Keeping Score: July 31, 2020

I feel like I’m telling this story to myself, over and over again, with each outline. New details get filled in, new connections appear, with each telling.

And each day I get up and tell it to myself another time, adding more pieces.

I so much want to just write, just set the words down on the page and let them fall where they may.

But then I’ll be plotting out the second third of the story, and I’ll have an idea that ripples all the way back to the beginning. And it makes me glad I haven’t started writing anything more than snippets of dialog just yet. Because all of those snippets will likely need to change.

This story…It’s more complicated than other short stories I’ve written. Less straightforward.

It’s a five-part structure. One part setup, followed by three parts flashbacks (taking place over years and across continents), followed by a climax. And it all needs to hang together like a coherent whole, present flowing to flashbacks and then returning to the present.

I’m not sure I can pull it off, to be honest. I’ll have to do a good bit of research for each flashback, just to ground them in reality. Then there’s the problem of each flashback needing to be its own story, complete with character arc, while feeding into the larger narrative.

It’s like writing four stories at once, really, with them nested inside each other.

Will it all make sense, in the end? Will the flashbacks prove to be too long, and need culling? Will my framing device be so transparent that it’s boring? Will the conclusion be a big enough payoff?

Who knows?

All I can do is tell myself the story, piece by piece, over and over again, until I can see it all clearly.

Keeping Score: July 24, 2020

I’ve never written a short-story this way before.

I’m coming at it more like a novel. I’m outlining, then researching things like character names and historical towns to model the setting off of, then revising the outline, rinse, repeat.

So I’ve written very little of it, so far. And what I have written — snippets of dialog and description — might get thrown out later, as the outline changes.

I’m not sure it’s better, this way. I feel frustrated at times, like I want to just write the thing and get it over with.

But I know — well, I feel — that that will result in a story that’s not as good as it could have been. Like eating grapes before they’ve ripened on the vine.

And I do keep coming up with more connections between the various pieces of the story, more ways to tie it all together. Each one is an improvement. Each one makes the story stronger.

Perhaps that’s how I’ll know when to stop outlining, and start writing? When I literally can’t think of any way to make the story itself better?

How about you? How do you know when it’s time to write a story, and when it needs to sit in your mind a little while longer?

Keeping Score: July 17, 2020

Started drafting a new short story this week.

I’m taking a different approach, this time. For short stories, I usually just sit down and write it out, all in one go. At least for the first draft.

For this story, I’m doing a mix of outlining and writing. I jot down lines of dialog as they come to me, or — in one case — the whole opening scene came in flash, so I typed it up.

But the majority of the story is still vague to me, so I’m trying to fill it in via brainstorming and daydreaming. Sketching a map of where it’s taking place, thinking through why the town it’s set in exists, what it’s known for. Drafting histories for the main characters.

It’s fun, so it’s also hard to convince myself that it’s work. Necessary work, at that.

Because my guilty writer conscience wants to see words on the page. No matter that I’m not ready, the ideas only half-formed. For it, it’s sentences or nothing.

So I’m pushing back by reading a book specifically about short story techniques, using the authority of another writer to argue (with my guilt) that it’s okay to pause and think. That progress can mean no words save a character bio. That every story needs a good foundation, and that’s what I’m trying to build.

It’s working, so far. My guilt does listen, just not always to me.

What about you? How do you balance the need to feel productive with the background work that every story requires?

How to Fix: Fate of the Furious

I love the Fast & Furious movies. Yes, even 2 Fast 2 Furious (Roman cracks me up).

I’m not even a car guy. I just love the stunts, the emphasis on practical effects, and the way they juggle so many charismatic characters on screen.

And the way the series embraces heart, with the emphasis on family, and (especially) the tribute to Paul Walker they built into the ending of the seventh movie.

That ending was so powerful (confession: I cry every time) I never saw the eighth movie. Until last week, after binge-watching the others to put me in the right mindset.

And I gotta tell you: Fate of the Furious is the worst Fast & Furious movie I’ve ever seen.

(Warning: Spoilers Ahead)

What Went Wrong

Beyond the bad dialog (of which there’s plenty), and the numerous close-ups of characters staring into computer screens (which is exactly as boring as it sounds), Fate of the Furious has deep, fundamental problems with the story it’s trying to tell.

Cipher’s motivation (pause for eyeroll at the character’s name) is so vague you get the feeling the script just has EVIL VILLAIN PLOT written out for the scenes where she’s supposed to explain what she wants.

If she wants nukes, then as a hacker, wouldn’t it be easier to steal the Russian missile codes, then seize control of a land-based missile? You know, one that can’t be sunk or stuck in the ice? And if you can hack the security on hundreds of cars at once, why do you need an EMP to get into one abandoned base?

And what are the nukes for, anyway? She’s going to play world cop? The anarchist hacker is going to take on the job of hall monitor for world governments? Really?

Since her motivation is silly and her plan is vague, there’s no tension in any of the set pieces. We know she’s going to lose, because she’s the EVIL VILLAIN. With MAGIC HACKING POWERS. Yawn.

And what does she need Dom for, anyway? His role in the great nuclear football caper is to — wait for it — cut a hole in the side of a car using a tool anyone could use.

That’s it. That’s his vital job.

Oh, wait, he also has to drive the EMP into a base and set it under a sub. So hard.

It’s not like they could have, I dunno, suborned a shipping company, then had someone unload the EMP box under the sub, could they?

Since Cipher as a character doesn’t make sense, and her need for Dom isn’t obvious, then there’s no reason for us to get invested in any of what happens.

Yes, I know there’s a baby involved. The timeline on that kid doesn’t make sense, either, so my suspension of disbelief is blown there, too.

Finally, a special shout-out to Scott Eastwood, who is a terrible actor performing a useless role. Really, who needs him around, when we’ve got Kurt Russell?

How to Fix It

To fix it, we’ve got to reach deep into the engine of the plot, and completely rebuild it.

Let’s start with Cipher’s motivation, and work backwards from there.

Instead of wanting to steal nukes and play cop, she wants to steal a submarine as a broadcast platform. The plane she’s been using has to land periodically for supplies and to refuel. Not to mention it’s got to constantly calculate radar coverage for every country’s military in order to keep from being discovered.

Much easier to use a sub, and stay underwater for as long as you need. Surface only when you want to broadcast. There’s plenty of ocean that’s international waters, where she’d be legally free to be. And the nukes in the submarine would ensure world governments kept their distance.

So now we can keep the end set piece, where they go to get the sub. But now the sub is a specific means to an concrete end, not some remote-controlled toy.

And how is she going to steal the sub? Well, she needs Russian nuclear codes in order to make the threat of them credible (not that she wants to use them, mind) and she needs massive drilling equipment to punch a hole through the ice so she can get the sub into the water without having to move it off the base.

She needs to steal all of this, then, and then get the drilling equipment in place, across the ice, while launching an assault on a Russian base. Easiest to steal the nuclear codes while they’re in transit with the Russian Defense Minister. Only way to get the drilling equipment into place is to convert some big rigs into monster racing cars, and train a team to drive them.

She’s going to need a expert driver, and an expert leader.

She’s going to need Dom.

But how to get him to work for her?

Her first attempt is actually part of the opening race sequence. When we see Cipher, she’s introduced as just a local hustler, under an assumed name. It’s her that Dom’s cousin owes money to. It’s her that he races for slips.

Oh, and here’s where we gotta swap out the actress. I love Theron, but she’s not going to be believable as Cuban. So we get Halle Berry. She’s the right age, she’s an amazing actress, and we can play off her Bond girl days by filming her like she’s just eye candy early on, then revealing that she’s the genius-level antagonist for the movie.

Now we can drop the “oh gosh my car won’t start, silly me” scene between Cipher and Dom. Because we establish her as a hot racing badass, easily Dom’s equal. We establish that she’s willing to cheat, in the way she has her goons try to wreck Dom during the race. But we also establish her as having some honor, as she gives Dom her respect.

And we explain why she’s kidnapped Dom’s kid. That’s an escalation, something she does reluctantly, because her gambit with his cousin failed.

When she recruits him, we drop in a few extra lines to clue the audience into what’s happening, and why Dom is going to act the way he does:

Cipher: “Do it for your family.”

Dom: “I got my family right here.”

Cipher: “Not all of them.” shows video

But we don’t show the video on-screen. So we, the audience, are going to spend the next X minutes wondering what part of Dom’s family she just threatened. Brian and Mia? One of the gang? Another cousin?

That’s building tension.

Meanwhile, we have the assembly of the gang, all the prelude to Dom betraying his team. But it’s not an EMP in Germany they’re after. Instead, Hobbs’ team is supposed to be protecting the Russian nuclear codes from being stolen in St Petersburg.

That’s why Hobbs et al would get disavowed if they’re caught: They’re operating not just on foreign soil, but on Russian soil.

So this first set-piece now has higher stakes. It’s nuclear codes, not a random EMP. And it’s on the streets of St Petersburg, not some random base in Germany. We don’t even need to know Cipher’s full plan at this point, because there’s enough here for us to take what happens seriously.

Since we’ve eliminated the EMP and moved the nuclear codes set-piece, our second one has to be different, too. This one — where Dom faces off against his team — is where Cipher’s crew (with Dom) steal the drill parts they’re going to need. They’re taking it from a North Sea oil company, so it’s in the UK, which is why Dom can arrange a meeting with Shaw’s mother. And it’s the first time we see what Dom’s been building for Cipher: the first of the racer-modded big rigs.

We still get Dom versus his team, we still get to see how they can outsmart and out-maneuver him (using the harpoons). He gets away because a) the big rig is really strong, and b) Cipher hacks Letty et al’s cars so he can get away. No zombie cars, just a very personal attack on Dom’s old crew.

This sets us up for the confrontation at the sub heist. Letty and her team have to build their own big rigs, both to maneuver on the ice and so that they can’t be hacked by Cipher. We get a quip about how they used to rob those trucks, and now they’ve got to drive ’em.

And now our final set-piece makes sense, and is more interesting. We’re going to see Dom, Letty, and the gang drive these huge trucks across the ice, which they’ve never done before. It’s a race against time, as Letty and the gang try to dismantle the drill before it can punch through the ice and Cipher escapes in the sub.

Oh, and we keep the scene where Shaw takes out a plane full of goons while carrying a baby. That’s just magical.

And there you have it. Shift a villain’s motivation, re-arrange a few of the heists, and everything lines up. We have a Fast & Furious movie worthy of the name.

And while we’re wishing, let’s get Ryan Reynolds to play Little Nobody, ok? Set up his character for Hobbs & Shaw, and give Kurt Russell a break (because we don’t need two nobodies, do we?).

Keeping Score: July 10, 2020

Missed last week’s Keeping Score, but for a good reason: I was wrapping up the second draft of the novel!

I set down the final words in the last chapter later that weekend. It’s done!

Or rather, the current draft is done. I’ve still got some editing passes to do: for consistency, for character dialog, for general polish.

But this draft, which started out as minor edits and grew to become pretty much a rewrite, is finished. As part of that rewrite, it’s grown, from 70K to 80K.

Ditto the rewrite I was doing for the short story, which I also wrapped up last week. The story’s grown from a 3,000-word piece to something north of 8,000 words! Some of those might get cut away in editing, but it’ll still end up more than twice as long as it was before. I had no idea there was so much story left to tell with that one, until I tried to tell it.

With two project drafts done, I’ve mostly taken this week off. I need the space for the novel to cool off so I can approach the edits with an objective eye. I might leave that one untouched for a month or so, just to get some distance.

For the short story, I think I’ll start editing it this week. At least an initial pass for consistency and word choice, before sending it off to beta readers. Once I get their feedback, I’ll make further edits, to get it into shape for submission.

Meanwhile, I’ve started brainstorming a short story idea I had a while back. Everything’s still vague now, but it’s about dragons, and mentors, and loss. I’m excited to see how it shapes up!

How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X Kendi

Powerfully written.

Kendi lays out a set of definitions for racism, racist, and antiracist, then shows how those rules apply across different areas: culture, sexuality, gender, class, etc.

Along the way, he tells stories from his own life, using his personal growth to illustrate how following the principles of antiracism leads to also being a feminist, an ally of the LGBTQIA+ community, and an anticapitalist.

Because Kendi is so willing to be vulnerable here, to admit to his previous homophobia, his sexism, his snobbery towards other Black people, his hatred of White people, he takes us along the journey with him. And he makes it okay if you’re still only part way along the journey, because he gives you a path forward.

What could easily have been a sermon, then, becomes a conversation. A directed conversation, to be sure, one with a purpose, but one where both parties admit they’ve made and will make mistakes. It made me want to be better, to think more clearly, than simply laying out his current perspective would.

And his anchoring of racism vs antiracism in power, and the way power is distributed among (invented) racial groups, is empowering. By targeting power’s self-interest, we can push for lasting changes, not just momentary victories.

We don’t wait for racism to fade away. We don’t wait for my family to become less afraid of Black people. We first remove the laws and policies keeping the races unequal, then people’s fears will go away.

It’s a serious responsibility, but it gives me hope. Because it makes the work more concrete: Not asking people to hold hands and sing together, but winding down the police state. Investing more in schools, and less in prisons. Breaking up monopolies and pushing power and money into communities that have neither.

So I recommend this book to anyone, of any race or caste. It offers clarity and hope in equal measure, because we have to see how racist power works — and how pervasive racist ideas are, in all groups — if we are to dismantle it.