Showing posts with label adjectives. Show all posts
Showing posts with label adjectives. Show all posts

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Draft Bored

            See what I did there?  A clever play on words.  Not quite a pun, definitely not a pop culture reference, but... well, it’ll do.
            It’ll do, pig.
            Also, random note—I set up a Tumblr a while back.  If you ever want to ask a quick question, send anonymous insults, or whatever, please feel free to stop by.
            Anyway, I’m about to wrap up this draft of my current project and it struck me that I haven’t blabbed on about the drafting process, so to speak, in a while.  A lot of folks hate doing drafts.  Some folks skip them altogether, convinced their words are gold the minute they’re set down.  And a few folks get caught in an endless loop of writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting and...
            So, here’s a basic step by step of how I go from bare idea to something I’m willing to hand to an editor.  And when I say editor, I mean “someone who will pay for these words I’ve written.”  That being said, this is also a good time to bring up the ever-popular golden rule.

What works for me might not work for you,
and it almost definitely won't work for that guy.

            I’ve mentioned once or thrice before that we all have our own way of writing.  Working through drafts in this way helps me a lot, but it’s not a guarantee of success for anyone except me.  You might need to modify these steps a bit, or maybe a lot.  But I think this is a good baseline method.
            To begin...
            While I’m working on a book, I usually scribble down notes and thoughts about the next book.  Characters, dialogue, action moments, reveals... all sorts of different elements.  I’ll shuffle these around into more or less the order I think they’ll end up.  These notes serves as a very, very rough outline, just enough so I can start writing on page one and go when it’s time to start...

            The First Draft—In my mind, this is the "just finish it" stage.  I just want to finish this draft with a beginning, an end, and the majority of points in between.  I don't worry about catching typos or crafting every subtle moment in the plot. 
            Consider this... diamonds don’t come out of the earth as clear, faceted gems.  They come out as ugly blobs that need lots of cuts and polishing.  So if I dig up a ten-gram diamond, I can’t expect it to make a ten gram gemstone.  If I’m lucky, I might get three or four grams out of it.  It’ll shrink as I work on it, because that’s how I improve it (see below).  So if I’ve got a ten-gram diamond and I’m insisting on a 9.9 gram gem... well, that’s going to make a pretty crappy engagement ring, yes?
            At this early stage, I don't hold anything back.  I let dialogue, descriptions, and action scenes run on a bit longer than they probably should.  I know I'll be cutting eventually, so there's no reason to worry about length now.  For this stage, it really is quantity over quality. 
            If I get stuck on something (an awkward conversation or complex action scene), I'll just skip it.  Things might not be perfect right now, but I know I’ll be able to go into the exact details of that conversation or this sequence later, so I'd rather keep moving forward and leave that stuff for Future Peter to deal with.  Again, for me, the most important thing is to get the overall framework done.  It's a lot easier to think about the little things when the big things aren't looming over you.
            Depending on the book, this process takes me anywhere from two to three months. I had one book take about six weeks, but that was pretty rare for me.
            I don’t show this draft to anyone.  I may take a night off, work on something else for a day, and then it’s right back for...

            The Second Draft-- Remember all those problems I left for Future Peter to deal with?  Those need to be dealt with now.  Gaps get filled in.  Characters get fleshed out a little more, and sometimes renamed.  All those awkward knots get worked out.   Because I can see a lot of these elements in relation to the whole story now , I'll usually find the answers to these problems are more apparent. 
            The goal with this draft is to have a readable manuscript.  No more little notes to myself  or trailing paragraphs that need to get connected somehow.  Someone should be able to pick this up and read it start to finish without thinking they lost a few pages or only got my notes on a chapter.
            Keep in mind this doesn't mean I do show it to people.  It just means I should be able to.  Really, the only person who might see this is my lady-love, and not even her always.  Usually she has to wait.
            For some folks, this stage would really be the first draft.  Those people have nice pages of their own somewhere out there on the web.  This isn’t one of them.  Plus, breaking it up like this takes a lot of pressure off, which I think is a good thing when you’re trying to treat writing like a real job.  No one likes a high-pressure job.
            Okay then, so... now I step away for a couple of days.  Maybe as much as a week.  I’ll watch movies, work out a little, or maybe even scribble up a few ranty blog posts in advance.  The goal is to push the manuscript as far out of my mind as possible.  Don't look at it, try not to think too much about it. 
            I’m just into this now with The Albuquerque Door, for those who care about such things.

            The Third Draft—Time to make like a slasher and cut, cut, cut.  Two great rules-of-thumb I've mentioned a few times—

one adverb per page, four adjectives

2nd draft = 1st draft - 10%

            Yeah, the second rule goes off the previously mentioned assumption that my first clean, readable draft is my first draft.
            I spend this draft tracking down adverbs, adjectives, pointless dialogue descriptors, and so on.  If they can be cut, they get cut.  One thing I also go after here is common padding phrases that don't really do anything (sort of, somewhat, kind of, more or less).  One of my regular readers dubbed this somewhat syndrome, and I still call it that.  I like to tell myself I’ve gotten much better about it now that I’m aware of the problem. 
            Sometimes I also like to tell myself that I haven't gained that much weight since college...
            At this point I've gone through the whole manuscript at least twice, so a few larger cuts should be apparent, too.  Overcomplicated descriptions that slow down the narrative.  Awkward sentence structures.  Extensive character moments that really add nothing to the character, the story, or the plot.  Many of these things get tightened or cut altogether.
            I spend a week or two doing this.  This is usually when I let my lovely lady have a look.  She's my first set of eyes and lets me know I screwed up and I'm too close to see it.

            The Fourth Draft--This is the first big polish.  I go through sentence by sentence, looking for words that come up too often or stilted dialogue.  I also make sure all the cuts and swaps from the last draft haven't messed anything up.  Are the logic chains still complete?  Did I forget to change Pash’s name to Veek anywhere?  Does Arthur still have time to get that pistol?  Are there any odd character tics that I forgot to remove or add?  Does the whole thing have a good flow to it
            This draft doesn’t take long.  Just a day or two.  It’s just one slow, careful read of the story.
            Once I’ve got a solid fourth draft, I send it off to folks to get fresh eyes.   I generally use four or five friends I’ve know for years.  All of them are all professional writers and editors who know how to give useful criticism.  Not to beat a dead horse, but by professional I mean they get paid to do this for a living.  They have actual credentials.
            Speaking of which, some folks might hire a professional editor at this point. Nothing wrong with that.  The important thing is to get an opinion I can trust to be honest, even if I have to pay for it.  A few folks might argue that this is the publisher’s job, but I need to get a publisher first, and why are they going to bother with my crap manuscript?
            Anyway, this draft goes off into the world and it may be two weeks to a month before I look at it again.  The challenge is to resist messing with it while those people are looking at it.  I try to spend the time relaxing a bit, scribbling down ideas for later books (see above), or flexing different mental muscles.
            More than once, I’ve cleaned my office.

            The Fifth Draft-- Now I've gotten notes back from the folks I begged/ blackmailed/ paid to read this thing.  I go through the whole manuscript page by page with their comments.  If you’ve got multiple monitors, this is a great time to use them.
            Page one... what did everyone think?  What about page two?  How's page three look?  As I'm doing this, I've also got my own copy of the fourth draft that I'm using as a "master document."  This way I can see all the notes and make whatever changes are required. 
             I mentioned that I ask four or five people to make notes for me.  That gives me a broad sampling on each note/ issue that comes up.  If four people like something but one doesn't, odds are I'll call that good.  Nothing’s going to work for everyone.  If three don't and two do (and of course I do, or I wouldn't've written it), I'll sit and give it a good look.  If nobody likes it, well... I'm smart enough to admit when I've screwed up and something doesn't work.
            This draft can take another two weeks or more to finish with a full book manuscript.

            The Sixth Draft-- This one's another polishing draft, just like the fourth.   I need to make sure everything still works now that I’ve made those changes and tweaks from my reader's comments.  So, yet another line by line reading, adjusting as I go.
            And at this point... this is when I’m done.  There’s only so much a given writer—in this case, me—can do with a given story.  There comes a point when further work accomplishes nothing and I’m just rewriting for the sake of rewriting. I'm sure we all know someone who's just been working on the same manuscript for years and years because they've got another one or two drafts to put it through.  If my manuscript’s not ready for a publisher (or film producer) by now, it probably means I screwed up something big right at the start. 
            Maybe with my initial idea of rebooting the Laff-A-Lympics as a medical drama starring a gender-swapped, alcoholic Captain Caveman.
            Next time... well, if there’s anything next week it’ll be really quick.  I’ve got a flight on Thursday.  If you’re in Dallas next week, please swing by Texas Frightmare and say hi.  I’ll be in the Made in Texas room.
            Either way, go write.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Snip Snip Snip

            A few quick cuts.  A little off the top.
            Once again, I must make pathetic excuses for missing last week.  I wanted to post this Wednesday night before I left for Crypticon Seattle, but ended up bogged down in last minute preparations.  By the time I realized I never put this up, I was about two miles above San Francisco.
            Anyway, enough of my pathetic excuses.  Let’s talk about cuts.
            As writers, we all need to make cuts.  Our first drafts always have too much.  We put in every wild idea and detail and prolonged conversation.
            Before anyone says anything—no.  None of us write perfect first drafts.  Not one person reading this.  Not you.  Not me.  Definitely not that guy over there.  The only person who writes usable first drafts is Paul Haggis, and even he doesn’t think they’re perfect (Clint Eastwood does, though).  And Paul isn’t here, so we’re back to saying none of us.
            (Mr. Haggis—if you are here, thanks so much for the support.  You probably don’t remember, but I interviewed you twice for Creative Screenwriting and you were fantastic)
            All this means that in the second draft, third at the latest, we have to make cuts.  We want our books and screenplays and short stories to be lean and tight.  It’s a tough world out there, with a lot of tough publishers, and I can’t expect my story to get anywhere if it’s not at fighting weight.
            So, here’s a few quick, painless ways you can make some cuts and help your manuscript lose a thousand words or so...
            Adverbs--  As I said above, most of us get caught up in the flow of words, the impetus of a scene, and the thing that slides by most often is the all-but-useless adverb.  We try to pretend they're important, but they can always be replaced.  When it comes down to it, adverbs are the Shemps of the writing world.
            Three out of five times if you’re using an adverb, you just don’t need it.  The fourth time odds are you’re using the wrong verb, and once you find the right one, again, you won’t need the adverb.  And that fifth time... well, maybe it’s only one in six.  If you’re using your vocabulary well, there aren’t many times you need an adverb.
            I was at a conference a few years back where writer/ Editor Pat LaBrutto tossed put a great rule of thumb.  One adverb per page, four adjectives per page.  It’s only a guideline, granted, but if you’re averaging five or six adverbs per paragraph... maybe you should give them all a second look.
            In my recent editorial pass of the fourth Ex book, I cut just over 200 adverbs from the manuscript.  That’s almost a full page of adverbs, gone.  Search your manuscript for LY and see how many you find.
            Adjectives—People use a lot of adjectives to make normal, average things sound interesting.  Coincidentally, these folks tend to have a poor vocabulary.  So when I don’t know multiple words for shirt (like Henley, tunic, tee, blouse, polo, Oxford), I’ll just use multiple adjectives. 
            Of course, we all go a little overboard now and then  (anyone who says they don't is lying to you) because we’re convinced this person, this place, this thing needs extra description.  Yet we all know too much description brings things too a grinding halt.
            There’s an odd habit I’ve seen among fantasy writers—not only them, but enough to make it worth mentioning—to use dozens of adjectives per page, if not per sentence--often redundant ones like “gleaming chrome blade of pure silver.”  I’ve mentioned before that I used to help run an online fantasy game a few years back, and the other night I was talking with one of the staff members who’s still there.  And she and I hit on a wonderful turn of phrase that I think applies here.  Simply put, using more adjectives and adverbs doesn’t make me a better writer.  It just means I’ve got a weak vocabulary and I’m a very poor editor.
            That—People tend to drop that into their writing a lot, and a good four out of five times their writing would be tighter without it.  I used to be a that junkie until someone pointed out how unnecessary it often is.
She punched him in the same spot that he had been stabbed in.
He knew that the machine would not stop—ever—until she was dead.
Phoebe could see that the two of them were meant to be together.
            On that same Ex book, I cut over 130 that's—just over half a page.  Use the Find feature, search for uses of that in your writing, and see how many of them are necessary.  Odds are you’ll find that at least half of them aren’t.
           Useless Modifiers -- I've also called this Somewhat Syndrome a few times.  This is another one I wrestle with a lot, although I like to tell myself I've gotten better about it.  It's when I pepper my writing with somewhat.., sort of..., a bit..., kind of..., and other such modifiers. Nine times out of ten they're not doing anything except adding to my word count (not in the good way) and slowing my story (also not in the good way).  Use the Find feature again and see how many of these are doing anything in your writing, and look how much tighter and stronger your story is without them.  I cut another 200 hundred of these in the aforementioned Ex book manuscript.
            Appeared to be...   --This is one of those phrases some folks latch onto and use all the time.  Problem is, most of them don't understand it.  It tends to be used as an introduction of sorts, leading the reader into some purple-prose description.  This phrase sometimes disguises itself as seemed to be or looked like or some variation thereof.
            The thing is, appeared to be doesn’t get used alone.  It’s part of a literary construction where the second half of that structure is either an implied or actual contradiction.  So when I’m saying...
The creature seemed to be looming over us.
            ...what I’m really saying is something along the lines of...
The creature seemed to be looming over us, but it was just the shadows making it look bigger than it really was.
            ...and what I wanted to say all along was just...
The creature loomed over us.
            If I’m not trying to establish a contradiction, using appeared to be and its bastard stepchildren isn't just wasted words-- it's wrong.
            "As you know..." –I’ve mentioned once or thrice before that this is probably the clumsiest way to do exposition there is.  Really.  Ignore everything else I’ve said here, but please take this one bit of advice to heart.
            Just by saying "as you know," I'm stating that the character I'm speaking to already knows the facts I'm about to share.  So why repeat them?  Why would I have two people engage in such a useless bit of dialogue?
            When I put in "as you know" or one of its half-breed cousins, it's a poor attempt to put some exposition in my story with dialogue.  If I’m using it, I guarantee you there's either (A) a better way to get the information to the reader or (B) no need for it because it’s already covered somewhere else.
            I might be able to get away with doing this once--just once--if I've got a solid manuscript.  I mean rock-solid.  And even then, it shouldn’t be in my opening pages.
            Anyway, there's half a dozen quick, easy cuts.  Try them out and see if you can drop a few hundred words or more.
            Next time, I want to get back on schedule by quickly pointing out a possible problem.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, August 17, 2012

No Coloreds Allowed!

            Well, that title got everyone’s attention real quick, didn’t it?
            Allow me to explain, then feel free to report me...
            When it comes to adjectives, one of the easiest bits of description to drop into writing is colors.  I can tell you I’m sitting here right now on a gray chair wearing a blue shirt and black shorts (there’s a major heat wave going on in Los Angeles right now) and my tan cat is trying to get my attention.
            Now when a lot of us hit that mid-phase in our growth-as-a-writer arc, we start using metaphors for everything.  My shirt isn’t blue, it’s sky-colored.  My shorts are the color of coal.  My cat, Charlie Baltimore, is linen-colored.  Some folks get comfortable at this point of the arc and they’re the ones who tend to use lots and lots of purple prose (color pun not intended, but it works so I’ll go with it).
            The catch, however, is when people develop the habit of describing everything as “colored.”  Even colors.  Which is wrong.
            I’ve seen some folks describe things as red colored, yellow colored, and blue colored.  That’s just silly.  And it’s excess words I could cut.
            Y’see, Timmy, colors are inherently “colored.”  If I tell you my shirt is blue, it’s understood that I mean “my shirt is the color blue.”  So I wouldn’t tell you “my shirt is the color blue colored.” 
            I should never use the word colored with colors.  I shouldn’t have blue-colored sky or green-colored grass.  They’re already colors—what else could they be?  Blue flavored sky?  Green textured grass?  Snip that word and have blue sky and green grass.
            I use colored when I’m making descriptive comparisons.  A girl with strawberry-colored hair can wear a grass-colored dress, for example.  My zombies have chalk-colored eyes.  One draft of Ex-Patriots had Stealth described as “shadow-colored.”
            Use the Find feature and search through your latest work for uses of the word colored.  Make sure it’s being used correctly.  Slash it if it isn’t.
            Next time I may be a bit cramped for time, so you’re either going to get a rant about time bombs or another screenwriter interview (if I’m really up against the wall).  But if I do, I’ll make sure it’s a fun one.  Or, at least, highly controversial. 
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

To See The Invisible Man

Either my latest rants have been pure gold no one can argue with or a lot of you really hated me using LOST as an extended example. Haven’t seen any comments in weeks.

Speaking of things you don’t see, this rant’s title is another one of those clever pop culture references. Anyone remember it?

Okay, fine, I’ll explain.

“To See The Invisible Man” is the title of a Twilight Zone episode adapted by Stephen Barnes from an old Robert Silverberg short story. It’s not one of the classic Zones, but one of the newer ones when the show was revived in the mid-‘80s. It’s the tale of a man in a somewhat-utopian society who is sentenced to a year of “public invisibility” because of his selfish, antisocial behavior. He isn’t actually turned invisible, however. He just gets a small brand on his forehead which tells everyone to ignore him. That’s the curse of it. They really can see and hear and feel him--and he knows they can-- but no one will react to him. Even when he desperately wants and needs to be acknowledged (there’s an eerie scene in a hospital emergency room), people pretend he’s not there. As we find out later in the story, seeing an invisible person is a major crime.

In a way, this serves as a clever little metaphor for being a writer. The reader knows the writer is there, that you’ve crafted and shaped these words on the page, but they don’t want to admit you’re leaning over their shoulder. They just want to go on their merry way and pretend they’re alone with the book. As such, the worst thing the writer can do is draw attention to themselves.

For many would be writers, the temptation is to embellish the pixilated page with an exuberant flourish of verbiage which exhibits not only the vocabulary we’re capable of as proficient anecdotists (far above any paltry amanuensis), but also how we can bend grammar to our will; the elaborate and subtle metaphors we can craft; and the clever intricacies we can interweave betwixt the threads of character, plot, and theme.

For the record, it took me almost fifteen minutes to craft that impenetrable sentence. Yes, it looks like a paragraph but it’s just one sentence. A long, sprawling sentence that really tempted you to skim, didn’t it? Heck, let’s be honest. I bet after tripping over your second or third obscure word, at least half of you started skimming, didn’t you?

Y’see, Timmy, every time we make the reader hesitate or pause just for a second, we’re breaking the flow of the story. We’re encouraging them to skim at best, put the manuscript down at worst. The reader should forget they’re paging through the latest Wakko Warner novel or screenplay, perhaps even forget they’re reading a written work altogether. This happens, odd as it sounds, when they forget they’re reading. And the easiest way to make that happen is for them not to see the writing. It’s tempting to wave our arms and shout and try to get the reader to admit they can see us, but all this does is ruin things for everyone. It’s like Sherlock Holmes showing how he came to his amazing deductions or a magician explaining their greatest illusion. That moment is when the whole thing falls apart.

As writers, we need to be invisible. Oh, we want our characters to be seen. We want our dialogue to be heard. We want our action and passion and suspense to leave people breathless. But we are just distractions. If you think about it, who’s the more impressive tough guy-- the one who commits unimaginable acts of violence, or the one who doesn’t have to commit those acts? Being able to restrain yourself is just as impressive as how excessive you can be. Less of us is more of the story.

Here’s a few simple ways to keep your literary head down.

Vocabulary-- We all know what bright means, but effulgent can make us pause for a moment. That guy can be bald or he can be glabrous. Some sneakers are black with a bit of red and some are atrementous tinged with titian.

A huge problem I see is writers with ego problems. They think they’re cleverer than anyone else, and they’re determined to prove it. More often than not, the writer latches onto (or looks up) obscure and flowery words because they didn’t want to use something “common” in their literary masterpiece. These folks write sprawling, impenetrable prose that makes it sound like they spend their free time wanking off to a thesaurus. All too often they’ll try to defend this wheelbarrow of wordplay by saying it’s the reader’s fault for having such a limited vocabulary. After all, everyone knows what it means if I say I’m going to cast a bantam gallet towards an embrasure, right?

Any word a writer chooses just to draw attention, to prove they don’t need to use a common word, is the wrong word. Any word that makes the reader stop reading and start analyzing is the wrong word. Period. You can try to justify your word choice any way you like, but absolutely no one is picking up your book or looking at your screenplay hoping for a vocabulary lesson. When the reader can’t figure out what’s being said for the fourth or fifth time and decides to toss that manuscript in the big pile on the left... there’s only one person to blame.

(It’s not them, in case you had any lingering thoughts on the matter)

(By the way, it just means I’m going to throw a small stone at a window)

Structure-- Like obscure vocabulary, convoluted sentence structure is often the sign of a writer’s ego. One of the most common ways this manifests is to insist on grammatical and structural perfection. This often mean a rigid, formal text and very stiff dialogue. These writers are so insistent on proving they know the correct way to write that their words come across as forced and artificial.

The second most common is needless complication. If something can be described in five words, these writers will manage to do it in thirty, and I guarantee at least half a dozen of those words you’ll have to stop and look up (see above). This is where you find folks that use phrases like “seemed to be” or “appeared to be.” Some of these storytellers also go the non-linear route, even though nothing in their story gets improved by this pointless scrambling.

All of this can be an instant killer in screenplays, because most professional readers won’t put up with it. Your writing needs to be clean, simple, and natural. If there isn’t an in-story reason for it to be overcomplicated, it shouldn’t be.

Said-- People will never notice if you use said. Said is invisible. What they notice is when your characters respond, retort, exclaim, pontificate, depose, demand, muse, mutter, sneer, shout, snarl, growl, whimper, whisper, hiss, yelp, exclaim, or ejaculate. Yes, stop giggling, it was a common dialogue descriptor for many years. Once you’ve got three or four characters doing all this (instead of just saying things) you shouldn’t be surprised if your audience stops reading to shrug or snicker. Usually while they’re pointing at you.

Granted, there are times where characters are shouting or whispering or hissing. Overall, though, they’re just going to be saying things. So don’t overcomplicate things and draw attention to yourself.

Names. If used in moderation, names are invisible. They’re just shorthand for the mental image of a character. It’s also worth mentioning that simpler, more common names blend into your writing easier than rare or unnatural ones. A reader can glide past Tony but might stumble a bit on Antonio. Edward is easier on the frontal lobe than Ezekiel, and they’re all nothing compared to Bannakaffalatta.

It’s worth mentioning a little note there for the genre folks. When writing sci-fi or fantasy, many fledgling writers feel the need to rename everything. The characters have all-new, created-for-this-world names. So do their pets. And their gods. And their elements. And their system of weights and measures. Off the top of my head, I would say 90% or this is a waste of time and a distraction. Your elaborate fantasy world will not collapse if the giant, fire-breathing lizards are called dragons, but it might if you insist on calling them pyroreptillicans.

A good rule of thumb--when you’ve made up a name like Grothnixyettiq for one of your characters (or their mode of transport, or their homeland, or the way they measure distance), take a moment and try to say it out loud. Note how long it takes you to figure out how to say it. Now email or text it to a friend, give them a call, and ask them to say it out loud. No hints or clues. Just ask them to say that word you wrote. If their pronunciation doesn’t match yours, you should really use a simpler word.

Always remember that moderation is key. If any name repeats too often, it begins to get cumbersome. Even a simple name like Dot can stack up. When I see a paragraph about Dot reading Dot’s book out by Dot’s pool shortly before Dot decided it was too hot outside and Dot went in where it was air conditioned... well, personally at that point I start counting them. Which means I’m not reading the story, I’m auditing it.

This is why we have...

Pronouns. When proper names start to stack up, we switch to the pronoun. Just like names are shorthand for story elements, pronouns are shorthand for those names. When nouns start to clutter up your writing, they’re there to leap in and shoulder the weight. It’s how Yakko becomes he, that mysterious island becomes there, and the Cerberus Battle Armor System becomes it.

The catch here is to make sure your pronouns are clear, because the moment someone gets confused about which it you’re referring to, they’ve just stopped reading your story and started studying the page. A good rule of thumb—after you’ve referred to Dot as she half a dozen or so times, drop her name back in once. It’s been long enough it won’t look repetitive, and it’s a gentle reminder of who she is.

And there they are. A few simple ways to stay invisible.

Next week, just for whatever budding screenwriters happen to stumble across this site on a regular basis, a few notes on drafting. In the construction sense.

Until then, don’t let me see you writing.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Oh, The Humanity!

Historical reference, just to be different. Although awful things with zeppelins isn't the greatest parallel for what I wanted to talk about. Plus I understand that airship pilots (of which there are ten in the whole world) get really testy if you bring up the Hindenberg...

Anyway, what I'd like to prattle on about this week is balloons. Y'know... those things that get bigger and bigger and finally explode.

It's not uncommon for a writer to want to take an idea a little further. To turn that short story into a novella, that novella into a full-fledged book, or those two or three clever scenes into a feature-length screenplay. We're all creative people. It's what we do.

Plus, let's be honest. Sometimes it just needs to be longer. We need another 5,000 words to hit a publisher's minimum or maybe ten more pages to get this producer interested.

Now, the way most people try to expand their stories is by adding words. Sounds kind of obvious, I know, but there's a catch. These folks mistake adding words for adding substance. Often, the words being added bulk up the manuscript but don't actually add anything to it. They're just putting back in all that stuff that was already edited out for being unnecessary.

It's easy to explain this with a visual aid. Ready?

Picture a large balloon. A good-sized one. Pretend I wrote a short story on this balloon. Got that? Now it's easy to make the story bigger, yes? Just inflate the balloon until it's twice as big. We've all done something like this at some point, so it's still easy to picture, yes?

Have I actually made the story bigger, though? It's just the same ink forming the same story, now spread thin. In fact, since I filled it with... well, hot air, the story's gotten a bit insubstantial for its size. It's tough to read because it covers so much space and we can actually see through it at points.

If you've got a solid, edited story, you've already let all that hot air out. The story on the balloon is compact and dark, if you get my meaning.

Here's a few quick, easy ways to spot a balloon...

Giving more description is a typical way of ballooning a manuscript. You throw in a few more adjectives or adverbs or a few more clever metaphors about how Phoebe looks like Angelina Jolie's hot little blonde sister or something. What's going on here, though, is all those cuts the writer made during editing are being reversed, just like I mentioned above. The unnecessary stuff is getting added back in and... well, that just doesn't make sense.

Close to this is when the story's revisiting the same idea again and again. Let's have another example in the story of how clueless Yakko can be. Or perhaps yet another scene of slackjawed, stammering men which shows us how stunning Dot is. Maybe one more sequence where Wakko demonstrates how awesomely powerful and badass he is. Besides being a variation of the description problem above, belaboring a point like this gets dull fast. Anyone who wants a dull story, raise your hand now.

Then please leave.

Extending action sequences is another way writers sometimes balloon a story. I mentioned a while back that action (in my opinion) shouldn't take much longer to read than it would take to do or watch. But an easy way to fill space is to decribe the history behind that perfect jodan zuki the ninja throws which connects with Yakko's jaw. Then I can describe the excruciating pain as one of Yakko's molars (which he got two fillings in as a boy and almost had pulled but his father insisted he had to keep his teeth as long as possible) gets smashed loose and the coppery taste of blood fills his mouth even as the impact of the strike twists his head around and... well, you get the idea. Does it really take that long to hit someone in the face? Can you imagine if every punch, strike, kick, or gunshot took that long? Dear God, the elevator scene in The Matrix would be longer than Atlas Shrugged.

So, that's a few easy ways not to expand your story. But how should you?

Well, like so many things in this field, that's a bit harder to say. A key thing to remember is expanding something often involves changing it. If your 7,500 word story is structured a certain way, the structure will probably have to alter when the story becomes 10,000 words. If it becomes 35,000 words it'll have to change a lot. If you're determined to keep the structure exactly the same, you're probably going to have a lot of trouble making your manuscript bigger.

Another easy rule of thumb-- you shouldn't be adding things that don't need to be there. So if you want to add a quirky conversation about "the first time," angel hair pasta, or who got beat up more as a kid, there needs to be a reason for this conversation to take place.

Just to be clear, "boosting the word count" is not a viable reason.

Y'see, Timmy, if you want to expand a story you can't add hot air--you need to add actual material. You want a bigger balloon, not the same balloon puffed up to look bigger.

Some quick examples...

--Throw an additional character into the mix. It could change relationships, action, pacing, all sorts of stuff. And add to all of these as well.

--Change someone's motivation. Not everyone walks to the grocery store for the same reason after all. Yeah, maybe Wakko is helping out because he's a decent guy, but maybe he's doing it to try to make up for something he did years ago. This could change how he reacts to things, his exact actions, and maybe what's a desirable ending for him.

--Make a new goal. A short story is generally A to B, maybe even C. So stop trying to cram in A 1/2 or B 3/4. Have your story go on to D, E, and maybe all the way to X.

And then, when you've made this change (or these changes), go over your new, larger story and polish it again.

There's a chance I might miss next week as I rush to meet a bunch of deadlines for Creative Screenwriting. But please check in and perhaps we'll talk for a spell, as they used to say.

Until then, go write.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

We Regret to Announce Some Cuts

Yeah that's right. I'm late posting this. And we all know the rules--that mean I get cut from the team.

Also, Bennett, you're cut. Adamson, you're cut, too. Belicynski, cut. Harper, cut. Brannon, Moody, Richmond, Young, McLeod--you're all cut.

Brown, you're still good.

Wait--J. Brown? No, you're cut.

Everyone who's left, let's talk about this week's topic.

One of the most common complaints I hear from people (in person and in various places online) is that it's impossible to cut anything from their work. There's just no way to make their novel less that 600,000 words. It's a miracle they've squeezed the screenplay down to 190 pages. The manuscript cannot be any shorter. All too often, they're saying this after the first draft. Heck, some people talk about their manuscript getting longer as they do successive drafts.

Y'see, Timmy, writers have to make cuts. They have to make their manuscript leaner, meaner, and cleaner. Readers prefer it that way. Editors prefer it that way.

So, a few painless ways you can make a few cuts and maybe trim a few hundred words from your writing...

Adverbs-- When it comes down to it, adverbs are the Shemps of the writing world. We try to pretend they're important, but they can always be replaced. As most of us get caught up in the flow of words, the impetus of a scene, and the thing that slides by most often is the all-but-useless adverb. For example...

--She excitedly tore open the present and happily said “This is the best Christmas ever!”

--They shouted loudly at the team.

--“Maybe I saw something, maybe I didn’t,” said Wakko coyly.

Do any of these adverbs add anything to these sentences? Three out of five times if you’re using an adverb, you just don’t need it. The fourth time odds are you’re using the wrong verb, and once you find the right one, again, you won’t need the adverb. And that fifth time... well, maybe it’s only one in six. If you’re using your vocabulary well, there aren’t many times you need an adverb.

Writer/ Editor Pat LoBrutto once tossed put a great rule of thumb I've mentioned a few times. One adverb per page, four adjectives per page. It’s only a guideline, granted, but if you’re averaging six or seven adverbs per paragraph maybe you should give them all a second look.

Hey, speaking of adjectives...

Adjectives—People often create compound adjectives from hell to describe things that tend to be pretty mundane when you think about it.

--She had ocean-like dark blue eyes.

--His armor was made of polished, meticulously-engraved, glossy-black ceramite.

--The tall, majestic, awe-inspiring cliffs of weatherworn, charcoal-gray stone loomed over them.

There’s an odd habit I’ve seen among fledgling fantasy writers to use dozens of adjectives per page, if not per sentence--often redundant ones like "obsidian black hair." It’s part of that purple prose I mentioned above. It's not exclusive to that genre, but frequent enough I felt it's worth mentioning.

Of course, we all go a little overboard now and then (anyone who says they don't is lying to you) because we’re convinced this person, this place, this thing needs more description. Yet we all know too much description brings things too a grinding halt.

That—This is a word people tend to drop into their writing a lot, and a good four out of five times their writing would be tighter without it. I used to be a that junkie until someone pointed out how unnecessary it often is.

--He ran off in the same direction that Wakko had.

--She believed that once the button was pressed, the world would be saved.

--Yakko knew once Dot saw the puppy that she would want to take it home.

On a recent manuscript I was working on, I cut over 1000 that's--almost a solid four pages. Use the Find feature in Word (it’s up there under Edit), search for uses of that in your writing, and see how many of them are necessary. Odds are you’ll find at least half of them aren’t.

"As you know..." --This is probably the clumsiest way to do exposition there is. Really. Think about it. Just by saying "as you know," I'm stating that you--the person I'm speaking to--already know the facts I'm about to share. So why am I repeating them? As a writer, why would I have two characters engage in such a useless bit of dialogue?

When a writer puts in "as you know" or one of its half-breed cousins, it's a weak attempt to put out some exposition through dialogue. If you're using it, almost across the board there's either (A) a better way to get the information to the reader or (B) no need for this information because it is already covered somewhere.

If you've got a really solid manuscript--I mean rock-solid-- you might be able to get away with doing this once. Just once. As long as you don't do it your first ten pages.

Useless Modifiers -- I've also called this Somewhat Syndrome a few times. This is another one I wrestle with a lot, although I like to tell myself I've gotten better about it. It's when you pepper your writing with somewhat.., a bit..., slightly..., and other such modifiers. Nine times out of ten they're not doing anything except adding to your word count and slowing your story. Use the Find feature again, see how many of them are doing anything, and look how much tighter and stronger your writing is without them.

Appeared to be... --This is one of those phrases some people latch onto and use all the time. Problem is, most of them don't understand it. It tends to be used as an introduction of sorts, leading the reader into some purple-prose description. This phrase sometimes disguises itself as looked like or seemed to be or some variation thereof.

The thing is appeared to be doesn’t get used alone. It’s part of a literary construction where the second half of that structure is either an implied or actual contradiction to the appearance. So when you’re saying...

--Phoebe appeared to stand six feet tall.

...what you’re really saying is...

--Phoebe appeared to stand six feet tall, but she was actually closer to five foot five without her stiletto heels.

And what you meant to be saying all along was just...

--Phoebe stood six feet tall.

If you aren't trying to establish a contradiction, using appeared to be and its bastard stepchildren isn't just wasted words-- it's wrong.

Long Names – If you’ve got a lot of characters with names like MacMortimerstein or Vandervecken, they’re going to take up a lot of space as their names get used again and again. They're also awkward for the reader to juggle and keep track of. Plus, several of them will die as other characters rush to blurt out “Dear God, Doctor MacMortimerstein, look out for that... ahhhhh, too late!”

Try using simple names like Mort or Van, which are easier for readers to keep track of as well. It's also human nature to shorten such names when we speak, so it makes for better dialogue, too. True, this will not lessen your word count, but it can shorten your page count, which is the next best thing.

Keep in mind, if there’s a solid reason for your alien cyborg billionaire midget to be called Bannakaffalatta and not Ban, stick with it. But if it’s just a background character you’re using for two chapters or three scenes...

Anyway, there's seven quick, relatively painless cuts. Try them out and see if you can drop a few hundred words or more.

Next time, we'll deal with this rampant ignorance, even if I have to explain everything using small words.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Draft

Bloody hell. Is it Thursday again already?

Whose idea was this ranty blog, anyway...?

Anyway, what I wanted to toss out this week was a rough outline of how I generally go about things. I've given lots of general suggestions, but I thought it might be cool to actually show a step by step, solid example of how I take a project from a rough idea to something I'll show friends to something I consider worth showing to publishers/ producers/ contest readers/ and so on.

Plus it's an easy one to write up and I've got to do one more article and a sidebar before the weekend.

As always, before going into this, I want to remind everyone of the golden rule. Just because this works for me doesn't mean it will work for you. There's a better than average chance it won't, in fact. But maybe it will spark a few thoughts or make you look at things in a new way

1st Draft-- For me, this is just the "get it done" stage. I don't worry much about catching typos or crafting every subtle moment in the plot. I just want to finish this draft with a beginning, an end, and the majority of points in between.

I tend to skip around a lot in the first draft, which means I could start with almost anything. I'll scribble down random beats or dialogue exchanges that occurred to me while the idea was fermenting in my head and drop them more or less where I think they'd go. I talked a little bit last week how I got started on Ex-Heroes.

At this early stage, if I get stuck on something (an awkward conversation or complex action scene), I'll just skip it for now. I know I can work out exactly how Yakko convinced Wakko to give him a pistol later, so I'd rather keep moving than stay on this point too long and risk getting blocked on the whole thing (too long being a completely subjective, case-by-case term). Again, for me, the most important thing is to get it done. It's a lot easier to think about the little things when the big things aren't looming over you.

I also don't hold back here at all. I let dialogue, descriptions, and action scenes go on forever. I know I'll be cutting eventually, so there's no reason to worry about length now. I mean, if you wanted to find a pound of gold, you wouldn't dig up 1.1 pounds of soil, hope for the best, and just call it a day.

No one sees this draft but me.

2nd Draft-- Now it's time to smooth it out. All those little bits I skipped I need to go back and fill in. All those awkward knots need to be worked out. A lot of the time I'll find that, because I can now see a lot of these elements in relation to the whole story, the answers to these problems are more apparent.

The goal now is to have a readable manuscript. No more little notes to myself or trailing paragraphs that need to get connected somehow. Someone should be able to pick this up and read it start to finish without thinking they lost a few pages or only got my notes on a chapter.

Keep in mind this doesn't mean I do show it to people. It just means I should be able to. Really, the only person who might see this is my lady-love, and not even her always. Sometimes she has to wait.

A few people have argued with me these two drafts really just amount to me doing a first draft in two stages. That may be true, but they're not writing the ranty blog, are they?

Okay then, so... now I step away for a couple of days. Maybe a week. Don't look at it, try not to think too much about it. And then...

3rd Draft--Stephen King says to start cutting on draft two, but as I said, my draft two is what some people may call a solid first draft. As such, I usually wait until draft three to start slashing. This is where I hunt down adverbs, adjectives, pointless dialogue descriptors, and so on. Two fun rules I've mentioned before--

2nd draft = 1st draft - 10%

one adverb per page, four adjectives

One thing I really go after here is the padding phrases I tend to drop in (sort of, somewhat, kind of, more or less) that don't really do anything. As I've mentioned before, one of my regular editors at work has dubbed this awful habit of mine Somewhat Syndrome. Feel free to pass that one along.

By this time I've gone over the whole manuscript at least twice, so some bigger cuts should be visible. That rant Wakko gives about socialized medicine. Dot's flashback to the first time she got drunk in college. That long, meticulous description of Yakko loading his pistol. That's some beautiful writing there, but is it actually doing anything?

This is also when I can usually spot structure issues. In larger stories, it's not uncommon to have "floating" events that are important, but aren't tied to a solid point in the script. This one may be here right now, but having all of the story in my head lets me realize it would work better there, and it would be a more solid fit.

If I haven't already, this is when I let the lady love have a look. She's my first set of eyes to let me know I screwed up something and I'm too close to see it.

All things considered, this is usually two or three weeks of full-time work for me.

4th Draft--This is the first big polish. I go through sentence by sentence, looking for words that come up too often or stilted dialogue. I also make sure all the cuts and swaps from the last draft haven't messed anything up. Are the character arcs still smooth? Logic chains are still complete? Are the transitions still good? Are the parallels parallel? Did this character turn into a man for a few minutes in the middle of the chapter? Did Yakko just pull a gun out of nowhere?

When the fourth draft is all shiny, this is the one I show folks for comments. I generally send it out to five people. They're a carefully selected bunch, all of whom have some level of literary background, and I don't think there's one among them I've known for less than five years. One's actually been reading and critiquing my work for over two decades now, and she still doesn't cut me any slack. The key thing is they're all people who will give honest, useful criticism. There won't be huge, unexplained X's across the page, meaningless feedback, or cartoons in the margins.

Well, not often, anyway.

This goes off into the world and it may be a month or two before I look at it again. The trick here is to resist messing with it while those people are looking at it.

5th Draft-- Now I've gotten notes back from whatever folks I cajoled into reading this thing. I sit down with all the comments and go through the whole thing page by page. What did everyone think of page one? What comments were there on page two? How's page three look? As I'm doing this, I've also got my own copy of the 4th draft that I'm using as a "master document." This way I can get all the notes assembled in the relevant place and make whatever changes are required. This document is more or less the 5th draft, and it can take another two weeks or more to finish it with a full book manuscript.

I mentioned above that I try to get five people to make comments for me, and that's partly so I can get a broader sampling on each issue that comes up. If four people like something but one doesn't, odds are I'll call that good. Nobody's going to get every joke or like every chapter. If three don't and two do (and of course I do, or I wouldn't've written it), I'll sit and give it a good look. And if none of them like it, well... I'm smart enough to know when I've screwed up something doesn't work.

6th Draft-- This one's yet another smoothing, polishing draft. Now that I made those tweaks and changes from my reader's notes, I need to make sure everything works again. So, yet another line by line reading, tweaking and adjusting as I go.

And honestly, at this point... this is when I give up. There is only so much a given writer--in this case, me-- can do with a given story. There comes a point when further work accomplishes nothing and, as the Brits so eloquently put it, you're just wanking. If it's not ready to show to a publisher by now, it probably means I screwed up something right at the start on a very basic level. Perhaps when I first thought I could adapt Pilgrim's Progress into a hardcore gothic romance.

There's also a danger that if you keep trying to come up with reasons to do another draft, you'll keep finding them. I'm sure we all know someone who's just been working on the same manuscript for years and years and years because they've got another one or two drafts to put it through. After a while of that, your story stops looking like a coherent tale and a bit more like the Winchester Mystery House.

This pattern may not work for you. Everyone's going to handle things a little differently. I got to talk to Kevin Smith a while back and he said that he wrote screenplays on a scene-by-scene basis. He'd write a few pages, read, revise, read, smoke a bit, revise again, read, polish it, and move on to the next few pages. So by the time his script was completed, he's reached what I'm calling the end of draft four.

Y'see, Timmy, the important thing, as always, is not how you do it but that you do it. It's annoying as hell, and all-too-often used as an excuse, but there is something to that old chestnut "writing is re-writing." You can't expect something to be publication-ready the moment it leaves your fingertips. Doing this professionally means going over a piece again and again rather than mailing off your first draft while you move on to your next glorious and epic-worthy idea. If you're not willing to put the extra effort into your writing, it's always going to end up in that large pile on the left.

Next week, Booboo, I want to discuss those picnic baskets the campers have. Sort of.

Until then, go write.

Or rewrite.