A Monday Full of C’s – Cyphacon! Con Season! Critiques (The Art Thereof)!

Hibernation mode, off!

cypha3Spring has sprung (sorta – kinda) and with it comes con season. Here’s the best part: Nerding out with  new friends and old as well as meeting readers.  I’m heading to Lake Jackson, Louisiana this weekend for CyphaCon – a fan-run cornucopia of Anime, Scf-fi/Fantasy and Gaming fans – to serve as the Author Guest of Honor.  There’s a great mix of panels and events planned and the guest celebrity is Kandyse McClure, best known as Dualla from 4 ½ seasons of the Peabody award-winning series BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.  I had no idea she was from South Africa so I’m looking forward to meeting her since I spent some time down there when producing the CBS series SWEATING BULLETS.  While it was albeit a mixed experience (I was down there at the tail end of Apartheid), I had the opportunity to work with and visit so many people that I have fond memories of the country (combined with a few not-fond ones).

I’ll have an opportunity to share my search for the Antarctica Stargate while at CyphaCon.  In addition to photos from my time down there, I’m hoping to share footage from some of the more recent real-world science efforts and share a few pages from THE DRIFT that explore what it’s like to be down at the bottom of the world.  Speaking of science, I’ll also moderate a panel on the Science of Stargate, covering a variety of disciplines from astrophysics to archaeology. I’m also running a writing workshop on the benefits of learning screenwriting.  Even if you’re a novelist or short story writer, there’s eight key aspects to the art of screenwriting that every author benefits from learning.  One of the advantages of writing for different mediums (television, film, novels, short stories, stage, comics) has been the opportunity to “poach” the best techniques from each and use them  in ways that can deepen the impact of yet another medium.  So… if you’re interested in knowing those eight key aspects, join us at CyphaCon this weekend (April 4 – 7).

And if Louisiana is too far away, I’ll share more on the same topic when I attend other cons later this year including Timegate, In Your Write Mind, Shore Leave, and ContextSF.  Of course, if you don’t come to CyphaCon, you’ll be missing out on some great food.

wise-men-quote-platoTHE ART OF THE CRITIQUE
I’ve been wearing quite a few hats as of late: collaborating on a television pilot as well as a 6-book series, rewriting my own novel, outlining a short story for a media tie-in anthology, and last, but never least, I’m teaching one of my favorite writing courses: Writing the One-Hour Drama.  We’ve had a long list of excellent new writers come out of this course, winning/placing year after year in national script competitions.  I can always tell which student-writers have the best shot of crafting distinct, memorable scripts because of their ability to provide valuable critiques to their fellow classmates and because of how they react to receiving critiques.

Facts are facts – no one’s first draft is great. You know the old adage, “Writing is rewriting.” Heck, it took Hemingway fifty-five passes on each of his novels to get them to a point where they were ready for publication.  As writers, we need feedback to make our good stories great. When my student-writers respond with “Keep the notes coming,” I know that they embrace that philosophy and it becomes evident in their next submissions.  Receiving critiques helps the writer to look at their work objectively. Once you can do that — really step back and look at your work with a more critical eye, the process of making that good story great becomes much easier.

As a critiquer, there’s an art to giving a good critique as well. We all want to cut to the chase and show off our brilliance by pointing to ‘what’s wrong’ with someone else’s work, but if you want to be HEARD, then you need to work on how you deliver that brilliance.  I lean toward the Oreo approach:

  1. THE COOKIE: Start positive. No matter what. There’s always something good to be found in someone’s writing. Every paragraph, every page has been written by an individual. They’ll have a distinct way of presenting their ideas or story. It might need work, sure — that’s why they’re offering it up for slaughter critique. By starting with a demonstration that you’ve seriously considered their work and understand what their objective was, then yes — you (as the critiquer) will be taken seriously.  And don’t you want to be taken seriously? Otherwise, what’s the point in reading the work and writing up the critique?
  2. THE (ANTI) FLUFF: Recognize that the story belongs to that particular writer.  Don’t tell them how to completely change it. Instead, determine what their objectives are in that scene or chapter or act, and provide them with comments on what will help them succeed.  I like to think of these as ‘missed opportunities.’ Elements in a story that — with a bit more attention — will better hone the story to achieve what the writer wanted.
  3. ANOTHER COOKIE: End positive.  You’ve gone to all this trouble to read the writer’s work. You’ve spent time drafting a critique.  If you want your comments to be remembered, it won’t hurt for you to end with a note of encouragement. Positivity can go a long way in having your efforts be effective… And useful.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate in the critique partner department thanks to the tireless efforts over the years of Jen Brooks (In A World Just Right, 2015) and Rhonda Mason (Empress Games, 2015). We each write very different types of speculative fiction, but I’ve trust these two exceptional writers’ instincts for ten years now and they’ve never steered me wrong. They were my backbone and shoulders to lean on while writing the Stargate novels and have been equally supportive of all my current projects — even my teleplay pilot. As their critique partner, I’ve been blessed with having a court-side seat to their works (both in progress and their debut novels coming out next year).

Mind you, having critique partners doesn’t mean you give up captaining your ship.  You’re still the navigator.  It’s still your journey and in the end, only you can get that story to its destination. But having carefully considered critiques (3 C’s yet again!), you’ll have a better chance of weathering all the storms that go with writing first, second, third drafts and beyond.

A Little Help

alhIn between working on an original novel, collaborating on a television series pilot, and waiting for news on a proposed media tie-in series, I’ve been lending a hand to the creative team behind A Little Help. It’s a ridiculous new comedy web series involving quite a few of my most talented current and former student-writers/producers as well as folk who brought you Epilogue – self included as consulting producer. The series goes into production next month with a release date for this summer. ALH is currently running a fundraiser over at Indiegogo and trust me, your crumpled up dollar bill wedged into your armchair could make all the difference. There’s a terrifically funny cast involved – Beth Domann from Springfield Little Theatre plays Deb (the hippy mom) and for that reason alone, it’s worth investing a buck or two.

A Little Help follows an aspiring stand-up comedian who wants nothing more than to leave St. Louis and chase his dreams to New York City. It’s a little hard to do when he has to navigate a few of life’s more absurd obstacles: His hippie parents accidentally plant drugs on him, his sister’s focus is on shopping for the right sperm, his best friend’s attention is on a rabbit, and the girl of his dreams spends all her time working or studying. Yeah, just another day in the life for Ringo (his parents may be Beatles fans, did I mention that?).

The web series as a venue is no longer the newest frontier, but it’s certainly become one of the best ways for new (and old) talent to stretch their creative muscles and for you, the audience, to try out new things. The beauty of this medium, of course, is that you don’t have a million network or studio notes dumbing down the material. (I can’t tell you how many times I read a great script about two nuns in Idaho and by the time the network or studio got their paws all over it, the project changed into a story about two cops in New York City).

The downside of independence, of course, is a lack of funding. If we – as an audience – want television and film projects that make us sit up and notice — and we don’t want to be bored by paint-by-numbers storylines — then we need to support series like A Little Help. Think of it as investment in the next decade’s stories. On the subject of ‘tomorrow’s stories,’ I’m offering an analysis of your treatment, series bible, full screenplay or teleplay analysis as one of the perks. I’ll read through your material, write up a three page analysis, and then meet online for a one-on-one session to help you plan your rewrite.

So… un-crumple that dollar bill and consider giving a little help.

A New Year – An Old But New Con

A belated yet warm happy new years to everyone! I was down for the count during the holidays thanks to a nasty reaction to some extreme allergy medicine (yeah, Houston is teeming with life — even more so than Missouri.  Who’d a thought it?)

Like everyone else, I have my new year’s resolutions as well — there’s a deliberate theme here, one of balance.  If you’re going to do MORE of something then certainly there has to be LESS of something else.  So…

  • Do less of everything. Do better at the things that matter.
  • Stress less. Smile more.
  • Read less. Write more.
  • Facebook less. Email more.
  • Less refined food. More fresh food. Chocolate, of course, remains the exception.  (You were expecting else wise?)

SpaceCityCon

I’m off to a new Space City Con tomorrow.  This time down in Galveston.  Books, scripts, and a few other goodies to sign are packed and ready in the car.  Saturday will be mostly a signing books and gabbing with attendees sorta day.  On Sunday, I’ll host a Q&A with Jason Momoa (Stargate Atlantis, Game of Thrones, Conan, The Red Road).

jmomomoa

 Of course my number one question will be how he — as Drago —  prepared for the speech in Game of Thrones that nearly broke the Intertubes.  Namely, this one:

The August Space City Con was an exceptional experience — far better than San Diego ComicCon thanks to hardworking volunteers, exuberant guests, and some of the most engaging attendees I’ve met in my past ten years of con attendance.  I had the honor of hosting two Q&A sessions:

A two-hour session with Stargate SG-1 and Atlantis cast members including Alexis Cruiz (Skaara), Tori Higgenson (Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell), John Delancie (Yes, Q! Known in the Stargate universe as Col. Frank Simmons), Marshall Teague (Col. Cromwell), Jewel Staite (Dr. Jennifer Keller), and the very awesome Robert Picardo (Richard Woolsey).

And an extraordinary one-on-one with John Delancie where we covered everything from his work on Star Trek and Stargate to My Little Pony to the extraordinary lengths he went to upon witnessing the Kent State Massacre.

Videos recorded and provided by Forever Productions.

Bound in Visuals: New horror web series shows more with less

Shadow Bound Web SeriesIf you’re looking for inspiration on how to say more with less, look no further than the old silent-era of filmmaking.  Think about how — through imagery only! – Metropolis conveyed such wonder and dread.  Lillian Gish, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and others grabbed the audience’s attention as their stories unfolded on the silver screen.  Now, of course the advent of sound was a great thing.  We all love the rich voices, the witty dialogue, and the sweeping soundtracks, but there’s much to learn about storytelling from studying the silent era’s techniques.

Enter Shadow Bound.  A new five-part horror web series that’s picked up the gauntlet of “show, don’t tell” by re-creating the silent era through noir-style imagery… and an occasional dialogue card for exposition (hey! The oldies did it, too). The series is created, produced and stars quite a few of Epilogue‘s award-winning cast & crew.   Here’s a quick rundown on the series which has very much a Lovecraftian feel to it.  So far, they’ve released episode #1 (more to come in the weeks ahead):

Welcome to the town of Veritas; an old place with a long memory. A place of shadows and hidden terrors long forgotten by the modern world of the 1930s. But as famed horror writer, Jack Pickman, soon discovers, some things in the shadows are best left forgotten.  The series follows famed horror writer, Jack Pickman, as he returns to his childhood home after the mysterious death of his estranged father. Jack finds his brother institutionalized in an asylum and later discovers evidence insisting that his father’s last case was the cause of his untimely death. Jack sets out with his two childhood friends to uncover the truth of the disturbing happenings in Veritas. However, as their investigation unfolds, Jack finds himself in a desperate race to save the world from an ancient evil emerging from the shadows.

While I love dialogue (I’m not a Sorkin fan for nothing), as a writer and writing instructor, I’m often found wrestling with the “show, don’t tell”  mantra. It’s not like you want to give every little detail in a character’s life as they move from scene to scene (unless you’re Jack Bauer of 24, and even then — hello! It’s not like we see him use the toilet, clip his toenails, and snore in his sleep), but that’s not really what’s meant by the repeated mantra in writing workshops and heart-breaking critiques.

In other words, don’t tell us what a character thinks or feels or how their past affects their present.  Show it.  And no, that doesn’t mean you have to rely on dialogue to get across their realizations, fears, hopes, or even their backstory.  It’s about the visuals.  It’s about connecting us directly to a character — be it in prose or script form – through the actions they take, the imagery that surrounds them, the sounds that permeate the setting, (and in the case of prose, the smells and textures of what they feel).   If you need to get a piece of backstory across, think about how you can use a character’s setting — the photographs on their desk, the books on their shelves.  More importantly, think about how you can get across that setting actively… By having your character interact with what’s important to the scene.

Here’s another way to look at Show, Don’t Tell:  The key word in the phrase “action description” is ACTION. Don’t slow things down with info-dump descriptions. Keep your story character-driven.  As a writing instructor, I often suggest watching the opening sequence for the Pixar animated film WALL-E.  Within minutes you learn everything you need about the protagonist (Wall-e), how his world came to be, and more importantly, what he wants, what he fears, and how he lives his day-to-day life (that’s ‘Ordinary World” for you writing fools):

While we’re on the subject of watching… Here’s the trailer for Shadow Bound.  Creator/star/make-up FX artist Nathan Shelton (that’s Arch for you Epilogue followers) is off to a fun start with more episodes to come soon:

SHADOW BOUND – Official Trailer from SHADOW BOUND on Vimeo.

For more info on showing versus telling, I recommend the following articles from the InterTubes: