YER PAL, SKIPP!

Making Wild Books, Movies, and Waves In the New Frontier


BOOKS, SHMOOKS… IT’S LOVIN’ TIME!
johnskipp

Dear gang --


Over the course of the last several days -- days spent laying out Parts IV, V, and VI of my now seemingly-endless series -- I came to a sudden realization: I was starting to bore the shit out of myself.

In the immortal words of Jack Torrance, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

So here it is, St. Valentine’s Day; and as I type this, I’m watching some grinning guy bring a hilarious flotilla of red balloons and roses to someone he’s clearly excited about. Meanwhile, who am I excitedly spending time with? Nobody. Not a goddam soul.

My best dog, Scooby Hamilton, and I are gonna go run with in about thirty minutes, and thank God for that. She is as delightful a canine companion as a human being could hope for. I love that girl to bits.

But Jesus Christ. When it comes right down to it, I am one stupid, lonely motherfucker, working so hard and so constantly that I hardly ever get out of the house, much less spend time cultivating the kind of close interpersonal relationships that might get me smooched every once in a while.

And I realize, these may be the last of my prime smooching years. Am I really going to throw them all away, just to make sure more craz-ass books get added to your TBR pile?

SO FUCK IT. I’m not gonna write any more this week. I’m gonna go out and kiss somebody. Maybe several people, till one of them stops slapping me and kisses me back.

And then I’m gonna start spending a chunk of every week being extremely nice to that person, from now on.  I think that’s probably a good idea.

I realize it’s probably too late for today. But it’s not even noon yet. So ya never know. Some people have New Year’s resolutions. I just made myself a Valentine’s Day one.

Ladies? The line starts here.

Yer freshly-reinvigorated, love-tastic pal,

Skipp

P.S. – Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody! HOPE YOU GET SOME! And that it’s good.


LESSONS FROM THE EDITING BAY (ON THE MORBID OBESITY OF GENRE FICTION, PT. III)
johnskipp

Dear gang –

These entry’s gonna veer off the literary path for a bit, to examine things from a cinematic angle. (These days, when not I’m not editing books, I’m making movies: my other full-time job.)

Fiction and film are two incredibly different disciplines, but what they share in common is the telling of a story, one moment at a time. Books do it word by word. Movies do it frame by frame.

But how they stack up, play off each other, and move forward draws on many of the same types of strategies. Only the form has changed.

Now, when writing/directing/producing – actually setting up and pulling off a film shoot – you need to prepare like crazy, well in advance.  It starts with the writing: figuring out exactly what needs to happen, and why. Nailing the moments on paper (or its digital equivalent).

Producing means making sure all the necessary elements are there on the day of the shoot, from cast to crew to location to makeup to the money to pay them for being there.

But directing… ahhh. Directing is conducting the orchestra, weaving all the pieces together, staging the scenes and then capturing them in ways that will play. And hopefully knock people out, when they see it complete.

On the day of the shoot – no matter what scene you’re doing – the absolutely essential thing is to get all the coverage you’ll need. You’re on a location you probably paid for. You’ve got all your people here. If you don’t get it right, you’re gonna have to come back, pay everyone again, and pick up what you missed.

This is a powerful incentive to plan your ass off. Think of the moments you need, from every powerful, workable angle. And be real clear about the shots you don’t need.  So that you don’t waste time on useless shit.

The point is to nail it. So that people go “Ahhh…” or “WOOO!” with satisfaction, instead of “Ohhh…” or “GAHHH!” with disappointment.

So let’s say we’re in the editing bay with my friend Andrew Kasch, extraordinary editor of Rose: The Bizarro Zombie Musical, and even more extraordinary co-director on Stay At Home Dad and every other motion picture project I’ve got going right now.

Andrew really knows how to cut, take what we’ve shot and assemble it in the best, smartest, most effective way. He’s a genius at making things flow.

So we’ve got all the footage before us, have watched every take of every moment of every scene. If we directed it right, we have a ridiculous amount of great material to choose from.

Way more than we can possibly use.

There will be a lot of shots that we will totally fall in love with. Often several, of the exact same moment. There are some actors, for example, who will want to give you lots of options: play all the possibilities, explore the moment, see what falls out of their character. If they’re great, you will be grateful they did so.

But you can only pick one.

A lot of times, the take you love the most won’t be the one that makes it. No matter how great it is, its primary job is to play well with others (the moments and scenes that surround it). If it doesn’t, it’s gotta go.

You pick the one that works best, in the service of the story.

And you have to be that scrupulous, every speck of the way. Keeping the entire story in mind. Making sure you never lose sight of the big picture, while attenuating every moment-by-moment toward the greater good.

And that’s exactly what editing books should be like.

Unfortunately, most book editors don’t have time for that shit. At major companies, in particular, being an editor is now largely an administrative function. It’s acquisitions and contract negotiations, making the sales force happy. They don’t have time for anything else.

I totally get this, and empathize like crazy with all the talented editors out there who WISH they could take the time to work with their authors, but instead are left praying that their authors are smart and savvy enough to edit themselves.

And then make do with whatever they get from the writers they work with. Cuz that’s as good as it’s gonna get.

The fact is, EDITING TAKES TIME, and a ridiculous amount of concentrated effort. Which is why I hope and pray, whenever somebody sends me something, that it’s so flawlessly executed that I go “YAY!” Arrange for the contact to be sent. And just sit back, gratefully basking in the warm glow of satisfaction.

With short stories, that happens a lot. With books, not quite as much. There are so many places for them to derail, if only for a moment. And yet – as in the shorts – every single moment counts.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, raises two of my primary arguments in favor of the short, tight novel.

1) Fewer places to go wrong; and

2) Conversely, a greater percentage of opportunity to get all those moments right.

I gotta tell ya: editing film has made me even more excruciatingly aware of wasted, side-tracking verbiage in otherwise-entertaining prose.  And that’s saying a lot. Cuz it has always made me crazy.

So I guess my point for the evening is:

WRITERS, HONE IT DOWN!

There are hundreds of ways you can handle a sequence. And thousands of ways to phrase it. It only cost Stephen King $25 in paper and typewriter ribbon to write The Shining, all alone in his room, while Kubrick had to spend $25 million and enlist an army. So clearly, that’s a much easier burden to bear.

The flipside is – as a novelist, whether long or short – you have to do all the things that a filmmaker does, all by yourself. You’re the director, the writer, the producer, all of the stars, all of the locations, the camera and lights and special effects and every other single thing that happens.

And you are also the editor of yourself, who needs to know when shit is going on too long. Who needs to design your story and your beat-for-beat scenes in a way that rocks the audience big time, and gets your dream across.

What you don’t nail, someone’s going to have to help you with. That’s why I’m an editor. And I’m fine with that, if the rest is sufficiently great. Going the extra mile is what it’s all about.

Just know that you can’t play the same scene – not even twice – without it sucking. Get it right once, and that’s all you need. You can try it a dozen different ways, and probably should.

But in the end, you gotta pick the one that kills. And leave it at that.

That’s how you get rid of the flab. And hone your diamond to a thing that cuts glass.

Hope this is helpful! ON TO PUBLISHING, TOMORROW!

Yer pal in the trenches,

Skipp


ANATOMY OF THE SWELLING (ON THE MORBID OBESITY OF GENRE FICTION, PART II)
johnskipp

Dear gang –

Yesterday, I started a line of inquiry that’s just getting warmed up. So let’s head straight into Round Two, shall we?

In speaking with a number of publishing professionals – writers, editors, and actual publishers, some of whom have been in the business for 20-40 years – I was repeatedly told that the move to larger books was market-driven. That starting in the 60s, mounting in the 70s, and utterly taking over by the 80s, the audience demanded longer, more complex narratives from its pop entertainment.

Books like The Exorcist, Jaws, The Other, and Salem’s Lot provided a sea change, the beginnings of the blockbuster formula for breakout titles with mass popular appeal. Despite equally formidable sellers at substantially shorter length – Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, for example – the die was cast.

And by die, I mean: that’s when short books begin to die.

Dean Koontz, one of the first guys to leap headfirst onto this fresh formula bandwagon, wrote an instructional book for Writer’s Digest just before launching into his own career stratosphere. It was called How To Write Best Selling Fiction, and subtitled Discover the Keys to Success in Today’s Market For Novels.

I read it just after finishing my first novel, The Light at the End (with Craig Spector), in 1984, while waiting for the book to sell. I found it an incredibly smart and clear analysis of what was going on. And though I haven’t read it in 28 years, I still distinctly remember much of its advice.

He encouraged, for starters, a sizable cast of complex, believable characters who represented a wide swath of the setting’s community. He recommended a brisk pace, steadily punctuated by memorable moments of suspense or violence that pushed the story forward unrelentingly. And he advocated fiercely for a mainstream transcendence of genre’s insular limitations, which he felt had kept him trapped in the marginal hinterlands of sf and suspense for far long enough.

I agreed with almost everything he said, felt very much validated by it. These were all things that I had tried to do. And when Light sold a million copies, hitting the New York Times bestseller list the week that it came out, in January of ’86. I was like, “Yep. That’s how you do it.”

All that being said, How To Write Best Selling Fiction remains the only Dean Koontz book I ever really loved.

Because – much as I hate to say it – Koontz was the first bestselling author I ever read who stuffed his books with redundancies so thick and heavily-padded they made my eyes wince, then wander.

Maybe not every time -- fact is, I made it through very few of them; and the books that I hear are his very best I have never gotten around to at all – but all I can go from is my experience. And my experience was this:

If, say, I met Father McClosky (probably not his real fictional name) having a crisis of faith in Chapter 3 – and he hadn’t resolved it by then– then I was pretty sure I knew his situation when Chapter 5 rolled around. So when said chapter opened with, “Father McClosky felt his faith was in crisis,” I was, like, “Wow. You already said that.”

And by the twelfth time it came around, I skimmed every Father McClosky chapter until he actually did something different.

And I found myself going, “Wow, again. If you trimmed the shit out of this, I might really like it. But as it is, you’re just making my head hurt.”

Because I was painfully aware of the air hose, uselessly conflating the narrative solely in the service of page count. Trying to make it look as big on the shelves as, say, The Shining: a masterpiece that needed no padding whatsoever, because it actually filled every single page to the brim.

And I went, “Uh-oh. This is where form exceeds function, and formula turns to pabulum. At least for me.”

Of course, I know there are a lot of devout Koontz lovers out there who will quite rightfully take umbrage at my characterization of his popular narrative style. “I love Koontz! GO FUCK YOURSELF!” they might possibly say. And in their honor, I will do so, just as soon as I’m done yapping.

But here’s my point: from that point forward, how big a book was became more important than how good it was.

And we have been suffering from this ever since.

The chief trickle-down impact of this (it being the Reagan era and all) was that all books – whether they would ever be bestsellers or not – had to attempt to conform to that formula. Somehow blow themselves up to Macy’s Day Parade inflatitude, just to warrant a place on the fucking book shelf. Their spine had to be of a certain width, whether the content matched it or not.

But that was then.

And this is now.

Now, bookshelves are disappearing. We’re down to Barnes and Noble, the slew of truly-noble indie stores that have survived, and Amazon.com. Giant publishers still have giant clout, but the Hollywood model they’ve chosen to emulate only has room for so many. The money is tight. The competition is fierce.

Meanwhile, there are stories that are dying to be told.

And people who would love to read the best ones.

But don’t have fucking time to waste.

MORE TOMORROW!

Yer pal,

Skipp


DUDE, YOUR BOOK LOOKS FAT! (ON THE MORBID OBESITY OF GENRE FICTION, PART I)
johnskipp

Dear gang --

Okay, let’s jump right in with a subject that’s weighed heavily on my mind for years: one of the main reasons, in fact, why this year I’ve officially made the leap from full-time novelist to full-time editor.

So let me spell out my arguments, in easy-to-manage bite-sized chunks. They’ll be easier to talk about that way!

1) I think most genre novels are too long by half. And that it’s a serious problem. One that – if properly addressed – could help excite tons of new readers. And seriously improve the quality of most books, as well.

But unaddressed – as it is now – it keeps much of the genres marginalized, by knocking the overall quality way down.

Here’s why:

2) I think, in most cases, their length is artificially inflated to meet a marketplace expectation that books should be 300-some pages long.

The problem is, most of them don’t have 300 great pages in ‘em. And so they’re forced to pad themselves out with all kinds of narrative and linguistic filler. (More on these in a moment.)

3) In my opinion, the tighter a book is, the better it’s likely to be. And I’m not just talking word-count here. I’m talking quality of word choice and idea.

As my friend Cody Goodfellow – one of the finest writers I know – has said, “Every word that makes it to the page needs to kill and drink the blood of every other weaker word.”

I know that’s hilariously Darwinian and ruthless. But that’s what great communication is all about.

And it’s sure as shit the soul of editing.

Let the best word win. The most apt phraseology. The thing that gets to the point, nails it hardest, and then moves on.

4) I’m not saying that all books need be sleek velocity rockets, stripped down to their most action-packed and exciting moments, relentlessly propelling the reader just as fast as their eyes and minds can go. Though that has a certain allure, and might make me want to buy it.

I am all in favor of such rocket-powered books – particularly if they’re aimed at something thoughtfully amazing – but not all writers and stories are built that way.

Nor should they be.

Some books need to take their time. Seem to meander, picking up stray details that pay off poetically in the prose, or add up in the macro-gestalt of the story. In other words, pay off.

Which is to say, they may seem to meander. But they’re just weaving a web, into which you will step, helplessly entangled before you even know what happened. That’s another great approach, requiring another remarkable skill set.

Point being: whether your story moves fast or slow – or best of all, cagily and seamlessly bounces between ‘em – you still need to maintain a gripping forward momentum.

Otherwise, why bother making it all the way to the end?

Which brings us to padding, filler, and useless fat: the psychic speed bumps that completely interrupt velocity, before we even get to the rocket.

5) So let me quickly spell out these sworn enemies of concision, which fuck up every book they touch. And – as the industry standard – routinely and daily fuck up tons of potentially far better books.

REDUNDANCY. In other words, telling us shit we already know, over and over, as if our attention span is so fruitfly-short that we won’t remember what happened three chapters ago if you don’t spell it all out again.

This is a form of velocity-killing flab I find so frequently that it qualifies as the Number One Killer of stories that might otherwise be good. The second it happens, I start to skim. Which is the death of the book, for me.

When I start skimming, I’m no longer reading. I am no longer gripped, from word to word. I feel like somebody is wasting my time, dragging it out instead of simply delivering.

That’s precisely where I put down the book. And move on to something else.

THE AIRHOSE UP THE ASS. That’s when you take a neat, simple, resonant premise – something that, stripped down to its essential ingredients and moving parts, could thrill you from beginning to end – and fluff it up with convoluted side-plots, red herrings, and characters that spend more time filling up space than actually propelling the story.

This is not an argument against layered storytelling. Layered storytelling is the best. I want a story to hit me from several directions at once, most of them unexpected. In fact, I demand it.

What I don’t want is a bunch of extraneous shit between me and the story you’re actually trying to tell.

Which is to say: the story you’re actually trying to tell is the only one I’m interested in. Side-tracking narrative threads might be interesting in their own right. But if they’re that interesting, maybe they should be their own stories.

And if they’re not, they don’t belong in any story. They’re like the personal asides a rambling, babbling drunk spills at a bar, which you put up with as long as you can stand, but ultimately either walk away from or flat-out tell him to cut to the chase.

It’s hugely important to know the difference between something that actually adds to the story, and something that digresses so mightily that you can’t even remember what the fucking story was.

Which might help explain – in combination – why so many authors need to remind you of the same shit, over and over.

Are we seeing a pattern here? I KNOW I AM!

More in my next installment, where I suggest some alternatives to these problems. And suggest why these alternatives might possibly work.

Until then, I look forward to your thoughts. And hope I have good answers at the ready.

Again: THANKS FOR STOPPING BY!

Yer pal in the literary trenches,

Skipp


"HEY! WATCH ME GO 'BLAH BLAH BLAH!'”, AND OTHER USEFUL PARTY TIPS
johnskipp

Dear gang –

HI! Welcome to my new blog! It’s been roughly seven years since my last one, The Hard Way, and maybe five since my monthly stint on Storytellers Unplugged.

And I gotta tell ya, my blog muscles are rusty as fuck. If I still wrote on a typewriter, I’d be up to my eyelids in crumpled sheets of white paper, blanketing the ocean of empty beer bottles and mountaining up like glaciers.

I wanted to make some sort of fancy opening statement. This, it’s now clear, was a bad idea. Like saying, Hey, wanna come to my party? I’m going to make a really long, pompous speech!

So I’m just gonna throw the doors open instead, and let you wander around in a brain awhile. There will be snacks. And did I mention beer? And if you think you smell something funny wafting in from out back, you’re probably right.

Meanwhile, we’ll talk about books – ones I’ve written, ones I’ve edited, and ones I had nothing to do with at all – as well as discussing theories about writing and publishing. Like, for example, why I think almost all books are too long by half, and the entire notion of what I like to call “buying fiction by the pound”.

We’ll do the same with film, and the expanding multi-mediaverse. How these things overlap – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse – and what we can do to get more of what we want, and less of what we don’t.

As a result, our old friend Stupography will certainly rear its dopey head. (For those who don’t know, Stupography means “media that makes you dumber, the longer you look at it”.) Which means we’ll no doubt periodically check in on the bumbling news coverage of our already hilarious election-in-progress, and the rest of what’s happening in our poor sweet reeling world. 

Mostly, though, it’s about having fun, and relaxing together, and sharing stories. Gonna conduct some perky interviews with fascinating characters. Show some crazy videos. Mix it up a little. If you have questions, odds are good I’ll try to answer them in an entertaining fashion.

And, yes, there will be a “Synchronized Drowning” event, broadcast live from Rhode Island in mid-July. You won’t wanna miss that!

Bottom line: THANKS FOR DROPPING BY! Hope to hang out more with you in the weeks and months to come.

Now I’m gonna go post this thing, before I chicken out and toss it to the paper penguins, little black and white Sharpee-scratched pockmarks on the tundra of my soul.

Yer pal in the decorative party hat,
Skipp

P.S. -- Would love some LiveJournal advice on how to make this page spiffy, minus the ads for shoes and insurance and such. And also how to make the type darker. I'm a newbie once again, and my techno-dotage is showing. THANKS IN ADVANCE!


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