Friday, February 26, 2010

Finish Him!!

Pop culture reference. It's been a while.

So, first up, I have to do that awful self-promotion thing. Sorry. If you don't want to see me stoop to shameless commercialism, skip ahead to the paragraph after next.

Over on the side bar, you'll notice a new addition. The Amazon link for Ex-Heroes, my new novel which came out earlier this week. It's a story about superheroes battling the zombie apocalypse. If you're into that kind of thing, you'll have a lot of fun. If you're not, it might change your mind and you'll still have fun. If nothing else, you'll be able to go back over the rant blog here and understand some of the references I've made to this book over the past year and a half or so. You can also hop over to Facebook and join my fan page to get updates on various writing projects, interviews, and the like.

See? Told you it was shameless.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled rant about writing...

A few years back I got to speak with a writing coach named Drusilla Campbell She tossed out an interesting little statistic--one I think has probably expanded in recent years. According to her, out of every 100 people who call themselves writers, only one of them will ever actually finish a project.

One out of a hundred. That was five years ago. I'd be tempted to say it's probably closer to one in 200 these days. What, with the number of people starting serial novels on the web and such.

By an astonishing coincidence, the number of people who succeed at writing is a somewhat smaller percentage than that. According to Drusilla, it was one out of ten of those folks who completed a manuscript. I think that number's probably shrunk a bit, too, but not by any more than the other one's expanded. Maybe one out of twenty or so. I don't have any hard numbers to back it up, but I have a couple of really solid hunches and chains-of-logic I can share if anyone really wants to see them.

As I mentioned above, a lot of people have trouble finishing stuff. More than 99% of the people who like to say they're writers never do. There are a couple different reasons for this.

The most common one, of course, is real life. We meet someone who demands more of our time. Something unexpected comes up. Work wants a little more out of us. Sometimes it's just impossible to give writing the commitment it needs

Some people use it as a sort of fail-safe excuse. Until I finish it I can't submit it or show it to anyone, and as long as no one sees my writing it can't be rejected or criticized. So, consciously or not, some people come up with various excuses never to finish anything.

And then there are the folks who just thought it would be easy to write. I mean, anyone can write a book, right? It's not like it's a skill you have to learn or practice. We all learned how in grade school, fer cripes sake. These folks get a few dozen pages in and discover writing isn't easy and it does take a commitment. Some give up quietly while others fall back on some excuse. Worse, a few of these folks actually do rush out an ending just to have it, and often get angry when this slipshod conclusion gets criticized.

I joke a lot about Lizard Men from the Center of the Earth, but here's an ugly truth about it. I never finished it. Yeah, it was written on yellow paper and twenty-three pages is still impressive for a third-grader, but in the end it was never completed. Even when I revisited it in seventh grade and added illustrations and a shovelful of Arthurian legends. I also didn't finish the cliché-filled sci-fi epic Piece of Eternity, a God-awful fantasy thing I've been trying to block for years (we'll chalk that one up to excess hormones at puberty), my Boba Fett fan-fiction novel (long before there was such a term as fan fiction),or even the college novel I've mentioned a few times, The Trinity. Not one of them finished.

By an astonishing coincidence--the same one I mentioned above, in fact--not one of them sold.

The first long-form project I ever finished was a script for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine called "Point of Origin." It got me fifteen minutes in a room with Ron Moore to pitch story ideas, plus repeated invites to come up and pitch other stories at the Star Trek offices.

The first novel I finished was The Suffering Map. It got several requests from agents. Big agents, as people like to call them.

A large part of my success as a journalist is the editors know they can toss me an assignment and I will finish it on time. The fact that I'm a competent writer is a big part of it, too, of course, but a lot of it is just the simple fact that they know an article that gets assigned to me will get done by the deadline.

Y'see, Timmy, the point I'm trying to make is that no one's going to be interested in a partial manuscript or a script fragment. You have to finish something in order to achieve any sort of success. Unless your name is King, Rowling, or Brown, you will not sell an idea to anyone. Don't assume it's any different in Hollywood, no matter what some vehement film professor--or film student-- tells you. I keep track of script sales for a living and the last time I remember hearing of someone selling a raw idea was five years ago, when David Koepp sold his idea for the film Ghost Town. In other words, to the best of my considerable knowledge on the subject, the last time anyone at a film studio bought just an idea it was a small, indie film concept that was coming from one of the top ten money-making screenwriters in the world.

In other words, for the purposes of all of us here at the ranty blog, it doesn't happen. You will not succeed as a writer until you finish something. It doesn't matter that you did nine-tenths of the work and you know how it's going to end, people want to see all of it--especially that spectacular finish.

We have to write. And we have to finish what we write. If we don't, we've got nothing.

Next week, if no one suggests a new topic, there are going to be some cuts.

Until then go write.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Scripts that Make Men Cry

No, we're not talking about tender character moments.

Writers of prose, feel free to take this week off. Or follow along, if you like, and maybe glean a few things here or there.

Would-be screenwriters... let's talk about that script you've been working on. It's that time of year where a ton of screenwriting contests are beckoning, especially the heavyweights like PAGE and the Nicholl Fellowship.

My friend who blogs over at Live To Write Another Day reads for three or four contests a year, some of which you've probably heard of if you dabble in such things. She once told me that easily a quarter of the scripts she’d read for one contest made The Fly II look Oscar-worthy. It ties back to something I've mentioned once or thrice here in an off-the-cuff manner. I call it the 50% rule. I've got no hard numbers or research backing this up, just my own experience and the experiences of other script readers, editors, and contest directors I've spoken to over the years. The 50% rule goes like this...

In any pool of submitted material (contests, publications, etc), half of the submissions can pretty much be instantly disqualified. They're the people submitting gothic romances to sci-fi anthologies or entering plays in screenwriting contests. They're also, harsh but true, the incompetent people. The ones who don't know how to spell, have only the faintest understanding of grammar, and no concept of story structure. The folks who sent in their first draft with all its flat characters and wooden dialogue. If my screenwriting contest gets 1000 entries, I'd bet real money 500 of them can be tossed into the big pile on the left in less than five minutes.

That's the 50% rule.

Sound unfair? It isn't. It's brutally fair, to be honest. Wakko entered the contest to be judged and he was. He made the judgment very easy, in fact. Unless there were a lot of specific promises or assurances past that, he's got nothing to complain about.

However... I'm going under the assumption you're not part of that 50%. You're one of the ones who actually has a chance at this. Not saying a great chance, not saying you're going to succeed, but you're good enough at this that you're not getting discarded in less time then it takes to listen to "Bohemian Rhapsody."

That being said, there are still traps to fall into and mistakes to make. One of them is submitting a very, very common screenplay that covers well-explored material. I've mentioned some of these types of scripts before, so if they sound familiar... well, just try to keep in mind that I thought this was all worth repeating.

I also want to be clear of something else right up front. I'm not saying any of these are bad scripts in and of themselves. Many of them are awesome. I'm sure anyone who follows the ranty blog could easily name half-a-dozen films from the past decade that fit each category. I know I can. But we're not talking about what's in theaters--we're talking about what's being submitted to a contest. Your competition is not on screen, it's in the submission pool. That's a much harder group to stand out in.

So, a few types of scripts you should be a bit leery about submitting. Take a deep breath, and...

The Current Events Script

A friend of mine reading for a contest last year found that a noticeable percentage of the scripts dealt with Israel or Palestine. This was about four months after the brief-lived 2008 war on the Gaza Strip.

If Yakko saw some news report about some fascinating nuance of the world and realized it'd make a fascinating's the thing. It's a safe bet at least a thousand other aspiring screenwriters saw the same new story and had the same idea. Even if only half of them do anything with it, and even if only ten percent of those people are sending their script to the same contest as Yakko... that's still fifty people writing scripts about the exact same thing he is. Even if half of them are completely incompetent and the other half are just barely on par, it means the reader is going to be reading a dozen scripts just like Yakko's. His script may be the best in the batch, but it's going to lose a lot of luster because it's just become a tired, overdone idea. It may be the best take on that tired, overdone idea, but is that really what any of us are aiming to be?

The Formula Rom-Com

The beautiful-but-totally-business-oriented, bitchy female executive who finds love with a middle-class Joe Everyman. The guy engaged to bridezilla who meets the real love of his life. The awkward, nerdy girl who needs to realize she's the most beautiful girl around. The man chasing his dream girl only to realize his best friend has been his real dream girl all along.

Any of these sound familiar? They do after you've read nine or ten of them, believe me. Yeah, flipping the genders doesn't make them any more original, sorry.

Does the script also have a scene where someone finally ignores their constantly-ringing cell phone in favor of quality time with that special someone? Maybe a prolonged, awkward scene where someone has to change clothes for some reason and ends up in their underwear/ robe/ a towel with that soon-to-be-special someone?

A rom-com has to be really spectacular and really original to impress a reader. In the past three years, I've read one that stood out. Just one.

The Game Script

Yes, it was the most amazing night of Dungeons & Dragons or Cities of M'Dhoria or Left 4 Dead in your entire life. That doesn’t mean it’d make a good movie. In fact, odds are it won't (and I'm not even touching the copyright/ trademark issues). Most of the fairly successful game movies have one thing in common. No, it's not the hot leading ladies. If you look at Resident Evil or Tomb Raider, they don't follow the stories being told in their respective games. The screenwriters tossed them out and made up something new that just used a few story or character elements.

Y'see, Timmy, most games use a different type of storytelling, one that deliberate makes the audience (i.e. the player) part of the story. Odd as it sounds, it depends on the same problems that make first person so challenging to write. RP games of all types--both the computer and the pen-and-paper ones-- want you to project into the story. They want you to fill in the details. This was a cool fight because it happened to Wakko, it was a clever puzzle because he solved it, and it was eerie and atmospheric as hell because he invested in a top-of-the-line surround sound system for his entertainment center. What happened in the story wasn't cool--what Wakko experienced was.

However, if Wakko can't get every one of these sensations perfectly on paper--and translate the experience to a believable third person character--it's just going to be a lot of shooting while flat, uninteresting people run from A to B.

The Character Script

A popular thing in the indie field is the character script, also known in Hollywood (somewhat demeaningly) as "the actor script." At its heart, it's a tissue-paper-thin plot with a handful of character sketches thrown into it. Nine people wait for their connecting flight and strike up random conversations. Five people on a road trip have long talks about life. A group of women talk about relationships. A group of men talk about how their lives have gone in unexpected directions.

On one hand, it's hard to argue against scripts like this. These really are the type of people you'd meet in an airport, and they really are the type of conversations and brief relationships that would spring up. On the flipside though, is there anything challenging--or interesting-- about something that's indistinguishable from the boring, everyday life we all lead?

This leads nicely into...

The Therapy Script

There’s an interesting sub-group of screenplays that seem to have sprung out of some psychology exercise or group coping session. Usually they involve someone telling off their mother. Or their father. Or their abusive boyfriend. Or their cheating husband. Many of these scripts involve female protagonists, but only enough so it’s worth mentioning. The overall feeling of them is you’re reading a story somebody wrote to help them work through some issues. The object wasn’t to tell a story, but to cleanse and purge or something like that.

The big problem with these scripts is there’s rarely anything to them beyond this big moment of therapeutic release. Everything leads up to that, and not much happens after it. That one moment is all the character development and conflict that happens in the script. So, when you boil it down, it’s just a story about someone throwing out their abusive spouse or learning to trust again or yelling at their shrewish mom. And nobody wants to read that. Not even Oprah. Definitely not a contest reader.

The True Script

Closely related to the therapy script is the true script. More often than not, the title page or closing cards reassure the reader this tale is based on real events involving me/ my parents/ my best friend/ someone I read about in a magazine article. These are tales of cancer survival (or not), abused children, Rwandan genocides, military struggles, and various other unsung heroes and villains of this world we live in. Alas, often they’re about struggling writers searching for someone to recognize their genius. The fact this is a true story is often stressed to give a certain validity and gravitas to what the reader is about to take in.

Thing is, no one cares if the story is true or not. Nobody. They just care that it’s a good story and it’s well-told. And in that respect, Dot's tale of an abused nine-year old cancer survivor in Rwanda needs to stand up against the story of a cyborg ninja battling prehistoric lizard men from the center of the Earth. Whether or not one of them’s a true story is irrelevant. In the end, you are telling a story, and it’s either going to have its own validity or it isn’t. If it’s easier to read, if it has interesting characters, if it has sharp dialogue-- these are what determine if a script is any good or not. Reality just doesn’t enter into the equation for the reader, so it can’t for the writer.

It's worth mentioning that sometimes the true script and the therapy script have a horrific bastard child I call... wait for it... the True Therapy Script. In screenwriting terms, this is like one of the little mutant monster babies from that '80s horror classic It's Alive. Did your girlfriend leave you? Write a script about it. Tons of father-issues you're working through? Write a script! Want to share your touching journey through the hell of addiction to booze, drugs, sex, or whatever? There's a screenplay in that, for sure!!

Hopefully you all caught the sarcasm in those last few sentences.

The Holiday Script

If you add in movies of the week and straight-to-DVD, there’s a good case to be made that holiday films are one of the best selling genres out there. However, as far as a contest is concerned, the trick is to come up with something the reader hasn’t already seen again and again. They’ve seen Santa Claus quit, get fired, and be replaced a dozen times this month alone. The Easter Bunny has been in therapy, evil spirits have tried to save the bad name of All Hallow’s Eve, Cupid has taught someone the true meaning of love, and the first Thanksgiving story has been told—many, many times and many, many ways.

Just in case you missed it-- they've been told many times in many ways.

The Writer Script -

I can repeat this one until I'm blue in the face, but I know in my heart it won't change anything. Do not write scripts about writers. Jennifer Berg, the director of the PAGE Screenwriting Contest, once joked with me that if her contest banned scripts about writers they'd probably lose a quarter of their entries. I did the math once and in one contest I read for almost 15% of the scripts had a writer as one of the main characters.

No one cares about the day-to-day struggles you go through as a writer. No one. Especially not a bunch of script readers who are probably disgruntled writers themselves. If you're being sincere, you're going to bore them (see The True Script up above). If you're making up some silly idealized writing lifestyle, they'll call shenanigans on it. And then they'll pistol-whip you for saying shenanigans.

Let's assume they didn't toss the script aside as soon as they saw the writer character. If they get to the end and said character finally sells their book or screenplay and wins the Pulitzer/ Oscar/ whatever... the reader will crumple your script into a ball and hurl it away from themselves. Then they will burn it so nobody else will have to read the damned thing. Then they will get your personal information from the contest director, hunt you down, and pistol-whip you.

I am dead serious about that.

There you have it. Eight scripts that will set a contest reader against you from the start. Again, I'm not saying it's impossible to win with one of these screenplays. I am saying, though, that if you're going to go this path you absolutely must knock it out of the park.

Next week, it's time to finish this thing up.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Talk Dirty To Me

So, in honor of Valentine's Day, it's what you've all been hoping for. The all sex and nudity rant!

No, there won't be any pictures.

A while back I mentioned a simple definition my friend Brad once told me. Porn is when you show everything. It doesn't matter if you're writing sex scenes, murder investigations, or high school reunions. What we don't see is always far more interesting than what we do.

Let me explain this with a little set of stories.

I once had a friend who liked asking people "moral" questions. If you remember the brief fad of The Book of Questions, you know what I'm talking about. Would you rather have a year of no money or a year with no friends? If you had to give up one sense forever, what would it be? That sort of thing.

So one happy hour, over drinks and sushi, she asked me if I would strip to my underwear on the bar and dance for a thousand dollars. I laughed and said probably. Then she rephrased the hypothetical--would I be willing to strip naked and dance for $10,000 if all my friends were there in the bar?

"For ten grand? Absolutely."

"With all your friends there?" And she rattled off the names of a few of our female friends to make it clear who would be seeing me naked.

I pointed out that $10,000 (at that time) was serious life-changing money for me. Plus our friends were all experienced adults and we'd all hung out at the pool and the hot tub several times. Most of them could probably figure out what I looked like naked without too much trouble. So what was the difference?

To prove how flawed and masculine my decision was, she called one of our female friends. Said friend also agreed she would strip naked for the cash. She even pointed out the same logic--that most anyone could figure out what she looked like naked, so what's the big deal?

We're all grown ups. While there is a titillation element in seeing--or reading about--someone naked, at the end of the day most of us all look the same without clothes on. Yeah, there's some variety in sizes and skin tones, but it rarely involves a lot of surprises. So spending a lot of time describing her boobs, his ass, or their genitals is going to get old pretty quick.

Not only that, but we all have different standards of what's attractive. We notice different things about each other. So spending too much time describing nudity in prose runs the danger of describing stuff the reader has no interest in. And like any bit of character description it brings the story to a grinding halt while the writer describes how firm Chad's glutes are.

Plus... well, sex scenes have the same challenge as any action scene. Quite often things happen faster than it would take to describe. So too much detail slows things down--and not necessarily in the good way.

Story two. This one's for the screenwriters, but everyone can follow along.

A few years back a friend asked me to look at a script he was writing. It was a low-budget horror idea involving a group of friends at an isolated cabin by a lake, deep in the woods, but past that it went in some pretty clever directions. The writer (we'll call him Rex) knew that simple, ugly truth of moviemaking--sex sells. He'd told me ahead of time that he'd tossed in a bit of nudity and the like to appeal to investors.

So I was paging through the script a few nights later and discovered Rex had randomly inserted (no pun intended) a hardcore lesbian sex scene right around the end of act one. Three solid, fairly graphic pages of boobs, toys, and a little bit of bondage. It was so graphic, in fact, it would've been a dealbreaker for late night Cinemax. maybe even Vivid Video. Sex sells, yes, but not everyone wants to invest in pornography. And the scene on the page was hardcore pornography plain and simple (by both the definition above and internet standards).

By Rex's personal standards, his sex scene wasn't that explicit. He actually thought it was a bit tame. And, yeah, in some ways, for some people, it probably was. We all have own likes and dislikes in the sack. Going into too much detail can handicap you there as well. I could find this attractive, but it might freak you out. Likewise, you could be all for trying that, which might make me cringe in fear. As I've said before, the trick is knowing how your intended audience is going to react to something, not how you and your close friends are.

Y'see, Timmy, bringing up gratuitous sex and nudity in screenplays can be risky, because it immediately slots your story one way or the other. If it's not what a reader's been told to look for, you're done right there. So when it comes down to it, you should be writing scenes that could have graphic sex and nudity... but don't require it.

Yeah, yeah-- Joe Eszterhas made a fortune writing nothing but explicit sex in the early '90s. Keep that last part in mind--he was doing it twenty years ago during the spec boom and on the tail end of the sexploitation decade.

A great example of writing a scene with the potential for nudity--but not requiring it--is a shower scene. There are plenty of cheesecake shower scenes in hundreds of films, but there are also lots of low-key G-rated ones. If the script just says "Phoebe is lathered up in the shower," it's open for interpretation and people will picture what they want to see. If it's two paragraphs of Phoebe slowly rubbing liquid soap all over her body, the range of possible interpretations shrinks a bit. So why reduce your options if you don't have to?

Same thing with someone changing their clothes. We don't need details to overcomplicate it. Although you may want to consider your character's motive for changing, too. Maybe showing everything is the whole point of that moment...

In closing, sex always makes things more complicated. So think twice before diving into it.

Next time, we return to our regular, prudish rants, and I'll tell any screenwriters following along a few ways you can make sure a reader will groan on page one.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Being Punctual

Dellman, your nose was on time but you were fifteen minutes late.

Pop culture reference for old people.

So, I said way back at the beginning of the ranty blog that I wasn't going to bother with the absolute basics. I was not going to discuss grammar, proper formatting, or page counts. These are the absolute basics of writing, the grade-school stuff. If you're reading this, I'm going under the assumption you already know the correct way how to string a handful of words together into a coherent sentence.

All that being said, I'm going to take a moment to talk about three punctuation issues that are probably the most common ones that get misused, overused, or not used enough.

Apostrophes -- I've mentioned this a few times before, but I'm going to bring it up again. The apostrophe has nothing to do with plurals. Nothing! Say it with me. No-thing. Using it for plurals will get your novel, script, or short story tossed almost immediately. You'll get one pass on the off-chance it was a typo or fluke mistake. The second time your manuscript goes in the big pile in the left. It's a sure-fire sign you haven't mastered the basics of writing, so why should a reader go further? Would you trust a mechanic to rebuild your transmission when he's baffled by how to check the oil?

On a similar note-- its and it's. If you don't know the difference, stop writing query letters or downloading contest entry forms. You're just wasting time and money. Know the difference between these two. It can't be something you're pretty sure of or something you can figure out. You have to know this. It should be unconscious and automatic.

The Exclamation Point-- This is an easy one, right? You use it for emphasis. Problem is, many beginning writers don't know when to use emphasis. They think if this is an exciting moment or a loud moment or an important moment, it needs to be emphasized!

Of course, most of the moments in your story are important. If they weren't, you probably would've cut them already, right? Which is why some people feel free to scatter exclamation points throughout their action scenes or their shouted dialogue or their urgent reveals.

This kind of ties back to something I said a while back about using cool lines in dialogue. If every line is cool, none of them stand out and the dialogue is monotonous. The same holds true here-- the more things are emphasized, the fewer of them carry actual emphasis. An exclamation point needs to be applied with care and thought. Just because someone's shouting they don't necessarily need one. They're also not required for all angry dialogue.

Personally, I try to think of them like adverbs. Use them, but use them sparingly, and more in dialogue than prose. I almost never use an exclamation point outside of dialogue. To be honest, I can't remember the last time I did. I think the last time I poked at a screenplay, I may have used two.

There's a related point for screenwriters. In scripts it's common to capitalize something in the action blocks that's important. For example, the first time we see WAKKO, his name is capitalized so the reader understands without question that this is a new character. When, out of nowhere, Wakko suddenly STABS his partner, that gets emphasized to make sure the reader registers the abruptness of it. Same thing if Wakko finds A SMOKING GUN on the floor by a puddle of blood, we want to be sure the importance of this sight is noted.

A common rookie mistake, by the way, is to capitalize such things in dialogue. Capitals in dialogue blocks means someone is shouting, and few things look as silly or as bad as coming across a character talking with his friend about how much he'd like to ask PHOEBE out on a date.

Now, here's the catch to this. Much like with the exclamation point, a writer has to know how often to use these capitals. If they start cropping up in every action block--even if it's an action script--they have less and less power. After a while they aren't an emphasizing, they're distracting. Wakko stabbing his partner is unexpected and needs that extra emphasis. Wolverine or Jason Voorhees stabbing someone... not so much.

I read a nice little gangster script a year or so back that started grating because the screenwriter emphasized every single gunshot. Every time someone fired there was a BANG. I'd fire twice and there would be BANG-BANG. Then you shoot back at me BANG BANG BANG. I got you BANG but there's another guy up on the landing shooting down at me BANG BANG. Stay down, I'll draw his fire. BANG BANG BANG. He shoots back BANG BANG...

As you can see, this gets old really fast. Can you imagine the lobby scene in The Matrix if that script was written this way?

Choose your emphasis the way you would choose your battles.

By the way, one last point. The all-caps thing was much more common in the past. If you're seeing it in a lot of old scripts (or hearing it as advice from a lot of old gurus), just be aware that it's no longer the convention, and hasn't been for almost two decades now.

The Oxford Comma-- This last one will be a sticky point and I'm sure it will get the comments section flowing. Debate over the use of the serial comma, also popularly known as the Oxford comma, has started two wars since Magna Carta, and countless minor skirmishes. They teach it in school, but most modern publications in America make a point of not using it. Oddly enough, I hear it's the exact opposite in Great Britain, where they teach kids not to use it, but journalists insist on it.

I am of the school that you should use one. As a writer, my job is clarity, and while less punctuation might make my work feel like a slightly faster read, it also makes it less clear.

Here's a great example of why you need an Oxford comma.

"Let's split up. Shaggy, Scooby, Daphne and Velma, pick a door and see where it leads."

How many groups did those meddling kids just split up into, three or four? Would you be caught off guard when, in the next chapter, you found Daphne alone? Or when you find her with Velma? You've probably heard of the apocryphal legal battles that result from wills written this way, when the inheritance is supposed to be split evenly between Tom, Dick and Harry. Does it get split two ways or three?

Here's another one.

I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

Either this author has a spectacular lineage or he dropped a comma he really shouldn't have. Is the existing comma separating items in a list? Or is it an implied breath, a pause replacing the understood words who are named in that sentence? In this case, we're probably safe saying Ayn Rand and God are not the author's parents. But suppose it was my book and I had this.

I dedicate this book to my parents, David and Colleen.

Is it still so clear? It is to me. My parents supported and encouraged me, my friend David offered a great deal of fantastic editorial advice, and Colleen is the love of my life. How could this dedication possibly be misunderstood?

This is my main argument for using the Oxford comma. Y'see Timmy, there aren't any optional rules in grammar. There isn't a single punctuation mark where the rule is "use it if you think you need it." Either the mark goes there or it doesn't. Since we can come up with solid examples where the comma must be there for clarity, but there aren't any examples where it can't be there without causing confusion (I've yet to see one, at least), you have to go with using it.

Now, because it is a hotly debated matter, let me say this...

If you are absolutely, 100%, stake-your-life-on-it sure that the sentence could not in a million years ever be interpreted another way if that comma wasn't there...

...and you are entirely, with the sum of all your being convinced that having the comma there utterly destroys the flow of your sentence to the point its meaning is lost...

...then, and only then, should you feel free not to include it.

By the way, if a particular editor (who wants to buy your work) chooses to remove the Oxford comma, that's their prerogative. Don't argue with them. It doesn't mean they're right, but they're paying you after all. Heck, the magazine I write for tends to remove them.

And I continue to use them.

Next week it'll almost be Valentine's Day. So we could talk about love and feelings and relationships. Or we could skip straight to the sex. Which do you think will get more readers?

While you ponder that, go write.