February 21, 2009 / 2 Comments

Let’s Get Critical

A bit early this week to make up for the time off.

Anyway, let’s return to that mechanic analogy I used a few weeks ago. I’d like to explore it a bit more, because it works really well.

Let’s say you get up tomorrow morning and your car won’t start. The engine will turn over, the headlights and radio work, but that’s it. Unless you happen to be very repair-minded yourself, odds are you’ll contact a mechanic, because working with automobiles is what he (or she– we’re progressive here) does for a living and they know a lot more about it than you do. Car repair is, after all their field of expertise, and they’ve been working in it for a while.

Now, when the mechanic tells you the car’s head block is cracked and it needs major work, would you start to argue? Would you say he doesn’t know what he’s talking about? Or she doesn’t understand your car and then march off in a huff?

What if you took your car in for a tune up and the mechanic told you the brakes were shot and the steering column was dangerously close to failing? Would you ignore the warnings and head out on that cross-country road trip? Perhaps take the car to your cousin Chris, the butcher, with the hopes he’ll give you an answer you like the sound of more?

Hopefully not. It would mean you’ve probably bought a lot of cars in your time. And maybe had some hospital visits in there, too.

If you ask someone with more experience than you for an opinion on something, it’s kind of silly to then ignore that opinion. If an expert gives you advice from their chosen field, you should probably at least consider what they’re saying.

And yet… how often have you heard the angry amateur writer complain the editor/ professor/ contest judge was an arrogant so-and-so who didn’t get their story? That these people were so hung up on perpetuating the system– with stupid, inconsequential stuff like spelling and dialogue and believable characters –they didn’t see the inherent ART!!!

Now, some folks may argue that writing and auto repair are quite different, so my analogy doesn’t really hold up. Writing really is an art, after all, and art is more subjective and gray than, say, fixing a cracked head block, which is pretty black and white. You can’t apply hard-fast, black and white rules to writing.

Well… yes and no.

Based off my own experience (which is not gargantuan, but sizeable enough I feel safe using myself as a reference), I would guess about half of most rejections are because of the small, basic elements of writing—and those are black and white. Spelling and grammar. Punctuation and dialogue. Characters that are little more than cardboard cutouts. I’m not talking about the odd typo here or there—that’s completely understandable. I mean the ones where your eyes are bleeding two pages in.

A short story…

I once ran the builder port for an online text game. At its simplest, we were constantly writing dungeon room descriptions, like the ones for old D&D modules. “This chamber has been carved from the living rock of the mountain, and in places the walls are still raw stone.” That sort of thing. The game amounted to tens of thousands of individual files (a simplification), each one containing five or six (or more) hopefully-coherent sentences forming a solid description. Being who I am, I held the rest of the builder staff to a pretty high standard when it came to spelling, grammar, and continuity. A few of those folks read these little rants, and I’m sure they can tell you I was close to a dictator when it came to such thing.

Well, one time I got an application from a fellow who ignored all our forms and just sent me a huge list of stuff he had done for other games. His first room description had six typos in it. There were seventeen grammar mistakes on the first page. Two days later he began asking when he could start on the builder.

When I explained he couldn’t, and why, he was furious. Where did I get off saying his writing was no good? It was good enough for other games he’d worked on, wasn’t it? And when I tried to explain why– what gives me the right to tell him he needed to work on his spelling?!

Needless to say, after his passionate and strongly worded response, I did not invite him to try again later.

Now, there is a flip side to taking criticism. When it comes down to it, you shouldn’t listen to everyone, and there are some people who you should ignore altogether. Not every single opinion should count. You should be considering who you’re asking and what their own relationship to the material is (you may remember a while back when I talked about the downside to getting opinions from certain folks). Neither of my grandmothers is really qualified to judge rap music or torture porn films. My best friend is not the guy you go to for a review of your girly young adult romance novel, and he’ll admit that, too.

Another story…

Years ago I had this one client, a beautiful woman who wanted to write a specialized exercise book. Well, who wanted me to write an exercise book for her. I tried to explain non-fiction books are more about pitches and proposals, but she really wanted to see a manuscript. And she was paying well. So, over the course of a month or so we did lots of interviews where she talked at length. Then I would go home to edit, do some research, and arrange it into drafts I could show her.

The problem arose when she would then show the draft to someone else and take their opinions as gospel. Her husband the real estate lawyer. Her best friend. A personal trainer she knew. So every time I came to talk to her, she had a new list of things that “needed” to change in the book. Once she even insisted on showing a copy to an acquaintance of hers who was a literary agent—a copy we’d covered with red ink and editing notes. I begged and begged her not to, she did, and much to her surprise (but not mine) the agent said it looked like it still needed work. The six drafts I did for her ended up being six page-one rewrites.

At least, as I said, she was paying well.

So, a few helpful hints when it comes to criticism.

First, ignore anyone who can’t give a why or how for their opinion. Just toss their notes out the window, delete them from your inbox, or turn up your iPod if they happen to be sitting in front of you. If someone’s just going to say “this sucks” or “you suck” or “you’re a sucky writer”… shrug it off. It’s tough, but let it roll off your shoulders. An opinion needs to come with a few concrete examples to back it up if it’s going to have any weight. “This doesn’t work” doesn’t help you at all. “This doesn’t work because you didn’t set up a relationship between Yakko and Wakko” is constructive criticism, because it lets you look back at something specific.

Second, once someone’s given you specifics, pay attention to them. If someone explains a problem that runs through A, B, and C, look at it. You don’t have to agree with them, but if they’ve taken the time to list a handful of what they see as particular trouble points, you should at least have the decency to look at what they’re talking about. This is one of the biggest problems I see—people who are closed to receiving any type of constructive criticism.

Third, be clear on the different types of feedback you’re going to get. Some things you will have to change. Spelling. Grammar. Formatting. Structure. These are the black and white things we talked about up above, and that I often talk about here. There are no maybes or howevers here. You can yell ART as loud as you want but apostrophes still have nothing to do with possessives and black hair cannot compliment blue eyes.

Other things are more fluid. Story elements. Characterization. Locations. And that brings us to…

Fourth, take suggested changes with a grain of salt. Especially those story and character-based ones. In the end, you’re the one telling the tale. It really doesn’t matter if your best friend thought Yakko and the nurse should’ve gotten together in the end. Or if another one of your critics felt Dot should’ve killed Wakko because of that thing with the girl. Or if somebody expected the story to be about zombies and it turned out to be about clones, so it didn’t seem as good. These are personal preference matters. You’re the person writing the story, and if in your story Yakko and the nurse go their separate ways, Wakko lives, and there’s a swarm of clones wandering around… then that’s the story being told. There are lots of other manuscripts floating around out there in a variety of different formats. Just because your story wasn’t what someone wanted to read does not mean your story is wrong.

On which note, shouldn’t you get back to writing that story? You want to polish it up before you show it to anyone, right?

November 4, 2008 / 2 Comments

Too Much Information !!!

Details are prickly things.

I prattled on about them a bit in characters, about how some writers will spend paragraphs on shoes, jewelry, spoken languages, or what have you. Details also came up a bit under the suspension of disbelief, and how getting them right or wrong can save or kill your story.

As it happens, both of these can be symptoms of a problem. This problem is a lot more common in prose than in screenplays, but I’ve seen it both places. It goes by the self-explanatory term overwriting, but I’m going to explain it anyway just in case. After all, if I didn’t, I’d have to go do the dishes and then nobody wins.

Overwriting is when a story gets bogged down with details. It’s when the author starts describing every aspect of a character or a set of actions. Each step of a walk down a hall, every single garment while getting dressed, each hand gesture in an active conversation. Some people may look at such overwritten passages and argue art or depth or beauty of language or some such. My rebuttal is those are all wonderful things when actually present, and there’s also a reason the phrase “starving artist” has stayed in the English language for so many, many decades.

The overwhelming majority of the time, overwriting slows your pacing and pushes the reader inch by inch out of your story. It’s information they don’t need or can figure out for themselves, and the other word for that sort of information, as you may remember, is noise. For example, while I’ve started writing this little rant I checked my email, switched to a different playlist in iTunes, had several sips of Diet Pepsi, talked to the missus, and scratched myself once or thrice. None of it was important to what I’m writing here, so none of it came up here. It’s all just useless details that do nothing to advance the information I’m trying to put forth and you’re trying to read. The same holds true for fiction, be it prose or screenplays. If it doesn’t need to be there, why put it there?

Let’s take a look at two interpretations of a scene and get a feel for which one conveys the required information.

* * *

“We’ve confirmed it,” said the voice on the phone. “It’s Mendoza”

“I’ll be right there,” said MacLeod. He hung up the phone and picked up his keys from the phonestand. He walked across the living room and reached for the doorknob. He opened the door, stepped outside, and closed the door behind him before locking the main lock and the deadbolt.

MacLeod walked around his house to the parking slot in the alley. He unlocked the heavy padlock and unwrapped the chain that held the gate shut. He pushed the gate open, got into his car and twisted the key in the ignition. The car backed out with a squeal of tires and a faint scrape from the front driver’s side brake pad that needed replacing. Then he got back out, pulled the gate closed, and re-wrapped the chain. The padlock went on with a snap, he sat back down in the car, closed the door, and shifted into first, switching smoothly into second as he rumbled down towards the main street.

At the end of the alley MacLeod downshifted as the car lunged out into traffic. He turned right onto Alpine, then flipped his directional and took a left onto Beech. He made another right, upshifting as he did, and roared up the Carver on-ramp onto the freeway, accelerating into the leftward-arcing curve with a gradual increase of pressure on his foot.

* * *

“We’ve confirmed it,” said the voice on the phone. “It’s Mendoza”

“I’ll be right there,” said MacLeod.

He hung up and left the apartment. Less than three minutes later his car was roaring down the freeway.

* * *

That’s a bit extreme, I admit, but it gets the idea across. They both tell you the facts you need to know, but the first one’s massively overwritten. There comes a point when a writer is just spewing out excess information, be it in their dialogue or in their prose (action blocks for all you screenwriters).

I was looking over an acquaintance’s manuscript a while back and came up with an interesting way of looking at it which may be clearer. “It’s the difference between a cooking show ,” I explained to him, “and a show someone cooks on.” If you flip on the television, on one hand you’ve got folks like Emerill, Martha Stewart, or Bobby Flay. On the other hand there’s Luke and Sooky from Gilmore Girls. They’re all cooks. They all usually have food with them when they’re on screen.

However, you don’t expect Emerill to spend half his show talking about how his date went last night with the woman he met during an open house at his daughter’s school. Likewise, something’s wrong if Luke spends fifteen minutes in the middle of each episode explaining how to make a perfect grilled ham and cheese or why you should always cook french fries in vegetable oil with a few shakes of salt in it. In one case, being a cook is the sole point of the show. In the other, it’s just one small element of the show.

As you’re writing out chapters and scenes, be aware of what they’re actually about. If it’s about an obsessive-compulsive, maybe you do need the list of every dry cleaner bag in his or her closet and the shapes of all seventeen Tupperware containers in the fridge. If it isn’t, well… maybe things would move along a little without all that stuff.

Go look at your writing and see.

I’ve noticed, among some folks, an ongoing confusion between the how of writing and the what of writing. In some cases it passes confusion and just becomes deliberate ignorance (which seems to come with those accompanying screams of “ART!!!”). While there are common threads, one is not the other, and as a professional writer it’s important to know the difference..

How is the unique part of writing. It’s that artistic bit you always hear about when people do research, write extensive outlines, symbolically burn their first drafts, and consume mass quantities of food, booze, and drugs while they search for that one, elusive, perfect word. Was the night hot or was the night humid?

How is unique to each of us as writers. That’s why I have my one golden rule— What works for me might not work for you. And it definitely won’t work for that guy. We’ve all got our own personal quirks and habits and preferences that lead to a finished novel or screenplay or short story.

I got to speak with Kevin Smith a little while ago, and he explained that he only writes a few pages at a time. Then he smokes a lot, goes back, and rewrites them. Then he smokes a bit more, goes back, does some more editing, and moves on to the next scene. By the time he’s done, his script is effectively on his third or fourth draft.

One gent I know writes fairly successful action-adventure novels—three or four a year. He’s got it down to a system where he can plow out thousands of words a day on a notepad, and then the act of typing it up actually becomes his second draft.

Stephen King tends to write in the morning. Neil Gaiman writes at night (or so I’ve heard). My girlfriend needs near-silence to write, and I… well, I had to get a nice set of headphones when we finally moved in together.

There are a lot of habits that work for a lot of people, a few habits that only work for a few people, and vice-versa. In the end, how is when you get to do whatever you want. It’s when you look at all these suggestions about morning routines or dealing with writer’s block and say “No thanks, I’d rather do it this way.”

Three cheers to any of you who write for four or five hours a day, every day, at the same time. Power to you if you always squeeze in some time at the end of the night with your word processor before going to bed. If you can only write on Sundays in a clown suit while standing on your head and using voice-recognition software, congratulations. Not only are you writing regularly, you’re going to make a fascinating interview subject some day.

Now, on the other hand, we have what your finished writing is.

This part, alas, is not so subjective, no matter how hard some folks may like to shriek otherwise.

You must have characters who are believable within their world. The story has to be engaging and has to move along at a pace that will keep readers awake—and it needs to actually go somewhere. Your spelling and grammar need to be perfect.

As many people like to point out (including me), there will always be exceptions to these rules. But they’re exceptions, by definition, because they are the rarity. If you want to do this for a living, the what of your writing is probably going to have to fit within a very common and popular set of guidelines. If you’re going to assume you can be the exception… well, I won’t say that you can’t be, but you’d best be ready for a very long, very strenuous uphill battle.

What it boils down to you is that it’s completely acceptable to write in a clown suit, and feel free to smack anyone who tells you differently (just remember, you’re a writer so odds are they’ll hit back much harder than you). However, writing in a clown suit does not give you cart blanche to say your writing is flawless and beyond question. How you do it is not connected to what you’ve done.

At the end of the day, no matter how we got there, we are all being held up to the same yardsticks. If someone doesn’t measure up, it’s no one’s fault but their own.

So… put that clown suit back on and get back to writing.

August 14, 2008

Art for Art’s Sake

In these modern days of telecommunications, where everyone has an equal voice that can be heard instantly almost anywhere on the planet (and into high orbit, even), there has arisen an unusual movement in the creative fields. This movement usually takes the form of a high, shrill voice shouting…


A lot of people like to shamelessly use the word art, or some of its poor, bastard stepchildren (creativity, genius, literature, and even more, I’m sure). It’s why they don’t follow any rules of grammar, ignore spelling, and why they brush off anyone who tries to correct them or offer helpful hints.

Worse yet, some of these “artistic” folks try to get others to follow their twisted path. They condemn the rules of English and will try to convince you none of “that stuff” is important in your writing. What matters, they insist, is the ART. Nothing matters but the art, and they’re quick to leap on anyone who dares to hint otherwise.

Short story time…

In college, I had a teaching assistant openly mock me because I said I wanted to write stories to entertain people. In front of the entire class he told me if I wasn’t writing words that were intended to change the world I was just wasting everyone’s time. My first assignment (a vampire story) came back with a lot of red ink on it. So did my second one (a tale about a dimensional shortcut cutting across the worst possible dimension). Only my third story gave me a passing grade, because he read a lot of stuff into it that… well, I wasn’t going to say it wasn’t intended. I had a GPA to consider.

Slightly longer story…

A few years after college, but still several years back, I was a full-time carpenter and stagehand at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. The Rep is a small space in downtown (in the basement of a mall, to be honest) and used to help pay the bills by renting out space on one or two of their smaller stages. There were late-night improv teams, experimental theater groups, things like that which could usually only afford one or two performances. One night I was finishing up late and came across the house manager watching some kids doing a theater class project. They had an “audience” up on stage with a video camera while three or four other kids were out in the house trying (emphasis on trying) to build a full-sized scaffolding with 2×4’s and power tools. It was an attempt at “art,” and the house manager and I had a few giggles over it.

A few minutes after I stopped to watch, one of the kids with a Makita drill balanced it wrong on a drywall screw and ended up stabbing himself in the hand near the base of his thumb (almost anyone who’s used a cordless drill can probably identify with this injury, even if none of us have done it since the second or third time the drill was placed in our hands). Well, construction came to a grinding halt, all the students checked out his thumb, and it was decided they would continue.

“See,” I told the house manager. “That’s my problem with modern art.”


“Was he supposed to stab himself with the drill? It fit with what they’re doing. Did we just see an accident or part of the performance?”

She laughed, I laughed, but this offhand comment stuck with me. Y’see, I firmly believe art is not an accidental creation. You can’t throw paint at a wall and call it art. While statistically a million monkeys with a million typewriters can produce the complete works of Shakespeare in a million years, we all really know that many millennia from now it’s still just going to be piles of gibberish and crap. And maybe an Ann Coulter book or two. Art can’t happen by accident.

Which brings me to my second point, which will sound a bit contradictory. Art is always accidental. It is never, ever a deliberate act. The act of creation is deliberate. The artistic merit is not. History has shown this again and again, yet people still like to think they can make “art” and that others are fools for not recognizing it.

Ray Bradbury. William Shakespeare. Frank Capra. H.P. Lovecraft. Charles Dickens. Stephen King. Joss Whedon. Robert Louis Stevenson. When each of these writers and screenwriters started their careers, they were considered populist hacks at best, and at worse… well, critics can come up with some creative terms. Most of them weren’t writing to create art, but to pay rent and cover debts. They just loved to write and that was their main concern. Telling a story and getting a paycheck.

As time went on, however, people looked back and said “Hey, you know this guy really did say something about the human condition!” Did you know every one of these writers now has an entire college course devoted to them? At a number of universities, you can study Joss Whedon and the feminist empowerment of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or modern political undertones of Stephen King. Heck, I even understand there are a few schools where Shakespeare is considered a full major. William Shakespeare—who almost always wrote under a deadline and had to make constant changes to please patrons and actors. Just like the guys who wrote Transformers.

Now, here’s the rub…

Let’s take 100 writers and split them into four even groups. Each one of them publishes a handful of short stories this year. The members of group A are hailed as geniuses in magazines, newspapers, and on the newly-created inter-webbing thing. The others collect a paycheck.


Next year, several folks from group B are asked to contribute their stories to an anthology, while several of A are forgotten. Ten years after that, people are asking whetever happened to those writers from group C. And a decade after that, people are pointing at the D stories as unrecognized classics of the time.

So… who’s the artist?

This is simplified, granted, but it gets the point across. What counts as art changes day by day, generation to generation. I had a college professor once freely admit that the canon of great American literature changes every time someone hits tenure and publishes a new paper, crediting one person while discrediting another. How can your work aspire to a state which changes its definitions almost on a daily basis?

Trying to create art is like trying to hit a mosquito with a laser pointer. Between either end of things, it’s almost impossible. Don’t worry about “art.” Nine times out of ten, I’ve found “art” is an excuse to explain rejection and criticism.

Just write the best story you can.