Thursday, April 30, 2009

How Stupid Do You Think I Am?

A pretty loaded question, I know. And I’m sure I don’t want to hear all the answers you’ve got for me.

It’s an important question, though, whether you’re writing books or screenplays. The folks who just bought your new Harlequin Romance aren’t expecting a long lesson about the way colors mix to form new colors. If you’re billing yourself as the next Tom Clancy, the clue “man’s best friend” better not leave half a dozen codebreakers baffled as to what the three letter password is for the doomsday device. Heck, even if you’re hired to pen the new Yu-Gi-Oh movie, you probably shouldn’t spend a lot of time explaining why kids shouldn’t lick stove burners.

Nobody likes to be called stupid, after all. Not even children. Not even stupid people. We all hate being looked down on, being condescended to, or having things spoon-fed to us.

This is why so many people fell in love with the television show LOST, yet so many of these same folks despise the “enhanced” version ABC showed for a while. These episodes now had “pop-ups” added in which explained every single thing occurring on screen. Everything. Every name. Every reference. Every way every point tied back to other things. Now, it’s fun trying to figure out all the various, intertwining mysteries and stories on a show like LOST, but the moment there’s someone walking the viewers through every single one of them—even the ones that just got explained to you a few minutes ago—well then the show’s just become insulting.

Y’see, Timmy, when you spell out everything for your audience, what you’re really saying is “I know you won’t be able to figure this out on your own.” Your characters might not be saying it out loud, but the message is there. You’re too stupid for this—let me explain.

So, having established that nobody likes to be thought of as an idiot, it stands to reason everybody likes to feel smart. One of the easiest ways to make your readers feel smart is to let them figure things out on their own. Triple Academy-Award-winning screenwriter Billy Wilder once said if you let the audience add 2+2 for themselves, they’ll love you forever, and that advice holds true for writers of all forms (except maybe journalists, who should probably put a little more effort into spelling things out).

I’m going to fall back on a favorite example, Scott Frank’s amazing screenplay for Dead Again, also one of the best films Kenneth Branaugh ever directed. If you’ve seen it, you doubtlessly remember the scene when detective Mike Church finally gets to interview the old reporter. And as the octogenarian prattles on, he lets drop one word which twists everything we thought we knew about the story.

The real genius of this moment, though, are the two beats between when he says this word and Church realizes what he’s just been told. There’s just a breath of him brushing off the news as insignificant before it sinks in and his eyes open wide. And why are those two beat so important, you ask?

Because that’s when we figure it out.

The audience barely gets a second, but it’s enough. We get to realize the import of that fateful word just a hair ahead of Church. We figure it out on our own, and we figure it out before him. And even then, Church still doesn’t say what he’s just realized—he just runs out of the room.

A few easy ways to let your audience feel smart, so they will love you...

Know what your audience knows. I’ve talked a few times about common knowledge. It’s stuff you can feel safe assuming everyone knows. Nazis are bad. Jesus was good. Dinosaurs are extinct. The sixteenth president was Abraham Lincoln. The Red Sox are a baseball team. For all of you reading this, you’ll notice I rattled off the words Harlequin Romance, Tom Clancy, and Yu-Gi-Oh without bothering to explain any of them—I know for the folks reading the ranty blog these terms are all recognizable. Knowing what your specific audience knows is the most important part of making them feel smart, because this is what lets you judge what they’ll be able to figure out on their own.

Be smarter than your audience. The ever-quotable Esmund Harmsworth once pointed out mystery editors will toss aside a manuscript if they can figure out who the murderer is before the protagonist does. If you think about it, though, this is true of any sort of mystery, puzzle, or intellectual challenge in a piece of writing. If the writer has dumbed things down to the point of simplicity—or further—who would have the patience to read it? It grates on the nerves, and it makes us impatient as we wait for character to figure out what was plainly obvious twenty minutes ago.

Don’t state the obvious. The late Michael Crichton once explained a writing rule he got from his father. “Be very careful using the word obvious. If something really is obvious, you don’t need to use it. If it isn’t obvious, than you’re being condescending to the reader by using it.” Of course, this goes beyond just the word obvious. Looking at that first tip up above, should you be wasting words to tell your audience Nazis were bad, the sky is blue, or Harvard is a prestigious school? Within your own writing, when Bob finds Cindy clutching a bloody knife with a look of glee on her face, do we need to be told she’s unhinged and dangerous?

Take one step back. When something does need to be explained, we all feel the need to go the distance with it. You don’t always have to, though. Look at some of those explanatory scenes and pull it back to 85-90%. If you take your audience most of the way there, they’ll probably be able to go the rest of the way on their own.

Give them the benefit of the doubt. Every now and then, just trust they’ll get it. Not all the time, but every now and then make a leap of faith your audience can make a connection with almost no help whatsoever from you. Odds are that leap isn’t as big as you think it is. When your audience pulls those slim threads together all on their own, they’re going to love you for it.

So, now that we’ve (hopefully) established I’m not quite as stupid as you all thought I was, perhaps you’d like to stop by next week for a few thoughts on writer’s block.

Provided, of course, that I can just figure out how to get them all down.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tool Time

One might wonder why I spend so much time going over basic stuff. After all, everyone knows how to write, yes? The sheer fact you can read this implies you could write it, too.

So why spend time on simplistic things like spelling and adverbs and character descriptions? Why not do the important stuff, like how to get an agent, who to submit things to, or what’s that magic word or phrase a paid reader needs to see on a page before he or she passes material up the line? After all, that’s what most people are asking about.

There’s three parts to that answer.

The first is I was supposed to be a teacher. Went to college for it and everything. Combine that with my own nature as a storyteller, and it makes me far more inclined to talk about things where I can instruct by example rather than parroting something available on four or five dozen websites, online newsletters, and print magazines.

The second can be best explained, and was inspired, by this dream I had the other night about the most amazing power saw ever.

No, seriously, this thing was fantastic. It was about the size of a Red Bull can and it cut through anything with no effort at all. Even a computer screen. I’m pretty sure the image of it was inspired by a detonator I saw on 24 last week...

But I digress.

Pretty much any toolbox is going to have a hammer and saw. They’re two of the most basic tools in existence, and you can find evidence of them going back millennia. Think about that. Thousands and thousands of years ago, countless generations before the Roman empire, the Egyptians and the Babylonians were using hammers and saws not much different than the ones you might have in your own toolbox.

Of course, nowadays a toolbox can have so much more in it. Just from my years in the film industry I built up a ridiculously diverse toolbox, and I wasn’t even in a tool-heavy department. Crescent wrenches. Allen wrenches. Screwdrivers of all different types and sizes. Tape measures. Clamps. Drill bits. Stud finders. Speed squares. Dremels. Tile knives. Tin snips. And, of course, a hammer and saw. Those basic tools built the pyramids, Abu Hol, and the hanging gardens of Babylon.

Thing is, a lot of folks will start building a toolbox with just the cool stuff. All-in-one screwdrivers. Multisocket sets. Laser-levels. Robo-grip wrenches (there is such a thing, I swear). They’ll hold off on the hammer and saw—those are the easy things, after all. Or they’ll get one of those bizarre, dainty little ones from the 99 Cents Store that might help drive thumbtacks into a corkboard.

Y’see, Timmy, any contractor will tell you it’s great to have all the latest gadgets. At the end of the day, though, if you can’t work well with two of the most basic tools in existence, you probably shouldn’t be on the jobsite. And just because you do know how to use them... well, it’s a great place to start. Work your way up, try a couple smaller projects, and maybe you can be building apartment buildings next summer.

And that leads us, finally, to the third part of my answer.

The reason I tend to go over the basics more than anything else is because the basics is where I see most fledgling writers having problems. Oh, yeah, their third act reveal was flat, the romance felt forced, and there wasn’t really a satisfying denouement to Yakko’s character arc. Thing is, most readers didn’t get past ninja-master Professor Lance Braniac fixing his time machination’s electoral system on page four of this 73-page novel so he can go back to 1957 and challenge Adolph Hitler to a dual.

When we’re dealing with all that, those other issues really need to wait on the sidelines for now.

To stick with our construction metaphor, there are tons of people out there talking about interior design while they drive a nail in with the handle of a pipe wrench. Or, to make it a bit clearer, they’re worried about shingling the roof and hanging gutters long before they’ve poured a workable foundation.

Yes, most of us took shop class in school, but that doesn’t mean we should all be building skyscrapers. Aspiring chefs don’t expect to run the kitchen on their first job. And it’s silly to assume you can call yourself a writer when you haven’t mastered the basics. Or even when you’ve mastered them.

To be a writer, you need to have all the right tools. Starting with the basic ones, which you need to be the complete and unquestioned master of. Until then, you have no business worrying about wrapping up character arcs.

Or building skyscrapers, for that matter.

With that fresh in your mind, next week I’d like to talk about how some of you apparently think I’m some kind of idiot.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

How Not To Be Seen

Know what would be nice after the brutal tax season? Well, pretty much anything...

So, what’s the easiest way not to be seen?

Not to stand up.

If you get that joke, points to you. If not... Seriously, expand your horizons...

Anyway, if you’ve been following this rambling, ranty blog for any amount of time, you’ve probably figured out writing is almost never easy (despite what you may see on Castle). It takes a lot of work, and it kind of sucks that when you’re doing your best work as a writer no one’s going to notice.

Allow me to explain.

The best compliment you can ever hope for is someone forgets they’re reading your story. Not in the sense they stop reading for lunch and forget to pick it back up, but in the sense they honestly forget they’re reading a story.

Back when I was playing with my first real attempt at a novel, The Suffering Map, I handed it off to a few folks who I knew could be brutally honest about it. One of these people was my best friend, Marcus. Yes, he’s a friend, but we’ve been friends so long we both have no trouble telling each other when one of has screwed up. Sometimes there’s even some glee to it. And, yes, I freely admit nine times out of ten it’s him pointing out how I’ve screwed up.

Marcus took longer than anyone to get back to me with notes on The Suffering Map, and he finally admitted it was because he kept forgetting he was supposed to be making them. He’d go for dozens of pages without noting any mistakes or jotting down comments.

Silly as it may sound, this was one of the best compliments I’d ever received. It meant Marcus had forgotten he was reading my book and was just getting caught up in the story. The author and the medium fell off to the side and he just got absorbed into the tale of Rob, Sondra, Gulliver, and the Polynecros Transporter. The fact it was his friend’s story became inconsequential.

This is what we should all be shooting for. Our audience would forget they’re reading the latest John or Jane Smith novel or screenplay, perhaps even forget they’re reading a written work altogether, and just let themselves sink into the story. This happens when the audience forgets they’re reading, and the easiest way for that to happen is for them not to see your writing.

It always feels satisfying to avail oneself of an exuberant flourish of words and demonstrate not just the verbosity and vocabulary we’re capable of as proficient wordsmiths (and thesaurus owners), but also the clever intricacies we can interweave between character, plot, and theme. The problem is, every time we make the reader hesitate or pause just for a second, we’re breaking the flow of the story. Whenever the audience becomes overly aware of us, the writer, leaning over their shoulder and saying “hey, check out what I did there,” they’re going to pull back the same way anyone would. If you don’t mind the touchy-feely analogy, it’s an invasion of their personal space.

Think of some of the times you’ve been painfully aware of the author you’re reading. Ahhhh, Stephen King is doing that down-home-folksy-supernatural thing again. Look, Anne Rice is drifting back to her softcore porn roots again. Oh, that’s the same twist Harper Lee used in her last book. Sometimes this works, but more often than not if the audience is pausing to be aware of the author it’s just a chance for them to become aware of the world around them, to register they’re just holding a manuscript and not experiencing a story.

As writers, we should aspire to being invisible. Oh, we want our characters to be seen. We want our dialogue to be heard. We want our action and passion and suspense to leave people breathless. But we are just distractions. Less of us is more of the story.

By the way... if you are actually in possession of any other book by Harper Lee besides To Kill A Mockingbird, you are sitting on a gold mine.

Just saying.

So... some ways not to be seen.

Names. If used in moderation, names are invisible. They’re just shorthand for the mental images we’ve all formed in our heads. If I say Angelina, there’s an immediate link to the actress, just like saying Bob will make your audience think of your character Bob. It’s also worth mentioning that simpler, more common names blend easier than rare or unnatural ones. Tony doesn’t stand out as much as Antonio, Edward is easier on the frontal lobe than Ezekiel, and all they’re nothing compared to Bannakaffalatta.

Moderation is the key, though. If names repeat too often, they start to get cumbersome. Even if the name is something short and simple like Bob, when I see a paragraph about Bob reading Bob’s book shortly before Bob decided it was too hot outside and so Bob went in where it was air conditioned... well, personally at that point I start counting them, which means I’m not reading the story I’m auditing it. This is why we have...

Pronouns. When names start to get too noticeable, we call in the almighty pronoun. Just like names are shorthand for story elements, pronouns are shorthand for those names. When names start to clutter up your writing, they’re there to leap in and shoulder the weight. It’s how Bannakaffalatta becomes he, that mysterious island becomes there, and the Maltese Falcon becomes it.

The catch here is to make sure your pronouns are clear, because the moment someone gets confused about who she is, they’ve just stopped being part of your story and started studying the page. A good rule of thumb—after you’ve referred to Angelina as she six or seven times, drop her proper name back in once. It’s been long enough it won’t look repetitive, and it’s a gentle reminder of who she is.

Said. We talked about this just last week, but it’s worth saying again. Said is invisible. No one’s going to count up how many times you use said (except maybe my friend Meredith), but people will start noticing if you constantly respond, retort, or exclaim. If you plan on having several characters pontificate, depose, or ejaculate, don’t be surprised when your audience stops reading to scratch their collective heads or giggle. Usually while they’re pointing right at you.

Vocabulary. We all know what red means, but viridian can make us pause for a moment. Some things glow and some are effulgent. That guy can be hairy or he can be hirsute, which means you might also think of referring to him as an ape or perhaps an anthropoid.

A huge problem I see is writers who can’t figure out what common knowledge is, and argue adjectives like atrementous or glabrous are valid simply because they’re in the dictionary. Pruinose is a real adjective, too, but there’s a reason it doesn’t come up much over drinks. Any word a writer chooses just to draw attention, to prove they don’t need to use a common word, is the wrong word. And the fact that it’s drawing attention means you’ve just been seen again.

So duck behind the bushes, crouch down inside that water barrel, and prepare to write. Once you’re out of sight, that means the audience can only focus their attention on your characters and your story.

Next week... what should you have in common with the people who built the pyramids and the hanging gardens of Babylon? It’s not the lost continent of Atlantis, I’ll tell you that much.

And don’t let me see you until then.

For now, go write.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

So Say We All

Variety, as a wise man once said, is the spice of life.

There’s a lot of truth to that. After all, it never hurts a person, especially a creative person, to go out and try a lot of new things. Visit new places. Taste new foods. Learn new skills. Or go out to sow a bunch of wild oats, as my eighty-eight year old great-aunt Marie said I should do right before graduation.

That was an awkward lunch, let me tell you.

Heck, even within our writing, variety is a pretty good. Repetition of words makes people’s eyes glaze over, and makes it look like you’ve got an extremely limited vocabulary. Heck, that’s why we have pronouns, so we don’t need to repeat the same nouns all the time. As Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla once said, using all those nouns over and over can really wear you down.

When I was starting out as a wee little writer, back in the days when Brian Daley’s Han Solo Trilogy was considered the apex of modern literature by most intelligent folks, I understood the need for variety. There were lots of things I didn’t know about writing, but my early exploration into words showed me that something could be blue or sapphire or sky-colored. Hair could be golden or flaxen or blond (and sometimes blonde).

One thing I came to realize was the number of descriptive ways dialogue could be attributed to speakers. My characters could declare. They could retort. They could intone. At times I had them growl, mutter, curse, hiss, whisper, shout, shriek, cackle, answer, and respond. On rare occasions, they were known to moan and gasp and groan. Once, I clearly remember one of them pontificating.

Before I was twenty I had set down a personal rule of variety, so to call it. Words should never duplicate on the same page. Especially not for mundane things like dialogue descriptors. There were so many more colorful and exotic and specific ways to get across what a character was saying.


About ten years back I had the lucky chance to sit down with an editor from Tor books at the San Diego State Writer’s Conference. I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember his name, even though I’ve gone digging through old notes and emails trying to find it. This polite gent looked at the first few pages of The Suffering Map. He thought the bit with the payphone was wonderfully creepy and even liked the ravens at the library that finished off the first chapter. One thing had him shaking his head, though, and I think my face probably went a little slack as he demolished one of my long-standing personal rules.

(I’m paraphrasing a bit here, since this was face to face and about a decade back).

Said is invisible,” he explained. “People skim over said without even realizing they’ve read a word, so your story moves faster. You don’t need all these words.” He showed me the first two pages, with a good two dozen red circles across them.

My clever attempt to show off my vocabulary and add color to my writing had left an editor shaking his head.

What shocked me even more, though, was discovering how right he was. I went home, sat down at the keyboard, and about 90% of those words became said. And the story did more faster. Heck, I even lost two pages off the total length. Just like that.

I still come across folks who believe as I once did. And it’s easy to see why they do. Whispering something is very different than saying it. Snarling an answer implies a different tone and subtext than saying it.

But how much of this is the reader going to do for you? Once I know the character and the context, doesn’t that set most of the tone and subtext for me? We all know the Joker has that hysterical edge to his voice. Does he really need to giggle or chuckle or cackle his lines?

Want proof?

Look back up at the opening of this little rant, and some of the folks I talked about. The wise man. Rufus. My wonderful great-aunt Marie. Nobody intoned or declared or advised. They all just said. That’s it. And you cruised over it quickly, smoothly, and without effort.

I’m not saying never use these other words, but they should be the exception in your writing, not the rule. I’ve suggested limiting yourself to four adjectives per page and one adverb. Try going back over something of yours and using just one or two clever dialogue descriptors per page. When they’re rare, they’ll have weight. They’ll have punch. And that punch is what makes your writing stand out.

Next week, just to keep you all on your toes, I want to talk about how no one should ever see your writing. Absolutely no one.

Until then, back to writing.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

What's In A Name?

Yes, we’ve hit a bold new level here at the ranty blog. People are making requests for me to pontificate about things. Well, one person is. Still, there’s only about seven of you looking at this, so that still puts it up around 14% of the readership giving feedback and asking for specific topics to be covered.

Anyway, by request, let’s talk about nomenclature, as the fancy folk like to call it.

As a wise man once said, all things that men fear have a name. To expand off that, pretty much everything has a name, especially in the world of fiction. Try to write for more than a few pages without naming something and you’ll see how difficult it gets. The unnamed thing may be scary as hell, but it’s also very difficult to write about. So we give names to the things that scare us (even if that name is just ‘It’) and to the characters who fight those things, and even to the people who just stand on the sidelines, oblivious and unaware.

Now, one school of thought is that character names are specific and symbolic things. That a writer has a very specific reason for naming him John and her Elizabeth. They hint at a character’s true nature, or perhaps they’re grim hints at their ultimate fates. Said school is why that character has a Shakespearean name, this one’s named after a philosopher, and that guy’s name is an anagram for “other man.”

I’d also like to take this time to point out the fun of having characters be all-too-aware of their name and what it symbolizes. In the opening of Ex-Heroes, one of the characters laments the fact that his parents hung him with the name George Bailey. If nothing else, in these cases you can assure the audience that you’re well aware of the symbolism-laden name you’ve given your character. Allow me to demonstrate with a quick snippet from a story I’ve been poking at for a while.


Some poor bastards are cursed from the day they arrive in the world. They’re born into a certain family, with a distinguishing feature, or perhaps get hung with a poorly-chosen name, and that’s really it for them. One such poor bastard, submitted for your approval, is Andrew Sleight.

With a name like that, you’d think his life had been planned from the start. On paper, it even reads like the start of a bad novel. Andrew was abandoned and never knew his parents, getting his name from the officer who amused him with shell games and coin tricks until child services arrived on the scene. He slid invisibly through the foster homes and orphanages, and had a brief brush with crime at the age of fifteen which is now sealed away and will not enter this story again. The other six, more recent brushes (more like broad strokes, really) weigh on him quite heavily. Two petty thefts for shoplifting, three larcenies for pickpocketing, and one grand theft auto, which is self-explanatory.


The other school of thought about names is... well, you don’t do any of that. Just skim the phone listings or the authors of some books on your desk and there you go.

Odd as it may sound with all that I’ve just scribbled down, I’m not really for or against either method. I think having names with subtle layers and meanings behind them can add to a story. I also think it won’t subtract from a solid story if they’re not there. In my experience, there are times having extra meaning behind a name can add a beautiful level of nuance. There are also, however, times you just get tired of being beaten with the symbolism stick and want to get back to the story.

So, anyway, a few clever ways to find names...

Adjectives. Here’s an easy one. Just rattle off a dozen or so words that describe your character. Odds are you’ll hit one that’s close to a name. Think of Mary Shelley-- she gave her character who figures out how to beat death the name Victor. George Lucas named his self-interested space pilot Solo. This can also be the chance for some grim irony, as well. In The Incredibles, there’s something subtle and touching about the man who can lift freight trains being forced to spend the rest of his life as Mr. Parr (or par, as in average).

Baby books. I think we’ve all seen those little books at the checkout counter offering diet tips, how to train pets, or common crossword clues. If you look, there’s usually one with a few hundred baby names and what they mean. Browsing through one of these is an easy way to find the perfect name for your character. Priscilla means dutiful. Oscar means “spear of God.” Yoko means determined or ambitious (no, seriously).

Established names. I mentioned poor George Bailey above. I went to school with a girl named Natalie Wood. Alien Nation features the poor Newcomer cop named Samuel Francisco squaring off against alien crime boss Rudyard Kipling. God only knows how many poor kids have been named after presidents. Sometimes it’s perfectly acceptable for a character to have the same name as a famous figure, either because they have similarities or they’re polar opposites. As I said above though, if you’re going to use this one, you have to acknowledge you’re using it in some way.

Make it up. Cheating, you say? James Barrie made up the name of Wendy for the girl who accompanies his most famous creation. Edgar Rice Burroughs made up most of his character names, since so very few of them were either A) human, B) terrestrial, or C) both. In both cases, the important thing is that they sound right. Wendy reminds us of windy, and the “eee” sound is... well, a bit girly. It’s a young, fresh, happy name. Burroughs, on the other hand, used lots of hard consonants in his names. You never forget the peoples of Mars are all tough warrior races.

(Although—for the fantasy and sci-fi folks—I will toss out that if you make up a totally unpronouncable name, you’re going to be breaking the flow of your story. One of my favorite niche genre novels has a character named aM!xitsa, and it should tell you how good the story is that I could make it past that name a few hundred times...)

Again, despite all this stuff, I don’t think a lack of triple-layered names means you’re a bad writer, and it will not kill your manuscript. Catcher in the Rye would not have fallen apart if the main character was Fred Phelps. To Kill A Mockingbird would still be one of my favorite books if the narrator was nicknamed Chief instead of Scout. Odds are we all still would’ve cheered if the hero of Raiders of the Lost Ark was going by the name Irv Smith when he shot that swordsman in the marketplace.

In the end, the most important thing is just to give some thought before you name a character. Not deep thought. Not meaningful thought. But if you want to bring them to life, you’ve got to put something into that choice.

Next week, I’ve been thinking of a few things I wanted to say about having a few things to say.

Until then, get back to writing.