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


            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.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Oh, My Nose!

            Okay, I think I’m pretty much caught up with things on my end.  Even have the next four or five weeks planned out.  If there’s something you’d like me to babble on about, though, please drop me a note down in the comments.  There’s a good chance I can fit it into my semi-themed schedule before the end of the year.
            That’s what I’m saying at the moment, anyway.
            Speaking of which...
            As I've said once or thrice before, good dialogue is everything.  We learn so much subtle stuff from characters by what they say and how they say it.  There are dozens of words for police, for teachers, for bosses, for jobs, and more.  Does Phoebe call Wakko her boyfriend, her partner, her man, or her boy toy?  Does Wakko think of her as his lover, his bitch, his piece of ass, his significant other, or his friend with benefits?  No matter what their relationship is, the words they each use to describe it tells us something about both of them. 
            One term that comes up a lot in criticism is on the nose dialogue.  I’ve seen it tossed out to beginners numerous times in feedback, but usually without any explanation.  I saw it a lot when I used to read for screenplay contests (and wrote it on many, many forms).
            At its very simplest, on the nose dialogue is when my character is saying precisely what they’re thinking with no subtlety to it whatsoever.  It’s the difference between “Do you want to come up for a cup of coffee?” and “Would you like to have sexual relations in my living room now?”  There's no inference or implications, no innuendoes or layered meanings—no subtlety at all.  It’s dialogue stating the obvious, and I've mentioned a few times before how bad it is to state the obvious
            If I have on the nose dialogue, it usually strips away some layers of character, too.  How people avoid saying things is just as revealing as what they’re trying not to say.  If they don’t have those nuances and habits in their voices, they start sounding like robots.  Or cartoon characters. 
            Not the good kind of cartoon characters.
            In real life, people beat around the bush. We’re coy.  We feel each other out, in a verbal sense, and avoid saying things directly.  We use metaphors and similes and white lies and more.
            Here's a couple things I should be doing to make sure my dialogue doesn’t get too on the nose...
            Casual English—I've mentioned before the difference between written English and spoken dialogue.  When dialogue follows all the rules of grammar it starts to get wooden and lose a lot of its flavor.  Sometimes there's a point to this.  We’ve been taught to expect that aliens, androids, and super-geniuses tend to have very good grammar in stories.
            For the vast majority of us, though, we get a bit loose when we speak.  We use contractions and mismatch verbs and numbers.  It just happens.  Look up above where I said “Here’s a couple of things I should be doing...”  When we don't, dialogue becomes rigid, and that's just a short shuffle from being wooden.
            Jargon—Somewhat related to the last point.  The idea of slang has been around for a long time.  Bram Stoker talked about it in Dracula over a century ago, and it's a safe bet printers developed their own special terminology in the workplace less than a decade after Guttenberg made his printing press.  Everyone has their own set of words and terms that gets used within their particular group, and these words spill out into most of their conversations.  In other words, doctors speak like doctors, engineers talk like engineers, and sci-fi geeks speak like Dothraki.  When my characters lose these basic subtleties, their dialogue starts getting on the nose.
            Humor—Many years back I was on a road trip with a friend and we got horribly lost on the way to meet up with some folks.  It was all back roads and single-lane highways.  When we finally found a sign I could use to locate our position, I discovered we’d somehow got about a hundred miles off-course in about an hour and a half.  No chance we’d meet up with our friends on time.  Possibly no chance of finding a gas station, leaving us stranded in the middle of nowhere.  He saw my expression as I checked the map again and asked what was wrong.
            “Well, the bad news is we’re lost.  The good news is we’re making excellent time.”
            We make jokes at the worst possible times.  Office reviews.  Breakups.  Traffic accidents.  Courtrooms.  Funerals.  It’s just the way we’re wired.  The more serious the situation, the more imperative that release valve is for us.  In fact, we tend to be suspicious or uneasy around people who never crack jokes.  Not everyone and not at every moment, but when there’s no joking at all... it just feels wrong.
            Flirting—Similar to the above, this is another fact of human nature.  We show affection for one another.  We all flirt with friends and lovers and potential lovers, sometimes even at extremely inopportune times.  It's not always serious, it can take many forms, but that little bit of playfulness and innuendo is present in most casual dialogue exchanges. 
            Like joking, it's impossible to flirt with on the nose dialogue because it requires subtlety and implied meanings.  Flirting without subtlety generally comes across as propositioning, which gives a very different tone to things.  If no one in my story flirts with anyone on any level, there might be something to consider there.
            Not Using Names—There’s an old mnemonic trick of repeating someone’s name after you meet them.  Great for real life, not so great in fiction. 
            If I use someone’s name every time I speak to them, it starts to sound a little mechanical.  Yeah, even nicknames.  Yeah, even in crowds. We just don’t use names that often.  Think of your last few conversations and think about how often names get used.  Watch your favorite movie and see how often people address each other by name.
            Show Don’t Tell—You’ve probably heard a version of this before, but I’m talking about it in a slightly different way here.  Yeah, it’s clumsy if I’m just using my narrative to describe what’s happening.  It’s even worse if my characters are describing what’s happening.  Especially when they have absolutely no reason for doing it. 
            To be clear, I’m not talking about when they explain what they're doing (say, trying to perform CPR or maybe cook dinner), but when they're just speaking their actions aloud.  If you’ve ever heard an old radio-show where the actors had to depend on just dialogue with no visuals, you know what this sounds like.
            This kind of clumsy dialogue immediately tells the reader that I’m not picturing this scene at all.  For screenwriters, this kind of thing is almost guaranteed to get my script tossed in the big pile on the left, because I’m clearly not thinking about what’s on screen.
            Talk with other characters—This may sound silly, but if someone’s talking, they should be talking with someone else.  Nine times out of ten, if a character’s talking to themselves, it’s on the nose dialogue.  All those monologues about stress, long ethical debates, Yakko psyching himself up, Dot trying to figure out how to get past the thirteen Hydra agents... odds are every bit of that is on the nose dialogue.
            I also shouldn’t try to get around this with a “sounding board” character.  Talking is communication, which means it has to be a two-way street.  If I’ve got someone who serves no purpose except to be the other person in the room while someone thinks out loud, then they’re not really serving any purpose. 

            And that’s six things I should be doing with my dialogue.  I don’t need to do all of them, but if I’m not doing any of them... well...  Maybe my dialogue’s a little on the nose.  Or maybe a lot on the nose.
            Next week, I want to talk about inflation.
            Until then, go write.