Friday, November 29, 2019

Black Friday VII—Elf on the Shelf in the Hood

So, hey, now I’d like to alter the mood a little. Let’s talk about this whole Black Friday thing and the holidays and being poor for a couple of minutes.

Because being poor at the holidays absolutely, completely sucks.

Being poor’s just a constant feeling of tension.  Of being painfully aware of what you don’t have and what you can’t do.  And for the past ten or fifteen years, a lot of folks 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. 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.  You get judged for being trapped and powerless. Hell, you end up judging yourself, and it just becomes this endless cycle of guilt and resentment and desperation.

It sucks.

And, yeah, as some of you know, I’m speaking from experience. I’d saved a little money before I became a full-time writer, but two or three random-but-normal problems—car repairs, a sick cat, a pay cut at the magazine I wrote for—and wham I was poor. I mean... nothing. Cards maxed out. Stretching every paycheck until it was tissue thin. The phone got shut off. My partner and I didn’t turn the heat on for three winters in a row. We stole toilet paper from the library. Pretty much everything we ate came from the 99 Cent Store. Frikkin’ Shane Black offered to sit down and talk with me over coffee for an article I was working on. And I had to turn him down ‘cause I couldn’t afford the gas to get me across the city to where he was. Hell, I didn’t have enough money to buy a coffee.

Look, some folks just love to snort and blabber about “entitlements” and “nanny states,” but the simple truth is that the vast majority of poor people don’t abuse the system. They’re way too busy just trying to survive with their health and maybe just a shred of dignity. And I say that as someone who spent three years constantly on the edge of panic and feeling sick with despair.

And holy hell I hope that none of you reading this are there right now, feeling helpless and sick with despair. Because like I said before, it seriously sucks to be in that position.


But if this is where you are right now—if you’re in that same crappy place I had to be in for three Christmases in a row—maybe I can help.

If you  can’t afford gifts for your friends or family, get in touch with me at my old business email--PeterClines101@yahoo.com. I’ve got about two dozen books here, I think, that I’ll autograph to whoever you want and mail out to you. Or to someone else, if you need it shipped. I can even gift wrap if you need it (seriously, I am a fantastic gift wrapper). Most of these are paperbacks of Paradox Bound, but there’s six or seven other things in here, too. Think I might still have two or three of those big audiobook CD sets, too. If audiobooks work better for your special someone, just say so. You can request a specific book but I can’t promise anything.

Past that, though... I’ll send them out for as long as the books last. If you need some help this season, just ask

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. They’ll love you for it.

Speaking of which—look, whenever I do this folks offer to chip in and help out. Like I just said, you don’t need me to do that. You can go be fantastic people all on your own. Seriously, I’m willing to bet cash money there’s a toy bank or a food bank or some kind of program within ten or fifteen miles of you right now.  You could help out with that.

Also, I’m also doing this on the honor system, so if you’re just trying to save yourself some money or score an autographed book... well, I can’t stop you. But let’s be clear—if you do, you suck. You’re a deplorable person who’s taking a moment of peace and relief away from someone who really needs it this holiday season. Don’t act surprised when karma kicks you hard in the ass over New Year’s.

Anyway, Happy Holidays. Let me know if I can help out

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Word. By. Word.

Thursday’s Thanksgiving and my parents are coming into town tomorrow, so I've got a lot of cleaning to do. No post on Thursday. But I had a simple idea I’d been meaning to toss out to you for a while now and this seemed like a good time.

Random theory of mine, probably not all that original. I think we tend to batch-read words. We tend to look at larger text elements—the clauses and phrases and sentences, rather than the individual words that make up those elements. I mean, you’re doing it right now. You’re not picking out the individual words, you’re reading this as a whole. And that’s a good thing. It’s what we want readers to do. It means my writing has a great flow to it.

But...

By the same token, this can make us kind of blind to things in our own work. Once we’ve written a sentence, we tend to gloss over it. Especially after reading it three or four times. We get overly-familiar with it. Even when we’re re-reading it in an edit draft, a lot of the time we’re just taking in the big picture and not looking at what’s actually there on the page.  It’s how we can read a sentence a dozen times and never notice that glaring typo in the middle of it. Or not notice there’s a word missing altogether.  Or that twice on this page we refer to Stu as Ted, but we don’t think about it because we know Stu was called Ted in an earlier draft and so they’re the same person in our heads.

That kinda thing.

So here’s my quick tip for you.  Do at least one pass where you  don’t read your story. Read the words on the page. Actually look at each individual word there on your screen  and. Read. Each. One. Of. Them.

Yeah, it’s slow. And it's tough. That sounds silly, I know, but it is super-tough to go through a story this way. Especially a story we know. You need a ton of patience and focus. But I guarantee you’ll find dozens of things that were missed on earlier passes.

In fact, here’s a tip for that tip. Before you do this pass, change the font on your whole document. If you normally write in Times, switch it over to Courier. If you normally write in Courier, switch it over to Times. If you normally write in Wingdings, what the hell’s wrong with you? Seriously, nobody’s going to be able to read that. Put it in Times, make everybody’s life easer.

Anyway... remember what I said about how we get overly-familiar with things? Well y’see Timmy, by changing the font, I’ve just made the whole document unfamiliar to me. The spacing’s different. Things will sit on each page in new ways. Which means I’ll be looking at it with fresh eyes, and things will be a little easier to catch.

And there you go. This writing tip has been brought to you by cranberry sauce. And by Nana’s special holiday rolls.

Next time... well, look. Black Friday’s coming up, and if you’ve been here for any amount of time you know what I’ll be talking about. And then there’s Cyber Monday, plus NaNoWriMo will’ve been wrapped up for a couple of days. I’m going to be blabbing about a lot of stuff for the next week or so. Check back often.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Do You Think I’m An Idiot?

No, no... don’t rush to answer that. I’m pretty sure I can guess how most of the comments section would go.

However...it is an important question, whether I’m writing books or screenplays. The folks who just bought my new Lovecraftian techno-thriller aren’t expecting a long lesson about how memes work. If I’m billing myself as the next Dan Brown, the clue “man’s best friend” better not leave half a dozen codebreakers baffled as to what the three letter password is for the doomsday device. Heck, even if I’m hired to pen the next Pokemon movie, I probably shouldn’t spend a lot of screen time explaining all the medical reasons why little kids shouldn’t drink paint.

Cause let’s face it—nobody likes to be called stupid.  Not even kids.  Heck, especially not stupid people.  We all hate being condescended to and having things spoon-fed to us at a crawl. We get angry about it. At best we get frustrated with the person throttling the speed we can absorb things at.

So, having established that nobody likes being considered an idiot, it stands to reason most people like to feel smart, right? And that includes my readers. I want them to like my stories, not feel angry or frustrated because of them.

But a lot of stories assume readers are stupid. They spell everything out in painful detail. They drag things out. They repeat things again and again and again. These authors think their readers won’t know or understand or remember anything, and they write their stories accordingly.

So here’s a few easy things I try to do so my readers feel smart and they’ll love my stories...

I know what my audience knows
I’ve talked a couple times here about empathy and common knowledge. It’s stuff I can feel safe assuming everyone knows. Grass needs water and sunlight to grow. Captain America is a superhero. Nazis are still the bad guys. Maybe you noticed that a few paragraphs back I rattled off Lovecraftian, Dan Brown, and Pokemon without bothering to explain any of them. I know the folks reading this would have—at the very least—an awareness of these words and names. Knowing what my specific audience knows is an important part of making them feel smart, because this is what lets me judge what they’ll be able to figure out on their own.

This goes for things within my story, too. Yeah, odds are nobody’s ever heard the term Caretaker used precisely the way I use it in Dead Moon, but I don’t have to keep explaining it. I can make a couple references at the start and then just trust that my readers will remember things as the story goes on. It’s a completely made up word, but I bet most of you know what a Horcurx is. Or a TARDIS. Or a Mandalorian. They don’t need to be explained to you again and again.

I try to be smarter than my audience
There’s an agent I’ve referenced here, once or thrice, Esmund Harmsworth. I got to hear him speak at a writing conference years ago and he pointed out most editors will toss a mystery manuscript if they can figure out who the murderer is before the hero does.

Really, though, this is how it works for any sort of puzzle or intellectual challenge in a piece of writing. If I’ve dumbed things down to the point of simplicity—or further—who’d have the patience to read it? It’ll grate on their nerves, and it makes us impatient when we have to wait for characters to figure out what we knew twenty minutes ago.

I don’t state the obvious
Michael Crichton got a very early piece of writing advice that he shared in one of his books. “Be very careful using the word obvious. If something really is obvious, you don’t need to use it.  If it isn’t obvious, than you’re being condescending to the reader by using it.”

Of course, this goes beyond just the word obvious. Revisiting that first tip up above, should I be wasting half a page telling my readers Nazis were bad? When Yakko staggers into a room with three knives in his back just before collapsing into a puddle of his own blood, do I need to tell anyone that’s he’s seriously hurt? I mean, you all got that, right?

I take a step back 
When something does need to be described or explained, I think our first instinct is to scribble out all of it. We want to show that we thought this out all the way.  So we put down every fact and detail and nuance.

I usually don’t have to, though. I tend to look at most of those explanatory scenes and cut it back 15 or 20%. I know if I take my audience most of the way there, they’ll probably be able to go the rest of the way on their own. People tend to fill in a lot of blanks and create their own images anyway, so getting excessive with this sort of thing rarely helps.

I give them the benefit of the doubt
This is the above tip, but the gap’s just a little bigger. Three-time Academy-Award-winning screenwriter Billy Wilder said if you let the audience add 2+2 for themselves now and then, they’ll love you forever. That’s true for writers of all forms. Every now and then, just trust they’ll get it. Not all the time, but every now and then I just make a leap of faith my audience can make a connection with almost no help whatsoever from me. Odds are that leap isn’t as big as you think it is. 

Y’see, Timmy, when I spell out everything for my audience, what I’m really telling them is “I know you won’t be able to figure this out on your own.”  My characters might not be saying it out loud, but the message is there.  You’re too stupid for this—let me explain.

And that’s not going to win me a lot of return readers.

Hey, next week is Thanksgiving here in the U.S. and my parents are coming  to visit for the holidays and hahhaaaha I’m not stressing about it YOU’RE STRESSING HOW IS IT THE END OF NOVEMBER ALREADY OH CRAP

...sorry, that was a typo. What I meant to say was it’s Thanksgiving so I’ll probably just do something quick on Tuesday or Wednesday. And after that... well, if you’ve been following the ranty blog for any amount of time you know what I’ll be talking about on the day after Thanksgiving.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Big Lead-Up To...

Hahahhaaa... okay, so I had this post that I’d been working on for a while, but I never got it quite right and I kept pushing it back and pushing it back. And it just posted because, jeeez, mid-November? I won’t have to worry about that for a while.

Time is funny. Anyway... what I wanted to talk to you about.

A little earlier this year, I set down a book without finishing it. Might not sound big to you, but it’s big for me. It’s really rare for me to pick a book up and not finish it.  Don’t think it’s happened in over a year, easy, and I read around forty or fifty books a year, on average.

One of the big reasons I put it down is... well, to be honest, I’ve got no idea what’s going on. I’m more than halfway through and the plot in the book bears no resemblance to the one described on the back of the book.  Or anything  else really. When I set it down the other night, I described it to my partner as “watching a crime scene investigation where I don’t know who any of the people are, what their jobs are, what crime was committed, or what sort of legal system this is.”  There were things happening, but I had no idea what any of it meant or implied. It was just... stuff happening

Okay, I’m lying, I did finish the book. I have a problem,okay? I went back and read the last 117 pages and it went... I mean, pretty much just like I thought. We finally had the big reveal (which was the story described on the back of the book) and then had a minor twist to add a tiny bit more flavor.

Anyway, I thought it might be worth addressing this—the book’s problem, not my own compulsive need to consume bad things—because it’s something I’ve seen before. It’s an unusual issue because it’s a story problem I can only fully identify in retrospect.

So, quick recap on reveals and twists. I’ve talked about them here before a few times, so I don’t think we need more than that. I want to get to the heart of this particular issue.

The reveal is pretty much the standard way we get information across to our readers. New facts are presented to them, and depending on exactly what it is and what kind of ramifications it could have, these facts can have different levels of impact. We might just nod and accept it, or maybe it’ll have a ton of weight and impact.

A twist is a very specific type of reveal. Again, talked about them at length before, but the short form is that twists are information that the characters and the reader didn’t know was out there, and (importantly) this information forces us to look at a lot of previous facts in a new light. It’s also worth noting that twists almost always come later in my story because I need to establish those facts that need twisting. Make sense?

It’s the “later in the story” aspect of this I wanted to talk about. The issue I’ve been seeing is that a story will have a later twist, but it doesn’t establish any of the things its (hypothetically) twisting. I just tell you “Yakko is a redhead!” and expect that to have some kind of emotional or narrative weight. These stories try to tell us X is the really important thing, but they’d never really gone out of their way to convince anything else was important.

This is even worse in longer-form stories like novels or movies. We essentially go through two thirds or more of the story to get to “the good stuff,” but there’s nothing supporting it. There’s just been a lot of stalling and not talking about things until we get to that point.

Like... okay, imagine an old Twilight Zone episode where we see a spaceship land on a planet and they get out, wander around, and then maybe find a sign that basically says “hey, losers, you’ve been on Earth this whole time.” You know this episode, right? Is it even an actual episode? You know this archetypal story, right?

But here’s the thing—these stories have a lot more than that. They have assumptions and discussions about which planet this is and what did or didn’t happen here. Maybe even about who the astronauts are. We need to have strong reason to think this isn’t Earth for that twist to have any impact. Make sense? Up until that reveal everyone should be acting like it’s an alien world. Yeah, we’re going to find out the thing scratching at the door’s  just a beagle. But for now, before we get to that reveal... it’s a hideous alien monster. No, it can’t really hurt my characters, but they don’t know that. And they need to act accordingly.

I think a lot of this tends to come down to... well, not having an actual story. There’s nothing going on except that big reveal, so all my characters just sort of stand around twiddling their thumbs until we get to it. I’ve been so focused on what happens after the reveal that I haven’t considered what everyone’s supposed to be thinking or doing before that moment.

Just to be clear—I’m not saying mid-book twists aren’t cool. They’re super-cool.  They’re fantastic and I love ‘em. But y’see Timmy, there has to be a story before we get there.  Even if it’s all a bunch of misconceptions or faulty beliefs—my characters have to be doing something somewhat motivated in a world we can at least vaguely understand.

Have you read (or maybe seen) Wayward Pines? It was a fun series by Blake Crouch that became a pretty good television series. And it had a pretty solid quite a ways into it. A really perfect, made-you-reconsider-everything twist. But the main character, Ethan, is still doing stuff before then. He makes his own assessments of the small town he finds himself in, based off all the information he has, and he acts. He does things. Ethan treats the world he’s in like... well, the world he’s in, and not just a glorified waiting room until the “real” story begins.

I can have the cool twist. I can have a great reveal. But these things don’t stand alone. They need to be carefully woven into my story. There needs to be elements supporting them and guiding my readers to them.

Because nobody wants to read about a bunch of people standing around waiting for the big reveal.

Next time... well, we haven’t talked about how stupid I am for a while now.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Initial Incisions

Hey, so I know last time I said I was going to talk about twists, but...

This past weekend I subbed in for Jonathan Maberry at the San Diego Writers Coffeehouse and we talked about... well, all sorts of stuff. NaNoWriMo. Agents. Editing. One interesting question that came up was how do you edit? Which is a fair point. I’ve talked about editing here a bunch of times, but not anywhere near as much about what it is or how we do it.

First off, we need to be clear that there are different types of editing. There’s the type we’re going to talk about now (which I’m just going to call initial editing) but there’s also story editing and copyediting. I’ve talked about those a bit before, so I won’t go into them two much now. I will note that they exist and that all of these are very different things. So when we talk about editing—if we’re offering it, asking for it, or just doing it ourselves--it’s kind of important we’re clear what we mean.

What we were talking about at the Coffeehouse, and what I shall blather on about here, is what I’m going to call initial editing. There may be a better, more generally-recognized term for it, but that’s what I’m going with here. Really, I should’ve been calling it something like this for ages now because, like I said, they’re all different and I should’ve been as clear as possible.

Anyway...

This is the first real attempt at trimming and tightening my manuscript. If I was cooking, this would be the trimming the fat stage. Like, literally, trimming the fat. I can have a nice cut of meat (or a good head of cabbage, if you prefer) but that still doesn’t mean I’m going to use 100% of it when I cook. I’ll cut off that layer of fat and maybe that piece of gristle. I’ll peel off those outer, kinda banged up leaves of cabbage, but also trim them away from the really hard, solid stem at the core of the head. This is when I take thing that’s good or nice and make it into something great—something I want to impress other people with.

For our manuscripts, right off the bat this is going to mean having an open mind and a willingness to accept some possibly uncomfortable facts. If I refuse to believe there’s anything wrong, it’s really tough to fix anything. When I finally get to that first solid draft—usually the second draft, for me—it means things are very likely a little bloated with excess words Things that aren’t necessarily wrong, but my manuscript will almost definitely be stronger and cleaner without them.

I’m just going to list some words and phrases to keep an eye out for. To be very clear, this list isn’t complete and it definitely isn’t the end-all-be-all of things you should absolutely always delete from your manuscript. But I think it’s a good starting point, and as we go through maybe you’ll start to feel a pattern, a sense of the kind of stuff you should be looking for when you pull out the knives and start cutting. So fire up your word processor (or your blue pencil, if you’re hardcore old-school), find your Find function, and start looking for...

Adverbs and Adjectives
Let’s just start with the big ones. A lot of folks have very strong opinions on adjectives, and especially on adverbs. Man, they hate adverbs. Some people think all adverbs should be ripped out of your manuscript while other people think all adverbs should be burned alive in your manuscript. And some people say adverbs are wonderful things and we should cultivate them like clover on a low-water front lawn.

I’m not a fan of adverbs. They have their uses, absolutely, and I'm not saying I never use them, but I also know a lot of the time they’re something I stick in quick to modify a verb rather than spending a few seconds to find the right verb. It’s an easy habit to get into, because pretty much every sentence is going to have a verb and I can pause for five seconds here, ten seconds there, and suddenly that’s an extra minute I spent on that paragraph. Five or six minutes on this page. It’s a drag we can feel, so it’s not uncommon to fall back on our first choice. Which is why people slowly run or quickly run or clumsily run when they could be ambling, dashing, or stumbling. A good rule of thumb I got years back that I try to follow is four adjectives per page, one adverb.

That—
That can be a killer. There are times when it’s necessary for comprehension, or maybe even grammatically required depending on how I’ve structured things, but on a guess I’d say 75-80% of them are unnecessary in a story. It’s not uncommon for me to delete around 200 thats during my initial editing, if not more. Think about it. That’s almost an entire, actual page cut from my manuscript just by focusing on one word.

Somewhat Syndrome—
An editor friend of mine came up with this a while back. It’s from a bad habit I had of modifying, well, everything. Even in a loose third person POV, it’d seem odd for someone to look across a room and say “Yakko was six-foot-two and weighed one hundred-ninety-five pounds.” It just feels unnaturally accurate, doesn’t it? Sure, some characters might have that sort of precision, but not many. So I’d soften it up a bit. “Yakko was somewhere around six-foot-two and weighed maybe one-hundred-ninety-five pounds or so.”

Over the years I’ve come to add a few other words to this list, but for starters just try looking for things like somewhat, about, around, maybe, might, sort of, a bit, and kind of.  I’ll also toss out that I saw a similar list from Benjamin Dryer recently and he suggested cutting very, rather, really, quite, so, of course, and in fact.

Heck, while we’re at it, let’s mention appeared to be and its evil step-siblings seemed to be and looked like. The thing is, these phrases aren’t supposed to be used alone. They’re almost always part of a literary construction where the second half of that structure is either an implied or actual contradiction.  So when I’m saying “Yakko seemed to be six-foot-two,” what I’m really saying is “Yakko seemed to be six-foot-two but really he was barely five eleven.  And what I meant to say all along was just “Yakko was six-foot-two.”  So I should probably triple-check these and make sure I’m not accidentally establishing a contradiction I don’t mean to be (and wasting a bunch of words in the process).

Looking back over this list, it’s probably worth mentioning that, yeah, when I delete some of these words and phrases it might mean I need to spend more time rewriting other things so my dialogue or narration still makes sense. Sorry. It happens. Probably want to make sure I also don’t just repeat the problem. It’s all part of the normal editing process.

And again, I want to stress--these words aren’t always wrong. I can use multiple adverbs on the same page. I can say someone’s around six-foot-two. There are totally valid reasons for these things to happen. But the whole point of this initial editing is to look at how often I’m using these words and patterns. And to figure out if they’re really necessary.

Now, these aren’t the only things I tend to look for in this initial editing pass. There might be (will probably be) plot threads, descriptions, characters, and more that can use a little trimming. If any of you like, I could talk about editing those, too. But I think for now, this is long enough. We’ve all got things to do.

Speaking of which, to bring things full circle, this Sunday at noon is the Los Angeles Writers Coffeehouse at Dark Delicacies in Burbank. Come on by and talk with us about writing and publishing and all that sort of stuff. Or just lurk in the background and browse the store while you listen in. Either was, I’m bringing little danishes.

And next time, yes, twists. Finally. After that it’s up to you.

Until then, go write.