Saturday, October 25, 2008

Proudly Wearing Your Clown Suit

I’ve noticed, among some folks, an ongoing confusion between the how of writing and the what of writing. In some cases it passes confusion and just becomes deliberate ignorance (which seems to come with those accompanying screams of “ART!!!”). While there are common threads, one is not the other, and as a professional writer it’s important to know the difference..

How is the unique part of writing. It’s that artistic bit you always hear about when people do research, write extensive outlines, symbolically burn their first drafts, and consume mass quantities of food, booze, and drugs while they search for that one, elusive, perfect word. Was the night hot or was the night humid?

How is unique to each of us as writers. That’s why I have my one golden rule— What works for me might not work for you. And it definitely won't work for that guy. We’ve all got our own personal quirks and habits and preferences that lead to a finished novel or screenplay or short story.

I got to speak with Kevin Smith a little while ago, and he explained that he only writes a few pages at a time. Then he smokes a lot, goes back, and rewrites them. Then he smokes a bit more, goes back, does some more editing, and moves on to the next scene. By the time he’s done, his script is effectively on his third or fourth draft.

One gent I know writes fairly successful action-adventure novels—three or four a year. He’s got it down to a system where he can plow out thousands of words a day on a notepad, and then the act of typing it up actually becomes his second draft.

Stephen King tends to write in the morning. Neil Gaiman writes at night (or so I’ve heard). My girlfriend needs near-silence to write, and I... well, I had to get a nice set of headphones when we finally moved in together.

There are a lot of habits that work for a lot of people, a few habits that only work for a few people, and vice-versa. In the end, how is when you get to do whatever you want. It’s when you look at all these suggestions about morning routines or dealing with writer’s block and say “No thanks, I’d rather do it this way.”

Three cheers to any of you who write for four or five hours a day, every day, at the same time. Power to you if you always squeeze in some time at the end of the night with your word processor before going to bed. If you can only write on Sundays in a clown suit while standing on your head and using voice-recognition software, congratulations. Not only are you writing regularly, you’re going to make a fascinating interview subject some day.

Now, on the other hand, we have what your finished writing is.

This part, alas, is not so subjective, no matter how hard some folks may like to shriek otherwise.

You must have characters who are believable within their world. The story has to be engaging and has to move along at a pace that will keep readers awake—and it needs to actually go somewhere. Your spelling and grammar need to be perfect.

As many people like to point out (including me), there will always be exceptions to these rules. But they’re exceptions, by definition, because they are the rarity. If you want to do this for a living, the what of your writing is probably going to have to fit within a very common and popular set of guidelines. If you’re going to assume you can be the exception... well, I won’t say that you can’t be, but you’d best be ready for a very long, very strenuous uphill battle.

What it boils down to you is that it’s completely acceptable to write in a clown suit, and feel free to smack anyone who tells you differently (just remember, you’re a writer so odds are they’ll hit back much harder than you). However, writing in a clown suit does not give you cart blanche to say your writing is flawless and beyond question. How you do it is not connected to what you’ve done.

At the end of the day, no matter how we got there, we are all being held up to the same yardsticks. If someone doesn’t measure up, it’s no one’s fault but their own.

So... put that clown suit back on and get back to writing.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Rules of the Road

I talked a bit about this a while back, but then while talking with the missus the other day I realized an even better analogy for what I was trying to say. And I thought to myself, “Hey, it’s been almost four months and that last post is sooooooooo far down the page now... I mean, no one actually scrolls back on these things, right?”


The rules for writing are a bit like the rules for driving. They weren’t made up by pulling numbers from a hat or throwing darts at a board. People went through lots of trials and setbacks and discussed things with lots of professionals. They looked at past examples that didn’t do so well and ones that were wild successes.

The 55 mph speed limit isn’t just the law, it’s a good, practical idea. Many engineers have shown that most vehicles gets the best ratio of fuel efficiency/ speed at this point. It’s also a very survivable speed in case of accidents, and traffic records show far fewer serious accidents happen at this speed.

Now... does this mean you should always drive 55, no matter what?

Not really. In fact, if the crosswalk ahead of you is filled with nuns and orphans, it might be a good idea to hit the brakes. Same thing in a school zone or residential area. Sometimes 55 is just way too fast.

By the same token, if your girlfriend/ boyfriend/ husband/ wife is in the passenger seat bleeding out from a traumatic injury, going a little faster than 55 might be advisable. The police may even quietly congratulate you for it. To be honest, they’d probably be more than a little suspicious if you insisted on driving the speed limit while your loved one was dying next to you...

In fact, most police officers will tell you that sometimes breaking the speed limit is okay. There are times you can sail down the highway at ten or fifteen miles over the limit and the state trooper driving next to you won’t bat an eye. And there are times you can scrape against 57 miles per hour and they’ll have you on the side of the road instantly. Anyone who’s been driving for a while knows this, and is probably aware of when you can an can’t do it.

So writing is a lot like driving. There are rules, those rules are there for a reason, and editors and agents will punish you if you break them. Sometimes.

For example... some people like to thump their screenwriting bibles and say that you should absolutely never use voice-over in a script. Know what though? Casablanca begins with voice-over. So do The Prestige and Dark City. Layer Cake has almost ten minutes of voice-over from Daniel Craig’s unnamed drug dealer before anyone actually speaks. The Matrix starts with voice-over from two people discussing the main character. The Oscar-nominated short (later expanded to a feature) Cashback is brimming with voice-over.

Are these movies wrong, somehow? Didn’t they work?

The ever-quotable agent Esmond Harmsworth once pointed out that mystery novels should always happen somewhere people want to go on vacation. They happen in Las Vegas, in London, or in the Florida Keys. However, in the same discussion he mentioned one or two manuscripts he was looking at that were set in small towns—but were good enough to overcome breaking that standard.

Your job as a writer is to know when you can break the rules, and by how much. Unfortunately, this is something that cannot be taught or quantified. You just have to learn through practice, the same way it took you a couple of years, a speeding ticket, and a few harsh warnings to figure out the exceptions to the speed limit. Anyone who ever gives you a checklist that says “Rule #3 can only be broken if conditions A, B, F, and Q have all been met” is lying to you. There will always be a clever new way of breaking rule #3 and getting away with it. Always.

The real trick is knowing you’ve actually found that way.

So... go write an exception to the rules.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Quitting Time

There comes a point in every challenge when you realize you’re not getting ahead. That all the time, effort, and enthusiasm you mustered for a project just isn’t enough. Why isn’t important, the fact is... it just isn’t.

At which point, you need to make a choice. Do you keep storming the castle? Continue throwing yourself into the breach? Forge on despite all odds with the strength of your convictions?

Or do you give up?

Honestly? If it was up to me...

I think you should quit.

No, keep reading. There’s an important part to this.

If you’ve spent the past decade trying to get any publisher in the world to just look at one of your book manuscripts, and they’re not interested—take a hint. If you’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars on screenwriting classes and contests over the past ten or twelve years, but still don’t even have one toenail in the door—save your money.

You should stop. Cut your losses. Quit. Stop beating your head against the wall, demanding to be recognized, and move on.

In a way, this ties back to something I wrote about a while back. You need to be able to look at your own work honestly and objectively. Knowing when to give up on a project is part of that. After querying 500 or so reps and not getting a single nibble, you need to consider the fact the problem may not lay with them. Your writing may be perfect, it may be gold, it may be what everyone in America is dying for. At the moment, though, for one reason or another, it’s not what those specific people are looking for. And, right or wrong, they are the ones who decide if everyone else gets to see it. As a wise man once said, they are the gatekeepers. They are guarding all the doors and holding all the keys.

Now... here’s that important part.

I’m not saying stop writing altogether. It’s just time to sit back and look at what you’ve done and how you’re doing things. Maybe the problem is characters. Maybe it’s dialogue. Could just be your cover letter. Perhaps even something as basic as an overwhelming number of typos. At the end of the day, you’re doing something that needs to stop happening, because one way or another it’s holding you back.

I’ve met people who wrote one novel way back in college and have spent the past twenty or thirty years sending it to agent after agent, publisher after publisher. They haven’t changed one word since they first set it down on paper. They haven’t done anything else since. They’ve just got that one story going out again and again and again...

Same thing in Hollywood. People write a screenplay over a long weekend, never polish or revise it, but try to use it as a calling card for years. I know of one guy on the contest circuits who’s been pushing the same script for almost a decade. He hasn’t done anything else in the meantime.

Knowing when to quit and move on isn’t a weakness or a flaw. It’s a strength. It’s the only way you can grow and learn new things, because you won’t get any better if you keep poking at the same manuscript again and again for decades. Sometimes you just have to give up on something. If you want to be all new-age about it... you need to learn to let go.

It took me almost eleven years to finish my first solid novel, The Suffering Map. Not an idea, not a work in progress, not something I’ve been poking at. A complete, polished book manuscript, cover-to-cover. Beginning, middle, and end. Yeah, that’s a long time, but close to a decade of that was the film industry convincing me to go work on screenplays instead. If I wanted to make myself feel better, I could probably say it only took about two years of actual work.

Of course, these ongoing rants aren’t about making any of us feel better. Even me...

So, eleven years of work, and then the querying began. Letter after letter, rejection after rejection. Go through it again, create a new draft, and then start the letters again. Some people asked to see it. Some very nice, high-end, holy-crap-I- can’t-believe-he/she-asked-for-this people. Many letters and emails were traded back and forth.

In the end, though, after almost a dozen very major revisions, all of them passed on it. And then I realized, this was done. At that point I’d spent over a dozen years on said novel. Almost my entire life since graduating from college.

Time to work on something else.

I’m not saying I’ll never go back to it. Many writers will tell you if your screenplay or novel gets rejected, put it in the drawer and wait a few years. I’m also not saying it will sell in a heartbeat if I decide to try again in five years. For now, though, I’ve given up on it. I’ve admitted defeat and moved onto (and finished) another novel. And several short stories (many of which have sold). Even a screenplay which did passably well on the contest circuits. Not to mention a paying-the-rent career as an entertainment journalist.

If I’d stayed focused on that novel no one wanted to see, though, I wouldn’t’ve done any of it. I’d still be back there at square one. And my list of published credits wouldn’t be the size it is now.

So the next time the thought of quitting crosses your mind because you’re frustrated with your screenplay or novel or the ongoing search for an agent... actually stop and think about it. Perhaps it’s time, as the networks like to say, to put that bit of work on indefinite hold. Maybe even a few bits of work.

Then look in a new direction, start writing again, and do something different.

Monday, October 6, 2008


Some of you engineering types (there may be one or two out there glancing at this) may recognize this little rant’s title. It’s an old, simple rule—Garbage In, Garbage Out.

This rule has been around for centuries in dozens of different forms. You get what you pay for. You are what you eat. People have known for ages that what you put into something has a direct result on what comes out.

And yet, so few people follow this rule. Many admit it’s true, but think it doesn’t apply to them. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen film producers “save” money by hiring untrained, bottom of the barrel crew members, then get upset because these people are doing untrained, bottom of the barrel work. Worse, then they have the gall to be surprised when it results in a bottom of the barrel film.


Closer to our end of things, I’m stunned how many people who call themselves writers all but brag about the fact that they rarely read-- or don’t read at all. I saw one fellow online proudly announce “Real writers don’t have time to read.”

Truth is, real writers have time for almost nothing except reading.

You have to read. You must have input. There is no other way to be a writer. If you don’t take it in, how can you expect to put it out? If you want to be a writer and have to make the choice between a night out with friends, watching the killer NBC Monday night line up, taking in the new Quentin Tarantino flick, or getting caught up on the next Gaunt’s Ghosts book by Dan Abnett, there shouldn’t really be a choice at all.

Your whole body needs to hunger for words.

The sentences of John Steinbeck should be the best steak you’ve ever had, the phrasing of Ray Bradbury like a fine wine. Finish it off with a little King or Gaiman for dessert, and maybe some McCarthy as an aperitif. Classic stories by Burroughs, Lovecraft, or Dickens should be that rare vintage you’ve pulled from the cellar for a special occasion, to be savored on the palate for their unique taste, never to be made again.

Are you looking more at screenwriting? Consider the classic, subtle wordplay of Casablanca or The Day The Earth Stood Still (the original, please). Study the damned clever structure of Scott Frank’s Dead Again or Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. Find some scripts by Shane Black (screenwriter of Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and see how much fun they are to read.

Now, there’s another important reason you need to keep reading. No one’s interested in what’s already out there. So your book idea about a little boy discovering he’s a sorcerer is neat, but J.K. Rowling beat you to it. Sorry. Television show about a lawyer getting visions from God? Done. Funny and action-packed film about a millionaire inventor who builds an armored battlesuit to fight injustice? Man, you just don’t get out much, do you...?

You need to read because you need to stay abreast of what’s out there, what people are looking for, and where your work lines up with current trends. A few more examples...

Behold my cool new idea for a series of linked stories about thinking robots. They dream, paint, and run for office. But they can never go bad or run amok, because their neutronic brains are hardwired with three rules that govern all their thoughts actions. I call these Pete’s Three Rules for Why Robots can Never Go Bad or Run Amok.

Behold my cool new idea for a feature film, about a computer programmer who comes to realize everything he knows is essentially a giant video game he’s trapped in. It turns out that in the real world humans are slaves to machines, and some people are actually just other programs interacting with the game. But a group of rebels have found our hero, and teach him how to hack into the game like they do. I call this one Trapped in Evil Marioland! Yes, the exclamation point is part of the title.

Behold my cool new idea for a novel. It’s about an art historian who discovers secret messages left behind by a Renaissance artist, and finds himself in conflict with the group trying to protect those secrets. I call it The Cipher of Michelangelo.

What? All been done you say? Are you sure? I thought they were pretty original... I guess I should’ve read more stuff...

Okay, what about a film where a little kid discovers the girl next door is a vampire? Two friends decide to make a porno movie? A has-been wrestler takes a last chance in the ring despite a heart condition? What about a remake of Omega Man?

Wait, wait... books! An unjustly imprisoned man escapes, takes on a new identity, and swears revenge on the people who framed him? An interdimensional cowboy assembles a team to travel to a dark tower that’s destroying the universe? Two friends in the ‘40s create a wildly popular comic-book character? A meek governess falls in love with her employer, but finds out his crazy wife is held prisoner up in the attic of their secluded home? Dracula squares off against Sherlock Holmes? A young man is sworn to vengeance by the ghost of his recently-deceased father?

Nope. All been done. Every one of them.

This doesn’t mean you can’t try to tell those stories, too. But there better not be any overlap, and yours better knock the ball out of the park. If not, though... don’t be surprised when your manuscript ends up in that large pile on the left and not the small one on the right.

So get off the internet and get back to writing.

Or, at the very least, go read something.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Suspension Bridge

Most of us have heard the term willing suspension of disbelief. It’s when a story or plot has something implausible, maybe even impossible in it, but we accept it for the sake of the narrative. Long lost twins. The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. The lucky coincidence. Hidden messages behind the Mona Lisa. The walking dead. Kevin Costner as Robin Hood. All things that are inherently unrealistic, but we let them slide because they’re part of the story.

Children have an incredible ability to suspend disbelief, because they don’t know what not to believe in. To them, Cinderella and Aladdin are real. So are Optimus Prime, Sponge Bob, Barney, Barbie, Spider-Man, and Dora the Explorer. When I was little, I was absolutely convinced the stop-motion dinosaurs of Land of the Lost were real (look at them! They’re not cartoons! They’re on film! With people!!) and had many sleepless nights worried Grumpy the Tyrannosaurus would be looming outside my bedroom window the same way he was always outside that cave.

On the other hand, my dad, a former liaison with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, lost interest in Back to the Future less than a minute in. As the gears and gadgets made breakfast for Doc Brown and his dog, the television news report said plutonium had vanished from a local nuclear reactor. He looked at me and said “Do you know what it would take for someone to sneak in and get any amount of plutonium off-site from a reactor?”

Willing suspension of disbelief is like a huge block. Throughout the course of reading a story or watching a film, the audience is going to chip at that block. You, the writer, are going to give them the tools and motivation to do it. The trick is knowing what to give them and how much to encourage them.

Every story starts with that block at 100%. Picture a huge solid cube of ice, stone, or whatever visual appeals to you. Every audience goes in completely willing to believe this is a true story, a story they will believe and accept without hesitation. No matter what the topic or genre is, no one picks up a book or walks into a theater without being open and ready to commit to it.

However, each time you hand them something they can’t accept, for whatever reason, they take a chip off that block. Maybe it’s a small little sliver. Maybe it’s a gigantic slab like one of those ice shelves that keep breaking off in the Arctic Circle (but don’t worry, kids—global warming’s just a myth).

The big trick here, of course, is knowing when to stop chipping, because eventually that block will shatter and collapse in on itself. That’s the point people start laughing, shaking their heads, and posting angry rants online. You want to put in your wild coincidences, werewolves, and wacky supporting characters, but you don’t want to undermine your own work. You need to be aware of what’s going to push your story over the edge. And be aware—that edge comes before the block hits zero.

Quick pause for story time...

On a publisher’s message board I frequent, a gentleman recently posted a large rant of his own about a straight-to-DVD zombie film and the many, many problems it had. Problems like misrolled sleeves on Marines and soldiers. Military vehicles with license plates. The size of a missile silo set. Now, faithful readers (all three of you), d’you remember what the genre of this film was?

Yes, it was a zombie film. In a film about the walking dead rising up to eat the flesh of the living, this gent found someone’s cuffs so unbelievable and distracting that it ruined the film for him.

Don’t worry about pleasing this guy. Or my dad.

Well, okay. Dad loves stuff from William-Sonoma.

So, anyway, let’s get back on track and play a simple game...

Put that big block of belief up in front of you. I’m just going to rattle off some stuff at random and assign values to it based off my own experience. Consider your story and subtract as you need to.

Keep in mind, some chips are contained within larger ones. If you got a chunk knocked off for flying saucers, odds are no one’s going to take another chunk off if you introduce extraterrestrials. Once you’ve taken a sliver away for a woman who’s been pining for her high school boyfriend for twenty years, it’s not too hard to believe she can instantly remember the maiden name of the girl he took to the senior prom. And once they’ve accepted time-travel, most audience members will accept a paradox or two.


Every single wooden, forced, or “on the nose” line of dialogue is going to cost you 1% off the block, so be careful because they’ll add up fast. Characters who are supposed to be smart but do inherently stupid things—that’s a good 3%. Every stereotypical burnt-out cop, stripper with the heart of gold, clueless boss, snotty cheerleader, dumb jock, or introspective pot smoker—take 5% of the block for every one of those overused characters. Take off another 10% if they’re one of your main characters. Any unarmed, unprotected person who walks into the dark building they just heard screams come from is going to cost you 5%. Anyone pausing in mid-action to deliver more than three lines worth of dialogue—oh, that’s a good 7% off the big block.

Each woman who randomly gets undressed, changes clothes for no reason, or frets about her hair while in a burning building surrounded by vampires—that’s 10% off the block. Every man who grunts, drinks, or randomly demeans people is another 10%. Anyone who can spontaneously fight like a 20-year devotee of the martial arts will cost you 5%. If any character says “I don’t understand” or some variation thereof twice or more in a chapter or scene, that’s 10%. Also you’ll lose 5% every time a characters does something that goes directly against their established type—cops who get drunk and do drugs with underage girls, college professors who get baffled by simple problems, incredibly wise and intelligent aliens who can’t figure out a doorknob.

Anything that shows a complete failure of research or understanding of the real world adds up fast. A Protestant minister who takes confession is 5% off the block. So do rabbis eating ham sandwiches. Diesel fuel tanks that explode in a fire are 1%. Revolvers that fire seven or eight bullets will be 3 or 4% per extra shot, and people who die from being shot in the shoulder cost you a good 5% off. Every time a random stranger walks off and leaves their keys in the ignition with the engine running—that’s a solid 10%.

If your main character falls five stories without suffering any harm, that’s minus 5%. Another 7% off if computers randomly develop sentience. Call it 10% if, with no foreshadowing, aliens suddenly attack. Knock it up to 20% if, with no foreshadowing, flying space monkeys attack.

Now, ready for the hard one...?

Every misspelled or misused word is going to cost you 1%. As readers hit mistake after mistake, their faith in the writer’s ability drops. After three dozen typos, they just aren’t going to believe the writer can pull off revealing Bobby is a retired NSA agent or that Debbie was raised by wolves. It’s not fair, no, but that’s the way it is.

So, with all that in mind... how’s you do?

More importantly, how did your block do?

Even more importantly—it’s time to get back to writing.