Thursday, January 28, 2021

Keeping Our Heads Down

This is something I’ve talked about several times here on the ol’ ranty writing blog, but I realized I haven’t talked specifically about it in, well, many years. Too many years, really. Definitely not since I’ve tried to lean away from the more ranty, accusatory tone I tended to write in back at the start of this.

Look, reading all those movie scripts made me pull out a lot of hair.

I talked a month or so back about the idea of a contract between author and reader. There’s one other aspect to that contract, a sub clause, and I think it’s one of those “so obvious we don’t think about it” sort of things. To be blunt, nobody’s picking up one of my books to hear from me. Or to see me.

I mean, sure, they like a lot of the characters and worlds I’ve created. Some folks probably (hopefully!) like my style enough that they’re willing to try something new from me. But they still don’t want to see me. They want the story, and they definitely don’t want me getting between them and it.

Now, this doesn’t mean I’m going to follow you home from the bookstore and stick my hand between you and the page or sing nonsense in your ear. It’s just that nobody wants me distracting them from the fact they’re reading my story. They just want to sink into that world and get lost.

Yeah, of course, on one level you know I crafted each of those sentences and paragraphs, chose where all

the breaks

should go, but we have this quiet understanding that I won’t be leaning over your shoulder asking “Did you like that? Did you see what I did there? Wasn’t that clever?” You just want to immerse yourself and forget about the world for a little bit. Or at least get to look at it from a neater angle.

That was jarring, wasn’t it? That weird paragraph break? It was only two lines, but it broke the flow for a second, and you stopped hearing my voice and started hearing your own instead. Probably saying something like “was that a mistake? Is he doing beat poetry? Was he trying to do something funny there?”

And this is the worst thing that can happen to a writer. I don’t want you thinking about me. I want you to be thinking about Hector and Natalie and the people they’re running away from. If you’re noticing me, thinking about what I’m doing... it means I’ve done something wrong.

Think of it this way. It’s the difference between the tough guy in a story who commits unimaginable acts of excessive violence to look tough... and the tough guy who doesn’t need to commit those acts. The one we understand is more impressive without seeing a blatant demonstration. Being able to restrain myself is usually more impressive than how excessive I can be. Less of us is more of the story.

So here’s four easy ways I can keep my literary head down.

Vocabulary— When I started out, I know I desperately wanted to show I had a better vocabulary than the average person. Because that’s a hallmark of a good writer, yes? I didn’t want to use common, pedestrian words, the words just anyone would use. I was a skilled anecdotist, after all, not some mere amanuensis.

And let’s be honest—I wasn’t alone. This is a phase a lot of us go through as we’re starting out. We latch onto (or more often, look up) obscure and flowery words for our literary masterpiece, as if we’re going to get a quarter every time the reader has to look something up. And if the reader doesn’t enjoy going to the Miriam-Webster site every three paragraphs? Well that sounds like their problem, doesn’t it? Not my fault you’ve got such a limited vocabulary.

Truth is, any word I choose just to get attention—to prove I don’t need to use a common word—is the wrong word. Any word that makes my reader stop reading and start analyzing from context is the wrong word. I can try to justify my word choice any way I like, but nobody’s picking up my book hoping for a vocabulary lesson. When a reader can’t figure out what’s being said for the fourth or fifth time and just decides to toss my manuscript in the big pile on the left... there’s only one person to blame.

(It’s not them, in case you had any lingering thoughts on the matter)

Structure-- Just like obscure vocabulary, convoluted structure’s another common sign of writer ego. One of the most common forms of this is insisting on grammatical perfection. This usually mean a lot of rigid, formal text and very stiff dialogue. It’s when I get so insistent on proving I know the correct way to structure a sentence my words end up sounding forced and artificial. Also worth noting the flipside of this which s insisting I don’t need to follow any grammar or spelling conventions. Punctuation? Capitalization? Those are tired tropes for losers.

The second most common sign is needless complication. I can admit I used to write—or try to write—sprawling, impenetrable prose. Sentences that went on and on. Descriptions that never ended. It took someone two pages to step through a doorway because we had to know what kind of socks and underwear they were wearing and what flavor toothpaste they preferred. If they were mentioned in the text, I had to remind you of these facts and how they were posed at the exact moment they spoke. Believe me, if something could be explained or described in less than ten words, I’d find a way to do it in at least fifty.

And while I never got quite that bad, there are also some writers who choose arcane story structures or points of view or tenses. Just because they can. Things will go from non-linear first person musings to omniscient third person flashbacks to second person song lyrics and then to a telepathic gestalt mind that only speaks in one of those single, three page sentences I was just talking about. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, in a general sense, but so often they’re not there to serve the story. It’s just an attempt to look cool and do cool things. If I want to do something like this, I should be able to explain why I’m doing it. And the explanation needs to better than “y’know... reasons,” or I’m just going to leave my readers confused and frustrated as they get knocked out of my story again and again.

Said—Sad admission, kind of going with the vocabulary point up above. For many, many years I didn’t use said. Said was, in my opinion, the lowest common denominator of dialogue descriptors. It’s the kind of word used by writers who weren’t going places, writers not destined for greatness, like I clearly was. Not only that, I’d try to never us the same descriptor on a page twice. So in my early work my characters would respond, retort, exclaim, demand, muse, mutter, sneer, snap, shout, snarl, grumble, growl, whimper, whisper, hiss, yelp, yell, exclaim, or ejaculate. 

Oh, grow up. It was a common dialogue descriptor for years. Really.

Of course, once I finally got to sit down and talk with a professional editor and show him a few pages, this was the very first thing hecommented on. Truth is, nobody notices said on the page. It’s an invisible word. Yeah, of course there’s going to be times when my characters are hissing or shouting or gasping. But I should save those words for then so their impact hasn’t been used up and weakened. The vast majority of the  time... stick to said.

Names—If used in moderation, names are also invisible. If you think about it, they’re just a shorthand note for the mental image of my character or MacGuffin or whatever. And they help us keep things straight if I’ve got a bunch of people all talking together.

It’s worth mentioning many fledgling sci-fi or fantasy writers feel the need to rename a lot of things. Or everything. Characters have all-new, correct-for-this-world names and so do their pets. And their gods. And their elements. And their system of weights and measures, their money, their units of time...  It’s great worldbuilding, but I’d guess 83% of the time this is just wasted words.  My elaborate sci-fi empire won’t collapse if I call mind-to-mind communication telepathy, but it might if I keep calling it intralobeech, which, as we all know, is short for “intralobe speech.”

Which, as we all know, is telepathy.

Always remember that moderation is key. Even a simple name like Bob can stack up and get distracting really quick. Which is why the ancient ones created...

Pronouns--when those proper names start to stack up, we switch to pronouns.  Just like names are shorthand for story elements, pronouns are shorthand for those names. When nouns start to clutter up my writing, they’re there to leap in and shoulder the weight.  It’s how Hector becomes he, that mysterious island becomes there, and a Hudson Hornet becomes it.

The catch here is I need to make sure my pronouns are clear. No questions exceptionally clear, ‘cause the moment someone gets confused about which her I’m referring to, they’re going to stop reading my story and start studying the page. We’ve all had to do that, right? Feel our way though a paragraph so we’re clear who she is. Or work backwards through the dialogue, trying to figure out who’s speaking which lines. I’m always super-careful with pronouns, because I don’t want that happening to anyone in my books.

Again—pronouns good. Pronoun confusion—bad. And it’s a writing rule you can apply to real life.

So there they are.  Four simple ways to keep our collective heads down so readers don’t see us standing there. Staring at them. Waiting to be noticed.

Y’see, Timmy, every time I make my reader hesitate or pause just for a second, I’m breaking the flow of the story. I’m encouraging them to skim at best, put the book down at worst. My reader should forget they’re paging through the latest Peter Clines novel, hopefully forget they’re reading altogether. And the easiest way to make that happen is for them not to see the writing.

It’s tempting to wave our arms and shout and try to get the reader to admit they can see us, but all this does is ruin things for everyone. It’s like Sherlock Holmes showing how he came to his amazing deductions or a magician explaining their greatest illusion. That moment is when the whole thing falls apart.

As writers, we need to go unnoticed. We want our characters to be seen and our dialogue to be heard, yeah. We want our action and passion and suspense to leave people breathless, absolutely.

But we’re just distractions.

Next time... hmmmmm. Not sure. I’m open to requests or suggestions if anyone has any. If not, I might tell you about a conversation I recently had with someone about getting published.

Until then... don’t let me see you writing.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Lesson of Flashdance

Oh, hey everyone. What's new with you? Anything cool going on?

I’ve had this idea on the backburner for... well, a few years now, but now that I’ve got a handle on it, I’d like to talk to you about one of the most important creative-arts films of the 1980s.

You read the title, so I’m pretty sure you can guess where I'm going with this.

Quick sum up, for those of you who’ve never seen Flashdance. Alex is an eighteen-year-old welder who dreams of being a professional dancer and makes side money as a... what would we call it? Exotic dancer? A non-nude provocative dancer. She’s got a friend who wants to be a professional ice skater and another one who wants to be a comedian. Alex also has a boyfriend who’s twice her age and also her boss at the steel mill, and there’s a lot to unpack there.

Actually, there’s so much to unpack in that relationship  it’s what a lot of reviews will focus on. That and, weirdly enough, how unrealistic it is someone could be a professional welder at eighteen in a union town. Probably the same people who complain about how lightsabers work and about how the military sets look in zombie movies.

Getting off topic. Sorry. Anyway...

In my opinion, those issues distract from the actual story, which—if you think about it—is a much more ‘90s story about a trio of young, aspiring performers all looking to break into their chosen fields. We’ve seen a few versions of that, yes? If we look at Flashdance in that light, what’s the story about?

Well, we have our trio of aspiring artistic friends. Alex gets a chance to audition for an exclusive dance conservatory and gets nervous and leaves without auditioning. Her friend enters an ice skating competition and fails (kinda horribly). Her other friend gets a chance to do his comedy routine at an open night mic and bombs (also horribly), but then he decides to move to LA where there are more comedy clubs to try performing at. Meanwhile, Alex’s boyfriend gets her another chance to audition for the conservatory and... she comes up with another excuse to not audition.

Seeing the pattern here? One of these things is not like the other. In this trio of aspiring artists, the other two are failing, but it’s only because they’re actually trying. Alex is the one who won’t take any risks. She’d rather stay in her safe, small pond where she’s a superstar rather than find out she’s not good enough to go higher. That’s her story—working up the courage to try. Because until she does that, nothing else changes. She stays where she is.

This happens to a lot of us in the arts. We get nervous about if we’re good enough and talk ourselves out of doing more. We can’t get rejected—we can’t fail—if we never put ourselves out there, right? Heck, there are even some folks who’ll twist failure into some sort of victory. “Yeah, I got rejected, but that just proves my writing’s too good for the homogenized publishing industry!”

As I’ve mentioned before, though, rejection’s just part of the process. Failure is how we learn and sharpen our craft. And we can’t fail if we never try to do more, to push ourselves higher. So if I’ve never failed... maybe it means I’ve just been playing it safe and not doing enough. Maybe it means, on some level, I stopped.

Y’see, Timmy, we need to push ourselves. We need to keep at it. Even when we get rejected. Even when someone says our chosen genre sucks. Even when they say our writing sucks. Like any art, the only way to improve is to keep doing it. To keep challenging ourselves again and again and again.

Ray Bradbury once said the only way you fail is if you stop writing. Which is the short form of this. So yes, I could’ve called this "the lesson of Bradbury," but half of you wouldn’t’ve paid attention.

Next time, I’d like to talk about why you rarely see a good writer.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

So. Much. Winning!

This is one of those posts some folks may feel the need to argue with. It’s a writing tip that’s going to feel obvious to some of you, and ridiculous to others, but I truly think a writer needs to follow if they want any measure of success.  And when I say “success” I refer to the classic definition—“making money off your material.”

If I want that kind of success, my hero has to win.

Fair warning, there’s going to be a couple spoilers coming up. Kind of necessary if we’re going to talk about how things end for a character in a story. They’re for pretty big things I’m sure most everyone already knows the ending of, but there’s the warning just in case. If you’re way behind in your required reading or viewing, you may want to stop here.

Also, I’m using hero in the gender-blind sense. If it makes you feel better, feel free to swap in heroine or protagonist. I’m not against any of these terms or the characters they attach to, I’m just using hero because it’s short, and quick and I’m trying to stay focused on this instead of everything going on in the world. So for this post, I’m just talking about the hero.

And the hero wins.

Pretty much always.

Now, there’s a belief in some circles that having the hero of the story fail and die somehow improves the story. That it’s more dramatic. It’s the belief that having something depressing and random happen to my hero is more “honest” because life is often depressing and random. I think this ties back to the frequently-waved buzzwords realism and art. Art imitates life, so if I’m imitating life, I must be making art. That’s just logic. Right?

As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, this kind of ending sucks.  It sucks because we all inherently know the hero is supposed to win, since we identify with the hero. If the hero loses, it means we lost. We’re losers, identifying with another loser. 

Believe it or not, this sort of statement doesn’t go over well with most people. I mean (as we’re currently seeing in the real world) people have a lot of trouble dealing with it when a character they’ve invested so much of themselves in doesn’t win.

Now, before people start scribbling down below (for any reason, although I’m sure at least one person already has), let me finish. 

I’m not saying every book has to end with happy smiles and people rolling around on piles of money in their new twelve-bedroom mansion.  My hero doesn’t need to defeat the cyborg werewolves, save the world, and fly off into the sunset with nymphomaniac heiress Margot Robbie in her private jet.

Truth is, the hero doesn’t necessarily need to enjoy winning. I just said they need to win. They may be damaged physically, emotionally, or both. In fact, if my hero ends up wounded or broken after all they’ve done, it just makes us identify with them a little more, doesn’t it?  

When they win like this, we often call it a pyrrhic victory. Maybe our hero solves the murder mystery, but loses their best friends in the process. She got revenge, but her lover’s still dead and now she’s a wanted criminal herself. He won the contest, but now his family’s humiliated and wants nothing to do with him. The team tried to save all the hostages but only half of them got out alive. As I mentioned above, victory isn’t an all-or-nothing thing, and my hero can still have a pile of losses even though they’ve succeeded in their main goals. A partial win is still a win.

Hell, the hero doesn’t even need to survive the story in order to win.  There are plenty of characters in books and film who didn’t live to enjoy their victories. At the end of Rogue One (here’s that spoiler alert) our two surviving heroes are literally incinerated in the blast from the Death Star’s test firing. And note I say surviving heroes. The rest of their team has already suffered a series of brutal and violent ends. Nobody gets out of that movie. Same with Tony Stark in Avengers: Endgame, cooked from the inside with a single snap of his fingers. 

And yet, in both of these examples, the heroes win.  No question about it.  Anyone who’s seen these stories will tell you the good guys won and the bad guys lost.

A key thing here is my character’s motive. What are they trying to do? Keep in mind, their stated goals and their actual goals might not always be the same. Phoebe may say she wants to date the head cheerleader, but what she’s really looking for is romantic love and companionship. Wakko may say he wants revenge, but what he really wants is justice. So they may fail at that obvious, stated goal (dating the cheerleader) or even a broader, more universal goal (keeping their left leg attached), but still succeed with their actual, motivating goal.

Now, I want to mention one other thing, because my friend Stephen Blackmoore brought it up when I mentioned this theory of winning at the Writers Coffeehouse once. There are some stories (a lot in the noir genre, for example) where the hero doesn’t win. In fact, in some cases they fail completely, on all levels, and end up much worse off than they began. This can absolutely happen in stories. Great stories, some of which get a lot of praise and awards.

But...

I think if we named some stories where the hero fails in this complete way, we’d probably realize... they’re not all that well-known. And they’re probably read even less. Again, not saying they’re bad, but it is a much smaller niche of potential readers who’ll enjoy a story where the hero, well, doesn’t really accomplish anything. Even if it’s beautifully written. So there’s nothing wrong if those are the stories I want to write, but I should have my eyes open about how wide an appeal they’re going to have.

Y’see, Timmy... we encounter enough failure and losing in real life that most folks aren’t going to also enjoy it as entertainment. We want to see victories and success and heroic sacrifice because these are the things we dream of in our own lives, and we relate to those people because they’re the kind of people we wish we could be. Even if just for a little while.

So if I’m my plot ends with a massive failure or my hero dies for no reason... maybe it’s worth rethinking that.

Especially if I want to win.

Next time, I’d like to talk about Flashdance.

Until then, go write.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

To Start With...

Well, here we are in 2021. A serious sci-fi year. 2021! It feels like it should be in a cool chrome font, doesn’t it? We should all be heading to work in flying cars, jetpacks, or giant robots. And instead we’re dealing with a pandemic. Oh, and an attempt to overthrow the government of the US by a bunch of domestic terrorists inspired by an unstable President.

But other than that... Happy 2021!

Anyway... hey there! I was thinking about my usual start-of-the-year post and trying to think of something new I could bring to it. I’ve talked in years past about how I started doing this and what I’m trying to do here. I thought maybe this year I’d talk about you and what you might get out of this. And what you won’t get.

This collection of scribbled essays is probably 83% writing advice. Straight writing and storytelling. Not publishing, marketing, networking, or any of that. Those are all other things, and being clear about that—really understanding it—is a big step in becoming a better writer. I do talk about them here sometimes (thus, the above links) but they’re the minority topic by far. Maybe 15-16% If that’s the kind of thing you’re really interested in, there are a lot of better places to get it, and more regularly than I’ll talk about it.

That last one or two percent? Cartoons. A tiny bit of politics. Maybe con schedules, back in the clean days when we all went to cons.

But let’s talk about that writing advice. I think there’s a bunch of conditionals that should get applied to any advice someone gives. Or gets. Seriously.

That’s pretty much conditional number one. If you’ve been following me for a while, that’s my Golden Rule here—what works for me probably won’t work for you, and it definitely won’t work for him. I’m not saying my advice—or anyone else’s—is necessarily bad. But the simple truth is we’re all different writers with different projects at different points in our career, and trying to make advice a one-size-fits-all thing just isn’t going to work.

I’ve mentioned before that a big part of maturing and growing as a writer is figuring out what works for you. Because that’s all that matters. What makes it easier for you to write, and what helps you write better. I don’t care if the advice is from Stephen King, N. K. Jemisin,  Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or whatever author you consider your writing idol. It doesn't matter that it works for them—if the advice doesn’t work for you, you shouldn’t be following it.

Which brings me to conditional number two. There’s a difference between advice and rules, and—much as some folks hate to hear it—there are rules to writing. Yes, there are. Spelling is a real thing. So’s grammar. And structure. These are real, quantifiable things I can get wrong.

However... this is art. You’re an artist (don’t say wordsmith don’t say wordsmith don’t say wordsmith). And that means we get to bend and break rules when we need to. Again—key thing—when we need to. Not on a whim. Not because we don’t know the rules to start with. Not to show those gatekeepers they’re not the boss of me! There’s got to be a reason for rule-breaking, and there still need to be enough rules in play that other people can understand me.

And this brings me to my third and probably final conditional for advice. Unless I think of a fourth one while I’m writing this out. Third is that I need to be aware most advice is intended for people at different points in their writing development. If I get asked the same question by a pro, by someone just breaking in, and by somebody just starting out, there’s a chance I’m going to give a notably different answer to each of them. And it could be really harmful if someone’s following the wrong advice.

Okay, that feels a bit clumsy so let me try it this way.

I’ve talked about cooking as an analogy for writing a couple times, and I’ve compared the ranty blog to a sort of cooking school. But it struck me a while back that even that’s a little off, because I can take a beginner cooking class at my local community college or I can take a course at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. But I think we can all agree those are two very different things.

Y’see, Timmy, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with what they teach at Le Cordon Bleu. It’s one of the world’s greatest culinary institutes and the instructors have a lot to teach. That said, a huge amount of what they teach is assuming I know a lot of basics, and probably a few advanced techniques as well. Again, world famous institute.

If I can’t tell the difference between sifted flour and corn starch, I can waste a lot of time and money at Le Cordon Bleu. Good chance I’d develop a bunch of bad habits, too, as I try to absorb and implement lessons I don’t have the foundation to fully understand. Heck, I could even come out of there a worse cook than I went in, trying to spatchcock a lobster thermidor or something like that.

This collection of rants is kind of a cooking school, but it’s maybe a second or third level community college class. I’m expecting everyone can tell salt and sugar apart, that you know how to softboil an egg, and you understand the difference between baking and broiling. And, maybe most importantly, that you actually want to learn more. I mean, that’s the whole point of taking a higher-level class, right? You don’t take it to argue with the instructor or tell all the other students how you don’t need to be there.

Well, okay, there’s probably some people who take classes for those reasons...

But you get my point. The advice I’m offering is for people who’ve written a few short stories, maybe a few chapters, maybe even a first novel. You’re already a few rungs up the ladder and I’d like to help you go a few more. But if you’ve had a book or two published, maybe a good string of short stories... you’re already near the top of that ladder. There’s not much I can do for you that you probably couldn’t do quicker and easier on your own.

So that’s what I’m serving here. Advice and tips and maybe pointing out a few rules. If any of that sounds good to you... stick around. And if there’s something in particular you want to hear me blather on about, just let me know down at the bottom. I feel all warm and special when people leave comments.

Next time, to start us off, I’d like to talk about success.

Until then, go write.