Thursday, January 29, 2015

What’s In Your Arsenal?

            Y’know, while I was pulling links for this post, I realized something kind of amazing (and I’m glad I caught it).  This is the 300th time I’ve posted on this page.  Three hundred ranty posts about characters and dialogue and spelling and structure. Wow.
            I’m kind of surprised we’re all still here.
            But let’s get back to it...
            Odd fact—I’ve probably fired more types of handguns and rifles than anyone reading this.  You might be a firearm enthusiast, you might be former military, you might be in the military now... but there’s a very good chance I’ve got you beat.  I once compared notes with an Army weapons specialist and it turned out I could name almost twice as many firearms than him that I’d used, including a few obscure ones he’d never even heard of.
            The reason why I can do this is all my time in the film industry.  With the different procedural and crime shows I worked on, it was very common to have a new murder weapon every week, along with a red herring weapon and possibly some random thug weapons as well. Pistols, shotguns, rifles, bolt action, lever action, pump, semi-auto, full-auto...  And every one of these that was actually used on screen had to be test fired by me and then by the actors. 
            Even with some common weapons repeating, over the course of fifteen years... I fired a lot of weapons.
            Now, with all that being said, even though I’ve worked with a ton of weapons, I would never consider myself any kind of marksman.  Definitely not a sniper.  Because there is much, much more to being good with weapons then just being able to pull a trigger.  An AK-47 might seem like a ticket to badass-dom, but not if I don’t know how to load it. Or hold it.  Or turn the safety off.  I’ve heard some great (and kind of awful) stories from soldiers about gunfights with people who don’t know how their own weapons work.
            I bet a few folks reading this have an acquaintance who buys nothing but the most expensive, top-of-the-line tools yet still can’t put an IKEA bookshelf together.  Most of us have heard stories about some guy who spends a quarter-million on a car and then wrecks it within a week because “the car outperformed the driver.” Heck, we’ve all seen proof that giving a director access to grade-A actors and millions in film technology is absolutely no guarantee of a decent movie.
            Y’see, Timmy, having high-level tools doesn’t automatically make me skilled.  They’re two entirely different things.  Sure, I can keep jabbing at that bookshelf with my $300 DeWalt Max XR  20 volt hammer drill, but if I just need to tap in a few finishing nails it’s not going to help much. And the parts the drill would actually work for... well, a Phillips head screwdriver would do the same job.  It might even work better, all things considered.  DeWalt’s are great, but they can kind of suck when you need to work in tight spaces.
            Anyway... where am I going with this?
            I’d like to share something with you.  As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, I used to work on a text-based online game, what some of you might know as a MUD.  Because it was text-dependent, it was a chance for some people to really show off their skills.  Or complete lack thereof.  A friend of mine still works there and sometimes she shares things with me.
            So, check out this sentence...
            (names have been changed to protect the horribly guilty)

"Lashes aflutter like the wings of a satin bird, Phoebe sets glaukosphaerite lagoons on the newcomer, a smirk glissading across twin folds."

            Now, I was going to try to sift through this sentence and break down all the places it went wrong.  To be honest, I did.  And I had a page and a half of notes, which is a lot more negativity than I want to have here.  So, instead, let me break all of that down into four simple rules for your writing arsenal.
            And yes, these would be rules, not advice.

            Know what words meanIt doesn’t matter how much my reciprocal saw cost if I keep trying to use it as a butter knife.  An elephant gun is not a sidearm.  And diffuse and defuse mean two entirely different things.
            This is the most important of these rules.  If I want to make my living with words, I need to know them intimately.   Not more or less what they mean or a general idea of how they’re used.  I cannot say words are the tools of my trade and then get repeatedly stumped by vocabulary questions on Jeopardy!. I’ve been doing this for many years, full time for over eight now, and I still pick up the dictionary once or thrice a week to make sure I’m using a given word correctly.  Because I have to know what they mean.
            This is also one of the worst rules to get wrong because it’s a mistake that’s hard to catch.  I won’t catch it because, well, I don’t know I’m using the word wrong.  My computer won’t catch it, because computers are idiots and will only tell me if a word’s spelled right, not if it’s being used correctly. Which means the readers will probably be the ones to catch it... and it won’t give them a good opinion of my skills as a writer.
            Don’t overcomplicate—Stephen King once said that any word you go looking for in the thesaurus for is the wrong word.  I’ve mentioned a few different versions of this rule at one time or another.  I’m not saying my writing can’t have some clever bits to it, but I should never confuse (or equate) overcomplicating my writing with complexity in my writing.
            If I have metaphors for metaphors (like using lagoons instead of pools because I don’t want to use eyes), I am pushing my audience away from reading and into analysis.  This is the kind of thing that destroys the flow of my writing.  And that’s the kind of thing that gets my writing set aside in favor of something else.

            Know how things go together—Remember that AK-47?  It’s not going to be half as effective after I force a lot of shotgun shells into the magazine.  They’re two powerful items that do not work well together.
            People can’t read my sentences if they don’t understand my sentences.  That "descriptive"sentence up above arguably has five completely different similes and metaphors. It’s spinning in multiple directions. This is when things go past overcomplicated and into full-on incomprehensible.  I need to have a firm understanding of the individual parts, how they'll be perceived, and how they'll work as a whole.

            Know what words mean—Did I mention this one already? Well, it’s probably worth mentioning again.  It is the most important of these rules after all.  And the one most people will ignore, because I need to be able to admit I don’t know stuff before I can learn new stuff.

            Have a big arsenal of words because you need it and you can use it.  Not just because you think it makes you look cool.  I can spend twenty minutes looking up glaukosphaerite and making sure it’s spelled correctly (because it won’t be in the spellchecker), but I could also just use green and then finish this whole page in that same amount of time. 
            And more people would understand what I was trying to say.
            Next time, I wanted to tell you about something I’ve felt for a while now...
            Until then, go write.

Friday, January 23, 2015

My Story

            Late again.
            But I’m keeping lots of other schedules, if that matters.
            I’d been playing around with the basic idea for this post when I was scooped by Welcome to Night Vale.  If you’re somehow not familiar with it, it’s a fantastic podcast that purports to be the community radio show from a very, very odd little town out in the desert (although not as odd as those jerks in Desert Bluffs).  If you follow them on social media, they occasionally toss out little Night Vale-ian sayings about life, death, horoscopes, janitors, and so on. A week or so back, there was this one...
            Death is only the end if you assume the story is about you.

            Which is a funnier way of saying what I wanted to talk about.  See, I was going to tell you about the dinner I had the other night.  It was one of those nights where my girlfriend and I just decided to scrounge up meals for ourselves rather than make an actual meal together, and I’d been having odd cravings for scrambled eggs.  I’d also been feeling a little nostalgic because—silly as it sounds—we didn’t eat breakfast Christmas day.  And I’d been thinking about the breakfasts my dad would make on Christmas mornings when my brother and I were kids and we still lived at home.  It was a small, simple tradition, but it was something I’d been thinking about.
            So... That’s what I had for dinner.  Breakfast.  I sliced some kielbasa—yep, kielbasa as breakfast sausage—scrambled three eggs, added a few mushrooms and a bit of cheese, and cooked it all together.  Which I ate while watching an old episode of Home Movies. The ren faire episode, if you care.
            It was a wonderfully satisfying dinner.
            Well, it was to me, anyway.
            What am I getting at?
            There’s a Mel Brooks quote I’ve paraphrased here a few times before.  “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”  It’s usually used to emphasize the comic aspect, but I think it works well in reverse, too.  Many people fail to see that what they consider great, powerful drama is actually, well... not.
            I’ve mentioned beforeseveral times before—that for screenplay contest readers one of the most dreaded scripts is one that comes with a “based on a true story” label.  And the reason for this is that most of us live pretty average lives.  Yeah, even the dramatic parts. We have great successes and miserable failures.  We get knocked down and we pick ourselves back up (or not, sometimes).  We lose people we care about and we find new loves.
            So a lot of these “based on a true story” scripts tend to be... well, dull at best.  Tedious at worst.  Neither of which are labels we want on our writing
            Y’see, Timmy, my life feels special to me because, from my point of view, I’m the main character.  So lots of elements of my life may seem exciting. boring, hysterical, or tragic to me, but that doesn’t automatically mean they will to you.  Or to him.  Or to her. 
            Honestly, quite a bit of my life is average.  Many of you would probably even call it boring.  And I recognize that, which is why I rarely use me as a reference.  Or as a guideline for what most people should know or how most people would react.
            One of the skills we all need to develop as a writer is the ability to sift good ideas from bad ones.  Or common ones.  To recognize that just because something hits me hard doesn’t mean it will have the same resonance with everyone else.  It’s an empathy issue, something I’ve brought up many times before.  If I have trouble honestly seeing the world through different people’s eyes, I’m just not going to be good at this.
            I don’t want to tell you my story.  My story is boring.  That’s why I want to tell you St. George’s story.  And Danielle’s story. And Mike’s story. And the story of how Eli and Harry met three times before they ended up traveling together.
            What story are you going to tell?
            Next time I’d like to talk about firearms, power tools, sports cars, and other expensive things people spend money on for the wrong reasons.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Friends and Family Plan

            Running a little late.  Sorry.
            Hey, last week there were two posts in a row.  You'll survive.  Really.
            Anyway, let’s talk about the system you’re using.
            I think one of the harder things to find is an honest opinion.  Odd to say, I know, with all the folks who like to shout about the truth on the internet, but I think there’s a certain level of honesty that’s difficult to get from people.  Most of us don’t like saying “No.”   Everyone worries about offending someone and the possible ramifications it could have, especially these days when so many comments are taken out of context and so many folks are ready and waiting to be offended by... well, anything. 
            My time in Hollywood taught me that a lot of folks have almost brainwashed themselves against saying “no” or offering any kind of negative feedback. My differing opinion can get me fired, after all, so I keep it to myself.  The person asking “Do you like this?” could end up deciding whether or not I get health insurance and a new office next year, even if they’re just the office PA right now.  They don’t always say yes, but pretty much nobody says no.  No is all but forbidden.
            Unless you’re one of the lucky few who has a partner, writing is something we have to do alone.  The odd conundrum here is that one of the very few ways we can improve as writers is to get feedback.  People need to read our work and express their thoughts and opinions about it.  I need to have an audience. A real audience.
            What counts as a real audience?  Well, it’s people who will give me an honest opinion.  People who are willing to say no.  A solid beta reader, as they’re often called, won’t mince words or spare my feelings, because they understand I need to know what’s wrong with my work so I can improve it.  Kindness and white lies don’t help me at all.  They only undermine my attempts to get better.
            A little story...
            When I was a kid, my mom read pretty much every piece of half-finished crap I wrote.  And believe me, I wrote a lot of it.  She slogged through at least three versions of Lizard Men from the Center of the Earth between third and seventh grade. There were also a few good-sized pieces of Boba Fett and Doctor Who fanfic (long before there was such a term).  Plus a bunch of short stories and a truly awful sci-fi “novel” called A Piece of Eternity that had cosmic rays and mutants and cute little robots and bug-aliens that were shamelessly ripped off from the old Marvel Micronauts comics.
            Now, there’s no question in my mind that I wouldn’t be where I am today if my mom hadn’t kept reading this stuff and encouraging me to write more.  None at all.
            I eventually realized something.  My mom was pretty much always going to say she liked what I was writing because she’s my mom and that’s what good mothers do.  It didn’t matter if the material was good, bad, or borderline nonsensical, my mom would congratulate me on it.
            Which is when I realized I needed to start getting other opinions.
            Now, granted, this is an extreme example.  I’m not saying my mother should’ve told the eleven-year-old me that my writing was childish and predictable and I didn’t have a chance of ever getting published.  That would’ve just been cruel, and also a bit unfair.  In one way, this blind kindness was a good thing.
            However, this kindness can also be a trap.  And many people, willingly or not, fall into it. 
            Dot, for example, surrounds herself with people who won’t give her honest opinions.  She’ll only show her writing to immediate family members, or friends who are so close they’ve got all the same interests and background.  Parents, siblings, friends, lovers—people with a strong desire not to hurt her feelings, and, on some level, a vested interest in keeping her happy.
            Is it really that surprising to learn these people all say Dot’s writing is great.  Her mom and dad think it’s wonderful.  Her friends got all the jokes.  Her brother Yakko loves it.  Her boyfriend (or maybe girlfriend—Dot’s very open-minded) thinks she should send it out to some magazines or agents.
            Are they all lying to her?  Possibly not.  There’s always that chance Dot is the next Harper Lee or Ernest Hemingway, unable to produce anything except Pulitzer-level material when left alone with a word processor.  Maybe she really is a writing savant, able to put down words on the first try that are going to make the Nobel Committee weep tears of joy.
            But, as they say in Vegas, I wouldn’t put money on it.
            Worse yet, sometimes these well-meaning folks will tell Dot to ignore the good criticism she is getting.  Did Phoebe’s feedback sting a bit?  Did it make Dot question her abilities a little? Well, just ignore it.  What does she know, anyway?  She’s just one person, and she’s probably jealous of Dot’s talent.  That’s why she’s tearing the story apart like that.
            We all start out rough.  Our first works suck.  Usually our second works, too.  But we can’t get past that until we admit it and really consider some of the feedback we’re getting... and the people we’re getting it from.
            Finding a real, honest audience for your work can take years.  Some folks mean well, but are coming from a place of no education and/or no experience.  A few of those folks are coming with no education or experience and they’ll ask you for money.  And some of them... well, let’s be honest.  Some people are just jerks.  They like to look down their noses and criticize people—sometimes for no real reason, sometimes so they can feel superior. They'll give an opinion and expect you to treat it as fact.
            Over the years since Mom read all my stories, out of the hundreds of people I’ve met in the film and publishing industry, I’ve found maybe a double handful of people whose opinions I really trust.  They have the education, they have the experience, and at the end of the day they want to see my writing improve almost as much as I do.  Several of them are merciless and blunt to a point that could make small children cry, and I consider myself lucky for that.
            And, for the record, Mom still likes a lot of my stuff, too.  But she only sees the final version.
            Speaking of my mom, next time I’d like to tell you my story. It’s the most interesting thing ever.  Really.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, January 1, 2015


             I decided I was pretty much recovered from last night's festivities and it was time to get back to work.  So I pulled open my current draft, glanced at the time (and date, just to make sure I hadn’t really overslept), and realized it was Thursday.  The day I’m supposed to post new things.  And I know I just posted the end of the year wrap-up yesterday, and I’d said I probably wasn’t going to post anything today.
            But then, in the immortal words of Doctor Emmet Brown, I figured... what the hell.
            (see, clever and relevant pop culture reference...)
            Anyway, I’d like to continue my tradition of starting the year by explaining the ideas behind this page and what I’m trying to accomplish here.
            A better way to look at it, though, is what are you hoping to accomplish?
            This is the time when we all make a lot of promises to ourselves.  Resolutions, if you will.  We’re going to eat better, drink less, exercise more, quit smoking, visit Europe, and maybe finally get some work done on that manuscript.  Get it finished!
            Now, we all know the truth behind a lot of these resolutions.  Most people don’t follow through on them.  In fact, gyms make a ton of money off people who sign up for a one year membership in January and then stop showing up in... February.
            And we don’t think less of most of these folks when they don’t follow through.  If Wakko says he wants to lose ten pounds this year and then finds out he’s getting a promotion and he’s going to be a dad, well, his priorities are going to shift a bit.  We all get that and understand it.  Likewise, going to Europe is something Dot always wanted to do, but there’s nothing terribly urgent about it. If it doesn’t happen this year, maybe next year.
            The real question, in my mind, is why does someone want to do these things?
            Let’s say Yakko also wants to visit Europe, but he’s doing it as part of a career move.  Being able to talk knowledgeably about Edinburgh, Paris, and Berlin can make or break his promotion chances, and he wants that promotion. This may just be a vacation for Dot, but for Yakko it’s going to affect the next twenty years of his life. They’re going to approach it in very different ways.
            They should, anyway.
            I’ve already seen a ton of folks making writing resolutions.  To finish a screenplay or a book.  Maybe two books.  There were even a few daring people who wanted to get three books finished this year.
            But why?  Do I just want to write a screenplay because I’ve always wanted to try it?  Or am I hoping this could lead to a career in the film industry?  Am I writing this novel just for myself, or am I maybe looking to...well, make some money off of it?  And if so, am I looking at this as a nice hobby that will pay for some LEGO models, or is this something I’m hoping will be a full career?  Like a paying-all-the-bills career?
            I started this page many years back because I couldn’t find any good, practical writing advice anywhere online.  It was all either after-the-fact stuff about what to do with a completed manuscript or kind of vague, not-all-that-useful stuff like “read a book of poetry for inspiration, or try watercolor paints.”
            A good chunk of the advice I could find that actually pertained to the act of writing was kind of... questionable.  Always follow this structure.  Always write at least 1000 words a  day.  Don’t worry about spelling or editing.  Never use common words.  Never use said.  Name every character.  It all just seemed to be either something people were pulling out of the air or repeating after it had gone through a twenty-iterations version of the telephone game.
            And, as I mentioned, a lot of my own experience found this to be questionable.
            So that’s what I’m trying to do here—to fill a gap for people who’d like to improve their writing and move it toward something they could actually sell to a much larger audience and maybe not just... well, a hundred people they know on Facebook.
            That being said, there’ll be some harsh facts now and then. Also some very firm rules.  Some folks will argue with these (some folks always do) because some of those harsh facts and ugly truths are going to go against a lot of the “special snowflake” ideas they’ve based their writing around.  Others will be upset because some of the things I say might indicate they’re not quite as far along their career path as they thought.  Or maybe they’re not on it at all. 
            I apologize in advance if this ends up being you.  It’s nothing personal—it’s just the facts as I see them after about thirty-five years of trying to do this professionally. If it makes you feel better, there are very, very few screw-ups someone can make that I didn’t beat you to ages ago.
            I’ll also offer up some much gentler tips and advice (some of which you may have heard before as facts or rules...).  Some of these suggestions will work for you.  Some won’t.  Part of my job as a professional writer is to figure out what does and doesn’t work for me and to sort my tool chest accordingly.  If you want to be a professional, that’s part of your job, too.
            And, again, if writing’s just something you like to dabble with on weeknights because you enjoy it... cool.  Maybe you’ll find some stuff here that makes it more fun for you.  Or maybe you’ll just show up to laugh at those of us in the publishing rat race.  That’s cool, too.
            So...that’s the basic idea behind this page.
            Next time, on a semi-related note, I’d like to talk to you about your choice of friends.
            Until then, go write.