Thursday, December 31, 2015

Last Year’s Resolution

            One last post squeezed in before I head out to play games and drink with friends.  Hopefully you’ve got some wonderful plans for closing out the year as well.  But first...
            Let’s talk about what we got done this year.
            My big goal for this year, like it has been for two or three years now, was to get two novels done.  It’s a goal I keep stretching for and always fall short.  I’m not sure if I can reach it or not, but I keep trying.
            How’d I do?
            Well, a good chunk of this year was taken up by Ex-Isle.  I struggled with this one a lot, for a few reasons, and a good chunk of that was my own fault.  I’d done a fair amount of work on it last year and then even more this year.  My editor looked at what I handed in and... well, he knew I could do better.  So I went back, hacked, slashed, and came up with a much nicer, cleaner book.  It’s the longest Ex book to date, word-count wise.  Tweaks and layouts on this carried us right into October, and I ended up adding a new chapter at... well, not the eleventh hour, but pretty close to 10:30.
            You’ll get to see if that was all worth it in just five weeks...
            When The Fold came out in June I did a bunch of promo stuff for it, including interviews and a half dozen or so original articles for a few different sites.
            For the past few months I’ve been working on my new project which is, as yet, untitled.  I’ve mentioned it here a few times, and I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about it next year.  I’m about 2/3 in at this point, and if all goes well I’m hoping my beta readers will be seeing it in late February or so.
            I also polished up a short-short story for the Naughty or Nice holiday anthology.  It was an idea I’d had a while back and getting invited to the anthology was just the kick in the pants I needed to make it worthwhile.  Plus, it's for charity, so you score actual karma points when you buy a copy.
            Counting this one, I’ve done 42 posts for the ranty blog here, plus another 34 for the geeky hobby-based blog I keep up elsewhere.
            That’s what I wrote this year.
            What did you get done?
            To be honest... I’m a little upset with myself.  I was really ashamed of that first Ex-Isle draft my editor saw.  I’d also really hoped to have the new project out to beta readers by now, so I’m a solid two months behind where I’d planned to be.  I would’ve felt justified, at that point, in saying I had two novels finished.
            Yeah, maybe this sounds a little shallow to some of you.  I mean, I get to make my own schedule, write for a living, and here I am complaining about how much more I wanted to do.  Sounds pretty damned good as is, doesn’t it?
            Thing is, as we’ve discussed here many times before, good enough is never enough.  Good enough will never get a career going, and it won’t keep one going.  We have to be willing to push ourselves to be better, and to keep pushing ourselves.  We all need to set new, higher goals.
            One could even call them resolutions, if they were so inclined.
            With that in mind... what do you want to do next year?
            I hope you all have a peaceful and safe New Year.  Don’t drink and drive, be good to people, and kiss someone you love at midnight.
            We’ll talk again in 2016.
            Until then... go party responsibly.
            And then come home and write.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Happy Holidays!

             Hey, there!  Thanks for checking in on Christmas Eve!  Or Krampusnacht, which is a lot more dangerous, depending on some of the choices you made this past year...
            Speaking of choices, I thought I’d toss out something real quick, just in case the holiday season had sparked a story idea or two in your mind.  I wanted to give you a quick warning about Christmas.
            No, not in a “Krampus is coming” sort of way...
            Writing stories that revolve around Christmas, or any holiday, is tempting.  They're very relatable.  A lot of the groundwork is already done for us (there’s no need to explain the plump guy in the red suit sliding down the chimney). It can be a great contrasting background for some stories.
            Plus, let’s be honest. Christmas stories are lucrative.  There’s a fair argument to be made they’re consistently one of the best-selling genres out there, especially if you write screenplays.  Think of all those cable channels that are just brimming with original movies.  Heck, I had a short story in a holiday-themed anthology this year, and I know of two or three other anthologies that were open for submissions, too.
            Not to sound all capitalist, but... there’s a lot of money to be made off Christmas.
            Now, that being said...
            If I’m thinking about a clever idea for a holiday story I need to be careful.  The ugly truth is, it’s all been done before.  All of it.  No matter how clever or original I think my take is, there’s a good chance someone’s done it before.  Because, as I mentioned above, this is a huge market and lots of folks have written lots of stories.
            Look at it this way.  How many holiday specials are a tradition in your household?  My lovely lady and I enjoy all the classics, but we also dig out the Christmas episodes from some of our favorite shows.  And we have a big stack of about a dozen movies we watch every year about this time.  So, without even trying, there’s over two dozen Christmas stories.  Comedies. Action flicks.  Superhero movies.  Message movies.  Even a few horror stories. 
            And that’s just a little bit of peeking in the closets.  Think of all the different Santa Claus stories out there.  Good Santa. Evil Santa.  Naughty Santa.  Robot Santa.  Accidental Santa.  New Santa.  Temp Santa.  Kidnapped Santa.  Arrested Santa. Hell, I’ve now seen multiple stories where Santa is an action star defending his workshop from invading forces.
            How about A Christmas Carol?  Personally, I’ve seen the Dickens classic done many times in the past and present, and even once with time travel on an alien planet.  There’ve been versions that leaned toward comedy, toward drama, toward horror.  Heck, I remember a bionic version on The Six Million Dollar Man when I was a kid.  No, I’m dead serious.  Steve Austin in a Santa suit leaping around and convincing a stingy businessman he was a spirit.
            Ahhh, says me. But I’m not really doing a classic Christmas story.  I’m being clever and going back to the old country.  I’m writing a Krampus story.  How many people have ever heard of Krampus?
            Well, you may have heard of a Finnish film called Rare Exports from a few years back.  That’s pretty much a Krampus story.  Grimm did a great Krampus holiday episode last year.  There was a Krampus movie this year.  He also shows up in that anthology I mentioned up above, and in an anthology movie I just watched the other night with friends. 
            Again, all done many times, and in many ways.
            I’m not saying these stories can’t be done, but I need to be aware that this is a fruitcake that’s been regifted a lot.  So if I’m going to try passing it along, too, I should have a good idea how many hands it’s already passed through.  I don’t want to be giving it to someone who just saw it a few hours ago.
            How’s that for one last awful holiday metaphor?
            So think about stories this holiday season.  But if you’re thinking about holiday stories... put in a little extra thought.
            Next time, let’s review a few things.
            Until then... Merry Christmas.
            Joyous Kwanzaa.
            Happy Holidays.
            Glorious Ascension of Tzeentch.
            Now go write.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Yes, Virginia... There Is A Santa Claus

            December has gone by way too fast for my liking.
            Anyway, before we all head off to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens and get some final holiday shopping done, I though I’d talk about something completely unbelievable.
            No, seriously.
            There’s a phrase you may have heard called willing suspension of disbelief.  Simply put, it’s when a reader is willing to ignore or forgive obviously false things for the sake of enjoying a story.  They deliberately choose to ignore the impossible.  It’s why we can enjoy Lord of the Rings when we know there’s no such thing as elves, dwarves, or invisibility rings.  It’s also why we can enjoy Star Wars when our adult minds realize the Force, lightsabers, and hyperdrive are all a little questionable, logically.  And if there really was a hockey-masked serial killer taking out a dozen kids per summer up at the same lake... seriously, shouldn’t someone have caught on by now?
            Fantasy, sci-fi, thrillers, a lot of horror—the genre stories are the ones that we immediately think of when it comes to willing suspension of disbelief.  But the ugly truth is that any story can make a reader shake their head and toss it aside.  There is no genre, no point of view, no style of writing that is immune.  Sometimes a writer asks us to make a leap and... we just can’t.
            Why is that, y’think?  When was the last time you shook your head at something you were reading?  Has something ever happened in a movie or television show that just made you decide you couldn’t take it seriously any longer?  Or maybe you just shut it off?
            I have a few thoughts on this topic...
            One of the biggest things that’ll make a story believable—any story—is the characters.  I may have mentioned once or twice or thrice that good characters make for good stories.  I can’t have a believable story without believable characters.  It’s just not possible.
            Yeah, even if I slap “based on a true story” or “inspired by real events” under the title.  Once it’s on the page or on the screen, all anyone cares about is if it’s a good story about believable characters.  This is a common mistake—one I’ve made myself.  Whether or not they’re real is completely irrelevant.  If that’s my only selling point... I’m in trouble.
            If my characters are going to be believable, they’ve got to be consistent—or at least consistently inconsistent.  I can’t have them acting and reacting in whatever random way happens to move my plot along.  My readers need to see motives they can understand.  Natural-sounding dialogue.  Relationships that are somehow relatable to the average person.
            This is important because once my readers believe in my characters, they’ll believe in what happens to my characters.  If I believe in Phoebe and Phoebe ends up meeting Santa, then—by extension—I have to believe in Santa.  Stephen King is a master at this.  He gives us very normal, relatable folks, lets us get to know them, and then plunges them into nightmarish circumstances with inhuman, otherworldly threats. We believe there’s a weird clown-spider-elder god thing living under this small Maine town because we believe in the kids-who-become-adults who encounter it and decide to fight against it.  Just saying that up above—clown-spider-elder god thing—makes it sound kind of goofy and silly.  But millions of people were terrified by IT and completely believed in that creature... because they believed in the characters Pennywise the clown was terrorizing.
            Now, something I haven’t touched on yet.  How can I make someone believable in a completely fictional worldStar Wars is set on other planets centuries ahead of our own, technology-wise (don’t be that person arguing about “a long time ago...”).  The Game of Thrones books are set on another world that’s arguably thousands of years behind us.  The Harry Dresden series by Steve Butcher is set on a different version of Earth.  The whole Marvel Universe (comic book and cinematic) may have been vaguely close to ours once, but is far off into sci-fi at this point, even right in the middle of Manhattan.
            A lot of this will depend on how foreign I make my world.  The more difficult it is for a reader to find relatable ground, the harder it’ll be to find something relatable in the characters.  And as I mentioned last week, being relatable is a key to good characters.
            Let’s consider Star Wars (no, don’t worry, no spoilers).  The first movie (episode IV if you want to be pedantic) starts with a battle between massive starships, but quickly shifts to a boarding party—one on one action where we see people being killed and captured.  And then it’s revealed this is a spy mission and the Empire is looking for some sort of stolen plans. Good so far—all of this is very understandable stuff.
            Our hero, Luke, works on his uncle’s moisture farm where he drinks blue milk and is expected to work on droids who will work on the vaparators.  This is all vaguely understandable, yes.  But, as quickly becomes apparent, Luke doesn’t want to work on the farm his whole life.  He’s suffocating here.  He wants to go off and do big, exciting things. And that’s something we’ve all heard before. Hell, a lot of us have probably felt that before, right?  So even though it’s set on spaceships and desert planets, Star Wars immediately grounds us with familiar, believable characters and situations.
            Okay, so once I’ve got good characters, that whole disbelief thing is taken care of, right?
            Well... not exactly.
            Another thing that can mess up willing suspension of disbelief is if I get my facts wrong.  If I tell my readers there are only six countries in Africa, that the human heart is made up of just one cell, that Ronald Reagan was the 25th President of the United States, or that Hitler died in 1958... well, most people are going to see the mistakes there.  Even if they don’t know the right answer, they’ll know I got these wrong.  And that knowledge is going to jar them out of the story for a minute.  It moves us from experiencing the story to analyzing it.  We start looking for wrong things, and that pokes holes in our suspension of disbelief. 
            Again, the world of my story will have some say in this.  What we consider a fact in one story might not hold true in another.  There’ve been one or two successful stories where Santa Claus was a main character.  A fairly successful movie actually made the claim that Hitler died in 1958.  By the time it made this claim, though, it had already introduced average, relatable guy John Myers (and us) to the hidden supernatural world of the story.
            There’s also a flipside to this, one that takes a bit of empathy.  I can also blow the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief by using completely true facts that are unbelievable.  There are lots of things that are statistically possible, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually going to happen, or happen that often.  Likewise, there are tons of late night cable shows that will tell you about amazing true coincidences or billion-to-one events that actually happened.  If I’m basing a whole chapter—or a whole story—around these things, it could cause problems.
            I spoke with a documentary filmmaker years ago.  He’d just finished a film about the botched invasion of Iraq and the even bigger mess that came after it.  One of the most amazing things he told me, though, was how much he had to cut out of the film.  There were points of such complete incompetence in the year after the invasion that—if he had left them in the film—nobody would’ve believed them.  And he was telling me this three years later, when it was becoming pretty clear to everyone how poorly things had been thought out over there.  Even then, he had to cut some things so his documentary wouldn’t get dismissed as a hatchet job.
             If I present something that’s too hard to believe, even if it’s true, it’s still going to make the reader pause and shake their head.  As I mentioned above, nobody cares if it’s true or not.  There’s a phrase you may have heard that started with Lord Byron, passed through Mark Twain, and has even been used by Tom Clancy—the difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.  And when it doesn’t make sense, it’s going to knock people out of the story and chip away at their disbelief some more.
            Y’see, Timmy, this is the big thing.  When our suspension of disbelief is broken, even for a moment, it breaks the flow of the story.  The more often the flow is broken, the harder it becomes for my readers to be invested in the story.  And soon they’re setting it aside to do something more exciting... like the dishes or thank-you cards.
            So keep it believable.
            Next time... Heck, next time is Christmas Eve.  Wow.  I may try to jot down something really quick for that morning, but I’ll understand if you have other plans.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Protagonist #3

            I can’t believe the year’s almost over.  Where did the past few months go?
            I wanted to get much more done this year.  But we’ll talk about that in a few weeks...
            While posting my last few little rants and adding in links, I realized there’s a lot of basic stuff I haven’t revisited in two or three years now.  I think part of it is because I’ve been doing more conventions and talking about these topics there, so it feels like I’m going over them all the time.
            Anyway, over the next month or two I want to go over some things like dialogue, stakes, action, and a few other random tips and tricks I’ve stumbled across during the many years of mistakes that make up my career.
            Right now, I wanted to talk about some character basics.  Three of them, to be precise.  Put this rant near the top of the advice column.  I’m really, really tempted to call it a rule, but I think that would spark too many comments about various exceptions and distract from the point I’m trying to make.
            Pretty much across the board, my characters need to be believable, relatable, and likeable.  If my protagonist doesn’t have these three traits, I’m pretty much screwed.  It’s not impossible to have a story where my characters don’t have these traits, but it’s going to be an uphill battle.  Like, rolling-a-boulder-up-a-mountain level uphill battle.
            Allow me to explain by going over each of these. We’ll do that with my frequently-used volunteer character, Dot.  Also, there’s a lot of back and forth between them, so I apologize now if this gets a bit confusing or jumbled at points. 

            First up, Dot has to be believable.  Almost nothing is more important than this.  If my reader can't believe in the character within the established setting, if they don’t feel like a real person, my story's got an uphill battle going right from the start.  It doesn't matter who (or what) Dot is, she must be believable.
           How do I do that?
           Dot’s dialogue should sound natural.  Her words have to flow naturally and they have to be the kind of words Dot would use.  I’ve seen countless stories where four year olds talk like they’re forty and forty year olds talk like robots.  When Dot speaks, it can't be stilted or forced, and it shouldn't feel like she's just spouting out my opinions or political views or whatever.
            The same goes for Dot’s actions, reactions, and motives.  There has to be a believable reason she does the things she does.  A reason that makes sense with everything we know about her or will come to know.  If her motivations are erratic and just there to push the plot along, my readers are going to pick up on that really quick.  If I find myself thinking (or shouting) “What are you doing?!” at a character, it’s a good sign their motivation isn’t believable
            Also, please keep in mind that just because Dot is based on a real person who went through true events doesn’t automatically make her believable.  Sometimes, believe it or not, it can make her seem even more contrived.  I've talked here several times about the difference between reality and fiction, and it's where many aspiring writers stumble.  Don’t forget, there’s no such thing as an "unbelievable true story"—only an unbelievable story.
            Speaking of which, this first trait can be an immediate challenge for genre writers, yes?  Werewolves aren’t believable  because they’re not real.  Neither are leprechauns.  Nanotech cyborgs, aliens, ghosts, hive minds, demons, Santa Claus, Elder Gods, barbarians from the Ninth Realm of Shokar—we’ve pretty much proven all of these things are fictional, much as we might want some of them to be real.  But, as I just mentioned, part of this trait is making them believable within the setting of the story.

            Next, Dot needs to be relatable.  As readers, we enjoy seeing similarities between ourselves and the characters we’re reading about. It lets us 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.  It’s not a coincidence that most stories deal with ordinary people in extraordinary situations.  It’s hard for readers (or an audience) to enjoy a story when they can’t identify with the character on some level.
            Part of this is me being aware how my readers are going to view and react to Dot.  There needs to be something they can connect with. Almost all of us can relate to blue collar, middle class folks easier than multi-millionaire celebrities.  I feel safe saying everyone reading this—or writing it—has been the victim of an awful break up or two.  Very few of us have hunted down said ex for a prolonged revenge-torture sequence in a backwoods cabin.  Hopefully none of us.
            This is also going to tie back to the idea of being believable.  Dot’s actions and reactions, her motives and experiences, are a big part of what’s going to make her relatable.  This is how the readers come to understand her.  By the same token, the less believable or common a character element is, the less likely it is my readers will be able to relate to it.  If I make Dot a reincarnated, retro-futurist one-percenter who eats nothing but snake hearts, speaks only in Babylonian metaphors, and firmly believes the lizard men are going to be returning to claim the world (and welcomes her new reptilian overlords)... well, it’s going to be a real challenge for my readers to identify with that.  And if readers can't identify with Dot, why will they care what happens to her?
            When Dot doesn’t have any character traits we can relate to, we’re no longer understanding her—we’re observing her.  It’s an immediate wedge between the readers and the character, keeping them at arm’s length.  And that separation is going to keep readers from getting caught up in my story.
            Again, this isn’t to say characters can’t have amazing traits or abilities, but  those can't be my focus.  The most successful takes on Superman haven’t been the ones that focus on his godlike powers, they’ve been the ones that emphasize he’s still basically a guy who grew up in all-American, small-town Kansas.  Jessica Jones may be able to punch through a wall, but her story is really about how she chooses to deal with her past—therapy groups, lots of drinking, and random sex with guys she barely knows.  Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger is a trained and lethal warrior who still prefers to spend his time playing with his dog, wearing Hawaiian shirts, and enjoying burgers and beer. In my own book, The Fold, Mike may have one of the most amazing minds on the planet but he really just wants to fit in and be like everyone else.

            Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Dot has to be likeable.  There has to be a reason we, as readers, want to follow her story and not his or hers or theirs.  We have to like her.  There should be elements to her we admire and maybe even envy a bit. We have to be somewhat invested in her accomplishing her goals and making it to the end of the story.
            Keep in mind, likable can mean a lot of things.  It can mean adorkable klutz but also fantastic work ethic.  Maybe Dot has impeachable integrity.  Maybe she takes care of every stray she finds.  She could be really funny or perhaps she’s just always there when her friends need her.  Or maybe she’s the one who just says what needs to be said and stands up for the little people, no matter the cost to her.
            On the flipside, if she's morally reprehensible, a drunken jackass, or just plain boring... well, what’s going to keep people reading?  Nobody likes the person who kills babies or pets.  We’re rarely interested in boring people (because none of us think we’re boring) and we don’t like stupid people (because none of us think we’re stupid).  If this is how I’m characterizing Dot, nobody's going to read through a few hundred pages of her exploits.  Or lack of exploits.
            Again, this doesn't mean my character has to be a saint, or even a good person.   In Doctor Sleep, we find out that Danny Torrance grew up to be a major, life-ruining alcoholic. Cat Grant on Supergirl is a ruthless, often cruel boss who can’t even be bothered to get her assistant’s name right.  Sherlock Holmes has often been portrayed as curt and with very little patience for those he thinks are inferior to him (which is most people).  Raymond Reddington is a ruthless “concierge of crime” who doesn’t hesitate to pull a trigger or stab someone in the back (figuratively or literally).  We're still interested in them as characters, though, either because of underlying codes of honor or because they’re doing things we wish we could get away with.  And because of this, we’re willing to follow them through their stories.

            Now, I'm sure many of you reading this can list off a dozen or so examples from books and movies of characters that only have one or two of these traits (someone probably skipped down to the comments after the first few paragraphs and started typing them up). It'd be silly for me to deny this.  Overall, though, I think you'll find 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 word count or screen time on a minor character—I’m going to save them for Dot.
            So, to sum up, 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.  One we understand on some level or another.  One we can believe in.
            One we want to read about.
            Next time, it being the season, I’d like to talk about Santa Claus.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Over-Elaborate Paint Schemes

            Hope you all had a nice week off and got a lot of writing done.  Or at least a lot of relaxing so you’re fresh and ready to write again.
            As it turns out, this little rant has turned out to be well-timed... but we’ll get to that in a bit.
            For now, I wanted to talk about paint and simplicity.
            As one or two of you might know, I am a bit of a miniature wargamer, or, as they’re known to the greater world at large, a geek.  Yep, I build little toy soldiers and beasties, scale scenery, vehicles, the whole deal.  I used to be much more into it than I am today, but I still enjoy building the models and playing with my group now and then.
            Recently I was painting some models and remembered an old article I’d read ages back in one of the hobby magazines I subscribed to (again, used to be much more into it).  They had a regular column on painting techniques for little toy soldiers, and one month a guest columnist wrote about what he called “non-metallic metallics.”  It was a style of painting where you made swords, guns, armor, and so on look like steel and gold without actually using steel or gold paint.  Instead you’d use lots of whites, blues, grays, oranges, and yellows—all different shades—to create highlights and reflections and the appearance of shiny metal.  Make sense?  So much better, he said.  So much more realistic.  It really brought the miniatures to life.
            Now, the very next month they ran an article from another painter—their regular guy, in fact—and his article amounted to “no, no, NO!”  He was very much against the whole non-metallic metallics thing.  As he explained, it was using a lot of time and extra paint to create the same effect you’d get naturally by just using the metallic paints.  Plus, the non-metallic style was completely angle-dependent.  It worked well for displays and dioramas, but wasn’t appropriate for models that would be out on a tabletop battlefield and viewed from many different directions.  That’s when the non-metallic illusion would break down.  As he explained, why buy seven or eight pots of paint to achieve what—for these purposes—you could do much better with one?
            That was the last painting column, if memory serves, and the regular guy was never mentioned again.  The company that published the magazine also sold the paint.  Draw your own conclusions about what happened there.
            Now, aside from the capitalist warning, what’s the message here?
            There’s a subset of folks who insist things can’t be simple.  Simple is stupid.   Simple is for amateurs, they’ll tell you, not professionals.  You’re not going to use that common, easy paint scheme, are you?  Because you’ll never be considered an expert that way
            Unfortunately, too many of these people consider themselves gurus of some kind or another.  They’ll charge you good money for bad advice. Advice they’ll usually try to pitch as rules.
            There’s nothing wrong with simple.  Having a simple paint scheme let me paint the bulk of my Space Marine army in a few weekends rather than a few months.  I had close to a hundred little soldiers the size of my thumb—I wasn’t going to spend hours and hours on each one.  
            There were a couple models I did lavish with some extra time.  Captain Machiavel got a lot of fine detail picked out on his armor.  I put highlights on Veteran Sergeant Constantine’s sword.  Veteran Dreadnaught Faustus has a ton of scrollwork on his weapons and purity seals.
            (Yes, I named some of my little toy soldiers—stay on topic, okay?)
            Just like there’s nothing wrong with simplicity, there’s nothing inherently wrong with complexity, either.  It’s all about having the experience to know when each is appropriate.  I wasn’t going to spend hours and hours painting each of the rank-and-file soldiers, because I didn’t want a hundred individual paint jobs distracting from the look of the army as a whole.  That said, I’m still going to make the army commander, squad leaders, and big models look good because... well, they’re the ones people are going to focus on.
            See where I’m going with this?
            As an aspiring writer, I encountered lots of folks trying to tell me my writing wasn’t sophisticated enough.  That my vocabulary was too simplistic.  And I listened to them.  I started using a lot more adverbs.  I tried to use metaphors and similes in the description of every person, place, and thing that appeared in my stories.  Hell, for a while I made a point of  never using the same dialogue descriptor twice on a page.  And I never, ever used saidSaid was stupid.  It for amateurs, and I was a professional
            Thing is, none of this made my writing any better.  Oh, sure, it was boosting my word count a lot, but it wasn’t really improving my ability.  In fact, one of the first times I ever got to sit down with an actual professional editor—someone who could pay me money for my work—his two big pieces of advice for me were to cut all my adverbs and go back to using said.
            Let’s do a quick test.  Grab a novel or anthology that’s near you.  Not a Kindle, if that’s possible—a real book will work better for this.  Preferably something you’re familiar with.
            Got one?  Flip through it, or just open at random once or thrice.  You’re looking for a page with dialogue, not exposition.  Found it?  Count up how many times said appears on that page.
            I’m willing to bet it’s there a decent number of times.  And I bet you never noticed until I just asked you to count them up.  Said is invisible.  When I use said, readers can enjoy my overall story rather than getting caught up in individual sentences that break the flow.
            Y’see, Timmy, using complex phrasing and obscure words doesn’t automatically make me a good writer.  Especially if there’s no point to my complexity and I don’t understand the words I’m using.  If that’s the case, trying to do this can actually make me a worse writer.  I’m suddenly the guy trying to do fine detail work with a paint roller, or trying to cook a five course meal when I haven’t quite figured out the toaster yet.
            Again, there’s nothing wrong with being more sophisticated, or to using ten-syllable words over two-syllable ones.  There just needs to be a point to it.  It needs to serve a purpose in my telling of this story.  If it’s just me, the author, trying to show off how impressive I am and how extensive my vocabulary is... well, that’s not really helping the story.  It’s just the literary equivalent of hanging rubber testicles on the back of my truck.
            I mostly use said in my writing.  Mostly.  I’m not against having my characters shout or mutter or snap or whisper or shriek or hiss or call out.  When they do, though, I have a solid reason for making that bit of dialogue stand out on the page.
            So ignore those folks saying you must be more complex with a wider vocabulary.  And the ones telling you to always keep it simple. Just focus on telling your story the best way you can.
            And that’s that.
            In other news... It is, alas, that time of year.  So, if I may, I’d like to direct your attention to my usual Black Friday offer for those who need it, the standard Cyber Monday appeal to consumer capitalism, and the suggestions of much better stuff to give the readers in your life.
            I’d also like to point out that my publisher, Penguin Random House, is doing a fantastic online campaign this season called Give a Book.  If you’re on Facebook or Twitter, just use the hashtag #giveabook when you talk about buying books for friends, family, loved ones, and so on.  Every time someone uses the hashtag, from now until December 24th, PRH is going to donate a book to the First Book literary charity.  The goal this year is to hit 35,000 books (last year they aimed for 25,000 and hit 37,000).  So take a minute out of your holiday frenzy and do something for a good cause.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about the people we enjoy reading about.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Outlining Our Trip

            Ahhh, jeeez.  I have to bring up the Goodreads thing again. 
            At this point The Fold has somehow made it to the final round of Goodreads best sci-fi novels of 2015.  This isn’t a humblebrag, I honestly have no idea how it ended up on this list.  There are a lot of much, much better books there.
            That being said, I’ve promised the marketing folks I would keep talking about it.  So if you happened to like The Fold and maybe never got around to reading any of the other, better books, maybe you could toss one last vote its way during this final round.  Just so it isn’t a total slaughter.
            Now... let’s move on.
            This week, I wanted to talk a bit about outlines.  Thing is, it’s kind of a tricky topic.  So, to explain this in simpler terms, let’s talk about road trips.  Right now, let’s you and me plan out a trip from LA to New York.  If you’re already in New York, fly out to LA, hang out for a while, and we’ll drive back. It’ll be great.
            Now, there’s a lot of ways we can do this.  We know where we’re starting, more or less (LA is a big place).  We know where we’re going (although our exact destination in New York might affect things a bit)  But there’s still a lot of flex room in how we do this.
            We can just say, “LA to New York” and start driving east.  Done.  That’s the whole plan.  We’ll figure it out as we go.  Spend a little more time here?  Maybe sleep in a few extra hours there?  Maybe go on a wild detour just to see Great Meteor Crater?
            We can get. To. New York.  I went on a road trip once and my partner-in-driving didn’t want to stop for anything.  Any.  Thing.  Petrified forest?  Roswell?  World’s biggest ball of twine?  No, nope, and no way.  We left Tuesday morning and we were going to be in New York for the weekend.  There were four points marked out on the route and that’s where we were stopping to sleep.  He didn’t see any point in wasting time because his goal was to get.  To.  New.  York.
            We can plan out the whole thing.  All of it.  I have another friend who used to be a planner in his younger days.  Crazy planner.  He would plan road trips out for his family in half hour increments.  I’m not joking.  Meals, gas stops, bathroom stops, hotels, morning showers, 90 minutes at this natural wonder, 30 at this roadside attraction, 60 at this—DAMMIT!  We spent 40 minutes at the giant tinfoil ball!  That means no afternoon bathroom break. You kids are just going to have to hold it until dinner.  And it’ll be coming out of your dessert time, I’m warning you now.
            And all this isn’t even considering us and our personal quirks.  You might be great at that sort of long-haul, ten hours behind the wheel thing, but I might only be good for four or five hours at a time.  I might have a fantastic sense of direction, but maybe you need GPS and a map at the same time.  I love all these bizarre roadside attractions with alien jerky and the continental divide and the Sunsphere, but you’d rather spend the time either driving, eating, or sleeping
            Plus, do we have time to spare on the road or do we need to be in New York  by this time next week?  Do we need to plan this out?  Is this a business trip or are we just having some fun for a couple of days?  Or weeks?
            As I said above, there’s lots of ways to do this.
            The same is true for outlines.  Maybe I don’t need one at all.  Perhaps I just need a few story points set down.  I could be the type who likes the whole thing plotted in exacting detail.  Maybe I’ve got ages to find my way or maybe I’m on a harsh deadline and don’t have time for even a single diversion.
            Y’see, Timmy, it’s hard to give advice on outlines because it’s such a personal thing.  Every writer is going to be a bit different, and the only thing that matters is that this outline works for this person.  And—like a lot of writerly advice—the only way to find out what works for you is to try it. 
            I struggled with outlines for ages before admitting they just weren’t for me.  If you haven’t used one before and your writing output is fine... hey, why fix what’s not broken?  And if you find yourself wandering and you never seem to get anywhere, maybe planning things out to some degree might help you a bit.
            This one’s all on you.
            No pressure.
            Next time... Okay, well, next Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the States, so I’m going to be watching Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and The Day The Earth Stood Still while I cook.  I hope wherever you are, it’s a good and peaceful day for you.
            The week after that, though...  I’ve been getting back into one of my hobbies lately, so I thought we could talk about painting.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Beware... The Mosquito!

            Okay, first, please forgive me for some shameless pandering...
            Somehow, my book The Fold was nominated for best sci-fi book of 2015 over at Goodreads.  I don’t know how. I don’t even go to Goodreads. 
            Regardless, it was nominated and made it to the semi-final round, which ends on Saturday.  So if you happen to be reading this and didn’t read anything better this year (like, say, Armada or The Water Knife—both also in the running), I’d appreciate it if you could hop over to Goodreads and cast a vote for The Fold.
            Sorry about all that.  Kind of annoying, wasn’t it?
            Anyway, this week I want to talk about annoying things. To be exact I want to talk about mosquitoes.  I’ve seen a lot of them lately.
            A mosquito is the frustrating, you-want-to-slap-them character who shows up in books or movies.  That man or woman who simply cannot take a hint or get a clue, no matter how hard the other characters hit them with one.  Usually the mosquito won’t shut up.  Ever.  No matter what.  Plus, it’s a safe bet if someone tells them not to do something, that will be the very next thing they do.
            They’re just... well, they’re annoying as hell.
            Worse yet, the mosquitoes never acknowledge the problems they’re causing.  They leave shattered plans, damaged treasures, and unachieved goals in their wake—almost never their own—and often don’t grasp why it’s such a big deal.  Was that important?  Don’t get so worked up.
            And... wow, when the mosquito is the main character?
            By the way, this is just my name for this type of character.  Don’t expect to find the term “mosquito” in use anywhere else until I put out my how-to book on writing—Storytelling-the Ed Wood Method! Also, I may come up with a better term before the end of this post.
            Now, this is just my thinking, but I feel there are two big reasons mosquitoes get annoying so fast in stories.  One is that... well, they aren’t good characters.  I don’t mean this in the sense of poorly written or imagined, just that they aren’t the kind of characters people like to read about or follow.  I’ve mentioned a few times here that good characters have to be likeable, relatable, and believable.  As we just said, mosquitoes aren’t likeable—they’re annoying.  That’s why they’re mosquitoes.  They’re also not relatable, because nobody thinks they’re this kind of person, which means no one will identify with them. Think about it—the most talkative, clueless person you know doesn’t think they’re talkative or clueless.  So right off the bat, a mosquito is failing two of the three basic criteria for a good character.
            The other reason mosquitoes are annoying in a story is because they violate the rule of three.  It’s a term I’ve brought up here once or thrice in the past.  It usually applies to screenwriting, but you can find it in books, too.  At its core, the rule of three tells us that if something keeps getting mentioned, it’s important to the plot or story.  If it wasn’t important, it wouldn’t be mentioned three times. 
            Simple, yes?  I’ve mentioned something similar with names.  If I make a point of telling you the waiter’s name, he must be important to the story somehow.  A bare bones version of this would be the popular adage of Chekov’s Rifle, which says if we see a phaser rifle on the bridge in Act One, it should be set to overload and kill someone in act three.  If something is in my story, there’s a reason for it being there.
            I see a lot of mosquitoes buzz around and around... but they don’t actually do anything.  Their buzzing doesn’t distract the bad guy at a key moment.  Their failure to follow instructions doesn’t save the day. Their refusal to admit fault doesn’t give a vital clue. What little they do contribute could easily be done by someone else.  Anyone else.
            They’re just annoying. 
            Y’see, Timmy, when a character has such a defining trait that doesn’t pay off somehow, we end up wondering why said character’s even here.  Why did I put someone in my story that nobody likes or relates to?  That serves no purpose?
            That being said... what are some good reasons to have a mosquito in my story?
            Contrast—Sometimes I start off writing a character as a mosquito so they can go through a transformation.  That’s a basic character arc, to start one way, change somehow, and end up as someone a bit different. In Hot Fuzz, Constable Danny Butterman is a mosquito.  He’s the screw-up, chattering cop that type-A police officer Nicholas Angel is partnered with.  Through the course of the film, though, Danny learns to take his responsibilities as a police officer more seriously, and by the end of the story he’s grown up a bit and become a different kind of cop.  In this case, the character starts annoying so they have room to grow.
            We’re All Thinking It—Every now and then, somebody needs to lay the cards on the table. Maybe say some things other characters don’t want to hear. And my mosquito can do this, since they’re usually talking non-stop anyway.  Vince Vaughn has played this character a few times, like in Made when he points out to his friend Bobby (Jon Faverau) that everybody knows Bobby’s would-be girlfriend is sleeping with their boss.  In Love & Other Drugs, Jamie’s little brother Josh pretty much gives a monologue about how eye-opening it was to have sex with someone he didn’t care about, and how up until now he’d really envied his big brother but now he kind of pities him.
            In the same way, if I’ve already got a mosquito, they can beat the audience to asking questions and pointing things out.  This can calm some nitpicky readers and help carry the suspension of disbelief.  On The Flash, Cisco’s tendency to babble makes it more acceptable that he’s constantly coming up with super-villain codenames for the metahumans he and his friends fight.   As with many things, though, this is something I want to be cautious with.  This should be a tool, not part of my core structure.
            Breaking Points—Sometimes the mosquito uses their annoyance to their own benefit.  “The Ransom of Red Chief,” Ruthless People, and The Ref all use the idea of kidnappers stuck dealing with a mosquito.  In The Usual Suspects, Verbal Gint’s nonstop babbling make it hard for the police to catch small holes in his story.
            It’s worth pointing out, though, that in all of these examples, the mosquito is the antagonist of the story.  Not necessarily the villain, but definitely the antagonist.  They start off with them as the victim, but our sympathies slowly shift to the other characters—they’re the ones we’re identifying with and relating to.
            Fast friends—Okay, I was tempted not to mention this one, but... what the hell.  I’m trusting you to use this responsibly.
            Sometimes we need to introduce a character just to kill them off.  The problem is that it’s really hard to have any sympathy for a character we’ve only known for seven or eight pages.  In this case, a mosquito can work because... well, if they’re talking non-stop they have to talk about something, right?  Family, goals, television shows, dirty jokes—there’s any number of things this character can spew out.  The reader can have a reason to like them and before the character gets annoying BANG they’re dead, just like that.
            The thing is... I can only do this rarely.  Once a book is almost too much.  More like once every two or three books.  The moment I start to overuse this, it becomes a cheap gag—the sort of thing done in bad horror movies and SyFy films from the Asylum.
            Keep in mind, there are other ways to make a mosquito acceptable, too.  The important thing is that I have a reason for giving my character such an abrasive trait.  If I don’t... it’s going to be really challenging for me to keep my readers interested.
            And writing is challenging enough as it is without making it harder for no reason.
            Next time, let’s take this storytelling thing on the road.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Do Something

             Remember, remember, the fifth of November...
            So, at the risk of possibly getting some grumbly comments, I wanted to talk for a little bit about a new buzzword I see popping up more and more often.  Agency.  Journalists and critics are latching onto it to talk about characters (often women and people of color, but I've seen it applied to characters of all genders and races). Like so many buzzwords, though, I rarely see it defined by the folks using it.
            Which, of course, makes it easier for them to use...
            This is a bit misleading, though. Agency isn’t a new word. It’s actually a fairly old sociology term (from the Enlightenment) that’s migrated into literature.  Well, migrated’s a bit misleading, too.  Maybe it was chloroformed and woke up tied to a chair, unsure what it was doing here.
            In a sociological and philosophical sense, agency refers, in simple terms, to free will. Can a person make their own choices and affect the world around them?  How much does the world or society they exist in constrain that ability to make choices? Does it cancel out free will altogether, or just the appearance of free will?  Is there a point where I no longer have free will?
            While this is fascinating stuff to debate over drinks, it doesn’t really have anything to do with literature.  As I’ve mentioned in the past, when I’m writing, I’m more or less the god of this little world I’m creating.  And I’m a micro-managing god, too.  None of the characters move, speak, or have a single thought without my say-so.  There is no free will. Zero.  Because I’m creating all of it.  Every sentence, every idea, every word, every punctuation mark.  It all comes from me.
            Okay, in all fairness, some of the punctuation comes from my beta-readers and copyeditor.
            When critics and literary pundits talk about characters having agency, at the core they’re talking about something we’ve addressed here many times. A a writer, I need to make my readers believe these characters are people who are having an actual effect on the story.  My characters shouldn't be window dressing, they need to do things.  If I’m going to make a point of Wakko or Yakko or Dot being in my story, then there should be an actual reason they’re in the story.
            I read a book a while back that was your standard “chosen one shall save us” sort of thing.  A young girl—we’ll call her Phoebe—discovers her birthright and powers, must go into hiding, has to fight off enemies she didn’t know she had, needs to learn how to harness and direct her abilities.  We’ve all seen this a few dozen times at this point, right?
            Except... well, Phoebe didn’t really do anything.  She didn’t discover her powers, she learned about them from her parents.  She didn’t decide to go into hiding, she was told to go—pretty much forced.  There were two guardians who fought off the enemies for her (one actually sacrificed himself so she could get away).  Hell, when Phoebe finally got to the Tabernacle and began to train, people were even walking her through that.  She just kind of stood around looking dazed and confused.  Phoebe didn’t make an actual, independent decision about something until page 114.
            Not exactly inspirational, that chosen one.  In fact, for those first 113 pages Phoebe could’ve been a duffelbag full of towels all the other characters were handing off to one another.  She just didn’t do anything.
            Y’see, Timmy, my characters need to face challenges and need to respond to them.  They should make choices—ones that are consistent with who they are.  They need to be active, with their own thoughts and opinions.  And they should have a real affect on how the story plays out.
            Here’s a simple test we can perform.  Let’s say I scribble out a two or three page summary of my current novel or story or screenplay (choose which one applies to you).  I want to be as thorough as possible without changing how I’m telling the story.  So I put all the introductions, reveals, explanations, and so on in the same order they appear in the book.  Make sense?
            Okay, so let’s look at this.  What characters did I mention? Which ones did I skip over?  Reading through my summary, I mention Eli, Harry, Zeke, Theo, and Fifteen.  I don’t mention Eli’s childhood friends by name, the bus driver, the cashier, or the cigarette man.  That’s because they’re all supporting and background characters.  By nature of the beast, they should be a little more... well, two dimensional.  They’re the stepping stones and redshirts of our story, so we’re not going to focus on them too much.
           So let’s look at the characters we made a point of mentioning and naming.  These should all be important to the story, right?  Every one of them is key somehow.
            Now, take one of them out.
            If these are actual characters who are supporting the plot and making things happen, my story should fall apart without them.  If Dot can step in and immediately pick up the slack from Wakko’s absence... well, he can’t have been that important to things.  If nothing at all changes when Yakko vanishes, he definitely wasn’t important.  And if they’re not important, if they’re not having an effect... I really need to ask myself why they’re here.
            So do great stuff with your characters.  By having them do stuff.
            Next time... I’d like to talk about the bug problem.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Gentlemen... BEHOLD!

            Okay, it’s just going to be a quick post this week. I found out kind of last minute that I’m hosting the Writer’s Coffeehouse in San Diego on Sunday (noon at Mysterious Galaxy—stop by), so I’ve got to scribble up some notes for that.  Also, I’ve got a big Halloween party the night before, so please don’t be surprised if I show up dressed like Rick from Rick and Morty...
            Speaking of which, I think this is the first time I haven’t done a horror post on the week of Halloween.
            But let me get back to this week’s point, which is...
            One of the greatest parts of storytelling, in my opinion, is the reveal.  It’s when we find out who the murderer is, or that Phoebe isn’t really dead, or maybe how Wakko ended up with the Elder Blade, or maybe that it isn’t really the Elder Blade, or maybe that Phoebe is actually Wakko’s long-lost sister Dot and she’s had the Elder Blade all along.  Or maybe it’s something a little more mundane, but still a bit of a shock.  It might just be finding out someone died last week, or that someone actually came over to break up with you and not to make wild monkey-love, or even getting those test results back... not with the result we wanted.  On one level or another, pretty much every story is going to have a reveal of some kind.
            This is how I get information across to the reader—I reveal it.  My characters answer the phone, open a book, get a text message, pull back a curtain, step around a corner, tear open an envelope, or turn slowly to see who’s sitting in that chair by the fireplace.  Lots of reveals are minor, some are subtle, and a few carry a ton of dramatic weight because they’ve just changed how my readers are viewing the story.
            Now, there’s an important thing to remember here, and it ties back to something I’ve mentioned once or thrice in the past.  Facts we don’t know are information. Facts we do know (or could’ve very easily deduced) are noise.  Another way to think of noise is that it’s literary static--clutter on the page. 
            Since a reveal deals with information, it can’t be about facts we already know or could’ve figured out on our own.  Even if my characters don’t know it, it’s still noise to the reader.  So if I structure a paragraph or scene or chapter around a reveal that, well, isn’t really a reveal... it’s going to fall flat.
            Let’s look at an example (one I’m making up off the top of my head).
            Our first shot will be Yakko being sworn in as President of the United States.  Maybe ten or twenty pages later we’ll see him chatting at length with the White House press secretary. After that, he’ll be stepping off of Air Force One, waving to the crowds.      
            And then, finally, we’ll have him on the phone.  A black phone, one that’s still connected to a hard line.  And as Yakko tells someone on the other end “Make it happen,” our point of view pulls back to reveal he’s calling from inside... THE OVAL OFFICE!!!
            Big shocker, right?
           Okay, it’s not.  Really, it’s not a surprise at all.  All of us know where the President spends his workdays.  And, well, since I’d made it really clear Yakko was the President, none of us are surprised to see him in the Oval Office.  So my big reveal at the end of that example is supposed to carry dramatic weight, but instead it stumbles because it isn’t carrying anything except noise.
            Y’see, Timmy, a reveal should give my readers information if expect it to have some dramatic impact.  It isn’t dramatic if we already know it.  Or if we easily could’ve figured it out.  And if my writing’s all done around the idea that it is a  dramatic reveal... that’s how my manuscript ends up in the pile on the left.
            So go forth and reveal yourself in--In your writing!!!  Jeez, it’s Halloween, yeah, but there’s little kids out there...
            Next time... well, I’ll do something.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Yeah, That’s True, Except...

            Okay, this is late.  A week and a day.  Do you want excuses?  I was away at New York Comic Con and then came home to layouts I needed to go over, on top of all the things I just needed to get caught up on. 
            So, that ate up some time.  Sorry.
            Anyway, I’ve mentioned this idea before, but a few recent blog posts and comments I’ve seen made me want to bring it up again.  If we’re going to talk about writing, we need to agree that any such discussion is going to get broken down into either rules or advice.  Or drinking, but that’s not relevant right now.
            Right now, I’d like to talk about the rules.
            Rules are things that all of us, as writers, have to learn.  No questions.  I need to learn what words mean and how to spell them.  I must have a firm understanding of grammar.  A solid grasp of structure is required.  Characters have to hit certain benchmarks. You may notice these things come up again and again when discussing good writing.  There’s a reason for that, and it’s not that professional writers and publishers and editors are all jerks.  Learning the rules means study and practice and failure and more study and more practice and more failure. 
            Why do I bring this up?
            See, I brought up the rules because they’re a good lead in to what I actually wanted to talk about.  Exceptions.  Those cases where the rules don’t apply. Some people love exceptions.  They approach them two different ways, but usually to get the same result.
            Allow me to explain.
            The thing about rules, as so many people have said, is that I have to learn them so I can understand when and where and how to break them.  Because all the rules are breakable.  Never doubt that.  Pick any rule I mention above, or any other rule I’ve ever blabbered on about here.  Mention it in the comments and I’m sure some of the other folks here can give a dozen examples
            Now, some folks think if the rules can be broken anyway, well, why should I bother learning them?  Richard Matheson and Daniel Keyes wrote stories with lots of spelling mistakes. Cormac McCarthy and Peter Stenson don’t use much punctuation.  If they don’t need to do all this, why should I bother learning it?
            Y’see, this mentality means I’m looking at the exceptions, not at the rule.  Yeah, I can point to a handful of stories that break the rules, but I can also point to tens of thousands that don’t.  More importantly, I can point to hundreds of thousands that broke them and were rejected for it.
            Here’s another way to think of this.  Driving a car means following the speed limit.  The exact numbers vary from state-to state, but we all acknowledge that driving in a school zone requires that I travel at a certain speed. So does going through a residential area or traveling on a freeway.  Makes sense, yes?
            An experienced driver knows there are situations where I can flex those rules, though.  There are times I can go a little faster through school zones or residential areas and not worry about it.  In all honesty, I’ve driven over seventy on the highway next to a police officer and only gotten a raised eyebrow.  A lot of you probably have similar stories.
            And yet... none of us are assuming traffic laws and speed limits no longer apply to us.  We just know how to work within the framework of the laws and when we can step outside of it.  We know the rules and we know how and when to break them.
            Contrast that with the guy who goes roaring through a residential area at 70mph in the middle of the day... and then gets annoyed with the officer who pulls him over.  He’s assuming he’s the exception.  He’s doing the same thing I did, but... he’s really not, is he?
            I can’t start with the assumption that I’m the exception.  That the rules or requirements don’t apply to me.  I’m always going to be bound by the same rules as every other writer, and I’m going to be expected to follow them.  Until I show that I know how to break them.  If I don’t know what I’m doing or why, I’m just a monkey pounding on a typewriter, unable to explain how or why I did something and also probably unable to do it again.
            Also, monkeys do not get paid well.
            Now, there’s another mentality I’ve encountered a lot of online.  This is that other way of viewing exceptions that I was talking about.   They’re the folks who use the exception to the rule as a means of dismissing the rule as a whole.  For example, you say every writer needs editing.  Except, I say, Yakko published his book without editing and it did very well.  Ipso facto, writers do not need to edit.  That rule’s out the window and can be ignored. I could probably give a dozen examples of this without trying, I just don’t feel like writing them all out.  Besides, you’ve probably seen them, too.  Everything I mentioned as a rule up above—and dozens more—there’s someone, somewhere right now arguing that’s a stupid rule that this exception proves doesn’t matter.
            Now, to be clear again, I’m not saying these exceptions don’t exist. That’d be silly—they clearly do.  But it’s important to understand that they are the exception. They’re the unusual rarity, not the common thing.  That’s why we’ve heard of them.  Just because there were a hundred news stories about a writer who turned in a handwritten manuscript on yellow legal pads and got it accepted does not mean the publishing industry prefers handwritten manuscripts or legal pads.  We’re only hearing about it because it’s such an oddball thing to happen.
            Now, I try to point out such things when I can, and I think I’ve been pretty open all along on the ranty blog that exceptions do happen.  But I don’t really push them. Honestly, if I had to offer or explain every exception to every rule, this blog probably never would’ve made it past the second or third post.  And each one would be the equivalent of thirty or forty pages long.  This is kind of a teaching 101 thing.  As I said above, you learn the rules, then you learn the exceptions to the rules. 
            Y’see, Timmy, exceptions don’t disprove the rule—they prove it.  Always.  If not editing or handwritten legal pad manuscripts actually demonstrated that these rules don’t matter, then shouldn’t we be seeing hundreds of examples?  Maybe thousands?
            And yet, we don’t.  The majority of our examples are still people following those basic rules.  And flexing them here and there where they can.
            So why do some people do this?  Why do they convince people to ignore the rules?  We could probably debate that for a while.  Regardless, it’s kind of like looking at a thousand cancer patients, finding that one person who spontaneously went into remission, and then loudly declaring no one needs chemo or to get those growths removed—cancer cures itself!  First, it’s just plain wrong. Second, it belittles the 999 other people who are all struggling to do things the right way and undermines the folks trying to help them.
            Exceptions are great.  They’re why all of us can do so much as writers.  But exceptions can’t be my excuse not to learn.  All these rules have developed over the decades for a reason, and they apply to all of us.
            No exceptions.
            Next time, I’d like to take a quick minute to reveal something.
            Until then... go write.