Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Akeelah and the Bee

In these heady days of internet communities, text messages, and failing school systems, spelling and grammar have fallen on hard times. There's a fair share of people who even think we should just do away with "traditional" spellings. After all, if you can understand what the writer was trying to say, that's what matters, right?

Alas (or perhaps, thank God) this view is not taken by any serious publishers, agents, or readers.

Some of you are going to chuckle, but it's funny how many editors, professional readers, agents, and contest directors bring up this same point again and again and again when asked about tips for up-and-coming writers. Grammar. Spelling. These two things are a must. There is no easier way to distract or derail a reader and make them put your manuscript in the large pile on the left instead of the small one on the right.

For now, let's look at the easiest one to deal with—spelling. Take a look at the sentence below and try to spot the misspelled word.

Two cell eh vampire yew most half eh would steak.

Not too hard, eh? Of course, you understood what I was trying to say, so some people would claim that's acceptable, right?

(If you are one of those people, stop reading now, turn in your pens and word processor, and go ask to pick up a few extra shifts at Jack in the Box with all the extra time you've got.

Go. Go now!)

For those of you still reading, that's a pretty horrific sentence, yes? And not just because it talks about killing poor, misunderstood vampires. But let's move on to stage two of our little exercise—how many of you know which words are spelled wrong in that line?

See, here's the catch—There aren't any misspelled words in that sentence up above, and a spell-checking program will tell you that too. Because from its point of view, there aren't. Smell-chick doesn’t help yew if all then warts are spilled write but are ill jest the wrong wards. Every single word in that last sentence is spelled correctly, too, so Microsoft Word will skim right over it without a second glance.

If you want to be a writer, you need to be able to spell. You, not your computer. Your computer, if I may paraphrase someone far smarter than me, is a very sophisticated idiot. It doesn't understand context. It doesn't know colloquialisms. Split infinitives will give it panic attacks. You cannot depend on your computer for grammar and spelling checks. Cannot, period, done, end of story (see that? That makes microprocessors cry). If you can't do it yourself, your career as a writer is going to be a verrrrrrrrrrrryyyyyy long, uphill battle.

Do you always use there, their, and they're correctly? All three are spelled right, all three sound alike, but they are not at all interchangeable. What about its and it's? Complement and compliment; wile and while; humans and human's; peek, peak, and pique. If you don't know what the differences are between all these words, stop reading this and start looking over all your stories right now...

Any one of these mistakes can kill your chances with an editor or an agent. Will your story, script, or novel get rejected just because you don't know the difference between it's and its? Well, it probably wouldn't be just off that (for the record, with an apostrophe is the contraction of it is, without one is possessive). However, it could be the thing that knocks a "strongly consider" story down to "maybe consider," and "maybe consider" down to "Thanks for querying, but at this time..." If nothing else, it guarantees your work is giving off the immediate, subliminal message amateur writer to anyone who reads it.

Read your own writing. Don't just skim it or run it through a spellchecker. Sit down and go through it word by word, line by line. Know what words mean and how they're spelled. Don't think you know. Be 100%, absolutely, willing-to-sacrifice-your-right-hand sure you know.

In a similar vein, Stephen King once said "Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule." This little maxim cuts both ways, for the record. It's also the wrong word if your readers need to go looking for what it means. Using extremely uncommon or antiquated words like titian instead of red, glabrous instead of bald, or atramentous instead of dark may show off your vocabulary, but the moment the reader has to stop and wonder about what a word means, they've been taken out of your story. And knocking people out of your story is one of the certain ways to make sure the reader puts your script in that ever-growing left-hand pile.

Consider a bad sci-fi story. I can tell you that Angnagrog took his zheraful out for a twenty wobosa drive along the neerwoks of Qin'nixxia, but that really doesn't mean anything, does it? Sure, you could probably sit down, diagram the sentence, and get some very rough ideas of what one or two of these words mean. Maybe. How often do you want to do that, though? Can you imagine weeding through a whole paragraph like that? Or multiple pages?

Of course not. You'd much rather read that Angnagrog took his hovercar out for a twenty minute drive along the ocean cliffs. So would an editor. The fact that you're not wasting time with silly or pretentious words tells the reader you're more interested in getting to the story. As I mentioned before with characters, what every reader wants to see is forward motion. It doesn't matter if it's a short story, a script, or a novel, the last thing the reader wants is to get hung up on something that just does not matter.

A few great books every writer should have on their shelves—

The MLA Handbook. If you went to college, odds are you already have it. Update it every four or five years or so to get an idea what general standards are. They don't change much, but they do change.

Webster's Dictionary or the good old O.E.D. Have an actual, physical dictionary on your desk. Dependency on the internet is a form of being dependent on your computer, and we already discussed that. Plus, you'd be amazed how many interesting words you'll come across once you get in the habit of reaching for that Harry Potter- sized reference book.

Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. It's a fun step-by-step guide to basic grammar. A good read and great for all those "I could never really figure out..." problems or questions you may have.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. Punctuation at its finest. She's approaching things as a Brit, so there are some intercontinental differences (notice my ethnocentric bias in assuming you're all from North America), but she usually points those differences out. For the most part you can follow her lead, especially when it comes to apostrophes.

If you want to be a writer-- in any format-- it's essential you have a grasp of the written word. You, not your word processing program. It sounds harsh, but if you don't, you don't have a chance of succeeding.

Now get back to your writing.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Diminishing Returns

There comes a point in everyone's life when you need to strike out on your own and let yourself sink or swim.

Usually this means moving out of our parents' home, either for college or just to get our own place. It can also mean getting a job where you're actually responsible for certain areas, specific information, or maybe even other people. Heck, it can just mean picking up after yourself. What it comes down to is, eventually we all just need to start doing things for ourselves.

For a lot of your writing career, professional or not, there will be people walking alongside you. They'll be there to hold your hand, give you a gentle nudge (or firm shove) in the right direction, and explain the right way and the wrong way of a given situation. They can be teachers in school or professors at university. Other professionals who've taken you under their wing. Maybe you found a group online or someone whose ranting catches your eye. Perhaps you're self-educated, and read some of the excellent books out there (like Anne Lamont's Bird by Bird , Stephen King's On Writing, or Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale) or subscribed to a magazine or two (Writer's Digest or Creative Screenwriting, if I maybe so bold).

However, like any child, student, or apprentice, there comes a time when you need to stop learning things and start doing things.

This is not to say that any of us are going to become the end all- be all of writing somewhere in our future. I've been putting pen to paper and fingers to keys for almost thirty years. I've taken classes, read the books, joined groups, and been to conferences. And by the very nature of how much I've learned, I know there's still more stuff out there for me to learn.


If you're learning, there will come a point when the time and money you invest in such expenditures is going to outweigh what you're getting out of them. That's the diminishing return. It's the point when you've finally gotten ahead of the learning curve and now you're in that upper percentage that's getting less and less out of each book or class you pay for. And this is when you have to move out of your comfort zone and start doing real work.

This is a scary step for a lot of people, because it's essentially taking away a safety net of excuses. Why didn't I write today? Well, I signed up for a class. Why didn't I subit anything this month? I was reading a book about structuring novels. Why didn't I query anyone? I'm waiting for feedback from my writer's group. Once a person admits they're past all these things, they either have to start writing or just admit they aren't going to start writing.

Over the years I've belonged to a ton of writing groups. I took several classes in college. I've attended a few writing conferences. I don't regret doing these things, but it's also been a while since I've done any of them. To draw on a past little rant, I realized I couldn't keep going off my mom's opinion.

Time for another story...

I have a friend who's a development exec for a studio, and another close acquaintance who's a screenwriter and journalist like myself. The development exec had a small party at his house last year on the same weekend as a major screenwriting conference, one all three of us had business ties to. At one point in the evening it came up that, even though we all knew about it, not one of us had been to the conference that day. In fact, as we all admitted with wry smiles, not one of had even considered attending it...

In the past posts I've talked about getting opinions, learning the rules, and many such things. But you can only do this for so long. Eventually, you just have to start writing and doing something with that writing besides hiding it in a file on your desktop. There will still be things to learn, mistakes to be made, and research to cross-reference, but you still need to start writing.

You can read every book, take every class, and follow every single rule... and at the end of the day agents will still return your novel and producers will still pass on your screenplay. There is no avoiding it. Rejection is just part of the process. So stop putting it off and making excuses.

Write. And do something with your writing.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Art for Art's Sake

In these modern days of telecommunications, where everyone has an equal voice that can be heard instantly almost anywhere on the planet (and into high orbit, even), there has arisen an unusual movement in the creative fields. This movement usually takes the form of a high, shrill voice shouting...


A lot of people like to shamelessly use the word art, or some of its poor, bastard stepchildren (creativity, genius, literature, and even more, I'm sure). It's why they don't follow any rules of grammar, ignore spelling, and why they brush off anyone who tries to correct them or offer helpful hints.

Worse yet, some of these "artistic" folks try to get others to follow their twisted path. They condemn the rules of English and will try to convince you none of "that stuff" is important in your writing. What matters, they insist, is the ART. Nothing matters but the art, and they're quick to leap on anyone who dares to hint otherwise.

Short story time...

In college, I had a teaching assistant openly mock me because I said I wanted to write stories to entertain people. In front of the entire class he told me if I wasn't writing words that were intended to change the world I was just wasting everyone's time. My first assignment (a vampire story) came back with a lot of red ink on it. So did my second one (a tale about a dimensional shortcut cutting across the worst possible dimension). Only my third story gave me a passing grade, because he read a lot of stuff into it that... well, I wasn't going to say it wasn't intended. I had a GPA to consider.

Slightly longer story...

A few years after college, but still several years back, I was a full-time carpenter and stagehand at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. The Rep is a small space in downtown (in the basement of a mall, to be honest) and used to help pay the bills by renting out space on one or two of their smaller stages. There were late-night improv teams, experimental theater groups, things like that which could usually only afford one or two performances. One night I was finishing up late and came across the house manager watching some kids doing a theater class project. They had an "audience" up on stage with a video camera while three or four other kids were out in the house trying (emphasis on trying) to build a full-sized scaffolding with 2x4's and power tools. It was an attempt at "art," and the house manager and I had a few giggles over it.

A few minutes after I stopped to watch, one of the kids with a Makita drill balanced it wrong on a drywall screw and ended up stabbing himself in the hand near the base of his thumb (almost anyone who's used a cordless drill can probably identify with this injury, even if none of us have done it since the second or third time the drill was placed in our hands). Well, construction came to a grinding halt, all the students checked out his thumb, and it was decided they would continue.

"See," I told the house manager. "That's my problem with modern art."


"Was he supposed to stab himself with the drill? It fit with what they're doing. Did we just see an accident or part of the performance?"

She laughed, I laughed, but this offhand comment stuck with me. Y'see, I firmly believe art is not an accidental creation. You can't throw paint at a wall and call it art. While statistically a million monkeys with a million typewriters can produce the complete works of Shakespeare in a million years, we all really know that many millennia from now it's still just going to be piles of gibberish and crap. And maybe an Ann Coulter book or two. Art can't happen by accident.

Which brings me to my second point, which will sound a bit contradictory. Art is always accidental. It is never, ever a deliberate act. The act of creation is deliberate. The artistic merit is not. History has shown this again and again, yet people still like to think they can make "art" and that others are fools for not recognizing it.

Ray Bradbury. William Shakespeare. Frank Capra. H.P. Lovecraft. Charles Dickens. Stephen King. Joss Whedon. Robert Louis Stevenson. When each of these writers and screenwriters started their careers, they were considered populist hacks at best, and at worse... well, critics can come up with some creative terms. Most of them weren't writing to create art, but to pay rent and cover debts. They just loved to write and that was their main concern. Telling a story and getting a paycheck.

As time went on, however, people looked back and said "Hey, you know this guy really did say something about the human condition!" Did you know every one of these writers now has an entire college course devoted to them? At a number of universities, you can study Joss Whedon and the feminist empowerment of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or modern political undertones of Stephen King. Heck, I even understand there are a few schools where Shakespeare is considered a full major. William Shakespeare—who almost always wrote under a deadline and had to make constant changes to please patrons and actors. Just like the guys who wrote Transformers.

Now, here's the rub...

Let's take 100 writers and split them into four even groups. Each one of them publishes a handful of short stories this year. The members of group A are hailed as geniuses in magazines, newspapers, and on the newly-created inter-webbing thing. The others collect a paycheck.


Next year, several folks from group B are asked to contribute their stories to an anthology, while several of A are forgotten. Ten years after that, people are asking whetever happened to those writers from group C. And a decade after that, people are pointing at the D stories as unrecognized classics of the time.

So... who's the artist?

This is simplified, granted, but it gets the point across. What counts as art changes day by day, generation to generation. I had a college professor once freely admit that the canon of great American literature changes every time someone hits tenure and publishes a new paper, crediting one person while discrediting another. How can your work aspire to a state which changes its definitions almost on a daily basis?

Trying to create art is like trying to hit a mosquito with a laser pointer. Between either end of things, it's almost impossible. Don't worry about "art." Nine times out of ten, I've found "art" is an excuse to explain rejection and criticism.

Just write the best story you can.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Insanity Defense

I blabbed on last time about characters. This time I wanted to scribble a few thoughts on motivation. To be specific, one less-than-desirable kind of motivation that crops up all over the place. While it's most noticeable in films and television, you can also find it in books, and in several graphic novels.

I've come to call it the insanity defense, and like most times you've heard this phrase invoked, it's still a cheap cop-out. The insanity defense is when the police detective, the brainy college girl, the private investigator, the spunky reporter, Shag, Scooby, and the rest of the gang have spent the entire story chasing a killer. It's not always a killer, mind you. Might be a serial rapist, a stalker with hopes for the big leagues, something like that. Anyway, they run down clues, have close calls, and spend the whole time trying to make sense, one way or another, of what's been happening. And finally, at the end, the mysterious killer is cornered and his secret layed bare for all to see.

He's insane.

Yup. Mad as a hatter. That's why the killer kills people.

He's insane.

That's why he wears the mask, laughs at the sight of blood, and played all those mind games with the police. It's also why he disguised himself as a woman, left the poetry-based clues, used only a 1967-issue fire axe to commit the decapitations, cries for his mommy when he gets shot, and only listens to punk music. It's also why he's able to ignore being shot seventeen times and stabbed nine, walk through an inferno, slip through holes smaller than shoeboxes, hold his breath for twelve minutes underwater, move faster than the speed of sound, and apparently teleport just by moving back into a dark corner of any given room.

He's insane.

I'm not actually picking on any one real novel or film, mind you. Although I could pull up a quick list of at least a dozen stories I've read or seen in the past two years that fall back on two or three of these points. In at least half of them, the insane killer is a she, by the way.

This is probably the weakest motivation a character can have, because all it does is show the audience you couldn't be bothered to work out any real motivation. Why did he do all of this? He's insane. How did she manage to do that? Well, she's insane. That explains everything, right?

Well... doesn't it?

I know I'm in the minority, but I've never liked the movie Se7en for exactly this reason. As the screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker progresses, the killer's methods and motives become more and more vague. John Doe (played by Kevin Spacey) goes from finding people who exemplify a sin and killing them, to making people exemplify a sin and killing them, and then it finally all resolves in a bizarre double-twist suicide-by-cop. It's one thing to find a grossly obese man who eats twenty-five pounds of groceries a day and say he embodies gluttony. It's another to decapitate a man's wife, show him the head, and then try to claim he embodies wrath because he kills you for it. There's no consistency in his method (and thus, his motive) and this glaring inconsistency, in my mind, overpowers the powerful performances by Morgan, Brad, and Gwenyth.

Now, this isn't to say insanity is a bad thing in fiction. It just isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card (or, as the fancy folks say, carte blanche) that lets you do whatever you want. Novels and films are filled with characters on the brink of insanity, or well past it. The thing is—they're still developed characters, not just a catch-all excuse for an explanation. Mrs. Rochester, Hannibal Lecter, Renfield, Tyler Durden, and of course the Joker. All of these folks have thought processes that don't quite jibe with the general public. However, they also all have distinct personalities and limitations. We'd all call foul if Hannibal Lector slipped out of a straight jacket by force of will, if Renfield survived falling ten stories and was still fighting, or if the Joker began butchering people and eating them with fava beans. Insanity doesn't make them superhuman, not does it make them completely irrational. To quote one madman, "Just because I'm crazy doesn't mean I'm stupid."

If you're just going to use insanity as an easy excuse for whatever your character needs to do, don't be surprised if people if people put your writing on par with April Fool's Day, Friday the 13th, or some other bad 80's horror film.