Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Incredible Story-Making Machine!

                                                                                                        Cartoon by Grant Howett

Every year, the college where I teach offers a workshop for young writers. This year, I'm conducting a session for 6-8th graders, and this year I created a story-generating exercise called The Incredible Story-Making Machine. I've posted it here in case any of you would like to use it in any classes or workshops that you teach, free of charge. Feel free to adapt it to your own needs as well. If you do use it, I'd appreciate hearing how it worked for you.


Input data into this "machine" to help you generate a story!

1) Create a CHARACTER.
            1 Psychological Strength:
            1 Psychological Weakness:
2) Give your character three BACKGROUND details. Try to use these details in your story.
            Detail One:
            Detail Two:
            Detail Three:
3) Give your character a GOAL (what the character wants to achieve in the story).
            Character’s Goal:
4) Create a SETTING for your story.
            Where and when does the story take place?
5) Create an ANTAGONIST for your character. (This antagonist can be a person, a force of nature, a situation, etc.)
6) Create three OBSTACLES that the character will have to overcome in order to obtain his or her goal. (The obstacles should involve the antagonist as well as the character’s psychological strength and weakness.)
            Obstacle One:
            Obstacle Two:
            Obstacle Three:
7) Create a PLOT TWIST for your story, an unexpected turn of events that will surprise your readers.
            Plot Twist:
8) Create an interesting and exciting CLIMAX for your story.
            How does the story end?
            Does the character obtain his or her goal?
            How is the character changed by the events of the story?
9) Using the information you generated with this template, WRITE YOUR STORY!
10) When you’re finished, share your story with others!

Saturday, January 28, 2017


As I discussed in my last blog post, I wrote the official movie novelizations of xXx: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE and RESIDENT EVIL: THE FINAL CHAPTER. Both films came out within a week of each other, and now that I’ve had a chance to see them, here are some thoughts and insights.


 I was surprised that everything in the movie was in the script I had to work with. A few things were cut entirely and a few scenes were shortened, but what was cut had no bearing on the story or characters (for the most part), so no surprise that this stuff was left out. (And in my opinion, leaving most of those things out improved the movie.) Nothing was added. I was also surprised by how much of the action occurred exactly how it was detailed in the script. I expected some of the action scenes to be somewhat different because changes were made as the action scenes were blocked out and filmed. And while I'm sure that happened to a degree, it was much less than I thought. Several scenes in the script were written to create a build-up of suspense. Those scenes still exist in the movie, but they occur at straight-ahead action-movie speed. It was so strange to watch a sequence that was exactly like in the script go by so much faster than what the same scene felt like when I was writing it. I had to imagine those sequences much slower so I could write about them, so a sequence would go by in a few seconds in the film, and I'd think, "Well, hell, that took me a couple hours to write!"

As I mentioned in my previous blog about writing these books, I added two chapters and an epilogue to xXx: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE. The studio cut all the additional material. They also cut some of Xander’s thoughts, presumably because he’s more an action dude than a thinker. No hard feelings on my part. When you write media tie-ins in, the IP holder is the ultimate boss.


This time the experience watching the movie seemed more natural than watching xXx: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE. Even though I knew everything that was going to happen (mostly), I was able to watch the movie as a movie, while still mentally comparing it to the script and my novel at the same time. I didn’t feel as if I was able to watch XANDER as a movie in and of itself. The majority of THE FINAL CHAPTER followed the script exactly, with only a few minor scene trimmings here and there. Since Paul W.S. Anderson wrote the script and directed the film, it was no surprise to me that the movie was faithful to his script. There were two relatively major additions: one an action scene in the beginning of the film and the last bit at the end. If the first trailer had come out as I was writing the novelization, I could’ve guessed at the additional action scene (if not the specific details), and I would’ve placed it more or less in the same spot it appears in the finished film. (I SO wish I’d seen the trailer earlier; I’d have loved to write that scene!) There were a LOT of specific details that weren’t in the script that I had to guess at while writing – things like exact weapons characters used, how some of the tech looked and operated, etc. And some of the tech that was spelled out in the script changed a little for the movie in terms of appearance, if not in function. Some of the action was spelled out in the script and occurred on screen the same way, but a lot of specific action moves were added during filming, especially during hand-to-hand combat sequences. (I had to guess at a lot of the specific fight moves when I wrote the book). All I had to work with was the script, so while I was writing I scoured the Internet for every single image from the film I could find, including selfies actors took on set. This allowed me to get a better idea of what weapons the characters carried, how they were dressed, etc. This also allowed me to guess at one element that was dropped from the script so I could leave it out of my book. I was glad to see that all this work paid off, making my book closer to the finished film. One very minor detail in the script changed during filming, and the studio requested we change that in the manuscript. It was the only change they asked for.

For my book, I added a big battle sequence at the beginning (the battle in DC that happened between the last movie and this one). I was REALLY worried the studio would cut this, and I’m glad they didn’t. I added more scenes with Wesker and made him more of a bad-ass than he’s portrayed in this film. I added a chapter at the end to answer a question left over from the last film, and I added my own “Is this really THE END?” type epilogue for the fun of it. There’s an existential element to the story, and I emphasized that with Alice’s internal thoughts in a number of places. I generally enjoyed writing from her point of view. It was fun to write her as an ultimate warrior who also has a very human side. I also did my best to connect various threads of the script to the other films in the franchise and, in several cases, the novelizations of the previous movies.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how fans of these franchises respond to the books. Hopefully, they’ll enjoy them. If not . . . at least I had fun writing them. AND I got paid!


Want to check out the books? You know you do!



Sunday, January 15, 2017


I’m in my fifties, and back when I was a kid, we didn’t have DVD’s or Netflix. If we saw a movie at the theater and wanted to experience it again – assuming we couldn’t con our parents into taking us one more time – we read a novelization. I loved reading them because they normally contained extra scenes that weren’t in the movie, and best of all, they gave me insights into the characters’ thoughts and feelings – their internal lives – which provided a different way to view the story.

As a novelist, I’d always hoped I’d get a chance to write a novelization one day. Partly because I’m always interested to see what I can learn from working in a form I’ve never attempted before, but also because it would be a great way to come full circle and reconnect to the boy I used to be. I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to write not one, but two novelizations, back to back: xXx: The Return of Xander Cage and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. And while I’m far from an expert at writing novelizations, I did learn a few things while writing mine, and now I’m going to share that knowledge with you. 


Both movies were continuations of a franchise, and while I’d already seen the previous movies in each series, I watched them again to prepare. I wanted to immerse myself in the actors’ performances – their speech patterns and body language – but I also wanted to immerse myself in the style and atmosphere of their respective worlds. When I write a media tie-in novel, it’s just as important for me to capture the feel of the property as much as anything else. And since both franchises are action series, I also wanted to get a strong sense of the actors’ physicality. How they moved was just as important to me as how they spoke.


People often ask me how much support IP holders give tie-in writers. The answer: not much. The xXx folks sent some references photos, but other than that, all I received were hardcopies of the scripts. Both scripts had been cobbled together from various drafts (the pages had notations indicating which draft they were pulled from), but neither were – as far as I could tell – final shooting scripts. At least, they weren’t indicated as such.

Both scripts were roughly the same length and had basically the same proportion of action scenes to non-action scenes. Both had more detailed descriptions of setting and actions sequences than I expected, but there were plenty of places where there was little – if any – detail. Both scripts had their idiosyncrasies. One contained different versions of dialogue throughout: dialogue from the original read-through script and alternate (and presumably improvised) dialogue recorded during the cast read-through. There was no indication which dialogue would be included in the final film. Both of the scripts had repeated scenes located in different places in the script, with no indication where they would end up in the final film. Both scripts had scientific errors, so I knew I would have to double-check every technical detail as I wrote to make sure my books didn’t contain such errors. (It didn’t matter that these were novelizations. Any book with my name on it is MY book.)

As I read, I tried to imagine the films in my mind – the sights, sounds, and even the camera angles. I once read that scriptwriters always think in terms of image instead of words when they write, and I tried to keep this mindset as I read.


I wasn’t sure how to get started since I’d never written a novelization before. I decided to begin by typing in all the dialogue first. After all, I knew that the dialogue had to go into the books, and this would give me the opportunity to make decisions about what version of the dialogue to use from the one script that contained alternate lines. I figured this way I’d already have a chunk of each book “written” before I began. I was surprised to find the amount of dialogue in each script was almost exactly the same: 10,000 words. I have no idea if this is because they were both scripts for action films or if the proportion was due to some scriptwriting formula for how much dialogue a film in general should contain. Since I was contracted to write 80,000 words for one book and 70,000 words for the other, I knew I’d have to add 70-60 K words as I wrote.

I generated ideas for scenes that I could add or extend in case the scripts alone wouldn’t provide me with enough material to make my word count (which I assumed they wouldn’t). I was careful to come up with ideas that I thought would fit naturally with the stories.

Neither film had a trailer out when I started writing (although the xXx film’s trailer did drop while I was in the middle of writing that book), so in order to find out how the actors (or monsters) looked in the film – hair, clothes, etc. – as well as what the scene locations looked like, I scoured the Internet for images from the films, including selfies actors took on set. These images also gave me some idea what changes were made during the actual filming when I could see they were different than what was described in the scripts. Yes, my job was to novelize the scripts I was given, but as a kid, I always found it jarring when a scene in a novelization was significantly different than what I saw in a movie, so I wanted my books to be as close to the finished film as possible.


Drafting each book was very different. I had several months to write the first one, and only three weeks to write the second. In general, I find dialogue to be easiest to write and action to be the hardest. You have to carefully choreograph action sequences, and doing so makes my head hurt. But I’ve worked hard over the years to get better at writing action, and since the scripts mostly spelled out the action sequences to one degree or another, that part of writing the books wasn’t too bad.

Even though I didn’t get to consult directly with the scriptwriters, I viewed the process of writing these books as collaboration. To that end, I wanted to keep as much of the scriptwriters’ voices in the books as possible. So not only did I use their dialogue, I used some of their descriptive passages, not word for word, but I wanted to keep the details and narrative viewpoints.

Scriptwriters don’t always have to explain how characters get from Point A to Point B physically. They can just show the characters already present at a new location. So there were instances when I had to connect dots that had been left unconnected. And, as I mentioned earlier, I continually checked technical details for accuracy and made corrections when necessary. When various technology was used in a script – vehicles, weapons, etc. – I viewed YouTube videos to see how they’re used and hear the sounds they make, and I checked schematics online to get the vocabulary I needed to describe them. Occasionally, I even had to do some math to check things like a bomb’s blast radius.

For Resident Evil: The Final Chapter I added in new material as I went. Some of this was to strengthen connections between this story and those of the previous films, some was to provide answers to questions the script didn’t address. So when I finished that draft, it was more than long enough. xXx: The Return of Xander Cage was different. Because I had such a short deadline, I used only the material in the script for my first draft and added nothing. When I was finished, I had 60,000 words. I knew I had to add 10,000, so I created three new action sequences and an epilogue and added them to the draft, which got me to 70,000 words. (I wrote that extra 10,000 words over the course of three days, and if you think my mind was fried after that, you are correct.)

I had time to proofread and edit the Resident Evil book. I had no time to do so for the xXx book, and my poor editor had to take care of that job herself in the interest of time. It was the only time I’ve given an editor an unproofed manuscript, and it was an uncomfortable feeling for me. I hope I never have to do that again.

The trailer for Resident Evil: The Final Chapter came out after I’d submitted the manuscript for that book, and as I watched it, I had two main reactions: “So THAT’s what that looks like” and “Well, shit, that wasn’t in the script.”

I made a number of significant additions – along with some minor story tweaks – to Resident Evil: the Final Chapter. The studio only changed one very minor detail that had evidently been altered during filming. I added three chapters and an epilogue to xXx: The Return of Xander Cage. That studio removed everything I’d added, along with a number of places where I indicated what the lead hero was thinking and feeling during a scene. Evidently Xander Cage really IS all action.

I wasn’t upset about the deletions for the xXx book. That kind of thing is par for the course when you write licensed tie-in fiction. I think readers would’ve enjoyed the scenes, though. I was happy that everything I’d added to the Resident Evil book remained. I think (or at least I hope) that the series’ fans will like the extra material.

I’m writing this on January 15th, and neither film has been released yet. xXx: The Return of Xander Cage comes out on Jan. 19th, and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter comes out Jan. 27th.  I plan to see both, and I’ll be interested to see what differences there are between the scripts I novelized and the finished films – and what I learn from that. I’ll write a follow-up blog in early February and let you know. Until then, as Siskel and Ebert used to say, “See you at the movies.”


Want to read both novelizations? You know you do, so here’s some linkage:

After coming out of self-imposed exile, extreme athlete turned government operative Xander Cage must race against time to recover a sinister weapon known as Pandora’s Box, a device that controls every military satellite in the world. Recruiting a new group of thrill-seeking cohorts, Xander finds himself entangled in a deadly conspiracy that points to collusion at the highest levels of government.

As the only survivor of what was meant to be humanity's final stand against the undead hordes, Alice must return to where the nightmare began—Raccoon City, where the Umbrella Corporation is gathering its forces for a final strike against the only remaining survivors of the apocalypse. In a race against time Alice will join forces with old friends, and an unlikely ally, in an action packed battle with undead hordes and new mutant monsters. Between regaining her superhuman abilities at Wesker's hand and Umbrella's impending attack, this will be Alice's most difficult adventure as she fights to save humanity, which is on the brink of oblivion.


You can still pick up my horror novel Eat the Night. Peter Tennant had this to say about the book in his Black Static Review: “. . . this was a wonderfully entertaining work of fiction, but one that almost as an aside also explores the nature of reality and our ideas of truth, of how we are to conduct ourselves in the face of existential despair. And there’s also lots of blood, gallons of the stuff. I loved it.”