Thursday, May 30, 2013

Snip Snip Snip

            A few quick cuts.  A little off the top.
            Once again, I must make pathetic excuses for missing last week.  I wanted to post this Wednesday night before I left for Crypticon Seattle, but ended up bogged down in last minute preparations.  By the time I realized I never put this up, I was about two miles above San Francisco.
            Anyway, enough of my pathetic excuses.  Let’s talk about cuts.
            As writers, we all need to make cuts.  Our first drafts always have too much.  We put in every wild idea and detail and prolonged conversation.
            Before anyone says anything—no.  None of us write perfect first drafts.  Not one person reading this.  Not you.  Not me.  Definitely not that guy over there.  The only person who writes usable first drafts is Paul Haggis, and even he doesn’t think they’re perfect (Clint Eastwood does, though).  And Paul isn’t here, so we’re back to saying none of us.
            (Mr. Haggis—if you are here, thanks so much for the support.  You probably don’t remember, but I interviewed you twice for Creative Screenwriting and you were fantastic)
            All this means that in the second draft, third at the latest, we have to make cuts.  We want our books and screenplays and short stories to be lean and tight.  It’s a tough world out there, with a lot of tough publishers, and I can’t expect my story to get anywhere if it’s not at fighting weight.
            So, here’s a few quick, painless ways you can make some cuts and help your manuscript lose a thousand words or so...
            Adverbs--  As I said above, 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.  We try to pretend they're important, but they can always be replaced.  When it comes down to it, adverbs are the Shemps of the writing world.
            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.
            I was at a conference a few years back where writer/ Editor Pat LaBrutto tossed put a great rule of thumb.  One adverb per page, four adjectives per page.  It’s only a guideline, granted, but if you’re averaging five or six adverbs per paragraph... maybe you should give them all a second look.
            In my recent editorial pass of the fourth Ex book, I cut just over 200 adverbs from the manuscript.  That’s almost a full page of adverbs, gone.  Search your manuscript for LY and see how many you find.
            Adjectives—People use a lot of adjectives to make normal, average things sound interesting.  Coincidentally, these folks tend to have a poor vocabulary.  So when I don’t know multiple words for shirt (like Henley, tunic, tee, blouse, polo, Oxford), I’ll just use multiple adjectives. 
            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 extra description.  Yet we all know too much description brings things too a grinding halt.
            There’s an odd habit I’ve seen among fantasy writers—not only them, but enough to make it worth mentioning—to use dozens of adjectives per page, if not per sentence--often redundant ones like “gleaming chrome blade of pure silver.”  I’ve mentioned before that I used to help run an online fantasy game a few years back, and the other night I was talking with one of the staff members who’s still there.  And she and I hit on a wonderful turn of phrase that I think applies here.  Simply put, using more adjectives and adverbs doesn’t make me a better writer.  It just means I’ve got a weak vocabulary and I’m a very poor editor.
            That—People tend to drop that 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.
She punched him in the same spot that he had been stabbed in.
He knew that the machine would not stop—ever—until she was dead.
Phoebe could see that the two of them were meant to be together.
            On that same Ex book, I cut over 130 that's—just over half a page.  Use the Find feature, search for uses of that in your writing, and see how many of them are necessary.  Odds are you’ll find that at least half of them aren’t.
           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 I pepper my writing with somewhat.., sort of..., a bit..., kind of..., and other such modifiers. Nine times out of ten they're not doing anything except adding to my word count (not in the good way) and slowing my story (also not in the good way).  Use the Find feature again and see how many of these are doing anything in your writing, and look how much tighter and stronger your story is without them.  I cut another 200 hundred of these in the aforementioned Ex book manuscript.
            Appeared to be...   --This is one of those phrases some folks 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 seemed to be or looked like 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.  So when I’m saying...
The creature seemed to be looming over us.
            ...what I’m really saying is something along the lines of...
The creature seemed to be looming over us, but it was just the shadows making it look bigger than it really was.
            ...and what I wanted to say all along was just...
The creature loomed over us.
            If I’m not trying to establish a contradiction, using appeared to be and its bastard stepchildren isn't just wasted words-- it's wrong.
            "As you know..." –I’ve mentioned once or thrice before that this is probably the clumsiest way to do exposition there is.  Really.  Ignore everything else I’ve said here, but please take this one bit of advice to heart.
            Just by saying "as you know," I'm stating that the character I'm speaking to already knows the facts I'm about to share.  So why repeat them?  Why would I have two people engage in such a useless bit of dialogue?
            When I put in "as you know" or one of its half-breed cousins, it's a poor attempt to put some exposition in my story with dialogue.  If I’m using it, I guarantee you there's either (A) a better way to get the information to the reader or (B) no need for it because it’s already covered somewhere else.
            I might be able to get away with doing this once--just once--if I've got a solid manuscript.  I mean rock-solid.  And even then, it shouldn’t be in my opening pages.
            Anyway, there's half a dozen quick, easy cuts.  Try them out and see if you can drop a few hundred words or more.
            Next time, I want to get back on schedule by quickly pointing out a possible problem.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Character Assassination

            My lovely lady came up with the title.  She’s kind of fantastic that way...
            Eventually it all comes down to this, doesn’t it?  I’ve crafted a character with a detailed backstory, some wonderful nuances and habits, and even believable speech patterns that stand out in a crowd scene.  It’s a character every reader can picture in their minds and relate to on a personal level.
            And it’s time to put a bullet in their head.
            Killing people in a story is a delicate thing.  I don’t mean this in some artsy, poetic way.  I mean it more in a “cutting the wires without disturbing the mercury detonator” way.  It’s something that has to work precisely on several levels for it to be effective.  And just like that detonator, if I’m going to do a half-assed job with it... well, I’m really wasting everyone’s time.
            But probably not for long.
            Here’s a couple of loose guidelines for killing someone... and getting away with it.
            First off, if I’m going to kill a character... well, it means I need a character, right?  A real character.  I can’t expect there to be a lot of emotional impact from the death of a tissue-thin stereotype.  Killing cardboard cutouts is fine to drive a body count, but it’s not going to drive a plot and it’s not going to motivate anyone on a personal level.  It’s not going to affect the reader, either.  If I say Joe, Tom, or Mary just died in a car crash, that really doesn’t mean anything to any of us.  I can’t create Wakko on page fifty, kill him on page fifty-one, and think it’s going to have any emotional weight—either with the other characters or with my readers.
            Second, this character’s death needs to drive the plot forward.  That’s what good story elements do, right?  They keep the narrative moving—not necessarily upward or into positive place, but forward.  Killing a character who’s well-developed but has no connection at all to the plot doesn’t accomplish anything.
            I’ve seen a couple writers fall back on this sort of thing in an attempt to build tension.  The plot will be rolling on and then we’ll pause to meet Phoebe.  She’s thirty-one, blonde, likes to wear combat boots with everything from jeans to her little black dress to her bikini on the way to the beach.  She’s been seeing a great guy for a couple of months now and she thinks on this upcoming ski trip he might even get down on one knee—OH, she’s dead.  The bad guy got her.  Or the zombies.  Or the giant spiders.  Now let’s go back to the plot for a few chapters before I take a moment to introduce you to Yakko.  He’s a college dropout who went to work for the park service.  He’s also been seeing a great guy for a couple of months now (not the same one as Phoebe) and he thinks on this upcoming ski trip he might even get down on one knee—OH, the spiders got Yakko, too.
            This kind of thing works once.  Maybe twice.  But it gets old quick because it doesn’t really build any tension.  When my story is about Wakko and Dot hunting the spider queen in Brazil, telling the reader that two unconnected strangers were killed by giant spiders in San Diego doesn’t have much effect on my plot .
            If I’m going to kill a character, I want it to inspire my other characters.  It needs to motivate them one way or another to strive for their goals.  Alternately, this death needs to become a major challenge in reaching those goals.  If my partner Wakko is one of the only people who knows the spider queen’s vulnerable point and he just took a talon to the head... well, crap.  Where does that leave me?
            Third is that this death needs to fit structurally within my story.  As I’ve mentioned before, the dramatic structure of a story needs to be a series of ups and downs.  There need to be slowly increasing challenges, which require greater efforts for my characters to overcome, and help build tension.  If I’m going to kill someone off, their death needs to fit within this general structure.
            To go back to the example I just gave, if Wakko’s one of the only people who knows the spider queen’s weak point and he’s killed by the guards just outside her nest... that’s awful.  In a very good way.  I’ve just created a major stumbling block, because I’m out in the middle of the Amazon, at the center of the web with no one around for miles, and I’ve got no idea how to stop the queen before she fills her egg sac with ten thousand giant spider eggs.
            If my partner Wakko dies in the first fifty pages, though...  Well, it’s a big spike at the start of the story, which means everything after it is either going to be lower, or it’s all going to be just as high and my story’s going to stay at the same level for ages.  Plus, there’s no real tension here.  If Wakko dies on page forty-eight but there’s four hundred pages left in the book... well, odds are my characters have time to find someone else who knows those weak spots.
            Now, all that being said...
            Some writers push a school of thought that says killing characters is no big deal.  These folks almost brag about it, that they end lives randomly.  This is more artistic, after all, more like real life.  Absolutely no one is safe in their books.
            I find this to be a rather stupid approach.  For a few reasons.
            One is that we’re not talking about real life, we’re talking about fiction. Real life is chaotic and structureless and people often die for no reasons at extremely inconvenient times.  In my stories, though, I’m God.  Nothing happens without a reason.  Everything in the world of my story is part of my master plan, and if it isn’t... well, why is it in my story?
            Which brings me to reason two.  If my characters are dying at random in ways that don’t advance any element of the story, then it means my story has no structure.  A death is a big setback (especially for the person who died), and odds are if there’s no spot for that big setback in the narrative structure I’m going to mess up my flow.  Plus, if I’m a hundred pages in and Phoebe, my main character, has an unknown aneurism burst in her forebrain so she dies instantly... well, what happens now?  Is the story over?  Does Wakko take over as the main character?  If I was going to have him as the main character (in this world, I am God, after all), why did I spend a hundred pages on Phoebe?
            And that’s the third reason this view isn't too smart.  Odds are a random death means failure.  One way or another, Phoebe has dropped the ball big time—even if it’s not her fault.  She stepped off a curb without looking, ate an egg without cooking it all the way, or just stood up a little too tall while on that away mission.   She’s failed to reach her goals (she had goals because she was a real character, right...?), and that means we just spent a hundred pages identifying with and investing in someone who didn’t win.  On any level.  We’ve been identifying with a loser with crap luck (she must have crap luck—she just died randomly, yes?).  I don’t know about any of you, but that isn’t going to make me happy.
            So, a good death (if there is such a thing) is going to have real characters.  Their death is going to help drive the plot (one way or another).  And it’s going to happen at a point in the narrative that makes structural sense.  If I’ve got two out of three of those, I’m probably in good shape.  One out of three... maybe not so much.
            And if I honestly don’t know if I’ve hit two or three of those points... well, maybe we should stay the execution.  Just until we can confirm what the governor said in that last phone call...
            This time next week I’ll be up in Seattle for Crypticon, so I’m going to try to get this post up Wednesday night before I leave (assuming I don’t cut things too close). 
            And if you’re in the north-west neighborhood next weekend, please stop by and say hullo.
            Until then, go write.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Scooby Ambiguity

            Not a pop-culture reference to the title of a Middleman episode.
            But it could’ve been...
            So sorry I’m behind in the ranty blog.  Between finishing the new manuscript and Texas Frightmare, the past few weeks have been a blur.  I think I’m back on schedule now, though, and you should be getting very regular posts for the next few weeks.
            I was trying to come up for a term for the idea I wanted to get across this week, and my girlfriend suggested the Scooby Ambiguity.  Which fit perfectly and also helped me structure my little rant.  As before, I’m hoping this becomes a standard term in storytelling.
            Allow me to explain.
            I’m sure most of you reading this are familiar with the basic plot of a Scooby-Doo episode.  The gang rolls into town and encounters some kind of ghost or monster, usually three or four times.  Then Velma finds some clues, applies some deductive reasoning, and reveals the ancient mummy to be Dr. Najib, the museum currator, in a disguise.
            (For the record, there’s a fantastic article about Scooby Doo and secular humanism over here at Comics Alliance.  No, really.  It’s also makes some brilliant observation about character and setting, so check it out.)
           Now, every now and then, in a Scooby episode or another story structured like it, we’ll have a moment of confusion, often near the end.  We’ll get one fact that doesn’t match up.  If Dr. Najib was in the costume... then who was the mummy we saw in the old tomb? There weren’t any other accomplices.  The film projector was shut off.  Could that have really been... the mummy?
            (cue spooky music)
            You’ve probably seen this sort of thing in a lot of stories.  It’s a pretty classic “...or is it?” device.  One of the first times I remember seeing it in was the old X-Men/ Teen Titans crossover penned by Chris Claremont, when the ghost of Jean Grey shows up to warn the X-Men about Darkseid.  Simply put, the Scooby Ambiguity is the one element that doesn’t fit in my established setting
            Now, when done right, this can be a wonderful thing.  When handled with a light touch, it can give the audience a little thrill of excitement.  It might even count as a minor twist.
            When done wrong, though... well, your story falls apart
            For example...
            There’s a series of fairly successful books I read now and then.  I’ll be polite and not name them, even though they’re kind of a guilty pleasure.  I know they’re awful on several levels, and they always frustrate me for one reason or another, but I can’t help myself...
            Anyway, the series is firmly grounded in the real world.  Real locations, real law enforcement, real problems.  It’s a lot like Scooby Doo, in fact.  There are stories about zombies, mummies, and vampires, but in the end we get a solid, scientific explanation for these things, and more than a few times someone actually gets a mask pulled off.
            In one of the books,  the main character is a passenger on a jumbo jet with an unknown killer on the loose, and a huge stormfront is actually keeping them in the air, forcing them onward rather than trying to land. 
            Then, in the last hundred pages or so, we learn the killer is actually the physically manifested psychic energy of four passengers who are all projecting their Id out into the world.
            No, I’m serious.  Out of nowhere, in the middle of this reality-based story, the killer is a telepathically-created monster.
            On the flipside, consider Dan Abnett’s ongoing book series about Gaunt’s Ghosts.  It’s a sci-fi war story about soldiers during a massive interplanetary crusade.  There’s guns, tanks, ongoing logistics and morale issues.
            And every now and then... a miracle.  Nothing gigantic, nothing that couldn’t be written off as odd coincidence or luck.  Yet Colonel-Commissar Gaunt and his men are following the crusade path of Saint Sabbat, and they do seem to attract a lot of coincidences and a lot of luck.  It never wins the day for them, and it never leaves much in the way of evidence, but it is there and the colonel-commissar is often left feeling a bit confused and in awe of it in the aftermath.
            Y’see, Timmy, the Scooby Ambiguity works great as a thinly-connected side note, but the minute I make it a major element of my main plot, things start to crumble.  Either I’m writing about a world where X can happen or I’m not.  By its very nature, the ambiguity doesn’t fit within my established world, so making it a major part of my plot creates a jarring distraction that breaks the flow.
            This isn’t to say I can’t have a story about homicidal psychic-energy monsters, but if I do it needs to be clear from the start that this is a world where such things can exist.  If not, pulling some bizarre element out of left field is going to alienate a lot more readers than it impresses.
            And alienated readers often find something else to do rather than finish reading.
            Next time, not to sound morose, but I wanted to talk a bit about death.
            Until then, go write.