Thursday, January 16, 2020

A2Q Part One—The Idea

Wow. Between the last post and Twitter, the response to this series idea has been amazing. Thank you all for your interest. I think the last time something got this much response I was explaining why I thought you should always use the Oxford comma, almost ten years ago this very night....

Anyway...

Welcome to the first of what will hopefully be an amazing and not-too-rambly twelve part series about book writing. Well, really this is going to be about how to tell a story. So these concepts we’re talking about are going to apply across a lot of different storytelling formats.

Why am I calling it A2Q? Well, first off it makes me look all hip, swapping in the 2 instead of to. Second, it’s because we’ve all heard A to Z so many times our eyes slide right past it, while you’ll remember A to Q because it’s weird sounding and absurd. I mean, the last time Q was even remotely worth paying attention to was back when John DeLancie played him. Everything since then’s been utter nonsense. So we’re taking Q back, people!

Finally, it’s an easy overall tag I can slap on this whole series that’ll end up right at the top of the tag cloud over there on the right (yeah, check it out—never noticed that before did you), so you can refer back to all of these later.

Also, I’m starting this off with the idea that all of us are working with the same basic tools here. I’m not going to talk much about vocabulary, spelling, grammar, or any of that (though they may come up a bit somewhere down the road). Nobody’s going to fault me because I didn’t bring a conduit bender to the job site, but if I don’t even have a hammer and a pair of pliers in my toolbag... well, maybe I’m not ready for this quite yet.

Also-also, from this point on in the series, I’m probably going to be saying book and novel a lot here. Like I mentioned above, the basic storytelling ideas we’re going to be talking about can apply to a lot of different formats—books, short stories, comics, movies, and more. But for this discussion, story is going to mean something very specific, and I don’t want things to get confusing. So book or novel is going to refer to our overall manuscript, while story is going to refer to... well, we’ll get into that in part four.

So with all that said, let’s begin where most books begin... with a basic idea.

Ideas are the foundation of all of this. Pretty much every story—sci-fi, horror, mystery, romance, whatever—begins with us asking “what if...?” and running with it. Some stories have really basic ideas behind them. Some have really wild ones. Both types can work great in stories.

It’s also worth mentioning that ideas are super common. Like, so common they’re pretty much worthless. They’re like rocks. It’s really important to understand this, because that understanding’s going to let us take our first big step.

Yes, an idea on its own is worthless. An idea is not a story or an epic and it’s definitely not worth a $50,000 advance from a publisher. It’s just an idea. And every one of them starts out as a raw, blobby thing on the edge of our mind.

This causes problems for all of us when we’re starting out because we want good ideas. We want that $50,000 advance and the Nobel for literature, so our ideas have to be the best ones we can think of. No half-baked, crappy ideas for us, right?

Except... that’s how all ideas start out—as half-baked, crappy blobs. An analogy I’ve used before is diamonds. In their natural state, they’re crusty, dark, lumpy things. It’s only after lots of cutting and shaping and polishing that we end up with what we think of as a diamond. Over the years, I’ve noticed when most people sit down to start writing (physically or metaphorically) they do one of two things when they encounter these idea-diamonds.

One group of aspiring writers—the larger group, I think—finds those crusty idea-lumps and gets frustrated that they’re only finding... well, lumps. We end up tossing them aside to look for the good ideas. We want to find the shining, sparkling thing that everyone immediately is going to recognize as a brilliant idea.

The other group finds that crusty lump, mounts it on a ring, and asks for the $50,000. Heck, we can find these things all over the place. Here’s five, six, seven—heck, I’ve got so many ideas you should probably just give me half a million to start. And somebody call the head of Hollywood. They’ll probably want to offer a briefcase with a million in it for movie rights. Heck, tell ‘em to bring two briefcases—I’ll have some more ideas by the time they get here.

This is really the same misconception seen from two different sides. One group’s assuming the idea isn’t any good, so they’re just leaving it on the ground. The other group’s assuming the idea must be good just because they picked it up. But really, whichever group I’m in, I’m ignoring the fact that ideas need work before they’re worth anything. I’m going to have to look at them, weigh them, and consider them from a bunch of angles. Maybe even make a few preliminary cuts and shine it up a little, just to get a good sense of them

With me so far? I know, the diamond analogy wobbled a bit in there. Hang on, I’m going to use it for a few more paragraphs.

So this brings us to the next big question which is... how do we know? There are all these rocks and only some of them are diamonds in the rough, and only some of those are going to make good gemstones. What criteria should we be using to tell which is which?

Well, y’see Timmy, here’s where it gets a bit ugly. The truth is, a lot of the time we can’t tell. because, again, an idea on its own is kinda worthless. We’re not just cutting and polishing diamonds—we’re making diamond puzzle pieces. A lot of what makes this idea good and worthwhile is going to be how it interacts with this idea or that idea. As we do this more often and get more experienced, we’ll be able to spot the ones that fit into the puzzle easier, and even have a sense where they go. And, likewise, we’ll be able to see that the tabs on this piece are too small and don’t match any of the others, and to say “Wow, this piece of King Tut’s mask shouldn’t be in here with the world map.”

But a lot of it—for writers at every level—is just sitting down and working with the ideas

Short version of all this—we shouldn’t get paralyzed right at the start wondering if our ideas are phenomenal. Odds are they aren’t. But we’ll find some diamonds in the rough, and once we get used to spotting them it’ll be an easier (and quicker) process to find them next time.

On a related note, we also want to keep in mind that at this very fine, granular level, a lot of ideas are going to look similar. An idea is probably the basic building block of any book, and a lot of basics are similar. One brick looks a lot like every other brick. This cup of flour looks a lot like that one. I shouldn’t freak out if somebody has already thought of “they’re all clones” or “high school outcast dates the cheerleader” or “they were dead the whole time.” Some of you may remember the tale of how John Scalziand I once both came up with the same basic idea at the same time, but the way we used it and connected it to other ideas was pretty different.

And this is a lot more than I intended to blab on about ideas. But hey, the idea is our basic building block. We’re going to keep coming back to this. It’s not bad to really be clear about it right from the start. Right?

Next time for A2Q, probably week after next, I’m going to talk about how we take a couple of these ideas and line them up into a plot.

Next time here on the ranty blog, I wanted to talk about where the action is.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Never Mock The Process

So, I figured I’d start the year—y’know, really start it—by talking about a word that gets tossed around a lot in writing circles. I also think it gets kinda mystified a lot and sometimes talked about in hushed tones like it’s some secret, sacred thing. The word is process, and I wanted to babble for a few minutes about mine and yours.

Really simply put, process is how I write. It can refer to using elements like outlines and character sketches, but it can also refer to where I write and when. Maybe even what shoes I like to wear (or not wear). All of this is part of our process. I’ve talked about the Golden Rule here a bunch of times, and it covers a lot of what we’d call process. It’s a lot of the personal aspects of writing, the preferences and rituals we all have.

For example...

I think I’ve mentioned my mom’s old electric typewriter once or thrice, the machine I wrote some of my very first stories on. It was this massive Smith Corona, probably weighed fifteen or twenty pounds, and the hum when you turned it on would actually make the table vibrate. The typebars hit the paper hard enough that a letter with a closed loop (like o or p for example) had maybe a 30-40% chance of punching a hole through the paper.

I had this little toy monster I’d always perch on top of the typewriter. I’d bang out words (literally), and every ten minutes or so the monster would shake its way down , and bounce off the keyboard. I’d have to stop typing, pick it up, and put it back in place. It was with me for all those early short stories and very bad comic book scripts and embarrassing attempts at a novel. I wrote all of them in little ten and fifteen minute bursts, pausing to put the monster back up on his perch.

Weird as it sounds, that was part of my process as a little kid. It was just something I did that made it possible for me to write—or write easier. I’m not saying I couldn’t write without said little toy monster (eventually I did), but at the time it was part of my regular ritual that let me get to the actual writing part faster and easier.

You may have heard about people who only write at night or early in the morning. Some folks where comfy sweats or bathrobes, others get fully dressed, and I know some who claim they don’t even bother with pants. There are people who can write absolutely anywhere and others have their writing space set up exactly how they like it. Some folks have coffee before, during, or after writing. Some have water. Some have booze.


And of course that’s not even getting into the more technical stuff. Do I like outlines, and if so how much of an outline? Do I use notecards? Do I make character sketches? What software do I use? Or maybe I’m old-school and use a legal pad. Or an old electric typewriter. I used to know a guy who blocked out all his scenes with action figures and Matchbox cars. We all have our own feelings about these things and use them (or don’t use them) in our own way.

Because that’s what process is. It’s whatever gets me to the actual act of writing while causing the least amount of stress. And it’s unique for each of us. We all have our own process. There may be overlaps. You may notice commonalities. But my process will always be mine, yours will always be yours.

There’s a kinda-joke I tell at the Writers Coffeehouse a lot. If the only way you can write is on one Sunday out of the month you strap yourself into that “enhancing” corset you got at the ren faire last summer, stand on your head, and then use voice dictation software, but you write 30,000 words that day... well, that’s fantastic. Power to you. You’ve found a process that works friggin’ amazingly for you. Granted, it’s probably not going to work for anybody else but it doesn’t really have to. It’s your process.

Now... all that being said...

I think one of the reasons process gets mystified sometimes is because... well, there are folks who use their process as a reason not to write. Not so much a reason, really, as an excuse. Consciously or not. I mean, I can’t wear the corset twice in a row. Plus that’s a specialty item, y’know it’s dry clean only. I’m not going to have time to get to the dry cleaners until next week at best, and then they’ll have it for a couple of days and, look, next month is going to be all about the writing, okay?

Yeah, that’s my goofy joke again. But I’ve heard some folks describe a process that’s so specific, so elaborate, or so both that it’s almost impossible for the conditions to ever be met. “I can only write on days that have an R in their name, and only after being served rare Himalayan tea boiled at precisely 100 degrees centigrade and served to me by a left-handed supermodel. No, not one of those Victoria’s Secret trollops. At that point I’ll be ready to begin my research into possible dietary limitations of the supporting character’s great-grandmother. I might not need it for this bit of flash fiction, but I feel it’s important to know than not know...” These folks need 200 page outlines for 35 page short stories. They wait for inspiration or the mood or the right lighting at their computer. They always have one more book or article to read for inspiration or education or clarification.

And again, to be perfectly clear, if this is what you need to get words down—and you happen to know a couple supermodels who like serving tea—again, power to you. Your process is your process. It’s whatever helps you write.

But, I’d suggest that if overall my process stops me from writing more than it starts me... I may want to reconsider a few things. Because to my mind, that’s a bad process. It’s not making things easier, it’s putting up obstacles.

Now, speaking of process... I had an idea I wanted to bounce off those of you reading this

(analytics tell me there’s a couple hundred of you, although I’d guess a percentage of those are bots with no real interest in improving their dialogue or story structure).

I was thinking of doing a kinda-series-thing here on the blog, something with its own keyword or whatever so it’s easy to find, and going through the whole process of writing a book from beginning to end. Start with a raw, basic idea and finish with something ready to send off to an agent/editor. It’s all stuff I’ve talked about before, but I figure this is a good excuse to revisit a lot of it in order and freshen up my takes a bit. It’d probably be every other or every third post, so there’d still be space to talk about other topics as they occur to me (or you).

Would that interest anyone? Please let me know down in the comments (or over on Twitter) with a yay or nay or something.

Oh, and by the way--my new book Terminus is up for pre-order over at Audible (and maybe Amazon?). It comes out in three weeks, but please feel free to add it to your lists and carts now. You can read more about it over at Audible and I also talked about it a bit in the FAQ (which I really need to update sometime soon...)

And one last note. The Writers Coffeehouse is this weekend at Dark Delicacies in Burbank. Sunday, noon to three. Come join us.

Next time... well, I guess we’ll see.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Behold—THE FUTURE

Welcome, travelers, to the far distant future of 2020. After orientation, each of you will be assigned a robot butler, a flying car, and a seasonal moon-bus pass.

I like to start the year with kind of  a quick reminder for all of us. How the ranty blog started, what it is, why I’m still doing it.

Easiest first. I more or less started this back in (gasp!) 2007. I was writing for a screenwriting magazine, and by nature of it I’d see tons of articles and websites about “helpful” tricks for networking, getting stuff in front of agents, producers, editors—all the sort of stuff you worry about after writing.  I’d guess at least two-thirds of the “writing” articles, even in our own magazine, fell into this category.

So I went to my editor with a few spec columns about... writing. Dialogue, character, just some thoughts based on my own years of many failures and a few successes (or, as some folks call it, experience). And they were rejected.  A few months later I went to another editor, he passed my would-be columns up the chain... and they were rejected again.

Eventually, I tossed them up here just so it felt like I’d done something with them. I thought they were fairly well-written and I didn’t want them to languish on my computer.  As I moved further into the full-time writer life, I was exposed to more and more people’s work. I read scripts for a couple different contests, which got me 400+ pages a day of exposure to it. And it struck me that I kept seeing the same basic mistakes being made again and again. So posting here became a regular thing.

It didn’t take long to realize a lot of aspiring writers fall into one of two groups. The first group thinks writing and storytelling are mechanical, quantifiable processes that can be broken down into definitive rules and formulas.  They quote pieces from Writers Digest and the MLA Handbook to show why their novel deserves to be published, or point to screenwriting books as proof their script is perfect.

The other group thinks spelling, formatting, and structure just hamper the creative process. People always ignore those things once they see the inherent beauty in the prose, right?  Nothing matters past the art flowing out of the writer’s fingertips, and anyone who says otherwise is a sellout who doesn’t understand what writing’s supposed to be about.  Don’t know how to spell that word?  Don’t know what the word means? Not in the mood to write? Someone said bad things about their writing? Absolutely none of it matters except being happy about their art.

Both of these groups are wrong, for the record. A lot of folks think writing’s all-or-nothing. The truth is, though, writing’s much more of a middle ground.

Y'see, Timmy, there are correct and incorrect things in writing. I have to know how to spell (me—not my spellchecker).  I have to understand grammar.  I need to have a sense of pacing and structure and format. As a writer, I can’t ignore any of these requirements, because these are things I can get wrong and I’ll be judged on them. By editors. By agents. By readers. 

On the other hand, there’s no “right” way to develop a character or outline or start my writing day. There’s only the way that’s right for me and my story.  Or you and your story. Or her and her story. This is the Golden Rule I’ve mentioned here once or thrice. If we ask twenty different writers about “how to write,” we’re going to get twenty different answers.  And all of these answers are valid, because all of these methods work for that writer. 

Again, that still doesn’t mean I can ignore every convention or rule I don’t like. I need to understand the rules if I want to break them successfully. Yeah, maybe there are ten or twenty people I can point at who broke the rules and succeeded.  But I need to remember there are thousands, probably millions, of people who broke the rules and failed miserably.

And that’s kinda what the ranty blog is about. I talk about writing.  Not the after-the-fact-stuff, just...writing. I talk about the rules we all need to learn and follow (until we’ve got the experience to bend or break them). I offer various tips and suggestions I’ve heard over the years that may (or may not) help out when it comes to crafting a story or shaping a character or sharpening some dialogue. If there’s something you’ve been beating your head against that you’d like me to blab about, let me know down in the comments. I’ve been doing this for a long time now—there aren’t many topics I haven’t had a painful learning experience with, and I’m always willing to share.

Which I guess leaves “why.” And that’s pretty simple. Like I said, I’ve made lots and lots of mistakes on my path to “published, semi-successful, quasi-known author.” If I can help some of you get past them—or maybe just not spend so much time splashing around in them—I’d like to do it. I mean, people helped me, I should pass it on. And it’s not like writing is a zero-sum game. Helping you improve your chances doesn’t lessen anybody else’s chances. Really. I can show you the math if you like.

Simply put, I want you to succeed. And I’ll do what I can to help make it happen.

And that's why I'm posting writing advice here every Thursday, and a bunch of stuff on Tuesdays too.

On a semi related note, I’d also like to recommend the Writers Coffeehouse to you.  It’s a monthly meeting of writers of all types and levels to talk about... well, writing.  All aspects from first ideas and editing to pitching and marketing.  It’s completely free—no obligations or requirements of any kind—it’s kinda fun, and it’s open to everyone. If you’re in the LA area, I host it on the second Sunday of every month (which would be ten days from now) at the wonderful Dark Delicacies bookstore in Burbank.  If you’re closer to San Diego, Jonathan Maberry (the guy behind V-Wars and the Joe Ledger books) hosts one on the first Sunday of every month (for example this Sunday) at the Mysterious Galaxy bookstore. And I think at this point there are a dozen others scattered across the country. Boston, San Francisco, Durham NC, Sacramento... I should really dig up the full list. Please check one of them out if you’re in the area.

Next time, I’d like to talk about the process of writing. Your process, actually.

Until then... go write.