January 11, 2014 / 3 Comments

The Lessons of Henry Higgins

             Classic pop culture reference.
            Apologies for this being a bit late.  I’ve been bogged down with a bunch of publicity stuff for the new book.  Ex-Purgatory comes out next week, available at bookstores everywhere.  Check it out.  You can read a (hopefully) fun book and passively support the ranty blog.
            Speaking of which… on with this week’s rant.
            I haven’t talked about dialogue in a long while, and I though (if there’s no real objections) that I’d talk about voices.  If there are any objections… too bad.  You should’ve spoken up last week when I mentioned this was what I was going to talk about.
            A character’s voice is a specific element of their dialogue.  It’s the little tics and subtleties of how someone speaks that makes them unique on the page.  Voice is why we can tell Gandalf from Magneto (even when they’re both played by Sir Ian McKellen) and why Jane Eyre and Katniss Everdeen sound different in our heads.
            Now I thought about how to approach this for a while, and it hit me last night to scrap most of what I had and go back to basics.  So I want to bounce a couple very, very simple characters off you.  As I do, try to imagine a conversation with said man or woman.  You’ve probably had one at some point.
*The Babbler—That person who fills every moment with talking.  She hates silence.

*The Military Guy—He’s been in for four years and is planning on four more, at least.

*The Expert—Pick a topic and they’ll explain it to you… or correct your every statement.

*The Sports Nut—That guy who loves the game. Did you see the game? Go Piggers, right?

*The European—The elegant woman who could be a supermodel… if she wasn’t already an artist.

*The Indirect Person—You know that girl who kind of talks around everything and it takes forever for her to get to the point of, y’know, that thing we’re talking about…
            Now, granted, each of those characters is a broad stereotype.  We could probably come up with a dozen more, easy, and a dozen past that without much effort.  But here’s the thing—we know exactly how each of these characters speaks, don’t we?  As soon as I described them, you could hear this person in your head.  The military guy speaking with the etiquette and manners drilled into him.  The sports nut using football terminology to explain his day at work.  You knew the kind of words these characters would choose and how they’d use them.
            That’s their voice.
            Again, this is broad.  I like to think of it as the foundation for building the voice I’ll use in the story.  For example, in the Ex-Heroes books, Barry a.k.a. Zzzap is a huge sci-fi fan.  Comic books, space operas, monster movies, Trek, Galactica, you name it, he loves it.  He’s the geek version of a sports nut.  This is the base I used for him as a character and for how he would talk.
           Now the thing is to layer on top of that.  Build up that character from a flat stereotype into someone with some depth.  It’s just like making character sketches, except we want to be aware of how these elements will affect their dialogue.
            For example, what kind of person is this character?  Are they generally positive or negative, and to what degree?  Enough that it spills out into their dialogue? I decided Barry was going to be a very positive, fun guy—someone who’ll crack jokes no matter how inappropriate the timing, and who’ll try to find a bright side even in desperate situations.
            Another layer to add is education.  Is my character well-educated, street smart, or maybe… well, stupid.  There are stupid people in the world, after all, and uneducated folks, too.  When characters make observations, they say things based off their beliefs and understanding of the world.
            Also, where were they born, or where have they spent most of their life?  We all know that people in Great Britain use different names for car parts than folks in the US (boot and bonnetvs. trunk and hood), but did you know that people call soft drinks different things depending on what state they’re from?  Not to mention the whole hoagies-subs-grinders thing.  Does your setting have taxis or cabs?  Fountains or bubblers?  These are great little details which help to build unique voices.
            These are all just suggestions, mind you.  There are tons of details about a person that could affect how they talk.  Social status, financial status, political beliefs, religious beliefs, sexual orientation.  Any one of these could come across in the way someone talks.  How do they say yes (yep, yeah, uh-huh)?  How do they say no (nah, nope, uh-uh)?  How do they swear? 
            I will toss out a warning on the accents, though.  When dealing with people from other countries—or other planets—it’s tempting to  try to phonetically add little differences in their pronunciation.  About twelve years back I wrote a story years with bird-aliens (the Kroot from WarHammer 40K, if you happen to be that kind of geek) and figured their beaks would make them sound a little more grrrowly, so I’d put three R’s instead of one whenever the letter was used.  I also decided their soft S sounds would come out more like a raspy Z.  Two little tweaks like that would give them a very distinct voice, and how distracting could it be, right…?

            “Grrreeeetingz,” the tall creature squawked.  “I am Nirrrok Te, mazter zhaper of the Krrroot of the Plateau Warrrzpherrre.  I have come to offerrr ourrr zerrrvizez az warrrriorz.  My kindrrredz arrre at yourrr dizpozal, forrr the prrroperrr prrrize.”

             For the record, that’s the first line of alien dialogue in the story.  I had, no joke, almost twenty-six pages of this. As you can see from this one paragraph, it gets old reallyfast.  And I almost did it again with Oskar, the German landlord in 14.  I came up with three verbal tics for him, but realized almost immediately what a mess it would make his dialogue.   So I cut it down to one (using F’s for V’s, so he’d say “What do you haff there?”). 
            If the accent needs to be there, I try to make it as minimal as possible.  Both in use and impact.  Because if a reader has trouble working their way through my dialogue, they’ll find something that’s easier to read.
            And that’s voice in a nutshell.  Well, a coconut shell, maybe.  Just look at the character elements I already have—and I do have them, right?—and use them to give this character a unique voice.
            Next week I’ve got to be in San Diego for a book signing (Mysterious Galaxy—show up and say “hi”), but I’ll try to come up with something quick before I get on the road.
            Until then, go write.
January 3, 2014 / 1 Comment


Actual entrance to Random House
(not shown: snipers)
One term floating around the internet a lot these days is “the gatekeepers.”  On the off chance you’re not familiar with it, it’s a handy, catch-all term some folks use for editors and agents, both in publishing and sometimes in Hollywood, too.  The idea is that these are the people who decide if a writer’s work should be published or produced.  The gatekeepers either let me in the world of big publishers or keep me out.
Naturally, of course, my work is genius and should be published.  But for some reason or another—usually because they’re idiots—those gatekeepers won’t let me past the entrance.  I say this because it’s a key point when talking about this subject.  A huge percentage of people who use the term gatekeepers—the vast majority, I’d say—are people who aren’t being allowed through those gates. 
So, in a very real way, “gatekeepers” is being used as an insult.  A slur.  It’s like that old joke about the difference between a nymph and a slut.  A nymph sleeps with everyone, a slut sleeps with everyone… except you.  So what’s the difference between an editor and a gatekeeper…?
Here’s the thing no one likes to admit about those gatekeepers. 
They aren’t just keeping me out.  They’re also keeping out all those other people whose work is complete crap.  Dull stories, predictable plots, flat characters, poor spelling… we can all agree that those people should be kept out.  We don’t want to deal with their crap.  No one does.
Again, none of that applies to me, naturally.  My work, as I mentioned, is genius.  And deserves to be published.
Y’see, once I stop thinking about me and insulting them, it’s pretty clear that what the gatekeepers are doing is vetting material.  They’re weeding out all the stuff that’s dull or predictable or would take far too much work to become a sellable product (this is a business, after all).
Now, a lot of those same folks who slam the gatekeepers also say the market will decide if something’s any good or not.  If a million people want to put their epic sci-fi/horror/fantasy/steampunk trilogies on Kindle, power to them.  And on one level I’m okay with that and I agree with it.

However…  What I find ironic is that then they talk about how they’ll find their way through those thousands and thousands of dull, flat, poorly written manuscripts.  They’ll check to see Amazon ratings.  They’ll see what bloggers have to say.  They’ll see what has the best reviews.

In other words, they’ll let someone else vet the material for them.  Someone else can sift through all the crap so those readers only need to see the good stuff.  The things that deserve to make money.
Thing is, if people really wanted a completely fair and equal marketplace, one with absolutely no gatekeepers, there would be no reviews.  No ratings.  No word of mouth.  No one would be allowed to influence whether or not a book gets seen.  We’d all just pick titles at random and hope for the best. 
And let’s be honest–the best would be few and far between.  There’s a lot of awful material out there these days.  God-awful.  Probably three out of five, if I had to guess, because there are no restrictions or guidelines about who can reach the marketplace.  Maybe as high as four out of five.
I think we’re all glad when someone else is willing to take one for the team and weed those awful books out.  To vet the material for us.  To make sure some things get our attention and others don’t.
Thank goodness there are gatekeepers.
            2014!  Welcome to the world of tomorrow!  Just with no flying cars.  Or jetpacks.  And far less moonbases than Space: 1999, Inherit the Stars, or 2001: A Space Odyssey led us to expect.
            Wow.  We’re only two days in and 2014 is kind of a letdown so far.
            Anyway, as I often do at the start of the year, I’d like to take a minute or three to talk about this page and the kind of stuff I babble on about.  And touch on a few of the things I don’t.
            And to do this, I’m going to dip my toe into a potentially controversial subject.  So hopefully I won’t offend anyone too much
            Maybe it’s just the circles I travel in, but I tend to see a lot of “after the fact” material.  It’s on pages I get links to or I get spammed with messages about it.  People with blogs about how to self-publish and why traditional publishers are dinosaurs.  About how to get past those evil “gatekeepers” and why they’re pointless.  Which ebook platform is best.  How to format for said platform.  Where to find a good agent. Where to find a good artist for my cover.  How to network.  Good places for self-promotion.  How much I should self-promote.  How much I should pay for that promotion.
            The reason I call this “after the fact” material is because it skips a major step.  Every one of those issues is about getting my book in front of readers.  None of it addresses the important question…
            Shouldmy book be in front of readers?
            Is my book ready to be published, by me or anyone else?  Does it deserve to make it past those gatekeepers?  Do I have something worth promoting?
            And that’s what I don’t see a lot of out there—help to get past that first step.  Because the best chef in the world can’t do anything with no tools and an empty kitchen.  If I don’t have a full, polished manuscript, all those other tips are kind of useless.
            This is why, in my opinion, self-publishing still has—and probably always will have—a stigma hanging over it.  There are some absolutely phenomenal self published books out there, and some authors who are making great money as self-publishers.  But the ugly truth is that, statistically, most self-published material is bad.  Now that it’s so easy and cheap to self-publish, I’d even say that these days the vast majority of self-published stuff is awful.  There’s a lot more good stuff than a decade ago, absolutely, but by the same token  there’s tons and tons more bad stuff.
            So, that’s what I want to do here.  I try to help with that first step. Every week I toss out some advice, tips, and observations on how to improve a manuscript and turn it into something people want to buy and read.  Things I was told or stumbled across (or learned the hard way) in the thirty or so years that I’ve been stringing words together.
            Now, the two main things you’ll find here is advice on writing and ruleson writing.  Yes, there are rules.  No, I don’t care what he said.  No, I don’t care what she said either.  There are rules that have to be followed.  Bear with me.
            Adviceis optional.  When to write.  Where to write.  What to write.  How to develop characters.  How to edit.  How many drafts I need to go through.  What kind of structure a particular story should have.  What point of view to use.  I’d say the ranty blog is about 60-65% advice.
            This is the kind of stuff that’s going to be individual to each writer.  I like to write in the afternoon, but you might be more productive in the morning, and she’s more productive after midnight.  I tend to plan a rough outline in my head, but you might need three really detailed pages before you begin, and he might be fine with a dozen notecards taped to the wall.  I might need music to write but you need absolute silence and she can’t write unless she’s outside and wearing a Ren Faire outfit.  The thing about advice is that it’s rarely wrong, it just might not be advice that works for me or you.  That’s one of the main tenets here, my golden rule.
            It drives me nuts when I come across someone insisting advice must be strictly followed.  I think a lot of would-be writers get messed up by this, and these are the folks who end up staring at a blank page every morning in a silent room, wondering why they can’t write the opening of the goth-witch-lit novel they have no interest in but were told is going to be the new big thing.  They often get stuck wearing an itchy corset, too.
            Y’see, Timmy, rules are the real non-optional stuff.  Spelling.  Grammar.  Structure (you have to have some kind of it).  Likable characters (not necessarily good characters, but someone my readers won’t mind following) with believable arcs.  Flow.  Coherency.  This page is maybe 35-40% rules, at any given time.
            Most of us had at least five or six teachers during our lives who tried to teach us the rules of writing—the basic mechanics of how words go together to express ideas.  If I want to make a living at this, I need to know those mechanics.  If I don’t know how to spell, if I don’t understand structure, if commas and apostrophes are baffling to me, if I can’t sense how my readers will react to something… well, it’s going to be very hard for me to have any success as a writer.
            The flipside of what I mentioned above, it’s also very damaging when some folks try to insist that rules are just loose guidelines, that it doesn’t matter if I follow them or not.  I think a lot of that comes out of folks who see the rules broken by an experienced professional and assume they can be ignored from the start.  They point to the exception and use that as their reason to not learn the rules.  This kind of deliberate ignorance leads to poor writing and bad habits, and it means a lot of potentially good writers never improve. 
            Y’see, Timmy, if I don’t understand the rules, I’m not going to know how to break them.  A good writer can break some of the rules, but it’s like playing Jenga.  I can’t pull out all the blocks holding up the stack, and if I’m going to pull out this one I need to make sure that one is rock-solid.  If I don’t understand the basic rules of how the tower stands, I’m going to bring it crashing down on my second turn.  Maybe even my first.

            Actually, that’s an even better analogy.  Breaking rules is like demolishing buildings.  It looks simple, but the folks who do it actually need to know more than the people who built it.  They need to understand which walls are load bearing and which beams are supporting, but they also need to know how the material’s going to break or crumble or shatter and how much explosive is needed for each result without there being so much that the building collapses out rather than in.

            Because it might look really cool and fun when the building collapses out across the city, but it doesn’t get a lot of repeat customers.
            What else, what else, what else…
            Do I repeat myself here?  Well… yeah.  Especially if you’ve been following along for two or three years.  I try to come up with new ways to approach the same problem.  Sometimes I’ll hear something new and clever that I’ll try to share, or maybe even expand on.  At the end of the day, though, this page is more like a mid-level class on writing.  You can take the same class twice and get more out of it, but by the third of fourth time there’s a serious case of diminishing returns.  I’m not saying any of you long-time followers should leave, but don’t be too surprised if I end up talking about dialogue or character voices or something like that.
            Speaking of which, next time I wanted to talk about dialogue and character voices.
            Until then, go write.