July 23, 2009 / 4 Comments

Don’t Get Me Wrong

Several months back a friend of mine was celebrating her birthday in the usual way (with too much alcohol and far too much karaoke) and I got to catch up with a couple of friends I haven’t seen in ages. Contrary to everything Castle has taught us, most working writers don’t have tons of free time, and as such I’m lucky if I get out socially once every two months or so.

We were batting around random stories about the film industry and one of my friends made a comment about last year’s WGA Strike (you may have heard about it). Maybe it was the booze, maybe it was Laura belting out Cake’s “Short Skirt/ Long Jacket” up on stage, or maybe it was just a poorly-emphasized word. Needless to say, I heard an insult and I snapped back a sharp defense of the writers and the strike.

My friend threw up his hands. “Dude,” said he, “you totally took that the wrong way. That is not what I meant.” Yes, he actually said dude.

I looked back over his chosen words, realized the good-natured joke he’d tried to make, and shamefacedly bought the next round as an apology for verbally leaping at him.

The lesson here is twofold. One, always make sure you can afford to buy a round if you go out with friends. Two, if it’s that easy to misinterpret someone’s words in person, face to face, imagine how easy it is to do on the page.

Getting misunderstood is sort of the core flaw of all bad writing. I thought this character looked smart, you think he looks like an idiot. I consider this bit action-packed, you consider it to be chaotic. I felt like the message was clear, you found it to be a muddled mess. Part of this is an empathy issue, but often it’s just a matter of clumsy writing.

Here are a few easy things to check on in your own work to make sure the reader is thinking the same thing you are. Or at least, what you want them to be thinking…

Spelling – I know, I know. I never give up on the spelling Probably because it’s the most common problem I see. I’m not talking about random typos, but words people have just plain spelled wrong or used incorrectly. Know the difference between plane and plain, their and there, corporeal and corpulent. You don’t want your mad scientist to unleash a deadly plaque upon the world, one that will cause mass history.

Alas, there is only one way to beat this. Shut off your spell-checker, pick up a dictionary, and learn how to spell all these words you’re using. Sorry.

Grammar – The British comedian Benny Hill (best known in the US as that late-night guy with the awe-inspiring Hill’s Angels) had a recurring skit about actors who muddled their lines because of an unpunctuated script. Usually they’d end up delivering such zingers as “What’s that up in the road–a head?” or the beautiful woman who asks her partner “What is this thing called, love?” One of my personal favorites as of late was a dedication that read “This book is for my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Commas, capitalization, verb-noun agreement– none of these were made up because editors had nothing better to do one afternoon. They make sure a reader knows precisely what the writer means. Which is why the writer needs to know precisely how to use them. Remember, it doesn’t matter if it makes sense to you. It needs to make sense to an absolute stranger looking at it for the first time.

Common knowledge – One frustrating thing most of us have probably encountered (I know I have) is when a term comes up in a story that the characters all understand but we, the readers, don’t. It could be a joke, a reference, or maybe even a key plot element. Point is, if the reader doesn’t know what the writer’s referring to, it’s just a stumbling block that will knock them out of the story.

If you’re using a term for a certain effect, make sure it’s a term most people know so it can achieve that effect. If I’m told “she’s as mean as a Catachan puffball,” does that mean she’s vicious or is it sarcasm? How many times can my characters refer mysteriously to “Omega” before the reader decides to fold laundry or make lunch? Before you answer, consider this– we’re barely twenty minutes into The Matrix when Morpheus begins to explain the mystery of what the Matrix is.

Sarcasm – We all know sarcasm. As mentioned above, it’s when someone says one thing but means another– sometimes the exact opposite. This can go wrong in real life, so on the page it can be a killer. It can be especially rough in screenplays, which are often so stripped-down that the reader has to make up a lot of the context on their own. If sarcasm is read wrong on the page, it can send the reader down a false path, and once they realize they’re on a false path… well, there’s that large pile on the left.

Be careful using sarcasm too soon in a story. Make sure the reader knows the characters before you risk confusing them.

Language barrier – I mentioned this a while back as a common script problem, but it happens in prose as well. Even when two countries have a shared language, there are colloquial terms that vary. Boot, bonnet, pasties, Macintosh, rubber– all these words mean one thing in the UK and something very different in the US.

Know who your readers are and make sure you’ve adjusted your vocabulary appropriately. Through the wonders of social networks and message boards, most of us know at least one person in another country. If you know someone who’s part of your target audience, ask them to take a look at your writing.

Double meanings – This one’s kind of close to the language barrier. There are a lot of words and phrases that can mean one thing in one context, but something entirely different in another. Which means when there’s not much context, they became dangerously vague. When my boss tells me she’s got an opening that needs to be filled, is she hitting on me or asking if I know anyone who’s not working? What if I see a couple birds twittering in a tree? Are they making noises or social networking? Is that antique ring something wicked (uber cool) or something wicked (pure evil)?

This ties back to vocabulary (which ties back to spelling). A writer has to know what a word means, and also what it could mean. If not, there will be more confusion. And that path leads to pain, suffering, and laundry.

So, there are six quick tips that might help achieve a bit more clarity in your writing. Or at least make sure it’s muddled in all the right places.

Next time I’d like to talk about going from A to B. Or from B to A. You can go both ways, really. We don’t judge here.

Until then, you need to go write. Clearly.

April 16, 2009 / 4 Comments

How Not To Be Seen

Know what would be nice after the brutal tax season? Well, pretty much anything…

So, what’s the easiest way not to be seen?

Not to stand up.

If you get that joke, points to you. If not… Seriously, expand your horizons…

Anyway, if you’ve been following this rambling, ranty blog for any amount of time, you’ve probably figured out writing is almost never easy (despite what you may see on Castle). It takes a lot of work, and it kind of sucks that when you’re doing your best work as a writer no one’s going to notice.

Allow me to explain.

The best compliment you can ever hope for is someone forgets they’re reading your story. Not in the sense they stop reading for lunch and forget to pick it back up, but in the sense they honestly forget they’re reading a story.

Back when I was playing with my first real attempt at a novel, The Suffering Map, I handed it off to a few folks who I knew could be brutally honest about it. One of these people was my best friend, Marcus. Yes, he’s a friend, but we’ve been friends so long we both have no trouble telling each other when one of has screwed up. Sometimes there’s even some glee to it. And, yes, I freely admit nine times out of ten it’s him pointing out how I’ve screwed up.

Marcus took longer than anyone to get back to me with notes on The Suffering Map, and he finally admitted it was because he kept forgetting he was supposed to be making them. He’d go for dozens of pages without noting any mistakes or jotting down comments.

Silly as it may sound, this was one of the best compliments I’d ever received. It meant Marcus had forgotten he was reading my book and was just getting caught up in the story. The author and the medium fell off to the side and he just got absorbed into the tale of Rob, Sondra, Gulliver, and the Polynecros Transporter. The fact it was his friend’s story became inconsequential.

This is what we should all be shooting for. Our audience would forget they’re reading the latest John or Jane Smith novel or screenplay, perhaps even forget they’re reading a written work altogether, and just let themselves sink into the story. This happens when the audience forgets they’re reading, and the easiest way for that to happen is for them not to see your writing.

It always feels satisfying to avail oneself of an exuberant flourish of words and demonstrate not just the verbosity and vocabulary we’re capable of as proficient wordsmiths (and thesaurus owners), but also the clever intricacies we can interweave between character, plot, and theme. The problem is, every time we make the reader hesitate or pause just for a second, we’re breaking the flow of the story. Whenever the audience becomes overly aware of us, the writer, leaning over their shoulder and saying “hey, check out what I did there,” they’re going to pull back the same way anyone would. If you don’t mind the touchy-feely analogy, it’s an invasion of their personal space.

Think of some of the times you’ve been painfully aware of the author you’re reading. Ahhhh, Stephen King is doing that down-home-folksy-supernatural thing again. Look, Anne Rice is drifting back to her softcore porn roots again. Oh, that’s the same twist Harper Lee used in her last book. Sometimes this works, but more often than not if the audience is pausing to be aware of the author it’s just a chance for them to become aware of the world around them, to register they’re just holding a manuscript and not experiencing a story.

As writers, we should aspire to being invisible. Oh, we want our characters to be seen. We want our dialogue to be heard. We want our action and passion and suspense to leave people breathless. But we are just distractions. Less of us is more of the story.

By the way… if you are actually in possession of any other book by Harper Lee besides To Kill A Mockingbird, you are sitting on a gold mine.

Just saying.

So… some ways not to be seen.

Names. If used in moderation, names are invisible. They’re just shorthand for the mental images we’ve all formed in our heads. If I say Angelina, there’s an immediate link to the actress, just like saying Bob will make your audience think of your character Bob. It’s also worth mentioning that simpler, more common names blend easier than rare or unnatural ones. Tony doesn’t stand out as much as Antonio, Edward is easier on the frontal lobe than Ezekiel, and all they’re nothing compared to Bannakaffalatta.

Moderation is the key, though. If names repeat too often, they start to get cumbersome. Even if the name is something short and simple like Bob, when I see a paragraph about Bob reading Bob’s book shortly before Bob decided it was too hot outside and so Bob went in where it was air conditioned… well, personally at that point I start counting them, which means I’m not reading the story I’m auditing it. This is why we have…

Pronouns. When names start to get too noticeable, we call in the almighty pronoun. Just like names are shorthand for story elements, pronouns are shorthand for those names. When names start to clutter up your writing, they’re there to leap in and shoulder the weight. It’s how Bannakaffalatta becomes he, that mysterious island becomes there, and the Maltese Falcon becomes it.

The catch here is to make sure your pronouns are clear, because the moment someone gets confused about who she is, they’ve just stopped being part of your story and started studying the page. A good rule of thumb—after you’ve referred to Angelina as she six or seven times, drop her proper name back in once. It’s been long enough it won’t look repetitive, and it’s a gentle reminder of who she is.

Said. We talked about this just last week, but it’s worth saying again. Said is invisible. No one’s going to count up how many times you use said (except maybe my friend Meredith), but people will start noticing if you constantly respond, retort, or exclaim. If you plan on having several characters pontificate, depose, or ejaculate, don’t be surprised when your audience stops reading to scratch their collective heads or giggle. Usually while they’re pointing right at you.

Vocabulary. We all know what red means, but viridian can make us pause for a moment. Some things glow and some are effulgent. That guy can be hairy or he can be hirsute, which means you might also think of referring to him as an ape or perhaps an anthropoid.

A huge problem I see is writers who can’t figure out what common knowledge is, and argue adjectives like atrementous or glabrous are valid simply because they’re in the dictionary. Pruinose is a real adjective, too, but there’s a reason it doesn’t come up much over drinks. Any word a writer chooses just to draw attention, to prove they don’t need to use a common word, is the wrong word. And the fact that it’s drawing attention means you’ve just been seen again.

So duck behind the bushes, crouch down inside that water barrel, and prepare to write. Once you’re out of sight, that means the audience can only focus their attention on your characters and your story.

Next week… what should you have in common with the people who built the pyramids and the hanging gardens of Babylon? It’s not the lost continent of Atlantis, I’ll tell you that much.

And don’t let me see you until then.

For now, go write.