Thursday, December 13, 2018

Holiday Triangles

            Well, it’s that time of year again.  Time to cue up that playlist of holiday music and pick out your stack of favorite movies.  Maybe you go a little more unconventional with your choices, maybe you stick to the classics, but whatever your flavor is, I’m sure there’s a lot of them.
            Hell, holiday movies are pretty much a solid, dependable genre at this point.  Just between Hallmark and Netflix, I think there’s forty or fifty new ones just for this year alone.  I worked on one ten years ago and it still gets heavy circulation.  People go nuts about the “plague” of superhero movies, but seriously—Christmas movies are the real machine.
            Anyway...
            We laugh at a lot of these and roll our eyes because they often feature some kind of painful romance.  And that’s what I wanted to talk about.  Where that awkwardness comes from and why these stories kinda keeps us at arms length rather than pulling us in.
            The standard Christmas movie goes something like this.  A young woman (it’s almost always a woman) falls for a guy who’s a few weeks away from getting engaged, married, etc.  The two of them have chemistry, while his girlfriend/ fiancĂ© rages away at her job or as a larval Bridezilla or maybe just as a generally awful, awful person.  Eventually the guy comes to see the error of his ways and our two impossibly good-looking people end up together just in time to kiss on Christmas Eve.
            I’ve talked about this general type of romantic triangle once or thrice before, and before we dive in at might be worth going back and glancing over that real quick—it sums up the ground rules of how and why these triangles work.
            Y’see, there’s a really basic flaw in how a lot of these holiday movies set up that triangle.  It’s why they always come across as a bit weird and the protagonists always seem a bit... well, wrong.  And I think it’s one of those things that’s really easy for me to avoid once I see it all laid out
            Let’s use that basic structure up above for our example.  Our test story, so to speak.  Amy (A) has a meet-cute with Bob (B), who is in a relationship with Kat (C, just to keep you on your toes).  Amy and Bob have chemistry, Kat is bordering on (if not openly) awful and clearly wrong for Bob.  And it’s Christmas because... y’know, that’s when this always seems to happen.
            Now, normally in a romantic triangle situation like this, our protagonist would be Bob.  Bob, after all, is the one who needs to make a choice here, right?  He needs to be active and decide if he wants to be with Amy or Kat.
            But...
            Our protagonist is Amy.  And the only way I can make Amy active in this situation is to make her... well, kinda unlikable.  If she does anything to improve things with Bob—all those standard romance bonding moments like long talks and quiet dinners and heartfelt discussions about shared passions—it kinda means she’s undercutting Bob’s relationship with Kat.  Which is a little rough, morally, no matter what we think of Kat.
            And geeeeez, if things get physical to almost any level, well, now they both look bad.  Amy’s making moves on somebody in a relationship.  Bob’s in a relationship and hooking up with someone else.  I mean, how bad does Kat have to be for us to be cool with Bob cheating on her?  And if she’s not that bad, then... well, yeah, he’s a jerk.
            And, yes—sometimes odd things happen between people in really specific situations.  Everybody reacts differently to stress and fear and all that.  Firm embraces may happen.  Maybe even a kiss or odd proclamation.  But that’s a reeeeeeeeeeeeeeally fine line.  Scary fine.  It’s so easy for that situation to go from understandable and excusable to what-the-hell inappropriate.
            Y’see, Timmy, when Amy’s this point in the triangle, she isn’t the one with a choice to make..  Not a real one, anyway.  She has two options.  She can do nothing (which ends the story pretty quick) or she can try to disrupt Bob and Kat’s relationship.  Those are her only paths, as far as our plot goes, and neither of them is a great one from a storytelling point of view.
            I think when writers do this, they’re confusing the outcome with the choices that lead to it.  We’ve all heard “the ends justify the means,” but this tends to ignore the fact that the means I use also determine what kind of end I get.  There are tons of ways Amy and Bob can end up together, but a lot of them can be paths that make one of them—or both of them—characters we don’t really like or care about.  In some cases, we may even be actively rooting against them. Cause they’re horrible people.
           Don’t worry about outcomes.  Outcomes are the conclusion of a story.  Think about the path to that outcome.  The choices my character has to make in order to get there. 
            Because those choices are my story.  They’re my plot.  And if there aren’t any real choices, or they’re all being made by supporting characters, or they’re the wrong kind of choices, or they’re just all bad ones... well...
            I shouldn’t be too shocked if people think it’s a bad story.
            Speaking of stories, here’ sone last reminder that books make fantastic holiday gifts, and to maybe check this out if you're having trouble affording things this year.
            Next time, I wanted to talk a little bit about time.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

A Quick Sketch

            December.  How the hell is it December already?
           Some of you may remember way back at the dawn of the ranty blog, when this site had a completely different format.  A bit more block o’text.  Then it updated and we could have fancy things like indents.  Every now and then I’ll find myself referring back to something from the before-time, and I take that as a good sign this is a topic I could revisit
            And sometimes it’s very relevant.  These past few months, I’ve seen a lot of examples of storytellers who didn’t know that much about their characters (or didn’t express it).  And some others who knew way too much about said characters and decided to communicate it all.  Every single life-experience, thought, and item of clothing.
            Character sketches are one of those things that come up a lot when people talk about storytelling.  Novelists and screenwriters talk about them, but in a variety of ways.  Sometimes very indy films are even called character sketches.  So it’s understandable the term could cause confusion, especially when some folks talk about them as if they’re some vital, necessary thing.
            In a visual-artistic sense, a sketch usually isn’t a finished work.  It’s when I use a few quick lines and textures to suggest an image rather than forming a complete image.  It’s inherently incomplete, but also implies something more than itself.
            In a similar sense, a character sketch shouldn’t be an exhaustive list that covers every possible detail of this person’s existence.  It’s supposed to give me, the writer, a sense of the character I can refer back to as a guideline.  It’s notes about how they talk, how they move, what they like, and what they hate. 
            Like a fair number of the things I ramble on about her, a character sketch is going to be something that’s unique to each author.  Probably to each character, as well.  Some characters may need pages of exhaustive notes.  Others may only need a line or two.  And with a few, I may never need to write a single note because I have them perfectly in my mind.
            For example
            In the book I’m working on right now, I sketched out a short paragraph about most of the characters.  I knew Chase was still struggling in the year since he’d lost his family and just not sure what to do with his life—he’d lost his purpose.  I knew Murdoch’s trying to figure out if he could leave his family.  One of the key things I knew about Katanga is that his real name’s Leslie, but he knew how much passengers got a kick out of calling him Katanga because of the Indiana Jones reference.  And Anne...
            Well, Anne’s been in my head for almost seven years, itching to tell her story.  I didn’t need to write down a single word for her. 
            So, what is a character sketch?  It’s whatever works for you.  I’ve found one of the easiest ways to create one, though, is just to ask questions.  Not only does this help me get various answers about someone, it also generally leads to other questions about them that develop the character more.
            For example... let’s talk about Phoebe.
            Also, weird as it may sound after all the times I’ve used it here, this new book is the first time I’ve ever had a character named Phoebe.  And she isn’t remotely what you’d think of when you hear the name Phoebe.  She is... very different.
            So let’s talk about our characters.  I’m going to be answering for Phoebe, but you should pick one from something you’re working on right now.  I’m going to throw out a list of questions.  Answer as you see fit... 

Where did they grow up?
Do they get along with their family?
What was their first job?
Did they go to college? 
Did they live at college?
Did they finish college?
Republican or Democrat?
How many languages do they speak?
What languages?
What do they do for a living?
What do they want to be doing for a living?
Do they brush and floss regularly?
Do they have any hobbies or collections?
Are they religious?
Do they go to church?
Where do they live?
Where do they want to live?
How do they swear? Like a prude?  Like a sailor? 
How old were they when they had their first drink?
When they first had sex?
Do they smoke?
Have they ever done drugs?
Do they work out?
What kind of car do they drive?
What kind of car do they want to drive?
Do they have pets?
What did they name their pets?

            If I can answer even half of those questions, that’s a ton of useful information about this character and their background.  Plus, as you probably noticed, each answer implies other facets of their personality.  Knowing all of this is going to give me a much better insight into how they talk and react to the people and world around them and also how they’ll probably react when things change abruptly for them.
            Now, let me jump back to that analogy of artistic sketches and touch on another point.  There’s another art term you may have heard called negative space.  It’s when I define shapes by the areas around them rather than by the shapes themselves.  Think of the hole in a wall when a cartoon character runs through it.
            Sometimes that’s how some writers try to define their characters.  They’ll explain this character’s not like those foolish civilians or those dumb idiots or those freakin’ Hollywood elites.  Thing is... this doesn’t actually tell me who anyone is.
            Y’see, Timmy, the problem with defining by negatives is that it isn't actually defining something, it's just eliminating one option.  If I tell you the shirt I’m wearing right now doesn’t have a Star Wars logo on it...  I mean, that’s accurate, yeah, but does it really tell you anything useful?  If I’m asking you to picture "a shirt without a Star Wars logo," I’m pretty sure I could get a hundred different responses in the comments and almost guarantee none of them will be what I’m actually wearing.
            Okay, yeah, no way I’ll ever get a hundred responses here.
            I need to actually define my characters.  Who they are. What they think.  Vagueness can be used to great effect, but more often than not it just shows that I don’t know this stuff.  Phoebe (to fall back on my latest creation) is just going to be a formless, unrelatable thing that does whatever the plot needs at the given moment
            And one last point, an idea I’ve mentioned once or thrice before.  Just because I come up with stuff for a character sketch doesn’t mean I need to use it in my work.  Oh, I’ll use all of it to help round out the characters and their history in my head, but just because I came up with a background element doesn’t mean I need to use it. 
            Y’see, Timmy (yep, a double Y’see Timmy—it’s Timmception), an all-too-common mistake is when people come up with all these elaborate backstories and then feel the need to squeeze every single detail of them into the actual manuscript.  A character sketch is for the writer, not the reader.  I know a ton of details about Murdoch and Anne’s past together, and a huge amount about Chase’s screw-ups... but a lot of this isn’t going to be relevant to my book.  And if it isn’t relevant in any way... well, I might want to  think thrice about making space for it.
            Maybe keep that in mind.
           Next time, I’d like to talk a bit about holiday movies and triangles.  And it might be a little early cause I’ve got a thing.
            Oh, and please don’t forget—if you’d like an autographed book, there’s one more week to order them through Dark Delicacies.  All details in that earlier holiday post.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Next Time, Gadget! Next Time!!

            Wow, November’s almost over.  Where’s this month gone?  Hell, where’s this year gone?  Can you believe Black Panther only came out a little over eight months ago?  Seriously.
            Anyway...
            The end of November also means we’re closing in on the end of NaNoWriMo.  About, what, a day and a half left?  Maybe a little less, depending on when you read this?  I hope it’s going well for you.  I’m sure you kicked ass, but I hope you realize that.  Whatever you got done this month is an achievement.  So many people talk about writing, but you went out and did it.
            How much did you get done?  Thirty thousand words?  Forty five?  Sixty?  Are you one of those inhuman folks who closed in on ninety thousand words (an average of 3000 words a day—I know lots of pros who’d envy that kind of stamina).
            Which brings me to one of the best things you’ll get out of this.
            Let’s say you ended up with 45,000 words.  An average of 1500 a day.  Not a novel, but it’s halfway there, easy.  It’s a good solid novella as is, and there are some markets opening up for that sort of thing.
            But here’s the thing...
            If I did this once, I can do it again.  Those 45,000 words are inarguable proof that I’ve got the ability to produce words at a good rate.  At a professional rate!  Which means I could do it again in December and boom look at that! A ninety thousand word manuscript, if I keep going on the same thing.  That’s a novel.  Any publisher on Earth would call that a novel.
            Are they 90,000 perfect words?  Ehhhh... probably not.  But it’s a very solid first draft.  And if you produced a first draft, it means you’ve got it in you to do a second and third draft.  You can’t deny it.  The proof is right there.
            Even better—you can do it again!  Maybe in March and April.  Keep up that same rate and there’s another 90,000 word first draft.  Hell, maybe next time you’ll be just a little faster.  Now that new manuscript’s 100,000 words long.  One.  Hundred.  Thousand.  Words. 
            And we both know you can do it, because you just did it now during NaNoWriMo.  And you can do it again.  And again.  And again..
            A bunch of times here I’ve mentioned my early attempts at writing novels.  The Werewolf Detective of Newbury Street.  The Trinity.  Even the wonderfully goofy, very early-oeuvre masterpiece Lizard Men from the Center of the Earth.  One thing they had in common was that I didn’t finish any of them.
            Another thing they had in common is that nobody bought them.  Nobody was really interested in them.  Because they were incomplete.  I didn’t have the stamina—or the confidence—to finish them.
            The Suffering Map is the first thing I finished.  It’s the first thing I wrote that made it to second and third and fourth drafts.  It’s also—no coincidence—the first thing of mine that got any interest from agents and editors.
            Did they buy it?  No, of course not.  It’s still awful.  I mean, let’s be honest--it was my first finished book.  There was so much clumsiness in it, on so many levels.
            But I finished it.  So I knew I could finish another one.  A better one.
            And I did.  I wrote my next book in almost a third the time.  Or a tenth, depending on how you want to look at things.  And that book sold.
            Being able to produce words is a huge accomplishment.  Having the discipline to keep doing it is fantastic.  And if you’ve managed to do ninety, fifty, or even just ten thousand words this month, you’ve proven you can do this on a regular basis.
            So, congratulations.  You just won NaNoWriMo in one of the most important ways you can.
            Next time, I thought I’d bounce a couple character ideas off you.
            Until then... go write!

Monday, November 26, 2018

Cyber Monday VII: The Purchasing

            Well, it’s that time of year where some ugly truths must be addressed.  Artists only get to make art because they get paid.  Artists get paid when people buy their art.
            I’m going to talk to you about buying stuff.
            However...
            While I do one of these lists every year, I find myself in a weird place right now.  Y’see, I technically haven’t had anything new come out this year.  Which hasn’t happened in... well, about ten years.  I think the last time I didn’t have something new come out—a novel or a story in an anthology or something—was back in 2007.
            Granted, I do have things out in new formats.  Paradox Bound came out in a wonderful paperback this year.  My second novel ever—The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe—finally came out as an audiobook.  But new stuff...
            Look, next year’s going to be crazy.
            Anyway, I figured as far as my s own stuff goes... just look at last year’s list.  Or the links above.  That covers just about everything.  Plus, I’m doing my usual holiday deal/promotion with Dark Delicacies—get in touch with them in the next two weeks or so and you can order a personalized, autographed book.  If they’ve got it, you can buy it, I’ll sign it, and they’ll ship it to you.
            What I thought I’d talk about instead—sort of combining two annual posts into one—is a bunch of the other books I’ve read this year.  There’ve been one or two I didn’t like, a bunch that were really fun, and a couple that were just friggin’ amazing.
            So let me tell you about those.  Then you can go pick them up for somebody special or just add them to your own holiday wish list.

The God Gene by F. Paul Wilson is the latest book in his ICE Sequence series.  It’s a wonderfully creepy story about a missing scientist and evolution.  If you or someone you love likes sci-fi thrillers, this is a great one.  And I think the new one comes out in five or six weeks, so if you like it, there’s barely any wait ‘til the next one.

Kill All Angels is Robert Brockway’s freakin’ masterpiece conclusion to his Vicious Circuit books.  The story of an aging punk rocker and a Hollywood stuntwoman trying to save the world from Lovecraftian cosmic entities who can unwrite your entire existence.

One of Us by Craig diLouie is a modern masterpiece.  Seriously.  It’s X-Men meets To Kill A Mockingbird, about mutant children growing up in the deep south.  It’s dark and beautiful and—unless something happens in the next four weeks—unquestionably the best book I read this year

Lipstick Voodoo by Kristi Charish is a bit of a cheat on this list.  I got to read it early for blurbs, and it’s not going to be out until early next year.  But if you like the undead, urban fantasy, a bit of naughtiness, and a bit of mystery... you might want to save a gift card for this one.

I kinda stumbled across Copperhead.  It’s a comic book/graphic novel series by Jay Faerber, Scott Godlewski, Drew Moss and it’s just magnificent.  I've seen “western/frontier in space” done many times and many ways, but never as well as this.  It’s fantastic visual storytelling and seriously, Netflix... what the hell?  Why aren’t we all binging this right now?

Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig is the only non-fiction book on this list.  it’s a wonderful (and very entertaining) piece about the art of storytelling.  Not writing, but the act of telling stories and narratives and so on.  Chuck says a lot of stuff about character and dialogue and structure that I’ve said here on my ranty blog, but he says it in a much more entertaining way.  It really is a must-have book if you’re interested about any form of storytelling.

The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera is about two girls with grand destinies ahead of each of them who decide to forge one together.  It’s a beautiful, truly epic story of love, demons, and women with swords.  In my top five of the year, no question.

Atomic Robo by Brian Clevenger & Scott Wegener is one of those comic series I’ve heard about for years but never read until I got a volume as a housewarming gift.  It’s about a sentient robot built by Nikolai Tesla who now carriers on his creator’s work of trying to improve the world while also fighting assorted super-villains and monsters out to destroy it.  It’s ridiculously fun and something for the sci-fi/pulp lover in your life.

The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French is a fantasy novel I first heard about a year or two back (Jonathan and I have the same editor).  I’m not usually much of a fantasy guy, but the idea of this was so clever I had to check it out.  Orc gangs that ride actual hogs and patrol their territories, with all sorts of gang rivalries and politics.  It’s fun, exciting, kinda sexy, and just fantastic.

I Only Killed Him Once by Adam Christopher is yet another series ender.  The final story of Ray Electromatic, the robot detective turned hitman in 1950’s Hollywood. This time Ray’s on a case that might lead him to the secrets of his past... but first he has to get his current “client” to stay dead.

Girl Like A Bomb by Autumn Christian is another cheat.  This is a fascinating book about what it really means to be your best, mixed with a healthy dose of sex-positivism (new word?  You know what I mean...), and what it’s like to be the person with the unusual superpower that controls all of this.  Unfortunately for you, this is another “save a gift card”  one—it’s up for preorder now and on sale in the spring.

Constance Verity Saves the World by A. Lee Martinez is more fun with the woman blessed (or cursed) to have a life full of excitement and adventure who really just wants to enjoy settling in to her new condo with her accountant boyfriend.  These books are so much friggin’ fun and if there’s any justice in the world we would see them on the big screen.

            And real quick, you also can’t go wrong with Heroine’s Journey by Sarah Kuhn, Kill the Farmboy by Delilah Dawson & Kevin Hearne, Zeroes by Chuck Wendig, or any of the Sandman Slim books by Richard Kadrey.  And I may add to that previous sentence in the next week or two.

            And there you have it.  A bunch of my favorite things I read this year (even if they’re not available quite yet).  Please feel free to add any favorites of your own in the comments below.
            And also, despite all the reference links up above, please think about going to your local bookstore or comic shop to pick up one of these or get it ordered for you.  It may cost you a dollar or two more—and I realize dollars can add up fast this time of year—but you’re supporting local businesses and not the monolithic corporate giants.  That’s something you can humblebrag about until New Year’s Eve, easy.  "Oh yeah--I look for stuff on Amazon, but then I only buy from my neighborhood store."
            And also-also—if this is all too much for you, financially, please don’t forget my regular Black Friday offer.
            Happy Holidays.
            Back to writing-related stuff on Thursday.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Black Friday VI— the Von Trappening Pt.2

            So, hey, at the risk of being a bit of a killjoy, let’s talk about Black Friday and the holidays and being poor for a couple of minutes.
            Actually, no.  Let’s talk about moving and forgetting your wallet.
            Well, about me moving and forgetting my wallet.
            Because it happened.  As some of you know, I bought a house this year.  But I was also trying to finish a book, which meant I didn’t really have time to move.  So for a few months my partner and I did this slow dance of packing up a few things and driving them down to the house whenever we could.
            I was doing this back in June and noticed about halfway through the drive that I was low on gas.  And quickly discovered I had forgotten my wallet.  I shouted in the car a lot, and then the dread creeped in.
            Dread I was, alas, all too familiar with.
            I spent the next hour watching the gas gauge creep down, hoping I was going to make it and just kinda knowing I wouldn’t.
            I ended up at the Arco gas station just off Via de le Valle.  No gas.  No money.  Just trapped and powerless.
            That’s what being poor is.  Pretty much a constant feeling of being trapped and powerless.  Of having no agency, as some might like to say.
            And, yeah, I’m speaking from experience. I grew up kinda poor at points in my childhood, but when I became a full time writer I was very poor for almost three years. Phone-shut-off-and-stealing-toilet-paper-from-the-library poor.  All-our-shopping-at-the-99-Cent-Store poor.  I had a chance to sit down with Shane Black for a coffee or two as part of a work assignment and I had to turn it down.  I didn’t have enough money to buy a coffee, and possibly not even enough to get me across the city to where he was.  Yeah, I didn’t have enough money to go work.
            Being poor is just a constant feeling of tension.  Of being painfully aware of what you don’t have and what you can’t do.  And in today’s climate... hell, for the past ten or fifteen years, a lot of people have made it painfully clear that they judge you because of that.  They find you lacking as a person because of your poverty.
            And it’s even worse at the holidays.  Because so much of the holidays is about giving, and when you’re poor you just... you’ve got nothing to give.  It doesn’t matter how much you care about that person, it doesn’t matter how much you want to.  It doesn’t matter because you’ve got nothing.
            And again... you can feel people judging you over it.  At every office party or gathering of friends or family dinner.  Judging you for being trapped and powerless.
            It sucks.
            At which point... I would like to tell you about the redheaded woman in the sundress who came to my rescue.  She parked across from me at the Arco, started pumping gas, I begged her to take pity on someone moving and if she could spare three dollars.  Three dollars of gas could get me home.  Or to the big empty house that would hopefully soon be home.
            And she smiled and said sure.  And offered me her credit card.
            Dead serious.  She just swiped her credit card on my pump and told me to pump whatever I needed so I could get where I was going.
            Thank you, mystery redhead.  You were—and are—fantastic.
            There are good people out there.  People who want to help.  Especially at this time of the year.
            So if I can help some of you avoid feeling that miserably low this season—the low I had to feel for those Christmases—I’d like to do it, as I have on Black Fridays past.
            If you’re feeling trapped and powerless because you can’t afford gifts for your family or friends, shoot me note at PeterClines101@yahoo.com.  I’ve got sixteen or seventeen random books that I’ll autograph to whoever you want and mail out to you—or to someone else, if you need it shipped.  I’ll even gift wrap if you need it.  I’ll send them out for as long as the books last (or until it gets too close to the holidays). You can request a specific book but I can’t promise anything on that end. 
            You know what?  I’ve got two or three audiobook sets, too.  Those big wallets of CDs.  If audiobooks work better,  just say so.  I still can’t promise which one you’ll get, but if it’d be better for the person you’re gifting, just say so.
            And look—every year people offer to chip in and help me out with this.  You don’t need me to do that.  You can go be fantastic people all on your own.  I guarantee, there’s a toy bank or gift bank or food bank or some kind of program within ten miles of you right now.  You could help out with that.
            Again, this is only for those of you who need some help getting gifts for others. The people who are pulling unemployment, cutting back on everything, and feeling like trapped because they can’t afford gifts for family or friends.  It’s not so you can recommend someone who might like a free book.  You could do that for them, too—go get them a book.
            Also... I’m also doing this on the honor system, so if you’re only trying to save yourself some money or score an autographed book, I won’t be able to stop you.  Just know that you’re a deplorable person and you’re taking a potential bright moment away from someone who needs it this holiday season.  And you’ll probably burn in the fiery pits before Krampus feeds your cajun-fried corpse to a squale.
            Happy Holidays.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Top Ten Rules for Writers

            Two posts a week is becoming a  kinda regular thing here, isn’t it...?
            So, hey, you may have seen that a certain set of writing “rules” was passed around Twitter recently.  Not so much rules, in this case, as a collection of trolling and rejected fortune cookie messages.  People made fun of it.  I was one of them.
            But a few people also put up serious, much more useful lists.  Things to help with being a writer and with the writing itself.  And I thought, hey, I’m not going to be posting on Thursday because of Thanksgiving (I've got a turkey to cook and classic movies to watch)... maybe I could do a top ten list, too!
            Because I always make sure to jump on every trend a good week after it’s dead.
            I did a whole post about it over on my MySpace page.
            Anyway, for your enjoyment and possible education—and with the Golden Rule firmly in mind—are my top ten rules for writers.

1 – Write Every Day
            Yeah, this is one that gets batted around a lot, pros and cons, all that.  I’ve talked about it at length before.  Here’s why it’s the first rule I’m going to toss out...
            If I want to do this for a living, I have to think of writing as a job.  That’s an ugly truth.  This is my job.  I do it full time.  Probably more than full time.  I’d guess at least once or twice a month I’ll have a week where I work hours close to my film crew years.
            Yeah, you may not be there yet.  I get that.  But the whole reason I got here is because I started treating my writing like something that had to happen every week.  It wasn’t a hobby, it was something that needed to get done.  Because if it didn’t need to get done... well, it usually didn’t.

2 – Read
            As I write this, I’ve just finished reading my 46th book of the year.  That’s not counting a ton of comics, research material, a bunch of gaming rule/ sourcebooks, and probably three or four Washington Post articles every day.  Like anything, writing is input-output.  I can’t get the engine to run of it doesn’t have fuel.
            No, alcohol isn’t fuel.  It’s just lubricant.  And too much lubricant eventually just makes you spin and place without accomplishing anything

3 – Learn to Spell
            I’ve talked about this many, many, many times.  Learn words. Learn how to spell them.  Learn what they mean.  Words are the building blocks of writing.  The bare-bones foundation.  Wanting to be a writer when I can’t spell is like wanting to be a chef when I don’t know the difference between salt and sugar.
            Don’t be scared to grab a dictionary or type something into Google.  Nobody will judge you for it.  I do it all the time, even just to confirm I’m right about exactly what a word means.  Hell, I did it twice late last night as I was finishing up copyedits on a book.

4 – Exercise your mind
            I just talked about this a while ago, too.  I’m a big believer that the mind is like any other muscle group.  You can’t just do one thing with it.  Don’t be scared to experiment with other creative things.  Build a bookshelf.  Play with LEGO bricks.  Cook a meal.  Sketch something.  Paint something.  Sing something.  Hell, balance your checkbook.  Do your taxes.  Let your brain flex in different ways.

5 – Exercise your body
            Another sad truth about writing.  It generally involves sitting on your butt and well, not doing much.  From a physical point of view.
            Cool science fact.  The brain needs oxygen to work.  Oxygen comes from blood.  Blood flow increases with exercise and decreases when we... well, sit on out butts.  So exercise actually makes it easier to write.
            And I don’t mean go buy a punching bag or get a gym membership.  If you can do these things, great, but just stand up from your desk or kitchen table and move around a bit.  Go for a walk.  Play with your dogs.  Just get that blood flowing.  Khorne cares not from where the blood flows, as long as it flows!  Skulls for the skull throne!
            Wait, sorry, ignore those last bits...

6 – Learn the Rules
            I know nobody likes to hear this part but... there are rules to writing.  Like spelling (see # 3 up above). They aren’t ironclad things, but they do exist and they exist for a reason.  Rules are the common ground we interact on as authors and readers.  You know why I can’t read Chinese?  Because I don’t know the basic language rules of Chinese.  Those writers are communicating in a way I can’t understand.  And the same holds for writing in English if I don’t know the basic rules of English.
            Likewise, there are rules to storytelling.  Again, not unbreakable ones, but they’re real and. on one level or another, we’re all aware of them.  Certain universal expectations, and also some that are more tailored for different genres or styles.  I need to have a good sense of how these rules work if I want to tweak or openly subvert them.

7 – Have Fun
            I know, I know... After some of the other things I’ve said, this sounds impossible, right?
            Whatever reason I have for writing, I should be having fun with it.  Don’t listen to those weirdoes who talk about starving artists or suffering for their art or any of that nonsense.  All that approach does is make you... well, not like writing.  Why would I want to spend all my time doing something I inherently don’t like.  Believe it or not, you can be a real writer without ever once feel tortured, anguished, or misunderstood.  Like so many things, if writing makes me feel miserable and frustrated... maybe I’m doing it wrong.
            Again, be really cautions about listening to those “artistic” folks who insist writing has to be  a traumatic experience.  Write about stuff you love, about ideas you’re enthusiastic about.  Let writing be the high point of your day, and let that joy carry through onto the page.
           
8 – Write
            Yeah, again.  It’s important.
            At the end of the day, the only real yardstick we have for progress is making words appear on the screen (or in the legal pad or on that parchment you make yourself at that secluded cabin out in the hills).  I can attend all the conferences and seminars I want, read every instructional book or blog post with a list of rules, but if I’m not actually writing... it doesn’t really matter. 
            I was that guy for a while.  I could tell you a lot about writing, what it meant to be a writer, what I planned to write... but I never wrote anything.  I never made any headway.  And if I don’t write—if I never produce a finished manuscript—it means I can never write a second manuscript.  I can never have a better draft. 
            The only way to move forward is... writing.
           
9 – Don’t be Scared to Break the Rules
            So there are rules.  No question, no discussion.  Rules exist.
            But I don’t need to be trapped by them.  I shouldn’t feel like rules are the end-all, be-all of writing.  Just because someone can quote a rule that my story breaks doesn’t necessarily mean I’m doing anything wrong.  It doesn’t mean I’m doing anything right, either, but it doesn’t mean automatic failure.
            This is why I always get a bit leery about gurus and books that say things like “by page twenty-three, you should have...” or “heroic quests follow this pattern...”  A side-effect of saying “do this” is people get the idea things always need to be done that way.  If the worksheet’s telling me I must know the answer to these are seventeen questions about my character, the implication is that if I only know twelve I must be a bad writer who made a bad character.  Even if I know the answer to seventeen different questions, or twenty-nine other questions, the book said those were the important ones.
            Yeah, screw all that.  Ignore it. 
            I read these books sometimes, but I don’t worry about ignoring half of what they say and just pulling out what works for me and the story I’m telling.  Or using none of it and just tossing the whole thing.  Writing is an art.  Even if I’m writing for commercial purposes, it’s still an art.  And art is unique to every artist.  I can use creative misspellings and odd story structures and characters who don’t fit perfectly in that heroic mold.  Or the heroic tights.  Or the heroic top... which seems to have shrunk a little in the mid-section since I became a full-time writer.
            For example, if everybody’s doing lists of ten, you could just stop at nine.  That’s okay.  It doesn’t mean your list is wrong

            And that’s that.
            I’ll see you all at the end of the week for the usual Black Friday talk, and next Thursday we’ll talk about, well... next time.
            Until then, go write.
            Once you nap off all that turkey.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Telephone Game

            Hey, here we are.  Exactly halfway through NaNoWriMo.  How are things going?  Hopefully you’re about halfway through your goals.  Don’t freak out if you’re not.  There’s still plenty of time to get caught up.  You’re going to nail this.
            Anyway, I had an interesting back-and-forth with my editor last month, and I thought it would be worth sharing with you.
            I’ve talked a bit in the past about dialogue descriptors.  They’re one of those things that can be a bit tricky at first.  I don’t want to use too many different descriptors, to the point that I’m distracting from what’s actually being said.  I also don’t want to fall into a habit of using too many proper names, but... I don’t want to overuse pronouns to the point of being confusing.  And really, if I can trim away excess descriptors altogether, that can really pick up the pace.  Unless they’re there deliberately for pacing reasons.
            Not confusing at all so far, right?
            So here’s a wild theory of mine I’d like you to consider.
            And it’s a bit rambly.  Sorry.
            I think, on an instinctive level, we tend to view—or hear, I guess—dialogue as a binary thing.  A back and forth between two people.  Wakko speaks to Dot, Dot replies to Wakko, Wakko replies to Dot, and so on. 
            Because this is such a normal and natural thing for us, it’s how we interpret most conversations.  If I show you a page of nothing but dialogue, the automatic assumption is going to be that it’s between two people.  A to B to A to B.  It’s just how things tend to line up in our minds.
            This gives us a lot of stuff to play with as writers.  If Wakko speaks to Dot, the inherent understanding is that Dot’s reply is going to be to Wakko.  Which means we don’t need to point out she’s talking to him.  Sure, I might need something  if there are five people in the conversation, but when it’s just one on one dialogue, constantly pointing out who's talking and who they're talking to this can be... excessive.  I mean, who else could Dot be talking to?  Does she think out loud a lot?
            Likewise, I don’t need to explain that Wakko’s responding to Dot.  I probably don’t even need to say who’s responding.  Again, my reader’s already thinking in a binary mode, so they’ll figure it out on their own.  They’ll probably be glad I’m not spoon-feeding it to them, to be honest.  Again, A-B-A-B-A-B... this isn’t tough for a reader to understand.  I don’t need to label each element of it.
            Now here’s something to keep in mind.
            Have you ever had to do something that’s very repetitive?  Maybe something at work, maybe something for fun.  Stapling forms, ping-pong, folding laundry, even just one of those toys where you hit the rubber ball with a paddle?  Anything where it’s just one-two -done, one-two -done, one-two-done, and so on?
            Personally, I’ve found that the real killer in these situations is stopping to think about what I’m doing.  The moment I consider how I’m whacking that rubber ball again and again and again is the moment I lose my rhythm.  It’s when I stumble and mess up and have to go back to square one.
            I think the same holds for dialogue.  I can keep that back and forth and back and forth going for pages if my rhythm’s good.  It’ll be fast and smooth and just amazing.
            But...
            The moment I give the reader a reason to think about that back and forth of dialogue—any reason—is the moment they’re going to stumble.  And when they stumble, they’re going to stop and have to backtrack.  I’ve knocked them out of the story, and now they’ve gone from reading and enjoying it to... examining and measuring it.
            So during these long stretches of back and forth dialogue, it’s not a bad thing to remind the reader who’s speaking at points.  Especially if there might be something going on with my action or my structure that might make them question who’s speaking.  Again, I don’t want to risk a stumble.
            Now, going off something I brushed up against above...
            I think things get chaotic in dialogue when there are multiple speakers and the writer isn’t clear about it.  If I suddenly introduce Phoebe into the conversation between Wakko and Dot, this isn’t A-B-A-B anymore.  There’s a random C in there somewhere.  And if I don’t make it clear where it is, it’s going to make my reader stumble and break the flow.  Again, I want people reading my story, not analyzing it.
            So introducing that third element into the conversation is a great place for dialogue descriptors. In fact... I might go so far as to say it’s almost a necessary place for them.  I want to be very clear if it’s A, B, or C talking.
            Y’see, Timmy, we’re always going to keep defaulting back to that instinctive. binary, back-and-forth view of dialogue,.  A-B-A-B.  Unless I’m told otherwise, I’m going to assume the person speaking after Phoebe is the person who spoke before Phoebe.  So once I’ve got three or four people in the mix, I need to be a lot more careful with where I do (and don’t!) use dialogue descriptors.  I don’t want my writing to get bogged down with them, but I need to be sure it’s always clear who’s speaking.
            Because I don’t want my dialogue to be C-A-C-A.
            Get it?  Poop joke.
            Hey, next week is Thanksgiving.  Which means no post on Thursday and, well... if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know what I’m going to talk about on Black Friday.
            But maybe I’ll do something unrelated and semi-interesting on Monday or Tuesday.
            Until then... go write.