Thursday, April 28, 2016

Spelling—Yes, Again!

            By the time you’re reading this, I’m either high in the air soaring over the American southwest, or possibly landed and already in the hotel bar.  Yes, even if you’re reading this sometime on the weekend, there’s a decent chance I’m in the hotel bar.  I'm at Texas Frightmare Weekend, stop by and say hullo.
            Looking back through things, I decided we were overdue to discuss that most favorite of topics... spelling.
            I know I hammer on spelling a lot.  At least two posts a year, which means something like one out of twenty posts on average.  I brought it up at the Writers Coffeehouse recently and got a couple pleasant smiles and a few eye-rolls from folks.  Even as a non-telepath, I could almost feel and hear the thought-waves bouncing around the room.  “Of course we need to know about spelling. That’s a given. Can we get to the important stuff?”
            Here’s the thing though...
            I’ve talked with lots of editors.  And a couple of agents.  Plus, back in the day, I interviewed a dozen or more folks who ran screenwriting contests across the country (even some of the really big ones you’ve heard about).  D’you know what every single one of them named as the number one mistake they saw?  The most glaring, common problem with submissions?
            Grammar came in a close second, but everyone said spelling first.  Not formatting. Not subject matter. Spelling was the problem they saw again and again and again.
            Which is why I tend to go on about it here.  It’s a very basic, very common problem, one that can lead an editor to throw my manuscript on that big pile on the left.  And I think the advent of technology has made it a hard problem to acknowledge. For example, if you’ve been following the ranty blog for a while, you might remember me using this sentence a few times before...

Inn odor two kell a vampire yew most half a would steak.

            Now, the first impulse is to say pretty much every word in that sentence is spelled wrong.  The catch is... none of them are.  Oh, most of them aren’t the right word, yes, but they’re all spelled correctly.
           This is what I’m talking about with “the advent of technology.” See, when I ran this document through a spellchecker, it leaped right over that sentence.  Because there aren’t any spelling mistakes in it.  And so this leads a lot of people to believe they’re much better spellers than they really are.
            Also, to be clear, I’m not talking about typos.  Y’know, when you’re going to fast and leave an O off too, or you’re just caught in the moment and miss that R altogethe.  Or we’re in a groove, type hear instead of here, and forget to go back in the flurry of words.  That happens to everybody.  All of us make typos.  Every pro writer, every novice, every rank amateur.  I don’t think I’ve ever shown a manuscript to a beta reader or editors and not have them find at least half a dozen typos in there.
            What I’m talking about is not knowing how to spell in the first place.  If I don’t know the difference between its and it’s, I’m going to have a tough time as a writer. Same thing with the infamous they’re, their, and there.  If I’m pretty sure I know what anathema means (deadly poison, right?), but I never bother to actually learn what it means, odd are I’ll be using it wrong a lot. 
            And when I make all these mistakes, my spellchecker’s still going to tell me my manuscript is absolutely fine.  And so some folks who are really awful at spelling never improve.  They see no need to.  The computer told them they were right.  You’re not going to argue with the Machine, are you!?!?  It told me the words were all correct!!
            That’s when this gets really silly.  Sometimes the spelling will be so redacalusey off on a word that spellchecker kind of flails for a second and throws out its best guess.  And if I don’t know how to spell or what words really mean, I might just blindly accept whatever the Machine tells me.  Like up above.  You understood from context that I meant to write ridiculously, but the spellchecker just looked for a close match and gave me radicalize.
            Let me give you another example.  I read a manuscript recently with a heavy crime element and it kept referring to “the infighting incident.”  I could not for the life of me figure out what it was talking about.  Was there some internal mob power struggle going on that I’d missed?
            After a few attempts, it hit me. The author hadn’t written in infighting—they’d written insighting, a bad attempt to spell inciting.  So when the Machine hit insighting, it suggested the closest word and they said “sure, change it.”
            Check out this list of words. They’re all pulled from various books, articles, and blog posts.  One or two of them were mine.  All of them are from people trying to come across as professionals.

a lot vs. allot
pleas vs. please
possible vs. posable
mascara vs. massacre
tact vs. tack
your vs. yore
aloud vs. allowed
lo vs. low
canon vs. cannon
peak vs. peek
ensure vs. insure
Claus vs. Clause
marital vs. martial
wanton vs. wonton

            Did you know them all?  Did you really know them all, or are you just sort of aware that these are two different words?  If I picked one of these pairs at random, could you tell me the difference between these words?
            For example, Amazon once offered a LEGO AT-AT for sale which came with possible legs.  I’ve lost track of how many authors I’ve seen fire canons at me, often back in the days of your.  And if we’re talking about late night encounters, would you rather be writing about a peek experience or a peak experience?  Depending on your personal preferences, either one might pique your interest, but they’d be two fairly different things.  And when I try to bring these points up in discussion, somebody almost always tries to change tact.
            If I want to be a writer, I have to know words.  I have to love them.  Words need to be to me what clay is to a sculptor.  A sculptor can tell the difference between clay and plasticene, between green stuff and Fimo, and between Sculpey and Play-Doh.  I need to know the difference between they’re, there, and their.  I need to understand that infighting and inciting aren’t remotely the same thing.
            I need a better-than-working vocabulary.  I need to be able to spell.  Me, not my spellchecker. Because my spellchecker is an idiot, and idiots make lousy writing partners.
            Next time, I’d like to challenge you with something we haven’t talked about in a while.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Stakes

            Hello, all. Sorry again for the delay.  I’ve been beating myself near-senseless against this new draft, and tax stuff, and prepping for a con (Texas Frightmare in Dallas/Fort Worth—one week from now!).  Plus I got selfish and decided to sleep for three hours one night...  I think we’re going to be back for the next several weeks with no problem, though.  I just focused a lot on the new book because I feel like there’s a lot riding on it.
            Speaking of which...
            If you listen to writer-types a lot, one term you’ve probably heard a few times is the stakes.  What are the stakes? What’s at stake? Something like that.
            Every story needs stakes.  Simply put, the stakes are the possible repercussions of failure or inaction.  It’s what’s going to happen if my characters don’t succeed in their various challenges.
            This may seem a little silly to say, but generally those repercussions are bad.  A common thing we see at stake is someone’s life—or maybe many people’s lives.  Maybe it’s the protagonists, maybe it’s the life of someone else.  For a lot of summer movies it can mean the fate of the whole world.  The old school/orphanage/watering hole is another common stake.  Freedom’s one, too.  Secretes being revealed.  And there’s always money (billions of dollars at stake!).  These are all great stakes to have in a story.  It’s also not uncommon for a story to lead us in by claiming X is at stake, only to twist things a bit and let us see we’re trying to prevent a much bigger Y from happening.
            Stakes can also be internal, more about my story than my plot.  Maybe Wakko’s sense of self-worth is at stake.  Or maybe his dream of being an astronaut.  Or of getting the girl.
            (...although let’s face it. If Beth is only interested in you because you can ski the K-12, maybe she’s not really worth it.  Have you noticed that cute foreign exchange student across the street?  She seems like a much better person overall...)
            Now, this brings up a key point.  You may notice a lot of the stakes in that last paragraph are kind of small.  Minor, you might even say.  And it’s true, these are small-scale stakes—for you and me.  For Wakko, though, these stakes are huge!  And in a small, personal story that’s fine.
            See, the thing about stakes is they have to be high for my character. That’s what matters.  Yes, it’s horrible if a husband/father might die in a taxi crash in New York, but stopping it from happening is going to mean a lot more to his wife and kids than it does to me.  If we were in the position, any of us would try to stop it—we’re all decent people—but none of us is going to have that sheer need to stop it that his wife and kids would.  For them, those stakes are much bigger.
            So, hey, let’s talk about this with a shameless Marvel movie reference...
            In Ant-Man, Hank Pym has a long talk with Scott Lang where he explains the whole situation with his shrinking technology, the balance of power, and his old assistant Darren Cross.  Scott listens, then very calmly says “I think our first move should be... calling the Avengers.”  And we all laugh, because this is a perfectly reasonable thing to say in the Marvel Cinematic Universe when someone has what feels like a big problem.
            The ugly truth is, though, in a world where AI robots drop cities out of the sky and fish oil pills can bring destructive superpowers or death... Hank’s problems are kind of small scale.  No pun intended.  And when he busts Scott out of jail and gets him involved so Scott will have a chance to repair things with his ex-wife and daughter, well... it’s still pretty small.  Keeping technology from falling into the wrong hands, a jailbreak, stopping the crazy apprentice, fixing my life so I can be with my daughter... these are all small stakes, in the big scheme of things.
            Thing is, that’s exactly why they work.  It’s completely believable that Hank will be obsessed with how the technology he invented is used.  With all the problems in the world, we wouldn’t buy it if the Black Widow or Thor showed up just to save this one guy’s daughter—but it’s very believable that Scott would do anything he could for his daughter.
            Another point, kind of related to the personal aspect.  Stakes need to be believable.  As I’ve said many, many times, storytelling all comes down to characters.  If I can’t believe in what my characters are experiencing or encountering, in their motives or goals, it’s going to be really hard for me to believe in the story as a whole.  I believe in the Infinity Gem creating some very high stakes in Guardians of the Galaxy—an entire story set against a cosmic, futuristic backdrop—but that kind of nigh-omnipotent power just wouldn’t fit in Ant-Man.  The tone needs to be believable, too.  Again, cosmic vs. small and personal, epic vs. intimate.  There’ve been numerous Muppet movies with high stakes, but none where the goal is to stop a serial killer or prevent a bioterror attack.  These stakes are high, no question, but they’re just not the right tone for a story starring the Muppets.
            There’s also a time factor with stakes—there shouldn’t be enough of it.  If Yakko has a deadly disease that kills people in thirty years, bare minimum... well, that doesn’t seem that urgent.  If Wakko’s daughter is kidnapped and they say they’re not going to think of harming her for six months... well, this is bad, but we’ve got time.
            If my stories have a threat, that threat has to happen now.  Not in a year, not in a month—now.  The window of opportunity for my characters should be closing fast, because if it isn’t... well, human nature, right?  Why put it off until tomorrow when I really don’t need to worry about it until August.
            August of 2068, just to be clear.
            This brings me to another small point (again, no pun intended).  The butterfly effect doesn’t really work when it comes to stakes.  If you’re not familiar, the butterfly effect is when very small actions lead to very large repercussions.  In the classic Ray Bradbury story “A Sound of Thunder,” killing a butterfly millions of years in the past changes a time traveler’s present from a progressive, Federation-esque world to a harsh, neo-fascist one.  It’s a common idea.  Changing A will result in B, which will give us C, only one short step from D, and after D then E is inevitable.  And nobody wants E to happen.
            The catch is that it can be very tough to convey that.  Stakes need to be a little more immediate and personal and not quite so “long chain of events.”  I’ve talked before about keeping things close and personal for my characters—this is that kind of thing.
            Let’s look at Ant-Man again.  One of the plot points is how much damage Hank’s technology could cause if everyone had it.  If Hydra or the Ten Rings got hold of that tech, they could kill anyone with impunity.  Armies of 1/16” assassins.  Terrifying, right?
            And yet... the story kinda brushes over this.  It’s addressed, but after that it just becomes about stopping Cross from selling the tech.  We don’t need to deal with those further-down-the-road repercussions, we just need to stop him right now.  We put a face on it, because these are the stakes that are big to Scott, Hope, and Hank.
            So, my stakes need to be big.  More importantly, big for my characters.  They need to be believable.  They also  need to be imminent.  And they need to be very direct—the more separated they are from the characters and their actions, the less impressive they’re going to be.
            Easy, right?
            Actually let me toss out one last thought on this...
            Hollywood’s convinced a lot of people that everything needs to be huge. Epic-huge!  WORLD-SHATTERING HUGE!  If the stakes don’t involve at least five billion deaths and/or seventy billion dollars, they’re not high enough.  Producers push for this all the time, so these days a lot of screenwriters (and novelists) tend to lean this way automatically...
            Thing is though, those kind of stakes can be exhausting for everyone.  The readers, the characters... even the writer.  That’s one of the other reasons Ant-Man went over well with so many folks. After all the previous Marvel movies had saved the United States from being overthrown (three times), saved mankind from extinction (twice), and even saved the whole galaxy from a would-be god... yeah, it was nice to deal with a story where the stakes were a bit smaller and more personal.  Hell, figure one of the best- selling books of the past decade—Andy Weir’s The Martian—is about saving one guy’s life. One. That’s it.
            So make sure you’ve got your stakes set.
            Next time... we’re going to talk about something we haven’t discussed in a while. Using the rite words.
            Until then... go write.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Looking For Something To Lean On?

             Wow.  This is so crazy overdue.  My sincere apologies, and many thanks to the six of you who’ve hung around this long waiting for a new post.
            Alas, I’m going to be touching on an old idea, and doing it with an old story.  But it’s all kind of relevant...
            So... true story time.
           As many of you know, I worked in the film industry for many years as a prop master. What some of you may not know is that about... wow, seventeen years ago I was working on an alien invasion film and messed up my knee.  Ruined it, really.  I was running up a staircase with a case of props for the alien autopsy scene and turned too fast on a stairwell landing.  Well, I turned.  My knee twisted.  It actually made a bubble-wrap noise.
            I spent about an hour that night in a quiet part of the set crying into my arm because the pain was so bad.
            After that, I spent two and a half months walking with a cane and dry-swallowing painkillers before I got in to have my meniscus rebuilt. 
            On my 30th birthday. 
            No, seriously.  Think of all the many things you could do/did on your 30th birthday.  Not for me.  No booze, no party, no sex, no presents.  I had a friend who drove me home from the outpatient clinic and dumped me on the floor of my apartment.  And then three months of rehab after that.
            I finally got back to full mobility, got back to work, and guess what happened?  Less than five months later, I damaged the other knee on a straight-to-DVD movie.  This time it was three months of waiting for workman’s comp to schedule surgery. 
            At least the cane was broken in by this point.
            After almost a year and a half of sitting around doing nothing... I’d put on some weight.  And when I say “some” I mean it in the same way some folks say “yeah, Jeb Bush could’ve done better in those early primaries.”  To be blunt, I’d packed on almost fifty extra pounds.  And I am not a tall guy, so fifty pounds really shows on me
            Fortunately, an actor I was working with knew I was trying to trim some fat and shared a few tips.  He also had a great personal trainer.  Jerzy—said trainer—showed me a few exercises, offered some diet tips, but for most of those first two hours we just talked.  And one thing became very clear.
            There would be no hand-holding, no prodding.  Jerzy wasn’t a “shout at you to do crunches” kind of trainer.  I would get the instruction book, the rules, and then I’d be left on my own for a month.  This was all my responsibility.  After all, if I was going to lose this weight, the only person that could really make it happen was me.  Jerzy gave me his home phone number, his cell, and his email.  “But,” he said with a shrug, “if you really need me to tell you ‘don’t eat the chocolate cake’... you can’t be that serious about losing the weight.”
            See where I’m going with this?
            With the Writer’s Coffeehouse, this ranty blog, random messages on Twitter or Facebook, I’d guess every three or four weeks I get asked something along the lines of “how do you do it?”  How I manage to sit down every day and pound out a few thousand words?  How do I exercise the self control to plant myself in front of my desk and write?
           The answer’s simple.  There’s no trick to sitting down and writing. None at all. 
           You just do it. 
           Y’see, Timmy, if I’m serious about this, I shouldn’t need to find some clever reason or inspiration to get myself in the chair every day.  I should want to be there.  The real problem should be getting me out of the chair.
             Which brings me back to Jerzey.  I lost sixty pounds in fourteen months working with him.  And in about two weeks I’ll be starting my tenth novel.   That’s tenth published novel, to be clear.  Published by someone else.  Who gave me money for the right to publish my work.
            I’m not saying that to brag or to disparage anyone else. I’m saying to make the point that one of the main reasons it happened is because I sit my butt in a chair and write.  Every day.
            And nobody needs to tell me to do it.
            Oh, while I’m thinking of it, this Sunday is the Los Angeles Writers Coffeehouse!  Noon to three at Dark Delicacies in Burbank.  We’re going to talk about mysteries and twists and reveals.  It’ll be fantastic, it’s free, and all you have to do is show up.
            Next time—and next time will be very soon, I promise—I think we need to talk about what’s at stake.
            Until then... go write.