Monday, September 15, 2014

Monday? How is it Monday?

     What the heck happened to last week's post...?
   

      Okay, well... Thursday.  Inflation.  Really.
      Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Oh, My Nose!

            Okay, I think I’m pretty much caught up with things on my end.  Even have the next four or five weeks planned out.  If there’s something you’d like me to babble on about, though, please drop my a note down in the comments.  There’s a good chance I can fit it into my semi-themed schedule before the end of the year.
            That’s what I’m saying at the moment, anyway.
            Speaking of which...
            As I've said once or thrice before, good dialogue is everything.  We learn so much subtle stuff from characters by what they say and how they say it.  There are dozens of words for police, for teachers, for bosses, for jobs, and more.  Does Phoebe call Wakko her boyfriend, her partner, her man, or her boy toy?  Does Wakko think of her as his lover, his bitch, his piece of ass, his significant other, or his friend with benefits?  No matter what their relationship is, the words they each use to describe it tells us something about both of them. 
            One term that comes up a lot in criticism is on the nose dialogue.  I’ve seen it tossed out to beginners numerous times in feedback, but usually without any explanation.  I saw it a lot when I used to read for screenplay contests (and wrote it on many, many forms).
            At its very simplest, on the nose dialogue is when my character is saying precisely what they’re thinking with no subtlety to it whatsoever.  It’s the difference between “Do you want to come up for a cup of coffee?” and “Would you like to have sexual relations in my living room now?”  There's no inference or implications, no innuendoes or layered meanings—no subtlety at all.  It’s dialogue stating the obvious, and I've mentioned a few times before how bad it is to state the obvious
            If I have on the nose dialogue, it usually strips away some layers of character, too.  How people avoid saying things is just as revealing as what they’re trying not to say.  If they don’t have those nuances and habits in their voices, they start sounding like robots.  Or cartoon characters. 
            Not the good kind of cartoon characters.
            In real life, people beat around the bush. We’re coy.  We feel each other out, in a verbal sense, and avoid saying things directly.  We use metaphors and similes and white lies and more.
            Here's a couple things I should be doing to make sure my dialogue doesn’t get too on the nose...
            Casual English—I've mentioned before the difference between written English and spoken dialogue.  When dialogue follows all the rules of grammar it starts to get wooden and lose a lot of its flavor.  Sometimes there's a point to this.  We’ve been taught to expect that aliens, androids, and super-geniuses tend to have very good grammar in stories.
            For the vast majority of us, though, we get a bit loose when we speak.  We use contractions and mismatch verbs and numbers.  It just happens.  Look up above where I said “Here’s a couple of things I should be doing...”  When we don't, dialogue becomes rigid, and that's just a short shuffle from being wooden.
            Jargon—Somewhat related to the last point.  The idea of slang has been around for a long time.  Bram Stoker talked about it in Dracula over a century ago, and it's a safe bet printers developed their own special terminology in the workplace less than a decade after Guttenberg made his printing press.  Everyone has their own set of words and terms that gets used within their particular group, and these words spill out into most of their conversations.  In other words, doctors speak like doctors, engineers talk like engineers, and sci-fi geeks speak like Dothraki.  When my characters lose these basic subtleties, their dialogue starts getting on the nose.
            Humor—Many years back I was on a road trip with a friend and we got horribly lost on the way to meet up with some folks.  It was all back roads and single-lane highways.  When we finally found a sign I could use to locate our position, I discovered we’d somehow got about a hundred miles off-course in about an hour and a half.  No chance we’d meet up with our friends on time.  Possibly no chance of finding a gas station, leaving us stranded in the middle of nowhere.  He saw my expression as I checked the map again and asked what was wrong.
            “Well, the bad news is we’re lost.  The good news is we’re making excellent time.”
            We make jokes at the worst possible times.  Office reviews.  Breakups.  Traffic accidents.  Courtrooms.  Funerals.  It’s just the way we’re wired.  The more serious the situation, the more imperative that release valve is for us.  In fact, we tend to be suspicious or uneasy around people who never crack jokes.  Not everyone and not at every moment, but when there’s no joking at all... it just feels wrong.
            Flirting—Similar to the above, this is another fact of human nature.  We show affection for one another.  We all flirt with friends and lovers and potential lovers, sometimes even at extremely inopportune times.  It's not always serious, it can take many forms, but that little bit of playfulness and innuendo is present in most casual dialogue exchanges. 
            Like joking, it's impossible to flirt with on the nose dialogue because it requires subtlety and implied meanings.  Flirting without subtlety generally comes across as propositioning, which gives a very different tone to things.  If no one in my story flirts with anyone on any level, there might be something to consider there.
            Not Using Names—There’s an old mnemonic trick of repeating someone’s name after you meet them.  Great for real life, not so great in fiction. 
            If I use someone’s name every time I speak to them, it starts to sound a little mechanical.  Yeah, even nicknames.  Yeah, even in crowds. We just don’t use names that often.  Think of your last few conversations and think about how often names get used.  Watch your favorite movie and see how often people address each other by name.
            Show Don’t Tell—You’ve probably heard a version of this before, but I’m talking about it in a slightly different way here.  Yeah, it’s clumsy if I’m just using my narrative to describe what’s happening.  It’s even worse if my characters are describing what’s happening.  Especially when they have absolutely no reason for doing it. 
            To be clear, I’m not talking about when they explain what they're doing (say, trying to perform CPR or maybe cook dinner), but when they're just speaking their actions aloud.  If you’ve ever heard an old radio-show where the actors had to depend on just dialogue with no visuals, you know what this sounds like.
            This kind of clumsy dialogue immediately tells the reader that I’m not picturing this scene at all.  For screenwriters, this kind of thing is almost guaranteed to get my script tossed in the big pile on the left, because I’m clearly not thinking about what’s on screen.
            Talk with other characters—This may sound silly, but if someone’s talking, they should be talking with someone else.  Nine times out of ten, if a character’s talking to themselves, it’s on the nose dialogue.  All those monologues about stress, long ethical debates, Yakko psyching himself up, Dot trying to figure out how to get past the thirteen Hydra agents... odds are every bit of that is on the nose dialogue.
            I also shouldn’t try to get around this with a “sounding board” character.  Talking is communication, which means it has to be a two-way street.  If I’ve got someone who serves no purpose except to be the other person in the room while someone thinks out loud, then they’re not really serving any purpose. 

            And that’s six things I should be doing with my dialogue.  I don’t need to do all of them, but if I’m not doing any of them... well...  Maybe my dialogue’s a little on the nose.  Or maybe a lot on the nose.
            Next week, I want to talk about inflation.
            Until then, go write.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Plimoth Experience

            Very sorry this is so late.  I mentioned last time that I was working on a major rewrite of the new book which was due last week.  Then I looked at it again over the weekend and asked my editor if I could take another pass at the last fifty pages before he read it.  And he said I could, because he's very forgiving of my screw-ups since I own up to all of them.  Which is why I’m late this week.
            But enough with the excuses.
            Speaking of last time, it struck me a while back that I've never talked about why I end every one of these little rants with “Go write.”  Is it supposed to be a clever catchphrase or something?  Encouragement?
            Let me answer that by telling you a funny story about Plimoth Plantation.           
            No, it’s relevant.  Really.
            While I mostly grew up in Maine, I spent my high school years in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  Yes, the same Plymouth as the rock and the Pilgrims and the Mayflower and all that.  One of the big tourist attractions is Plimoth Plantation, a recreation of the original colony (with original spelling) complete with actors playing specific historical roles.  You can walk in and the colonists will talk to you, answer questions, and usually ask about your odd (modern) clothes.
            Every year in Plimoth Plantation is 1627.  It replays again and again, following the historical record.  Births, deaths, marriages, and so on.  A friend of mine worked there for a few years with her parents, and because of her age she was assigned a specific role.  Part of her role was getting married at the end of the summer to another historical  character, Experience Mitchell (ahhh, have to love those Puritan names).  The catch was that my friend was kind of interested in another Pilgrim.  So on “the big day,” one of her co-workers gave her a wedding gift in the changing room, a t-shirt that said...

            Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.

            I laughed when she told me about it, but the phrase stuck with me.  Mostly because it’s true.  If you talk to anyone who’s considered experienced, it’s because they failed or screwed up.  A lot.
            Now let’s jump forward a bit.
            Comic writer and artist Brian Michael Bendis has a new book out called Words For Pictures.  We happen to have the same publisher (well, where this book’s concerned) and the director of marketing slipped me a copy while I was at San Diego Comic-Con last month.  I read it as soon as I got home.  It’s great, you should buy a copy.
            Words For Pictures is mostly (as the title implies) about writing for comics.  But there’s a lot of solid advice in there for writing in general.  In fact, it was interesting to see that Bendis addresses a lot of the same points in his book that I have here on the ranty blog.  In pretty much the same ways.
            One of them is this.  To be a writer, I need to write.  I need to write a lot.  You’ve probably heard this before.  Many people have said the same thing.
            Here’s the part you probably haven’t heard.
            The reason everyone says to write a lot is that we’re all going to put out a lot of crap. 
            Tons of it. 
            I believe it was Neil Gaiman (in one of his books) who said that everyone has at least three great stories in them.  While I believe this is true, I think there’s an unspoken corollary there which is just as important.  All of us have lots and lots of bad stories in us.  Dozens of them.  Maybe even hundreds.  We have contrived plots, weak characters, awful dialogue, and  terrible structure
            I wrote a ton of bad stuff that none of you ever have—or ever will—see.  I spent about twenty years getting out all my bad stories and habits.  My first attempt at a novel (in third grade), Lizard Men From the Center of the Earth.  My Doctor Who and Boba Fett fan-fiction.  My middle-school sci-fi novel.  My junior high fantasy novel.  My high school werewolf-detective novel.  My college novel, The Trinity.  My after-college-moved-to-California novel, The Suffering Map (which went through eight or nine full drafts).  Plus a ton of comic scripts, short stories, screenplays, and I think even one or two attempts at stage plays.  Thousands of pages.  Thousands of hours of work. 
            Some of you may have noticed I’m in no rush to self-publish these, despite the constant assurances from some quarters of easy money. 
            Why?
            Because, pretty much across the board, they suck.
            My early work sucks.  It’s bad.  I spent days and days writing stuff that should never see the light of day.  I have no problem admitting it.  In fact, it was being able to admit it that let me move from being a random dabbler to a serious writer.  I dug through all the bad stories and found the good ones underneath.  Maybe even one or two great ones.
            Writing all those stories was my experience.  Whenever you hear about an overnight success or an amazing “first” novel, odds are that writer really has a long string of work—and a lot of failures—behind them.
            We accept that in every field of work someone needs a certain level of mastery and experience before they’ll be considered a professional.  Taking an auto shop class in high school doesn’t make me a mechanic, and taking a CPR class doesn’t make me a doctor.  Home Ec didn’t make me a chef, and oddly enough the White House hasn’t called me about any foreign policy decisions, despite my B+ in history. 
            And these people have screwed up, too, on their path to being a professional.  Ask your mechanic and she or he probably broke a couple cars while learning how to fix them.  Lots of doctors misdiagnose patients, and some patients die from these mistakes.  Your favorite chef cooked a lot of really bad food over the years.  Some of the better politicians are the ones who admit they were wrong about an earlier position they held.
            And we understand that in all of these fields, these mistakes are part of the learning curve.  I don’t get the success, but I get the experience.  It’s why it takes so long to become a doctor or a chef or even a mechanic.
            Or a writer.
            This is one of the reasons I harp on spelling so much.  It’s an easy-to-spot symptom that usually implies bigger problems.  If my manuscript is loaded with spelling mistakes and misused words, it means I don’t know how to use my tools.  And it also means I didn’t really spend a lot of time (if any) on my drafts and polishes.
            Y’see, Timmy, at the end of the day this is all up to me.   It’s not someone else’s responsibility to make my book good.  It’s mine.  If I can’t spell, have a weak vocabulary, poor plots, thin characters, flat dialogue... that’s all on me.  Which is why I asked my editor to hold off reading this new draft so I could fix some things.  Part of being a professional is knowing how to do all this stuff and, well... doing it.
            There’s an all-too-common belief that just finishing something means it’s good.  That the act of struggling to finish that first novel is the experience I need to call myself a good writer.  I mean, I made it all the way through to the end of a novel on my first try.  That’s a lot of writing.  That novel must be worth publishing and being read, right?
            But the truth is, the vast majority of first novels are awful.  The second ones are pretty bad, too.  The third ones are at least tolerable.  Ex-Heroes might’ve been my first novel that was published, but it was my seventh-and-a-half attempt at writing one.  And, as I mentioned above, I’m really glad it was the first one people saw.
            Because that junior high fantasy novel... man, that was embarrassing.  On so many levels.
            Next time, I’d like to hit another problem right on the nose.
            Until then... go write.