Thursday, July 28, 2011

Slasher Porn!

No, it’s not what it sounds like, or even pop culture. I’m just trying to boost the hit count a bit. Of course, some of you read this at work, so I probably just got half of you blocked.

So, let’s talk about cutting things up.

I’ve got a lot of slashing to do in my near future. The first draft of my new book is almost done, which means a polish draft and then I start cutting. And there’s going to be a lot to cut. It’s closing in on 140,000 words and around 110,000 is where a trade paperback starts to get a little too heavy. I already know a few sections that are going to vanish, but there’ll have to be more to get this down to fighting weight.
So, there’s a little tip I’ve mentioned here once or thrice. First time I heard it was in Stephen King’s On Writing. He got it from an editor when he was a kid, and still tries to follow it today. It’s not a hard-fast percentage, but it’s a great rule of thumb. I’m sure you remember this one--

Second Draft = First Draft – 10%

Now, by coincidence, I’m also going over layout pages for Ex-Patriots right now. It’s coming out in about two months, and it’s already out as an audiobook. By further lucky coincidence, I actually kept track of some exact numbers for Ex-Patriots as I started to edit it. So let’s go over some of them.
The first full draft of Ex-Patriots was 109,088 words. For me, that’s really the second draft because I tend to fly through the first draft and neaten up in my second draft. It means some stuff gets cut early, some stuff gets tightened up, but some stuff gets added, too.

For example, I lopped out one whole chapter because I realized after the fact it didn’t fit the tone and a couple elements in it were happening a bit too soon in the big scheme of things. It was only half-formed, granted, but I still thought it was well done and I liked it, so I plucked the whole thing out before it even got polished. It’ll probably show up in Ex-Communication. Seventeen months from now you can say “Ah-HAH!” when you read the dinner party chapter. That was 500 words gone before I even start the serious cutting.

So my second draft tends to be tighter and leaner, but still a bit larger overall. Let’s see how much I can cut out of this with just a few passes.

First off, I removed 225 thats in the third draft. Almost a full page of them. For the record, I cut over one thousand thats from The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe. I’ve mentioned that before as a word which is easy to cut. Go through your writing and I’ll bet you’ll find half your uses of that could go away with no problem. Right there, the draft is down to 108, 863 words.

Then I cut 406 words worth of adverbs and adverbial phrases. I’ve mentioned a couple times how easy it is to lose adverbs. It usually forces you into using better words, too.

Next I got rid of useless modifiers. This is a bad habit I developed along the way that a friend (and editor) of mine named Somewhat Syndrome. It’s when I use modifiers as half-strength adverbs and adjectives. It comes up a lot when I have to describe measurements (a bit over a mile, almost two hundred pounds, and so on). I deleted 61 kind ofs, 14 sort ofs, another 61 uses of almost, and a whopping 70 a bits. That’s over 200 more words gone altogether. At this point the manuscript’s down to 108, 251 words.

Then there was some general tightening. I’d go through and look for places where contractions would make the dialogue flow better or excess verbiage had just crept in one way or another. It happens when I think too much, to be honest, and start wondering if sentences are clear or if I’m being specific enough.

For example, what’s the difference between I’ll drive my own car and I’ll drive my car? Not much except for some emphasis, which might already be established with the tone of the moment. Or what about she blinked her eyes open and closed, as if there was some other way to blink and some other part of your body to do it with.

Another 220 words went away during this pass.

So check this out. Remember that great little tip from Mr. King? At this point I’ve cut well over a thousand words, five solid pages of manuscript, and I haven’t even changed anything. I haven’t taken out any dialogue or removed characters or shortened sequences.

Y’see, Timmy, editing isn’t always painful and arbitrary. A lot of the time it’s necessary. And the necessary stuff isn’t that hard to deal with. All those cuts I just mentioned used the Find feature in word, so that’s only a day’s worth of work.

A few other chunks went away later in the editing process. There were a few jokes and ten percenters I’d added that I since admitted weren’t worth the payoff. One scene went away when I realized it made no sense with my revised timeline.

By the end of the third draft of Ex-Patriots, I’d cut over thirty-five hundred words. Not the mathematical ten percent we’re aiming for, but with the cuts and revisions between first and second, I felt pretty good about it.

Of course, you can get the book in a few weeks and tell me if I messed up

Next time... well, I’m open to suggestions. If no one has any, I might rant about spelling again (we’re due). I’ve got one potential idea, but I’m not sure if it’s been done already...

Until then, go write.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tastes Like Chicken

There’s about a hundred jokes in that title. Hopefully one or two of them will fit with this week’s little rant...

Sorry about missing last week, by the way. I’ve been trying to stay ahead on the new project and prepare for Comic-Con, and the blog somehow slipped right past me. Shouldn’t happen again. Well, not for a little while, anyway.

My dad is a phenomenal cook. Have I ever mentioned that? For a guy who refuses to retire and spends his working hours writing up safety protocols, his cooking skills are just fantastic. There was a time when my mother and brother and I were all trying to convince him to open a restaurant, but he wasn’t interested. Cooking was the fun thing he did to relax. He didn’t want to take that extra step and make a job out of it.
We were all fine with it. Mostly because it worked out great for us. My dad can turn Thanksgiving leftovers into a sandwich you’d gladly pay twelve bucks for, so I’m definitely not going to complain. Not as long as I keep getting invited to Thanksgiving.

No, really, this is all relevant. You’ll understand why soon.

As it happens, I’ve had several different friends and acquaintances ask me for writing advice over the past few months. Granted, they all had different skill levels, but none of their questions were really about writing. They were about improving by buying the right books or starting blogs or catching the interest of publishers. I tried to answer as politely as I could, but I’m pretty sure none of them were really listening. I know at least two weren’t.

So, here’s a better way to look at it. Should you go to cooking school?

I’m sure a lot of you are shaking your heads at that one, but let’s stop and consider it. Cooking is a great metaphor for writing, on a bunch of levels. It’s an art. The end product has to hit certain benchmarks but it also, to a fair degree, is a matter of personal taste. A few rare people have a natural knack for it but most of us need lots of practice. It’s something most of us do every day, but we know only a small percentage of people are good enough at it to deserve recognition or make a living off it.

So, if you want to get better at cooking, should you go to cooking school?

Right up front, let’s be clear. Any cooking school is going to expect that you have a minimum degree of experience and knowledge right off the bat. They’ll assume you can tell flour from sugar on sight and that you know the difference between basil and oregano. The point of cooking school is not to teach you how to make peanut butter sandwiches. If you’re still struggling with these things, cooking school is really a waste of your time and money.

Now, if you plan on making a living off food, cooking school is almost a necessity at some point. Not everyone needs to take classes on desserts and soups and seafood. We’re just never going to use them. There’s about a hundred better, cheaper things we could be doing to improve our cooking skills. There are free recipes online and on the back of most staple ingredients. There are tons of cooking shows and podcasts where we can learn little tips.

And of course, the easiest thing we can do—what hopefully most of you have already seen as the obvious thing I’ve skirted around—is cook stuff. Just get in the kitchen and cook. If I want to be a better cook, the most useful way to spend my time is cooking. Makes sense, yes?

Y’see, Timmy, if you want to be a chef, there’s a point that you need to take some classes, and you’re probably going to keep skimming through cookbooks forever. But it’s all going to come down to spending time in the kitchen. That’s how you become a good cook. Going to Harvard doesn’t automatically make you a great journalist and going to MIT doesn’t guarantee you’ll be a phenomenal engineer. At the end of the day, it all comes down to just doing the work and how hard you’ve been doing it.

In fact, there’s a fair argument to be made that cooking school won’t help you become a great chef. It can make you into a good chef, but the greatness comes when you go out and start doing stuff on your own. You don’t hear about Wolfgang Puck or Gordon Ramsay taking classes. Neither of them probably has in over a decade, at least. If you just keep going back to cooking school and never really stepping into the kitchen, it should be clear you’re dooming yourself to a life of mediocrity (at least, on the food-preparation front).

You’ll always learn more by doing the job than you will by reading books about doing the job. Doing the job is almost always more educational than taking classes about doing the job.

So, with all that being said... should you go to cooking school?

A bit clearer now, isn’t it?

This pile of rants is cooking school, in a way. Not one of the great French academies, but a bit higher up than the Home Ec class you took in seventh grade. Probably better than those cookbooks aimed at recent college grads.

A few people who are reading this right now desperately want advice on getting agents and publishers interested, but they haven’t bothered to learn how to spell. They’re convinced they’ll learn some magic structure or word (...mellonballer...) that will make it all easy for them. They’re so desperate to learn the secrets of a good Hollandaise sauce they haven’t bothered to learn how to boil an egg.

I’m guessing most of you can use about half of the various tips and suggestions I throw up every week. There’s weeks that you learn a clever trick or new approach to an issue in your writing. There’s also those weeks you just skim because it’s something you’ve got a good grip on.

And a few of you... well, you’re probably just killing time here, aren’t you? There isn’t much I go over that you don’t already know. You’re just putting off doing some actual work for half an hour or so.

Learn the basics first. Don’t worry about level five before you’ve mastered level one. If you aren’t sure what the basics are, that’s probably a good sign you haven’t mastered them yet. I’m not being glib. If you’re reading this rant with the goal of becoming a better writer, you should already know what it means when someone says “the basics of writing.”

And then, once you’ve hit that level, start thinking about cooking school.

Next time, just for something different, let’s chat about slasher porn and why it’s not as bad as you may think.

(Yeah, I’m probably misleading you a little with that title...)

Until then, go write.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Can You Describe the Problem?

First off, a bit of shameless self-promotion (because I haven’t done any in weeks now)...

Ex-Patriots, my third novel and the sequel to Ex-Heroes got a slightly early release this week from It’s coming out in paper/e-book format in September, but if any of you are impatient you can go grab it now. There’s also a bunch of videos for their ZombieFest promotion where a bunch of folks wrote in with questions for the authors of all the featured books. So if you’ve ever wondered just how goofy I sound in real life (or look, or act, or dress...) , here’s your big chance to find out.

And now, back to our previously scheduled pontification...

So, if you’ve been reading this pile of rants for a while, you know there was a point a few years back when I helped to run an online fantasy MUD. If you’re not familiar with the term, a MUD is a multi-user dungeon. Because the game is entirely text-dependent, it was a lot like writing or reading a story. In fact, it was a great tool for polishing your writing, because if you got too long-winded with your words people wouldn’t be able to read them—the description would just scroll up the screen and vanish as other things continued to happen. You had to describe things, but you couldn’t get bogged down in useless details. People would either ignore it or lose their forward momentum as they went back to read it.

One of the things staff members had to monitor was the descriptions players wrote up for their characters. We checked for basic spelling and grammar (“His dark hair compliments his thin lips” was a common phrase). We also checked to make sure the style and wording, by way of the game’s narrative nature, wasn’t forcing actions or reactions on other players (“This scarred man may be the most terrifying person you have ever seen, and the mere sight of him makes your stomach churn with fear.”)

Now, I told you all that so I could tell you this little story...

One day, a staffer called attention to the description of a new female character. Y’see, when the game was originally built the coders left some stuff at default settings, and one of those things was the range for the description string. It was ridiculously high, but no one had ever bothered to set it because... well, there were more important things to do. And, really, who would ever fill it, right?

Well, this player had figured out the high-end range and written a description that was yards and yards and yards of purple prose. On a rough guess, their character description was around five or six hundred words. Maybe more. When you accessed it, the first dozen or so lines automatically scrolled up and off the page because it was so long.

I’m sure some of you are already thinking of character sketches you’ve done that are far longer, but keep in mind, this is all just physical description. It isn’t personality quirks or dietary preferences or anything like that. By nature of the game, it’s not clothes or weapons or equipment, either.
Needless to say, we pointed out that it was excessively long and asked her to trim it. She refused. By her reasoning, since the buffer allowed such a long description, it had to be game-legal. And if people didn’t want to see it, they didn’t need to scroll back.

We pointed out that those first dozen lines contained all the gender and age information for the character. This wasn’t “optional” material, it was stuff other players needed to know.

Still, she refused.

Now, stepping away from my tale, let’s think about this for a moment. A writer is refusing to edit a description, while at the same time admitting most people are going to skim over it or ignore it altogether. Even when authorities on the topic are explaining why it doesn’t work, said author is steadfastly refusing to change.

Does this sound remotely like a writer who’s interested in having an audience?

A common problem for all writers is when description gets too excessive. We get caught up in giving all the details and nuances of this character or those rooms or that magnificent sword which seems to be stuck in a stone... a jagged, raw stone, although one could see hints of granite and shale and flecks of white quartz that gleamed like the teeth of ancient dragons, the likes of which the world had not seen in long millennia. So perhaps calling it “a” stone was a misnomer, for it seemed to have a rich ancestry and heritage written through its structure. This was, perhaps, several stones that had come together untold eons ago, perhaps even then sensing the greater purpose they would serve and the rough bed they would form for the sleeping blade. Or perhaps it was just a coincidence that the gleaming sword had found itself in this particular malformed mound of misshapen rock, and in truth any of the many stones scattered around this subterranean chamber could have been oh dear God I think I’m making myself sick.

As I was saying...

We go one and on and sometimes lose track of the fact that somebody’s going to have to read all this. And since most readers are more interested in the story, that active element of your writing, odds are they’re going to start skimming after the fourth or fifth flowery description which they’ve come to realize has no bearing on the story. At which point, any decent storyteller should question why they’re including stuff that people are just going to skim over.

Elmore Leonard famously said that when he writes he leaves out all the parts people would skip anyway. Alfred Hitchcock said drama is life with all the boring parts taken out. And I’ll tell you that a six hundred word description of how a character’s hair hangs over her ears is either wasting time or is going to bring things to a crashing halt.

As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, this kind of overwriting is a deadly mistake in screenplays. Screenwriting is a very concise, minimal form of storytelling. One of the most common complaints I hear from professional readers is when the writer puts in piles of description that just doesn’t need to be there.

That, of course, leads to another issue with massive over-description. We all tend to form our own mental pictures of people and objects in stories. My lovely lady and I were chatting the other day about Lee Child’s character Jack Reacher and realized we both had very different ideas about what he looked like. That’s part of the joy of books. We can all have our own view of different characters like Taran Wanderer or Harry Bosch or St. George or Stu Redman. And nothing’s more distracting or disruptive than to be constantly reminded of all the many details the author’s putting in that don’t match up with that mental picture we’ve already formed.

Now, there’s another side to description, and that’s when writers never actually describe anything. Sometimes this is an attempt to invoke mystery or suspense (check out that dark figure across the street watching our main character). Other times it’s a way to evoke an emotional response with a clever metaphor or simile (when the knife sinks into your back and it’s like every painful sensation you’ve ever had in your life got balled up, hammered flat, and slipped beneath your shoulder blade).

And sometimes... well, sometimes it’s just a cheat. I can try to avoid the monster for as long as possible, which helps build suspense and dread, but eventually I need to say what it is. It’s not uncommon for a writer to try to find a way around an actual description at this point. After all, I’ve been hyping X for three-quarters of the manuscript now, and an honest description may not live up to all that hype.

I got to interview David Goyer (screenwriter of Blade, Batman Begins, and many others) a few years back. He’d just taken a turn in the director’s chair and I asked him if doing so had affected how he approached writing scripts. He laughed, admitted it had, and then told me a very funny story about working on a script with Guillermo del Toro. At one point, it seems, Goyer had “cheated” in the script and just described something as “a complete nightmare.” As they went through, del Toro pointed out this bit, shook his head, and said “What does that even mean? That’s boollshit.”

Which, Goyer admitted, it was. He’d dodged writing any sort of description because he knew it was something the director and art department guys would deal with. But he’d given them nothing to work with. Which was fine... until he was the director and under the gun to figure out what the hell it was that writer-Goyer couldn’t be bothered to put down on paper.

So, here’s an easy tip. It’s so easy I bet half of you will shake your head and ignore it. And some of you are probably already doing it without thinking about it.

If you’re going to describe something, have a reason to describe it. Thats’ it. Not only that, have a reason for the level of detail you’re using. A soldier in a war zone, a housewife, and a forensic examiner can all see a bullet hole in a person’s head, but they’re all going to treat it differently. And if it takes three or four paragraphs to explain what the housewife sees, where does that put the forensic examiner?

If you’re going to describe a person, have a reason for doing it. I’m betting nobody here can list off all the people they crossed paths with the last time they were pushing a cart through the grocery store. Oh, one or two might stand out in some small way, but let’s face it... there were probably close to a hundred. They just weren’t important in the long run. You can’t describe the police officer who gave you your last ticket, but you can probably give a lot of details about the last person you went out to dinner with.

Give descriptions the same weight you’d give characters or dialogue. Y’see, Timmy, if you waste them on the little things, they won’t have any strength when you get to the big things.

And then... well, then you’ve got nothing.

Next time, I’d like to ramble on about cooking school.

Until then, go write.