Thursday, July 27, 2017

Pixar's Rules of Storytelling, Pt. III

            Hey!
            I’m still getting caught up after SDCC (thanks so much to all of you who said ”hi” at one point or another), so I figured I’d take this opportunity to finish off Pixar’s rules.
            Next time—I want to talk about a bully trick.
            Until then, go write.
            Once you finish reading the rules.








Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Pixar's Rules of Storytelling

            I’m off at San Diego Comic Con all week, doing all sorts of stuff, but I still wanted to have something here (I’m assuming not all of you are going to be at SDCC with me).  So I figured I’d roll out something I’ve been saving for a special occasion...
            A few years back, a story artist at Pixar named Emma Coats took all the various tips and hints and suggestions she’d heard during her time there and boiled them down to 22 rules.  I’ve seen them presented a few different ways over the years (including a free poster available on Pixar’s website), but this particular one struck a chord with me—somebody memed them.
            (And I’m ashamed to say I don’t know who.  I first ran into them on a website, but an image search just turned up... a lot of websites.  So if anyone can figure out who actually deserves credit, please let me know...)
            If you happen to be at SDCC, please find me somewhere and say “hi.”
            If not—here’s some rules for you...








Friday, July 14, 2017

SDCC Schedule

            So, between the Writers Coffeehouse, a doctor’s appointment, the event at Mysterious Galaxy last night with Daniel Price... this week’s been kind of a blur.  I don’t have an actual post for you.  There is nothing to learn about writing this week.
            However...
            I did want to mention my San Diego Comic Con schedule.  This kinda snuck up on me in a couple ways.  I wasn’t sure I was going to be going, and my big plans for the weekend really involved putting together my Lizardman/Seraphon army for Age of Sigmar.  Geek thing, don’t worry if that last sentence made no sense to you.
            Anyway, turns out the folks at Random House had some clever ideas for early Paradox Bound stuff and they asked if I wanted to be part of them, sooooo... the Lizardmen will have to wait.
            Here’s what I’ve got for you...

Thurs 7/20, 1:00-2:00 – I’m doing a signing at the Crown Booth (1515).  It’s going to be cool. If you’re a fan you really don’t want to miss this, okay?  Seriously.  Please be there and hop in line.  It’ll be worth it, honest.
            And that’s all we’re saying about that...

Friday 7/21, 3:00-4:00 – Some random giveaways at the Crown Booth (1515). Odds of being given something increase if you tell them-- "The road beckons."  I’m not officially there, but I’ll probably be informally hanging out/lurking a bit if you had something you wanted me to scribble on. 
            Or if the booth folks handed you something you wanted scribbled in.

Saturday 7/22,  1:00-2:00 – There’s a cross-genre panel in room 28DE. I’m up there on stage, but so are a lot of better, classier authors like Sarah Kuhn, Charlie Jane Anders, Vic James, Daryl Gregory, and Pierce Brown.  It’ll definitely be worth it to see all of them.  And one of us may something wise and clever about genre writing.  Or at least funny.

Saturday 7/22, 2:15-3:15—All the folks from that panel are going to be under the sail for a signing (area AA09).  And Mysterious Galaxy will be there with piles of books from all of us, so it’s a great chance to get something scribbled in without having to lug it around for half the day (and to fill in those holes in your collection).

            I don’t have anything official scheduled for Sunday, so—to be horribly honest—I’m not sure I’ll be there or not.  I may try to sneak off with that life sized Spider-Man LEGO sculpture.  We’ll see how that goes...
            Hope to see some of you there.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

#NotAllWritingAdvice

            I’m relatively new to Twitter.  I mean, I’ve been there a couple years now, but there are some early-adopters who’ve been there for ten years or more.  I remember a while back when Ernie Cline finally got verified, and he noted that he’d been on Twitter longer than the Twitter verified account...
            Anyway, I follow a lot of writers, and most of them (and me, too) tend to toss out storytelling advice of one kind or another.  As best you can in 140 characters, anyway.  Sometimes it’s threads, random encouragements, simple reminders—there’s all sorts of stuff.
            Of course, like any statement made on Twitter, this advice is often followed by a response like “Well, actually...”  You’ve probably seen it applied to a lot of things beyond just writing advice
            In simple terms, this kind of response is people pointing to an exception to the rule in an attempt to disprove the rule.  And a lot of the time, they’re doing this to justify their own opinions and behaviors.  I don’t like statement X, or what it implies, so I’ll find one or two examples where X isn’t true and use it as proof that X is never true.
            Here’s the thing about approaching writing—or anything in life—with that kind of mindset.
            Vesna Vulovic.
            For those of you who came in late, Vesna was a flight attendant back in the early ‘70s.  I’ve mentioned her here once or thrice before, and a few times at the Coffeehouse.  Y’see, her DC-9 was bombed in mid-air back in 1972.  She was trapped inside the plane’s hull as it plunged six miles to the ground. 
            However...
            Somehow, through a near miraculous series of events and conditions, Vesna survived.  She fell 33,000 feet, was in the hospital for a couple of months afterwards, and left under her own power.  No wheelchairs.  No artificial limbs. No iron plates in the skull.  She was fine.  They did a whole Mythbusters episode about her fall.
            Vesna lived a very full, rich life for another forty-four years, just passing on back in December.  She ended up working as a political activist for most of her life. And she still holds the Guinness Record for an uncontrolled fall.
            So... this means one of my characters can fall six miles and live, right?  It really happened, so it must be believable.  Heck, I could probably say they fell a mile without even needing hospital time.
            Let’s be clear on one thing—there are always exceptions to the rule.  Always.  Anyone who tells you that something is 100%, never-question-it always wrong--especially in art--can be ignored.  Especially if they shriek “no exceptions!!”
            Here’s the catch. Exceptions to the rule are very rare.  Exceptionally rare, you could say.  That’s why they’re the exception to the rule and not the rule. 
            For example, maybe I can point to a dozen people who sold the first draft of the first novel they wrote.  But I can also point to the tens of millions of people—actual, literal millions—whose first draft submissions were rejected. 
            Yeah, there’s a double handful of authors who sold manuscript full-to-the-brim with horrible spelling and bad grammar and not the slightest clue about formatting.  There are hundreds of phone books full of people, though, whose manuscripts were tossed out almost immediately because of these same issues.
            And sure, we can point at a dozen or so people who got their first book sold because they knew the right people or were related to the right people or were sleeping with the right people. But there are also the hundreds of thousands, probably (again) millions of writers who broke in by taking their time and writing really good books.
            The downside of this is... well, none of us want to be in the majority, right? Nobody likes the thought of eventually breaking in, we want all the success and recognition now!  We want to be the exception!
            And, yeah, some folks have gambled everything on being the exception. That’s their entire business plan. I don’t want to take the time or do the work or try improving myself and my skills.  So I’ll latch onto anything that says I don’t have to, anything that proves the advice from that experienced pro is wrong.
            Okay. Fine. Just ask yourself one question...
            D’you want to go skydiving without a parachute?
            I’m willing to bet a fairly large-denomination bill that right now someone is itching to write a “well, actually...” down below that will explain how this isn’t the same thing.  Or that you can go skydiving without a chute. Or that there are two or three schools of thought that Ms. Vulovic maybe didn’t fall quite as far as all the reports said.  It’s just human nature. Some people need to argue the way you and I need to breathe.
            Even if it amounts to arguing against parachutes when you go skydiving.
            When professional writers offer advice, they’re handing out parachutes.
            So, here’s my bit of advice for you, and it’s one I hope you’ve seen underlying most of the stuff I’ve said here since the first post you may have read.
            Y’see, Timmy, the best thing I can do is assume I’m not the exception to the rule.  No matter how clever, how witty, how perfect my writing is, I should not consider myself to be the one person who gets to ignore all the established standards.  The absolute worst thing I can do is scoff at the rules and think they don’t apply to me.  No matter how vastly superior my work is, I should always assume I’m working under the same conditions as everyone else.
            The reason I should assume this is because the person reading my work is going to assume it.  That’s what I’m fighting against when I plan on being the exception to the rule.  My audience—whether it’s an editor, and agent, or just someone reading my story for free on their Kindle or on Wattpad.  All these folks have seen attempts to break the rules again and again and again, and the overwhelming majority of these attempts have been simply awful. 
            Remember—exceptions are rare.  Very rare.  The vast majority of would-be writers who break the rules do it for the wrong reasons and in the wrong ways.  So when I veer away from the rules, most everyone is just going to go with the numbers and assume my work is simply awful, too.
            Does that mean all these things won’t happen or can’t be done?  Not at all.  My writing may be so utterly, mind-bogglingly spectacular the reader will forgive and forget those atrociously dull opening pages.  The structure could be so rock-hard that no one notices the abundant typos.  It’s even possible my idea is so fiendishly, unbelievably clever that nobody will pick up on the fact that every single character is carbon-copied from Game of Thrones   Yeah, even my dwarf, my teenage assassin, and my Princess of Wyverns.
            A nice, simple rule of thumb.  If at any single point I find myself questioning if something matters—I should assume it does.  Does my main character need to be developed more than this paragraph?  Will a reader care that I misspelled forty or fifty words?  Do I need to make that part of the story clearer?  Should I bother to look up the exact format rules for this?
            My default answer for all of these questions needs to be yes.
            Again, I shouldn’t be scared to do something new, because if I break the rules—break them well, mind you—I’ll get noticed and rewarded for it. 
            Just remember a lot of people break the rules because they don’t know what they’re doing... and I don’t want to get lumped in with them.
            Next week—okay, I have to be honest.  The next few weeks are going to be rough for me, from a blogging point of view.  One week from tonight I’m going to be down in San Diego at Mysterious Galaxy, talking with Daniel Price about his new book The Song of the Orphans. If you’re in the area, stop by and hang out with us.
            And then the week after that I’ll be back in San Diego for SDCC. I’m doing at least one panel, possibly two (but I haven’t heard back on that one, soooooo...), and I think there may be a signing or two and some cool Paradox Bound swag we’re giving away...
            So we’ll see what happens next week.  As always, please feel free to make requests below.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Puppy Monkey Baby

            Pushing this one up to the wire, but it’s technically still Thursday.
            Somewhere...
            So, there’s an author I follow on Twitter (she wrote one of my favorite books I read last year), and she was recently grumbling about something she’d run across.  “I'm tired of the ‘everything sucks’ genre of fiction. We're all corporate drones and suckers for advertisements - I get it.”
            I remember sighing, because I knew just what she was talking about. I think we’ve all run into this sort of writing.  The big-idea, big-character moment stories.  Often—not always, but often—they’re stories that are so beautifully “real.”
            A standard element in this type of writing is when a character has an epiphany—either on their own or pushed on them.  A supposedly world-altering revelation about their life.  About life in general—everyone’s life.
            I say “supposedly” because most of them are the sort of simple life lessons most people have figured out by... I don’t know, the time we turn twenty?  Somewhere around there?  That it's better to be healthy and loved than to be cool or rich.  That sometimes we have to compromise our beliefs to achieve certain goals.  That big multinational corporations may have an agenda that doesn’t involve my personal health or financial prosperity.  That advertising is trying to get us to buy stuff.  Y’know, those sort of things.
            Minor aside.  Can you imagine if I was bragging to someone about having cereal for breakfast?  And—not to overlook this point—I prepared it!  With no help from anyone.  I didn’t even watch any YouTube instructional videos. I just grabbed that box, shook some Captain Crunch into the bowl, and poured on the milk.
            I even fed myself. With a spoon and everything.  I’m just that good.
            Let's stop and consider for a moment.  Is this really an accomplishment I should be boasting about?  That I should be particularly proud of?  It's like congratulating someone for having a stripper at their Las Vegas bachelor/ette party--so many people do it, it's almost taken as a given.
            And if this was the “big thing” you’d been going through two hundred pages to find out...?
            I can't help but think a lot of these moments get put in for one of two reasons.  Well, really the same reason, just approached from two different points of view.
            One is the kind of innocent one,  The writer’s including this amazing revelation because they don't grasp that everybody has these moments.  The vast majority of people assume they’re “normal.”  That everyone thinks the same way I do and knows the same stuff I know.  So if I make a sudden discovery about the world, it kinda stands to reason that nobody else knew about this.  Even if it’s something like “Whoa—did you know Stan Lee is in every one of the Marvel movies?”
            The other one is... okay, it’s the same one, but with a lot more attitude.  Now the writer assumes that nobody has ever known this.  They—and they alone—had the brilliance to spot this, and they’ve graciously decided to share their brilliant insight into the world with all those folks of lesser intelligence.  This is when it’s suddenly “Most people don’t catch it, but Stan Lee is the bartender in Ant Man and  also the delivery man in Civil War.”
            Of course, as I said before, normally they’re not talking about Stan Lee cameos.  We’re talking about priorities.  We’re talking about the industrial complex.  We’re talking about multimedia, like advertising and Twitter and random blog posts!
            *ahem*
            In a way, this is the flipside of an empathy issue I’ve mentioned here a few times.  I even mentioned it up above.  Sometimes, as a writer, I make the mistake of assuming that everyone knows all the same things I do—that they’ll get all my jokes and references. In this case, I’m assuming I found something all-new that nobody’s ever seen before.
            My lovely lady friend came up with a term for this a while back, developed after many years of reading for screenplay contests.  Simply put-- it's the moment when a baby discovers their own feet.  It may be the coolest thing that’s ever happened in the life of the baby, but for the rest of us... well, it's not quite as exciting.
            Yeah, sure it is for the parents.  But for everyone else?  Can you imagine having your friends call you over to sit and watch their baby giggle at his or her toes for two hours?
            When a character figures out it's more important to spend time with their loved ones than at work, they're discovering their own feet.  If someone comes to the jaw-dropping conclusion that they've messed up a life that was clearly messed up on page one, it's their own toes they're staring at.  When someone realizes that bad things happen to good people and most other people don’t even care--OH MY GOD!  The toes wiggle when I think about wiggling them!!!!
            This is one of the reasons I’m always encouraging people to read. I need to read in my genre, yeah, but outside it, too.  All those best sellers and the bad stuff.  I need to know what stories have been told, how they were told, and I need to have a good grasp of how well they’re know.  This isn’t the 1820s anymore—it’s tough to be a writer and be disconnected from the world.
            Because I really don’t want my big reveal to be that Ford’s top priority is selling trucks...
            Next week, I’d like to give a belated sendoff to my favorite stewardess.
            No, not a flight attendant.  Back then, alas, she was considered a stewardess.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

In This Club We Have One Rule...

            I wanted to talk about writing advice a bit.  The good stuff and the bad stuff.  I just did a few months ago, yeah, but this is a little different. 
            This time, I want to talk with you about taking those words to heart... or not.
            Here’s an ugly truth about writing advice. 
            I’d guess a good 40% of it is just people telling you what worked for them.  Here’s how I do characters, here’s how I do dialogue, here’s how I plot, here’s how I write fifty pages a week.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with this advice—it clearly worked for that particular professional.  It’s just a presentation problem.  It assumes every writer and project is like every other writer and project.
            Still, that’s better than the 50% of people who are bellowing advice that hasn’t worked for them.  The only thing sketchier than someone  with a lot of credits insisting “this is how it’s done” is somebody with no credits insisting “this is how it’s done.”  Or somebody who had a credit twenty-five years ago.
            What? A twenty-five year old credit should still count?  I mean, on one level I agree with you—it’s a credit.  But it’s a credit from another era.  Seriously.  Johannes Guttenberg may be the father of printing, but he’s not going to be much help if my Brother 5-in-1 gets a paper jam.
            Let me put it in these terms.  Let’s say we were talking about computers. Let’s say I knew someone who’d been a kinda-known name in computers twenty-five years ago. And hadn’t really done anything since.  How seriously would you take their advice about computer engineering?  Or programming?  Or breaking into the industry?
            Actually, I take it back. There’s one thing worse than somebody with no credits insisting “this is how it’s done.”   It’s when somebody with no credit wants money to tell you “this is how it’s done.”
            Anyway, that leaves us with, what... 10%, roughly?  Math isn’t my thing.  What’s that last ten percent of advice?
            You’ve probably seen it. It’s the folks saying “try this.”  Or maybe they’re a couple of provisos before or after their statements.  I’ve mentioned the idea of this here a few times.  It’s called the Golden Rule.
            No, not that Golden Rule. I made this one up.  The Golden Rule is one of the core things I try to put out with all the writing advice I offer here.  It goes something like this.

What works for me probably won't work for you.
And it definitely won't work for that guy.

            You see, writing is a very personal thing.  In the same way I can’t say “urban fantasy is the best genre,” I also can’t say “writing 500 words before lunch every day and another 500 words after is the key to success.”  Because it’s not. 
            Oh, it might be for some people, sure, but it isn’t for everybody.  There are people who write in the afternoon.  There are people who only write in the morning.  Some like massive outlines, some like very minimal ones.  If you ask a dozen different writers how to do something—anything—you’re going to get a dozen different answers.  Because we’ve all found what works for us.  That's the golden rule.
            There’s a joke I’ve used  a couple times to explain this.  If the only time you can write is Sunday afternoons, and the only way you can write is standing on your head, wearing that “enhancing” corset you bought at the Ren Faire last summer, using voice-recognition software, but doing this lets you write 15,000 words...
            Well, that’s fantastic.  Seriously.  I know professional, full-time writers who don’t always get 15,000 words down a week.  I can maybe hit those numbers once a month.  If that’s what it takes for you to do it, and you can do it consistently—power to you!
            See, at the end of the day, how I write my book doesn’t matter.  Perhaps I write first thing in the morning or maybe late into the night.  I could work exclusively on a laptop, on my phone, on a typewriter, or on yellow legal pads with a #2 pencil.  Maybe I reward myself after every thousand words with half an hour of reading, a video game, twenty minutes of exercise, booze, sex, whatever.  Do I do one long, constantly reworked draft or two dozen drafts each with a few minute, specific changes?
            However I do it, that part of writing doesn’t matter.  As long as I’m working, I’m doing fine.  People can insist whatever they want, but at the end of the day it always comes down to the golden rule.

What works for me probably won't work for you.
And it definitely won't work for that guy.

             I don’t write books the way Victoria Schwab does.  She doesn’t write books the way Andy Weir does.  Andy doesn’t write like Sarah Kuhn.  Sarah doesn’t write like Chuck Wendig.  He doesn’t write the same way as Kristi Charish.  And she doesn’t write like me.
            And none of us write like you. We don’t have your habits, your preferences, your thoughts, your goals.  We’re not telling your story your way.
            Which is why you shouldn’t worry about writing like us. Sift through all the hints and tips.   Learn which ones do and don’t work for you.  Don't worry if four of the six people above do X, find out if X works for you.  Find your way to write.
            And if your way happens to involve a corset... hey, who am I to judge?
            Next time... I want to talk about babies.  I hate those guys.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Basic Geometry

            I wanted to blather on about challenges  today. Simple, basic challenges.  Well, a type that should be simple, but still gets messed up sometimes.             
            That challenge is called choice.
            We’ve all used or come across choice.  As I said, it’s probably one of the easiest challenges a writer can create.  Character A has to decide between two options (B and C).  It’s s triangle.
            Sometimes these choices are tough. Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes A is pursuing B, but it’s clear C should be the priority.  Making the decision between B and C provides the conflict, the drama, and maybe even some comedy depending on how it’s done.  There can also be an opportunity for some character growth in there.
            You’ve probably heard of romantic triangles.  It’s one of the most common ones out there.  A is dating B, but then comes to realize C is their real soul mate.  Maybe Dot is engaged to an antagonistic jock, but can’t help falling for the free-spirited caterer.  The standard in most romantic triangles is that B is very clearly not the right person for A, while C is so blatantly right it’s almost frustrating.
            Another common one is “work vs. family.”  Will Wakko choose to spend the weekend with his family or working on the MacGuffin account?  There are a few versions of this.  Sometimes it’s family instead of friends.  It’s usually work on the other leg, but it could be any sort of mild obsession or compulsion.  Am I choosing my best friend or this treasure map?  My pets or my new apartment?
             Triangles are fantastic because they’re a very simple plot and framework that we can all immediately relate to and understand.  They make for easy subplots in novels, and in short stories or screenplays they can almost be the entire story.  This is one of the reasons we keep seeing them again and again and again.
            However...
            Simple as they are, there are still a few basic rules to a triangle.
            Actually, that’s a lie. There’s only one rule.  Triangles are so simple there’s just one rule to making them work.
            We have a triangle because there’s A, B, and C.  Three points.  If I toss out one of these—let’s say B—then I’ve only got two points. That’s a line.  Our structure is just A to C now.   
            Let me expand on the examples above...
            Wakko is so obsessed with landing the MacGuffin account that he misses his daughter’s karate tournament, his son’s piano recital, and the anniversary party his husband arranged for their best friends.  But Wakko keeps at it because this promotion will put him in a key position for the next account, and that’s the big one that’s going to put him in the corner office and change their lives. 
            The stress of all this is too much, though, and Wakko snaps.  He screams at a client.  When he’s called on it, he even yells at his boss and gets fired.  But after a week at home with his kids and husband, he realizes this is where he was supposed to be all along, with his family.  They may not be filthy rich, but the film ends with all of them happy together.
            Or what about this one.  Dot’s a painter-turned-graphic designer engaged to a square-jawed former quarterback turned TV producer. He’s crass, he’s mean to every waiter, and he undresses every woman he meets with his eyes—even when Dot’s right there with him.
            Then she meets their potential caterer, a free spirit who does watercolors and incorporates his talents into his food.  They talk art.  They talk careers.  They have a casual lunch and talk more art.  When Dot comes home early one night and catches her fiancĂ© with his secretary (who he’s decided to marry instead for... reasons), she finds herself calling the caterer.  And suddenly, Dot’s heart is fluttering like it hasn’t in years as she realizes this is the person she’s supposed to be with.
            Do both of those examples feel a little... lacking?
            Y’see, Timmy, what happened in both of them was that character A never really did anything.  Once B was eliminated, there wasn’t anywhere to go, story-wise, except with C.   Character A didn’t make a choice, they just went with what was left. 
            Make sense?
             B and C both have to remain valid choices.  My story has to maintain that triangle up until the moment of choice.  B can still be a bad choice, but A has to actively realize that and then decide to go with C instead.  Once that’s happened, I can get B out of the picture, but not until then.
            If not, ending up with C isn’t a triumph.  It’s a consolation prize.  Which I’d guess isn’t terribly satisfying for C.
            Or for the readers.
            Next time....  Next time’s going to be golden, that I can promise you.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

If You Can’t Say Something Nice...

            I wanted to prattle on for a minute about a part of dialogue we ignore a lot. The unspoken part, so to speak.  Well, not so to speak.  Literally, the unspoken part.
            Wait... can something be literally unspoken in prose?
            Anyway, as I so often do... I’d like to tell you a little story.
            I was working on a movie once which had a pretty standard romantic subplot. Estranged husband and wife, pushed apart by work (he wants to stay small town, she wants to go national), and now brought back together again during a crisis.  Like so many of the lower-budget things I tended to be on, we ended up running short on time. The place they decided to tighten things up was in the reconciliation/we-still-love-each-other scene.  You know that scene, right? It’s in a bunch of stories and a lot of movies.
            The director and the two actors huddled together and started talking about how they could trim the page and a half scene without, y’know, ruining it. Were there phrases that could be combined? Maybe words that could be swapped out for... shorter words?
            At which point the lead actor suggested... “What if we didn’t say anything?”
            Which is what’s in the final movie.  You can watch it and see the one minute, one-shot scene. The two of the working together in the lab, falling right back into old habits, giving each other little appreciative glances...
            And never saying a word.
            Some folks are intent on picking “better” words and elaborate. meticulous phrasing. That gets spread as kind of a gospel.  We’ve all seen it—the people who’ll never use five words if it can be said in ten.  If there’s a longer, more roundabout way to talk about something, they’ll find it.
            But I don’t need to do this.  I’ve talked about the “less is more” idea a few times here.  A fair amount of the time I can do just as much (or more) with just a few words.  Subtext can get a point across so much stronger than the spoken (or shouted) word, and sometimes that subtext doesn’t even need dialogue.
            I know this sounds kinda weird and contradictory. I think I’ve said here two or three or forty-four times that dialogue is one of the key ways we show character, so it just feels unnatural to have characters not say anything.  Especially when there are so many cool lines and comebacks tingling on our fingertips.
            Let’s consider it, though.  How often can a grim silence have so much more impact than the longest, most detailed monologue?  Think about how flirty someone can be with just the right gesture or look.  There’s whole schools of comedy based around the idea of an awkward silence.
            And this is going to be harder to write.  I won’t lie to you.. Depending on unspoken subtext means I need to have my descriptions perfect—not one extra adverb or adjective cluttering them up and slowing them down.  It means I need to have a great sense of empathy—that I know exactly how this moment will be interpreted by everyone who reads it, and not just by a few of my friends.
            Y’see, Timmy, this kind of subtlety is what makes my writing soar.  It’s how I bring my story to life and raise it up to the next level.  I want to recognize the chance to say nothing--to use that delicate balance of silence and description and subtext--and take advantage of it.
            Or, as K.M.Weiland once put it—“Never miss a good opportunity to shut up.”
            Next time, I wanted to discuss some basic geometry.  We haven’t done that in a while.
            Until then... go write.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Feet of Clay

            Sorry I’m running late again. I seem to do that a lot, don’t I...?
            I was going to do a whole piece on character building this week (since nobody suggested anything else). But it kind of felt wrong.  We talked about characters at the Writers Coffeehouse this month, and we’re going to talk more next month, and I always feel a little odd addressing Coffeehouse topics here on the blog. Especially close to the same time.
            Yeah, not everyone here goes to the Coffeehouse, but still...  One way or another, it feels kinda cheap.  To me, anyway. It’s just how I’m wired. Like I’m re-using material here or there, giving one group minimal effort.
            But while I was writing out the character piece, I thought of a new angle I wanted to explore.  The more I thought about it, the more I was sure it could be a post all on its own.  A new take on character development.
            So, here’s an easy question I should be able to answer about any of my characters.
            What are they not good at?
            Seriously.  This shouldn’t be hard. Can I name five or six things my character isn’t good at?  No, not ridiculous things like “gene splicing” or “space shuttle repair” or “aboriginal dialects.”  Just name a couple basic things your character isn’t good at.
            Let me make it personal. 
            I’m terrible when it comes to pretty much any kind of sports.  I don’t know players, teams, leagues, anything.  I can name a few New England teams, just because I grew up there, but even then I’d be pretty pathetic.
            I wish I was more musical.  I love music, but have never been good at music, if that makes sense.  Horrible at telling music genres/styles apart, can’t play anything more complicated than a triangle.  Hell, in high school I played bass drum in the marching band, and a couple people can vouch for the fact that I screwed that up sometimes.
            I’m really bad at taking compliments, on any level.  People telling me I have nothing to worry about is pretty much guaranteed to freak me out.  I’ve been a full time writer for ten years, my ninth novel is coming out this year (plus the new collection this week) and I still have a ton of career anxiety.
            Anyway, I could go on and on, but you get the idea, right?  I’m not a perfect person (not by a long shot).  Most people aren’t.
            And, if I’m doing it right, my characters are people too. So there should be things they’re not good at.  They should have bad habits that cause problems.  There should be fields of interest they know nothing about.  Blind spots to political/cultural ideas.  Phobias that mess them up.  You’ve probably heard of these referred to as character flaws.  It doesn’t mean there’s anything blatantly wrong with the character.  It just means they’re... well, human.
            If I’m doing this writing thing really well, these areas where my characters have problems are going to cause specific issues in this story.  Maybe even a few plot points will hinge on them. And my characters are going to have to learn and grow and change to get past these problems.  They’ll have to make an effort to overcome fears, work past prejudices, and maybe figure out new ways of doing things.
            That’s a good thing.  It’s called a character arc.  You’ve probably heard of those, too.
            Now, let me address a couple of quick points, if I may...
            There are those folks who believe, well, more is better.  Their characters don’t have a flaw, they have flaws. And they don’t really have flaws, they have faults.  And I use “faults” in the geologic, California-drops-into-the-Pacific sense.  Yawning, bottomless chasms.  Each character generally has six or seven of these.  Maybe a baker’s dozen.  These people don’t just have feet of clay. They have feet, ankles, calves, knees, thighs. hips, groins, and lower abs all made of wet, soft clay. 
            Yes, groins.  There’s no way someone this screwed up doesn’t have a ton of sexual issues.  That’ll come up, too.  Or... maybe it won’t. One out of five...
           Again, this isn’t unrealistic.  I’m willing to bet most of us have known one or two really messed up, annoying people in our lives.  I’ve known a couple.
            As I’ve often said, though—reality isn’t our goal as fiction writers. Think of that messed up person from your own life. How much time did you really want to spend with them? Would you want to read a short story about them? A whole novel? Sit through a two hour movie?
            Y’see, Timmy, there’s nothing wrong with an overly-flawed character, but I need to balance that with the realization that my readers need a reason to like this person. A reason to keep reading.  It doesn’t matter how beautiful or artistic my prose is, the majority of people aren’t going to want to read about an awful character who’s a failure on every possible level.  
            If someone’s going to have serious flaws, they need some serious strengths, too, to counterbalance them.  A grocery clerk who gets blackout drunk every weekend to forget her past isn’t that interesting, but a popular billionaire philanthropist who gets blackout drunk every weekend to forget her past... well, that probably got you thinking of story ideas right there, didn’t it?
            Also, to got to the other extreme, nobody likes the flawless character. Seriously.  I’ve talked before about some of the problems with characters who are never caught off guard or never get scared.  What’s the challenge going to be for someone like that?  If Dot is always ready, always prepared, always calm, and always wins (of course she always wins—how could she lose?)... well, that’s going to get boring really quick.  And unbelievable.  When somebody’s ready for absolutely every contingency—especially when there’s no real reason for them to be—it just gets ridiculous.  Plus, there’s no space for character growth. If I’m already at ten in all categories... what kind of arc can I have?  Where can I go?
            There’s a wonderful line in the first Hellboy movie—“We like people for their qualities, but we love them for their defects.” I think that’s extremely true of fictional characters.  The more well-rounded they are—with strengths and weaknesses—the more we’ll be able to identify with them. And care about them.  And want to read the next book about them.
            Which is what we all really want to happen.
            Next time...
            Okay, look, I’ll be honest.  Next week’s my birthday.  There’s a good chance I’ll be drunk the entire day.  Possibly the night before, too.
            But... if I manage to be sober somewhere in there, maybe I’ll talk a bit about shutting up.
            Until then... go write.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Dead Men Can't Complain

            Yep, it’s another shameless self-promotion post.  Two in three weeks.  I’m very sorry.
            Today my first short story collection is out exclusively from Audible.com.  Dead Men Can’t Complain is a bunch of short stories I’ve had published in various places over the years, plus three all-new ones that have never been seen (or heard) before. Most of them are stand-alones, although you may find hints to a few things I’ve written in the past (or may be planning for the future).  It’s got zombies, ancient horrors, modern comedy, time travel, some more zombies, lizard men, superheroes, and even a romantic ending or two!
            You can pick it up using your Audible credits (if you’re a member) or straight through Amazon.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Mystery vs. Mystery

           I was talking with someone a few weeks back about mysteries.  To be honest, she talked. I just got kind of confused.  In fact the more she talked, the more I was baffled.  Her thoughts on mystery were just... well, I couldn’t figure out where she’d gotten them from.
            And then I realized the problem was that she wasn’t talking about mysteries.  Well, she was.  She’d just confused mystery with mystery, and then mixed them up a bit.  It’s a completely understandable mistake.
            It isn’t?
            Okay, then...
            I’ve talked here a few times about mystery, suspense, romance, and comedy.  I’ve also done a few posts about mystery, suspense, romance, and comedy.  And maybe it’s worth clarifying that, because it’d be bad if someone was working on a mystery and tried to follow all the guidelines I’ve tossed down about mysteries.
            Totally confused yet?
            Excellent.
            When I’m talking about mystery versus mystery, I’m talking about a genre versus a literary device.  If it helps, think of sci-fi versus a twist.  It’s a lot clearer that way, yes?
            When I talk about mystery and mystery, I’m talking about two things with very different rules.  We have mystery, the genre, which has some solid guidelines about word count, page length, setting, and so on.  Then there’s mystery, the device I use within my story, where one or more characters are searching for information that’s been hidden from them.  The rules for one aren’t the rules for the other, and if I get them confused, it’s going to cause problems.
             Consider romance. I’ve talked about my world-famous, patent-pending Rules of Love (TM) a few times here, and also about avoiding the common traps of romantic triangles.  My book, The Fold, has a definite romance element that follows these guidelines.
            But... it isn’t a romance novel.  That’s a very different animal.
            Let’s go a little bigger.  I’m going to guess a fair number of you reading this saw Doctor Strange, yes?  Maybe in theaters, maybe through Netflix, maybe you splurged for the 3-D collector's edition BluRay or something.  There were some funny moments in that movie, right?  Usually pertaining to Strange’s complete fish-out-of-water situation when he starts learning sorcery.  There was also that sort of unrequited love angle between him and Christine, never lining up in quite the right way even though it’s clear they both care about each other.
            So... is Doctor Strange a rom-com?  It’s got romance.  It’s got comedy.  That’s pretty much the definition of a rom-com, right?
            No, of course not.
            Y’see, Timmy, we recognize there’s more to a genre than just containing a literary device of the same name.  Suspense does not equal suspense, some comedy does not make this a comedy, and the presence of a mystery doesn’t mean my story’s a mystery. And if I get confused about this—if I start mistaking the rules of one for the rules of another (or maybe even mixing and matching like those last few socks on laundry day)—then this is going to cause problems on the writing side and on the business side.
            Now, sure—you wouldn’t make that mistake. You’re clever and you’ve been at this a while now.  But I see this kind of thing happen a lot, especially when people are trying to force a story into a genre where it doesn’t really belong.  A lot of folks do it in an attempt to get someone to read their work. “Someone” might be an agent, an editor, or even just a general audience.  If mysteries are really hot right now, I might be tempted to fudge the description of my story a bit and play up that element—even if said story is nothing like a mystery.
            I believe I’ve mentioned how rarely it goes well when I tell someone they’re getting X and they end up with a few hundred pages of Y, right?
            Genre. Devices. I need to remember which is which. Cause if I don’t, I’m either going to mess up my story... or I’m going to mess up selling my story.
            Speaking of selling stories—another shameless moment. Dead Men Can’t Complain, my first short story collection, comes out as an Audible exclusive next week.  It’s got creepy stuff, exciting stuff, funny stuff, and some never seen (or heard) before stuff.  Check it out.
            Next time, I think I may talk a little bit about dialogue. Or maybe character-building.  If you have a preference—or a different request—let me know.
            For now... go write.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

It Cuts! It Edits!

            It slices! It dices!  It makes julienne fries!  Plus, just add salt, pop the tray into the oven, and look—perfect hash browns, a great addition to any breakfast!
            Okay, I may have watched too many infomercials lately.  There’s been a channel issue with the television.  Don’t judge me.
            Over the past few months I’ve talked with a few folks about editing.  They’re almost always interesting conversations, but I noticed a while back they tend to skew in random directions. Well, not really random.  The questions cover a large range.
            One thing that catches some folks off guard is that there are different kinds of editing. They think of it as a general term, but it’s more of an umbrella that covers a lot of things.  Like how an oil change, brake work, and a car wash can all fall under “basic maintenance,” even though I’d probably have different people do them—and may even do some of them myself.
            For example, I have a regular editor I work with, Julian, and he helps me edit my story.  We dig through and find weak motivations, unclear dialogue, and the thing that doesn’t really match, tone-wise,for one reason or another.  His edits help improve the story.  When someone panics about “an editor making them change their story,” this is usually what they’re talking about.
            For the record, in almost ten years of doing this writing thing, and personally knowing close to a hundred professional writers with careers spanning most of that time, I’ve only ever heard of this happening once.  One time where the editor insisted on a major change that the author disagreed with.  And, no, it didn’t involve me or my editor.
             I also work with a copyeditor.  This is the person who finds spelling and grammar mistakes, inconsistencies that have slipped past everyone, and in some cases even a bit of fact-checking. The copyeditor help me improve the manuscript.
            And of course, neither of these are like the edits that I do myself before the manuscript goes to my editor.  Or even my beta readers. That’s when I’m trimming words, tightening the story, and trying to smooth out rough spots.
            Today I wanted to babble on (probably too much) about those easy edits.  The type of stuff that we all let slip though while we’re writing (and the experienced folks know to then get rid of in their first round of revisions).  I’ve mentioned some of them before in a broad strokes sort of way, but it struck me that maybe I could even boil this down further.
            So here are some words and phrases I can cut from my manuscript.  Not all the time, but a fair amount of it.  A lot of them lead to other words, too—they’re indicating a larger problem—so once I get rid of these it’ll probably mean a few others on either side go away, too.  Which means I’ll end up with a leaner, stronger story.
            One proviso before we dive in.  When I’m talking about these cuts, I’m talking about prose, not dialogue.  Dialogue gets a pass on a lot of this, because people have lots of odd tics and habits when they talk, and all my characters are people, right? Don’t worry about these suggested cuts too much, except maybe where they overlap with basic dialogue tips.
             This would apply to first person stories, too. They’re effectively dialogue—stories being told in a strong, specific character voice.  Just remember, characters and artful dialogue are fantastic, but it all needs to serve the story.  I don’t want my narration to collapse because of an all-too realistic narrator.
            Okay, so...  Ready?

            Adverbs--  As mentioned above, most of us get caught up in the flow of words, and what usually slips in is adverbs.  We try to pretend they're important—they spent valuable school-hours on them, after all, and school would never waste our time—but the sad truth is they can almost always be replaced.  I’d guess that three out of five times if I’m using an adverb, I just don’t need it.  The fourth time odds are I’m probably using the wrong verb, and once I find the right one, again, I won’t need the adverb.  If I’m using my vocabulary well, there aren’t many times I need one.
            While I was editing Paradox Bound I cut around 170 adverbs and adverbial phrases    in my first editing pass.  That’s almost a solid page of adverbs, gone.  Search your manuscript for LY and see how many you find.

            Adjectives—Some folks use a lot of adjectives to make normal, average things sound interesting.  Coincidentally, these folks tend to have a poor vocabulary.  So when I don’t know multiple words for, say, sword, I’ll just use multiple adjectives instead of blade, claymore, rapier, saber, foil, or falchion.
            Of course, we all go a little overboard now and then  (anyone who says they don't is lying to you) because we’re convinced this person, this place, this thing needs extra description.  Yet we all know too much description brings things too a grinding halt.
            There’s an odd habit I’ve seen among fantasy writers—not only them, and not all of them by a long shot, but enough to make it worth mentioning.  They use dozens of adjectives per page, if not per sentence.  Often redundant ones like “gleaming chrome sword of pure silver.” 
            I was at a writing conference a few years back where writer/ editor Pat LaBrutto tossed put a pretty solid rule of thumb.  One adverb per page, four adjectives per page.  It’s only a guideline, yeah, but if I’m averaging fifteen to twenty adjectives per page... maybe I should give them all a second look.

            That—People tend to drop that into their writing a lot, and a good three out of four times their writing would be tighter without it.  I used to be a that junkie until someone pointed out how unnecessary it often is. Look at these sentences—it doesn’t add anything to them.
            Phoebe could see that the two of them were meant to be together.        
            He punched her in the same arm that she had been shot in.
            She knew that the Terminator would not stop—ever—until it had killed her.
            Use the Find feature, search for uses of that in your writing, and see how many of them are necessary.  Odds are you’ll find more than half of them aren’t. I cut 132 that's from Paradox Bound—just over half a page. 
            (I’ve gotten better about adding them in to start with...) 

            Useless Modifiers -- I've called this Somewhat Syndrome a few times in the past.  This is another one I wrestle with a lot, although I like to tell myself I've gotten better about it.  It's when I pepper my writing with somewhat.., sort of..., a bit..., kind of..., and other such modifiers. I’d guess nine times out of ten they're not doing anything except adding to my word count (not in the good way) and slowing my story (also not in the good way).  Use the Find feature again and see how much tighter and stronger your story is without these. 
            I cut over two hundred of these from that first draft of Paradox Bound.  That’s another full page gone.

            Decided—This word’s almost always filler.  Maybe not conscious filler, but it’s almost always filler that can be cut.  If Wakko decides to do something and then he does it, I’m just eating up words again.  We all make hundreds of decisions and choices every day, but readers want to hear about the action, not the decision to take an action.  The action itself implies the decision was made. 

            Listen/ Look—If I start a line of dialogue with look or listen I’d bet that almost 80% of the time it’s either an infodump or it’s stating something plainly apparent.  Which means this dialogue is adding something that could be expressed through actions or subtext or any number of ways.  Or it isn’t adding anything.

            Obvious—If something isn’t obvious, it comes across as arrogant to say it is.  So I shouldn’t use the word obvious, because the character (or writer) in question is going to look like a jerk. Which, granted, might be the point...
            On the flipside, if something is obvious, then I still don’t need the word.  Things that are obvious are... well, obvious, so it’s just wasted words for me to tell the readers about it.

            Seemed/Appeared/ Looked – I’ve talked about these words a few times before.  They show up in phrases like “appeared to be,” “seemed to be,” “looked like,” and so on. The catch is,  seemed to be and its siblings don’t get used alone.  They’re part of a literary construction where the second half of that structure is either an implied or actual contradiction to the appearance.  So when I’m saying “Yakko seemed like the kind of man you didn’t want to mess with,” what I’m really saying is “Yakko seemed like the kind of man you didn’t want to mess with but really he was a pushover who fainted at the sight of blood.”  And what I meant to say all along was just “Yakko was the kind of man you didn’t want to mess with.”
           If I’m not trying to establish a contradiction, using appeared to be and the others isn't just wasted words-- it's wrong.  So cut them

            As you know—I’ve talked about these three words a few times before.  They’re awful.  Just awful.  I won’t say this is the worst way to get the facts out to my readers—I have full confidence there’s someone out there now working on a worse way—but I’d put this in the 99-out-of-100 category. 
            If I’m saying “as you know” to you, it means you already know what I’m telling you... so why am I saying it?  Why waste words blatantly stating something that you and I both know?  Yeah, maybe you've got amnesia, but if you do then you don’t know... so why am I saying “as you know” to you?
            If these three words pop up together more than once in my manuscript, odds are I’m doing something horribly wrong.

            Was – I always search for was, because it tends to point at weak verb structures.  It’s when I’ve got “Phoebe was running” instead of just “Phoebe ran.”  It’s a small tweak, but it’s one that gives my writing punch because it makes all my actions read just a bit faster.

            The Word—This is a tough one, because it’s going to depend on experience and spending time going through my manuscript.  I’ve found that a lot of times I’ll inadvertently reuse a word or simple phrase again and again and again.  It’s not really that odd—in the rush to get that first draft out, there are a lot of places I’m going to pick the first word that comes to mind.  Might be a certain verb, might be a noun, might be an adjective.  In Paradox Bound it was glared.  Lots of people glared in the early drafts of that book.  At each other.  At objects.  Out at the uncaring universe...
            Keep an eye out for your word.

            And there’s eleven things I always search for and slice away.  Editing made simple.  Well, some of the editing. 
            One type of editing.
            And this was so much longer than I'd planned.  So sorry.
            By the way, if you're in the SoCal area, this Sunday is the Writers Coffeehouse.  We'll be meeting noon to 3:00 at our usual hangout, Dark Delicacies in Burbank.  Swing by, hang out and join us as we talk (this month) about creating great characters.  Or just lurk.
            Next time... I had a few thoughts about genre and devices and structures you might find kind of interesting.
            Until then, go write.