Chuck Wendig: Terribleminds

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Shake Them Pom-Poms, Cheerleaders

As you may know, once in a while I like to open up the Circus of Pimpage — I undo the ropes, open the tent-flaps, and let the drunken elephants in velvet robes and grill-mouthed clowns with ruby-encrusted pimp cups come tumbling out. (That sounds like a creepy sexual metaphor. I assure you, it is not.)

What it is, then, is this:

Some of you have projects out in the world: books, e-books, games, movies, comics, webcomics, blogs, etc.

Others among you have fallen in love with projects that are not your own — books by other authors, films few have seen, comics that remain undiscovered, blogs that demand eyeballs. Etc.

So, drop down into the comments. Pop us a quick cheer and a link. Got something you’ve done or something you love? Let us know about it. Sometimes Twitter moves so fast I miss stuff. Or I think, “I should click that,” but then I forget to and next thing I know I wake up in an open grave just outside of Albuquerque and Lord knows I won’t remember then.

Plus, it’s neat to have the pimping contained. Like a self-promotional tempest in a tea-cup.

Some of you may be saying: “Chuck, this is you being lazy. It’s like you don’t have a real post for today.” To which I respond, “Duh.” That said, I still like the idea, so fuck it, I’m running with it.

What the hell are you waiting for? You got the invite. RSVP already.

You. Comments. Now.

Word-Karate: On Writing Action Scenes

Jaw, shattered. Femur, snapped. Skull, cracked. Perineum, ripped off and thrown into a river.

It’s time to talk about action scenes. Explosions, high-kicks, roundhouse punches, car chases, train crashes, wizard battles, robot attacks, machine guns chattering, nipples spewing liquid fire.

Initially, I thought: “Why bother writing about action scenes? Seems easy enough.”

Except, I’ve read some truly asstacular action scenes. Not that I’m some kind of expert on writing action, mind you: by this point in our relationship, I hope we’re clear that I’m an expert on nothing, and merely a very loud, possibly drunken journeyman who has no problem yelling his profanity-lacquered opinion into the echo chamber that is the Internet.

But not being an expert clearly doesn’t prevent me from having thoughts on the subject, and so I figured this was high time to share my inexpert thoughts on the subject here at terribleminds.

Writing Fighting Is Like Scripting Sexing

Sex and violence stare at one another in a warped carnival mirror. Both are intimate. Both reflect physicality. Heartbeat pulses. Fluids spurt — spit, blood, sweat. You push the camera in too close or pull it far, far back and someone is bound to ask, “Are those two fighting? Or are those two fucking?”

The funny thing is, we tend to be a lot more comfortable with violence in this country than we do with sex. We’re a flock of Puritanical gas-bags who beg and scream and wheedle to see the bullet-scalped bodies of Al Qaeda terrorists but if we see two dudes smooch on Glee half of America takes a collective panic-poop and pulls out clumps of hair like they were clods of grass.

Still, there’s value in seeing the relationship between fighting and fucking, at least in terms of writing. Bring one into the other. Bring the intimacy and discomfort of sex into the fight scenes, and bring our culture’s comfort with violence into writing the bedroom scenes. An interesting exercise: write a sex scene like you’re writing a fight scene. Then, vice versa. Do it pantsless. Just because.

Form Matches Function

Imagine it’s like that knife fight in Michael Jackson’s Beat It video — form and function are given knives, and their wrists are bound together so that they may not escape one another until one is stabbified.

(“Stabbified” is a word, right? It’s totally a word. Don’t mess with me, Internet.)

Form and function do well together across all types of writing, but this is particularly true in terms of writing action. I find that when I write action, the form of my writing moves to match the pacing of the action. I tend to like my action sequences presented as a short, sharp shock, and so the writing tends to mirror that. Shorter sentences. Sentence fragments. Blunt, brutal language. Words like rabbit punches. Like the stitching of prison shivs.

Is this necessary? No, probably not. But there’s value in setting the pace of your scene with the clip at which you write. You don’t want to write long, languid patches of prose in writing action. We want action to be fast, exciting, engaging, and most of all, easy-to-read. Writing action is in this way like writing dialogue: you want it to come across to the readers without them halting, without them pausing to take a breath.

That’s not to say there’s no value in slowing things down — pacing is a tricky thing. The escalation of any story has its peaks and valleys and you can give an action sequence those same valleys, too — you can collapse moments just as easily as you can drag them out. The value in that is the value of crafting tension. By pausing before the money shot, the cookie-pop, the underwear-shellacking, you’re forcing the audience to hold their breath a little bit.

They know the shoe is going to drop, so you can slow things down a bit right in the middle.

Tricky to do, but cool if done right.

Point being: action scenes aren’t just about the action that’s happening, but also the form and framing of that action. I always like to print out my work and look at the shape of the words on the page. It’s telling.

Clarity Versus Sensation

I’ve read action scenes that clarify every tiny detail — the prose telegraphs every thrown punch, every grenade tossed, every inch of every rippling explosion as the fire belches forth.

This is nice in a lot of ways. If only because it helps you maintain an image in your head of what’s going on.

On the other hand, that can get a little dull. A giant meaty paragraph dictating the cold and clinical step by step of a fight scene is a paragraph I am going to ice skate over with my eyes. This is doubly true of those writers who know martial arts and write about it in a very granular way. No, I don’t know what a Wily Cheung Dragon Five-Toed Pylon Garrote-Kick does, and I don’t really care.

In opposition you have those fight scenes that eschew details and go right for the feel of the thing. It’s all sensation: the feel of fists landing, of fire on the back of your neck, of one’s butthole being ripped off by a rifle round. This is cool because it’s poetic. Because it puts you in the hot seat. Action is chaotic. It’s not clear and clinical. It’s mud and blood on the camera lens.

The downside is, you can overdo it. Purple prose bogs just as easily as a ten-page karate menu.

So, where’s the line? What approach is the right approach?

Rough guess: it depends on how close to the action you wish the reader to be.

If they’re with the protagonist — and it may be necessary to put with in italics — then a more sensation-based approach has value. You want to feel what he feels. But if it’s a high-concept gain-some-distance third-person-not-all-that-omniscient action scene, then you might gain more ground by approaching the writing in a more clinical fashion.

Reality Versus Authenticity

How “real” does your action scene have to be?

Once more we find ourselves in that old battle between reality and authenticity. Those two scamps, always sissy-slap-fighting it out. My feeling is that reality has no place in any piece of fiction ever. Not because it’s a bad idea but because it is a meaningless idea. Let me explain.

You must in all things remain authentic to your story. You’re setting a tone, a mood, a pace, a theme, and all these things should play well together. When one piece feels off, it’s like a painting hanging on the wall with a troubling tilt: everybody’s going to know, and they’re going to obsess about it. Your job is to keep all ducks in a row. Your job is to attend to authenticity.

How things happen in real life has zero bearing how things happen in fiction. This is true of books, film, games, and so forth. And so it is that your fight scene should match the tone you’re putting forth in the rest of the work. The fight scenes in a cartoonish mecha-battle is going to feel a lot different than the fight scenes in a boxing melodrama. Forget reality as a meaningful metric. Remain authentic to the story you’re telling.

How Action Reflects More Than Just Action

As always, I love ensuring that my writing does not fall into the behavior of a unitasker, by which I mean, that it does one thing and one thing only. Action scenes needn’t only be action scenes.

An action scene is awesome when it’s doing more than just expressing physical threat and a sequence of objective events. How can you reveal character in an action scene? How can you express theme and mood? You should be doing a lot with your action scene. A character reacts a certain way that reflects who he is on the inside (doubly so during times of action — which is to say, in scenes of duress). A theme is revealed in how brutal or insane or dangerous your action becomes.

Just as dialogue and description are given over to sub-text, action can be given over to subtler threads, too. An action scene should never be there just because it’s obligatory: it should always have deeper purpose.

Your Turn, Class

Action scenes.

Name some good ones. In books. In film. In comics. Wherever they exist. What makes them good? What makes them great? What are some examples of ehh, mehhh, pbbbt action scenes?

Why would an action scene fail to connect?

What rules do you abide by when writing action? I think what’s true in prose is true, too, in screenwriting. I’ve seen some screenplays that let the action scenes be essentially a meaningless tag: “FIGHT SCENE ENSUES,” but that’s nonsense. While I don’t think you’ll find much value in bloating an action scene so that it fills ten pages of script, I do think action should be both enticing and enriching. I’ve long said that screenwriters could easily bring a few prose tricks into their scripts to keep it fresh and readable as opposed to detached and dull. Story is story, after all.

Talk this out. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Ten More Ways To Support Authors You Love

This past week, I caught an article that ping-ponged around the Intersphere where author Jody Hedlund explains — nicely and wisely — ten ways to support authors you love.

It’s a great post. Hedlund lists a lot of strong ways that speak toward what I was saying a few weeks back (“The Care And Feeding Of Your Favorite Authors“). Even still, I thought, “Surely that can’t be it, right? Readers and fans don’t need to stop there. Writers are needy little sumbitches. Yes, good, leave a review. Sure, okay, get the local library to stock the book. All great ideas. But the author is a fragile orchid under glass. The author needs special attention.”

And so, I thought, let’s add some options to that list.

Thus I give unto you:

Ten more ways to support the authors you love.

Beginning now.

1. Backrubs And Sponge Baths

Writers have all the posture of Gollum after a tequila bender. We’re basically cave crickets. Blind. Pale. Bent over. Covered in the excrement of the bats that dangle above us. This is not conducive to producing good writing. Science Fact: ideas start in the brain, then travel down the spine (via Monorail, like at Disney World) and are then carried out to our dominant arm and hand where we take the idea and write it down. This is science. This is medical truth. If we’re all hunched over like some kind of Scoliosis Monster (one of Jim Henson’s less-popular Muppets), then the Monorail crashes. The idea is left bleating like a lost llama, unable to reach our hand.

We need backrubs, people. Shoulders. Neck. Deep-tissue. Hot rocks. Happy endings. And a sponge bath wouldn’t hurt, either. Someone needs to wash the Dorito powder out of our hair. It’s not a good look.

If you don’t want to be the giver of the massage, no worries. Hook us up with a gift certificate to the nearest shady Asian Massage Parlor. I’m sure Groupon has a deal going.

2. Lay Gifts At Our Feet

Have you ever met a writer? Sure you have. They’re the guys sitting in subways ranting at you about “reptile overlords” and trying to get you to drop some change in their quivering palms. We’re not wealthy people. The latest average advance on a novel is $17 and a pack of Virginia Slims cigarettes.

We need your support. So buy us stuff, for Chrissakes. Shower us with presents.

A nice casserole, maybe? (We’re surely hungry.) Some warm socks so our toes don’t freeze (and get eaten by rats)? Printer ink? (We like to huff it.) New MacBook? (Cult of Apple!) A pony? (Like I said: hungry.)

3. Build A Fan Page

Authors like to know they have fans out there — not just readers, but full-on fanatics who tilt their ears so that they may hear our every brilliant whisper. Build us a fan page to show your love and, more importantly, ceaseless devotion. I’m not just talking about, say, a page on Facebook. That’s nice and all, but c’mon, really? That’s amateur karaoke right there. No, we’d like something… bigger. Buy a web address. Get a host. Put up a whole sycophantic Tiger Beat spread of us online. Pay the hosting fees. Hire a web designer. And for Sid and Marty Krofft’s sake, get some Flash animation up in that bizzotch.

Flash animation is all the rage. It’s like, boom, intro cartoon. Violins. A phat breakbeat. A chorus of angel MCs slinging a rap about how awesome we are. The sun rises. Becomes our head. Our mouth opens. Rays of word power shine out. Destroy the world. Then we eat the stars. Finally, the whole thing morphs into an advertisement announcing our latest book, movie, blog post, pamphlet, or tweet.

4. Take Over Bookstore Displays

You go into… well, I was going to say Borders, but you go into a Borders you’ll be attacked by troglodytes and killed for your meat. Those are dead zones, now. Let’s go with Barnes & Noble. You go into a B&N and there, all around you, are book displays offering the hottest new releases of the world’s most mediocre authors. Dan Brown’s The Giuseppe Conundrum. Nicholas Sparks’ Song In A Bottle To Remember. Snooki’s Hot Homunculus Nights. The book displays are like idols built for blind, idiot gods.

Those authors don’t need book displays, though. When Mitch Albom releases The Five People You Pee On In Hell, people know it’s out. They’re coming there to buy it. They don’t need a special display.

You know who needs those displays? Your favorite mid-list authors, that’s who. Go to the store. When nobody’s looking, clear out the latest “someone-who’s-not-Tom-Clancy-wrote-a-book-with-Tom-Clancy’s-name-on-it” book. Hide them in the self-help section. Then take your favorite author’s books and re-fill the display. With some markers, duct tape and construction paper you can complete the advertisement.

Your favored author will thank you.

5. Become An Enabler

Writers need writer juice. If it’s before 9am, we need coffee. If it’s after 9am, we need liquor. If it’s after 9pm, we need pulverized Ambien stirred around a glass of lemonade (aka “Daddy’s Special Tonic”).

So for the sake of bibliophiles everywhere, buy us a cup of coffee. Get us a drink. Slide us a kilo of snow-white Columbian nose candy. Procure for us a phial of rare dodo’s blood.

Enable us. Only then can we write the words you want us to write.

And when that goes awry…

6. Now You’re An Addiction Counselor

When you find us slumbering in a sleeping bag filled with our own vomit, it might be time to get us off the “stuff.” We might need someone to sit with us as we detox. We’re definitely going to need someone to empty the bucket. It won’t empty itself. (Well, it might, like if our leg spasms and we kick it over.) Who else is going to help us navigate the ever-trembling line between hallucination and reality? Who will scrape the milky remnants of our dodo’s blood high as it exudes from our pores?

Oh, and when we get back on our feet, all cleaned up and loving Jesus, you’re going to need to buy our lame duck never-as-good-as-it-used-to-be-when-we-were-tripping-balls-on-dodo-blood books.

7. Be Like Annie Wilkes

We should be writing.

We’re probably not writing.

Whatever we’re doing, it’s the wrong thing. You know how George R.R. Martin’s not our bitch? Well, maybe he could use to be somebody’s bitch is all I’m saying. Authors need motivation.

And that’s where you come in. Ever read Stephen King’s Misery? Then you’ve got the right idea. Call us a dirty birdy. Cut off our thumb, pop it on a cake. Chop off a foot and hobble us like an escaped miner.

8. Get Your Wallets Out

I heard an apocryphal bit of data that suggests authors rarely sell a thousand copies of each book. You sell a thousand, that’s a good sign. So, help an author out, and buy a thousand copies. Be a pal.

If our book is, mm, say, ten bucks, then it’s no thing for you to buy a thousand copies, right? What, you don’t have a spare ten thousand clams hanging around? Were you gonna buy a boat or something? Ohh, must be nice. Mister Boat-Buyer over here doesn’t want to support literacy. You’re out there on the frothy churn-capped tides, guzzling Pernod Fils and getting sexual favors from mermaids. Meanwhile, we’re eating Chef Boyaredee out of a can.

A can that will soon become our only toilet.

Way to go. Way to destroy an author’s dreams just because you won’t shell out ten grand. WHATEVS.

9. The Cult Of Personality

It’s one thing to toss us a kind word. Maybe say something nice about our books. Our hair. Our creamy, majestic thighs. It’s another thing entirely to recruit cult members to live in a compound in the woods, a “church” where you worship the center of your religion: us. That’s right. Time to get serious. You want to do something really special for your favorite author? Two words: Jones. Town. That ended well, right? I’ll admit I kind of faded out by the end of that story, but I’m sure it involved them all sipping Kool-Aid in the jungle and singing campfire songs. So nice!

Point is, we need your love. We need your adoration. We need you to build hollow wooden effigies of us, trap our enemies inside, and burn the whole thing on a sacrificial pyre.

Don’t be afraid to get inventive. Pyramid schemes. Mind-control drugs. Book clubs.

10. Pre-Order The Book

Okay, fine, fine, here’s a real one that Hedlund didn’t cover: pre-order the author’s books (says the author with a book on pre-order). I’ll just be lazy and repeat what I wrote last month:

“Why pre-order, you might be asking? Pre-ordering is good for the publisher and great for the writer. The publisher gets an idea of preliminary demand and can produce accordingly. The writer also gets a boost — your pre-orders send a signal to the publisher that, hey, this writer is worth holding on to. So, we author-types appreciate your commitment.”

And there you have it.

Ten more ways to rain adoration and adulation upon your favorite authors.

If you have more ideas, toss ’em into the comments.

Flash Fiction Challenge: “From Mab To The Mysterious Three”

Last week’s flash fiction challenge — “Profanity Is A Circle Of Language” — awaits your eyes with many foul-mouthed entries. Check the comments, click the links.

And now we begin this week’s challenge.

As noted, I am a huge fan of the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. It is one of the essential reference books in my collection — I use the Wordsworth version in print, and Brewer’s online. It’s wonderful for weird turns-of-phrase, for finding neat genre concepts, for plumbing the depths of odd history, and best of all, for coming up with concepts and titles.

Thus is your mission.

This week: Please turn (click) to the ‘M’ section of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

Click around. Find an awesome term that you like that starts with “M.”

That is your title and your concept.

Write some flash fiction around it.

This week, should you choose to claim it, you may have 1500 words instead of the normal 1000. Just to give you a little extra sauce if your tale requires it. Drop a link in the comments here, and if you’re so kind, link to this post so that others may find it and, ideally, jump in with both feet.

Once again you’ve a week. Friday to Friday. Ends on May 21st.

So, what will you choose? The Marrow Controversy? Melancholy Jacques? The Mirror of Human Salvation? Your options are endless. Well, okay, not literally endless, but c’mon. Sheesh.

Go forth. Scare up a phrase or fable, and let’s see what you got.

I’d quite like to see some lurkers de-lurk for this challenge, by the way. The gauntlet is thrown.

20 Questions Inside The Primate Confessional

So, as I announced yesterday: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY is coming soon to a Kindle, Nook, PC or hallucinogenic dreamworld near you.

Thing is, in the spirit of the “confessional” vibe, I figured it might be cool to have you crazy kids ask some questions, and then I’ll answer the questions inside the book. A lurid, disturbed glimpse into the caffeine-sodden, booze-pickled mind of a freelance writer.

An interview! Of sorts. But with shame, pantslessness, and great gobs of profanity.

This is where you’re like, “Chuck, that’s a stupid idea,” and then I’m like, “If you don’t play along, I’m going to shoot this adorable baby penguin with a Taser.” And you’re like, “Whoa, that’s not cool,” and I’m like, “WHATEVS.” Then I drop your casserole dish. And it shatters. And the penguin bleats.

Do penguins bleat? I don’t goddamn know. Shut up.

So, if you’re interested in playing along (and you’d have my appreciation should you choose to do so), drop into the comments section and pop a question you’d like me to answer in the book. Obviously, it’s a writing-themed book, so one assumes you’ll ask a questions that at least flirt with the subject of writing, freelancing, storytelling, but hey, if you want to ask something entirely different, I’m not going to stop you.

I’ll select 20 questions out of the bunch to use in the book. Er, that’s assuming you ask me 20 questions. If you don’t, I’ll just make up questions, I guess. As I weep into my cereal. “Question number…”

*sob*

“Number Seven. Why Doesn’t Anybody Like Me?”

*blow nose, eat Honey Nut Cheerios*

Right. Anyway.

Who’s in?

Questions go below. And thanks again.

Confessions Of A Freelance Penmonkey

Coming Soon:

CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY.

A big fat book of essays about writing, freelancing, and storytelling found originally here at terribleminds. Over 50 essays, all revised, all featuring new content in the form of addenda / commentary / random thoughts / additional profanity / poopy handprints on the walls of my plexiglass enclosure.

It’ll be popping up on Kindle… well, let’s just aim for “in the next two weeks,” as I have some of the additional materials to finish. Further, it’ll be available as PDF directly through terribleminds.

I’d also like to get it on the Nook. Taking advice on that should anybody have it: I found the process to get to ePub and the B&N store a not-entirely-pleasant one, and will accept any and all tips.

At present, I’ve no plans for a print version, but I’ll take opinions on that, too.

Smashwords I’m thinking can, I dunno, go suck an egg.

That lovely cover is done by the inimitable Amy Houser (her website here). Amy also did the cover for IRREGULAR CREATURES, a cover which still makes me squee with delight. We had a different cover initially, which I still love (maybe Amy will give me permission to show it to you), involving a froth-mouthed monkey about to throw a typewriter at your head. But this design she did feels like it really popped and contained a lot of the little nibbly bits that go into the writing life (chief amongst them: weeping, booze, coffee). Plus, c’mon: a sugar skull monkey? With a beard? This totally sucks unicorn.

Anyway. Keep your grapes peeled, word-nerds, inkslingers, and penmonkeys.

You’ve been asking for this book. So buckle up, here it comes.

#BTFO.