Archives for : things x taught me about writing

Things Bad Movies Taught Me About Writing

Pictured: Tom Cruise, the most miscast book character since That Chick from Divergent.

Pictured: Tom Cruise, the most miscast book character since That Chick from Divergent.

(Author’s Note: This is actually a rare re-post of a blog I wrote back in 2013 shortly after sitting through the exhausting, disappointing Jack Reacher. It is two years old, but since I also just sat through the absolutely abysmal Chappie, I felt it necessary and relevant to post this blog. Please enjoy.)

So I just watched Jack Reacher last night because my parents claimed it was alright.

It was not.

And that is an understatement.

However, it’s not like this is the first time I’ve seen a hair-tearingly stupid movie. I have also subjected myself to A Good Day to Die Hard and RIPD this year. Yes, yes, I should have known better, but when you’re wrong, you’re dead wrong. Still, every horrible experience I’ve had sitting in a theater has taught me something.

Respect your audience’s time. Specifically, I am referring to pacing a story. Jack Reacher had abysmal pacing. For instance, the first five or six minutes of the film has absolutely no dialogue. I have seen movies where this is effective and sets the mood. In this particular film, it felt pretentious and exhausting. It didn’t enhance the evil nature of the bad guy and it didn’t make the character we were introduced to seem intelligent or quirky. It was just boring and unnecessary. Pacing means that the events of your story glide into each other, whether it’s a romantic scene followed by a violent scene, a violent scene followed by a humorous exchange, an action scene followed by a quiet denouement, or any combination of different sequences. If at any point during your movie, a non-idiotic audience member checks his/her watch, something is deeply wrong. This is not to say that everything should be fast and hectic—that was one of the main pitfalls Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole—but you have to spend time on things that matter and omit things that aren’t relevant to them.

Write good characters and we can pretty much sit through anything. Think about ten of your favorite films off the top of your head. How many of them have premises that are absurd if explained out loud? I know plenty of mine do. However, if you write enjoyable or relatable characters, your audience won’t care that the plot is silly. Perfect example: Clive Owen’s hysterical action flick Shoot ‘Em Up. About 99% of what happened in that movie was physically impossible and utterly ridiculous. Why did I love it? Commitment, man. Clive Owen nailed every single one-liner with his perfect deadpan expression and I adored his character—carrot chewing, cynicism, and all. What’s the reverse of this effect? A great plot with horrible characters. We’ve all seen it before. Hell, I can rattle off examples with ease: My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Push, Jumper, The Last Stand, and RIPD. In my personal opinion, those movies had plots that sounded interesting that were executed horribly. Some of them failed for several reasons, but the common element is unlikable characters. Jack Reacher had this problem as well. There were exactly two types of characters: morons and douchebags. Some were a combination of both. Terrible writing will strangle a great concept in its crib and you’ll be left there weeping. Many writers advise to build a novel, script, or short story from the character outward. I agree completely. We have to like the guy or gal we’re riding piggyback with or nothing will pan out.

Commit. I have an entire laundry list of awful movies that I love with full awareness that they are awful. I am able to freely admit this because 90% of the bad films I enjoy committed to their premise or their characters. For instance, my number one guiltiest pleasure of all time is Hudson Hawk. No, no, don’t close your browser yet! Let me explain. I love Hudson Hawk, if only because everyone—and I mean, everyone—in that silly mess of a film committed to that incomprehensible, ludicrous script of theirs. They just nailed it. No one half-assed any of their scenes and so the movie turned into the beautiful butterfly of horribleness as a result. To me, nothing is worse than being mediocre or half-hearted. I’ve read plenty of books in time and the ones that frustrate me the most are the ones that don’t commit to an idea.

I try not to name examples, but the main offender on my list is ‘City of Bones’. Great concept, great conflict, great world building, but one truly half-assed main character. I just couldn’t get into it even though I liked Jace and Simon and the other Shadow Hunters just fine. Clary was a loaf of Wal-Mart brand bread to me—bland, dry, and forgettable. This is not to say the books are bad. Not in the least. I actually think the writing is quite good and I recommend them with no remorse, but that series is something I can never get into because I feel like the author didn’t commit to making Clary a distinct protagonist. I believe this is possibly the most important part of the writing process—setting the main character apart from her supporting cast and from characters outside of the novel itself. I am the first person to slam the ‘Twilight’ novels, but at least Bella Swan was her own person. True, she was a perfectly repugnant person, but she was still an individual and no one can really replicate her. (Though E.L. James tried her damnedest.)

Weak villains will kill your story. Not physically weak villains, mind you. Villains who aren’t threatening are also something that makes me want to kick puppies. Jack Reacher was definitely guilty of this. Mr. Potato Head—sorry, Jai Courtney—was kind of intimidating if only for being a cold-blooded sniper, but his “boss” was the least scary villain I’ve seen in ages. Oh, gee, he has one blind eye and no fingers! Bring me my brown pants! Building up a good villain is one of the most important parts to a story because otherwise, your protagonist—no matter how charming and funny and cool—will have no dragon to slay. Winning an unwinnable war is what makes someone a hero, whether that war is literal or not. Creating a slimy, obsequious villain is essential to draw a line in the sand and make the stakes as real as they can ever get. Want an example of what happens when you don’t do that? The Happening. ‘Nuff said.


Things Justified Taught Me About Writing


If you’re not watching Justified, you need to reevaluate your life goals. It is by far one of the best, most consistently good shows on television, and after six awesome seasons (including the one starting this week), it’s finally saying goodbye. For that reason, I’m pouring one out to my long-legged, drawling, whip-smart, deathly sarcastic, eternally troubled badass modern cowboy, Marshal Raylan Givens.

First, a brief introduction: Justified tells the tale of Raylan (Timothy Olyphant), a Kentucky-born U.S. marshal who is a living, breathing modern cowboy. He was chasing down criminals in Florida before he faced off with a crime boss in a crowded restaurant. The crime boss pulled his gun and Raylan shot him in full view of the public, prompting a huge investigation that got him into so much trouble he was reassigned to his hometown. Harlan County, the area where his new jurisdiction covers, is absolutely teeming with all kinds of criminals from prostitution rings to drug dealers. Raylan is put under the supervision of Art Mullen (Nick Searchy), and works alongside fellow Marshals Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel) and Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitt), whom he has friction with at first but they soon get along.

Meanwhile, things start to get heated when Boyd Crowder (Walt Goggins) blows up a church and makes trouble for his former brother’s wife, Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter) when he finds out she killed him with a shotgun in his own home. Raylan and Boyd grew up together as teenagers, so Raylan is assigned to get him under control, kill him, or bring him in. Raylan’s life also gets even more tangled up as he crosses paths with his former wife Winona (Natalie Zea), a court stenographer, who remarried but they both still show signs of being attracted to each other.

Sound juicy enough for ya? Well, let’s dive in. Spoilers ahead, as always.

Sharp dialogue can be the most effective way to get your work noticed. Justified has a lot of unique things going for it, but what I’ve always considered to be this show’s most valuable asset is the dialogue. The stuff that comes out of these characters’ mouths is nothing short of genius. When Raylan, Art, Rachel, and Tim get in a room together, you don’t need violent criminals to have a good time. These four engage in the most intensely awesome snarkfests you will see in your natural born life. The relationships they’ve built over the years make for some of the best scenes you have the privilege of watching, especially Art and Raylan, who are equally exasperated with each other but still see the value of one another. If you need the highlights, check out the Crowning Moment of Funny page on Tvtropes.

It’s more than just humor, though. Justified has made a name for itself by carving out beautifully intricate characters through words alone. Boyd Crowder would be just like any other drug dealing crime boss if it weren’t for that legendary silver tongue and trademark drawl. He’s constantly cool under pressure and unlike 80% of the criminal underbelly of Harlan county, he uses his brain to get out of scrapes more than he uses a gun.

Similarly, Raylan’s biggest asset is that he just flat out pays attention and listens to the things around him. That is why he’s such an unbelievable marshal who nearly always gets his man. He knows how to manipulate bad guys and how to either talk them down or trick them into giving him the info he needs.

This is tricky for writers. Every author, and aspiring author, has strengths and weaknesses. Some of us are awesome at dialogue. Others are awesome at descriptions, diction, spinning whimsical plots, or creating imaginative worlds. Stick to what you’re good at, but also remember that great dialogue from your characters can set them apart, whether it’s humorous or poignant or terrifying or heartwarming. It also adds extra layers to their personality if they have a particular speech pattern or a quirk, like how in my series Belial insists on calling Jordan “my pet” just to work her nerve, and gives these grand overblown Hannibal Lecter-esque speeches just because he likes the sound of his own voice. Make the words coming out of their mouths matter and make them work for you, not against you.


Know the durability of your villains. One of the things that I’ve always loved about Justified is that they always pick a season-long villain to antagonize the marshals. This is a brilliant tactic because it allows us to get the full scope of someone without allowing them to drag along forever like Percy from Nikita or Abbadon from Supernatural. We get to see what kind of threat the villains present, why they need to be stopped, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what their hubris is if they have one (which they typically do because they are human.)

My personal favorite villain thus far has been Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) because for me, she’s the most layered and three-dimensional villain of the show. Mags actually had good sides to her, even though we find out she’s incredibly ruthless and scary. Hell, Mags was so amazing the role won Martindale an Emmy, and for good reason. She was expertly used and executed, and by far the best female character in the show’s entire run.

Conversely, Justified is a bit guilty of overusing their villains too. Dickie Bennett (Jeremy Davies), Mags’ wretched son, is still alive and kicking when he wore out his welcome by the end of season two. He’s a despicable coward, but yet he’s somehow managed to hold on to his life despite Raylan having every single reason to wipe that slime off the face of the earth. Thankfully, though, Dickie was downgraded to a minor character in the recent seasons, so while his presence still induces headaches, it’s tolerable.

Managing your villains properly is a hard trick to master as an author. You can’t look at it on a case-by-case basis. You have to unfurl your villain like a scroll and consider both the short and long term effects of their presence in the narrative. If you make their presence too short, then readers question why they were there in the first place. If you make their presence too long, then readers can get fatigued with them. I can freely admit one of the biggest struggles in writing the upcoming Black Parade novel The Holy Dark is that I had a villain who just wouldn’t fall into the category of major or minor character. It took me forever to figure it out because there were so many possibilities. It’s important to remember that nothing bogs a story down faster than a boring impervious villain who lasts longer than they should. You have to know when to fold ‘em.


Make your characters earn their keep. Alright, I’m going to get a little salty for this lesson—I f*@king hate Ava Crowder. I won’t launch into my 3,000 word essay about why, but if you’re curious enough, watch the following video (skip ahead to 12:35). I’m sure people would debate with me why she’s supposedly a good character, but the number one reason I can’t stand Ava is because she isn’t an independent character who pulls her own weight. Almost everything in this show just conveniently gets Ava out of a fix rather than her getting herself out of her own problems.

For instance, her introduction is killing Boyd’s brother with a shotgun after years of abuse. Look, fine, I understand that because domestic violence is pretty much the worst, but he was an unarmed man sitting at a dinner table eating and she shot him. In damn near any other case, Ava’s ass would have gone to jail, but no, she doesn’t. She gets off scot-free, which irritated me when I began the show, but I let it slide with the hope that she would give me a definitive reason why she was taking up time on my TV screen. She then enters a borderline creepy relationship with Boyd, which again annoyed me but whatever she clearly had bad taste in men to begin with, but what tears it is that Ava is basically just coasting off of Boyd’s reputation. She’s his lackey, except she gets to sleep with him and pretend that she’s his lieutenant. They keep up this disgustingly long pretense of being in love and wanting to buy a home and get married until finally the season four finale has Ava being apprehended in possession of a dead body and she’s sent to jail. Finally, Ava will prove she’s worth a damn, right?

lana-kane nope

Ava gets in jail and immediately gets help from Boyd, even though it later backfires. Then she gets mad that he can’t find a way to help her, so she breaks up with him and starts to learn the pecking order in the prison. It turns out they have a drug ring inside the prison and the guards are in on it in exchange for sex. The girls play along, but Ava—who is such a hypocrite because she ran a whorehouse herself before getting in jail—is too good to trade sex for status and rebuffs a guard. She tries to make a deal with the local nurse to get the product in and out of the jailhouse, but the guard she rejected frames her for attacking him. She is later saved by someone Boyd hired to watch over her. Then, Ava decides to take out the head of the drug ring so she can be the queen bee and it turns out it’s some elderly woman. And they get in a fight. And the elderly woman kicks Ava’s ass for a while before she finally stabs her to death. The woman’s followers suspect Ava and she’s all but tied her own noose because half the prison now wants her dead.

And then the entire season-long subplot is rendered pointless because Raylan gets her out of jail so she can tattle on Boyd to finally send him up the river. That’s right. After an entire season of her skating by on pure dumb luck, she is Deus Ex Machina’d out of trouble. Yep.

There is little worse than making someone a main character and then letting them constantly get away with everything with few relevant consequences. People are flawed, yes, but bailing a character out over and over again is the quickest way to make your readers dislike them. Not everyone needs to be a badass, but they all need to earn their keep and solve as many problems as they create. This is part of what authors mean when they say “kill your darlings.” It refers to more than getting rid of pieces of your work that you like but isn’t relevant to the overall story. It means push your characters off that pedestal they are on and force them to be worth your readers’ time. You can’t babysit them. Make them matter.

Don’t forget to just plain have fun. I am about to introduce the most brilliant moment ever put to television thanks to Justified. If you take nothing else away from this blog post, then you must do me the one favor of indulging me while I set up the best scene in the entire series, and in any series if you ask me.

In our fifth season, we’re introduced to Dewey Crowe’s family—a bunch of horrible, ignorant, slimy, back-stabbing guttersnipes who come up from Florida after they find out Dewey has come into some money thanks to suing the marshal service (long story.) They pressure and bully Dewey into sharing the wealth, and in doing so, cross Raylan and the marshals’ paths as they try to get a foothold on the crime syndicate in Harlan county. The Crowes are led by Darryl Crowe (Michael Rappaport), and consist of his sister Wendy (Alicia Witt) and his unbelievably stupid brother Danny (A.J Buckley).

Danny has been an incredible thorn in the side of everyone he meets for just being stupid as a bucket of shrimp, a coward, and a bully all in one. He bullies Wendy’s son, Kendal, in front of one of their dangerous allies Jean Baptiste (Edi Gathegi), who challenges him to either leave the kid alone or face off with him. Danny shoots him in the back and then threatens to kill Kendal if he tells anyone, and then tries to kill Kendal after he accidentally lets Danny’s beloved pit bull run off and get hit by a car.

At the end of the season, Raylan finally tracks Danny down to try and get him to lead him to Darryl. Danny decides to have a showdown with sharpshooter Raylan by setting up the 21-foot rule, a legend where a person with a knife is good enough to take someone with a gun within 21 steps of each other.

The result is the most glorious thing ever created ever. Please enjoy.

Reportedly, this scene was so amazing that Timothy Olyphant himself simply could not stop laughing in between takes because it is by far the most satisfying villain death ever made. When this happened live, my mother and I both jumped straight up off the couch and gave it a standing ovation for over a minute. You just have to have fun when opportunities like this present themselves. Justified went for it and they knocked it straight out of the park. True, you do need a bit more context to fully appreciate why the aforementioned scene is perfection, but nothing beats just having fun in your work.

No matter what the genre, it’s important to have fun with your writing. You have to love it. You have to put yourself inside it and make your readers turn those pages, the way that Justified is so good it practically demands me to watch it. Be audacious. Be bold. Do risky things or edgy things and make the pay off so great that people are excited to share it with each other. Even if you’re not Stephen King, you have the ability to gain readership by making your work an experience they cannot get elsewhere.

I’m super nervous about how Justified will end—after all, this is FX we’re talking about and they don’t pull their punches—but I’m so glad for the ride. It truly has been a show that no one can touch. It has its own voice and style and I will miss it sorely after it’s gone. If you’re curious, tune in Tuesdays at 10 o’clock pm EST. See you, cowboy.

Things The Dresden Files Taught Me About Writing

No love potions, please.

No love potions, please.

If you are not reading The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, slap yourself in the face right now.

Then go buy the whole series and neglect your real life for the next 72 hours while you read them.

I’ve read a ton of books in my lifetime, but honestly, this series is by far the best thing I’ve read so far. And I’m not trying to blow smoke up Jim Butcher’s ass now that I’ve met him. I’m dead serious. For years, I only read a couple books here and there, and then my brother let me read Storm Front. I haven’t loved a book series that much since the Redwall series by the late great Brian Jacques. The Dresden Files have everything I love about fiction all rolled into one, but it’s also an excellent series to use as a teaching tool to newbie authors like me, and not just those who write urban fantasy. Allow me to explain how Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden has made me a better writer (I think).

Write honestly. So if you know nothing about Harry Dresden, then let me tell you that there’s a reason he’s a bestselling character. You know all those smooth-talking, handsome, sexy, absurdly powerful P.I. characters you read about or see in films? Yeah, that’s not Harry. He’s awkward. Like, seriously awkward. He’s absolutely terrible with women—as in talking to them about anything vaguely romantic or sexual, or noticing when they find him attractive. He’s completely dense about the fairer sex and it takes him ages to get over his instinctive ‘gentlemanly’ schtick as he starts to realize the bad guys are exploiting his nice guy nature. He is also underpaid, underfed, and an unrepentant dork of the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars variety. Harry Dresden is not the ideal man you’d think of when you think ‘bestselling urban fantasy main character.’

And that’s why he works.

Harry Dresden is the kind of guy you’d meet, aside from being a wizard. This is where the ‘write honestly’ part comes in. Harry, to me, is someone you could run into at some point in your life—someone who is modest and genuinely nice but also is a complete smartass to make up for his lack of self-confidence. He’s self-sacrificing to a fault, and he has real internal struggles that make him so very easy to understand and root for. He spends much of the series simply trying to survive in this world of nasty supernatural beasties, and the reason why he’s so popular is because he’s an atypical protagonist. Urban fantasy tends to have confident, sexy, alpha male characters, and while Harry has a small streak of alpha male in him, that’s not who he is. He is perfectly happy blending into the background and supporting his friends and family whenever possible. He doesn’t run around looking for trouble.

Authenticity can be one of the most powerful weapons for a writer. Sure, it’s nice to read about a badass character who is the kind of person we all wish we were, but I think the reason the Dresden Files series is so successful is because Jim Butcher chose another direction entirely. Harry feels genuine. He feels like an honest character, someone you could bump into at a bookstore or at a Burger King (which is far more likely). I think they will stand the test of time much longer than the sensationalized ones that hit mega-fame for just being attractive or brazen.

Support your main character with the best and brightest. If for some insane reason you don’t immediately fall in love with Harry like I did, there’s good news. Harry’s friends (and later family) are some of the best written characters out there. You can’t spit without hitting an awesome supporting character in the Dresden Files (who will consequently kick your ass for spitting on them). You’ve got Karrin Murphy, Harry’s best friend (and girlfriend-in-denial), a Chicago detective; Thomas Raith, a White Court vampire and Harry’s casual acquaintance who later becomes more (don’t wanna spoil it, it’s worth the reveal); Waldo Butters, a coroner and part-time unofficial physician when Harry’s dumb lanky ass gets hurt; Michael Carpenter, a Knight of the Cross armed with an archangel’s sword; Molly Carpenter, Harry’s apprentice who is a Perky Goth with a bit of a crush on her mentor; and Bob the Skull, an air spirit of infinite knowledge who is British and also a total pervert. Those are just the main supporting protagonists. I’m not even naming other recurring characters and the long, long list of Harry’s enemies.

The thing that’s so great about these characters is that their lives don’t revolve around Harry, which is something that a lot of other authors make mistakes with on occasion. Harry usually tries to keep to himself, but he’s such a great and lovable guy that he attracts other people to him naturally. He’d rather stab himself in the groin than endanger his loved ones, but the good thing is, his friends all know he’s like that and ignore him and help him out anyway. They have their own set of personality traits and flaws and agendas, and they all work towards keeping Harry alive and kicking, but they also aren’t afraid to keep him in check. As the series progresses, Harry comes into his own and gathers quite a bit of power and abilities, and his friends are very aware that power corrupts. He’s a good man and always has been, but he’s also quite oblivious to things around him that change him unconsciously.

Writing great supporting characters is tough. One can tend to get laser-focused on the main lead and forget that other people have their own lives too, and the Dresden Files is one of those rare series that remembers that we are only seeing pieces of the tapestry. You have to step back to appreciate the whole thing, and each character is like a new color on that tapestry. If you just have white and black, you might not get that big of a crowd, but if you’ve chosen your colors well, then your chances of making it into a galleria are far better.

The main character is not Jesus. What I mean by ‘Jesus’ is that he or she is not going to be perfect, and if they are, you’d better knock them off that pedestal stat. As I mentioned in my first point, Harry is awkward and starts off with this archaic issue of always having to save or protect women he meets, but there are deeper issues inside him as well. It takes a bit to get him riled up, but Harry’s temper definitely gets him into a lot of trouble, and he is fiercely protective of women and children even after he gets over his chivalry problems. His enemies have noted how Harry can get if you push the right buttons, and he is far less pragmatic when he’s angry than when he’s calm.

Anyone who actually has read the Dresden Files knows what I’m getting at. The main reason I decided to write this blog post was to discuss the idea that your main character, at some point in your storyline, needs to screw up royally and ruin everything. And boy, does Harry do that in Changes, and then some.

I won’t reveal what Harry does, but let me just say that the ending to Changes was so traumatic that I (a) literally SLAPPED the book after I was done reading it (b) I was so affected by Harry’s choices that I couldn’t even pick up the next book and read it for two whole months (c) I tried to read the next book and couldn’t because I was still too upset and (d) I skipped to Cold Days just to alleviate my pain. While it was hell for me, this is exactly what should have happened.

I love Harry. I love him more than I loved a book character in my entire life. And he does something so stupid that I had to take a break from my beloved wizard to deal with it. I’ve never had such a strong reaction to a book before, and it took me a while to realize it wasn’t a bad thing. As an author, I want my readers to love my characters and want the best for them, but it’s also important to frustrate your readers and cause them to be at odds with the main character if you want to do more than simply entertain them. I think successful long-running series are the ones that get beneath your skin, and nothing does that better than seeing your favorite character do something that ruins their own life, especially if it’s because they had no choice. Harry didn’t have much of a choice for what he does in Changes, and that’s why it was a gamble. I’m sure a lot of readers couldn’t take that amount of pain and decided to quit. It was by far the most controversial ending in the series’ run. But, in my opinion, it was worth it for the pay off.

If you’ve read She Who Fights Monsters, you’ll see that I subscribe heartily to the ‘your character is not Jesus’ mentality. Jordan Amador is a flawed woman and she makes some seriously questionable decisions that will (and already have) piss off readers. The tricky part is making your readers have an emotion, even a negative one, but not pushing them to the point where they give up. Inevitably, some of them will, and that’s sad, but it’s also the risk you must take in order to grow. If you keep your character in a safe little bubble-wrapped box, they can’t grow. They will never grow unless you let all the bad stuff in to force them to toughen up and learn a lesson and become better. I think an author needs to be sadistic at least once in their series (and I literally told Jim Butcher as much when I met him, and he guffawed and gave me an evil smile and a facetious, “Oh, I’m sorry!”) in order to make a character to last through the ages.

I’ve gone on pretty long about this series, so let me simply say this: the Dresden Files is an incredible run with a character who is too lovable for words, but what one should take away from this is that it has a little bit of everything: laughter, heart-wrenching sorrow, action, adventure, mystery, and horror. For me, this series is the first that I’ve read that has an actual soul. It wasn’t written to make a quick buck. It was real and solid and you can feel it when you’re reading any one of the many books. I can’t recommend it hard enough, to be honest, because it’s what I consider to be a game-changer. If you want to learn more about good writing and taking risks, give it a read.

Parkour, bitch.