Thursday, September 29, 2011


Evil villain laugh.

Hey, guess what I wanted to ramble on about this week?

No, not the new Ex-Patriots button the sidebar... (how's that for subtle?)

Villains! The bad guy (or gal). That character with the evil scheme that is pure genius in its simplicity.

First off, I want to make sure we’re all clear on something. There’s a difference between a villain and an antagonist (scary literary terms!).

While your villain is almost always your antagonist, they aren’t always. The first thing that pops to mind is the “lurking in the background” type villain who we know is there, but who never actually does anything. For example, the Emperor is definitely still one of the villains in Star Wars (the first movie had no subtitle, sorry George), but he’s hardly the antagonist. Likewise, it’s actually kind of common to have an antagonist who isn’t a villain. Two examples would be the Fugitive or the oft-maligned Lilo & Stitch. In both of these cases the antagonists are policemen who are 100% on the side of law and order.

I wanted to make that distinction because in this little rant I am going to be talking about villains. Antagonists are easy. In fact, too many people wuss out and have antagonists instead of villains, because creating a good villain is a lot harder than it looks.

Now, I’m going to start by bringing up a touchy subject. I hope everyone here realizes I’m doing it for instructive purposes and not to start any sort of debate. I apologize now if anyone gets offended, but... well, if discussing some of these things morally offends you, a career as a writer might not be for you.


I once read a screenplay about a morally conflicted woman who worked in an abortion clinic. She had very mixed feelings about her job and tried (somewhat) to see both sides of the argument. The screenwriter of this piece was pushing a message, though, and that message was pro-life/anti-abortion.

So... problem. It’s tough to do moral issues on screen in and of themselves. We need to see an actual conflict. An A vs. B situation. Our heroine is on the side of life, and thus is sane and rational and good, so where’s the conflict? What’s she going to struggle against?

The homicidal clinic staff.

That’s right, I said homicidal. As in... maniacs.

Every doctor twirled their mustache and laughed gleefully at the thought of getting to perform an abortion. They had pools going to see who could do the most in one day. When the main character convinces one patient to leave, the doctor actually snaps his fingers and says, “Ah, well... maybe next time.” The rest of the staff would blatantly lie to patients and trick them into signing “binding contracts” that forced them to go through with procedures.

Now, a lot of you who read this collection of rants know that I have a habit of being a bit verbose and pushing things. But the sad thing is, right now I’m not. I’m actually understating things a bit. The staff at this medical clinic was a bunch of ridiculously over-the-top caricatures of evil that made the staff at Auschwitz look like canonized saints.

This is a common problem in message scripts. Whether the message is pro-life, pro-environment, pro-religion, or pro-science, the writers often have trouble putting themselves in the other side’s shoes. If a writer zealously believes in any cause, to the point that nothing could sway their beliefs, it’s going to very difficult for them to empathize with anyone who has opposing views. How could you possibly have opposing views, after all? It’s SO CLEAR that I am right!

This is a problem, because empathy, as I’ve mentioned before, is what makes a good writer. You can always spot it when you’re reading a story by someone with little or no empathy for how other people feel and react. Being able to put yourself in different viewpoints is the key to great characters.
And guess what? Villains are characters. If handled correctly, they’re fantastic characters. Mess them up and... well, they’ll probably end up twirling their mustaches and saying, “Muah-ha-hah” a lot.

Because they’re characters, that means the bad guys can’t be illogical or fall back on madness as an excuse to explain their behavior. They need to have a real motivation for their actions. The best villains don’t scream and shriek and wave straight razors around. No, the best ones calmly and coldly ransom the life of everyone on your homeworld for a single piece of information.... and then blow up your homeworld anyway. And they do this because—in their minds—they have a perfectly logical reason for doing it. And because they're complete bastards.
Y’see, Timmy, a real villain is a person. You might not agree with them. You might not like them. But you should be able to make sense of why they do what they do.

In the movie Inglorius Basterds, Hans Landa is an absolutely terrifying Nazi officer. He isn’t scary because he shouts or has people killed. What makes him such an effective villain is that he’s completely rational. He makes a calm, solid case for why it makes perfect sense to hate Jews and want to kill them. And then he tops off this little exercise in logic by showing that he’s far smarter than anyone else present (including the audience) and has been guiding the conversation since the moment he entered the room. And that’s when we realize just how evil Landa is.

On the flipside, consider Tank Evans, the over-muscled penguin from the movie Surf’s Up. No, it’s actually fun, you should watch it. One of the problems the writers and actor Diedrich Bader struggled with was trying to make the villainous surfer believable and relatable. Their inspiration came when Bader’s son pointed out that Tank wasn’t the bad guy, he just loved all his trophies. Not only did it cement the character, but it gave them an all new scene (you’ll know it when you see it).

So, here’s my helpful hint for you. If a writer cannot put themselves in the villian’s place at all, don’t try to write them. If it’s completely impossible to empathize with what this character is thinking or to get a grasp on their line of reasoning—and to do it in a way that lets them remain believable—then this character shouldn’t be in the story.

That’s true of any character. So it should true for the villain, too, right?

Next time... y’know, I’m coming off a few intensive drafts and my brain’s a bit fried. Is there anything in particular someone would like addressed? I got a few calls last time I asked. Anything new pop to mind? If not, next week might just be me falling back on something obvious.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Do You Read Sutter Cane?

And if you get that title reference, you know the answer really determines what kind of person you are.

A character sketch is one of those things that comes up a lot in the storytelling world. Novelists and screenwriters talk about them, but in a variety of ways. Sometimes very indy films are even called “character sketches.” So it’s understandable the term could cause confusion, especially when some folks talk about them as vital, necessary things for a writer to have without really explaining what they are.

In a visual-artistic sense, a sketch usually isn’t a finished work. It’s when you use a few quick lines and textures to suggest an image rather than forming a complete image. It’s inherently incomplete, but implies something more than itself.

In a similar sense, a character sketch shouldn’t be an exhaustive list that covers every possible detail. It’s supposed to give you, the writer, a sense of the character you can refer back to as a guideline. It’s notes about how they talk, how they move, what they like, and what they hate.

Like a fair number of the things I pontificate about here on the ranty blog, a character sketch is going to be something that’s unique to each author. Probably to each character, as well. Some characters may need pages of exhaustive notes. Others may only need a line or two. And with a few, you may never need to write a single note because they’re perfectly in your mind.

In the book I’m working on right now, I sketched out a short paragraph about each character. Most of them got two or three lines, and a few of them got five or six. For the most part, though, I let character elements develop as I went, growing off those initial impressions. I didn’t know Xela was a nudist or Clive was a recovering alcoholic, so neither of these fairly defining traits are in their simple character sketches.

However, there are a number of surprises and reveals in this story. The characters end up reacting to a lot of things. By the third draft, it was clear I needed to know just how everybody would react. Debbie and Clive were pretty clean-cut. Nate, Veek, and Roger, on the other hand, would definitely swear. But how would they swear? After all, profanity’s just as much a part of someone’s speech patterns as whether or not they say pop or soda. So I do know precisely how everyone swears.

Now, on the flipside, I got to talk to filmmaker Stephan Elliot a while back about his film adaptation of Easy Virtue. When I asked about how he developed the character of Furber the butler, Elliot laughed and said one word—“Hate.” That’s it. That was the entire character sketch. Furber completely, openly loathes his employers, and his contempt is clear every moment he’s forced to be on screen with them.

So, what is a character sketch? It’s whatever works for you. I’ve found one of the easiest ways to create one, though, is just to ask questions. Not only does this help you get various answers about someone, it also generally leads to other questions about them that develop the character more.

For example... let’s talk about Phoebe.

For the record, I have never, ever in my life met someone named Phoebe (to the best of my knowledge). That’s why it’s my fallback name for things like this (along with the Warners). If I used a name like Tammy, Stephanie, Becky, Colleen, or half a dozen others when I make these examples, I would catch sooooooooooooo much crap from someone, somewhere. It’s the writer’s curse. If I have a character with the same name as someone I know, I must be talking about them. Heaven forbid I give the character my name, because then I’m just a raging egomaniac. Or, at least, I’m finally admitting it openly.

Anyway... we were talking about Phoebe. Let’s ask a couple questions. Answer as you see fit. You don’t need to write them down, but you can if you want to .

Where did she grow up?

Does she get along with her family?

Did she go to college? Did she live at college?

Did she do any “experimenting” during her college years?

Did she finish college?

Republican or Democrat?

What does she do for a living?

What does she want to be doing for a living?

How much does she spend on her hair each month?

Does she brush and floss regularly?

Does she have any hobbies or collections?

Does she go to church? What church?

Where does she live?

Where does she want to live?

Does she have roommates?

How does she swear? Like a sailor? Like a prude?

Phoebe’s five favorite movies? Books? Bands?

How old was she when she had her first drink?

How often does she go out with friends?

Are most of her friends male or female?

Does she smoke?

Has she ever done drugs?

Does she go to the gym?

What kind of car does she drive?

What kind of car does she want to drive?

Does she have pets?

If you answered half of those questions, that’s a ton of information about Phoebe. Plus, as you’ve probably noticed, a lot of it implies other facets of her personality. Even if you don’t use all of it, it’s going to give you much better insight into how she talks and reacts to the world around her and how she might react to a different world (figurative or actual) if she were to suddenly find herself in one.

Now, let me jump back to the artistic analogy of sketches. There’s another term you’ve probably heard called negative space. It’s when you define shapes by the emptiness around them rather than by the shapes themselves. And sometimes, alas, that’s how some writers try to define their characters.

For example, have you watched any of the GOP debates? You’ll notice the one resounding theme among them—among most politicians—is who they are not. They are not Washington insiders. They are not part of those over-educated elitists trying to create socialism. They sure as hell are not President Obama. They’re nothing like him, and they’ll get angry if you dare hint otherwise.

The question is, though, who are they? They’re so busy establishing what they aren’t, they rarely talk about what they are. In the rush to tell you what doesn’t work and what they won’t do, they never get around to what does work and what they will do.

Now, I’m sure there’s a philosophical argument to be had here. Does a hole punch make 1/4” circles of paper or does it make 1/4” holes in paper? Does it make a difference which it does since both are technically correct?

Y’see, Timmy, the problem with defining by negatives is that it’s like trying to prove a negative. That kind of definition leaves too many variables for it to be clear. If I tell you the shirt I’m wearing right now isn’t red, does that really tell you anything about the color of my shirt?

Sure, say some folks—we know it isn’t red. Okay, so what is it? Is it blue? Green? Black? Tan? White? Gray? Striped? Plaid? If I tell you to picture a not-red shirt, everyone here’s going to picture something different. And if all you know about someone is that they’re not Obama... well, that narrows it down to about five billion people. You need positives to define characters—even unlikable characters and flat-out villains.

Finally, one last point I brushed against up above and I also mentioned last week. Just because you come up with stuff for a character sketch doesn’t mean you need to use it in your work. Oh, you’ll use all of it in that greater “grand tapestry” sense, but just because I came up with a background element doesn’t mean I need to use it.

Y’see, Timmy (yep, two Y’see Timmys in one post), an all-too-common mistake is when people come up with lush backstories and then feel the need to shoehorn every single line of them into their manuscript. Again, a character sketch is for the writer, not the reader. It’s good for me to know Malavika’s a third-generation Indian who graduated high school a year early and had her first sexual experience at age twenty... but none of this is really relevant to the story I’m telling now.

So I didn’t bother to put any of it in.

And neither should you.

Next week, we take care of the bad guys once and for all. Hopefully.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Screenwriting 101

Okay, I’ve said many times that I don’t want to use this blog to go over the basics. If you’ve found your way here, I’d like to pretend that you’ve got a loose grasp of your chosen writing format. But after a few recent scripts I’ve seen, it’s apparent the basics aren’t as well-known or understood as they should be.

So, without further ado (because there's a lot to go over), here’s a baker’s dozen of basics you should have down before you show your screenplay to someone. And especially before you submit it to someone.

1) Basic FormatScripts are always in single space Courier 12. Always. If you heard a story about a professional screenwriter who only works in Times Roman and turns in his or her work that way, I can tell you two things—that person’s already got the leeway you only get with a well-established career, and as soon as they handed the script in the whole thing was reformatted into Courier 12. It’s the industry standard for a number of reasons, including timing and scheduling. Every other department needs that script in Courier 12.

Ahhh, says clever wanna-be #7... but if they can convert it anyway, what difference does it make if I want to write in Times or Arial or Wingdings?

It doesn’t make any difference how I write it. But when I submit it to a contest, an agent, or a production company, it has to be in Courier 12. Because scripts are always in Courier 12. Always. And I’m trying to convince people that I’m a professional.

And another thing—you don’t use scene numbers in a spec script. That’s something that comes up much later during the actual pre-production for a film. They’re a tool for the assistant directors and department heads, not the screenwriter. Putting them in now will just get me tagged as an amateur.

2) Basic StyleAlways use third person, present tense. Always. The script is what’s happening on screen right now. Characters can have dialogue where they talk about things in past tense, but all my action blocks and descriptions must be in third person, present tense.

A screenplay that switches person or dips back and forth between past and present tense is always a good tip-off for readers that this is someone’s short story or novel they sloppily adapted into screenplay format. There’s also usually a reason no one bought their short story or novel, and it’s related to the fact that they didn’t bother to learn how to format a screenplay...

3) Don’t use archaic terminology – Forsooth, whenst thou uses scrivening of yesteryore, thy words appearst equally of yesteryore. And few and far between liest those who show interest in the dry, dusty bones of a mouldering anecdote.

Or, as we say today, no one’s interested in an old script.

It used to be common to end every scene with CUT TO or FADE, or to end every page with (CONTINUED). It also used to be common to see kids be-bopping to their transistor radios. In both cases, no one’s done that for years. When I started working in the film industry back in 1993, CUT TO was already dead. CONTINUED was on life support, and only crops up in very limited use, usually for ongoing dialogue.

If you’ve been using an old script from Casablanca, Star Wars, or Chinatown to learn this stuff--toss it. The film industry grows and changes like any other industry. If a script wasn’t written in the past ten years, it’s probably going to give you more bad habits than good ones.

4) Capitals -- This really isn’t that tough. You use capitals the first time we see a character so the reader knows this is someone new. I’ll go into this a bit more in a minute.

You also use capitals when something important happens. When YAKKO IS SHOT or Dot’s exploring the cellar and finds A SEVERED HAND ON THE FLOOR. Keep in mind, though, that in this sense capitals are just like exclamation points. The more often I use them, the less power they have, and eventually they’ll tip the scale and just start frustrating or annoying the reader.

Also, none of this applies to dialogue. Again, for clarity, never apply the above rules to dialogue. If dialogue is in capitals it means someone is shouting, nothing else. There is no other way to interpret capitals in dialogue. So even if my step-sister has never been mentioned before, I don’t say “Have you met my step-sister CAROLYN?” I also don’t say “Hey, over there on the floor, is that A SEVERED HAND!?!!?

Well, okay, I might shout if I see a severed hand... Question is, am I supposed to be shouting?

5) Names -- Again, whenever I introduce a character, I always put them in all caps, even in the action blocks. The very first time I see YAKKO WARNER I need to know he's someone new. After that he's just Yakko. For example...

Another man cut from the 50’s action cloth, ZACK “ZAP” MARSHALL is standing by another panel, a few feet down the wall from Lance’s. This one has three large buttons on it, marked “laser,” “missile,” and “x-ray”. Zap also wears a wide, high-tech belt buckle with a large button in the middle of it.
Ready, Zap?
Just give the command, Captain. I’m ready to blow it out of space.

Dialogue headers are always all caps and you never change dialogue headers for a character. Jack’s dialogue is always headed with JACK, Jill’s is always headed with JILL. The only time they would change is if the character has completely changed identities on screen.

For example, in Lord of the Rings when we find out the ranger Strider is actually Prince Aragorn. He’s STRIDER in headers until he’s revealed as ARAGORN in either the action block (because you’re introducing a new character) or dialogue. Then his next dialogue header should be STRIDER/ARAGORN. Use that double-header once, and then he’s ARAGORN from there on in.

6) Don't Name every Character—In the abbreviated, concise format of a screenplay, names are an important tool. They tell the reader that this character is someone we need to pay attention to. They’re important enough to the story that they rate a name and not just a title like MAN #2 or WAITRESS or OFFICER.

Alas, some idiot somewhere started pushing the idea of naming everyone in a screenplay. The logic is that this gives more detail, nuance, or some such nonsense. Do not do this. If your screenplay is littered with extra names, I’m going to be tripping over myself trying to keep them straight because the logical assumption is that they need to be kept straight. You made the effort to name them, after all. So rather than focusing on the story, I’m trying to figure out how the guy at the bus stop and the waitress figure into it. That’s breaking the flow and it’s going to piss me off when I realize I wasted time and effort juggling twenty-seven names for no reason.

Never name someone just to give them a name. No one—not even the actor—is going to be upset with just MAN #2. A friend of mine has made a good career out of being MAN #2. Trust me, MAN #2 is going to make a nice chunk of money, even for just one day on set.

7) Actually Describe Things—A few years back I got to interview screenwriter-director David Goyer (The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, the Blade trilogy) and he told me a funny story about getting smacked down by Guillermo del Toro. It seems Goyer had described a character in a script as “a living nightmare.” del Toro looked at this and said “What does that even mean? That is boolshit!”

There is a time and a place for pretty, evocative imagery and language. That time and place is not while writing a screenplay. As I mentioned above, the script is about what’s on screen, which means it has to be something we can actually see. A reader needs to be able to visualize what’s on the page, and it’s very important that multiple readers visualize the same thing. I can tell you Kara is a dead ringer for my college girlfriend Penny, but that doesn’t mean a damned thing if you don’t know what Penny looked like. “It’s every bad dream you’ve ever had rolled into one” sounds fantastic, but it’s really hard to do concept sketches and storyboards off that.

During the interview, Goyer actually admitted this issue bit him in the ass when he was directing one of his own scripts. He’d given a vague, roundabout description of a sequence, but once he was on set he actually had to figure out how to film it—now he needed a real description. So the gears of production jammed up while Goyer and his assistant director tried to clear up the mess writer-Goyer had left them to deal with.

That leads nicely into...

8) Don’t write what we can’t see – A solid corollary to the last point. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen stuff like this in amateur screenplays.

Tight on a man sitting on the side of a bed. This is JOHN, a computer scientist who created a new type of parallel processor chip. He’s depressed because he found out his wife is cheating on him with his best friend. He’s moved out of the house and has been living in this hotel room in Boston for the past six weeks as he tries to figure out what to do with his life. He’s thinking about divorcing her, but part of him is still in love, despite the pain she’s caused him.

What’s wrong with that paragraph? Well except for the first sentence, how is the audience expected to know any of this? All we’re going to see is a guy sitting on a bed. Again, the script is what’s on screen. Not what’s in someone’s head on screen. That’s the stuff that comes out through dialogue, action, and maybe some clever set dressing or wardrobe choices. But definitely not in a block of exposition in the action blocks.

9) Don't Over-Describe Characters—This sounds a little contrary to some of the stuff I’ve just said, but trust me--it isn’t. A bad habit some writers develop—especially prose writers—is to go mad with character description. Hair color, eye color, education, underwear preferences, etc... They take their entire character sketch and drop it into the screenplay.

You don’t go nuts describing characters in scripts for a few reasons. One is that you always want to be tight and lean in a screenplay. Two is, as I just said above, you don’t want to describe anything you can’t see. Three is the one none of us like to think about—there’s a good chance this character will change. I can spend half a page describing Angelina Jolie and then they decide to cast Kiera Knightly. It happens.

Just give enough description so the character stands out from any other character. Really, if you’ve got more that two sentences of character description you’ve got too much. Yeah, you may have tons more, but remember—the script is about right now. Everything else about your character will come out in the course of the story through their dialogue and actions. If it doesn’t, my problem is not that I only got two sentences of character description.

10) Don’t act – Okay, you know those little descriptions under the dialogue header, usually in parentheses? These are called parentheticals. Sometimes, as a joke, they’re called wrylies. It’s a quick set of instructions to the actor about how the line’s supposed to be delivered.

Actors hate parentheticals. They hate them the same way screenwriters hate development and producers who want you to add in a bit with a dog and a part for their girlfriend. It’s someone who has no idea how to do your job telling you how to do your job. Let’s look at a quick scene from one of my own scripts...

You did it!
Yeah, great shot, Zap!
All clear again, Captain.
Yes. But for how long?
What do you mean, Rex?
If it wasn’t for brave crewmen like Lance, Zap, Ted, and the rest of you, the galactispiders would make the starways far too dangerous.

Are those parentheticals really telling you anything useful? Most actors would be able to figure this stuff out just from context. So would any reader. Which, for the record, is why none of these parentheticals are actually in my script—I just added them for this example.

Y’see, Timmy, there are only two times to use a parenthetical. One is if it’s life or death important to the story that this line is delivered a certain way. If the whole film is going to fall apart if Yakko doesn’t whisper in this scene, then add a (whispered) to that line of dialogue. Two is if I think there’s a very real chance this line could be misunderstood, even with all the context and lines before it, and the resulting misreading will destroy the entire film.

If you’ve got a parenthetical in your screenplay, think long and hard about if it meets one of these two criteria. And then remove it. They’re the adverbs of screenwriting.

11) Don’t direct—Okay, remember what I just said about actors hating it when you tell them how to act? Directors loathe writers who fill up a script with directing notes. When I fill pages with stuff like “Dolly over to reveal” or “pan up to Dot’s face,” directors start shaking their heads and figuring out how they’re going to shoot it.

Like the parenthetical above, only put in direction if it’s life or death important to the film. If the story hinges on this being a crane shot, then put in—if the story really hinges on it. Me thinking this scene would be really cool with a crane does not make it a pivotal shot.

Plus, a lot of time adding direction honestly detracts from the story. Here’s a great example—how many of you have seen The Shawshank Redemption? The last time we see Andy walking to his cell, it’s pretty important that we don’t see his feet, right? Except if I point that out, readers are going to spend the next ten pages trying to figure out what’s so important about Andy’s feet and that’s going to override a lot of what’s going on now. If I hadn’t mentioned it, they wouldn’t’ve thought about it, but now it’s essentially a low-level spoiler in my own script that his shoes are going to be key. By the time the readers get to the flashback and figure it out, they’ll understand that when the movie is filmed we can’t see his feet at that point.

By the way, just to clarify—it doesn’t matter if I plan on directing the script myself. The script I submit to a contest, an agent, or a producer, has to be a script for anyone. If you’ve actually going to be the director, you’ll have plenty of time later to add that stuff. Plus you’ll have your own notebook and schedule. For now, all those things are just taking up space on the page.

12) VO vs. OC—Okay there’s a huge difference between voice-over and off-camera. This is one of those little things that can get me tagged instantly as an amateur if I get them wrong.

Voice-over (V.O.) is when someone’s talking that no one else can hear. Announcers and narrators are usually voice-over. Train of thought is voice-over. “Little did he know...” tends to be voice-over. Another good tip—I will never, ever see lips moving for a voice-over.

Now off-camera (OC) is when someone’s talking that other characters can hear but the audience can’t see. For example, if Yakko’s on his phone talking to Dot, and we hear her voice, she’s off-camera, not voice over. That old bit when everyone hears a voice, turns, and sees that Wakko’s come into the room—that’s off-camera.

I want to use OC carefully, because too much makes it look like I’m trying to direct again (see above). I’m not going to put it during an intercut phone call. I don’t use it when we know Dot’s on the other side of the room but we’re not seeing her at this moment.

13) Don’t use real celebrities as charactersThe last of our baker’s dozen. I’ve read screenplays where one character married Carmen Electra, another one where someone ended up on a cruise with Whoopi Goldberg, and a really, really creepy one about Matt Damon falling in love with a producer (who happened to have the same name as the screenwriter). Unless your movie is already in production and Zachary Levi happens to be your best friend in the world who would do anything for you, do not use his name in your screenplay.

Yeah, I’m sure some of you are already calling foul. After all, didn’t I litter Ex-Heroes and Ex-Patriots with mentions of celebrity zombies? Well, yes I did. But that’s the difference between a book and a screenplay—you can still read the book if Angelina Jolie, Alex Trebek, or Nathan Fillion don’t show up. Now if someone ever decides to make a movie... well, then there’ll be issues. Although I feel relatively safe saying Fillion would show up...

So, thirteen tips to a more coherent screenplay. I’m betting the majority of you knew most of them. But a few of you... well, now you know.

And knowing is half the battle.

Next week, I think I’ll steal another reader suggestion and show you some of my etchings

Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

An Ode to OED

No, don’t worry. There will be no poetry.

There will, however, be mocking. And some shameless plugging.

Ex-Patriots is now out in both paper and ebook formats, available pretty much anywhere fine books are sold. Mysterious Galaxy, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Bord... well, okay, not Borders. But I got to see Ex-Heroes there a few times, at least. Please feel free to pick up a copy.

Anyway, let’s talk about the Oxford English Dictionary. Or Webster’s, if you prefer. I’m actually a dictionary traitor. One of my college professors was on the OED board and I have a huge Webster’s dictionary on my desk.

But I digress... again.

Remember last week’s little rant about tools? Those folks who insist on carrying their tools around one at a time even though it makes the job take ten times as long? Well as bad as it is to be the person showing up on the jobsite with only one tool at a time, imagine if someone showed up with a basic tool they didn’t know how to use?

Seriously--what would you do if you were the foreman and one of your workers--someone who claimed they were a skilled, professional carpenter--admitted they had no idea how to use a hammer? Their excuse? “Well, y’know... I always work with Wakko, and he does all the hammering. So, really, I don’t need to know how to use one.”

Would this guy still have a job at the end of the day?

And yet, it’s stunning how many would-be-writers—people trying to convince publishers that they’re skilled professionals—don’t know how to spell. Their excuse? They’ve got a spellchecker on their computer. It already knows how to spell, so why should they learn how?

Words are our tools, and knowing what they are and how to use them is the most basic skill any of us has to have if we want people to take us seriously as writers. If you don’t know how to use them it is painfully obvious to someone who does.

Let’s go over a little list of words and see how many definitions you can get.

pour, poor, and pore - only one of these means to read intently

confirm and conform – one of these means to become similar

faze and phase – only one of these deals with a blow to the head

role and roll – only one of these is a list of names

further and farther – one of these usually refers to physical distance

glutton and gluten – only one of these words is a person

desert and dessert – only one of these comes after supper

barely and barley – one of these is a food source... almost

satin and satan – one of these is a silky fabric

lightning and lightening – only one of these is an atmospheric event

conscience and conscious – one means being awake

Done with the list? Good.

Now, I’m sure two or three of these made you laugh. Satan and satin? Really? I mean, they’re so obviously different words only a complete idiot would mess them up, right?

Bad news, everyone.

Your spellcheck program is a complete idiot. It’s the worst writing partner you could possibly ask to have. As far as it knows, your main character is supposed to be making a gluten of himself by shoving barely down his throat for desert.

Y’see, Timmy, whenever I make these lists they’re from words I’ve seen misspelled in manuscripts or screenplays I’ve been given to read. Not once or twice in a hundred pages but consistently. These are all mistakes made by people who were trying to convince me (or, through me, someone higher up) that they know how to write. People claiming to be professionals.

One story I recently read had someone trying to resist the temptations of Satin all the way through it (which makes it sound like a very different story, believe me). The power of Satin, get behind me Satin, resisting the will of Satin, all that. If the writer hadn’t asked an idiot to check the whole thing for them, they wouldn’t’ve had that problem. And my opinion of the story wouldn’t’ve dropped every single time I came across it.

I’ve said many times before that people need to buy a dictionary, and more than once I’ve gotten a chuckle from folks over it. After all, the computer does that sort of thing for us, right? Silly dinosaur, telling people to resort to books. Modern writers don’t need such antiquated tools.

As the above list proves, though... a sizeable percentage do.

Using a dictionary doesn’t just mean looking up how a word is spelled. It also means you’re going to look up what the word means. These two things are inherently bound together in a dictionary and they’re not in a spellcheck program. I look up barely and realize it’s not a grain, it’s an adverb. I also just learned that baresark is another form of berserker, which I can probably file away and use sometime later.

But the spellchecker? It looks at barely, grins, and gives you a big thumbs up. “Looks cool—send it off to a publisher.”

Plus, when you use a dictionary, odds are you’ll learn something and not need the dictionary next time. My mechanic’s worked on my car a few times, but I didn’t learn anything about auto repair because I wasn’t the one doing the actual work. I’ve also gone out to eat several times, but having someone else cook for me didn’t teach me anything about cooking. If your writing partner’s doing all that vocabulary work--idiot or not--how do you expect to learn anything?

I’m about to start my fifth novel. Not my fifth attempt at a novel. Not my fifth manuscript to sit in a drawer. My fifth already-got-a-contract-and-deposited-a-nice-advance novel. And I still reach for the dictionary at least once a day to make sure I’m spelling a word correctly or that I’m using it correctly. Using the dictionary doesn’t make me a lesser writer. It makes me a better writer. I’m the guy who shows up at the jobsite with all his tools and who knows how to use them. I don’t need anyone else to do the work for me. Which is why I’m the guy the foreman hires again and again.

If the foreman didn’t hire you... maybe it’s because you’ve got an idiot for a partner.

Not sure what I’m going to rant on about next week. I’ve got a half-formed post of random screenwriting tips. Also got one on villains. And the bare bones of one about motivations...

Any of those sound interesting? Let me know.

Until then, go write.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Sonic Screwdriver

First off, my apologies for running late. Lots of work on the new book.

Second off, a bit of shameful self-promotion. If you haven’t picked up my “debut novel” Ex-Heroes, the publisher’s put the ebook version on a fantastic sale right now. $2.99 for the next week (starting today). Kindle, Nook, Kobo, whatever. If you haven’t grabbed it, now’s a great chance. If you’ve been pushing a friend to get it, tell them about it now. Or just buy it for them. After all, the sequel’s out in about four weeks.

And now, with that ugly bit of capitalism out of the way...

If you’re a big fan of Doctor Who (like me), you know the sonic screwdriver is about the most useful tool ever invented. It opens and closes locks, takes readings, repairs barbed wire, gives phones universal roaming, acts as a TARDIS remote control, and hundreds of other things. Put simply, it’s the greatest all-in-one tool that has ever existed.

Alas, most of us just have to buy a whole tool box worth of stuff. Hammers. Wrenches. Pliers. Tape measures. And of course, screwdrivers. But it’s not enough to have all this stuff. You can only really work on something if those tools are handy.

For example...

Let’s say your significant other comes home from the market and says “Hey, the flux capacitor on the car isn’t fluxxing. You might want to check it out.”

So you go out to the car and see you need a screwdriver to open the housing on the flux capacitor. So you go back inside, dig your toolbox out of the cabinet under the sink, and get a screwdriver out. Then you go back out to the garage and discover you needed a Phillips head screwdriver, not a flathead. Head back in, grab a Phillips, back out to the garage.

You get the housing open on the flux

I’m sure you can all see what’s going wrong here. It’s not that we’re trying to fix the plutonium intake when the problem’s clearly in the flux dispersal array. The problem is that we’re attacking this project piecemeal, trying to solve it a single element at a time, and in doing so things are dragging out far longer than they need to. Unless you’ve actually got a sonic screwdriver, you can’t grab one tool out of your toolbox and go see what the problem is. You also don’t go check the problem, walk back, and grab the next item you need at this particular stage.

No, you take the whole toolbox. You bring everything. Because it’s worth the little extra effort to have it all handy and there to work with if you need it. Yeah, you’re not going to use every single tool you brought out there, but the amount of time you save is worth that initial extra effort.

For the record, my friend Laura got me a sonic screwdriver for my birthday.

But that’s not important right now.

How many of you have figured out the point of this little scenario...?

A lot of people take forever when they write. Years and years. Sometimes it’s basic procrastination, yes, but sometimes it’s just that they’re trying to get every single element right before they put it down on paper (so to speak). They won’t write one word unless they know it’s the word they’re going to have in the final draft. So each sentence takes hours and each chapter can take weeks.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to get things right. That’s the whole point of feedback and editing and doing multiple drafts. Thing is, you can’t do a second draft until you have a first one. Which means the entire process is really at a dead halt until that first draft is done.

When I sat down with my new project, -14-, I spewed out pages and pages of stuff over three months, and soooooooo much of it got cut in later drafts. A lot of it got reworded and some of it got completely rewritten. But I was able to keep working because I had stuff to work with.

Y’see, Timmy, it’s always better to have something to work with than to have nothing to work with. Don’t be scared to put everything in your first draft. Bring it all. Don’t hold back because you think you might not need something or it might not work. Write bits you know you’re going to cut and characters you know are going to be trimmed out. Because you can’t edit or rewrite a paragraph that doesn’t exist.

Next week, unless I get a really cool request or suggestion, a little free verse love poem about the Oxford English Dictionary.

Until then, go write.