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. 
            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.

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 have 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.