Thursday, March 23, 2017

Sentence DNA

            Okay, so, a few weeks back (before the amazing ten year anniversary) I said I’d blab on a bit about words.  That time has finally come.
            Be ascared. Be very ascared.
            Anyway...
            It’s been a while, so I figured I’d bring up spelling again.  I’m sure it seems silly that I keep revisiting this topic again and again.  But there’s a reason for it.  Words are the absolute core of what we do as writers, the bare-bones building blocks.  They’re the DNA of storytelling, the atoms to my sentence molecules.
            I must have a solid, working vocabulary if I want to be a writer. No question, no excuses.  I need to know what words mean.  I have to know how to spell them.  I have to be able to tell them apart.
            That last one’s a killer.  We’ve all seen people go on about there/they’re/their and of course about its and it’s.  But I’ve seen folks mess up corporeal and corpulent. I’ve seen major websites confuse possible and posable.
            Granted, ninety-five percent of the people making these mistakes aren’t claiming to be writers.  They’re just folks trying to express their thoughts online.  This isn’t their field of specialty.  As I’ve pointed out before, I can cook, but I’m not a chef.  I can do an oil change and rotate my tires, but I’m no mechanic.  And I don’t think the folks at my garage would look down at me for not being able to tell a carburetor and a fuel pump apart on sight.
            But...
            I’d probably look down on them if they couldn’t tell the two apart.  I’d eye all their work and claims with a bit of skepticism.  Truth is, I probably wouldn’t trust them with my car anymore. It’s the kind of ignorance that calls all their work into question.
            That’s why spelling is so important for writers.  It’s one of the first benchmarks we need to pass—one of the first indicators that we know what we’re doing.  I can’t tell you how many times, as a contest reader, I would start judging a screenplay because it had two or three misspelled or misused words in the first two pages.  If I hit twenty pages and there were more than ten typos...  Well, even when I wasn’t supposed to judge on spelling, there’s simply no way that’s not going to color my thoughts when I hit another problem.
            And y’know what?  The scripts with spelling problems always had another problem. Always.
            I wasn’t alone in this, just in case you’re thinking I’m some hypercritical jerk who’s scared of newcomers taking his job or something (keep in mind, this was almost eight or nine years ago—nobody wanted my job back then).  A good number of readers—and editors and agents—are also writers.  Even when we’re not supposed to judge on spelling... we all kinda judge on spelling.
            Anybody who’s a professional in this word-making field will.
            That said... here’s a list of paired-up words.  They’re homophones or malonyms or just... well, screwups.  As always, all of these examples come from actual mistakes I’ve seen in the wild—in books, catalogs, and on various websites that try to claim a degree of professionalism.  Hell, one of these was in an article about how to be a better writer!
            Yeah, it’s just painful to think people messed up some of these...

mote vs. moot
conscious vs. conscience
defuse vs. diffuse
reign vs. rein
angle vs. angel
dual vs. duel
idle vs. idol
dyed vs. died
pique vs. peak
emulate vs. immolate
bawl vs. ball
jive vs. jibe
do vs. due
sleight vs. slight
rouge vs. rogue
marital vs. martial
hansom vs. handsome
don vs. dawn
gild vs. guild
turn style vs. turnstile

            Neat list, eh?
            Did you know what both words meant?  In every example?  Because, again, I need to know what words meanAll the words.  Not a pretty good idea, not a general sense of how it works, not pretty-sure-that’s-the-one-I’m-looking-for.  These are my basics, after all.  This is sugar vs. salt for a chef, or carburetor vs. fuel pump for a mechanic.  If I mess these up... well, I can’t be shocked when people stop treating me like a professional.
            Actually, if you don’t mind me running a bit long, I want to toss out something else here, too.  Another point I’ve mentioned before, but it still bears repeating.
            Sometimes, for storytelling reasons, maybe I want spelling mistakes in my work. Maybe it’s an epistolary story, or just a jutted-down note within the narrative, and the character in question isn’t supposed to be all that bright. Then it makes sense that they may not be good at spelling, yes?
            I need to be super-careful when I do this.  This is one of those things that can make me lose points with editors and writers.  Seriously.  I’ve seen both.
            D’you notice up above when I’d written jutted instead of jotted?  Not a huge mistake.  Understandable, even—U and O are pretty close on the keyboard.
            Which means, of course, there’s a chance that’s an actual mistake, not one I added in for narrative effect.  If I see somebody mess up they’re and their, I’m left wondering if the character’s not too bright... or the author isn’t. There’s no real way to be sure.
            Compare that to when I used ascared up top. It’s not a word you’ll find in many dictionaries, but it’s a generally accepted colloquialism. It’s also (take notes now) a spelling that would raise flags for copy editors or even the dumbest of spellcheckers. And readers. We’d immediately question how such a blatant, easily caught error made it in, and the default assumption would be that I meant for it to be.
            Y’see, Timmy, I need to be smart about deliberate mistakes in my writing. It needs to be very clear they’re deliberate—screw-ups the character made, not me.  Because if they’re not sure, most readers are going to assume it’s my mistake.  And as I mentioned above, if I make too many mistakes...
            Well, again, I can’t be shocked by how people react.
            Next time...
            This is getting tough, because I’m thinking of making Tuesday posts a semi-regular thing, but they’ll probably be a bit broader and not quite as writing-specific. So “next time” won’t actually deal with writing, but it’ll still—
            Y’know what? Just keep checking back here.  It’ll be worth it.  Hopefully.
            Until then, go write.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Scribbling

            Okay, so here’s a simple tip. One you’ve probably heard before.  One you’ve probably ignored until it’s too late.
            Always carry a notebook.
            Now, I know what some of you are thinking.  A notebook.  How quaint.  How 19th century.  What a delightful little writery affectation.  I’m too young and vibrant to forget things.  I’ve trained my mind to function like a steel trap!
            Yeah. 
            You’ll forget stuff.
            Back when I was in college, I was trying to write and drifting back and forth between a werewolf detective novel and another one I’ve mentioned here called The Trinity, about rival immortals.  And I also had this idea dancing in my head.  A scene with a few snippets of dialogue.  Something about it called to me.  Tickled me.  Gnawed at me.  It was one of those things I kept playing with, spinning it different ways, trying to find just how and where it would fit in a story.  Or maybe a story that fit around it.
            So one night I was talking with a friend down at the dorm security desk and somehow ended up talking to a foreign exchange student. For, like, two hours.  There at the desk. I don’t remember much about her except she had an amazing accent,very clever (hey, we talked for two hours), and was kinda stunning in that casual way some women pull off really well.
            And about halfway through this conversation, I suddenly realized where that little scene fragment fit. Something she said flipped it around and I suddenly knew just how this would work in a story. How it would be the seed of an entire powerful, amazing book.
            But... I was having a fascinating conversation with an attractive foreign exchange student.  I didn’t want to break that off.  Besides—there was absolutely no way I’d forget an idea this good.
            Reader... I forgot it.
            To this day, my most solid memory of that night is the sheer joy of knowing I’d figured out how to perfectly use that idea.  I don’t remember how.  Or the exchange student.  But I remember how thrilled I was, knowing I’d finally get to use that idea.
            I just don’t remember how.
            Write it down.  On a notepad. On your computer. On your arm. On your phone (there’s usually a notepad app, and there are some great ones out there you can grab cheap).  Doesn’t matter if it’s an idea, an editing note, a clarification—always write it down somewhere.
            But don’t tell yourself you’ll remember it.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Our Aluminum Anniversary Post

            So very sorry I missed last week.  There were copyedits.  I got about 3/4 of a post done in my spare time, but I was never quite happy with it, and then last Thursday was here and gone.
            And now here’s Thursday again.
            As it turns out, though, this turned out to be a fantastic bit of lucky timing.
            This, my friends-students-lurkers-haters-et al, is the 400th post here on the ranty blog.  Yep.  Four.  Hundred.  I know that doesn’t really mean much, in the big scheme of things.  There are some folks who post way, way more frequently than I ever will.
            Still, though... that’s a lot of random writing rules and advice I’ve been spouting out over the years.  Granted, there were a couple of amusing pictures mixed in there, plus I’ve revisited the same topic a few times, but...c’mon, it’s a pretty cool milestone.
            Okay, fine. You’re not impressed.  How about this, then...
            Sunday, it’ll be ten years since I first started said ranty blog.
            TEN. YEARS.
            To put that in perspective, the first Iron Man movie, the one that kicked off the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe?  That was nine years ago.  Ten years ago nobody’d heard of Breaking Bad or Fifty Shades of Grey.  Hell, ten years ago nobody’d ever heard of Sarah Palin.
            To be honest, nobody’d ever heard of me, either.
            Probably also worth mentioning there’ve been a little over 770 comments posted here in that time. So many thanks to all of you who’ve stumbled across this pile of rants. It’s always nice to know I’m not shouting into the void.
            Ten years.
            This revamp’s long overdue, yes?  Blogger’s overhauled many of its formats. A lot more of you are reading this on tablets or smartphones (something else that would’ve been a mystery ten years ago).  This whole page could be a lot more mobile-friendly.
            Plus, let’s be honest. I’m ten years older. Some of you are, too.  Most of you are going to be.  The white-text-on-black setup wasn’t helping anyone.
            Soooooooo... Whadda you think?
            Okay, talk about that down in the comments. Since we’re looking at a big momentous anniversary (and did anyone get me an aluminum ring?  No!) and I’ve been doing the Writers Coffeehouse for over a year now, I wanted to be clear on something.  I’ve kind of talked about this on and off, but it struck me it might be worth saying in really clear, absolute terms.
            I am not a writing guru. 
            Hell, forget guru, I’m not much of a writing teacher.  I’m barely a writing adviser.  Most of the Coffeehouse folks can vouch for this.  At best, I’m kind of the old writing hermit up in the hills.  You can ask me questions and I’ll shake my fist and shout some kind of answer, but I’d guess at least half the time my answer won’t work for you.  Probably closer to 2/3 of the time.
            That's the Golden Rule I've mentioned here once or thrice.  Writing is a very individual, very personal process. What works for me might not work for you. It definitely won't work for him.
            So... how is that different from being a guru?
            Well, because I’m admitting it might not work.  Not for everyone.  I’m telling you that up front.  There is no “right” way to do this.  At best, we can pin down some methods that work better than others and a few more that are more likely to hinder than help.  But past that...
          Okay, I’m going to tell you a really old, really stupid joke.  I apologize in advance, but it’s kind of important.  Ready?

            A man goes to the doctor’s office.  He holds his arm out, rotates it counter-clockwise at the shoulder, and says “Doc, it hurts like hell whenever I do this.” 
            The doctor looks at him, shrugs, and says “Don’t do that.  That’ll be twenty dollars.”

            Yep, twenty dollars for a doctor’s visit.  Told you it was an old joke.
           Now, on a basic level, the doctor has taken care of the patient’s problem.  And it’s kind of a win-win for the doctor.  If the man keeps doing it and the pain persists, he’s going against the doctor’s orders and the doc was right telling him to stop.  If he doesn’t do it and there’s no pain, then the doctor was right telling him to stop.
            The catch here, of course, is that the doctor hasn’t actually done anything.  And that’s how a lot of gurus operate.  They know how tough it can be to succeed in this business, so they charge a lot of money and offer foolproof advice.  Foolproof in the sense of it can’t fail, because the advice is not to do anything.
            I used to see this mentality in the film industry a lot.  A script will normally go through what they call “clearance.”  It’s when a lawyer or legal assistant goes through the screenplay looking for possible legal issues, usually with names, addresses, and prominently mentioned items.  Is this character name common, or is there only one person with this name in that city?  Should someone bitch and complain about Microsoft products by name on screen?  The clearance people are supposed to do some research and then give everything a thumbs down (because you might get sued) or a thumbs up (you’re in the clear).
            Guess what, though?  About nineteen times out of twenty, they just say don’t do it.  Don’t use that name, don’t mention that product, don’t refer to that person.  No matter what it is, you might get sued, so don’t use it. 
            Y’see, Timmy, if I tell you not to do something and you don’t, there’s no problem—I was right.  If I tell you not to do it, you do anyway, and nothing happens, then you were lucky—and I was right.  If I tell you not to do it, you do anyway, and  you get sued... well, I told you not to do it.  It’s not my fault.  No matter what the actual outcome is, by saying no, I’m always correct. 
            This is what I see overwhelmingly from gurus (both prose and screenwriting).  Rather than actually teach anything, far too many of them just give lists of what not to do.  Don’t do flashbacks. Don’t use passive voice.  Don’t take too long to introduce characters.   Don’t have your inciting incident any later than page nineteen.  Don’t use “we see.” Don’t use “said.”  Don’t do voiceover in scripts.
            And, again, they’re never wrong, because saying no is always correct.
            On the other hand, I try to do is explain how these things work. Of course you can use flashbacksIntroduce characters whenever it’s appropriate for your individual story.  And please, please, please try to use “said” more than any other dialogue descriptor. These devices wouldn’t exist if they didn’t work—they would’ve died out centuries ago. Actual centuries.  It’s just easier and quicker to say “don’t use them” then it is to explain how to use them correctly.
            Especially if said guru doesn’t know how to use them correctly.
            There’s another way I’m different from a guru.  I have actual, recent experience.  Not references or testimonials—experience.  I honestly can’t tell you the number of self-proclaimed experts I’ve seen who haven’t had a single sale in their chosen industry in years.  Assuming they’ve ever even had a sale.  One of my favorites was a “script doctor” I’d never, ever heard of (keeping in mind, I worked in the film industry for fifteen years and then reported on it for another five) who assured would-be clients that he’d worked on lots and lots of big box office films... none of which he was allowed to name for confidentiality reasons. 
            Remember, real professionals don’t have testimonials—they have credits. Recent credits.  Every industry changes over time.  Publishing, filmmaking, programming, farming—all of them.  The longer it’s been since I’ve done something, the less likely it is that my knowledge of said industry is any good.  You might remember a couple weeks back I mentioned I wasn’t going to offer screenplay advice anymore because it’d been a while since I actively did anything in the film industry.  I don’t want to mislead anyone with out-of-date advice about how to put a screenplay together. 
            Yeah, there are still format posts here if anyone wanted to go digging (look, here’s one), but it’s also clear these aren’t current.  So I’m going off the basic assumption that if someone finds their way here, they’re smart enough to think twice before blindly following something from a year ago.
            I mean, let’s just approach this logically.  If Wakko really knows how to write a novel that publishers will pay half a million for... why is he nickel-and diming you and me? Why are we paying him $500 for a three-day weekend course when a film studio might give him $750,000—plus residuals?
            Don’t get me wrong.  There are a bunch of very talented, very experienced people out there offering writing advice and asking for a couple of bucks.  I personally know at least half a dozen writers who’ve put out books of writing tips and advice.  I’ve toyed with the idea myself.  But, again, they’re all professionals.  Offering writing advice is a side business, not their primary one. 
            Which is, y’know... writing.
            And that brings me to my last point.  It’s not a hard fast rule, but I’d say it’s a pretty solid rule of thumb.  Most of the professionals who offer writing advice... just offer it.  They don’t want a huge amount of cash up front. They’re not asking $85 for a self-published textbook.
            The reason for this is pretty simple.  The vast majority of us who’ve made it up here to the top half of the ladder only got here because we got help and encouragement from other professionals along the way.  I can look back and know I only made it here because of advice and tips I got from several writing professionals along the way, almost all of whom gave me that advice for free (one was a college professor—and a two-time Pen/Faulkner winner with nine books to his name at that point).
            The question I need to ask myself is... is that big pile of don’ts from somebody with no experience worth $650?  Or maybe a grand?  Hell, is it even worth fifty bucks?
            And that’s why I’m not a guru.
            And it’s part of the reason I’ve been writing out suggestions and tips and not-so-gentle nudges here for the past ten years.
            Again, thanks for being here.
            Next time, I’ll probably prattle about words, like I said I was going to do last week. Or maybe I’ll talk about this really cute foreign exchange student I knew in college. One of those things.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

It’s Not Like Anything Else

            I wanted to prattle on a bit about character development.  I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, and the way it can sometimes be a stumbling block.  And I think I’ve got my thoughts in an order where they’d make a semi-coherent post.
            So, first, a little story.
            A friend of mine has a semi-popular travel show on PBS.  She’s also been working on a book about how she ended up travelling and one of her first big solo trips (that’s her thing).  She’d been working on it for a while and asked if I’d be willing to take a look at it and maybe offer some thoughts.  Maybe help her think of a title for it.
            I’ll be honest.  There’s always a bit of nervousness when a friend asks for your opinion on something.  I bet most of you can relate.  But I said yes.
            Turned out, no big worry. It was a fun book about her trek through Italy.  No nightmarish spelling or grammar mistakes.  Great voice.  Good description.
            There was one issue I noticed though—it just took a little while to pin down.
            (no, don’t worry,  She and I have talked about this.  And she knows I’m mentioning her book this week)
            Y’see, the book had tons of good elements.  Travel.  History.  Comedy.  Some soul searching.  A little romance.  A touch of sex.  Even a kind of creepy night in a haunted building.
            Thing is, none of these was a dominant element.  They were all more or less equal.  A little more of this here, a little less of that there.  Okay, the creepy factor only lasted four or five pages, but past that... it’d be really tough to pin down the main theme of the book.  An informative travelogue?  An introspective journey to sort out a life?  A passionate summer in Europe?
            Yeah, lots of stories have multiple elements like this.  My own book, The Fold, has sci-fi and horror elements, but also mystery, some action-adventure, a bit of comedy, some sexy romance, and even a touch of political stuff.  At the end of the day, though... it’s pretty much sci-fi and horror.  The other things were side dishes, so to speak.  They were fun and flavorful, but they weren’t the main course.
            See, without that main course, the meal is nothing but side dishes.  And while there’s nothing wrong with that, it becomes very difficult to answer the simple question of “what did I have for dinner?”  Sure, I can say, “side dishes,” but that doesn’t really answer the question, does it?  It’s like asking what I’m wearing and I say “not a green shirt.”  It’s an answer and it’s true, but I haven’t really told you anything useful.
            I need to have some kind of answer to the genre question, because people are going to ask it. People like readers. And agents.  And editors.  And if I can’t give them a real answer, it’s going to be really hard for me to get anyone interested.  If you’ve been reading the ranty blog for a while, you may remember a little tidbit I once heard from an agent named Esmond Harmsworth—“It’s not like anything else is very hard to sell.”
            This brings me to the second half of this little rant...
            I’ve mentioned before that you can follow me on Twitter.  If you do, you get to watch every weekend as I rant about sci-fi and horror B-movies in real time.  Over the years—watching them and working on some of them—I’ve developed a theory about why they turn out so bad.  Not all of them, granted, but a good number of them.
            Genre comes with expectations.  Science fiction and fantasy each have their own standards, benchmarks, and tropes.  These are radically different from the ones we hold for horror, or for mystery stories, or for romances.  Seems straightforward, yes?
            When these expectations aren’t met, or when my story departs radically from them, things begin to stumble. Maybe my story recovers, but sometimes that stumble ends with a full-on faceplant.  I’m willing to bet most of us have read a book or seen a movie where we discover the big twist is aliens did it or angels did it or Bob was a deranged serial killer all this time.  And this made us roll our eyes and find something else to do.
            So, here’s my theory.
            I think sometimes, at one stage or another, a story gets tagged with the wrong genre.  And this creates problems.  Sometimes I look at one of those B-movies I mentioned and I see what may have started out as—for example—a really fine sci-fi movie.  But someone decided it was a horror movie, and they filmed it as a horror movie. And now the sci-fi story has horror timing and emphasis and angles—all those standards we expect from those films.  But they don’t really fit this story. And that awkwardness is why the movie never really hits its stride.
            A great example of this was the latest Fantastic Four movie.  Director Josh Trank has done Chronicle, an indie movie widely hailed as a superhero story. But if we take a good look at it, it was really a superpowers movie.  Then Fox gave him the FF franchise and, well, Trank made another superpowers movie.  He forced the FF out of their natural genre and into a different one. 
            And we all know how that went.
            I’ve seen the flipside of this, too. When something gets made as, say, a sci-fi movie, but we’re told it’s a horror movie, by the advertising or the interviews or whatever.  So we walk in with those standard expectations, and suddenly the movie is “wrong” because it’s failing as a horror movie—which it was never intended to be.  I’ve seen books that were marketed as dark fantasy that were supernatural romance. Movies marketed as horror that were pretty straightforward sci-fi or fantasy.  Or even blog posts that were marked as character development when they’re all about genre...
            From our point of view as writers, this can be deadly.  If I’ve got an agent who wants to see sci-fi, I say my book is sci-fi, and then I send her or him literary horror...  Well, that’s going to get rejected really quick.  Yeah, even if it’s a fantastic horror story. 
            Heck, even if said agent reps horror as well, they can get soured just by those failed expectations.  They can go into it expecting sci-fi, like they were told, and maybe they’ll eventually self-correct.  But even then...  I may have lost those two or three vital ticks off their mental scorecard.
            And those two or three ticks can mean the difference between ending up in the big pile of the left or the very small pile on the right.
            Y’see, Timmy, I need to be sure what my genre is.  And I need to be honest about it, no matter how popular some other genre might be right now.  Because I want to score all the points I can with editors.  And agents.
            And especially with readers.
            Next time I want to talk about one of my favorite topics.  And a little bit about numbers.
            Until then, go write.
            Oh, and if you wanted to toss a buck or two at my friend’s travel show, public television needs all the help it can get.  Thanks.