Thursday, March 25, 2010

Thyme to Bored You're Fight

Today's ranty blog takes us to the land of imagination. To be exact, the airport of imagination. Say you're a passenger on the new supersonic jumbo jet I designed. I call it the OmniTurboTron 3000. It's going to make the Concorde obsolete. And you're here to ride on one of the very first flights, the maiden voyage. The rest of the passengers are on board, the luggage is packed below, and the flight crew goes to close the door.

Oh, but there's a problem. The door's not quite the right shape for the frame. It's built to all the specs, but it doesn't seem to fit. That's odd.

The crew wrestles with it for a while and finally figure out if they use some crowbars to lift it a bit on the hinges it mostly fits into place. They just need to whack it with a sledge a once or thrice and it sits almost perfectly. Well, maybe with a few blankets pushed into that crack on the bottom.

The question for you is... are you going to stay on this plane?

Heck, if I'm supposed to be an engineer and I messed up something as simple as the door, what else is wrong? Is this cabin airtight? Are the windows safe? It seems like I didn't run any kind of tests or double-check anything--maybe the wings are going to come off in mid-flight!

Believe it or not, the same logic and conclusions are true of writing. If a reader hits something which shows I didn't check any of this or don't even know what something does, why should they risk going any farther? If I don't even know how to spell or use an apostrophe, who knows what kind of plot holes were left behind when I declared this "done" and put it out for people to see. Why would any editor (let alone any reader) risk their time with something like this when there are signs of shoddy workmanship right up front?

Y'see, Timmy, if I skim the page and see Wakko is playing a few cords to compliment the music the band is perforating over their, do I really need to read anything else? That's four failures in one sentence.

Yes, four. If you can't see them, pick up a dictionary.

No, not spell check. Not the internet, either. A real dictionary.

I know I've gone on about this again and again. Spelling is the number one thing I tell people to work on here. Just look how many links the keyword "spelling" has over there on the right. You cannot succeed at this until you learn what words mean and how to spell them. Not more or less what they mean. Not close enough with the spelling so people will know what you mean. You have to know and you have to be right.

I also know I push owning a dictionary a lot, which seems a bit pointless in our wonderful space age world, but there's a rhyme to my reason. A dictionary and the internet are not the same thing. If you have to look something up in the dictionary, you are the one doing the work. When you do the work, you learn. Once you've learned, you rarely need to look it up again. Like any skill set, your writing improves with study and practice. You need both.

When your computer does the work, you become more dependent on your computer. As I've pointed out many times now, a computer is the worst writing partner you can choose. It has no idea what word you wanted to use, only what words you're close to. This is why people who use spell check all the time continue to use it and continue to need it. Same goes for the folks who tend to Google-search for definitions rather than looking them up. They're not studying how to write--only practicing.

And practice without study is like that idiot guy in the park swinging his katana around and convinced he's learning to be a ninja.

Yeah, you know that guy...

Now, there're some great arguments out there that people don't need to know this stuff anymore because computers do it for them. It's my firm belief this is why there' been such a boom in would-be-writers lately.

Thing is, we're not talking about people. We're talking about you. And if you're spending any amount of time here reading the ranty blog, the assumption is you want to be a writer who can actually sell something. As a writer, you must know how to spell and what words mean.

There's a huge difference between an engineer and someone who owns a copy of The Way Things Work. Just because I've got few friends I can call to help with car repair does not qualify me as a mechanic. Taking a health class in high school and owning a first aid book does not make you a doctor. More to the fact, we'd all mercilessly mock (maybe even sue) anyone who tried to call themselves an engineer, a mechanic, or a doctor based on these "abilities."

Likewise, if you're going to say you're a writer because your computer knows all the right words and spellings, don't expect a lot of people to take you seriously. Because in their eyes, you're just that guy in the park, wearing a black tee-shirt and swinging your katana...

Next time, I would like to tell you all a 100% true story about a baby discovering her own feet. Really.

Until then, go write.

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.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

...And I'll Use Small Words!

So, one last time. Because some of you are having problems with it.

Take the bowl out of the cupboard and put it on the counter. Take the cereal out of the cupboard. Open the cereal box, open the wax-paper bag inside the box, and pour the cereal into the bowl. Do not overfill the bowl. When you've finished, close the box back up and return it to the cabinet. Now, take the milk out of the refrigerator. Unscrew the cap (counter-clockwise) and remove it. Pour the milk over the cereal in the bowl. Watch the edges and make sure the bowl does not overflow. If you plan on moving the bowl to another location to eat, do not let the milk fill the top half inch of the bowl. Once the appropriate amount of milk has been poured, replace the cap (screwing it on clockwise) and return the milk to the refrigerator. Open the drawer and get a spoon. Using the spoon, transfer an amount of the cereal and milk from the bowl to your mouth. Close your mouth around the spoon but do not bite down with your teeth. Slide the spoon out between your lips, keeping them sealed. Chew the cereal in your mouth. Swallow. Return the spoon to the bowl and repeat this process until all the cereal has been chewed and swallowed.

Now, let's be honest with each other for a moment.

How many of you started skimming halfway through that?

It's okay. I was writing it and I started skimming. It was boring as hell to write, I can't imagine reading it was any better.

This is why so much exposition sucks. It's all summed up right there in that fascinating paragraph. Allow me to explain.


First, that paragraph is something we know. Exposition is boring and pointless if the audience (either watching or reading) knows all the information being put forth. It's just wasting time while we wait for something to happen. Damon Knight has pointed out that a fact we don't know is information, but a fact we do know is just noise. No one wants to read a story full of noise. So, as writers, we need to know what our audience knows and work around that. If I'm writing a story set in the late 1930s or '40s, I don't need to explain to anyone that Nazis are the bad guys.

Second is the skimming that happened when you read that paragraph. People (or characters) don't want to sit through something they already know. Can you imagine my doctor sitting patiently while I explain the circulatory system to him? Hell, a first year med student knows more about the circulatory system than I do. There'd be absolutely no point to me explaining it and no point to him sitting through the explanation. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the two federal agents (and the audience) pay attention to Indy's lesson about Ark of the Covenant because it's something they don't know. After all, that's not their field of expertise. Notice that in the same scene, Marcus isn't listening with rapt fascination. He almost comes across as mildly bored, and he probably is because he already knows this.

Third, and last, is that a lengthy explanation about how to prepare and eat cereal serves no purpose here. None. This is a blog about writing tips, so a paragraph like that is a waste of space. Nobody came here looking for information like that and the people who are looking for stuff like that won't be looking here. As I've mentioned once or thrice before, there's a reason Indy's lecture to the feds doesn't involve Masada, even thought the story of Masada is very cool and the odds are they don't know it--it just isn't relevant. He also doesn't tell them about that cool time when he was a kid and those guys chased him on a circus train. The feds don't know about that, either, but it's probably less relevant than the Masada story.

A few times here on the ranty blog I've mentioned something I call the ignorant stranger which I came up with while writing a DVD review of Shogun four or five years ago. It's a simple, sure-fire way to use as much exposition as you want in a short story, screenplay, or novel--you just have a source of information explain something to someone who does not know these facts.

Easy, right? Just remember these two things...

One, your ignorant stranger has to be on the same level as your readers or viewers. The audience is learning alongside them, and they don’t want to wait while the stranger’s educated on what policemen do for a living, where England is on a map, and why you shouldn't play in traffic. There’s a big difference between ignorance and stupidity, and the ignorant stranger can’t actually be stupid. It’s only this particular situation that has put him or her at a disadvantage.

Two, the source explaining things has to be smarter than the stranger, and thus, smarter than your audience. If what’s being explained is something we can figure out on our own (or something that we’ll never need to know) then the Source is wasting everyone's time by explaining it. Remember, you want information, not noise. Yeah, maybe for whatever reason this particular Source doesn’t know much about football, noir detective movies, or the eternal mystery that is woman, but on the topic they’re explaining this character needs to be an authority. It needs to be clear the Source’s knowledge dwarfs the ignorant stranger’s on this topic.

So there it is. If anyone tries to tell you only bad writers use exposition in a story, tell them it's only the bad writers who don't know how to use exposition. And then look smug while you eat your Captain Crunch.

Next time, by request, I want to talk about balloons.

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.