Thursday, August 14, 2014

There’s Not an App For That...

            Amazon’s Shelfari service sent me an interesting email alert the other day.  It seems their algorithms had found a new character in Ex-Patriots and wanted to let me  know it was being added to the list on Shelfari.  What character had they found?
            St. George of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
            I’d just glanced back at the book recently, so it only took me a moment to figure out where they’d found this.  From page 89 in the paperback version...
            The soldier straightened up from the crouch he’d landed in, a move that reminded St. George of Arnold Schwarzenegger traveling from the future in the Terminator movies.
             This is why the algorithm also added characters like “boss,” Douglas Adams (mentioned in a conversation), and my college roommate John who I thanked in the afterword for his technical help on the book.  A computer doesn’t actually understand language and context.  It can go over the book mechanically, looking for specific patterns, but it can’t see these patterns in the bigger picture.  Or the bigger sentence, in some cases.
            This is also a great example of why I would never trust a computer to write for me.
            Yet a lot of would-be writers do trust their computers.  And other people’s computers.  They use subroutines and apps and websites to do all the hard work for them.  They never bother to learn how to spell—or even what some words mean—and just remain confident a machine will catch all of that for them.  It’s the literary equivalent of choosing to walk with a crutch over training to run a race. 
            And it’s hard to say I’m dedicated to being a professional runner when I announce I’ve decided to keep using the crutch.  People will have trouble taking me seriously.  And, speaking as someone who was stuck with one for a while, moving with a cane or crutch gets dull really fast.  For everyone.  Take that as you will.
            I mentioned last time that I was going to bring up some words every author needed to know.  Are you ready for them?  The words I should absolutely, no-questions know if I want to call myself a writer...
            All.  Of.  Them.
            Words are our tools and our raw materials.  Our bricks and mortar.  Our paint and brush.  A surgeon doesn’t use the same blade for everything and a chef doesn’t use the same spices in every meal.  A huge part of the reason we consider people to be professionals is because they know the tools of their trade.  If I want people to consider me a professional writer, I need to know words.  All words.  I need to know how to spell them, what they mean, and how to use them.
            Oh, sure, I can string some words together and argue that people will get most of it from context.  Maybe sometimes I’ll even get an emotional response (the one I was intending).  But this is crude, base communication.  It’s campfire stories that depend on a loud scream at the end to deliver their punch.
            Which brings us, as always, to the list...
            Here’s a bunch of words that sound kind of similar but all have very different meanings.  Some of them are different parts of speech.  Some of them are homonyms.  Some of them aren’t (which is even more embarrassing).  More to the point, a spellchecker will accept all of them as correct... no matter how I’m using them.
            As usual, every one of these is a mistake that I saw in print. They were all in news articles or short stories or books.  All of them were seen by thousands (or is a few cases, dozens) of readers.  In all fairness, one of them is a mistake I made in an early draft that went out to my beta readers and they all rightfully mocked me for it.
            How many of them do you know?

alter vs. altar
balled vs. bawled
Calvary vs. cavalry
censer vs. censor
cruller vs. crueler
explicit vs. implicit
instants vs. instance
manners vs. manors
past vs. passed
wrecking vs. wreaking
rational vs. rationale
packed vs. pact
bale vs. bail
raise vs. raze
phase vs. faze
lamb vs. lam
isle vs. aisle
pus vs. puss
            
            Did you know all of them?  Both sides?  None of these are obscure or unusual.  I’m willing to bet most of you reading this has used at least one of them today.  I think I’m already up to five or six.
            If I want to call myself a writer, it’s important that I know the tools and raw materials I’m using.  All of them.  Because if I’m talking about the rational the bad guys have for wrecking havoc on stately Wayne Manner while Alfred balled his eyes out...
            Well, I don’t look like someone who should be making a living with words, that’s for sure. 
            Next time, I might be a little late while I try to get these rewrites to my editor.  But once that's done, I’d like to talk a bit about how I’ve chosen to end my latest rant each week.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Choose Wisely...

            Very appropriate title for this week.  If you don’t know it, shame on you.
            This may be a controversial post in some eyes, but hopefully folks will read and digest before diving for the comments to make an angry response.
            On the first week of the first television series I ever worked on, I witnessed a minor snit between the line producer and the director of photography.  The episode was falling behind schedule, and the producer had decided it was the camera department’s fault.  He berated the DP for a while, questioned the abilities of the camera crew, and—in a very passive-aggressive way—drove home the need to pick up the pace.
            When he was done, the director of photography held up three fingers.  “Fast.  Cheap.  Good,” he said with a smirk.  “Pick two.”
            The catch, of course, is that it was a very low-budget show (which we all knew).  And no one was going to say it didn’t have to be good.  So the one thing it wasn’t going to be was fast. 
            The line producer fired the DP at the end of the week.  But the rule held true, and I saw it proven true again and again over my time in the industry.  I would guess that four out of five times if there ended up being a train wreck on set, it was because someone was trying to find a way around this rule and get all three choices.
            I worked on Bring It On, the cheerleading movie.  It was incredibly low budget.  But the director had a very relaxed schedule because, at the time, Kirsten Dunst was still a few weeks away from her eighteenth birthday.  As a minor she could only work so many hours a day.  So the film was inexpensive and good, but it wasn’t fast.  I also worked on a bunch of B horror/action movies that were cheap and shot super-fast, but the directors acknowledged they were making straight-to-DVD genre movies so we didn’t waste time with artsy composition or elaborate lighting set-ups.  We all went in knowing these projects weren't going to be winning any awards--they just needed to be competent films that would entertain people for ninety-odd minutes or so.  And they were
            Are there exceptions to this rule?  Yeah, of course.  But exceptions are very rare and specific by their nature, so I should never start off assuming I’m one of them.  Because we all knows what happens when I assume...  And I saw more than a few projects crash because someone above the line kept insisting they could get all three.
            The “pick two” rule doesn’t just hold for moviemaking, though.  It holds for writing and publishing, too.  We get to make the same choices for our work, and trying to find a way around that choice—a way to have all three—almost always makes a mess.
            Allow me to explain...
            I’m going to go under the assumption most of us here are aiming for good.  Yeah, some of you are shooting for great, but for today’s little experiment, that’s the same as good.  Which means one of my choices is gone right there. 
            So the real question is, are we going for fast or for cheap?
            Several folks decide to go fast, blasting through drafts and edits like a snowplow through slush.  But going fast—and keeping it good—requires lots of eyes and/or lots of experience.  And those aren’t cheap.  A decent editor is hard to come by, and the good ones aren’t going to work for free—especially not work fast.
            If I want to go fast, and I want it to be good, there’s going to be a cost for someone.  That’s just the way it it.  I know a lot of folks who write very fast, but they realize there’s going to be a big investment after that if they want the book to be good.
            On the other hand, I can decide to keep it cheap and good.  And this is when I really take my time.  I do multiple drafts, going through each one line by line.  No spellcheckers or auto-grammar websites.  If I plan on doing this for a living, then I need to be able to do this for a living.  I can’t pretend I know what words mean or how to string them together.  I need to examine each page and paragraph and sentence with my own eyes.
            Doing a manuscript this way could take seven or eight months—maybe even more.  But that’s how I keep costs down—by doing it all myself and being meticulous about it.  And, yeah, meticulous means slow.  It means seven or eight pages a day if I’m lucky.
            What combination does that leave us?
            Fast and cheap.  It’s one I’m sure we’ve all seen.  The people who aren’t willing to take the time or to make an investment.   Fast and cheap means I write one 85,000 word draft in a month, show it to my friend who scraped by with a C in high school English, run it through the spellchecker, and then put it up for all the world to see.
            That’s fast and cheap.  And odds are it’s not good. 
            Again, that isn’t an absolute.  There are a few books out there that managed all three.  If I choose to go fast and cheap, though, good is definitely the exception, not the rule.
            So be honest with yourself and choose your two.
            But choose wisely.
            Next time, on a related note, I’d like to blabber on about some words every writer should know.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

So Very Tired...

            Sorry for missing last week.  When I should’ve been posting this, I was at the San Diego Comic-Con, hanging out in the Geek & Sundry lounge and watching the Welcome to Night Vale panel (I even got to ask a question about writing).  And the G&S folks gave me a free copy of the Zombies: Keep Out! board game and a card game called Love Letters.   And Felicia Day smiled at me once as she walked past.
            Y’know, in retrospect, I’m not really sorry I missed last week.
            But I am finally caught up on my sleep. I was exhausted for a while there.
            Speaking of which...
            I write a series set in a post-apocalyptic world.  It was first put out by a small press that specializes in end-of-the-world fiction, and I’ve met a bunch of authors who work in that genre and related ones.  Needless to say, I’ve read a lot of these books and stories.  I’d have to guess close to a hundred in the past five years.
            I have seen a lot of people die on the page.
            I’ve characters die of disease or injury.  Seen them shot or stabbed.  Some have been crushed.  Many have been torn apart by zombies—both classic slow ones and the runners.  A few people have gone peacefully and with no pain... but not a lot of them. 
            On a semi-related note, for a long time there was a joke in comic circles that no one stayed dead except Bucky and Gwen Stacy (who’ve both been resurrected in recent years).  It’s one of the things that made some folks point to comics as low-brow, pulpy writing, because villains and heroes would always return with elaborate tales of how they’d avoided death... again.  The new term tossed about is death fatigue.  Readers are just plain bored with overhyped “deaths” that are reversed in twelve issues or less.
            What I’d like to blab on about this week is sympathy fatigue, also sometimes called compassion fatigue.  It’s a medical term that refers to when doctors, nurses, and caregivers have become so drained by the death and suffering they see that they just... well, can’t feel sympathetic anymore.  Constant exposure has desensitized them.  I had the (very awful) experience once of visiting the “death row” of an animal shelter, and the woman who mass-euthanised the cats and dogs admitted she didn’t even look at them anymore.
            Readers and audience members can feel sympathy fatigue, too.  After watching countless people die, the carnage just fades into a background hum.   It no longer carries any emotional weight.  How often have you watched a horror film with an audience and, after a certain point, people just start laughing? Characters on screen are stabbed, tortured, crushed, and decapitated, and you and your friends are giggling.  Maybe even cheering.
            How do I keep people from laughing?
            Let me get to that in a kind of roundabout way...
            A bad habit I’ve mentioned before is naming every character.  I think some time in the past an MFA professor or writing coach offered some advice about names and it went through a dozen iterations of the telephone game.  Now there’s a (thankfully small) school of thought that says every character should have a name.  That guy at the bus stop.  The cook behind the counter.  The woman in the leather jacket.
            When I give a character a name, I’m telling the reader that all these people are important.  There’s a reason she’s Phoebe and not “the blonde” or “the woman in the leather jacket.”  A name tells the reader to take note of this person because they’re going to affect the story.  If it turns out Phoebe has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot, it means I’ve distracted the reader.  And distractions kill the flow of my story.
            When this idea gets mixed with death, it creates a pattern you’ve probably seen before in stories.  We’ll get introduced to a random person, be told a bunch of character stuff about them, and then, eight or nine pages later... they’ll die.  Usually their death will be connected to the larger threat, if not the larger story.  Giant ants, Ebola, vampires, terrorists--whatever the actual protagonists are dealing with, these poor folks will stumble across it and be wiped out.  In some books, this can happen four or five times.  Introduce a character, kill ‘em.  Introduce a character, kill ‘em.  Introduce a character, kill ‘em.  Introduce a character... well, you get the point.
            The idea here is that I’m showing my readers the widespread nature of the threat, or perhaps the ruthlessness of the killers.  And it should carry emotional weight because I spent a couple of pages making Phoebe or Wakko or Dot feel like real people.  From a mathematical, by-the-numbers viewpoint, this is all good, right?
            Catch is, though, my readers are going to notice this pattern really quick.  Just like they’ll notice that I’m naming background characters who have nothing to do with the plot, most readers will realize I’m just introducing characters to kill them off.  So they’ll stop investing in these characters as a way to save time and effort.  It’s a defense mechanism.  They just stop caring.
            And once the reader stops caring, well...
            Perhaps the worst thing this means is that once my readers have been conditioned by all the meaningless deaths, they’re going to be numb to the important ones.  One of my leads will make a heroic sacrifice or that jerk supporting character will finally get what’s coming to her, and my readers will gloss over it the same way they barely registered the last six or seven deaths.  My whole story gets lessened because I’ve lessened the impact of death.
            Don’t get me wrong.  It’s okay to have people die.  I’m a big fan of it.  But I can’t use cheap tricks to give these deaths weight.  I need to be aware of who my characters are and what their deaths are accomplishing within my story structure.  If I just need someone to die gruesomely to set the mood or tone, I don’t need to make them a major character—or to convince my readers he or she is a major character.  And if I’m going to kill off one of my major characters, her death shouldn’t read just like the nineteen deaths that came before it.
            Because when I kill off someone important, I want you to care.
            Next time, I’d like to offer you all a simple choice.
            Until then, go write.