines before settling on the one they think will entice readers. This is a strategy I have no qualms with stealing from the click baiters. That’s why my logline documents are filled with bullet points.

When writing a logline don’t use your hero’s first name. Identify them by their job, social status, academic pursuit, hobby, or creative passion. In my case, I’m using:

– an attorney

Use adjectives to give your character some distinction. It never hurts to introduce them as underdogs. That’s why I’m specifying that my hero is:

  • a drunken attorney

I come back to this next part over and over. I try to include the break in the routine, show the character’s goal, and give a sense of the stakes without getting too wordy.

  • a drunken attorney is forced to represent a man on trial for his soul

With your hero’s mission established it’s time to give a idea of the forces working against them:

– To save a man’s soul a drunken attorney must defeat the finest minds hell has to offer, little do they know he provides better council when he’s drunk

I added that last part to show that my story has got swagger. The tone of your logline is just as important as the events it references.

4. Arms

Narrative

The worst way to write a synopsis is to try to tell a condensed version of everything that happens in your story.

Have you ever watched a film adaptation of a book that tried to cram in every character and every scene? A ninety-thousand word novel doesn’t fit into a ninety page screenplay. If a screenwriter tried to include every sequence they’d have to breeze through them. Each scene would be twenty seconds long. The result would feel like a ninety minute montage.

Rather than write an abridged version of each of your chapters, start with a basic framework and build outward. I try to write one sentence for each of these story beats.

PARAGRAPH 1: ACT 1

  1. Who is the hero, what’s their lot in life, what’s their drive, and what makes them sympathetic?
  2. What breaks their routine? What goal does that leave them with?
  3. Who or what is in the way of their goal?
  4. What’s the situation surrounding the events? What’s the setting, and the time period?

PARAGRAPH 2: ACT 2

  1. What’s the hero’s point of no return?
  2. What is the hero’s quest teaching them? How are they starting to change?
  3. How do their alliances shift?
  4. What’s the hero’s lowest moment? Have they learned their lesson? Do they get their goal only to realize they wanted something else all along?

PARAGRAPH 3: ACT 3

  1. What’s at stake when the hero nears the climatic confrontation? How do they use their new knowledge to resolve it?
  2. What’s the resolution? Does it set another story up?

Your story will have more to it than this, but you should focus on this barebones structure if you want to fit it all on one page. It’s possible to be accurate while omitting your favorite part. This is no place to include quotes, editorial commentary, or flowery description.

If you’re posting a synopsis on Amazon, treat it like a trailer. Give the audience enough information to make them curious about how it ends. You can make vague allusions to everything that happens beyond the midpoint. If you’re submitting your story to agents and publishers then you should include spoilers.

There are tough compromises every author has to make to categorize their book. If we want audiences to be hungry for our work, we have to package it for the taste makers first. Happy summarizing.

The Mob Comes for Everyone: On the Age of Public Shaming

The villagers find the windmill offensive

The villagers find the windmill offensive

There is wisdom in crowds.

Ask a classroom full of children to guess how many gumdrops are in a jar. They’ll give you a small margin of error. Groups are better at estimating than individuals. Bring researchers with different theories together and watch them cancel out each other’s biases. Groups with diverse opinions are good at making rational decisions. Go to trivia night with friends with different interests and you’ll increase your odds of success. When people with different focuses collaborate, they raise the collective knowledge pool.

There is madness in crowds too.

Fill your Facebook feed with people who share your beliefs and they will never be challenged. Groups of like minded individuals are less inclined to let new ideas in. Get your news from one point of view and you will see through the same narrow lens. Groups with spokespeople are less open to independent thought. Limit your Twitter tribe to users on the same side and they’ll choose your battles for you. Groups that don’t value outside perspectives will tell you your opinion.

Our peers pressure us to raise a torch to someone who tipped our sacred cow. Someone who made a joke that didn’t connect. Someone who said something that wasn’t politically correct. We form cyber mobs before our target has time to explain. We turn their humiliation into a game. We hurl insults just to feel like we’re part of something.

Our cause may be pure, our indignation may be righteous, but when so many of us are wielding pitchforks we overkill our target. We cost them jobs, their sense of security, and sometimes their lives.

The madness of a crowd is never more apparent than when it’s on a witch hunt.

George Carlin once said, “People are wonderful. I love individuals. I hate groups of people. I hate a group of people with a ‘common purpose’. ‘Cause pretty soon they have little hats. And armbands. And fight songs. And a list of people they’re going to visit at 3AM.”

Social media has given us surgical control of the groups we pledge our allegiance to. We don’t have to tolerate family members with opposing viewpoints. We can simply ‘hide’ them. The editorial nature of the news allows us to select which reality we want to see. We bookmark the world we prefer to live in, and pity those poor saps looking in the other direction. Online reporters are so comfortable with our allegiance that they resort to name calling within the headline.

My Superstition About A Public Shaming

I have my share of politically polarizing beliefs. It doesn’t take much to trigger my anger. My blood boils at room temperature. Still, every time one of my groups drafts me for war, I dodge it. The networked name-calling seems inviting. Some people seem like they really have it coming, but I have a superstition that keeps me from joining in. I can’t help but imagine what it will feel like when the mob comes for me. I say, “will” because in this day and age it feels inevitable.

Share your thoughts online, grow your audience, spend a lot of time doing it, and the odds of a backlash increases. For every off the cuff tweet I make, there’s a greater chance someone will take offense. For every article I post, a public shaming feels inevitable. For every photo I upload, there’s a higher probability I’ll turn myself into an unflattering meme.

The repercussions are at the ready. The mockery is in the mail. The insults are inbound.

I’m not a target of significance, but I can’t shake that irrational notion that the mob is coming. That one of my dumb jokes will go viral and a group’s rage will not be quelled by a retroactive artist’s statement. That even after I issue a sincere apology, my words will continue to haunt me. That after my 15 minutes of shame has passed, I’ll still be backpedaling over a toxic brand.

I want to keep participating in the conversation without worrying how my words could be used against me. I want to make jokes without crossing the line, but I’m sure your line isn’t the same as mine. I want to use satire without dumbing it down so much that it’s obvious on first glance. I want to embrace the totality of language without limiting myself to well trodden topics.

The villagers can't take a joke

The villagers can’t take a joke

On Comedic Irony

On Pete Holmes’s podcast You Made it Weird, Comedian Patton Oswalt said, “I like social justice. I like political correctness. I like progressivism, but I don’t like when it’s used to silence and control other people.”

Oswalt likes to make fun of difficult subjects to reduce their power. “If you start laughing at that, that’s how you get your control back.”

Comedians make absurd statements about absurd situations like racism, rape, and homophobia, to undermine them. Often an offensive joke isn’t meant to make light of a situation, but to cast a light on the reality of it.

If you’re too afraid to address a taboo you give it power over you. If you can’t joke about “He who shall not be named,” then Voldemort has control over you.

Not every moral message needs to be delivered with a straight face. Comedy can be a round about way of reenforcing our ethics. Satirists have the power to enlighten while they entertain.

This doesn’t mean that comics can say anything with reckless abandon. It means we should ponder their intention before we overreact. Sometimes they’re being offensive for the sake of it, and sometimes they’re doing something with a little more nuance.

When comedian Sarah Silverman makes a joke about racism, her intent isn’t to perpetuate a bias. She’s making a joke at the expense of her dim witted onstage persona. The joke isn’t the racist statement. It’s that her character is too dumb to realize she’s being a bigot. An entire group of people aren’t the crux of the joke. Prejudice is. To chuckle at the racist statement, is to laugh at the wrong part of the joke.

Silverman calls this laughing with a mouth full of blood.

Someone who hears an endorsement of their own bigotry, didn’t get the joke. Someone who takes personal offense, didn’t get it either. The question is just how clear does a humorist have to be?

Sometimes a comedian’s intention gets away from them. When Dave Chappelle left The Chappelle Show Time Magazine reported he felt his sketches were reinforcing racial stereotypes rather than sending them up. His cowriter Neil Brennan told Maxim Magazine that Chappalle walked out when a crew member laughed at the wrong part of a sketch.

In Jonathan Swift’s book A Modest Proposal, he suggested solving poverty in Ireland by selling Irish babies as food for English aristocrats. Swift was being intentionally offensive to draw attention to human suffering in the wake of the Irish potato famine. To this day, there are people on Yahoo Answers wondering if Swift was serious.

Maybe people are that gullible. Just look at all the people on Facebook who react to Onion headlines like they’re real. Maybe people just want an excuse to be offended, because deep down they like the feeling, as comedian Jim Norton suspects in his article for Time Magazine.

The villagers find Frankenstein's monster offensive

The villagers find Frankenstein’s monster offensive

You Can’t Please Everyone

Comedians should consider their forum. Places like Twitter, where’s it’s hard for audiences to gage intent, might be the wrong place to workshop edgier material. If you can’t fit a disclaimer in a 140 characters, be prepared to own up to the joke later.

As for those of us sitting in the peanut gallery, we need to consider the speaker’s intention, and learn to accept apologies when they’re given. When someone offends our groups’ sensibilities, we need to downgrade our homicidal rage and show a little empathy. Our reactions shouldn’t force people to water down their language for fear of the consequences. If we do there’s some harsh truths we could be losing.

In his book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay said, “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

If you disagree with someone, know that threatening them will only strengthen their position. Don’t give them a token resistance to point their finger at. Be the charming alternative to their misconception. Be a delegate for your belief system. If you don’t have the patience for a rational conversation, then you’re the wrong person to represent your position.

Syphoning Nightmare Fuel

1. Syphon

The Difference Between Dream Logic and Story Logic

People always ask authors where their ideas come from. In the case of Sandman creator, Neil Gaiman, fans always ask if he gets his ideas from dreams. On his blog, he answered:

No. Dream logic isn’t story logic. Transcribe a dream, and you’ll see. Or better yet, tell someone an important dream – ‘Well, I was in this house that was also my old school, and there was this nurse and she was really an old witch and then she went away but there was a leaf and I couldn’t look at it and I knew if I touched it then something dreadful would happen…’ – and watch their eyes glaze over.

Dream logic is story logic’s drunken roommate, mumbling through an anecdote, easily distracted by details, always losing his place. Despite dream logic’s meanderings, its abstract nature makes it interesting. Dreams feel prophetic, like a sixth sense foreshadowing coming events. Dreamscapes seem like they’re aware of the dreamer’s presence. Every object is personified. Even the walls have feelings. Dreamworlds are hardwired to our emotions. They resinate with importance, which is why, despite their abstractions, they’re still a source of inspiration.

Filmmaker, David Lynch has directed three movies with dream logic: Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire. Their themes drive their stories, more than characters or structure. Their plots are incomprehensible by design. Their outcomes are open to interpretation.

As much as I enjoy Lynch’s work, I believe nightmares can fuel clear stories too. David Robert Mitchell, writer/director of the new horror hit It Follows, says his film was based on a reoccurring dream where he was being stalked by a slow moving predator. Everyone has their own version of that nightmare. Mitchell tamed his, gave it rules, and made it fit a story structure.

Dreams don’t conform to story logic, but Lynch and Mitchell show how they can be repurposed. I’m going to show you how to make your dream sequences feel relevant and how to mine your nightmares for material that makes sense.

2. Syphoning

How to Make Dream Sequences Matter

The “It was all just a dream” trope can feel like a waste of your audiences’ time, unless the dream does more than provide a cheap jump scare.

In 1845, Elias Howe was struggling to invent a working sewing machine. He had a nightmare that cannibals were stabbing him. He looked down to find their spears had holes in the tips. When Howe woke up he realized he needed to put a hole in the tip of the needle for his contraption to function.

Have you ever struggled to remember a word only to recall it when you didn’t need it? Your subconscious continued to work on a problem long after your conscious mind had given up. Howe’s subconscious continued work on the machine after his brain had called it a night.

This is why dream sequences aren’t useless. They can clarify information characters were exposed to earlier but didn’t understand. To be clear, a dream sequence shouldn’t be a dues ex machina, a plot device to get your character out an impossible situation, it needs to be set up early in the story so it feels earned. A dream can present images the hero has already seen, but in an order that makes them make sense.

The rules that apply to every scene apply even more to the ones happening in your hero’s head. Nightmares need to reveal character in a way your hero would never dare externalize. Show us the dark side of the hero’s ambition. Show us the doubts they have about their goal. Show us the internal nature of their conflict.

You can play with metaphors to reward more attentive readers. Make sure there’s substance in your symbolism. If the sequence features a backward talking little person, make sure there’s a reason behind that decision, even if it’s never fully explained.

The scene should further the plot. As with Howe’s dream, the surreal should offer solutions to real world obstacles. This way your audience won’t feel cheated by something that didn’t actually happen.

Mine Your Nightmares for Material that Makes Sense

Some nightmares are so powerful they linger long after you’ve torn their page out of your dream journal. They stick in your memory like good stories. The trick is to find a way to cram their square shape into the circular peg of narrative structure. I do this by whittling them down to their essence and building a fresh story around them.

So you just woke up screaming? Here are some ways to tell if you have something worth developing.

Audition your Nightmares

Clive Barker keeps a dream journal. He says he discards 98% of the material, but the remaining 2% is filled with creatures like Hellraiser’s Pinhead.

James Cameron says he got the idea for the severed torso of the Terminator from a dream.

Mary Shelly said she dreamt about a pale student kneeling beside a “hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with uneasy, half-vital motion.”

Her vision became Frankenstein’s creation.

In each of these cases, the appearance of these phantasms inspired the premise for their stories. Before casting a nightmare as your villain, ask yourself what makes them narrative worthy. Do they wear their origin on their face, like Freddy Krueger? Do they have a reason for stalking you? Could that reasoning speak to a greater theme?

3. Syphoned

Consider your Subconscious’s Pitch

The best nightmares to lift material from are the ones set in interesting situations. The trouble is most of these situations aren’t grounded in reality. They need to be reigned in.

I’d once dreamt a killer bound a line of victims up like paper dolls. He strung their naked corpses across a walkway in the middle of the night. The morning commuters were mildly upset by this horrifying presentation. They shook their heads, saying things like:

“Will you look at that?”

“Well, that’s too bad.”

“Geez, not again.”

The drivers’ tepid reactions made the dream all the more disturbing, but if I were to adapt this situation into a story, I’d have to up the ante. Traffic would have to stop. Drivers would have to be hysterical in the streets. The sky would be full of news choppers. Police tape would be everywhere. The bodies would be covered, while the authorities tried to figure out a way to take them down.

Stephen King got the idea for Misery when he fell asleep on a plane. He said, “I dreamt about a woman who held a writer prisoner and killed him, skinned him, fed the remains to her pig and bound his novel in human skin. His skin, the writer’s skin. I said to myself, ‘I have to write this story.’ Of course, the plot changed quite a bit in the telling.”

Although King’s original vision was far more ghastly, he had to change it to play better in reality.

Develop Your Dreams

Once your subconscious earns its ‘story by’ credit, it’s up to you to do the rest. You need to filter your dream through story logic. Things in dreams can happen for no reason. If you’re going to adapt an idea from one, you have to find a cause to justify the effect the nightmare had on you. Come up with an explanation for why the shapeshifting creature stalked you through town. Then your nightmare will be a story worth telling.

Own Your Influences

On this weeks blog I go full Miami Vice

On this weeks blog I go full Miami Vice

Own Your Influences

When I grew up social networking involved passing notes, pirating movies was done on VHS, and the only wearable technology was Nintendo’s Power Glove. Young Adult fiction was stuck in the choose-your-own-adventure era, cable dramas had yet to hit their stride, and streaming video was still in its infancy.

We didn’t have the options of today’s generation. Most of us watched network television. Those of us who grew up to write stories, shared a lot of the same influences.

We watched Twin Peaks and decided to start small towns of our own. We watched The X-Files and decided to start our own paranormal procedurals. We watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer and decided to start our own click of monster hunters. We thought our stories were original, but so did a lot of people. Our influences were never as obscure as we thought they were.

As another generation of writers comes of age they put identical things on the page.

Ever notice how two remarkably similar stories always come out around the same time? One theory is that publishing houses, film producers, and network executives are copying off each other’s release schedules. It seems that way with movies.

“They’re putting out a volcano movie. We need a volcano movie too.”

“They’re putting out a comet movie. We need a comet movie too.”

“They’re putting out a friends with benefits romantic comedy. We need a friends with benefits romantic comedy too.”

Maybe YA publishers are just as cynical, contracting authors to copy each others stories, or maybe the similarities are the result of parallel thinking. It’s possible that two authors from the same generation, combined their influences, and came to the same conclusions. This can be a problem for an author trying to stand out from their peers.

What You Can Add to Your Influences

While some stories start as fan fiction only to evolve into their own thing, most start as fresh ideas and our influences creep in. It occurs to us halfway through telling our tale, we’re treading on someone else’s territory.

“Come to think of it my story is a lot like that episode of The Twilight Zone.”

“Wait, didn’t I see this on Star Trek?”

“Hold on a second. This is the exact same plot as the second Sex in the City movie. How do I keep ripping that off?”

This is okay. No idea is truly original. There are only so many goals for characters to have, only so many journeys a hero can take, and only so many plot lines The Simpsons haven’t used yet.

So, if your influences are bound to show up in your work, how do you make your work stand out? You make a conscious effort to realize what you’re borrowing, figure out how to wear that influence on your sleeve, and how to set your work apart.

Wear your influences by drawing attention to them

Wear your influences by drawing attention to them

Wear Your Influences

An awareness of your influences can be the difference between creating a ripoff or an homage. When an idea comes too easily, take a moment to examine it. You might find it was a sequence from something buried in your subconscious. Before you delete that passage, think about some ways you can alter it.

  • Can you subvert audience expectations by altering a serious setup to play for laughs instead?
  • Can you wink at the audience by having a character acknowledge how similar their situation is to your influence?
  • Can you upgrade this sequence by bringing it into modern times?

In Screenwriting class, we were taught the time period our story takes place is as essential as the setting. Even if that time is now. Many of the stories we grew up with existed before the internet. The information age has changed the way we communicate, the way we remember things, and the way we see ourselves. Our work should embrace that.

Horror writers, like myself, struggle to pry our characters’ cellphones out of their hands. It’s easier to call for help when the police can triangulate your location. That’s why most cabin in the woods stories start with a character complaining about poor reception. Horror writers are always coming up with new ways to write cellphones out of our stories, but maybe we should be writing them in. It’s not like 9-1-1 makes our characters invincible, especially if the local sheriff’s department has a slow response time.

The way we depict smartphone users needn’t be a thinly veiled commentary on spoiled millennials. Let’s get past our acronym anger, our hashtag hate, and our emoji envy. Let’s think about how this new technology can help give our stories their own identities.

Early thrillers built around the net used it to poor effect. The camera panned along wires, zoomed out from monitors, and focused on 3D operating systems that never existed. Recently, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series has shown the information age can be just as terrifying as the Victorian era. Modern audiences no longer need the net explained to them. Brooker has the freedom to take our constant connections to terrifying conclusions.

The information age is a rich frontier for horror. I’ve written stories about what would happen if a killer had access to your social media profile, if someone’s internet implants glitched on them, and if a pair of trolls Doxed each other to death. These stories had their roots in slashers, classic Science Fiction, and revenge thrillers. I made them my own by bringing them into the present.

Point out your influences so you can show how you're different

Point out your influences so you can show how you’re different

Set Yourself Apart

You can get away with stealing a setup, if you go somewhere else with it, but you can’t get away with stealing an entire premise.

If your goal is to write a monster story in the spirit of your influences, don’t just come up with a cool creature design and go through all the same old motions. Don’t waste a fresh freak on a hackneyed story. Send them somewhere far from the log cabins, make-out points, and the military outposts they usually frequent. Isn’t it about time a demon went to Disneyland?

I listen to a lot of geek-centric podcasts. I’m surprised by how many fan boys remember props more than plots. They praise surface features, failing to realize that characteristics are not characters. When they pitch what they want to see in the next comic book movie their ideas have nothing to do with the story. They want to see every superhero they’ve ever heard of in the same room, never mind the reason.

If you realize that the visual aesthetic isn’t the story, you’re a step ahead of them.

I grew up watching the Hellraiser movies. I loved Pinhead and his creepy cenobite companions. I see facsimiles of them everywhere: creatures with torn flesh, held open with hooks and leather. It isn’t enough to put a monster in S and M gear to get a cheap scare. What made Pinhead so disturbing wasn’t what he was wearing, it was his reason for being. Why was there a grid of nails hammered into his skin? Because he was an explorer “in the further regions of experience.”

Cool looking characters are a dime a dozen. Fancy duds aren’t what make them interesting. It’s their actions. If you give a classic archetype a fresh motivation, you can make your influences your own.

Maybe I just wanted to see what my name looked like in the Drive font.

Maybe I just wanted to see what my name looked like in the Drive font.

Find Influences in Other Places

We all take different things from our influences. The problem arises when audiences see uniformity in what we’re borrowing.

Find inspiration in other things. This doesn’t mean discover an obscure anime and mine it for material. It means start reading nonfiction. Look into history, true crime, and social psychology studies. Watch documentaries. Listen to the people around you. Research the human animal.

Everything is Connected

We're all connected to Kevin Bacon, but how?

We’re all connected to Kevin Bacon, but how?

Why is it important for writers to keep their story elements connected?

Short answer: it makes everything easier to remember.

Long answer: brains are wired to link memories together. Our minds string lamps across people, places, and events. These associations help us trace our steps back through vast chasms of information.

One of the best ways for writers to get good word of mouth is to make their story easy to pitch. This doesn’t mean dumbing down the developments. It means giving readers clear links to reference.

Readers should be able to trace plot threads all the way back to the beginning. If the hero detoured from his quest with no clear explanation, readers will have trouble filing away this information. If the theme was too ambiguous, readers will have a hard time expressing what it meant to them.

The stories that stay with us aren’t just powerful. They’re tailored to fit our memories.

If an audience has a hard time following a plot it’s because they lost a link in the chain. You’ll need to clue them in if they’re ever going to get that bookmark moving again. Here are some ways to remind them without being redundant.

Foreshadowing:

Horror movies have a habit of hiding their setups too deep. When twists happened they don’t feel earned. Flashbacks give the audience a clear look at items that were buried in the background. These movies feel like they’re cheating. Memorable twists should be made up of elements that become obvious in the aftermath. Things viewers may have considered before a red herring had them looking in the wrong direction.

Writers should take a cue from magicians and invite readers to watch for their slight of hand.

When you foreshadow an event that pays off early on, you train your audience to pay extra attention throughout the story. They’ll know you’ll do it again. They’ll realize every fable told within the story is forecasting future developments. They’ll see every object on the wall as a hint. They’ll sift through your dialogue for subtext, because they’ll know that nothing is extraneous.

Let your readers know you plan on using every part of the plot. Give them a series of small payoffs before the big twist.

2. Awkward Pose

Six degrees of separation:

There’s a reason Stephen King writes stories about small town like Salem’s Lot. It’s because everyone in town is connected. King wastes no time introducing his readers to the mayor, the sheriff, the town preacher, and the charming outsider (the point of view character he uses to introduce the cast).

If you’re writing a story with an ensemble cast, make sure there’s six degrees of separation (at most) between everyone.

It shouldn’t take long for the audience to remember who works with who, who’s related to who, and who’s sleeping with whom. Sometimes King’s casts get so bloated they’re hard to follow despite their connections. He said this happened when he was working on The Stand. What was his solution? He killed most of them.

MacGuffins:

MacGuffins are plot devices that all the characters are going after. In Raiders of the Lost Ark the MacGuffin is the ark of the covenant. The Nazis want it as a weapon, the allies want it contained, and Indiana Jones wants to put it in a museum. In Star Wars R2D2 is the MacGuffin. The empire pursues him. The rebels need the information he contains. That little droid is the driving force for everything that happens.

MacGuffins pull every character into their orbit. They go supernova in the last act. Whether it’s the Ark of the Covenant revealing the Nazis secret plans to build a death star, or R2D2 bursting open to melt the Emperor’s face off (I may have mixed a few of those details up).

Theme:

The theme is the spine that runs through the story. The characters, setting, and plot are its limbs. While the subject of the story might be the MacGuffin, the theme is what the story means. The theme can be an intangible concept like unrequited love, artistic delusions, or political correctness run rampant. What matters is that each character is connected to it.

In Love Actually the theme is romance developing from awkward circumstances. The theme of Traffic is the failing war on drugs, and the theme of Crash is racial tensions that often go unspoken.

It’s possible to tell a story where the subject matter and the theme are vastly different.

The subject of Aliens is in the title, but the theme is a little more subtle. Ripley learns her daughter died while she was in cryosleep. Heartbroken, she follows a group of marines to a colony ravaged by alien creatures. The marines find a little girl. This lone survivor becomes Ripley’s responsibility. The theme of motherhood is subtle until the supporting cast gets killed. Ripley becomes a hardened warrior to rescue her surrogate daughter. The final battle pits our hero against the alien queen. One mother fights another.

3. Bow Tie

Give Reminders without using “As You Know” Statements

Avoid “As you know” statements. Serialized TV Shows like Twin Peaks used these all the time. Characters chatted about previous episodes to clue viewers in on what was going on, even when they already knew all the information they were exchanging.

One character would say, “As you know, the Miss Twin Peaks contest is this weekend.”

The problem with ‘As you know’ statements is they give information to the audience, but make no sense within the context of the conversation. Why would one character tell another something they both already know? It breaks the suspension of disbelief.

The best way to justify these reminders is to add something new to the conversation.

Closing Thoughts

I like meaty complicated movies, but I don’t want to lose the plot because I stepped out to use the bathroom. I like thick paperbacks, but I don’t want to lose the story if I took a month off from it.

There are things writers can do to help audiences understand what’s going on, without dumbing things down. Foreshadow things that payoff early, give the audience more than one hint at the twist, and tie your dangling plot threads together.

Give characters names that don’t sound too similar. Make their personalities unique, give them distinct voices, and remind the audience how they’re connected.

Most people can store about seven pieces of information in their short term memory. Audiences lose those details as new ones arrive. If you’re piling on the plot devices its important to keep them connected. When the path from short term to long term memory is clear, the story is much easier to remember.

Use Your Embarrassment

1. Face PalmHow do writers get their readers to identify with their characters?

One method is to make the character as basic as possible. This way the reader can fill them with their own details. Have you ever played a role playing game where you get to select your character’s class, hair, and armor? This is taking the default option: the bland blonde fair skinned male human, the rice cake of warrior classes. This option keeps the character so empty, the audience has no choice but to fill him with their own back story.

I’ve never been a fan of these Joe Everymen. I prefer characters with a little dirt on them.

Another option to make a character identifiable is to give them a strong moral code. The problem with making your hero too wholesome is you run the risk of drawing out the audience’s cynicism. Your lead will come across as a salesperson smiling through an up-sell, designed to be relatable, but scripted to a fault. If your character is too big of a boy scout the audience will expect him to do something evil.

So what do you do when you want to write a fleshed out character that your audience can relate to? You make them sympathetic.

Jennine Lanouette, of screentakes.com, made a great video essay on how character vulnerability is more important than character likability. She explains how disadvantages make us root for characters. These disadvantages could be the circumstances the hero was born into, like Oliver Twist, the situation they find themselves in, like Andy in The Shawshank Redemption, or an inherent affliction, like Alice coping with Alzheimer’s in Still Alice.

What if your story doesn’t star an underdog? What if your lead is a suave spy that always lands on his feet? In this case, you’ll need to engineer a moment where they’re brought down to earth. Think James Bond getting shot off the top of a train at the beginning of Skyfall, or every time Indiana Jones gets bumped in the noggin.

Lanouette says, “You can portray an unlikable character if, rather than straining to make them likable, you simply introduce them in a position of vulnerability.”

I propose there are ways to make unlikable characters relatable and sympathetic at the same time. Here’s how:

2. My Word

Mine Your Embarrassment for Gold

The opening sequence of A Life Less Ordinary is designed to make the lead sympathetic. Ewan McGregor’s character gets fired, finds out his girlfriend has been cheating, and gets evicted. This succession of losses makes the screenwriter’s intention obvious. Each plague upon the protagonist is almost too universal.

A hero’s humble beginnings don’t guarantee sympathy, especially when their afflictions seem inauthentic. If an audience feels their emotions are being exploited, they’ll turn on the story. This is where the writer’s own life experience should replace these stock shortcomings.

Every writer is sitting on a treasure trove of untapped embarrassment. We all have first hand experience with the subtle side of awkwardness. We’ve all had moments when we had to keep our humiliation hushed for fear we’d make it worse, where we had to save face when we already had egg on it.

Remember that time your card was declined on a first date, or when your date spent the evening looking at a zit on your forehead, or when you realized your date had used the pretense of romance to pitch you a pyramid scheme?

Make a note of all those moments your ego wants you to forget:

  • That time you smiled at someone across the bar and they repositioned themselves outside of your sightline.
  • That time your sneeze went unblessed in a crowded room.
  • That time someone pointed out how you misused a word, when you were trying to make yourself sound well read, then made you repeat it so the entire dinner party could have a laugh.

The world dumps on us all the time. We might as well reuse some of that waste for our own purposes. This is an instance where it’s alright to mine real life for inspiration. Fiction writers should excavate their embarrassing stories, mix them with their friends’ adventures, and exaggerate the combination. We’re digging for universal experiences that audiences haven’t seen a thousand times.

There’s something endearing about someone willing to fess up to the things we all do, but dare not admit. There are no holds barred when your characters beat themselves up. Your first person narrations should be as shameless as a good comedian.

Third person stories shouldn’t respect your protagonist’s boundaries either. Just because the point of view is on the outside doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to peek in at their embarrassment. Your hero shouldn’t get the luxury of dignity.

People used to say I looked like Macaulay Culkin

People used to say I looked like Macaulay Culkin

Personal Failure is an Excellent Starting Point

While moral codes make characters likable, strong drives make them engaging. Heroes can be driven long before the story’s call to action. Some of the best protagonists start their stories convinced they’re nearing the end, only to falter. Spectacular failures are more compelling than characters who are the victims of a series of accidents. Failures make their own fate instead of being at the mercy of it. We root for them because they get back up again. They’re confused, but never defeated.

If you’re a writer, you’re bound to have a slew of personal failures to draw from. Isn’t it time you did something productive with them? Put them on the page. Make your character carry the load, and maybe they’ll get the sympathy you deserved all along.

Laundering Lines: Converting Excess Exposition into Dialogue

2. Replace Thoughts with WordsMy name is Drew Chial and I have a problem: I’m addicted to exposition. I talk too much and so does my writing. I need to learn to give people space to get a word in edgewise. I need to learn to do the same thing for my readers. I need to ask my friends more questions and give readers more room to fit their own imaginations in. I need to stop assuming my friends want to listen to me “tell it like it is” and stop thinking my readers won’t notice the information I show them.

Readers don’t like to be led by the hand. They’d rather come to their own conclusions.

When I was a screenwriter my focus was on what I could capture on camera. Film is a visual medium. If the audience couldn’t see it, it didn’t exist. Now that I’m writing a novel, I’m no longer burdened by the constraints of the silver screen. I can insert annotations into the action. I can give biographies for characters who were dead before the production began. I can tell what a character is thinking while leaving the audience blind to their surroundings.

My narrator is unrestrained by cinematic convention. He can pause the movie and give commentary at any time. His humor doesn’t have to come from observations in the spur of the moment. It can be scripted, like a standup routine. He’s free to philosophize, allowing me to write chapters that read like blog entries, where the narrator talks about a subject with no clear sign of what spurred the thought.

Chapters like these were my favorite part of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Once the husband and wife narrators were revealed to be liars and cheats, their reasoning was fascinating. This worked because Flynn’s characters were living in the media spotlight. Their circumstances made it dangerous for them to externalize their thoughts. I’ve blogged about how certain situations force writers to reveal what a character is thinking, but in my work in progress I used exposition without giving my narrator a reason.

My narrator became a bad weather friend, cornering the reader in a booth, venting at them all night long. He lost interested in progressing his story. His focus was on flashbacks. He needed to unload all the details before he decided where to go next.

It’s easy to blame my narrator, but I was the one who set him up for failure. I didn’t write character bios before diving into my novel. I wrote them into the text. I didn’t draw out a timeline. I had the narrator review it aloud. I didn’t chart out character relationships. The narrator name drops everyone to let the reader know where they stand.

1. Turn Exposition into Dialogue

My Quick Fix for Excess Exposition

I write a lot about darlings on this blog. Darlings are expressions the author can’t stop using, descriptions that run so long they turn poetic, and asides that derail the flow. I’ve written about methods for sparing darlings, by copying and pasting them into new documents. Let me elaborate on one of my favorite techniques for repurposing them.

The first chapter of my work in progress starts with Murphy, the narrator, drinking his problems away. He describes the setting and its occupants before segueing into what ails him. He’s a lawyer about to be disbarred for sleeping with a client. His legalese and heavy emotions dwarf the situation around him.

Murphy’s romantic rant was fun to write. It was a portrait of a selfish prick who considered himself a realist. There were some real zingers in there. Going back, I found the chapter was a lot of fun to read, but it felt like I was cheating. The lawyer’s brazen tone left no room for the readers to weigh in on his situation.

Murphy’s lines might not have been as clever as I thought they were, but there was useful information in his whining. Cutting the entire monologue was not an option. I needed to funnel some of it into the scene.

This roadside bar had one other patron. There was no way to repurpose Murphy’s musings into commentary on his surroundings. This is when I realized he could vent his frustrations to the bartender.

This created an opportunity for comedy. The bartender didn’t need to be the stone-faced cliché we’re used to seeing in these type of locations. You know, the bearded biker, stuck in an endless cycle of wiping down the bar. He could be engaged in the discussion, eager to quote the findings of recent psychological experiments. Too bad Murphy isn’t looking for insights. He just wants acknowledgement.

This exchange sets a precedent that any biases the reader might have about small towns don’t apply in Pilgrim Valley, a place whose very name is a lie.

With a tense change and a few edits, Murphy’s exposition became the subject of their conversation. This exchange is still a form of exposition, but it feels more organic. It makes it harder to spot the writer lurking behind the scenes. I don’t have to hand the audience the setup directly. They get it by way of a courier.

By making the bartender a good listener, I can launder information to the reader. Here’s another place to exploit the freedom of the medium. Characters in books can have much longer conversations than they do in films. By providing a reason for Murphy’s excessive drinking, I can reveal information without resorting to a flashback.

Exposition isn’t always a measure of last resort. Sometimes it provides a break from the action, but when there’s more commentary than there is story, writers need to smuggle their exposition into their scenes.

Mixed Messages: How Corporate Writers Can Kill Their Darlings

1. Mixed Messenger

What Pickup Artists and Corporate Jargon have in Common

What would you think of a guy with hair plugs, a spray tan, and two bluetooth earpieces jutting out from his face like tusks? How about a man who walks into the club with a fur hat, black feather boa, and chains dangling across his pre-torn jeans? What about the guy posing with a gun and a tiger in his two seat sports car? Does it seem like they’re compensating for something?

Everyone wants to stand out, but someone who peacocks too much looks like they’re using their decorations to substitute for a personality. A pickup artist buried under pieces of flare tells the world there’s nothing really there. When a man walks into a bar with his head lost in a nest of fashion scarves everybody laughs behind his back, but when a company weighs down their job postings with unnecessary jargon no one challenges them.

There comes a time when you have to tell your friend that people are embarrassed to be seen with him, that he should really leave his spiked cap and star-shaped shades at home, and let people meet the real him. Well corporate writers, its time you stop hiding under jargon and say what you really mean.

What Business Writers Can Learn From Creative Ones

Business writing isn’t narrative writing. It has its own style. Sentences should be short, simple, and action oriented. Every business has its share of unavoidable technical terms, but so many pile them on to inflate their importance. This misappropriation of language can make these words sound hollow, even to the target audience.

The reader shouldn’t have to simplify a mission statement like a fraction. A line like: Our growth strategy is to utilize content to engage in a unified multichannel customer experience, becomes We use advertising to sell things to people. That doesn’t sound all that remarkable.

This is an area where business could benefit from artists. Creatives could write clearer copy because they know how to kill their darlings.

In narrative writing darlings are the flowery phrases that bog down stories. They appear when the narrative slows down so the author can describe every article of clothing their characters are wearing, every feature on their faces, and every plant on their horizon. Editors call these poetic excursions ‘purple prose.’

Darlings can be sneaky. They take the form of the needlessly complex words and favorite sayings the author keeps repeating. First time writers pile on their darlings to make themselves sound more intelligent.

The corporate world has its own darlings. Check out any corporate jargon generator to see a slew of them. Here are the offenders I keep spot all the time:

Redundancy

I see a lot of tautology (two words or phrases that mean the same thing) in corporatejob postings, phrases like:

  • forward-looking positive people
  • results-oriented outcome driven employee
  • a great culture with a positive environment

Pick one phrase. Cut the padding. Respect your reader’s time.

Avoid repeating the same words. Everybody wants the world to know about their ‘engaging content’ but if a paragraph uses the word “engage” more times than Captain Picard, you have a redundancy issue. This is where the thesaurus could come in handy. I don’t want my books to just be engaging I want them to be gripping, absorbing, and captivating.

2. A Call From Clarity

Empty Phrases

Many job postings favor vague buzz terms instead of explicit ones. Job seekers shouldn’t have to look at the qualifications to get an idea of what they’d be doing. Potential clients shouldn’t lose your message in the translation. Social media users shouldn’t wonder who you’re talking to. Employees shouldn’t have to ask around the office to interpret your directions.

The Huffington Post had an excellent article on how phrases like synergy and paradigm shift have been so overused they’ve become “muddled and meaningless.”

I’ve listened to my share of motivational speakers. Many used phrases that sounded authoritative with no regard for their meaning. One of them told a room full of security guards we needed to “drink the Kool-Aid.”

The speaker had no idea why we were scoffing. If you evoke the Jonestown Massacre to convince employees to go along with a directive, they have every right to question it.

It’s time to put these motivational platitudes out to pasture. Rather than reach for the low-hanging fruit through your window of opportunity, consider dumping these stock phrases entirely. All this viral bleeding-edge language needs to be quarantined outside the box.

Broad statements should lead to finer details. The more obtuse your language is the less people will trust it. You don’t want to come across like a student writing an abstract essay, trying to hit all the points they think the teacher’s looking for. Your language will become all encompassing. You’ll say nothing by trying to say everything.

Verbosity

Remember that scene in the Matrix: Reloaded where Neo meets the Architect in the room with all of the TVs? In order to sound intelligent, the Architect used bloated sentences filled with adverbs.

The Architect raised his eyebrow. “Although the process has altered your consciousness, you remain irrevocably human. Ergo, some of my answers you will understand, and some of them you will not. Concordantly, while your first question may be the most pertinent, you may or may not realize it is also the most irrelevant.”

This is where the movie lost a lot of people (full disclosure: I remain a Matrix apologist).

There are a lot of ‘Architects’ writing on the net, laying on the adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. A wordy sentence isn’t a smarter sentence. Don’t value form over function. Don’t sacrifice clarity in the name of speaking with authority.

Hyperbole

Everyone pads their resumé with inflated job titles. I was never a cashier. I was a customer service specialist. I was never a janitor. I was a facilities maintenance technician. I was never a guard. I was a security enforcement officer.

The problem is these exaggerations have infiltrated the corporate vocabulary. No one has skills anymore, they have ‘core competencies.’ Companies have shut down all their departments and replaced them with an ‘ecosystem.’ There are no more industries, only ‘verticals.’ Corporations have lost control. They have to resort to ‘leverage’ instead.

When we favor the most complicated expression to make our point, we run the risk of sounding annoying and pretentious.

3. Now He Gets It

Don’t Make Reading Comprehension a Challenge

Employees should have business literacy, but documents written entirely in jargon are a chore to read. If a company wants to make their offices more efficient they should stop slowing down reading comprehension. Corporate statements should be clear.

Technical terms have their place in internal documents, but when a company shares their services on social media the jargon has to go. Your front facing website should be understandable. Users shouldn’t have to reread every sentence to comprehend your intent. If your mission statement could be written with buzzword magnetic poetry, it’s too vague.

When the competition talks gibberish, you should stand out with specifics. When they inflate their importance with taxing text, you should get by on your merits. Show you have style and the substance to back it up. Corporations can benefit from creatives, because creative writers kill their darlings all the time.

Grieving in Reverse:  A Horror Noir

1.Blowing In

In 1895, Robert W. Chambers wrote a horror collection called The King in Yellow. Each entry was about a person who had the misfortune of reading a play called The King in Yellow, a play that had the power to drive each of them insane.

H.P. Lovecraft was so inspired by The King in Yellow that he fabricated his own tome of forbidden knowledge called the Necronomicon. The King in Yellow went on to inspire John Carpenter’s films In the Mouth of Madness and Cigarette Burns. Its influence can be felt in The Ring and most recently True Detective, which references the king, the yellow sign, and Carcosa by name.

While True Detective referenced Chambers’s symbolism, the show left his premise alone. I wanted to tell a detective story where the cursed text took center stage. Enjoy.

ACCEPTANCE

Wind rattled the trees, clogging the gutters entire branches at a time. Rain spilled down the roof. The mansion’s features were blurred beneath a cascade of water. All I saw from the lot were pillars and lights.

Past the waterfall was a set of chrome-plated doors. Closed, they looked like an art deco rendition of the Empire State Building. There were two knockers. The one on the left was shaped like a comedy mask with a ring in its smile. The one on the right was shaped like a tragedy mask with a ring in its frown. I chose tragedy, or maybe the atmosphere chose for me.

A well-dressed man opened the door with hair like eagle feathers and a smile that buried his eyes in crow’s feet.

He offered a manicured hand. “Mr. Advena? I’m Edgar Staples, assistant to Mr. Freeman.”

Edgar regarded my yellow trench coat. “Please tell me there’s a zoot suit under that.”

“There’s a zoot suit under this.” I unbuttoned my coat to reveal a dress shirt, thin black tie, and pleated pants.

Edgar shook his head. “That’s no zoot suit.”

I pointed to the ceiling. “You said ‘tell’ not ‘show.’”

He smirked. “I take it you were a screenwriter in a past life?”

I nodded. “And you?”

Edgar took my coat without answering.

I stepped out of the rain and onto a red carpet. The entryway was framed in footlights that lead to a box office window with an empty marquee.

Pulling a curtain back, Edgar led me through a leather door where I discovered, not the entrance hall of a grand manor, but the lobby of a movie theater. The bar was made up like a concession stand. There was a big neon sign where the Let’s All go to the Lobby singers were joined by a smiling beer mug and martini shaker.

“Right this way.” Edgar directed me to a flight of stairs with a golden railing up the middle.

“Aren’t you going to ask me to shut off my cellphone first?”

Edgar gripped the railing. “Right after I show you the fire exits.”

4. Sandy Selfie

DEPRESSION

Ramsey Freeman was a short stout man, bald with a tuft of bangs, like Friar Tuck. He wasn’t much to look at but he was a giant in the film community. His eyes were on the notecards on that famous corkboard, where he conceived The Straw Husband, Mutiny on the River Styx, and We the Damned.

The screenwriting professor at Columbia told us that Freeman plotted every scene on a notecard. The board fit seventy, no more no less. If Freeman had extra scenes it would force him to decide what to cut. Except today those cards spilled onto the wall. Was this his Gone with the Wind?

“You have a lovely theater Mr. Freeman.” I announced myself.

He kept his eyes on the cards.

When I stepped into the room, I realized he’d filled every wall. Mixed into the cards were parking stubs, G.P.S. print outs, photos of his late son Michael taking selfies at sunset, raising a glass with friends, and rocking the Wolverine claws with the hair and biker jacket that went with them.

I spotted a print of a cute Goth chick in a tank top with a sleeve of tattoos. She was checking her phone, oblivious to the photographer. I plucked it off the wall. The edge of the picture was blurred, the telltale sign of a telephoto lens.

“What is all this?”

Ramsey spun around. “The last month of my son’s life.” Charging toward the entrance, he tapped the wall. “From when he started his internship at Screen Constellations,” he knocked on the opposite side of the door frame “to the day they found his body in the lobby.”

“I take it you don’t believe the reports?” I examined the final photograph, the blackened body with the texture of bark, arms spread out like a scarecrow.

Freeman scoffed. “That my son burnt himself alive protesting the studio system? No, I don’t.” He flattened a satellite image. “No one at the construction site saw who took the gas, no one saw who poured it, and no one saw who ignited it.”

Ramsey jabbed a black and white photo: a silhouette made of light with a Roman candle for a head.

“He was engulfed by the time the camera spotted him.” Freeman traced a construction blueprint. “The arson unit combed the stairwells, the back halls, the bathrooms and they couldn’t find the source of the ignition.”

I shrugged. “Matches burn. Even lighters melt.”

“Plastic melts at several hundred degrees higher than flesh.”

Of course Ramsey knew that, the man was notorious for over-researching.

He unspooled a receipt. “Someone planning to kill themselves doesn’t order a boom mic, a 750 watt lamp, and a green screen.” He tapped a printout full of word balloons. “They don’t text friends pitches for web series, hours before their deaths.”

In my experience, suicidal people did all of this. They ordered stuff, made plans, giving themselves something to look forward to, like sharks in constant motion for fear of dying.

I nodded anyways. “So where do I come in?”

Ramsey tapped his thumbnail to his teeth. “A colleague told me you had a talent for finding information that wasn’t…” he searched his cards for the words, “in the public domain. Berkley’s been forthcoming, but the studio’s been stonewalling. I need to know Michael’s relationship with everyone he worked with.”

“Where should I start?”

“There.” Ramsey nodded to the picture of the girl in my hand.

Of all the exhibits on the wall, what made me reach for that one? Later I’d recognize the decision for what it was, the type of convenient coincidence writers can only get away with in act one.

2. Hands Up

BARGAINING

Ramsey had the parking manifest for Screen Constellations. He knew who every vehicle was registered to. The mystery woman wasn’t among them. Edgar snapped the candid on her way out of the building. Uploading it into a Google image search came up with nothing, until I ran it against the headshots on IMDB.

Her name was Cassie, a screenwriter with three short films to her credit. Screen Constellations didn’t have her on any staff listings.

She’d just dropped out of Berkley’s film program, a degree so prestigious that that almost never happened. She was 22, which would’ve put her in Michael’s class. A few calls under the guise of Academic Services revealed they’d been interns at Screen Constellations at the same time.

***

Tenants in apartment buildings ought to get to know their neighbors. I could’ve been anyone ringing the buzzer at nine in the evening.

“Sorry, I locked myself out again.”

Once a stranger buzzed me in, I found Cassie’s apartment, pulled out my wallet and started knocking. The door swung open before my knuckles hit wood. Cassie stood on the other side, jet black hair frizzy, eyes squinting, a lioness primed to pounce.

I jumped, almost unfurling my wallet to reveal the bus pass.

Cassie gave a coy smile. “I saw your feet.”

There was only one vantage point that low and Cassie looked like she’d been there for a while. There was a carpet pattern on her cheek. She wore a long shirt and pajama bottoms, but it was clear she hadn’t slept in days. Her red eyes were framed with the bags beneath them.

I waved my wallet. “I’m here to ask some questions about Michael Freeman.”

Cassie held the door open. Real detectives have partners, they’re supposed to give their names and use permission statements, but sometimes when you speak with authority, people assume you have it.

Cassie’s unit was a fire hazard. The hall, the shelves, and the kitchen counters were filled with stacks of paper. There were pages on the welcome mat, red with edits. I could tell they were screenplays from where I was standing.

The carpet was littered with bleeding ink cartridges. There was a printer and a laptop on the coffee table, where fresh reams waited beneath.

“It took them long enough to send someone.” Cassie scooped pages off the love seat so I could sit.

I flipped my notepad open. “No one questioned you at the scene?”

She rolled her eyes. “I might have wandered away from that tired old scene.”

“Do you mind if I ask what your relationship was with Michael Freeman?”

Cassie fell across the couch cushions. “Relationship? We were interns. We read screenplays so the producers didn’t have to.”

I wrote “SCRIPT READER” on my notepad. “Tell me about Michael’s last day on the job.”

Cassie opened her fingers wide, pantomiming an explosion.

I kept my poker face.

She sat up with a smirk. “We’d finished grading the solicited scripts, so we decided to dive into the Blacklist.”

“Blacklist?”

“The Blacklist is a collection of screenplays that have high marks from readers, but will never get turned into features.”

“Why?”

Cassie shot up to sift through her papers for a needle in a haystack. “They’re fresh ideas in an industry churning out sequels, prequels, betweequels, remakes, reboots, and reimaginings. Why risk money on something new when you can resurrect the same ancient brands? Hollywood doesn’t care about art. They’re more interested in selling grown men their action figures back to them.”

From where I sat, I saw stacks all the way down the hall, through the bathroom and into the tub. None were bound. There was no clear filing system. I had a hard time picturing Cassie lugging a dolly full of reams up the steps.

Glancing back at my notes, I found I’d drawn a spiral on the pad. The decor was derailing my train of thought.

Cassie surgically removed a handful of pages from a stack. “If you’re looking for a suspect. I’d start with The King in Yellow.”

“The King of who?”

Cassie patted her pages. “Not who, what. The King in Yellow was the screenplay Michael was reading when the spark of inspiration hit.”

Gripping the edges, Cassie wielded her bundle like a weapon.

“It was the only script he’d given a 5 out of 5. When he wandered off in a euphoric stupor, I knew I had to sink my teeth into it.”

Cassie stared at her title page.

“Right out of the gate, the story was too outlandish. It was about a masquerade ball, in an otherworldly place called Carcosa, where the stars were black and twin suns shined underwater. There was no clear protagonist. No one’s mask slipped long enough to reveal their motivation, just a graphic orgy of decadence.”

Cassie giggled, a joke teller eager to get to her punchline.

“My notes were littered with potential breaks in the routine, when guests arrived, when they began the offering of skin, when the guards went missing, but I couldn’t decide on one. Turns out the break was a character, an uninvited guest who’d infiltrated the plot.”

She licked her cheshire cat smile. “That bland first act is what makes the story so brilliant. It lulls you into a false sense of security before charging through the fourth wall.”

I flipped my pad shut. “What do you mean?”

Cassie knocked a stack over, revealing a full length mirror. She spoke through her reflection. “A good movie draws out your empathy. It tricks you into projecting yourself onto the hero, until their goals are your goals, their losses are your losses and their changes are yours. This script did the opposite. It imprinted itself onto the reader. When the fire alarms went off, I was evacuated before I could finish. My copy was gone when I came back.” She waved her arms over the mess she’d made. “Now my story is incomplete.”

Cassie set her script in my lap. The title page read:

THE KING IN YELLOW: ACT 3

The draft number was in the triple digits.

She got down on all fours to dig out something from under the couch. “I tried to find the script online. All I found was a collection of shorts by Robert W. Chambers, published in 1895. His book mentions the play, but contains fleeting excerpts. Chambers focused on the people who’d gone mad just from reading it.”

While I debated flipping through Cassie’s offering, my fingers decided for me. Skimming the text, I saw she’d written herself into the story. It read:

CASSIE

I still can’t get the ending right.

A hammer COCKS. Cassie slides the 22 under her chin, the pistol barely peaks out of the shadow of her jawline.

THE KING IN YELLOW

Wait!

Cassie said, “I still can’t get the ending right.”

A hammer cocked. I looked up to find the situation playing out just as Cassie had written.

“Wait!” Tossing the pages, I went off script. “If you’re trying to kill yourself, a 22 caliber is the wrong way to go. The bullet might not even breach the roof of your mouth.”

Playing into someone’s delusion is a long forgotten art form.

Cassie repositioned the gun to her temple.

I frowned. “25 percent of people who shoot themselves in the head survive.”

Pressing the muzzle to her heart, Cassie waited for my approval.

I stepped through the pages, careful not to seem too alarmed. “You spent weeks writing and that’s the best you can come up with?”

Tears welled up in Cassie’s eyes. “I don’t know how else to end it.”

I cracked my neck. “Then we’ll need to find the original for reference.”

3. Blown Away

“Talk to the sand!”

ANGER

The script didn’t matter much to me. I wanted a closer look at the things Edgar couldn’t capture with his telephoto lens, and an excuse to keep the gun out of Cassie’s hands.

“Name please.” The greeter was all silk scarves and shoulder pads, presiding over a table full of tags. Beyond her was the last Screen Constellations event in Cassie’s phone.

I could’ve chosen to be anyone, but my hand reached for a blank tag. “I’m a stranger.”

The greeter pulled it out of reach. “This is a staff event.”

“He’s my plus one.” Cassie came in a formfitting pinstripe pantsuit. Her hair was slicked back, the bags under her eyes were hidden by mascara. She’d cleaned up nicely.

The greeter lit part way up with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. Cassie’s name was no where near the tip of her tongue.

“Katie.” Cassie chose a tag at random and we were in.

I’d taken snapshots of Ramsey’s blueprints, I knew which stairwell would take us where.

When we got into the office, the script was where Cassie left it, wanting to be read. She hugged the pages, while I took pictures of a pack of cigarettes. The studio hadn’t touched the desk since the incident. Turns out, Michael had an ignition on him the entire time. He just never bought smokes on any of the cards his father checked. The only mystery was his motivation.

Cassie cackled. Her madness trigger by the mere sight of the title page:

THE KING IN YELLOW

BY

ALAN SMITHEE

“What’s so funny?”

Cassie traced the name. “Alan Smithee is the alias directors give when they disown a project. I can’t believe I didn’t spot it.”

“Who’d use a pen name for an unsolicited script?”

“A messenger.”

Cassie sniffed the paper as if to open her pallet. She offered it to me. “Don’t you want to know what it says about you?”

I couldn’t help but wonder if I had the mental resilience to handle what Michael could not. After all, his silver spoon had weakened his stomach, mine was hardened by the streets. What did I have to fear?

We stayed up there, a pair of moths circling a flame, reading, sharing skin, until we came to the realization that the story wasn’t done.

Most screenplays are journeys to other worlds, this one was on its way to ours. We were the airport limo, the pages were our sign, and the Yellow King was our passenger. We had a responsibility to get him where he needed to go.

Buttoning her shirt up, Cassie studied photos of the construction site before going off to borrow some things. I gave her time to chain the doors, before I came down the elevator.

I don’t care what my lawyer said, there’s no such thing as temporary insanity, only clarity.

The executives outside the elevator had it easy. Even with a 22, I’m an excellent marksman. Those other charlatan storytellers weren’t so lucky. When I emptied the clip I was forced to improvise. The stanchion holding the velvet ropes proved too inviting. Sure, it had a heavy base, but I didn’t have to carry it alone. The Yellow King was wearing me like a mask.

Together, we left an impression on everyone.

5. Exit Sandman

DENIAL

The screenplay was a metaphor about everyone that would ever touch it, a paper reflection. In 120 pages, it had something on everyone. I saw myself staring back. I saw Cassie. I saw Michael. I saw a decadent industry brought to its knees. When you have a clear vision of Carcosa it looks into you.

Once the stars turned black and the lights rose from Lake Hali, my role was defined.

Somehow I knew the moment I touched that knocker on Ramsey’s door, I’d been cast in a tragedy. I’d been grieving my passing sanity ever since. The script knew how I’d try to deny it, like a set of finger-cuffs for the intellect, the more I resisted the more it tightened. Then Cassie sweetened the pot.

She made an airtight argument that freewill was an illusion, showing her work, bringing me to a conclusion.

Mine is not a cautionary tale, it’s an endorsement, a blurb on the back. Mark my words, The King in Yellow will come into your possession, that much is inevitable. You can put it through the shredder or take it to your armchair. The choice is up to you, but let’s not kid ourselves, we both know that decision was already made for you.