Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Just-Under-The-Wire Post

             So, end of the year (by mere minutes, in some places).  We all know what that means.  Time to cash out the register, put the chairs up, and turn the lights out for the last time. 
            Well, the last time in 2014, anyway.
            It’s also a good time to look back at what we accomplished in the past year.  It’s fine to read a lot of books and online help and tips (like those offered here), but at the end of the day... we need to write. It all comes down to that.  If I’m not writing... well, I’m not much of a writer.
            So.... what did I write this year?
            Most of this year was devoted to The Fold, my upcoming sci-fi/ mystery/ horror novel.  It was a rough project, to say the least.  I put it through about six drafts myself because I didn’t really know what the story was for a while (I knew the plot, yeah, but the story really floundered there for a while). And then my editor pointed out a bunch of stuff and it went through two more drafts past that.  Getting that one book into good shape was about eight months of the year.  Look for it on June 2nd of this year.  It’s my first hardcover and I’m... well, mildly terrified.
            I was incredibly flattered to be invited to an X-Files anthology.  It was one of my favorite shows in the ‘90s and I have tons of memories associated with it.  I believe you’ll get to read “The Beast of Little Hill” in March, along with other stories by some much better-known  authors.
            I also polished up “Bedtime Story,” a little piece for the re-release of an anthology called Corrupts Absolutely.  It’s about superheroes gone bad.  I had to pass on the anthology the first time around because of other commitments, but with the re-release the editor wanted some new stories and asked if I was still interested.  I think you’ll see that in a few months, too.
            And since October or so I’ve been working on Ex-Isle, the fifth book in the Ex-Heroes series.  It’s a bit of an experiment, on a few levels, because I’m approaching it in a way that’s all new to me.  You’ll probably get a post at some point next year talking about it a bit (and whether or not it worked for me)
            Scattered through the year I did half a dozen written interviews with different sources that talked about writing, including a great one that just appeared in Albedo One.  I did a dozen posts over on my geeky hobby blog (a pathetically low number). And there was a guest post on my gaming club’s page about Chaos and storytelling and expectations.
            Then, of course, there were forty-one ranty posts here.  Better than last year, but still not as good as I’ve done at some points in the past.
            All in all, that’s not too bad.  But I’ll be honest—I’m hoping to do a lot more in 2015.  I already have a bunch of projects lined up, plus one or two things I’m hoping to squeeze in during my free time. There were some headaches that stressed me out and slowed me down this year, and without them gnawing at me for a large chunk of the year I think I can be much more productive.
            How about you?  What did you get done this year?  Everything you wanted?  Most of what you wanted? 
            If not, what was slowing you down?  Don’t make excuses—be honest with yourself.  As I’ve said before, it’s impossible to make progress if I can’t look honestly at mywriting.  So why didn’t these things get done?
            Let’s all think about that as we make our New Year’s resolutions.
            That being said, Happy New Year to you all.  Be responsible, don’t drink and drive, and kiss someone you love when the clock strikes twelve.  I’ll see you all again in 2015.
            And after you wake up tomorrow...
            Write.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Bulletproof

            A simple, straightforward title for this week.
            I was talking with my dentist a few weeks back about new television shows (he’s very chill that way) and we brought up... well, I’ll be polite and not mention it by name.  He was interested to see where this show went.  I’d already predicted a bunch of issues it would need to overcome which it instead chose to embrace fully.
            Allow me to explain.
            I’m going to create a series from scratch here (although I’m sure some of you will figure out what I’m referring to pretty quick).  Let’s say I’m doing a show called Young Revolutionaries.  It’s going to be an early-twenties George Washington at university (probably Penn State—that was around then, right?) with early-twenties John Adams and early-twenties Thomas Jefferson and mid-twenties Ben Franklin.  There’s also mid-twenties Martha Dandridge who George has an undeclared love for, her sexy designer friend Betsy, and that creepy mid-twenties kid, Benedict, who just lurks around classrooms a lot eavesdropping on people.
photo: Kat Bardot
            Here’s a few quick episode ideas.  What if George gets in trouble during ROTC (that was around then, right?) for chopping down that cherry tree and is told he’ll never be an officer?  Maybe he even resigns from the Army.  Or maybe Thomas injures his hand in a duel over the honor of foreign exchange student Sally Hemings (that’s more or less correct, right?) and now he may never write anything again.  And Ben can have a small breakdown from exam stress and decide he’s giving up on his science/history/philosophy degree and going to be a baker.  Or what if Martha decides she’s in love with Benedict and decides to marry him.  And when John finds out and tries to stop them from eloping, Benedict shoots him. We could end season one with young John Adams bleeding out in his log cabin.
            (Also, I apologize in advance—by putting this out onto the internet there’s a good chance this show just went into development at Fox or the CW.  Hopefully I’ll at least gets a “created by” credit when it premieres next fall).
            So... what do you think of Young Revolutionaries so far?  Sound like a bunch of solid episodes, yes?  Lots of dramatic potential?
            Even if you’re reading this from somewhere in Europe, you’ve probably already spotted a few holes in my story plans.
            It’s tough to build drama when we already know a lot of details about where the story’s going.  I can’t get anxious about whether or not George and Martha get together when I already know they get together.  There’s a bit of mild interest how it’s going to happen, sure, but the truth is, because I’m replaying history, this isn’t the first time this has happened.  And things lose our interest when they get repeated.  That’s just the way of the world.  The movie I’m glued to the first time I see it eventually becomes the movie I’ve got on in the background while I’m working on little toy soldiers or something.
            Likewise, it’s hard to build up drama by using incidents that I know are nullified by later events.  George Washington doesn’t just become an officer, he becomes a full general, and me trying to imply this isn’t going to happen is kind of silly.  We know Jefferson’s going to write a ton of stuff.  John Adams isn’t going to die, either.  Heck, he won’t even have any lasting scars or side-effects from that gunshot.  The bullet could’ve just bounced off him for all the effect it actually had on things.
            And bulletproof characters are boring. 
            So let’s think about Young Revolutionaries again.  George Washington won’t catch a bullet.  Ben Franklin definitely won’t.  Neither will Martha.  Or Thomas.  Or Betsy.  Even Sally’s pretty safe.
            What can I really do with this series?  Not much.  It’s pretty much just narrative thumb-twiddling as my plot drags along to the points we all know it’s going to hit. That it has to hit, really, because we all know the story.
           Y’see, Timmy, if my characters can’t be put at risk, it’s tough to give them any sort of interesting challenge.  I can’t have many cool twists to their story if I already know how the story goes and how it ultimately ends.  And it’s tough for my readers to relate to a character who’s going against...well, established character.   There’s just not much for me to do.  It’s very similar to an issue I’ve mentioned a few times before—the characters who are prepared for any and everything.
            This is one of the big reasons I’m against prequels.  Not as some hard-fast rule, but I think it’s extremely rare that they’re worth the effort (either reading them or writing them).  It just tends to be a melodramatic re-hashing of events that ultimately lead... well, right were we knew they were leading all along.
            Now, I’d mentioned this “bulletproof” idea to a friend and he made the point that, well, isn’t this true of almost any series character?  Marvel isn’t going to kill off Iron Man any time soon, and DC probably doesn’t have a Batman obituary waiting in a drawer. Odds are pretty good Jack Reacher’s not taking a bullet in the head anytime soon.  I feel safe saying Kate Beckett won’t be losing an arm in this season’s Castle finale. 
            We all understand these characters have an aura of safety around them, so to speak.  So does this mean all series characters are bulletproof? Are all these stories destined to be rote melodrama?
            Well, no.  Let’s look at something like, say, The Sixth Gun (one of my personal favorites right now).  Odds are writer Cullen Bunn isn’t going to kill off Drake Sinclair or Becky Montcrief anytime soon.  But it doesn’t mean he won’t and can’t.  None of us know what’s happening in issue fifty.  Or sixty.  Or one hundred.  Even if we can be relatively safe in assuming they’re relatively safe... well, there’s still a chance Bunn could pull a Joss Whedon or J.K. Rowling on us and suddenly kill one of his main characters.  We can feel pretty safe... but we don’t really know for sure.
            And there is a world of possibility in that little gap of certainty
            But if Bunn decides to flash back to what Sinclair was doing five years ago... well, we all know he didn’t die in a gunfight after a poker game.  So hinting that he might is kind of a waste of time.  Same thing if he says he’s moving to Asia and never coming back.  It’s just more thumb-twiddling until we get back to the real story.
            Again, I’m not saying this kind of prequel storytelling can’t work.  But it is very, very difficult to do it well.  A lot tougher than many Hollywood executives seem to think.  And it’s choosing to do an inherently limited idea when I could be doing one where anything could happen.  One that’s moving forward, not treading water.
            Next time...
            Well it had to happen.  Next Thursday is Christmas.  And the Thursday after that is New Year’s.  Some folks believe this only happens every 2342 years, and other folks have looked at a calendar before. 
            Whichever camp you happen to fall in (I don’t judge...much), I probably won’t be posting on either day.  But I’ll probably drop my usual year-end summary here sometime before January.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

On the Cover of a Magazine...

            As promised, two in one week.  Both with clever titles.
            So, want to know an easy way to boost the hits on your website or Twitter account?  Post a sentence along the lines of this...
            Wakko slammed a fresh clip into his pistol and got back to spraying lead across the street.
             I’m sure several of you already see the problem, yes?  I used clip instead of magazine.  Well, here’s the catch...
            Yes, as usual here, there’s a catch.
            At the risk of angering a lot of folks... If I ever feel the need to correct someone about this, I’m probably not a good writer.  Seriously.  I would say nine times out of ten when I see other would-be-writers make this complaint...they’re wrong.
            (And I say would-be because that does seem to be where a good three-quarters of the comments come from—newbies intent on explaining to established writers where they messed up)
            Now, I’m sure a few folks are already leaping down to the comments to tell me I’m wrong.  There is a difference between a magazine and a clip.  And it matters! 
            To those people I have one thing to say.
            Paintbrushes.
            You heard me.
            Remember Bob Ross, the happy painter on PBS with the bushy hair?  Even if you never actually saw his show, he’s such an iconic part of Americana you probably know him.  Heck, it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s a large number of people outside the US who can identify him.
            Bob Ross could paint a gorgeous landscape in under half an hour and make it look easy.  He did it with an array of paints, a few specialized tools, and maybe six or seven different brushes.
            Name three of them.
            Any three brushes he used.  Or any painter uses.  Go.
            I’m sure a lot of you thought of the fan brush.  Then maybe smiled and thought of the happy brush.  Maybe... wasn’t there an angled one, like a... a wedge, or something? 
            But even then... their actual names?  No clue.
            That’s not really surprising, of course.  I’m willing to bet most of us here have never done more than dabble in painting.  It’s not our field of specialty, so we don’t know a lot of the specific terms.  We just know the brushes on sight or maybe by the names we’ve given them or heard a few times.  Like the happy brush.
            In a similar manner, if my characters don’t know anything about weapons, it wouldn’t be unusual for them to not understand the difference between a magazine and a clip (or between a Sig and a Glock, or a broadsword and a longsword, or...).  They’d just go off what they remember from television and movies, or maybe some novels they read.  Sure, Yakko the former black ops guy would know, but Wakko the homemaker?  Odds are, he’s going to call that thing full of bullets a clip. Just like Mr. T did on The A-Team.
            Y’see, Timmy, all those people muttering about magazines vs. clips—they’re not wrong about terminology. They’re just focused on the wrong thing (one might even say it's an empathy issue).  The important question here is not which term is factually correct, it's which term should be used in my story,  We’re not writing textbooks, after all, we’re writing fiction.  And one of the bigger lessons to learn in fiction is that sometimes my characters will get things wrong. They’re not going to know everything.  Because characters who know everything tend to be very boring and wooden.
            If I had to guess why some people get so adamant about this—and I’ll try to tread lightly here—I’d think it’s because firearms are a divisive subject.  They tend to divide people politically, ethically, and even socially.  And this can cloud a writer’s view of things in both directions.  Some folks don’t want to make a stupid libtard mistake.  Others don’t want to listen to some crazy, overbearing gun nut.
            But, as I mentioned earlier this week, this isn’t the real world—it’s fiction.  If I want to keep my point of view consistent, I’m going to have some characters who load their pistols with clips.  Maybe a lot of them. And, yes, also some who know it's called a magazine.
            Next time, I’d like to keep talking about characters and gunslingers a  bit by talking about bulletproof people.
            Until then, go write.

Monday, December 8, 2014

There Are Those Who Call Me...

            So very sorry about missing last week.  I was juggling a few things, time slipped away from me, and suddenly it was Saturday and somebody hadn’t updated things here.  Past me, I’ve discovered, can be a real lazy bastard sometimes.
            To make up for this, I’m going to do two shorter posts and put them both up this week.  Just some quick, easy tips.  I’m sure future me won’t mind writing them.
Not this Doug
            Anyway...
            I read a book a while ago about a character named Doug.  Good solid name.  That’s how the book referred to him.  Doug.
            Except to his parents.  They were only in the first two chapters, and they called him Douglas.  But even then, he thought of himself as Doug and that’s what he was called for the rest of the book.
            Although every now and then he was “the short guy” or “the short man” to break things up a bit.  Which is understandable.  Using someone’s name over and over and over again gets boring fast.  So once or twice on a page he’d be the short guy.  Or the short man.
            Except... there was a character, Jay, who’d been friends with Doug for years, and whenever they spoke Jay would always refer to Doug as “wingman.”  “Hey, wingman, grab me a drink while you’re up.” 
            Except... there was another character, an older one, who had met Doug briefly years ago (a friend of his parents).  At the time, Doug had been four and playing in a mud puddle.  So this guy kept referring to Doug as “the dirty kid.”  “Hey, dirty kid, what’s up?”  “The dirty kid said you might stop by.”
            Now, it’s understandable why people do this.  Over the course of our lives, most of us accumulate a number of names and nicknames and titles.  Most of my friends call me Pete, but I have a fair amount who call me Peter, as do most folks who don’t know me as well.  There’s also a bunch of family terms (son, brother, uncle, cousin) that different people use for me.  There’s also a number of folks who just refer to me by my last name.  For almost fifteen years I was regularly called Peter Props.  An early experiment with facial hair had a few mindless jocks referring to me as Goat-boy for a year of high school.  Heck, a woman in my college fencing class started calling me Hamlet and stuck with it for the whole time I knew her. 
            And there are more names past that.  We all end up with them.  That’s just life.
            But we’re not talking about real life.  We’re talking about fiction.  Two different animals.  I’d never use all these names consistently for myself, or for a character in one of my stories.  This is a variation on a problem I’ve mentioned before, usually in regards to screenwriting--the dump truck.  It’s a ton of names that I’m throwing at the reader for no real reason.  That’s just going to get confusing, and confusion breaks the flow.
            Think of Agents of SHIELD, where many characters have codenames (the Cavalry, Mockingbird, Hawkeye).  Nine times out of ten, though, if a name is used, it’s just their given one (Melinda May, Bobbi, Clint).  Because it’s less confusing that way.  It's the same in my Ex-Heroes books, where everyone has secret identities
            Y’see, Timmy, it’s okay to reference some of these things, but they shouldn’t be fighting with the name I’ve chosen to use for my character.  I may have a rich history written up for my character Eli, which includes a few names he’s collected, but I’m only going to use what’s relevant for my story.
            Next time, this Thursday, I shall continue things at this fast clip.
            Until then... well, come on.  You should know by now.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

More Dating Tips

            Very sorry about missing last week.  Copyedits. And Thanksgiving is this week, so I know nobody’s going to be reading this on Thursday.  So I figured I’d get this up today and hope to break even.  Sort of...
            Anyway, this week I wanted to blab on about dating your work.  And I figured the best way to do that would be to talk about the Cat & Fiddle.
           If you’re not familiar with Los Angeles, the Cat & Fiddle has been a Hollywood landmark for about thirty years now.  It’s a little pub in the middle of Hollywood with a nice outdoor patio.  It’s always been popular, but I think it managed to avoid being hip or trendy in all that time.  Part of Casablanca was filmed on that location.  Seriously.
            Heck, there’s a reference to the Cat & Fiddle about halfway through my book, 14.  It was a landmark, as I said, and my story is very much about Los Angeles.  Why wouldn’t I refer to it?
            Except now it’s closing.  The landlord found someone willing to pay twice as much so, well, the cat’s out in the cold.  No more Cat & Fiddle unless they can find a new place.  Somewhere else.
            What’s my point?
            Just like that, 14 has become dated.
             Still, I’m not as bad off as James P. Hogan.  When he wrote his novel Inherit the Stars (first book in the Giants series) back in 1977, he envisioned the US facing off against the Soviet Union in a race to colonize the solar system (a race that gets interrupted by an amazing discovery, granted...).  Needless to say, the first three books in that series are extremely dated.
            When we say a book is dated, we mean it’s a book someone can look at and say “Ahhh, well this was clearly written back when...”  It’s a book that isn’t about now, it’s about then.  And when my book’s not about now, that’s just another element that’s making it harder for someone to relate to my characters and my story
            Remember in school when you had to read classics?  Some of the hardcore Dickens or Austen or maybe even Steinbeck.  One of the reasons they can be hard to read is because of the references in them.  They talk of events or customs or notable persons that are foreign to us.  Hell, half the time so foreign they’re just gibberish (bundling?  What the heck is bundling..?).
            When we hit these stumbles, it breaks the flow and makes the book harder to enjoy.  A dated book has a shelf life, like milk or crackers.  The moment it gets this label, there’s an end in sight.
            Because of this, there’s a common school of thought that I shouldn’t make any such references in my work.  My story shouldn’t mention current fads or events.  I don’t want to have references to celebrities or television shows or bands or music.  If I want to have my writing to have any sort of extended life—the “long tail” as some folks like to call it—it can’t be dated.
            And there is something to this.  I’ve seen metaphor-stories fall flat with readers less than a year after the events they’re referencing.  It was funny at the time, but if you watch Aladdin today it’s tough to figure out half the stuff the Genie’s riffing on (what the heck’s with the whoop-whoop fist thing...?).
            However...
            When the GOP shut down the US government last year, my friend Timothy Long pounded out a longish comedy short story called Congress of the Dead.  And for a few months it sold really, really well.  It’s not doing much these days (it’s still funny but not as topical), but he knew going in that it wasn’t going to be timeless and used that knowledge to his advantage.
            So, which way should I go?
            Well, here’s the catch.  My work is always going to end up dated.  Always.  There’s no avoiding it.  Stories get dated by technology and cars and geography. Things people assume will never change (like the Cat & Fiddle or the U.S.S.R.) end up changing. It happens all the time.  It can’t be helped.
            Consider this...
            Stephen King’s Cujo couldn’t happen today.  Cell phones undermine the entire plot.  Same with Fred Sabehagan’s Old Friend of the Family.  The entire plot of Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher book, Killing Floor, hinges on an idea that was obsolete six months before the book even reached stores.
            Let’s not even talk about speculative fiction.  How many sci-fi shows predicted events we’ve since caught up with and passed?  Buck Rogers left Earth on a deep space probe in 1987, and Thundar the Barbarian saw the world collapse in 1994.  Star Trek told us the Eugenics Wars happened in the 1990s, which was also when Khan and his followers were launched into space in cryogenic suspension (presumably using the technology from the Buck Rogers deep space probes).  According to the Terminator franchise, Judgement Day happened in 1997 (later adjusted to 2004).  Then there’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and it’s sequel 2010.  Heck, even Back to the Future is just a few short weeks away from becoming a silly, dated comedy.  It’s going to be 2015 and there are no self adjusting clothes or flying cars or Jaws XIX (it looks like we did get hoverboards, though...).  And, hell, supposedly in 2015 people are still using faxes as a high-tech method of communication.
            If I really don’t want to date my work, I can’t mention anything.  Cars, music, movies, television shows, networks, books, magazines, sports teams, games, cell phones or providers, Presidents, politicians, political parties, countries, businesses of any kind, actors, actresses... all these things and a few dozen more. All these things change all the time in unpredictable ways.  So if I want to be timeless, I can’t bring up any of them.
            The problem is, though, these are all things that are part of our lives. They come up in conversations.  They shape how we react to other things.  So if I’m writing a realistic character with natural dialogue... these things will be there.
            So what’s this all mean?
            In the big scheme of things... don’t worry about it.
            That being said, I  probably shouldn’t base my entire plot around readers knowing the lyrics to Taylor Swift’s latest single, and (much as I love it) I might not want to use a reference to the second season finale of Chuck as the big button on my chapter.  There’s a reason some things stand the test of time, some become cult classics, and others become... well, we don’t know, do we?  And I should never be referencing something no one knows about.
            There isn’t an easy answer for this.  I’d love to list off some rules or just be able to say “8.3 references per 50 pages is acceptable,” but it isn’t that simple.  A lot of this is going to be another empathy issue.  As a writer, I need to have good sense of what’s sticking around and what’s a fleeting trend.  What references will people get in ten years, which ones they’re going to forget in six months, and how blatant these references need to be to get the job done.
            Getting dated is unavoidable.  It is going to happen to my work.  And yours. And hers.  But if we’re smart about it, we can get the most out of it while we can and still make sure that date’s as far off as possible.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about dialogue.  And I’ll probably make a mess of it.
            Until then... go write.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Introduction to Orientation

            Running a tiny bit late.  Trying to get a bunch of stuff done before the weekend and dealing with many disruptions and distractions.
            Anyway...
            I’d like to start this week by talking about  college.  It’s something I bet most of us here experienced, so it’s a great analogy for my real topic.  I’m sneaky like that.  Sometimes.
            If you’ve been reading these rants for a while, you know I grew up in a very small town in Maine.  For high school, my dad got a new job and we moved to a somewhat large town (arguably a small city) in southern Massachusetts for four years.  And then I went to a giant state school for college.  No joke, my freshman dorm almost had more students in it than the entire school system I attended in Maine.  And I wasn’t even living in one of the larger dorms.  The college had a larger population than my hometown.
            It was, needless to say, a bit overwhelming.
            There were lots of orientations, of course.  Then I was introduced to tons of people in my dorm, and then people on my hall (we won’t even get into classes).  We all talked about ourselves a bit.  I think so, anyway.  It was all a bit of a blur.  For a while there were just the two skinny guys across the hall,  the woman with the short hair who smiled a lot, the big guy with the glasses further down the hall. But after a while details and names accumulated, these people became clear in my mind, and they became Mike, Jon, Karen, Henry, and so on. 
            Most of us can relate to something like this, yes?
            When I’m introducing characters in my story, it’s a lot like this.  Sometimes things are a whirl of action.  Other times, everyone’s just sitting around studying each other.  Some people stand out—either on their own or because of my own interests—and other people just warrant rough placeholder descriptions for now.
            Context is everything when I introduce a character.  In the middle of a firefight, Wakko may not notice much about the person who dives in to join him behind the barricade.  They’re wearing body armor and they have a rifle—score!  If he’s dealing with a job applicant, though, he’s got time to notice how sharp the creases are in the slacks, how the tie is knotted and the hair is combed, not to mention the smell of shampoo and the state of fingernails.
            Likewise, during that firefight, there’s not much personal info Wakko needs to know past “you’re on my side, right?”  In the middle of the interview, he can ask “what are the three worst jobs you’ve ever had?”
            And in either case, he might not learn about that tattoo or the special shirt or the naughty story behind her nickname.  Some things are only seen or discussed in more intimate situations.  These are all details that come out with booze or debriefing or sex or some combination of all three. 
            Y’see, Timmy, there isn’t a certain way or time to introduce characters.  It’s all a matter of context.  Context, and a bit of relevance.  I need to think of it in terms of my narrative and my main character (or the character I’m focused on at the moment). 
            At this point in the story, is there time to notice more than a few basic physical attributes about this new character?  Is there any one or two things about him or her that my point-of-view character might focus on for the moment?  Is there even time to trade names?  If there’s a lot going on, I don’t want to bring things to a crashing halt with a page of description or exposition.
            I think one of the problems some writers have is they keep seeing examples of bad storytelling and character introductions in television and movies.  There’s an all-too common belief that things need to be frontloaded, that the audience needs to know everything about someone up front.  How many stories have you seen that begin with the “let’s all introduce ourselves” scene?  We learn their names and how they talk and their likes and dislikes and usually some clumsy anecdote about them or a blatant example of I’M THE UNSTABLE ONE!!!  GAHHHHH!!!  
            These scenes almost always feel unnatural because this isn’t how we meet people in real life.  Most of the time, we learn things about them in bits and pieces.  A little here, a little there.  Sometimes we never learn a character’s name, sometimes it’s the first thing we learn.  Some characters are willing to spill everything about themselves, others don’t want to know anything about you because it makes the job simpler.
            Now, I mentioned relevance up above.  It’s a close companion to context.  My story may end up in a place where we can take the time to get to know someone, but that doesn’t mean I need to say everything there is to be said about them.  Yes, everything in a character’s life helps define them, rich tapestry, all that, but if it really isn’t relevant to the moment at hand, or the story as a whole, there’s a good chance it doesn’t need to be there.  Bob explaining that he had to slit the throats of sheep growing up on a farm is important when we’re choosing who has to fight in the wolverine pit, not so cool during speed dating.  And someone telling you their sexual fantasies might be very exciting on a third date, but it can be a bit creepy during a job interview (no matter who’s talking).  When someone does this in real life, it’s called oversharing, and it tends to make us uncomfortable because... well, we don’t need to know these things in this particular situation.
            This can also help me weed out characters that... well, might not need to be characters.  If their introduction doesn’t fit in context, and the facts about them aren’t relevant... maybe I should question why they’re in my story here and now.  Maybe their introduction—or the full extent of it—should be pushed back or pulled forward.  Or maybe they’re just delivering the pizza and don’t have anything to do with the story at all.
            It all depends on context.  And relevance.
            And speaking of introductions, next time I’d like to go one step further and talk about dating.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Take It From The Top...

            Musical reference.  If you were ever in band class, you already have an idea what I’m talking about.
            Here’s a quick tip I wanted to toss out for a common problem...
            I think most of us have some project—a novel, a screenplay, a short story—that we really loved at one point, but had to put down.  Maybe it was because of work.  Family stuff could’ve cropped up.  Perhaps circumstances forced us to move on to other things.  It happens.
            Then we go back to it.  Not just to dabble with it over a weekend, but to pick up things where we left off.  And—no surprise—it’s tough to make things work the way they did before the break.
            If you’ve been reading this little pile of rants for a while, you may remember me referencing a novel I started about zombies on the Moon.  I began work on it back in late 2009, but put it aside after a few months because my publisher at the time wanted me to try a mash-up novel.  When I tried to go back to the zombie idea, he’d just bought another “zombies in space” novel and warned me he probably wouldn’t want another one (I ended up writing a book about a creepy apartment building instead).  I even tried to go back to Dead Moon again two years ago, and... well, it was a struggle.  I couldn’t remember how the characters sounded in my head, or where some of the plot points were leading.  I banged my head against it for about three months and then, well, circumstances required I move on again.
            My lovely lady recently had a similar problem.  She tried to finish a first person manuscript that was about 4/5 done, but she hadn’t touched it in about a decade and it was very, very voice-heavy with a very tricky plot.  That last 20% took her months.
            And I made the same mistake again, even after my attempts to get back to the Moon.  One of my most recent books began as a different novel back in 2007.  It was set aside twice (much like Dead Moon), and I’d kind of given up on it.  But then I realized I could salvage a lot of the plot and characters and use them as kind of a spin-off-side-quel to that creepy-apartment story.  Which sounded great on a bunch of levels.
            Except what really happened was that I tried to pick up right where I left off.  I fumbled with it for a long time before I realized I needed to forget X and start writing Y.  And I was 2/3 through Y before it hit me that the whole thing was really just clinging to X again.  I pulled it apart (now with a deadline creeping close) and finally got Z put together.
            Which my editor looked at and immediately caught a bunch of Y stuff.
            Y’see, Timmy, if we’re doing things right, we all keep growing as writers.  We gain experience (some good, some bad).  We learn new things.  We swear never to do certain things ever again. 
            And because of this, we stumble when we try to go back.  It’s kind of like bumping into an old ex and pretending nothing’s changed when... well, a lot has changed.  There’s skewed memories, things we know that we don’t want to, and experiences that make casual conversations kind of awkward.  Because we’ve grown and moved on.  There can still be something there, sure, but it’ll never be what it was back then.
            Final anecdote.  A month or two back I was offered a spot in a high-profile anthology.  My first thought for a story that fit was actually an unproduced script I’d written for a television show back in 2001.  But this was a themed anthology—my story had to fit this theme and these characters.
            So I read through the old script twice to get the story and the beats back in my head.  Then I put it aside.  Didn’t look at it again.  I wrote my first draft in a week (about 12,000 words) and had three more drafts done in the next two and a half weeks.  The editor loved it.
            So, here’s my tip. 
            If I’m going to go back to a half-done project that I haven’t done anything with for a significant amount of time, I might be better off just starting from scratch. Don’t try to save or salvage or repurpose.  Just start over.  This way I’m not fighting with present vs. past experience or voices or plotlines.  I’m just writing
            Sometimes it’s faster to start over on a project than to pick it up after a long time away from it.
            Next time, I’m going to introduce a reader request about characters.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Bloodsoaked Carnage and Horror 101

            Running late, as usual. In more ways than one.  I was looking back and realized I haven’t done a solid Halloween-related post in ages.  So this is doubly long-overdue.
            Anyway...
            I wanted to revisit something I blabbed on about once a few years back.  I figured it was worth going over again for the holidays and for general purposes.
            When I sit down to write something scary, it helps to know just what I’m trying to accomplish.  “Scary” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and some of that depends on context.  Do I want to make hearts race or blood run cold?  Am I trying to make sure someone never walks down a dark hall again, or that from this point on they can never eat chicken and rice without thinking of... well, other things?
            Someone with a sheet draped over them can be funny, creepy, or plain terrifying, but if I don’t know which one I’m aiming for, it’s much harder to accomplish anything.  I mean, I can’t get the desired effect if I don’t know which effect I desire, right?  It’s like playing pool (or billiards, for you continental types).  I can call my shots or I can smash the cue ball into anything on the table.  Either way, there’s a chance of getting a ball in a pocket, but one’s got a much better chance of doing something impressive.
            With that in mind... what kind of scares am I going for?
            There’s a bunch of arguments to be made in several directions, but I think fear, as a storytelling device, generally breaks down into three basic categories.  Stephen King’s said something similar a few times, and I’m kind of expanding on that in my own way.  There’s a couple different names people use for them, but for our purposes today, let’s call them the shocker, the gross out, and dread.  These three form the core elements of most scary stories.  They’re the base ingredients, as it were.
            Let’s review...

            The Shocker- This is when something unexpected happens and makes the reader or audience jump.  It’s an immediate fear caused by something happening right at this moment.   When that bear trap snaps shut on someone’s leg or they get a machete in the head, that’s a shock.  Ever seen someone’s eyes bug while they’re reading?  They probably just found a shocker.   A lot of the deaths on Game of Thrones tend to be shockers because—as violent as that world is—we don’t expect to see people we like bite it on such a regular basis.  Individual shocks can be stretched out a bit with chaos and shouting to keep it going—especially on film—but a shocker is really a short-lived thing.
            The shocker is a powerful storytelling tool, don’t get me wrong, but it’s important to remember that it can’t stand on its own for long.  By it’s very nature it’s quick and done.  There can be fallout and aftershocks, but they’re always going to be weaker. I also can’t use shocks one after another.  Repetition bleeds their strength and can even make them lean into comedy or (worse yet)boredom. 

            The Gross-Out - As King himself names it.  This is when things are just disgusting.  It’s when I tap into the reader’s sense of revulsion and maybe even induce some nausea.  It’s when we spend six paragraphs going over the exquisite sensation of lifting someone’s still-attached eyeball out of their socket, maybe turning it around to get a view of the room, and then sliding sewing needles into it (maybe even through it) again and again until it bursts and the warm liquid runs down the optic nerve and drips into the empty socket.  Which then gets packed with salt.  Or maybe it’s just about running a lawnmower over a zombie and describing every color and texture as the half-rotted body sprays out across the grass.
            One of the big differences between the gross out and the shocker is duration.  While a shock loses power the longer I try to prolong it, a gross out can gain strength as it goes on and on (and thus, torture porn was born).  Still, like anything, if it goes on too long or happens too often, my readers will get bored with the gross out, too.
            Another interesting point.  The audience often (but not always) knows the gross out is coming.   Anticipation is part of it.  We don’t have pages and pages of set-up, but it rarely pops up out of nowhere (because if it did, it’d be a shocker).

            Dread - This is when something doesn’t happen, but we know it could.  Or maybe it’s something we know is happening even if we don’t actually see it.  Dread is fear of potential events, if that makes sense, which puts it very close to suspense.  We know any minute now something’s going to crawl out of the shed or reach out from under the bed, and the fact that it hasn’t yet is what gives us the chills.  Dread needs enough space for my readers to realize things aren’t matching up within the story or within their own experiences.  It works well in larger tales because there’s space for back story, but if I’ve got enough experience I can make it function in tighter spaces
            Now, there’s three catches that come with me using dread.  One is that it relies on me having a very solid grasp of how my readers are going to react and what they’re going to know.  If I say you’ve been invited to the Strexcorp company picnic, most of you are going to shrug, put on some sunscreen, and head down to play volleyball.  I have been known to have a bug thing now and then, but I shouldn’t assume everyone will find the sight of a cockroach to be the most awful thing ever.  If the shocker is a sledgehammer, then suspense is the scalpel of fear.
            The second catch is that dread relies on the audience having... well, not to sound elitist, but it depends on a certain level of intelligence and involvement.  If you try explaining climate change to a chimpanzee, you’ll notice they don’t get too worried about it—assuming they sit there for your whole lecture.  The huge reveal about David Warner’s photographs in The Omen doesn’t pack anywhere near the same punch if I come in when they’re done examining the priest’s apartment (see—you should’ve watched The Omen and then this would make sense).  Dread requires an investment and an attention span. 
            Last but not least, dread needs good characters  more than the other two types of horror mentioned above.  My readers need to be able to identify with what a character’s going through.  If they can’t, this isn’t a story, it’s a news report.

            Now, after all that, here’s one more mouthful for you to digest.  Did you notice that each of these types of horror has a different time investment?  The shocker is quick, the gross out needs a few minutes, and dread really takes its time.  Each one is very distinct.  I can’t expect to stretch a shock over two or three pages and I can’t build a sense of dread in a single paragraph.
            Once I know just what I’m trying to do, it’s easy to see how each type of horror should work on the page and also how they can work with each other.  A lot of old ghost stories are little suspense tales that build to a shock.  A lot of  torture porn films start with a bit of dread, but then dive headfirst into gross-outs punctuated by shocks. 
            Y’see, Timmy, when I’m writing horror I need to be aware of the effect I’m trying to create and how much space I need to accomplish that effect.  If I’m trying to build a sense of dread in less than a page, or if I want to make a shock last for just as long, my story’s doomed.  These are things that are very hard to manipulate.
            Of course, it’s possible to do scary things without any of these core elements, just like it’s possible to bake without using flour or sugar.  But I need to be aware that working around these things means a lot of extra effort.  And maybe some really clever thinking.
            Next time, I want to break this bad habit of running late and start over from scratch.
            Until then, go hand out candy.  Oh, and write.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Man With No Name

             So very sorry for the long delay.  You’ve all been very patient.  Like, eligible-for-sainthood patient.  
            I could make a bunch of excuses but, well... I’m probably going to bombard you with self-promotional stuff next year.  Let’s just put it that way.
            Sorry.
            Anyway... let’s talk about that title.  Pop culture reference from fifty years ago.  In the hit western A Fistful of Dollars (also known as “that old western they’re watching in Back to the Future II”) and its sequels, Clint Eastwood’s character is never named.  Never. 
            Why do I mention this?
            Let me go over a few things first.
            There are three types of characters in any story.  You may have heard a bunch of different literary terms for them, but for our purposes I’m going to break them down to main characters, supporting characters, and background characters.  Every character in my story can fit under one of these three umbrellas.  Or in one of these classes, if you prefer.
            My main characters are my heroes, and sometimes my villains, too.  These are the people making things happen in my story, and the ones my narrative will spend most of its time with.  If someone makes a movie out of my book or screenplay, the main characters are going to be the ones on the poster.  There could be six or seven main characters in a good-sized ensemble, but it starts getting hard to balance (or juggle) things when it goes much higher than that.  Not saying it’s impossible, but if my story has fourteen main characters, I might want to rethink some things.
           The supporting characters are the ones around my main characters, usually offering some kind of support (surprise) in either a physical or emotional way.  They appear and disappear from the story as they’re needed.  We don’t focus on them as much because they’re secondary in the story.  They help out, in a variety of ways, but they aren’t the ones who save the day or stop the bad guy.
            Finally, we have the background characters.  They’re just what they sound like.  These are the window dressing people.  The ones who fill tables at a restaurant, bring drinks to our heroes, and stand at the bus stop outside so they can be obstacles when said heroes come racing out at high speed.  In the film industry, they’re actually called “background” or just “extras” (and sometimes less flattering terms depending on who’s listening).  Background characters rarely get more than a line or two of description, and it’s almost always physical.  More than that’s a bad precedent, because I’m setting up the reader to think they’re more important than they are.  When my story’s focusing on the flight attendant, I don’t need tons of history and  psychological background about the rude woman in seat 4C.
            Now, before we get back to Clint Eastwood, let me mention something else that’s come up here once or thrice before.  Names.  Names are important for characters, because a name is great shorthand to my readers for how relevant a character’s going to be to my story.  If I introduce a character with a name, there’s a good chance they’re going to matter so the reader should pay attention to them. 
            (I mean, I’m not just going to name some random guy over at table three in the diner, right?   Can you imagine how much Guardians of the Galaxy would’ve dragged if it started by naming every single person in the hospital room with Peter Quill’s mom?  Or all of the prisoners and guards in the Kyln?  That’d just get silly and confusing, and there’d be no point to it...)
            So, what am I getting at?
            I need to keep track of what class of characters I’m writing about and balance things accordingly.  It’s hard for me to say Bob is one of my main characters if the bus driver gets more description than he does.  If everyone in my script is named, how’s the reader supposed to keep track of the important people?
            A while back I mentioned Theresa Cano, a character in early drafts of my many-times-rightfully-rejected novel The Suffering Map.  Except Theresa wasn’t even a character.  She was a rich and detailed transitional device that filled two pages.  When I cut her out (in the fourth or fifth draft, if memory serves) it didn’t change a single thing in the story.
            So, really, she was a two page distraction that broke the flow.
            In A Fistful of Dollars there’s so much focus on the main character that he doesn’t even need a name.  And it’s not like this complicates things  He’s almost always present  and people rarely use names when they talk to each other.  Cormac McCarthy does the same thing in his novel The Road.  We never learn the father’s name or the son’s.  Same with Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive.  We’re more than halfway through Fight Club before it’s pointed out that Ed Norton’s character has never been named.  Heck, Boba Fett’s name is never spoken in the Star Wars movies until about twenty seconds before he’s knocked to his doom in the third movie.
            Speaking of Star Wars... one of the biggest complaints about all the Special Editions and additional canon is how overcomplicated it’s made things.  The folks at Kenner and LucasArts were looking for more marketable material, but rather than making new things they just inflated what was there.  Think of that famous cantina scene with the band and the alien trying to rough up Luke.  Did you know the band has a name?  All the individual musicians do, actually.  So does the alien smacking Luke around (he’s called Ponda Baba).  And the bartender.  In fact, pretty much every single alien in that scene now has a proper name and a race and a back story.
            Good thing none of it’s actually in the movie.
            When I’m writing, I have to know what’s relevant.  I shouldn’t make extended detours to cover irrelevant characters because a detour, by definition, is off the path.  It’s breaking the flow.  People can argue about art or style or literature all they want, but if my heroine runs into the drugstore for first aid supplies after a vampire attack and I spend the next seven paragraphs talking about the twenty-two year old failed football jock who’s running the night shift register because he tore a ligament in his junior year of college and had nothing to fall back on when he didn’t go pro, and how he got his name from his grandfather and it caused a huge argument between his dad and his mom when he was little which was what drove him to be a super-successful athlete and why the torn ligament was such a dream-killer... wait, why was my heroine coming in here?  Does she know this guy?   Is he secretly a vampire hunter (doubtful, since we just heard his whole history)?  Is he the love interest?  Is he a potential—no, never mind.  Our heroine just ran back out to get on with the story.
            Once I start breaking the flow—going off the path—I risk losing my reader.  I need to stay focused on my main characters and the actions they’re taking, with some help from the supporting characters now and then.  The background characters, by and large, should stay in the background, with maybe an odd line of dialogue or description now and then--giving them a name and a page of description isn't going to add anything because they're not supposed to add anything.  And if I really feel compelled to put the best man in every scene of my wedding story, then maybe I need to rethink who the main characters are and restructure things accordingly.
            Because if I’m not sure where my characters belong in my story... well, who will be?
            And there you have it.  Clint Eastwood.  Hope it was worth the wait.
            Next time...
            Y’know what?  This is so ridiculously late, and it’s a holiday week, so in a day or two I might revisit the idea of how to horrify people.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, October 17, 2014

My Thoughts On Criticism

            I am running soooo far behind.  Very, very sorry.  It turns out my new book is going to get a hardcover release which is making me feel even more pressure than normal and I’ve been freezing up a bit.  Plus I was out at the Books in the Basin festival last weekend (which, granted, was a lot of fun).  And my editor and I just did another back and forth over the manuscript.
            So, alas, still no Clint Eastwood.  But it’s coming.  Next week for sure.  And it’s going to be fantastic.
            For now, just so I don’t keep falling behind, I wanted to offer a few of my thoughts on criticism.
            I’ve mentioned a few times how important it is to get good feedback from people, so here’s a nice simple rule of thumb about criticism.  If I have to include myself in the critique, there’s a semi-decent chance it’s not valid criticism.  If I’m giving you feedback for something, and my notes have an abundance of statements that begin like this--

            “I think...”
            “I really...”
            “This didn’t do it for me.” 
            “I feel...” 
            “I just don’t...”

--or with some similar (or more emphatic) phrasing, my critique probably isn’t that objective.  I’m not offering advice based on facts or rules, just off my own opinion.  And while opinion has a place in criticism, it’s also something that needs to be weighed and ignored sometimes.
            My editor just sent me back a 540 page document (okay, really 270 because I crushed it to single space for efficiency) with all his notes and comments on it.  I think this is our third pass back and forth, but there are still a couple things we’ve been wrestling with on our respective sides.  I’d say there’s probably about thirty-five or forty solid comments throughout the whole manuscript (plus some quick corrections on the odd typo or tweaked descriptor).
            Out of all these, maybe four or five of them use “I think” or “I feel.”  Maybe ten percent of his feedback.  There are a few places he’s telling me how he feels about things, but for the most part he’s pointing out things that need to be adjusted, and giving me reasons why when it might not be clear.  Very little of his notes are opinions.
            And again, that’s not to say opinions are bad.  But opinions are subjective.  They’re “soft” criticism, not as useful because they revolve around a single reader.
            So be clear about the criticism you’re getting.  And giving.
            Next time, I absolutely swear, Clint Eastwood.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Muse and Cake

            Okay, I’ve had a couple of deadlines shift, so I’m not going to be able to talk about Clint Eastwood like I planned.  Instead, I’d like to share a few quick observations about the muse that crossed my mind a few days ago.
            There is no muse. 
            The muse is a lie. 
            There is only you. 
            Writing is work.  The muse is not going to do the work for you because the muse, as I said, is a lie.  The muse is not going to sort out that plot snarl or polish that dialogue or put down those one thousand words today.  The only person who will do that work is you.  That’s the ugly truth.
            The idea of the muse has been pulled from mythology and perpetuated by modern writing classes and gurus to excuse lazy behavior.  It’s an artistic, pseudo-intellectual scapegoat.  People who don’t feel like writing, who don’t feel like solving problems, they blame the muse.
            Waiting on the muse is another way of saying wasting time.  Every day you wait on the muse is a day someone else is writing more than you.  A day someone is getting more experience than you.  A day that someone is getting better than you.
            Stop waiting on the muse.
            Write.  If you want to write, if you want to be a writer, if you want to become a better writer, you need to write.  You’re going to write a ton of stuff and a lot of it is going to be crap.  But that’s how we get to the good stuff.  By working at it. 
            Not by waiting for the muse.
            Next time, Clint Eastwood.  For real.
            Until then, go write.

            No excuses.  Go write.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Inflation

            Sorry about last week.  Still juggling a few things and the ranty blog drew the short straw.  It happens.  Many thanks for your patience.
            It’s not that I didn’t have an idea.  There was a solid idea.  And there was enough to fill a regular post (about three and a half pages).
            Sometimes I don’t have as much, though, and that’s okay, too.  There’s been more than a few times that I’ve jotted off a quick page or so and called it good.  It’s not like the ranty blog has any guidelines about length.
            A lot of markets do, though.  Anthologies, magazines, and journals often have specific minimums and maximums in mind.  Most publishers (big and small) are going to have pretty firm ideas about what counts as a novella or a novel.  And what doesn’t.
            The catch, of course, is that sometimes my story just doesn’t fit with a certain market.  This isn’t a judgment, just a simple fact.  Sometimes SUVs are too big for garages.  Sometimes my car is too small for the bookshelf I’m trying to move.  If I try to claim the people who make bookshelves are biased against my car... well, I’ll look pretty silly.
            But you’re not here to listen to me blab about bookshelves.  I’m supposed to talk about what goes on the bookshelves.
            Sometimes I might really want to place a story somewhere and it just isn’t the right size.  Even if it’s my choice to self publish, it’s safe to say most folks are going to feel cheated if my “book” is only 40,000 words.  What I used to do in this case, and what I’ve seen a few people do recently, is to artificially inflate things.
            Inflation is, no big surprise, when I try to make something bigger by adding more of the same.  It’s when I come up with ways to make every ten word sentence reach fifteen or twenty words.  Or when a two page conversation stretches out to a whole chapter.  Or when I segue away from the main plot for a while and just kind of put it on hold until I get back.  
           These things aren’t happening because of poor editing.  Well, okay, a bit because of poor editing.  Really, they’re happening because I’m stretching to reach a goal that my story really wasn’t intended to reach.  At least, not in it’s current form.  So the story starts to lose its flow and spin its wheels a bit as the reader waits for... well, things to happen.
            Let me give you an example...
            Monday is the tenth anniversary of the premiere of LOST.  Yep, on September 22, 2004, Oceanic Flight 815 broke up in the air and crashed on an uncharted island in the South Pacific.  The thing is, they were only supposed to be there for three years.  Four tops.  But LOST was a huge show for ratings and the network didn’t want it to end.  So, the story started to inflate.  And inflate a little more.  And a little more.  And it started to flail because it was clear to even the most devoted fans of the show that a number of these third and fourth season stories were just... well, filler.  And once the end was in sight it all started to tighten up again.
            I used to do this a lot.  It was a standard part of my storytelling, to have pointlessly long conversations or needlessly elaborate descriptions.  But I eventually figured out this was all just fat on the meat of my story (sorry, vegetarian readers).  Now I cut all of that, and I can’t help but notice my success rate with placing stories and books has gone quite a bit higher since I did this.
            It also made me more aware of what my stories were.  Some of my ideas were executed in a way that pretty solidly made them short stories.  One or two of them were novellas.  Many of them were novels.  And there were one or two I thought were novels that, well, they were novellas at best.  The number of characters and plot points, the way I’d structured the whole tale... it really didn’t work for a larger format.  But I forced them into that format by inflating them rather than expanding them.
            Here’s a couple of things I learned to look for that could be signs of inflation...

            Repeating information—This can take many forms, and in a way I’d guess more than half the cases of inflation I’ve seen burn down to this.  Sometimes it’s revisiting the same information with no variation.  Sometimes it’s characters repeating a certain phrase again and again for no real reason.  I just finished one book where a woman keeps reminding everyone again and again and again that  “I have a schedule to keep.”  Honestly, I could’ve cut two solid pages out of the book just by removing half the instances of that phrase.
            There’s a writing idea I’ve mentioned before—something we don’t know is information, something we already know is noise.  This method of padding means a manuscript full of noise.

            Overly detailed descriptions—There’s two common versions of this.  One is a massive over-description of characters or objects or locations.  Two pages of irrelevant details about someone’s suitcase or the inside of a diner—no matter what some folks try to say, that’s just an attempt to stretch things out and it’s putting the plot and story on hold while I do.
            The other version is when I have a very complex set of actions like baking a cake or fixing a car or performing an operation and I describe every single step.  Every teaspoon, every bolt, every cut.  Granted, there are times I want to describe all this because I’m trying to build tension.  If I need to seal four bolts to keep the charging insurgents on the other side of this hatch, I’m going to describe every turn of the wrench and every time the threads catch.  But if there isn’t a need for such immediate tension, odds are this is just filler.

            Elaborate Action—This kind of ties to the above.  Some folks write the most over-detailed action scenes ever.  Each and every punch is described in painstaking anatomical detail.  Every time my pistol fires involves a list of facts about the action, the ammunition, and the sensation of recoil in exact foot-pounds.  As above, there are moments for this sort of thing.  A trained NSA agent probably isn’t going to have the same thoughts about firing a weapon that a suburban house-husband does.  But if it’s every moment, it’s just padding and it’s monotone.

            Overuse of names--Repeating names flattens out dialogue.  I’ve mentioned in the past that it’s just not natural to use someone’s name in every other response of a conversation.  So this is artificially adding to the word count and ruining the dialogue at the same time.
            There’s a corollary to this, too.  One book I read recently had a  character named Catherine, which is how she was described in all the text.  Except her friends called her Cathy in dialogue.  And the guy in her office always called her “system lord” for her computer skills and network access.   And her boss called her “Red” (for her hair).  And the semi love interest called her “surfer girl” (how they met).  And every one of these characters used their own name for her in every second or third line of dialogue.  So now, not only was it excess words and flat dialogue, it was also confusing as hell.

           Granted, these aren’t the only signs of things going wrong, but there ones I’ve learned to watch for in my own writing.
            This isn’t to say that a short story can’t be expanded into a novella or a full novel.  But if I’m going to do this, I need to actually add material.  Characters, plot points, story points... something.  I can’t just swell my story with empty words that don’t contribute anything.
            Because that’s the kind of thing that bursts apart with just the slightest prick.
            Next time I’d like to talk about Clint Eastwood.
            Until then, go write.