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.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Photo Tip

            Just a quick reminder that I’m off at New York Comic-Con this week, so instead of a full post you’ll be getting a couple of helpful little photo tips like this one.
            If you happen to be at New York Comic-Con, please come say “hi” at one of my panels or signings (I've got stuff on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday).  It’ll make me feel better about doing this every week.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

            Just a quick post this week.
            I wanted to talk about repetition.  Repetition can be a powerful tool.   It is amazing when used correctly.
            But sometimes it indicates a problem.  A tool being used incorrectly.  Perhaps always repeating the same words.   Or always using the same phrasing.  Or very similar sentence structure. And this is when repetition fails.  Because now it weakens the story.  Or the post, in this case.
            Do you see what I mean?
            All these sentences have six words.  No more or less in each.  The words are all different lengths. The structure of each sentence varies.  But you still feel the rhythm. Six words repeating over and over.  The pacing feels a bit unnatural.  And then I start watching it.  I stop reading the story normally.  I end up auditing each line. I count up the repeating words
            This is when repetition means boring.
            And my readers hate boring.
            Okay, that’s enough of that.  Did the last sentence seem to slam the point home a bit in your mind?  Especially at the end?  Look again—the last sentence only has five words.  It’s different.  It stands out.
            I’ve also seen people who repeat the same opening for every sentence.  I’ve also seen people who repeat the same structure for every sentence.  I’ve also seen people who repeat the same opening and structure for each sentence.  I’ve also seen people who repeat the same trick again and again and expect it to have the same impact.
            But it’s not just the blatant stuff. Repetition can creep into my writing a bunch of ways.  I may be using the same word a lot.  We all have a phrase or a term we latch onto and have to go rooting out of our manuscripts.  Or maybe someone’s name.  It might even be the way I present information. 
            I spend a lot of time trying to weed out of much of that as I can. Even something as simple as dialogue descriptors—I hate looking at a page and seeing a chorus of Wakko said, Dot said, Yakko said, Wakko said, Phoebe said.  Not that there’s anything wrong with said—it’s a borderline-invisible word.  But this structure of name-said-dialogue, name-said-dialogue, name-said-dialogue, name-said dialogue... it’s just boring as hell.
            D’you notice that one? The fourth repetition is just too much, isn’t it.  You get the point, I don’t need to keep pounding you with it.
            And it’s so easy to break up that sort of thing. Name-said-dialogue.  Dialogue-name-said.  Dialogue-said-name.  Really, if everything’s working right, I probably don’t even need descriptors past a certain point.
            Y’see, Timmy, that’s the thing about repetition.  It can be a powerful form of writing.  It’s writing at level eight or nine.  But we’ve talked about this before—what happens when everything’s set up at nine or ten?
            It’s dull.  It’s monotone.  It’s true for my story, but it’s also true for my writing itself.  If I try to make every page, every paragraph, every single six-word sentence a piece of dialed-up-to–ten Pulitzer-winning literature, my writing is going to get boring really fast.
            D’you catch that?  Repetition for emphasis.  At the end. Where I want to score the big points.
            I don’t need to be scared of repetition.  I just shouldn’t be wasting it when I don’t really need it.
            Next time...
            Well, I’ll be honest.  This time next week I’ll be moderating a couple panels at New York Comic Con and doing a couple of signings.  So next week will probably be a few photo tips.  But hopefully you all know that sort of thing’s the exception, not the rule.
            And if you’re attending NYCC and you have some time, please stop by and say “hello.”
            Until then... go write.
            And don’t repeat yourself.