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.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Moment of Shameful Self-Promotion

            Hey, so sorry.  I need to take a minute to make a sales pitch.
            In two weeks, I’ve got a short story collection coming out from Audible.com—Dead Men Can’t Complain.  It’s a bunch of short stories that I’ve had published in various places over the years, plus a trio of 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)
            This is an Audible exclusive—no print, no ebook, no special kanji edition—it’s audiobook only.  Because they wanted to publish it and they do fantastic work, that’s why!  You can pick it up using your Audible credits (if you’re a member) or straight through Amazon.

            Shameful moment over.  Next up—editing tips.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Top Ten B-Movie Mistakes

            A full day late. So very sorry.  I could make excuses about surgery and blood and all that sort of stuff but... well... No, actually that's a great excuse. And it's the truth.  So there--I regret nothing!
            Okay, I’ve brought up a few times my Saturday viewing habits and why I do it.  After a few awful flicks last weekend, though, it struck me that a ton of B-movies tend to make the same mistakes. I mean, they all usually have a unique way of doing it, but they all tend to go wrong in a lot of the same ways.
            And I say a lot of this as a guy who hasn’t just watched a lot of B-movies (and read a lot of scripts), but worked on many as well.  I saw a lot of these mistakes happen in real time.  Sometimes inherent flaws or technical issues, but many other times it was story elements that could’ve been fixed with very little work.
            No, nobody listened to me then, either.
            Of course, this is also true of a lot of stories in general.  They all tend to go wrong in similar ways.  That’s kinda how this big pile of rants got started.
            So, even if you’re not interested in screenwriting, there’s probably a helpful thought or two in here somewhere for you.
            Okay, top ten B-movie mistakes starts with...

# 10-- Bad directing
            Let’s just get this one out of the way, because it’s the easy one.  This’ll be a horrible blow to anyone who likes auteur theory, but the simple truth is there are a lot of professional directors out there who have no clue what they’re doing.  None.  Yes, even some directors you’ve heard of.  They have no business sitting in a director’s chair.  Even one they bought at Target and keep on their back porch.  They have no concept of narrative, continuity, pacing, anything. 
            And I’m not just pulling this opinion out of my butt.  I worked with a lot of truly fantastic, brilliant directors during my time in the industry, but I also worked with some really awful ones.  And friends shared stories of awful ones they’d worked with.  It’s a lot more common (and widely known in the industry) than most film professors would like their students to believe.
            My point is, the director’s the one determining how the story is being told. Their job is to interpret the story on the page into a visual story on the screen, and the best story can be ruined by a bad storyteller.  How often have we seen a book or movie that had such a cool idea or interesting character... and it was just wasted?

# 9-- Looking down on genre stories
           Lots of B-movies have kind of an ugly cynicism to them.  I’ve seen this on a few projects—directors, writers, or producers (or some mix thereof) who think they’re too good for the story they’re working on at the moment.  I was on a sci-fi project where the production designer wanted to do something glaringly inaccurate because he felt it looked better.  His justification?  “Who’ll know?”
            I’ve heard people say they might try writing romance because it’s “so easy,” or fantasy because “you can just make it all up.”  These are simplistic, demeaning ways to look at these genres, and that sort of scorn’s always going to show in the storytelling. It doesn’t matter if it’s the latest hot thing—if I don’t like it, don’t have a background in it, don’t really want to do it... it’s probably not going to turn out that great.

# 8-- Too Much Stuff
            D’you ever play Dungeons & Dragons when you were young?  Remember that one kid (we all knew this kid) who got so excited to be Dungeon Master, and made that awesome dungeon with five liches and ten silver dragons and twenty gold dragons and thirty minotaurs all wearing +3 plate armor and using +5 flaming axes and a hundred zombies and Orcus and half the Norse gods and...
            You remember that, right?
            Some B-movies get like that.  The filmmakers have too many ideas—way more than their budget or schedule allows—and they try to stick them all into the story.  Every cool idea from every other cool story, sure to be just as cool here, right?
            Truth is, they almost never are.  All these extra ideas just end up being under-developed distractions at best.  And at the worst, well...

# 7-- Wasting Time
            Okay, this is kinda related to the last  point.  The flipside of it, really.
            There are a couple shortcuts people use in storytelling to make us like characters.  There’s one called “saving the cat” that you’ve probably heard of.  There’s also giving someone a backstory that connects them to another character.  And there’s banter and bickering and all sorts of little dialogue tricks.
             Thing is, in the limited space of a movie script, all these things need to be serving a purpose.  If that touching backstory doesn’t come into play somehow, it’s just five minutes of filler I could’ve spent on something else... like the plot.  Maybe ten or fifteen minutes when we add up everyone’s touching backstories.  There’s nothing wrong with a well-rounded character, but we want those curves to go with the flow of the story, not against it.

#6-- Bad action
            We’ve all seen this one, right?  The awkwardly-slow fight scenes.  The medium-speed chase that drags on waaaaaay too long.  The melodramatic challenge that clearly didn’t need to happen.  Or just shouldn’t’ve happened.
            Action gets seen as filler a lot, and it doesn’t help that a lot of gurus teach it that way.  “Hit page 23, action beat. Hit page 42, action beat.”  There’s nothing wrong with action, but bad action hits worse than just about anything, especially in the visual storytelling format of movies.  If it drags on the page, it’s not going to be better when we film it.
            Think of scale, too.  It’s always better to have a small, well-done action scene than a sprawling, poorly-executed one.  I can relate to two people fighting so much better that two gangs of sixty people each slamming together.

#5-- Not knowing what genre my story is
            I worked on a B-level sex-revenge-thriller once, and the director was convinced he was making a noir mystery.  I’ve seen sci-fi and fantasy movies that were done as horror films, and vice versa.  Heck, I’ve written stories where I’d planned it as one thing, and realized halfway through it was something very different.
            I just talked about this a few weeks ago, so I won’t go into it too much here. To sum up quick if you don’t want to hit the link, all genres have certain expectations when it comes to tone, pacing, and even structure.  If I’ve got a story in one genre that I’m telling with the expectations of another, there’s going to be a clash. And that clash probably won’t help my storytelling.

#4-- Killing the wrong people
            Okay, so there’s always going to be collateral damage in stories—especially action stories. The nameless bystander who catches a bullet.  The dozens of office workers crushed when a giant monster slams into their building.  The person who dies in the early weeks of the epidemic.
            Thing is, by nature of being collateral damage, the story doesn’t focus on these people and their deaths don’t really register with the audience or within the plot.  And they shouldn’t. That’s what collateral means after all—they’re secondary. Not as important.
           I’ve mentioned before the awful habit of introducing characters for no purpose except to kill them.  We meet Phoebe, get five minutes of backstory and –bang- dead without moving the plot forward an inch.  Because Phoebe was never part of the plot, she was just there to wear a bikini top and let the FX crew show off.  That kind of thing is wasting time, as I just mentioned above.
            The only thing worse than this is when it’s time for the heroic sacrifice... and my hero doesn’t make it.  A minor character steps forward to leap into the monster’s mouth or climb up to connect that last cable to the junction box, even though the power flowing through it could kill him.  So the "hero" sits and watches while someone else saves the day.
            Why are they the hero...?

#3-- Showing the wrong thing
            This comes up so often it’s sad.  It kinda falls under bad directing, but I’ve  seen it many times where it was clearly a problem inherent in the story.  Sometimes a story keeps pushing X in our face when we really want to see Y.  Or Z.  Sometimes the story calls for Y to be the center of focus, but we still keep seeing X.
            I saw a B-movie recently that didn’t show the love interest’s face until almost twenty minutes into the film.  The movie kept having clever angles and shots... but it didn’t show her face.  Watched another one where the monster was revealed in a horrible panning shot that racked to it in the background.  In both of these cases, we were seeing the wrong thing—or the right thing the wrong way.
            I’ve talked about subtlety, using the scalpel vs. the sledgehammer.  That’s part of this, too.  Sometimes there’s a reason we’re seeing a swirling mass of blood and gore, but all too often... it’s just because the storyteller doesn’t know what else to show us.

#2-- Horrible dialogue
           In any storytelling medium, bad dialogue makes for unbelievable characters.  If I can’t believe in the characters, I can’t believe in the story.  If I can’t believe in the story... well, that’s kind of it, isn’t it.
            So many movies have painfully bad dialogue.  Arguments for no reason. Awful technobabble.  Annoying characters who won’t stop talking. And sometimes—too much of the time—it’s just bad.  It’s awkward, clumsy dialogue that sounds more like people reciting prepared statements than, well, talking.
            Bad dialogue always drives me nuts because it means the storytellers have no idea how human beings talk or sound. It’s a massive failure of empathy, and that empathy almost always shows up elsewhere.  I’ve never, ever seen a story with bad dialogue that excelled everywhere else. This almost took the #1 slot.
            But, the number one thing B-movies tend to screw up...

#1-- Who am I rooting for?
            This is the killer. This one brings so many B-movies to a grinding halt. 
            I’ve seen sooooooo many movies with absolutely no likable characters.  Everyone’s self-centered or obnoxious, idiot or arrogant.  They’re just awful, sometimes disgusting people. All of them.  The bad guys and the good guys.  People start dying and I’m honestly not sure if I’m supposed to be sad or cheer.
            If I’m going to sit here for ninety minutes—and remember the story afterwards--I need a reason to follow someone besides “they’re the main character.”  I need to like them and I need to be able to identify with some aspect of their personality.  The story needs to have someone I actually care about, because if it doesn’t I just won’t care if they win or lose. And if I don’t care about that... well...
            Game over, man.

           So there you have it. My top ten B-movie flaws, based on years of awful movie watching. And reading. And making.
            Feel free to offer one or two of your own.
            And then go write.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Read it ALL! Every Page!

            Okay, not going to talk about editing.  For a couple reasons I decided to push that back a bit. If anyone really wants it sooner rather than later, please feel free to say something down below.  I’m flexible.
            Anyway, new topic.
            Bad movies.
            I’ve mentioned once or thrice before that I tend to do long Twitter rants most Saturdays about whatever (anonymous) bad movie I’ve dug up on Netflix, SyFy, Comet, or... well, sometimes from my own collection.  Terrible characters, wince-inducing dialogue,  eye-rolling motivations, bad pacing, awful reveals or twists.  Sometimes the movies are fun-bad, and other times...
            Look, on Saturdays my liver earns its keep.  Let’s just say that.
            A lot of folks follow along, and at least every other week somebody’ll make a comment about my masochistic tendencies.  Or my willingness to suffer.  Or ask why I don’t just watch something, y’know, good.
            Here’s the thing, though.  I kind of like the bad movies.  Yeah, they’re kind of painful sometimes, but they’re always at least mildly entertaining.  Even if it’s in a Mystery Science Theater sort of way.
            Plus, they’re kind of educational.  And a great exercise for the imagination.  Yeah, I know that sounds bizarre, but... it’s the truth.
            Let’s be honest.  We probably all know somebody who refuses to watch bad stuff, right?  Or to read it.  They’ll shut it off half an hour in or toss the book across the room, usually with a snide comment or three about how bad it was.
            Quick test, though... can they say why it’s bad?  Can they cite specific examples?  Anyone can say “this sucks,” but it’s a lot harder to explain why something sucks.
            Better yet... can they suggest ways to fix it?  How would I go about improving the plot structure?  The dialogue? The motivations of the hero and the villain?
            These aren’t ridiculous tasks.  As writers, we run up against them all the time.  There are scenes I’ve rewritten a dozen or more times because the dialogue just didn’t ring true.  There are times I’ve gotten halfway through something and realized it would be a lot better if I structured it a different way.  There are times I’ve guided everything towards Yakko doing something and then realized “wait a minute... why the heck would he do this?”
            Then I solve these problems. Because that’s my job.  I’m a writer.
            So in that sense, every bad movie or patience-testing novel is a chance to flex those muscles.  They’re exercise that I can do while I’m geeking out a bit.  Sometimes they even inspire a rant or three.
            That’s kind of important.  The exercise bit.  We all need to exercise.  No, not just because we sit in a chair for a good part of the day.  Well, yes, because of the chair, but also because exercise is how I get better... stronger... faster. 
            That holds for physical and mental exercise. I have to do it.  I have to do it regularly.  And I need to challenge myself with it.  If I’m following the same workout routine now that I was a year ago, it means I haven’t moved forward at all.  I’m going easy on myself.
            I know a lot of folks who pride themselves on not reading bad books.  “There’s no time for that,” they say.  “Why would I waste a day reading something awful?”  They’ll proudly tell me how they’re re-reading something by Neil Gaiman or Margaret Atwood or Michael Chabon or some obscure piece by Gertrude Stein or Faulkner.
            And there’s nothing wrong with reading any of these writers. They’re all just fantastic.  Their words are wonderful to read, and it’s almost frustrating how easy they can make it look.
            But this shouldn’t be easy.  If it’s easy... I’m probably doing something wrong.
            Y’see, Timmy, there’s only so much I can learn from the good stuff.  If it’s the only thing I take in, then I’m kinda limiting myself.  I’m not giving my brain a chance to exercise--to stretch and flex and try to do its own thing.  Following a perfect, well-laid path is great, but if it’s all I ever do, it’s all I’ll know how to do.  And if it’s a path that 90% of all English majors and would-be writers have followed at one point or another...  I'm not going to find anything new or surprising at the end of it.
            It’s like if I said I wanted to explore the whole world, but I never wanted to go off a paved road. Paved roads are great, yeah, but the way I’ll find stuff—especially new stuff most people haven’t seen before—is by traveling down the dirt roads and off road.  And sometimes getting out and wading through thigh-deep muddy water.
            ...oh, man, I hope that’s mud...
            I’d never say avoid the good stuff, because we want to surround ourselves with great material.  To bathe in it. Take long moonlight swims in it.  But... we all know what happens if you stay in the pool too long.
            Don’t be scared of reading something bad.  Or watching it.  Have fun with it. Force your way through.  And figure out why it’s bad. Where did it go wrong?  What does it need?  How could it be fixed?
            And then... go write.