Thursday, August 22, 2013

Making It Count

            I haven’t babbled on about dialogue in a bit, so I thought I’d toss out a quick idea about that.
            And I thought I’d make it interesting by telling a story.
            As some of you know, I worked in the film industry for several years.  This let me work with a lot of storytellers of all different types—most notably (for this little rant) directors.  If the screenwriter is the person who creates the story, the director’s the one who decides how to tell the story.  Some of them were very good at this.  Others were not.
            A common flaw I saw in bad directors was an urge to make every single shot special.  It didn’t matter if it was a wide shot, a close-up, a master, or coverage.  Every shot required tons of set up and rehearsals and discussions and little tweaks and adjustments.
            Now, I’m sure some of you are saying “Isn’t that the director’s job?  To make it look good?”  Well, yes and no.  That is one element of the job, yes.  Another one is sticking to a schedule so material gets delivered on time (very important in television and the lower-budget realms), and another one is making sure the material that gets delivered is usable and cuts together well.
            So what I’d see again and again is unskilled directors who would spend hours on their first scene or two of the day, then come back from lunch and discover they still had 85% of the day’s schedule to film.  And they’d do this again and again.  I worked with some directors who’d do this on every day of a shoot.
            And this was bad for the final product, too.  All this effort was put into those first scenes no matter what they were, and then later scenes had to be rushed through and skimmed—no matter what they were.  So the final film was uneven.  It had too much punch were it didn’t need it, not enough where it did.  These guys were so focused on making each individual shot look amazing—no matter what that particular shot was—that they didn’t stop to think of the film as a whole.
            Enter... Krishna.  I worked with him on a Sci-Fi Channel show (yes, it was Sci-Fi back then) called The Chronicle and he was wonderful.  Krishna started out as a lowly crew guy (one of his first film credits is John Carpenter’s Halloween) and worked his way up, learning the whole way.  He had kind of an unwritten rule—I’m not even sure he ever put it into words.  “One pretty shot a day.”  Once a day we’d have an elaborate shot with the camera dolly or a crane (if we had one), or an elaborate one-er that involved lots of rehearsal.  Everything else would just be master-overs-coverage-done.
            I’m sure there’s a few film students reading this who might be muttering about the lack of art in television or making some snide comments about “real” directors, but keep these things in mind.  Krishna made his schedule pretty much every day.  The cast and crew loved working with him and worked twice as hard because of it.  Because he didn’t overload himself trying to do too much, he had time to make sure all his material fit together just how he wanted.  And he still had (on an average television schedule) seven pretty shots in a forty-odd minute episode.  That’s a great shot every six minutes, which meant he could use them to punctuate the moments where he wanted to have visual impact.
            And, like any rule, sometimes he’d bend it a bit.  There were days we’d do two pretty shots, or maybe we’d have an elaborate stunt or effects sequence on top of the regular pretty shot.  But these were always the exception, not the rule.  And his episodes looked fantastic.
            Many of you are probably wondering what this has to do with dialogue, yes?
            I’ve mentioned the word said a few times before.  Said is the workhorse of dialogue descriptors.  It does the job without being showy or flashy, and it’s quick and simple to use.
            I used to avoid said like the plague.  I went out of my way to make sure all my dialogue descriptors were special and pretty.  I’d actually spend time making sure I never used the same one more than once on a page.  And I never used saidSaid was for pedestrian writers with no skill.  No art.
            As some of you may recall, one of the very first critiques I ever received from a professional editor was to stop using so many flowery descriptors and start using said.  It’s advice I took to heart, and still follow today.   Hell, it’s number three on the late, great Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing.  
            That doesn’t mean I don’t use whispered or shouted or chuckled or any of those other colorful descriptors.  I just use them less often.  A lot less.  I save them for when it really counts rather than wasting them.  I want my words to have the most impact, and that means saving the good ones for the moments that count.
            So when your characters have something to say... just have them say it.
            Next time, author Thom Brannan’s going to step in here for a guest post so I can get some work done on a new project.  But I’ll be back the week after that to talk about Easter eggs.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Admissions Board

             This is going to be one of those posts that sounds a bit harsh at first, but hopefully you’ll stick through ‘till the end before posting those angry responses.  If you’re feeling a bit thin-skinned, maybe you should come back next week.
            Writing is tough.  It’s hard work.  I know this, because I do it for a living.  When someone tells me how easy and wonderful and fun writing is, I’m often tempted to point out that they’re probably doing something wrong.
            Instead, I bite my tongue and scribble notes for a ranty blog post or two.
            There was a point when I thought writing was easy and fun.  To be blunt, that was back when I wasn’t taking it seriously.  My plots were either contrived or derivative (some might say that hasn’t changed).  My characterization was weak and my motives were... well, whatever they needed to be at the moment to make that weak plot move along.  I rarely edited. 
            Perhaps most important of all... I thought I was a literary genius.  My stories didn’t just deserve Stokers and Hugos, mind you.  Once I got around to finishing them and sending them out, they were going to get Pulitzers and Nobels.
            Needless to say, my writing made huge leaps when I was able to admit a few things to myself.  I think that’s true of most people in most fields—if we can’t be honest about where we are, it’s hard to improve.
            That being said...

My writing sucks—This sounds harsh, yeah, but it needs to be.  Too many beginning writers just can’t get past the idea that something they wrote isn’t good.  I know I couldn’t.  It’s just against human nature to spend hours on something and then tell yourself you just wasted a bunch of time.  Why would I write something I couldn’t sell?  Obviously I wouldn’t, so my latest project must deserve a six-figure advance.
            The problem here is the learning curve.  None of us like to be the inexperienced rookie, but the fact is it’s where everyone starts.  Surgeons, chefs, pilots, astronomers, mechanics... and writers.  Oh, there are a few gifted amateurs out there, yeah—very, very few—but the vast majority of us have to work at something to get good at it. 
            You noticed I said “us,” right?  Lots of people think of Ex-Heroes as my first novel, but it wasn’t.  There was Lizard Men from the Center of the Earth (two versions), a God-awful sci-fi novel called A Piece of Eternity, some Star Wars and Doctor Who fan fic, a puberty-fuelled fantasy novel (which I haven’t admitted to in twenty years or so), The Werewolf Detective of Newbury Street, The Trinity, The Suffering Map, about half of a novel called Mouth... and then Ex-Heroes.  And I can tell you without question that most of those really sucked.  It doesn’t mean I didn’t try to sell some of them (we’ll get to that in a minute), but I couldn’t improve as a writer until I accepted that I needed to improve.

My first draft is going to suck—There was a point where I would fret over my writing.  I’d spend time laboring over individual words, each sentence, every paragraph.  I’d get halfway down the page and then go back to try to fix things.  It meant my productivity was slowed to a crawl because I kept worrying about what had happened in my story instead of what was going to happen.
            The freeing moment was when I realized my first draft was always going to suck, and that’s okay.  Everyone’s first draft sucks.  Everyone has to go back and rework stuff.  It’s the nature of the beast.  With those expectations gone, it became much easier for me to finish a first draft, which is essential if I ever wanted to get to a second draft, and a third draft, and maybe even a sale.

My writing needs editing.  Lots of editing—So, as I just mentioned, I’ve been doing this for a while.  Arguably thirty-five years.  Surely by now I’ve hit the point where my stuff rolls onto the page (or screen) pretty much ready to go, yes?  I mean, at this point I must qualify as a good writer and I don’t need to obsess so much over those beginner-things, right?
            Alas, no.  We all take the easy path now and then.  We all have things slip past us.  We all misjudge how some things are going to be read.  And I’m fortunate to have a circle of friends and a really good editor at my publisher who all call me out when I make these mistakes or just take the easy route when I’m capable of doing something better.
            Also, as I mentioned above, part of this is the ability to accept these notes and criticisms.  I’m not saying they’re all going to be right (and I’ve been given a few really idiotic notes over the years), but if my default position is that any criticism is wrong then my work is never going to improve past the first draft. 
            Which, as I also mentioned above, sucks.

My writing needs cuts—Sticking to the theme, if I believe my writing is perfect, it stands to reason all of it is perfect.  It’s not 90% perfect with those two odd blocks that should be cut.  When I first started to edit, one of my big problems was that everything needed to be there.  It was all part of the story.  Each subplot, every action detail and character moment, all of the in-jokes and clever references.
            The Suffering Map was where I first started to realize things need to be cut.  I’d overwritten—which is fine in a first draft as long as you admit it in later drafts.  I had too many characters, too much detail, subplots that had grown too big, character arcs that became too complex.  It took a while, but I made huge cuts to the book.  It had to be done.  Heck, with one of my more recent ones, 14, I needed to cut over 20,000 words.  That’s a hundred pages in standard manuscript format.  All cut.

My writing is going to be rejected –You know what I’ve got that most of you reading this will never have?  Rejection letters.  Actual paper letters that were mailed to me by editors.  I’ve got lots of them.  Heck, I’ve probably got a dozen from Marvel Comics alone.  And since then I’ve got them from magazines, big publishers, journals, magazines, ezines.
            But when that first one came from Jim Shooter at Marvel... I was crushed.  Devastated.  How could he not like my story?  It was a full page!  It was typed!  I even included a rendering of a cover suggestion in brilliant colored pencil.  It took me weeks—whole weeks, plural—to work up my courage to try again, and then he shot that one down, too.
            Granted, I was about eleven, and those stories were really awful.  But even good stuff gets rejected.  Heck, even with the list of credits I’ve got now, the last two short stories I sent out were rejected.  Editors and publishers are people too, and not everything is going to appeal to everyone.  I came to accept being rejected once I realized it wasn’t some personal attack (okay, once it was...), just a person who didn’t connect with my story for some reason.
            And, sometimes, because my stories sucked.

            If I can admit some of these things to myself, it can only make me a better, stronger writer.  It’s not a flaw or a weakness.  In fact, if I look at the above statements and immediately think “Well, yeah, but I don’t...,” it’s probably a good sign I’m in denial about some things.
            And that won’t get me anywhere.
            Next time, I’d like to say a few clever words about saying the word said.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Inside the Bottle

            I’d thought of making an I Dream of Jeannie joke about this post title, but then I heard that actor Michael Ansara had died and it felt like it might be in poor taste.  He was Barbara Eden’s husband for a while, and even played another genie on the show once.  Of course, he’s really famous for playing Commander Kang, arguably the Klingon (sorry, Michael Dorn), on no less than three different Star Trek shows across more than thirty years, starring in countless westerns, a famous Outer Limits episode, and also for being the voice of Mr. Freeze for the animated Batman and Batman Beyond.  In short... he was awesome and it’s sad that he’s gone.
            By odd coincidence, one of the first places I heard the phrase “bottle show” was when I was researching screenplays for Star Trek.  A bottle show was what they called an episode that used only existing sets and costumes, and often only the regular cast with minimal (if any) guest stars.  The producers loved them because they saved money, which also made them a great way for aspiring writers to get in.  Write a solid bottle show and they’d buy it just so they could have it handy for emergencies, or to help counterbalance two or three expensive episodes in a row.
            And in a way, a lot of the bottle episodes tended to be better stories.  Once the writers didn’t have the distraction of the “alien of the week,” they could focus their efforts on either bringing out new aspects of their cast or weaving a much more elaborate story.  By limiting what could be done with one aspect of the storytelling, it made all the other aspects that much stronger.
            And that kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?  Unlimited situations don’t have any tension.  If my characters have unlimited time to solve a problem, or have unlimited space to get away from it, my story isn’t going to be very interesting
            The thing is, being “in the bottle” could refer to any sort of restriction.  It could be a limited location, yes, like those Star Trek episodes or a good haunted house tale or the classic Campbell story “Who Goes There,” which most of you probably know better as The Thing.  Most of George Romero’s zombie movies are bottle stories, too, with people trapped in a farmhouse, a mall, an underground complex, and so on.
            But it could also be a time limit, that famous ticking clock.  It doesn’t matter what the character does or doesn’t do, the story is ending in two weeks, or two days, or maybe just two hours.  Many of Arthur C. Clarke’s stories involve ticking clocks (often on an astronomical scale, but they’re there)
             Laughable as it may sound, Speed is a bottle story.  The limit is actually the minimum speed the bus could travel.  That’s what created all the tension, because screenwriter Graham Yost came up with a very clever bottle for his story.
            If you’ve having trouble with a story, try sticking it in a bottle.  Rather than trying to make it big and expansive and epic, figure out how it can be tight and restricted and personal.  Slap a limit on it.  Confine your characters to a few locations.  Figure out some way to restrict their time.  Or even just stick to one viewpoint.  If I see and hear everything through Yakko, it means I don’t know what’s going on in Wakko’s head or where Dot was during that blackout.
            As I’ve mentioned before, one of the key elements of any challenge is that it has to be faced.  If I can avoid facing it because of a lack of limits—letting me get away from it, postpone it, or even massively overpower it—then it isn’t really much of a challenge.  And if there isn’t much of a challenge, there isn’t much of a story.
            Next time, I think it’s important that we all admit a few things.
            Until then, go write.