Thursday, September 26, 2019

Getting It

Is it just the view on my screen, or has the tag cloud over there in the right margin kind of... collapsed? Shattered? It doesn’t look right, that’s for sure. Apologies if you’ve gone looking for something and it’s especially hard to find.


I stumbled across an issue recently in two very different books, and then in a movie, and it’s semi-related to some things I’ve talked about before. So I figured it might be worth a little refresher. And, not to sound silly but.. some of you are going to get this immediately and some of you aren’t.

There’s an idea I’ve mentioned here a  few times, which I first heard (read, really) from Damon Knight.  If we’re presented with a fact we don’t know, it’s information. If it’s a fact we do know, it’s just noise. I don’t bother to explain what the ranty blog is about every week, because if you’ve found yourself here odds are you already know. But I will discuss Phoebe’s height a lot this week (she’s over six feet tall) because it’s kind of germane to the discussion, as one might say.

It’s very important that Phoebe is tall in my story. In fact, it’s semi-critical that my readers know she’s just over six feet. It’s a key point for her, and I can’t have them picturing her shorter—let alone drastically shorter—because it’ll make things very confusing at a later point in the story.

So... how do I do this? How do I make sure that when readers picture Phoebe, they picture her as just-over-six-feet in height? That it’s one of her defining details, something they absolutely picture about her?

Well, yeah, I have to put it in her description, sure. Writing it out is kind of a given. But I’ve talked before about how descriptions don’t always stick. We get mental images of characters that don’t always match up with their written descriptions. And, as I’ve mentioned, it’s really important that people remember Phoebe’s pretty tall (she is, as I may have mentioned, just over six feet).

Which brings us to another idea I’ve talked about—repetition. I’ve talked before about repeating words, phrases, and structures to get a certain effect. What I’d like to talk about today is using repetition on a slightly more visible level to try to cement important details (like Phoebe’s just over-six foot height) in my reader’s mind.

And I’d like to do that with the obvious example—A Christmas Story.

For those of you who are somehow unfamiliar with the movie, A Christmas Story is about a boy named Ralphie who wants... well, we can probably say is obsessed with getting a Red Ryder BB gun. It’s pretty much all he talks about. In fact, in a  ninety-three minute movie, he mentions it by name almost thirty times. He’s basically saying it every three minutes. If we go off standard script timing the Red Ryder BB gun comes up every three and a half pages. Is this a good rate to mention something important? I mean, A Christmas Story’s a legendary film, so it’s gotta be doing something right, yeah?

Let’s keep a few things in mind, though. Ralphie’s an obsessed little kid. He’s basically the nice version of Eric Cartman ranting about what color MegaMan he wants for his birthday. He’s single-focused in a way most mature adults grow out of pretty quick. And while it’s funny in small doses, I think we can all be honest and admit that Ralphie’s... kind of annoying. It’s in a cute way, but there’s no way he’d get away with this if he wasn’t a chubby-cheeked little kid with glasses.

(who later grew up to hate Iron Man and run tech support for Mysterio--seriously!)

But if I’m not writing from the point of view of an adorkable pre-teen, this level of repetition can get annoying real fast and start dragging my story down. Take Phoebe and her just over six-foot height for example. I only mentioned her five times (six counting this one), but the mentions of her and her height were starting to get on your nerves, weren’t they? There’s just so many times I can repeat this information before you’re grinding your teeth and saying “Yes, I get it, can we move on now please...”  In this case, repetition is more of a necessary evil, because there’s no way for us to get things across without putting it on the page somehow.

So... how many times?

As a good rule of thumb, I think I’d like to fall back on, well, another rule of thumb I’ve mentioned here once or thrice before. The rule of three. Really, really quick and dirty, the rule of three basically says by the third time I mention something—who Dot got the necklace from, needing to be worthy to lift the hammer Mjolnir, or how tall Phoebe is—my audience almost always gets it.

I’d like to add a small proviso to that, just for when we’re talking about this specific instance. Whatever my super-important detail is, I should mention or give an example of it twice very early on. If it’s Dot’s necklace, maybe she can muse about it once and someone can ask her about it. If it’s about that hammer, maybe Odin can whisper about it once and Thor can demonstrate it fifteen or twenty minutes later. Maybe Phoebe can address some part of her morning ritual she needs to adjust for her height (crouching in the shower) and then someone else can actually flat our comment on it.  These are all early, act one sort of things. Formative things. A one-two punch to land the information and drive it home before it has a chance to become noise.

And then forget about it. If a moment comes up in the story that absolutely calls for this detail to be mentioned again, but if not... don’t. Trust that your audience has it in mind.

The third time should be very close to the payoff, even if it’s hundreds of pages later. This is my last chance to nudge that idea into the reader’s mind before the reveal slams it into their eyes. Or ears. Okay, also into their minds. Look, this isn’t an exact science, okay?

And again, this is only if that fact or detail is really important. Like, deathly important.  Story collapses without it important. If it’s just me wanting Phoebe to be a blonde or, hey, the hammer has a woven leather grip... well, these are just regular bits of description. They’re the things I don’t worry about because my readers are probably going to have their own mental images for them. And that’s fine.. Seriously. If you want to picture Phoebe having auburn-brown hair, that’s cool  And because it’s not important, I don’t want to be driving that point of description home.

Actually, y’know what? I just thought about a better analogy (thus rendering most of this post irrelevant). We’ve talked about names here a bunch of times. How it’s okay not to name some characters? I can just let them sort of be in the background? 

That’s what details are like. There will be a lot of details in my writing that can be beautifully done, but ultimately they’re just sort of there and that’s okay. My reader can enjoy them in the moment but doesn’t need to keep them firmly in mind for things to work in my story. The ones I want to repeat, the ones that need to be specific, are the ones that are going to have an effect on how things unfold.

Y’see, Timmy, much like with names, I don’t want to bog down or annoy my readers with a bunch of details that aren’t going to matter. And I still don’t want to overuse the ones that are going to matter, because that’ll annoy them, too. I need to find that sweet spot where the facts register and get remembered, but don’t become noise.

Next time, I’d like to talk real quick about going with the default settings on this thing.

Until then, go write.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Getting Paid To Do It

A funny title, yeah, but I freely admit I’m kinda lifting it from a somewhat-similarly themed book by Peter Lefcourt and Laura J Shapiro.

Look, nobody likes talking about this sort of stuff. It makes us all feel a bit uneasy, because our Puritan ancestors beat this sort of thing into us so hard we’re all still feeling it 400 years later. “Money is the root of all evil! Hard work is its own reward! Money won’t buy you happiness!” I’ll be honest—I’m aware of all of this, this kinda societal indoctrination—and I’m still feeling kinda weird sitting here writing about it.

A lot of folks are talking about this right now and I think that’s good. Different facets of this topic keep coming up to the surface every few months it seems, and a few versions have been bouncing around the internet just the past week or two. It’s like the little dodecahedron inside a Magic 8-Ball, and every time we swirl it a new face pops up in the window and says something along the lines of IF YOU WERE A REAL ARTIST THE MONEY WOULDN’T MATTER

So let’s toss the Magic 8-Ball aside for now (you know we’re just going to pick it up again—they’re always so tempting) and try to have an honest talk about art and money. Because there’s a number of folks on both sides of the artist/audience line that have kinda... skewed views on, well, doing it for money.

One thing we don’t talk about is the fact that a lot of the art that gets created is inevitably shaped by financial factors. I know a ton of artists. Comic artists, painters, sculptors, actors, singers, and yeah a ton of writers of all types.  Fiction writers of pretty much any genre you can think of, screenwriters, playwrights... I’m even really good friends with a published poet.

A truly stunning thing these folks all have in common is that they’re real people. Just like the people you see on the street and work with. Artists have all sorts of bills to pay. Rents and mortgages. Utilities. Credit cards. Car repairs. Groceries. Medical bills (with and without coverage). A fair number of them have kids! I don’t, but I’m guessing  kids cost at least as much as cats, money-wise, so... wow.  So, like everybody else, artists have to make some of our decisions based on how much is in the bank.

Now, to be very clear right up front, I’m not saying any of my friends or acquaintances don’t care about art. These people love what they do, they care how things turn out, they want the things they create to be amazing.  And they turn out some amazing stuff and they (deservedly) make money off it.

Which is something a lot of people don’t get. This isn’t a binary thing. I can care about the art AND think about the money. Cause the truth is, if I’m going to do this—especially as any sort of job or career—money’s going to be a factor in my decision making process. It’s unavoidable. We can talk about the muse all you want, but at the end of the day, artists have to pay the bills just like everybody else.

There’s a Richard Matheson quote many of you have heard me mangle at some point or another-- “Writing is art,  publishing is the business of selling as many copies of that art as possible.”  The minute I’m dealing with publishing—traditional publishing, self publishing, hybrid, small press, whatever—I’m talking about business. and business means money is changing hands and certain expectations need to be met.

Money’s a huge factor in self publishing because... well, I’m the publisher. That’s the money side of the equation. Copyedits, layouts, cover art, marketing—it all costs money if I want it done right.  And if this is about the art, I want to do it right, don’t I? Which means I’m probably starting my self-publishing venture at a loss.

Even when things are going great in traditional publishing, money’s a factor.  I’ve gone to an editor with three or four things I’d like to write and they’ve said “Well... we’ll pay you X for this one, or 5X for that one.” I ask you, kind reader, if you had the choice between a six month job that pays you $10/hour or a six month job that pays $50/hour, and they’re both jobs you’re interested in... which one are you going to pick?

I know which one I picked when I got stuck with that choice. This is my job. This is how I earn money for all those bills and expenses. So I made a choice and I got to write a story I really wanted to write and get paid for it. And the other one... I didn’t write.

”But isn’t that what Kickstarters and Patreon are for? So you can just make any art you want?” says random internet user twenty two, cleverly countering me.

Well... sort of.  I don’t have a Patreon, but, I feel reasonably sure if I started one I could get a couple folks backing me for a buck or two. People who want to see me write more books and stories they like in the genres they like.

Which is kinda the catch. These folks would be sponsoring me because they want to see more of this weird cross-genre stuff I write. I back maybe a dozen people on Patreon, and I can honestly say that there isn’t one of them where I said “the past is irrelevant—I want to see what completely different thing they do next!”  I’m not against them doing new things, but the simple truth is I sponsored all of them because I liked their work and thought “I hope they’ll keep doing this.” I bet most of you are the same way with anyone you back.  If I thanked my hypothetical patrons tomorrow and announced that now I can finally write the Mediterranean romance trilogy I’ve always dreamed of... well, I wouldn’t be too shocked if that patron count dropped a bit over the next month  or so.  Sure, some folks would stay, absolutely. But most of them... they’re understandably going to move on and find something they like.

Same with a Kickstarter—it’s for one specific thing. If I tell you I’m doing a Kickstarter for X, I can’t change my mind and deliver Y. So it’s soooort of artistic freedom.  I can try something and hope people want to back it.  But I’m not really deciding what I get to do. I’m throwing options out there and letting other people choose for me.

Sooooooo yeah. Financial considerations, again.

And, to be very clear—I’m NOT saying Kickstarter or Patreon are bad things. They’re fantastic things. They let a lot of artists do a lot of work they otherwise wouldn’t get to. But using them doesn’t mean these artists are suddenly free of any and all financial constraints on their art.

There are costs to making art.  Always are, always have been.  And a lot of artists never recoup those costs. And waaaayy too many people think they shouldn’t. Think they’re bad artists for even wanting to make money. Or asking for money. Where the hell do I get off, hoping for some sort of compensation for that thing I spent six months of my life working on?

”Well, I don’t mind suffering a bit for my art and giving up a few hours of sleep!” says random internet user number seventeen. That’s cool. You do you. But the simple truth is, if that’s my path it’s eventually going to affect my health, which will mean medical expenses, which brings us back to... money. And probably time, too. Which means it cuts into the art.

And let’s have a moment of frank honesty. There are some folks who loudly insist “the money doesn’t matter” because... well, they’re not making any money. So this becomes kind of a well-padded moral armor for them. “I haven’t failed or been rejected— I just care more about the ART than about your filthy lucre.”

Look, the point I’m trying to make is... don’t be any of these people.  Don’t berate artists for wanting to make a living. Don’t mock them for having financial concerns. Don’t come up with elaborate justifications not to pay them for their work (83% of which always seem to be some twisted logic to justify piracy).

If I'm an artist... I shouldn't be ashamed that I took a job because I needed the money. Or because it just paid more. It doesn't make me any less of an artist.  Artists all through history took paid gigs and commissions to put food on the table, and they still did some of their best work with them. Likewise, I shouldn't feel bad about walking away from a job because, one way or another, I couldn't afford to do it (financially or time-wise). Yeah, even if it's something I may have really wanted to do. We've all had to pass on fun projects because, in the end, they were going to hurt way more than help.

And being an artist shouldn't mean hurting myself.

Anyway... that’s my clumsy, scattershot thoughts on money.

Next time... well, we talked about getting paid to do it. So I guess next time we should address if you’re getting it or not.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Revenge! For Wanda!!

Finally! At long last the day has come! Don’t act so surprised—you know what you did and you've known it would... don’t? Oh. Well, this makes things a little awkward, doesn’t it?

Look, we’ve all been waiting for this for a while. Revenge. The moment Yakko finally gets his comeuppance for what he did to me and my friends. Today’s the day he learns just how big a mistake that was. He crossed the wrong guy that day.

Plus, let’s be honest. Revenge stories can be loads of fun. John Wick. Arya Stark. The Wraith. Okay, probably not the Wraith, for a couple of the reasons I'm going to be talking about here. Thing is, a well done tale of revenge can check off a ton of storytelling boxes and almost everyone is up for it. Seriously. There’s something just so wonderfully cathartic about them.

But... by the same token, a good revenge story is kind of a balancing act. Not too much of that, just enough of those, and that base has to be juuussssst perfect if it’s going to support this whole thing. If one of these things is off, my whole story can stumble pretty easily. More than one and... well, I’m probably going to faceplant. Hard.

It struck me that I’ve seen a lot of stories make that faceplant. Sometimes in books, sometimes on screen. Sometimes, while poking around looking for Saturday geekery movies, I come across some things where it’s clear just from the description that they’ve hit the ground hard. So I figured it might be worth going over a few of those key elements to keep in mind. Y’know, before we go out to seek revenge on those who wronged us...

And, as always, this is just me babbling on. There has been no exhaustive study of the canon and there are always going to be exceptions. But I’ve been mulling on this for a while and I feel like it’s a pretty solid checklist.

First off, right at the start, is this something that actually needs revenging? Yeah, we all understand why John Wick goes after the guys who killed his dog. But what if they’d called his dog ugly or stupid? There’s the bully who puts cigarettes out on Wakko’s arms, but also the one who shoots poorly-aimed spitballs in class. Someone can blow up my car, or they can blow up my car with my partner and cats trapped in it. Some of these acts deserve wild, hard-bitten revenge and others...

Well, I mean they’re still bad, but are they really revenge-worthy? Should I really dedicate my life to balancing the scales just because somebody torched my Yaris? Or stole my lunch from the break room fridge? That would seem a little extreme, yes?

In this sense, a revenge story’s a lot like a redemption arc. I need my reader-empathy set to high so I  have an honest sense of how this first, inciting act (ooooh, inciting act--doesn’t that sound all professional)  is going to be viewed by my readers. Will they agree it’s something that requires vengeance?

Second thing is whether or not my character is the person who should be getting revenge. To use an earlier example, if someone kills John Wick’s dog, we completely understand why he goes on his revenge spree. It’s an intensely personal loss for him... but it isn’t for the nice old woman he runs into on the beach sometimes who liked to pet the dog. She might be upset, even angry to hear the news, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense for her to go get revenge, does it?

Revenge is a very personal thing. So the more removed and unconnected my protagonist gets from that actual act, the less it feels like revenge and the more it feels... well, it could be a bunch of things as we get farther away. Maybe Dot hired a hitman to get revenge, so he might be administering the beatdown or pulling the trigger, but for him it’s really just a job. And that police detective obsessed with the case? Well, for her it’s more about justice than vengeance. So revenge tends to stay tight and intimate. Personally, I think it needs to be a family thing, even if you want to take the broader sense of family (in that I can consider my best friends or my teammates “family”).

My third point is very much my own, but it’s also probably the one I feel strongest about here. I think it’s a key part of a revenge story. The person or persons my protagonist is getting revenge against must know why this is happening. Yeah it’s really cool that my heroine’s picking off the folks who killed her family one by one with a sniper rifle. But if they don’t know why it’s happening, who this ruthless killer is... then isn’t this just a random killing spree?

I feel that a big part of a revenge story is that it’s kind of symbiotic, from a storytelling point of view. It’s a relationship between the revenger and the revengee, so to speak, and one sided relationships are always just... well, weird. They need to go both ways. Yes, we want Phoebe to get her revenge, but we also want Yakko to know why she’s doing this. Why is she coming after him? Why is she doing these things? He needs to acknowledge this, one way or another—even if he just dismisses it (“...but I’d do it all again, lady, whoever you are!”).

And the reason for this is that we understand, on some level, that if Yakko doesn’t know why this is happening, then he’s just a victim. Not an innocent victim, no, but still just a victim. It’s the difference between my character seeing their empire torn apart and them knowing why it’s being torn apart.

Which leads me very nicely to my fourth and final point. Revenge can be a messy business. Very messy. Blood is often spilled, property is usually destroyed. And we’re all cool with that. We like seeing people getting what’s coming to them. Maybe even with a little interest.

That’s where it gets tricky. It’s really easy in a revenge story to go too far with the blood spilling and the property damage. And when I do, that’s when my protagonist stops being the hero and becomes a monster in their own right. Yes, we understand why John Wick wants revenge for his dog being killed. But if his response was to go visit the families of everyone involved and kill their dogs right in front of their kids...? Well, I don’t think most of us would be rooting for him quite as much. Likewise, if Phoebe gets revenge on the guy who killed her husband by... oh sweet jeebus she dissolved him alive in a lye pit? Seriously? And the crane just lowered him a couple inches a day? It took eight and a half days for him to die? I mean, at this point it’s essentially a torture porn story where we’re being asked to root for the killer.

In a lot of ways, revenge is like something I’ve talked about before—the bully balance. Once those scales tip, our mood is going to shift, too. We stop feeling good about the revenge and we start feeling sympathy for the people they’re exacting revenge on. Again, they become the victim and my protagonist becomes the aggressor. Which alters... everything. The whole tone of my story will change, and a lot of things will be questioned. Not in a good way.

Y’see Timmy, in the end a revenge story is all about the characters. Why are they doing this? How are they doing it? Are they managing to walk that tightrope between being a hero and being a monster?  Or have they fallen off it...?

Next time... I think I want to talk about something we usually don’t talk about.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Name Brand

Oh, hey, have I mentioned Dead Moon lately? It’s out. It’s available. You should check it out if you haven’t already. It’s got zombies on the Moon, and you know you like zombies on the Moon.

But moving on...

I wanted to blather on about names a bit, because I read something a few weeks back that kinda went overboard with them. It’s a recurring issue, I think. Pretty sure I’ve talked about this before.

There was a school of thought a while back that every character should have a name. Every single character in my manuscript needs a proper, given name. I read through and I know the given name of the cabbie, the intern, the homeless guy at the freeway exit, the woman  ahead of the main character in line at Starbucks, the barista at Starbucks.  It doesn’t matter how important—or unimportant—they are to the story  They get a name.

I don’t know if this was something somebody was “teaching” somewhere or if it was just telephone-game advice run amok and gaining life and sentience and trying to conquer the internet. I saw this “rule” show up often on general writing forums and a LOT on screenwriting boards. Essentially, it makes things more real. Gives every character a little more dimension and life.

Thing is... this isn’t a rule. It’s just awful advice. I should never do this. Seriously.

Names are a form of shorthand—in real life and in fiction. It’s a quick label we slap on that collection of motivations, dialogue quirks, and physical descriptions we call the social-web-intersections that are Wakko. But like any sort of shorthand or label, too many can get confusing. Two or three post-it notes around my computer can be helpful. Two or three hundred probably means I can’t see the screen and anything I need to remember is lost in the chaos.

That’s the other way names are shorthand. They let us know which characters are important. Yes, everyone’s important and special in real life, but within my story—within this fictional universe where I am a wise and powerful God who controls everything—are they really that important? Does some aspect of the story rely on my readers seeing them and noticing them and remembering them?

My personal rule is this--a character’s name in my manuscript should be what my main characters refer to them by.  If my main character doesn’t know their name, has no reason to, and never will... it’s a safe bet my readers don’t need to know it.  If they’re just “the cute barista” then odds are pretty good we, the readers, don’t need to keep all those quirks and descriptions in mind. We can devote that mental space to other things.

Lemme give you an example. A little indie arthouse film came out this summer called Avengers: Endgame. Not a lot of people saw it. On the off chance you were considering it sometime in the future, I’ll warn you that I’m going to drop a few spoilers in the next paragraph or three. Well, the same spoiler spread out across them. One point, discussed to some degree.

You may want to skip ahead, that’s what I’m getting at. Everyone else...

There are a lot of people in the final scenes of Endgame. Hundreds, maybe even thousands. That big battle? I mean, pretty much every superhero we’ve ever met. A bunch of sorcerers. Several tons of Asgardians (seriously, think of the bone density those people must have). And that’s just on our side. The big bad has two or three different alien armies, plus his little inner circle of specialists

So... what were their names?

I mean, sure there’s Cap and Tony, Thor and Hulk. Valkyrie, Captain Marvel, T’Challa, Shuri, Ant/Giant-Man, Wasp, Winter Soldier, and yeah, okay, there’s a bunch of them.  Plus all of Thanos’s people.  Proxima Midnight and Ebony Maw and....Urban Sprawl, I think, was the big guy? We never really got properly introduced to them, did we?

But what about everyone else? Can you name all the sorcerers who open portals? Any of the Asgardians who come through? That big space worm thing that Giant-Man slams into the ground? Surely they call it something, right?

Thing is, we don’t know. And we don’t need to know. Cap probably doesn’t know most of them past “more folks on our side” and "all of those things with Thanos."

Hell, can you imagine if every one of those characters got a close up and a quick chance to introduce themselves? Seriously, how long would that take? How many would we actually remember? It’d be like speed-dating, except you’d know from the start a lot of them were going to die. Okay, so it’s a lot like speed dating. You get the point.

How about a non-spoilery version. I’m betting most of us here have worked some kind of basic retail/food service job at some point in our lives. Something where we had to deal with customers. I did both.  That said, how many of those customers can we name? Or if somehow this doesn’t apply, we’ve all been to a store or restaurant. Probably in the past two weeks. How many of the clerks or cashiers can you name? How many of the other customers?

And the reason we can’t name any of these people (Asgardians to waitstaff) is because they weren’t important to our personal story.  They weren’t relevant to the main plot (which was our lives, naturally). In the end, if my main character doesn’t know who someone is, there’s nothing wrong with just calling them the second mechanic or the doctor in the lab coat or even just the cute barista.

This isn’t to say we (or our characters) will never, ever come across someone who stands out but ultimately has no real effect on our story. Someone with an interesting name or appearance that elevates them a bit above the crowd. But those folks are the few and far between. They’re the exception, not the rule.

Y’see, Timmy, giving every character a name may feel like it’s showing how well-thought-out my world is, but in the long run it just breaks up the flow of my story.  It’s making my readers juggle pages and pages of potential characters instead of letting them focus on the ones that are actually going to be important.

Next time... we’re all going to get our revenge. Finally. It’s going to be glorious!

Until then... go write.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

It's the Real Thing

So, I’m trying to plow through the end of some line-edits, which means I’m a bit short on time. But I really wanted to talk about something that’s come up once or thrice recently. It’s an old idea I’ve talked about a few times so... don’t be shocked if you smell a bit of recycling in here.

One thing we all (hopefully) work for in our writing is realism.  We want our characters, their dialogue, their worlds to feel real.  If my story’s set in the real world, I want it to have that level of detail you can only get with authentic knowledge and experience. If it’s a made-up world, I want every aspect to be as lifelike and believable as possible.

Because of this, we writers get a bit of a... a reputation. And it’s kinda earned.  We people-watch and eavesdrop and sometimes travel to weird places just to get an idea of what the air smells like. Some of us give our characters feet and ankles and knees of clay and overly-complex pasts.  Yeah, us.  I did this too.  We rewrite dialogue again and again to make it as real as possible. We sometimes add random events to the narrative—even major events—to give that broader sense of uncaring fate. Anything we can do to cover our story with a big, thick, oozing coat of reality.

There’s one problem with this, though.

Nobody wants reality. 


Oh, they may say they do, but they’re lying. To me or to themselves.  My readers want fictional reality, not here-in-the-real-world reality.  They want characters who win (maybe not cheerfully or without scars, but they do win).  They want clean dialogue.  They want things to make sense and story threads to get tied up, preferably with a very neat, precise knot. Or maybe a bow, depending on how wide some of my plot threads are.

Let me give you some examples.

Before I wrote fiction full time, I interviewed a lot of people.  And one thing quickly became clear to me as I transcribed these interviews—real dialogue is a mess. When people talk in reality, they pause a lot and trip over their words and sometimes make false starts that they have to sort of go back over.  They can drone on for several minutes at a time.  They talk over each other.  If you’ve ever looked at an unedited transcript of a conversation, you know that real dialogue’s the worst possible thing for fiction.  Readers would claw their eyes out, and everything would take forever to say.

So we don’t write real dialogue. We write “real” dialogue, lines that seem like the kind of things real people would say. The dialogue gets cleaned up and tightened and measured out to make it sound authentic, even though it’s being crafted. And then people say,  “Wow, her dialogue felt so real.” 

You’ve heard that sort of thing before, yes??  The dialogue seemed real or  felt real or sounded real. Think of how often we all phrase things like this—which is pretty much quietly admitting we know it isn’t how real people talk.  Even though it feels like how real people talk. 

As I mentioned before—heck, I’ve mentioned it here a few times--I made this mistake.  When I was starting down my pro fiction path I copied real people’s real speech patterns into my first serious attempt at a novel. Then I had a couple of real editors mention that as a specific reason I was really being rejected.  It didn’t matter that it was real dialogue, because it wasn’t “real” dialogue.

Make sense?

Here’s another angle.  Weird, unbelievable stuff happens in reality all the time.  There are odd coincidences.  Unlucky circumstances.  Heck, humans have a bad habit of dying in freak accidents and leaving so many things incomplete and unresolved.

But we’re not talking about reality. We’re talking about fiction. And in fiction, all things are equal. I beat cancer, you got kidnapped by an Atlantean princess. It doesn’t matter if one of them is true or real, it just matters that it’s a good story or not.

Here’s another example I’ve used a bunch of times before (and will continue to use again)—Vesna Vulovic.  You remember her, right?  The flight attendant back in the ‘70s whose flight got bombed by terrorists so she fell six miles to Earth. And survived. Not in the powderized bones/being fed through an IV sense—she walked—I repeat, WALKED—out of the hospital barely ten weeks after they found her, and lived into her sixties.

I mean, that story’s so amazing, look how many times I had to use italics.

The point is, though, what would happen if I tried to have this happen to one of my characters? It honestly doesn’t matter if it’s true, that it actually happened... does it? When it happens to Yakko, my readers are naturally going to call foul (“foul” if I’m lucky). That’s just ridiculous. Yakko got caught in an exploding plane and fell six miles... and survivedThat’s just nonsense. I’m writing nonsense at that point. Why not just put him in an old fridge and have him flung a mile or two through the air? That's actually less ridiculous.

Y’see, Timmy, reality is a messy thing.  All of it.  The people, the way they talk, what happens to them.  And I don’t want my writing to be messy.  I want it to be clean and polished and perfect. To paraphrase Mr. Twain, the difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. When I’m a writer I’m the God of my world, and if something doesn’t serve a greater purpose... well, I’m a really bad god.

And probably not much of a writer.

Even when I’m making it real.

Next time I’d like to talk about... well, look, it’s not really important who they are, okay? We're just going to talk about them.

Until then, go write.