Thursday, January 26, 2012

Feels Like The First Time

            Okay, first off, a bit of shameless self-promotion that also pushes my street cred, as the kids say.  Amazon Studios is developing a film with the working title of Original Soldiers.  It’s a sci-fi tale about human soldiers leaping into action when America’s droid army is shut down by an opponent.  I’m one of five folks (well, four folks and a writing team) who were hired by Amazon to expand my simple pitch off their logline into a full treatment.
            So, between that and Ex-Communication, things might slow down a bit in the month of February.  Just letting you all know now.
            Oh, and check it out.  You can still pick up The Junkie Quatrain.  It's very cheap for your Kindle or Kindle app of choice.  Just saying...
            I’d like to begin this week, if you don’t mind, with a personal question or two.  You don’t have to answer them, but I want you to keep the answers in mind.
            Your current significant other—girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband—do you remember the first time you saw them naked?
            Not just the date or time, mind you.  Do you remember how you felt when you saw them like that?  What thoughts were going through your mind?  What emotions?  What your pulse and breathing were like?
            Follow up question—do you remember the most recent time you saw them naked?  How did you feel then?  What thoughts were going through your mind?
            Next question—do you remember your first day at your current job?  Do you remember looking at things, meeting people, learning the ropes?  Can you recall any thoughts that went through your mind?
            Follow up question—what was today like at your current job?  What did you think about?  Who did you see?
            Some of you may have picked up on the point I’m trying to make here.  There’s a big difference between the first time something happens and the fiftieth or hundredth or five-hundredth.  My first day on a film set was exciting as hell, but at the six year mark even the days with naked women on set were pretty dull, and at twelve years I was generally known as one of the cynical people on any given set.
            Now, I make that point so I can make this one...
            One mistake I see a lot in stories and screenplays is when writers can’t make the distinction between the first time your readers or audience are seeing something and the first time the characters are seeing it.  Characters go to work, have dinner with family, or teleport to their secret lair and express confusion or wide-eyed amazement at these things.  It knocks a reader out of the story because it’s immediately apparent this is something the characters should be familiar with.
            It sounds silly to say it so blatantly, but if I’ve been living in New England my whole life, a brutally cold winter shouldn’t come as a real shock.  If I’ve worked for Discorp for over a decade, their business practices shouldn’t catch me off guard.  If I’ve been with Phoebe for eight or nine years, the odds are we’ve seen each other many, many times and had many, many conversations about many, many things.
            The thing is, many storytellers become focused on the fact that this is the first time the readers have seen Wakko in action or me and Phoebe together.  So these folks tweak dialogue and reactions to play to the audience, rather than the genuine responses of the characters.  It seems correct from a mechanical point of view, but once you really study the moments this sort of thing falls apart.
            Here’s an example of doing it right that ties back to my opening questions--Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  When the film begins, the title characters have been married for several years and... well, things are getting a bit stale between them.  They’ve had all their conversations.  This is why Mr. Smith doesn’t really react much when Mrs. Smith—played by Angelina Jolie—is walking around their bedroom in her underwear.
            Let me repeat that last bit—Angelina Jolie is walking around their bedroom in her underwear.
           While this would be an absolutely amazing moment for about half of the folks reading this, Mr. Smith barely notices it.  He’s been seeing her in her underwear for years, after all.  It may be the first time all of us have seen her dressed (or undressed) like that, but for him this is just like every other day.
            This is closely related to another problem I’ve brought up once or thrice before, the dreaded  “As you know...”  When one of my characters says “as you know,” they’re admitting right up front that they and the person (or people) they’re speaking to already know the facts that are about to be spoken.  It’s clumsy, it’s wasted space, and it’s unnatural because it sounds like these folks are having a conversation for the first time when common sense tells us this has to have come up a dozen times before.  My girlfriend and I have been together for over seven years now, so we don’t need to talk about when our birthdays or anniversaries are.  I helped my best friend move into his house, so I don’t need to ask him where he keeps the rum or how to get to the bathroom.  My dad’s been an expert in his field for decades, so I don’t think he’d be stunned to learn working on reactors involves potential exposure to radiation.
            This is why the ignorant stranger is a great story device.  When I’ve got a character who’s new to the world of the story it gives me someone who can experience things for the first time while my other characters can be well-established sources of knowledge.  Yeah, I know where the rum’s kept in the house, but Yakko doesn’t, so my readers will accept it if Yakko and I talk about where to find the booze or the bathroom.
            Another great example if this is—
            Men In Black .For James Edwards, the police officer who becomes Agent J, the MIB is an intergalactic wonderland of non-stop discovery.  He’s the ignorant stranger.  Alien life forms, alien customs, alien technology—it’s all new to him.  But consider Agent K.  Everything that excites or stuns J makes him yawn.  Invading battle fleets, extraterrestial assassins, talking dogs, rocket cars, a warp-drive powered superball... these things all bore the hell out of him.  In fact, as the story progresses it becomes clear that K is at a disadvantage because he’s become so jaded by the world he lives in.
            One of the worst things I can do as a writer is confuse the first time the audience sees something with the first time the characters do.  It’ll come across as false and it’s one of those clumsy mistakes that’s hard to recover from.  So just remember... the first time for you might not be the first time for me.  And it’s almost definitely not the first time for him.
            Next week, as we’re close to opening day for a lot of the big screenplay contests, I thought I’d talk about a lot of common screenplay mistakes I’ve seen.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


            Okay, first off, it’s time for some shameless pandering.
            Permuted Press just released a collection of short stories I wrote called The Junkie Quatrain.   I talked about it here a couple weeks ago.  There’s a little picture/ link of it over there on the right (the green one).  It’s four connected/ interwoven/ overlapping short stories set in the same post-apocalyptic world.  I’ve been explaining it to people as 28 Days Latercrossed with Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon.It adds up to a mid-sized novella, so it’s also very cheap.
            Anyway, I was thinking about today’s little rant and a phenomenal analogy sprung to mind.  No, seriously, phenomenal.  You’ll be talking about this one for months to come.  Ready?
            Have you ever watched an episode of Jeopardy where Alex Trebek will give an extremely easy clue and everyone just stands there?  He’ll say something like, “It’s the longest river in Egypt,” and all three contestants will twist their faces with intense concentration.  The timer eventually runs out and an eight hundred-dollar clue vanishes into the game-show ether.
            The answer is “The Nile,” by the way.
            Thing is, you all knew that, didn’t you?  And so did those three hypothetical contestants.  They were just overthinking it, because there’s no way the answer could be that easy and straightforward.  So they convince themselves it has to be something other than their automatic first response.
            If you watch Jeopardy a lot, you know one of the most challenging categories (statistically) is “Stupid Answers.”  Guaranteed, every time that shows up on the board, the players will miss the first one or two questions.  They’ll get something like “It’s the tomb memorializing soldiers whose identities are unknown,” and all three contestants will frown, furrow their brows, run through lists in their—oh, time just ran out again.
            There’s actually a catchy little term for this you might’ve heard before.  It’s called paralysis by analysis.  It’s when we get so caught up in thinking about how to do something that we never get around to doing it. 
            Some people do this with writing.  They get so wrapped up in having the right word and exquisite language and  perfect characters that they don’t write a single thing.  They’ll spend their time going to seminars with gurus, buying books, and reading article after article about how to write.  And in doing so, the one thing they never get around to is... well,  writing. 
            These folks are convinced there has to be something more to it than just sitting down and putting words on paper.  They think there has to be some special trick of structure or plot, and once they learn it writing will be a breeze.  Until then, it’s not worth doing anything.  They end up paralyzed by constant attempts to break storytelling down to a simple formula.
            The only way to move forward in your writing is to write.  Like so many things, a week of experience is worth more than months of instruction.  I’m not saying instruction is useless, mind you, but I have to know when it’s time to put other people’s books aside and start writing my own.  Put another way, I can’t expect anyone else to think of me as a real writer if I acknowledge I’m still studying how to be a writer, just like I can’t think of someone as a real doctor if they’re still studying in medical school.  We might earn our titles someday... but that day isn’t today.
            It’s still close to the start of the year, so next week I’d like to blab about something for the first time.
            Until then go write.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

We’re All Domed! DOMED!!!!

            Will, its thyme too tock abut spilling a gain.  Eye no fur must off yew this top pick is suck a none-eschew, butt their our sum idioms out they’re whom thank they or grate spillers jest bee cause there smell-chick tills then all they’re wards are spilled rite,   ant they knead two sea this moor than you duo.
            You all understood that last paragraph, right?  Context and all that?  Cool, and the spell-checker says it’s okay so I’m just going to call that good...
            No, wait.  If we go that way I’ve got nothing to talk about this week.
            Hot tip for the week.  Spelling matters.  Last week I mentioned there are certain things that are always right and wrong.  Spelling is one of them.  There’s no quicker way to tell an editor or reader you’ve got no idea what you’re doing than to have a lot of spelling mistakes in the first few pages of a manuscript.  And if I’m going to put a lot of effort into double and triple-checking the first ten pages, I might as well act like a pro and check them all.
            Hot tip number two.  Every spell-check program is an idiot.  They can be outsmarted by my almost-one-year-old nephew banging on the keyboard with his eyes closed.  If I decide to take on an idiot as a writing partner, whose fault is it when there are mistakes in my manuscript?  Heck, we’ve all been stuck with an idiot at work at some point in our lives, yes?  But did we ever depend on the idiot?  Did we let everything ride on the idiot doing their job, or did we cover our butts and make sure everything was getting done regardless?
            Now, there are those people who try to say spelling and grammar don’t matter.  If the story’s good, you should be able to enjoy it even with a few typos and malonyms and failed parallels and so on.  And there’s some truth to that.  I’ve enjoyed a lot of stories with two or three typos in them. 
            What I haven’t enjoyed are stories that have two or three typos on the first page.  And the reason I haven’t enjoyed them is because I stopped reading at that point.  Just like any other casual reader will.  In the few cases I’ve been required to read the rest of the manuscript, I usually found that the writer who couldn’t be bothered to learn how to spell also couldn’t be bothered to write a remotely interesting story.  No big shock there.
            Another argument I’ve seen a few times is that spelling and grammar and conjugation are all arbitrary anyway.  There isn’t a “right” way to spell words, it’s just a set of rules some people made up and decided everyone had to follow.  Of course, by that logic, there aren’t any real rules to football--those were just made up, too.  So next time you play a friendly game of football with your friends, try giving hockey sticks and cricket bats to your linebackers.  Please let me know how it goes over with everyone.
            And there’s also a few folks who try to use first person as an excuse for typos.  “It’s not me, it’s the character who doesn’t know how to spell.”  The problem here is that a reader can’t tell the difference between deliberate mistakes and accidental ones.  All they see on the page is a mistake, plain and simple.  And a manuscript loaded with mistakes is going to be one that probably ends up in the big pile on the left.
            Soooooo...with that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the ways wanna-be writers proved they didn’t know how to write.  As before, I remind you that all of these are actual typos I’ve come across.  Most of them more than once.  To be honest, almost a quarter of these came out of one particularly incoherent screenplay I had to read.  One came from the first paragraph of a proudly self-published book whose author claimed the people mocking his spelling were just jealous because they’d never written a book.  And one I’ve seen repeatedly at a much larger website that likes to put up posts about stupid spelling mistakes people make...

heel and heal – one of these is a command to a dog
beet and beat – two reds--your kid should not be one of them
vale and veil – one of these often refers to death
bare and bear –one of these means to endure or tolerate
here and hear—one of these is where you are right now
minuet and minute—one of these means small
can’t and cant—one of these is a secret language
pedal and peddle—one of these deals with motion
strait and straight—one of these refers to waterways
trusty and trustee—one of these is a person
moors and mores—one is social, one is ethnic
sheer and shear – one means to slice, the other means perpendicular
cloths and clothes – one of these is made into the other
site and sight—one is found on a firearm
profit and prophet—one of these is often religious (don’t be snarky)
imminent and eminent —one will be happening soon
baited and bated—you don’t want your breath to be one of these
calender and calendar—one is a tool, the other is a machine
essay and assay—only one of these in a verb
breath and breathe—only one of these is a verb
domed and doomed – one you’re screwed, one you’re protected
ramped and rampant—one of these is just out of control
trader and traitor—one sells loyalty, one sells goods
surely and shirley—this writer never saw Airplane...
nee and knee—married women are sometimes addressed this way
tied and tide – one of these will have to hold you over until later

            It’s also worth noting that—much like my first paragraph up above--none of these words are spelled wrong, which is why spell-check programs ignore these mistakes when a writer makes them.  They’re just the wrong words, period.  The only mistake on the spell-checker’s part is that it assumes the writer knows what the hell they’re doing and there’s a real reason you put down moors when you meant mores.  Of course, as I mentioned before, the spell-checker is an idiot...
            Y’see, Timmy, using shear when I mean sheer is no different than calling that new girl Elizabeth when her name’s Andrea—in both cases I look like an idiot who can’t be bothered to learn the right word to use.  Or like someone who trusted an idiot to get these things right.
            I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again—get a dictionary.  You’ll retain more searching through a dictionary than you will by tapping change or ignore on your spellchecker.  There’s some nice ones on Amazon, or you can probably find one cheap at a used bookstore.  Don’t worry if it’s a couple years out of date—99% of the words are the same.  The big red one on my desk is from 1997 and I’ve never had a problem with it.
            Next time I’ll probably just have a quick tip for you.  Assuming I don’t start overthinking it and freeze up or something.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Why Are We Here?

            I don’t mean that in some vague, metaphysical sense.  It’s pretty straightforward.  Why are you looking at this web page?  What are you hoping to find here?
            Let me make it easier.  Let me explain why I keep posting here.
            No, there isn’t time to explain.  I will sum up.
            (bonus points if you get that one)
            Two little stories.  Tale the first.
            I’ve wanted to tell stories as far back as I could remember.  I was setting up my Star Wars figures and Micronauts in little tableaus when I was in grade school.  By middle school I’d found my mom’s old electric Smith-Corona (complete with vinyl dust cover) in the back of the closet and I was sending clumsy “submissions” to Jim Shooter at Marvel Comics.  And by high school, well, by then my rejection collection was getting pretty thick.
            It’s gotten thicker since then, believe me.
            Tale the second.
            Not too many months back I stumbled across a link to a published author’s new blog.  He was about at the same level as me—years of trying to get in and finally had a few sales under his belt.  Two of them to a very big, respectable publisher.  Said author, much like myself, wanted to offer some tips for new writers who were just starting out.  However, unlike me, this fellow didn’t want to talk about how to improve your writing. He was going to offer tips on networking, promotion, blog tours, and so on.
            Of course, looking over his first four posts, there was one point he kept hammering home.  The best way to sell your writing is to have good writing.  The best way to spread word of mouth about your writing is to be an excellent writer.  This could not be stressed enough.  All the clever gimmicks and sales tricks and blog tours weren’t going to help in the slightest if you didn’t have something people wanted to read.
            But he wasn’t going to talk about that on his blog.  He was going to talk about clever gimmicks and sales tricks and blog tours.
            That’s kind of what got me started on this whole thing years ago.  At the time, I was seeing tons of articles and websites about the tricks and gimmicks, but very few about the actual craft of writing.  And, yes, I do feel pretentious talking about “craft” when I write books about superheroes fighting zombies.
            Anyway, I’d say a good sixty or seventy percent of the material I saw was tips on what to do after you’d written something.  How to get reps, how to get your books in stores, that sort of thing.  Which always seemed a little cart-before-the-horse, as people used to say in the pre-Segway world.  Perhaps even worse, a large percentage of the remaining material—the stuff that actually talked about writing-- spoke about it in terms of absolutes and set down hard rules that didn’t seem to come from any sort of actual experience.  It was just people parroting some rule about storytelling they’d heard somewhere as if it were a quantifiable, scientifically-proven fact.  In some cases, as far as I could tell, these people had just made up their rules out of the blue. 
            And a few of these folks were asking for money. 
            At the time I was sitting on this half-assed Blogspot site.  I’d pulled a loosely Egyptian-themed name from the back of my head (Thoth was the god of writing), a title that I put even less thought into (seriously, check out how many “Writer on Writing” blogs and columns there are out there), and used the space to post a few spec columns I’d created for a magazine I was working for.  They’d been rejected (twice) so I’d thrown them up here as... honestly, I don’t know.  Just so it felt like I’d done something with them.  I thought they were fairly well written and made some good points—I didn’t want them to languish on my computer.  Maybe in the tiny, limited space that was the internet somebody would stumble across them and find them useful.
            Bonus fact.  It was maybe a year after I started posting here more-or-less full time that somebody pointed out Thoth-Amon was also the evil sorcerer in the Conan books and comics.  Completely slipped my mind when I picked this site.
            Anyway, as I worked my way further and further into the life of a full-time writer, I got exposed to more and more people’s work.  I read scripts for a couple different contests and got a bunch of exposure to it (reading 400+ pages a day will do that to you).  And one thing that amazed me was I kept seeing the same basic mistakes.  Often to headache-inducing levels.
            A large number of aspiring writers fall into one of two camps.  Some of them think writing and storytelling are mechanical, quantifiable processes that can be broken down to A1-B2-C3.  These are the folks who will quote the MLA Handbook to explain why their novel deserves to be published and use Syd Field as proof their screenplay is perfect.  The other group think rules are for old-school losers who don’t get that spelling, formatting, and structure just hamper the creative process and will get overlooked when people see the inherent art in the writing.
            Both groups are usually wrong, for the record.
            Note that I said “usually.”  Most folks think it’s all-or-nothing.  You have to be on one extreme or another.  The truth is that it’s more of a middle ground.
            Y'see, Timmy, there are things that are absolutely “right and wrong” in writing. I have to know how to spell (me—not my spellchecker).  I have to understand the basics of grammar.  If I’m writing a script, I’ve got to know the current accepted format.  A writer can’t ignore any of these requirements, because these are things you can get wrong and you will be judged on them.
            On the other hand, there is no “right” way to start your writing day or to develop a character, only the way that’s right for me and my story.  Or you and your story.  Or her and her story.  If you ask twenty different writers about their method, you're going to get twenty different answers.  And all of these answers are valid, because each of these methods work for that writer.  But that doesn’t mean I can ignore every convention or rule I don’t like.
            And that’s what I’m doing here.  Prattling on about some of the hard rules and general suggestions I discovered during thirty-odd years of learning how to be a writer, along with some of my own I've developed after trying to write a hundred or so short stories, scripts, and novels.  It's stuff I think might be helpful if you're actually serious about writing for a living.
            And I'm going under the general assumption that if you've slogged through all this, you've got at least a basic grasp of this writing thing and are hoping to go further with it.  Perhaps even make a few dollars with it.  And if any of you have a specific question or topic you’d like me to prattle on about, let me know.
            Next time, speaking of right and wrong, we return to one of my favorite topics—spilling!
            Until then, go write.