Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Ahhh, Christmas. Time for family and friends. Eggnog and presents. Gathering around the fireplace and maybe watching a few holiday classics on the tube.

Also a great time for psychopaths, invading aliens, and big explosions.

I should probably explain that last bit.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Then we’ll begin.

In a way, holidays make for great settings because they come pre-packaged for a writer. Much in the same way saying “Angelina” conjures the mental image of a certain actress, I can tell you “the neighborhood is decorated for Christmas,” and I’ve set the stage. Just like that.

Oh, sure, I can go into more detail if I really need to. It might be very important that the Hendersons decorated that small pine on their front lawn and the Applebaums have mistletoe over their front door. And maybe that old Mister King has nothing on his lawn. But I’ve set out all the broad strokes with just six words. Even if the description never went any further, you know what Sawmill Drive or Sunset Boulevard look like. How many pages of writing does that save me?

Major holidays are great shorthand for the time of year and tone of a story. This can help you make the ideas behind your story even more powerful. Is there anything more romantic than meeting your true love on Valentine’s Day? We almost expect serial killers on Halloween. The 4th of July is just brimming with patriotism here in the U.S.

Y’know, it just struck me while writing that... How many countries have “Independence from England” as a national holiday? Dozens, right? And what’s England got? Guy Fawkes Day. They celebrate the day they didn’t let religious extremists take over.


If your setting lines up with your story, you’ve almost got a theme going there. If your characters are discussing peace on earth while decorating a Christmas tree, good for you. Maybe they’re talking about forgotten promises at New Year’s or being grateful at Thanksgiving. So if you’ve got a story that follows some holiday-centric ideas, it might be worth setting it at said holiday.

That being said there’s also a Clarke’s Law-type issue to consider here. Sometimes the best story to set at a given holiday is, in fact, the worst story for that holiday. For example...

If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard me reference screenwriter Shane Black once or thrice. One of the things he’s known for is setting so many of his films at Christmas. Lethal Weapon. The Long Kiss Goodnight. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. All fun movies, all set at Christmas. What’s interesting to note, though, is that not one of them depends on Christmas for any element of their story. Lethal Weapon is a buddy cop film about taking down drug lords. The Long Kiss Goodnight involves an AWOL assassin trying to stop her old employers. Heck, the most Christmassy part of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is Michelle Monaghan walking around for a good chunk of the film in her Naughty Santa costume.

Christopher Moore’s wonderful book The Stupidest Angel is also set at Christmas. It’s got a zombie uprising during the most wonderful time of the year.

There’ve also been one or two Christmas horror movies, and a few Valentine’s Day ones as well. Again, reversing the expectations.

And how many alien invasions has the Doctor stopped on December 25th at this point? Five? Six?

Y’see, Timmy, what works for these films is the contrast between our expectations for this time of year and what the story delivers. Events become a little more extreme when played out against a backdrop that evokes opposing feelings. And if it’s a backdrop you don’t have to spend time describing or explaining... well, that just gives you time to get on with your story.

Next time we’ll be closing in on New Year’s, so I may chat about resolutions. Or looking forward to next year. Maybe both.

Until then, a very Happy Christmas season to you all. Don’t go too crazy with the eggnog-- it is loaded with calories.

And go write.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Writing is Rewriting. And Then Stopping.

You’ve probably heard at least half of this week’s title before. If you’ll indulge me for a bit, I’ll explain the other half.

Since I’ve been waist-deep in the drafting process, I figured I could toss out a rough guide of what that usually means to me. I've given lots of suggestions about this sort of thing before, but I thought it might be cool to show a step by step, solid example of how I take a project from a pile of rough ideas to something I'll show friends, to something I consider worth showing to... well, people who might give me money for it.

Before going into this, I also want to remind everyone of the golden rule.

What works for me might not work for you, and it almost definitely won't work for that guy.

As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, we all have our own way of writing. Doing these drafts in this way helps me, but you might need to do something a little different.

That being said...

The 1st Draft-- This is just the "get it done" stage, as far as I’m concerned. I don't worry about catching typos or crafting every subtle moment in the plot. I just want to finish this draft with a beginning, an end, and the majority of points in between.

I tend to skip around a lot in the first draft. I'll scribble down random beats or dialogue exchanges that occurred to me while the idea was fermenting in my head and drop them more or less where I think they'd go. This serves as a very, very rough outline, just enough so I can start writing on page one and go.

At this early stage, if I get stuck on something (an awkward conversation or complex action scene), I'll just skip it for now. I know I’ll be able to go into the exact details of Wakko’s nervous breakdown later, so I'd rather keep moving forward and leave those snarls for Future Peter to deal with. Again, for me, the most important thing is to get the overall framework done. It's a lot easier to think about the little things when the big things aren't looming over you.

I also don't hold back here at all. I let dialogue, descriptions, and action scenes go on forever. I know I'll be cutting eventually, so there's no reason to worry about length now. For this stage, it really is quantity over quality. I mentioned this visual once before. Think of the first draft like prospecting for gold. If you wanted to find a pound of gold, how much soil would you dig up? Seventeen ounces? Five pounds? Five hundred pounds? Where are your best odds for finding that pound of gold?

I don’t show this draft to anyone. My lovely lady may get an out-loud reading or a little peek if I think I’ve done something exceptionally clever. There have been one or two times she’s called me out on something that sounded good in my head but was kind of flat and awkward in someone else’s. I also don’t do much past a night off to celebrate the end of this draft before diving into...

The 2nd Draft-- Now it's time to smooth it out. All those problems I left for Future Peter to deal with need to be dealt with. Gaps get filled in. All those awkward knots get worked out. Because I can see a lot of these elements in relation to the whole story now , I'll usually find the answers to these problems are more apparent.

The goal with this draft is to have a readable manuscript. No more little notes to myself or trailing paragraphs that need to get connected somehow. Someone should be able to pick this up and read it start to finish without thinking they lost a few pages or only got my notes on a chapter.

Keep in mind this doesn't mean I do show it to people. It just means I should be able to. Really, the only person who might see this is my lady-love, and not even her always. Sometimes she has to wait.

A few people have argued with me these two drafts really just amount to me doing a first draft in two stages. That may be true, but they're not writing the ranty blog, are they?

Okay then, so... now I step away for a couple of days. Maybe as much as a week. I’ll watch movies, work out a little extra (I need it after three or four months at my desk), build little toy soldiers, or maybe even scribble up a few ranty blog posts in advance. Sometimes I’ll play with a short story idea. The goal is to push the manuscript as far out of my mind as possible. Don't look at it, try not to think too much about it. And then...

The 3rd Draft--Stephen King says to start cutting on draft two, but as I said, my draft two is what some people may call a solid first draft. As such, I usually wait until draft three to start slashing. This is where I hunt down adverbs, adjectives, pointless dialogue descriptors, and so on. Two fun rules I've mentioned here before--

2nd draft = 1st draft - 10%

one adverb per page, four adjectives

One thing I really go after here is the padding phrases I have a bad habit of dropping in everywhere (sort of, somewhat, kind of, more or less) that don't really do anything. One of my regular readers dubbed this Somewhat Syndrome, and I like to tell myself I’ve gotten better about it now that I’m aware of the problem. Sometimes I also like to tell myself that Famke Janssen and I would have a really deep, emotional connection if we ever met...

Anyway, at this point I've gone through the whole manuscript at least twice, so a few larger cuts should be visible. The long description of Wakko ceremonially sharpening his katana. Dot's flashback to the summer she lost her virginity during a midnight swim with a handsome stranger. That impassioned speech Wakko gives against taxing the rich. That's some beautiful writing there, but is it actually doing anything?

This tightening process is also when I can usually spot flaws in the overall structure. In larger stories, it's not uncommon to end up with "floating" events that are important, but aren't tied to a solid point in the script. This one may be here right now, but with all of the story in front of me I might realize it would work better there.

If I haven't already, this is when I let the lady love have a look. She's my first set of eyes to let me know I screwed up something (10%) and I'm too close to see it.

For the record, this is where Ex-Patriots is right now.

The 4th Draft--This is the first big polish. I go through sentence by sentence, looking for words that come up too often or stilted dialogue. I also make sure all the cuts and swaps from the last draft haven't messed anything up. Are the logic chains still complete? Transitions still good? Parallels parallel? Arcs smooth? Did Dot just pull a skeleton key out of her pocket that she shouldn’t have yet? Did Yakko just turn into a woman for a few minutes in the middle of the chapter?

This draft doesn’t take long. Just a day or two. It’s just one slow, careful read of the story.

Once I’ve got the fourth draft all shiny, this is the one I show to folks for comments. I generally send it out to five people. They're a carefully selected bunch, all of whom have some level of literary background, and I don't think there's one among them I've known for less than five years. One's actually been reading and critiquing my work for over two decades now, and she still doesn't cut me any slack. The key thing is they're all people who will give honest, useful criticism.

This goes off into the world and it may be a month before I look at it again. The trick here is to resist messing with it while those people are looking at it. Again, it’s a great time to flex different mental muscles. Maybe I’ll do a lot of research on an upcoming project. Maybe I’ll build a model tank. Or maybe I’ll just get caught up on laundry.

The 5th Draft-- Now I've gotten notes back from whatever folks I cajoled into reading this thing. I sit down with all the comments and go through the whole manuscript page by page. This is one of those times that having a second monitor’s very helpful, because I can have three or four versions open and visible at once.

So, what did everyone think of page one? What comments were there on page two? How's page three look? As I'm doing this, I've also got my own copy of the 4th draft that I'm using as a "master document." This way I can get all the notes assembled in the relevant place and make whatever changes are required. This document is more or less the 5th draft, and it can take another two weeks or more to finish it with a full book manuscript.

I mentioned above that I get five people to make comments for me, and that's so I can get a broader sampling on each issue that comes up. If four people like something but one doesn't, odds are I'll call that good. Nobody's going to get every joke or like every chapter. If three don't and two do (and of course I do, or I wouldn't've written it), I'll sit and give it a good look. And if nobody likes it, well... I'm smart enough to know when I've screwed up something doesn't work.

6th Draft-- This one's yet another smoothing, polishing draft. I need to make sure everything still works now that I’ve made those tweaks and changes from my reader's notes,. So, yet another line by line reading, adjusting as I go.

And honestly, at this point... this is usually when I’m done. There’s only so much a given writer--in this case, me-- can do with a given story. There comes a point when further work accomplishes nothing. If it's not ready to show to a publisher by now, it probably means I screwed up something big right at the start. Perhaps when I first thought I could adapt To Kill a Mockingbird into a hardcore tween vampire romance starring the Animaniacs.

Y’see, Timmy, there's a real danger that if you keep trying to come up with reasons to do another draft, you'll keep finding them. I'm sure we all know someone who's just been working on the same manuscript for years and years and years because they've got another one or two drafts to put it through. After a while of that, your story stops looking like a coherent tale and a bit more like the Frankenstein Monster. And not the nice, clean Boris Karloff version. I’m talking about the seriously messy Roger Corman one.

Maybe even, dare I say it, Mr. Stitch.

Next time it’s going to be Christmas. Well, the Eve of Christmas Eve. So I might prattle on with some ideas about how you can have holiday fun.

Until then, go write

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Brief Interlude

I’d hoped to have time for a little rant on drafts this week, but it just hasn’t worked out that way. I blame The Green Hornet. If it hadn’t been so good, I wouldn’t’ve had to do more work on the article.


So, I’ve got nothing for you but this little gem my lady love discovered. Full credit goes to creator David Kazzie who runs a nice blog called The Corner. I’m sure everyone reading this has been in this conversation before, either in person or somewhere here online.

The real question is, which side of the conversation were you...?

Next week, the draft.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Going Over The Wall

This week’s title is one of those references that only works if you watch a lot of prison movies. Or maybe if you remember living with the Berlin Wall. Or if you’re a 1200 year old Mongolian.

Okay, I guess it works for a lot of people.

You know what gets skimmed over a lot? The paragraph. No, I’m not making a writer joke. Think about it. In school you learned about simple sentences, complex sentences, sentence components, sentence structure, and more. As someone who came pretty close to being a high school English teacher, it wouldn’t surprise me if you ran the numbers and found out half of all English and grammar instruction revolves around sentences.

Now, granted, the sentence is one of the basic building blocks of all writing. Words may be your electrons and protons, but until they’re in a sentence they’re not really doing anything (unless you have some sort of literary particle accelerator, but that would be dangerous and reckless to use). They’re vague abstractions on their own. Once you start linking them together, that’s when the fun begins. That’s when you get to express thoughts and ideas and memories and dreams. So learning about sentences and how to construct them is an invaluable skill. Without it we’d all be muttering “fire bad” or “Hulk smash” and gesturing a lot.

The next step up--in both construction and in skill--is the paragraph. It’s a group of sentences that have related ideas behind them and they come together to express bigger thoughts and more complex ideas on a given topic. As such, it’s kind of sad that the paragraph only gets a small amount of attention from most instructors. Heck, I’ve got a baker’s dozen of writing books that I’ve collected over the years and you know how many of them have “paragraph” listed in their index? Two.

Let’s go over a couple of the basics of paragraphs. Most of you probably remember these from grade school, but it’s probably not a bad refresher for all of us. Including me.

First off, as I mentioned above, a paragraph revolves around an idea. It’s almost always a single topic. Keep in mind “a topic” can encompass a lot of things. For fiction purposes, think of it as a single step or beat. Solving a mystery is a topic. So is realizing you’re in love. Kickboxing with the enemy, downloading MP3s, reading a book, getting eaten by one of the Elder Gods-- these are all topics. Any one of these simple ideas can get fleshed out into a paragraph with more description and additional details (and sometimes into more than one paragraph)

This brings us to the topic sentence (yeah, your skin’s starting to crawl a bit, isn’t it? That fifth grade English class is coming back to you now). In simple terms, the topic sentence sums up the rest of the paragraph. It sets the stage, so to speak. The topic sentence gives me, the reader, an idea what the paragraph is about. For example, look back to the first sentence of this paragraph. It lets you know that this block of text is going to be about topic sentences. Make sense?

More often then not, the topic sentence is the first sentence of a paragraph. It doesn’t have to be, mind you. In more casual, conversational prose it can end up as the second or third sentence. If you’re presenting facts, it might even come at the end, like a lawyer summing up his or her case for a jury ( “...and that’s why Superman could beat Mighty Mouse in a fight.”).

You should also have some kind of a closer. It doesn’t need to be “Now I am done,” but it should be apparent that this particular bundle of information is now complete. As I mentioned above, sometimes your closer can be your topic sentence. The important thing is that a paragraph just doesn’t drift off at the end. One simple way you can prevent that is this.

Of course, the real question here is... so what? Are paragraphs really that important? If they were, more than two out of thirteen books would talk about them, right? They can’t be that big a deal.

Stop. Did you catch that two paragraphs back? Awkward as hell, wasn’t it? It stumbles because it ends with a sentence that should be leading directly into another one. Not only that, but said sentence is actually expressing a separate idea. The main paragraph is about the need for a closer, but the last sentence is about a method of preventing awkward endings. It should really be the first sentence of the next paragraph, with further explanation coming after it.

There is no simple method of prevention, by the way. Well, there’s “don’t do it,” but that seems like kind of a cop-out answer.


If you don’t have paragraphs, what you have is a wall. We’ve all seen them. In books, sometimes in scripts, and probably a fare share of time here online. Heck, I dealt with it here on the ranty blog just a few weeks ago. It’s when the page is simply filled with words. No breaks. No pauses to breathe. Every single line hits the left hand margin for as far as you can see. It’s intimidating. It makes us cringe back almost instinctively. The reader’s overwhelmed by this monster block of text that incorporates four or five or more topics.

Y’see, Timmy, paragraphs make a story easier to read. In the same way that punctuation slows and regulates the flow of words, making sure the reader gets the words at the pace the writer intended, paragraphs break the story up into bite-sized bits. You don’t want to eat all the food in a meal at once (which is why you have sentences) and you also don’t want to eat all your meals for the day at once (which is why you have paragraphs). The wall of text is one of those horrific force-feeding fetishes, where the author is just cramming more and more and MORE and MORE down the reader’s throat.

When used correctly, paragraphs help tease the reader on. One sentence leads into the next. Each paragraph leads into the next. Chapters complement each other (but never, ever compliment each other). This is what gets readers hooked on your writing, and once or thrice here I’ve referred to it with the term flow. Well-constructed paragraphs are a huge element of flow.

Paragraphs can also help with dialogue. In this case your topic is usually what Yakko is saying, and perhaps what he’s doing while he’s talking. When you cram multiple speakers (or thinkers, or action-ers) into a single paragraph, you become more dependent on descriptors, and that can slow things down. While there’s no hard rule that says every speaker needs a new paragraph of their own, in my experience it usually makes for a cleaner, easier read.

And that’s what we’re all going for. A clean, easy read that will keep our audience turning pages when they should be cooking dinner, folding laundry, or doing their homework. So the next time you sit down to fill a page, maybe you’ll think of some of this. And maybe you won’t actually fill the page.

I might need to miss next week while I finish up this draft. Once I’m back, though, I thought it’d be a great time to talk about drafts.

Until then, go write.