Friday, October 19, 2012

Why I Will Not Read Your Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

            First off, some amazing news.  I’ve got a four book deal with Crown Publishing, a division of Random House.  Depending on your views and opinions, this may be complete and inarguable validation of everything I’ve said here, or it may be proof that I’m a sellout hack who knows only slightly more about writing than the average chimpanzee.  I leave that decision up to you.
            And now, on with our regularly scheduled rant...
            After hearing a few stories from friends, I thought I’d step away from the how-to aspect of writing for a week and talk about a recurring problem.  I’ve seen it happen to other writers I know.  Over the past couple of years, it’s actually started to happen to me, so I guess there's an argument to be made that on some level this is a bit pre-emptive.
            Anyway, the best way to talk about this is to tell a story...
            About two years ago, screenwriter Josh Olson (who adapted A History of Violence and the new Jack Reacher movie) got a lot of crap for a piece he wrote for the Village Voice, telling would-be screenwriters to... well, to leave him alone, to put it politely.  A few days later David Gerrold (writer of some well-known original Star Trek episodes and the War Against the Chtorr books), chimed in as well, and he was even a little more pointed with his words.  He also added the topic of litigation.  Dozens of aspiring writers called these two men jerks, asses, and threw a lot of other labels out there, too.
            What were they talking about?
            Would-be writers who tried to take advantage of established writers.
            Honestly, it amazes me how many vague acquaintances and complete strangers think if they can dig up your email address or a social networking page that they have now “networked” with you.  Which can really suck if your name and email address was posted in a prominent writing magazine every other month for a few years.
            But that’s a gripe for another time...
            I probably get at least one request every month from complete strangers or vague acquaintances.  People send me requests all the time and almost seem to be proud of the fact that there’s no connection between us.  As a matter of fact, one stranger on Facebook once sent me a stilted letter explaining that we didn’t know each other, then told me about where he grew up, and then asked me to read his screenplay and help him get it in front of producers and agents.
            Y’see, Timmy, one of the rudest things I can do is ask a professional writer—especially one I don’t even know-- to take time out of their workday to work on my project.  It doesn’t matter if I want a co-writer, an editor, or a mentor.  I mean, what do you think would happen if I asked a professional carpenter if he’d like to work with me on building the house I’ve designed (well, sort of designed—I’ve got some cool ideas)?  Should I catch my local mechanic on his lunch break over at Jack in the Box and ask if he’d be interested in helping me fix my car when he gets off work?  What do you think would happen if I bumped into Gordon Ramsay and said, “hey, I offered to cater my friends wedding and I was wondering if you’d be interested in helping me cook the dinner?”
            Seriously, what do you think these people would say?
            Well, we can all guess.  These people do this for a living.  Asking the tech support guy at Buy More for help with my computer is not the same as asking my friend Marcus.  I mean, none of us would show up at the garage out of the blue and ask the mechanic if he could give us a free oil change, right?
            Well, not without hunting him down on Facebook and sending a friend request first...
            Now, this isn’t to say a professional won’t help anybody.  I’ve got several friends who help me with projects and I’d gladly help any of them with theirs.  There are people I’ve known and worked with for years and I often offer them tips or suggestions.  Heck, I’ve got two manuscripts I’m looking at right now for friends even though I’ve got a serious deadline to meet for my new publisher.
            To save everyone some time and effort, here are some of the signs I will gladly look at your writing and offer some form of honest critique.  And while I’m saying this about me in these examples, it really holds for pretty much any professional writer.  For any professional at all, really.

You are literate.
            If, u no, I cant understan half ur mssg to me bcuz its incode or txtspk or u just have now ideal how to spill, there is little chance I’m going to risk my sanity n numerous full pages of such gibberish. LOL THX!!!!
            Think about it.  If I’m trying to convince my mechanic to work with me, what’s he going to think when I tell him the engine’s having trouble because the hobgoblins from the muffler have stolen all the pixie dust?  If I tell Ramsay that my secret burrito ingredient is yellow snow, do you think he’s going to listen to me for much longer?  If you want help from a professional, you’ve got to show you have at least a firm grasp on the basics of your chosen field.  For us, that’s spelling and grammar.

We have known each other for several years 
            Just to be clear, if we shook hands and said hello at a party three years ago, this does not mean we have known each other for three years.  Neither does being part of the same Facebook group.  Same for following the same person on Twitter.

You actually want to hear what I have to say.
            As Olson noted in his editorial, many people send out manuscripts saying they want feedback, but what they’re really looking for is to get back tears of joy, glowing endorsements, and promises they will be passed on and up to producers/publishers/ J.J. Abrams.  In my experience, very few people actually want honest feedback and criticism (even if it’s constructive).  They just want the praise.  I don’t want to waste my time reading a hundred pages and writing up three or four pages of comments, suggestions, and corrections just so you can say I'm a jackass who doesn't understand your writing and judged you unfairly...

We have shared several meals 
            This does not include eating in the same food court while you stalked me in the mall.  This is repeatedly sitting down and talking over drinks and appetizers or even just pizza and a bad Netflix movie.

We communicate with each other (via phone, email, message boards, or chat) on a regular basis
            Note that communication is a two-way street, and spamming me with messages through multiple channels every day does not count as communicating.  Being someone’s friend on Facebook, Google+, or MySpace doesn’t qualify, either.  Check the terms of agreement—these websites do not come with a “guaranteed friends with benefits” clause.  If they did, I would do whatever it took to get a number of women on my friends list.  And I’d feel shortchanged by a few that already are.

We’ve lived together 
            Not in the sense of “on the planet at the same time,” but more in the “sharing rent and chores around the kitchen for several months” way. 

We’ve slept together
            In any sense. Hopefully this is self-explanatory.  If you’re not sure, the answer is no. Unless you have photos to prove otherwise...
            For the record, this is probably the only case where deliberate “networking” is effective.  If there’s a writer you really want an opinion from and if they’re willing to sleep with you, they’d have to be a real jerk not to look at your manuscript afterwards.
            So just be sure your networking target isn’t a jerk...

I’ve offered before you asked. 
            A very, very few people have caught my attention while chatting about their ideas.  They didn’t ask me to look at their writing.  I just read it because I wanted to, and asked later if they wanted comments.  Some did.  Some didn't.

You’re not asking for something you could find out on your own.
            Not to sound old (he said, stroking his long white beard), but when I was starting out as a writer you had to dig through magazines, make phone calls, send request letters, then go dig through more magazines, make different phone calls, and send different letters--and keep track of all of it. 
            These days all of this information is available with a bit of thought and a few keystrokes.  If you’re emailing me, posting here on the ranty blog, or sending social network messages about agents or places to send your manuscript, that means you have access to Google.  Do it yourself.

You’re willing to pay my hourly rate with a four hour minimum.
            If you’re at all worried about what my hourly rate as a story editor may be, you probably can’t afford it.  I’m a professional writer.  I worked very hard and made a lot of sacrifices to become one.  Like any professional, my time is worth money.

            If you can claim a few of these (or just the last one, really), you’re in.  Feel free to drop me a note.  I’m sure most professionals would feel the same way.
            If not... please reconsider that request you’re about to send out.  Save yourself some time that you could use to polish your writing.  At the very least, don't be surprised or angry when your chosen author doesn't write back.
            Next time... well, I may need to skip next week.  As I mentioned, I’m on a bit of a tight schedule these days.  But next time you check in, I’d like to tell you a fun story about the X-Files and punching Rick Springfield.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Three About Three About Characters

            It's not a pop culture reference, don't worry...
            I haven’t talked about characters for a while, so I figured we were due.
            In my opinion, character can be broken down into two sets of three.  I talked about the first set a while back, and I’ve mentioned the individual elements on and off since then.  The second set is kind of a new idea here at the ranty blog, although you’ll probably see some connections with other things I’ve blathered on about.
            The first set is all about hard facts.  This is character sketch stuff that may or may not come up in my actual story, but it’s still important for me to know as a writer.  If I want Phoebe to be a good character, there are three traits she has to have.
            First and foremost, a character needs to be believable.  It doesn't matter if said character is man, woman, child, lizard man, ninja, superhero, or supervillain.  If my reader can't believe in the character within the established setting, my story's got an uphill battle going right from the start. 
            Phoebe has to have natural dialogue.  It can't be stilted or forced, and it can't feel like she's just spouting out my opinions or beliefs.  The words have to flow naturally and they have to be the kind of words Phoebe would use.  I’ve seen countless stories where soldiers talk like school kids or high school jocks talk like Oxford professors.
            The same goes for Phoebe's actions and motives.  There has to be a believable reason she does the things she does.  A real reason, one that makes sense with everything we know about her, or will come to know.  If a characters motivations are just there to push the plot along, my readers are going to pick up on that really quick. 
            Also, please keep in mind that just because a character is based on a real person who went through true events does not automatically make said character believable.  I've talked here many, many times about the difference between real-real and fiction-real, and it's where many would-be writers stumble.  Remember, there is no such thing as an "unbelievable true story," only an unbelievable story.
            The second trait, tied closely to the first, is that Phoebe needs to be relatable.  As readers, we get absorbed in a character's life when we can tie it to elements of our own.  We enjoy seeing similarities between characters and ourselves so we can make extended parallels with what happens in their lives and what we'd like to happen (or be able to happen) in our own lives.  Taken is about a father trying to reconnect with his somewhat-estranged daughter.  The Harry Potter books are about a kid whose adoptive family dislikes him for being different.  Grimm is about an up-and coming police detective whose getting ready to propose to his girlfriend.  There's a reason so many movies, television shows, and novels are based on the idea of ordinary people caught up in amazing situations.
            Some of this goes back to the idea of being on the same terms as your audience and also of having a general idea of that audience's common  knowledge.  There needs to be something they can connect with.  Many of us have been the victims of a bad break up or two.  Very, very few of us (hopefully) have hunted down said ex for a prolonged revenge-torture sequence in a backwoods cabin.  The less common a character element is, the less likely it is your readers will be able to identify with it.  If your character has nothing but uncommon or rare traits, they're unrelatable.  If Phoebe is a billionaire heiress ninja who only speaks in either Cockney rhyming slang or an obscure Croatian dialect and lives by the code of ethics set down by her druidic cult... how the heck does anyone identify with that?  And if readers can't identify with Phoebe, how are they going to be affected by what happens to her?
            That brings us to the third point, a good character needs to be likeable.  Not necessarily pleasant or decent, but as readers we must want to follow this character through the story.  Just as there needs to be some elements to Phoebe we can relate to, there also have to be elements we admire and maybe even envy a bit.  If she's morally reprehensible, a drunken jackass, or just plain uninteresting, no one's going to want to go through a few hundred pages of her exploits... or lack thereof.
            Again, this doesn't mean a good character has to be a saint, or even a good person.  Leon the Professional is a brutal hit man.  Cyrus V. Sinclair aspires to being a sociopath.  Barney Stinson is a shameless womanizer. Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer with some horrific dietary preferences.  Yet in all of these cases, we're still interested in them as characters and are willing to follow them through the story.
            A good character should be someone we'd like to be, at least for a little while.  That's what great fiction is, after all.  It's when we let ourselves get immersed in someone else's life.  So it has to be a person--and a life-- we want to sink into.
            Now, I'm sure anyone reading this can list off a few dozen examples from books and movies of characters that only have one or two of these traits.  It'd be silly for me to deny this.  I think you'll find, however, the people that don't have all three of these traits are usually supporting characters.  They don't need all three of these traits because they aren't the focus of our attention.  If I’m a halfway decent writer, I’m not going to waste my time and word count on a minor character—I’m going to save them for Phoebe.
            So, that’s the first set of three.
            The second set of three is about putting all that information into my story.  Y’see, Timmy, it’s not enough just to have the above character elements.  They need to be established in the story in a natural, organic way.  
            Let’s talk about the three main ways of doing that.
            First is the easy one—characters establish themselves through their own words and actions.  I’ve mentioned before that how someone talks is very important, as well as what they talk about.  If all Phoebe talks about is work, that tells us something about her.  If every conversation she has leads to talking about sex, that gives us a different bit of insight.  If she speaks with precise grammar it implies something about her, just like it does if she talks like a stoned surfer, or if she rarely talks at all.  If I show Phoebe kicking an alley cat on her way home from work, this says a lot about her character.  On the other hand, if the reader sees her giving the raggedy cat a can of tuna and some attention, it says something else (depending on when it happens in the story). 
            Second is the way other characters talk about them and react to them.  If Phoebe is talking in a calm, measured voice but her employees are nervous—or even terrified—that’s a big clue in to what kind of person they know she is.  Likewise, if she’s trying to ream someone out over their poor job performance and they’re ignoring her, that also tells us something.  A lot of my characters are going to know each other better than the audience does, and their interactions are going to be a big hint to the reader as to what kind of person Phoebe is.
            And third is how their words and actions jibe with the reader’s personal experience.  Remember above how I mentioned Phoebe turning every conversation to sex?  Well if that’s the case, but we also see her go home alone every night, that’s telling us something insightful about her.  If she tells the guy at the bar that she loves animals but then throws something at that cat, it gives us a much better idea about who she is.  And if she absolutely assures somebody that she can be trusted after we’ve seen her screw three other people over, well...  As many folks have said, actions speak louder than words.  So when there’s a contrast or an open contradiction, this can be a great way to get across major character elements.
            Two sets of three.  Look over some of your characters and see where they match up, and with which sets.
            Next time, I’d like to step outside of the usual topics here and talk about why people I’ve slept with generally rate higher than other people.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The First Thing That Comes to Mind

            I just wanted to do something quick this week, but hopefully you’ll all be impressed by the clever way I make this particular point.
            Grab a piece of paper and write these things down real quick.  Don’t think, don’t second-guess yourself, just scribble down the first things that come to mind, okay?  I want you to write down a television show about an island, a number from one to four, a Disney princess, and a vegetable.
            We’ll get back to that in a bit.
            Every now and then you’ll hear some guru talk about Jung or the zeitgeist or collective subconscious.  They’re pretty terms, but I’d guess four out of five times the people slinging them don’t really know what they mean.
            I think it’s much simpler than that.  Nowadays we’re all watching the same shows and movies and listening to the same music.  A lot of us are reading the same highly-recommended books.  Through the wonders of the internet, we can spend an hour each morning getting news updates from around the country and around the world.  Plus, all of us can discover the same Korean rap star within a week of each other.
            I’d guess at least ninety percent of you reading this had a basic Western education.  Most of us probably went to college for a few years, too.  We’ve compared banks and apartment-shopped and made budgets for either work or the home.  Maybe both. 
            We all share a lot of the same experiences, and we draw on those experiences to make the same decisions.  Because of this, we tend to be drawn to the same things—especially when you start dividing folks into fans of different genres and styles. 
            This is why you should never, ever go with the first idea you think of.  Because the odds are very good that at least a thousand other people just thought of it, too.  And half of those people are going to attempt something with that idea.
            I’ve talked about screenplay contests and some of the recurring concepts that made me and other readers cringe.  One of those was the Current Events script.  It’s a screenplay based off a recent, high-profile story that got a fair amount of news coverage.  They’re almost always rushed and, more to the point, there’s usually at least half-a-dozen of them about the same event.  And that’s just what one individual reader sees, so odds are there are a few hundred  of these scripts floating around each contest, all based off the same event. 
            A few months back I started toying with the idea of a new book, one that could possibly be the start of a new series.  Almost immediately, I came up with something that I thought was fairly clever and very open-ended.  I mentioned it to a friend over Labor Day weekend, though, and she said it sounded familiar.  She whipped out her Kindle, browsed Amazon for a minute, and came up with a name and title for me.
            Well, I got home and started checking it out.  It turns out the other author and I had both come up with the exact same premise.  Our main characters had the same background, the same life-changing event with the same results (and requiring the same medical breakthrough), and the same changes in their life because of it.  Different plots, but the story of our main character was almost identical.  The other author had just come up with it eighteen months earlier than me.
            We all get exposed to the same input and process it in similar ways.  That’s why the first thing that comes to mind is usually the thing that everyone else thought of, too.  Even if I think I’m a clever and exceedingly smart writer, I’m going to make the same first choices as everyone else.
            Don’t believe me?  Remember those things I asked you about up above?  I’m willing to bet that most of you wrote down LOST, three, Cinderella, and carrots. 
            What did I get?  Three out of four right?  I bet I got four out of four for some of you.
            When it comes to plot, try to avoid going with the first thing that comes to mind.  If you’re feeling gutsy, avoid the second and third, too.  That’s what makes a good writer—going beyond the obvious.
            Next time, unless I get another really cool request, I’m thinking I might talk a little bit about characters.
            Until then, go write.