I’ve been talking about genre writing for a few weeks now, I know, but I actually had one last thing that’s been tickling my brain.
I’m sure I’m not the only one binging shows right now. Things I’ve wanted to see again or watch for the first time. My partner and I are kinda doing a Voyager rewatch, but we’re also stretching out this last season of She-Ra. And I just finished Parasyte, an anime I’ve meant to watch since I first read some of the manga… jeeez, twenty years ago? I tried rewatching The Prisoner but gave up on it and settled for some old G1 Transformers cartoons.
(to be polite, some of the following plot points may be altered from of the actual show we’re watching… or are they?)
The main subplot is that our hero’s trying to learn why his father left decades ago, and has tracked down the small farming town where Dad ended up living. And dying—with a lot of things left unanswered. Things like why did Dad abandon his family? Why come to this small town? What’s with all the old books in the study? Or the ring of corn around the house? And the strange old guy who takes care of the corn who has the same name as our hero? And is this mysterious woman, Lacey, his half-sister or… something else?
Pretty much ever other week, said hero finds out some tantalizing new clue about his long-lost father and then does… nothing.
Again and again, the show has moments where we learn that Bud, the town mechanic, played chess with Dad every week… and they talked a lot. Helen, the retired nurse who hangs out in the park? It turns out she was there for Lacey’s birth… and it wasn’t exactly a normal birth. And Sheriff Mawkin? well, she was only a deputy when Dad moved to this town, but he took her aside then and told her that some day his son might come looking for him.
And our hero would be amazed and thrilled and confused about what he’d just learned… until the end of the scene. At which point, he’d completely forget about these little tidbits and act like nothing had happened. Until they came up again two or three episodes later.
We end up getting annoyed with things like this because in theory our characters are supposed to mirror our readers (or audiences, if you will). If the point is to make my readers think “Wait, what the hell does that mean…?” then this is something my characters should be thinking—and maybe even voicing—too. And they should be acting on that reaction. I can’t have a character say “this changes everything!” and then go on acting as if nothing has changed. They can’t find out Bud has the answer to the question that’s haunted them for years and then not get around to asking Bud about it. It’s frustrating because we know we wouldn’t leave it like this. We’d want more. We’d demand more!
One of the easiest things we can do at any point in our writing is to just ask ourselves “What would I be doing right now?” How would we react? What would we say? What would we be important to us right now in this situation? And if we’d demand more in this situation, well, maybe I should really think about why my characters aren’t.
I think this is also one of the reasons using mysterious characters flops so often. Because Mister X offers some vague statement or response and the main characters just… accept it. They don’t have follow-ups. They don’t demand more. They don’t take what they’ve learned and run with it. They just shrug their shoulders and say “Huh.”
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying we need to answer every question the moment it’s asked. They can get teased out and end up being false answers, misunderstandings, or red herrings. That’s part of a good mystery. A necessary part, some might argue.So it’s okay not to answer questions right away.
But y’see, Timmy, it’s not okay to never ask those the questions. If my characters don’t care enough to ask, they can’t really care about the answers. Which means my readers probably shouldn’t care.
Which means all this mystery stuff is just a waste of time because nobody cares about it.
I guess what I’m asking is, what would you like to see in the next few weeks? Any particular topics you’d like me to blather on about? Something you want to hear a fresh take on, or a problem that’s been gnawing at you? Let me know down below.
And if nobody says anything… I may take a week off and try to get a bit caught up on things.
Welcome, travelers, to the far distant future of 2020. After orientation, each of you will be assigned a robot butler, a flying car, and a seasonal moon-bus pass.
I like to start the year with kind ofa quick reminder for all of us. How the ranty blog started, what it is, why I’m still doing it.
Easiest first. I more or less started this back in (gasp!) 2007. I was writing for a screenwriting magazine, and by nature of it I’d see tons of articles and websites about “helpful” tricks for networking, getting stuff in front of agents, producers, editors—all the sort of stuff you worry about after writing.I’d guess at least two-thirds of the “writing” articles, even in our own magazine, fell into this category.
So I went to my editor with a few spec columns about… writing. Dialogue, character, just some thoughts based on my own years of many failures and a few successes (or, as some folks call it, experience). And they were rejected.A few months later I went to another editor, he passed my would-be columns up the chain… and they were rejected again.
Eventually, I tossed them up here just so it felt like I’d done something with them. I thought they were fairly well-written and I didn’t want them to languish on my computer.As I moved further into the full-time writer life, I was exposed to more and more people’s work. I read scripts for a couple different contests, which got me 400+ pages a day of exposure to it. And it struck me that I kept seeing the same basic mistakes being made again and again. So posting here became a regular thing.
The other group thinks spelling, formatting, and structure just hamper the creative process. People always ignore those things once they see the inherent beauty in the prose, right?Nothing matters past the art flowing out of the writer’s fingertips, and anyone who says otherwise is a sellout who doesn’t understand what writing’s supposed to be about.Don’t know how to spell that word?Don’t know what the word means? Not in the mood to write? Someone said bad things about their writing? Absolutely none of it matters except being happy about their art.
Both of these groups are wrong, for the record. A lot of folks think writing’s all-or-nothing. The truth is, though, writing’s much more of a middle ground.
Y’see, Timmy, there are correct and incorrect things in writing. I have to know how to spell (me—not my spellchecker).I have to understand grammar. I need to have a sense of pacing and structure and format. As a writer, I can’t ignore any of these requirements, because these are things I can get wrong and I’ll be judged on them. By editors. By agents. By readers.
On the other hand, there’s no “right” way to develop a character or outline or start my writing day. There’s only the way that’s right for me and my story.Or you and your story. Or her and her story. This is the Golden Rule I’ve mentioned here once or thrice. If we ask twenty different writers about “how to write,” we’re going to get twenty different answers.And allof these answers are valid, because all of these methods work for that writer.
Again, that still doesn’t mean I can ignore every convention or rule I don’t like. I need to understand the rules if I want to break them successfully. Yeah, maybe there are ten or twenty people I can point at who broke the rules and succeeded.But I need to remember there are thousands, probably millions, of people who broke the rules and failed miserably.
And that’s kinda what the ranty blog is about. I talk about writing.Not the after-the-fact-stuff, just…writing. I talk about the rules we all need to learn and follow (until we’ve got the experience to bend or break them). I offer various tips and suggestions I’ve heard over the years that may (or may not) help out when it comes to crafting a story or shaping a character or sharpening some dialogue. If there’s something you’ve been beating your head against that you’d like me to blab about, let me know down in the comments. I’ve been doing this for a long time now—there aren’t many topics I haven’t had a painful learning experience with, and I’m always willing to share.
Which I guess leaves “why.” And that’s pretty simple. Like I said, I’ve made lots and lots of mistakes on my path to “published, semi-successful, quasi-known author.” If I can help some of you get past them—or maybe just not spend so much time splashing around in them—I’d like to do it. I mean, people helped me, I should pass it on. And it’s not like writing is a zero-sum game. Helping you improve your chances doesn’t lessen anybody else’s chances. Really. I can show you the math if you like.
Simply put, I want you to succeed. And I’ll do what I can to help make it happen.
And that’s why I’m posting writing advice here every Thursday, and a bunch of stuff on Tuesdays too.
On a semi related note, I’d also like to recommend the Writers Coffeehouse to you.It’s a monthly meeting of writers of all types and levels to talk about… well, writing.All aspects from first ideas and editing to pitching and marketing.It’s completely free—no obligations or requirements of any kind—it’s kinda fun, and it’s open to everyone. If you’re in the LA area, I host it on the second Sunday of every month (which would be ten days from now) at the wonderful Dark Delicacies bookstore in Burbank.If you’re closer to San Diego, Jonathan Maberry (the guy behind V-Wars and the Joe Ledger books) hosts one on the first Sunday of every month (for example this Sunday) at the Mysterious Galaxy bookstore. And I think at this point there are a dozen others scattered across the country. Boston, San Francisco, Durham NC, Sacramento… I should really dig up the full list. Please check one of them out if you’re in the area.
Next time, I’d like to talk about the process of writing. Your process, actually.
Hello, all. Hope the holidays have been good to you so far. I got to play a pleasant Christmas morning game with most of the presents called “Did the Tree Leak Or Is This Cat Pee?” Fortunately nothing was damaged. And we’re pretty sure it was just water. Like… 83% sure.
I had something else planned for the ranty blog but it struck me this is the last week of the year, so I wanted to stick with tradition and talk about what I got done over these past 367 days. It’s not meant as a brag or guideline or anything like that—my pace is my pace, your pace is your pace. Plus, talking with another pro friend at a Christmas party reminded me how slow my pace is compared to some folks. And I know I’m much faster than some.
Really, this is one of those posts that’s more for me than you. It’s me going over the year and seeing how much did I really get done? How much did I write this year? And this involves going through lots of files, checking the blog, searching under the couch cushions for excess words, all of that.
Anyway, here’s some of my noteworthy accomplishments of the year, if such things interest you.
I write the back half of Terminus, the new Audible exclusive that you’re probably going to be seeing (well, hearing) in about four weeks, if all sticks to plan. I was about 45,000 words into it when last year ended and then did another 60K or so. Then there was lots and lots and lots of editing. And copyediting. I think we ended up with a manuscript of about 101,000 words, when the smoke cleared and all the blood was hosed away.
I went back to work on the outlines for another book and ultimately decided… it wasn’t going to happen. I had beginnings I liked. I had endings I liked. But I just couldn’t seem to make them meet in the middle, no matter how I tried it. And after sort of banging pieces together for a week or three (after already working on it for a few weeks before Terminus)… I gave up on it.
I mean, I didn’t burn all my notes or anything. It’s still there wating for me to go back to it. But I’m a big believer that there’s a point where outlining and other forms of prep just become… well, wasted time. At that point I’d spent over two months trying to make the outline work and I’d lost a lot of enthusiasm for the project in the process. So I set it aside and moved on.
Fortunately, another idea had kinda splashed down in my head like an old Apollo capsule, and it seemed really solid. I had a three page outline that made me happy in about as many days and I just… dove in. That was mid-October or so. As I’m writing this, it’s just shy of 50,000 words in. Which I think isn’t bad considering the holidays and we had my parents stay with us for Thanksgiving.
There were also lots of blog posts. Counting this one, there were sixty-seven posts here on the ranty blog this year. In all fairness, I think nine or ten of those were cartoons by Tom Gauld or something similar, but I feel pretty safe saying there was, on average, a new post every single week, most of them around 2000 words or so. That adds up pretty quick.
I read a lot, too. Thirty-seven books, if my math is right. Twelve of those were for the dystopian book club at The Last Bookstore. Also a good-sized pile of comics and trade collections. A dozen or so different articles from the Washington Post each week.
And if we want to get silly, there were probably forty or more Saturday geekery rants analyzing bad movies and some of the basic flaws they were tripping over. Sure, that’s Twitter, and it’s kind of my downtime, but it’s still me actively analyzing and critiquing stories
How about you? What did you get done this year? What things could you add to your list of writing accomplishments? Nothing needs to be official or accepted. You didn’t need to earn a minimum amount off it. It’s just stuff you do that you honestly feel contributes to your writing process. How much progress did you make toward your end goal?
What did you get done this year?
And with that, I bid you farewell until next year, when we’ll talk about… well, I’m sure all kinds of things. Is there some particular aspect of writing you’d like to hear me blab on about, or a problem I could possibly help with? Just let me know down in the comments.
Happy New Year. See you again in the far-flung future of 2020.
Hey, so I know last time I said I was going to talk about twists, but…
This past weekend I subbed in for Jonathan Maberry at the San Diego Writers Coffeehouse and we talked about… well, all sorts of stuff. NaNoWriMo. Agents. Editing. One interesting question that came up was how do you edit? Which is a fair point. I’ve talked about editing here a bunch of times, but not anywhere near as much about what it is or how we do it.
First off, we need to be clear that there are different types of editing. There’s the type we’re going to talk about now (which I’m just going to call initial editing) but there’s also story editing and copyediting. I’ve talked about those a bit before, so I won’t go into them two much now. I will note that they exist and that all of these are very different things. So when we talk about editing—if we’re offering it, asking for it, or just doing it ourselves–it’s kind of important we’re clear what we mean.
What we were talking about at the Coffeehouse, and what I shall blather on about here, is what I’m going to call initial editing. There may be a better, more generally-recognized term for it, but that’s what I’m going with here. Really, I should’ve been calling it something like this for ages now because, like I said, they’re all different and I should’ve been as clear as possible.
This is the first real attempt at trimming and tightening my manuscript. If I was cooking, this would be the trimming the fat stage. Like, literally, trimming the fat. I can have a nice cut of meat (or a good head of cabbage, if you prefer) but that still doesn’t mean I’m going to use 100% of it when I cook. I’ll cut off that layer of fat and maybe that piece of gristle. I’ll peel off those outer, kinda banged up leaves of cabbage, but also trim them away from the really hard, solid stem at the core of the head. This is when I take thing that’s good or nice and make it into something great—something I want to impress other people with.
For our manuscripts, right off the bat this is going to mean having an open mind and a willingness to accept some possibly uncomfortable facts. If I refuse to believe there’s anything wrong, it’s really tough to fix anything. When I finally get to that first solid draft—usually the second draft, for me—it means things are very likely a little bloated with excess words Things that aren’t necessarily wrong, but my manuscript will almost definitely be stronger and cleaner without them.
I’m just going to list some words and phrases to keep an eye out for. To be very clear, this list isn’t complete and it definitely isn’t the end-all-be-all of things you should absolutely always delete from your manuscript. But I think it’s a good starting point, and as we go through maybe you’ll start to feel a pattern, a sense of the kind of stuff you should be looking for when you pull out the knives and start cutting. So fire up your word processor (or your blue pencil, if you’re hardcore old-school), find your Find function, and start looking for…
Adverbs and Adjectives—
Let’s just start with the big ones. A lot of folks have very strong opinions on adjectives, and especially on adverbs. Man, they hate adverbs. Some people think all adverbs should be ripped out of your manuscript while other people think all adverbs should be burned alive in your manuscript. And some people say adverbs are wonderful things and we should cultivate them like clover on a low-water front lawn.
I’m not a fan of adverbs. They have their uses, absolutely, and I’m not saying I never use them, but I also know a lot of the time they’re something I stick in quick to modify a verb rather than spending a few seconds to find the right verb. It’s an easy habit to get into, because pretty much every sentence is going to have a verb and I can pause for five seconds here, ten seconds there, and suddenly that’s an extra minute I spent on that paragraph. Five or six minutes on this page. It’s a drag we can feel, so it’s not uncommon to fall back on our first choice. Which is why people slowly run or quickly run or clumsily run when they could be ambling, dashing, or stumbling. A good rule of thumb I got years back that I try to follow is four adjectives per page, one adverb.
That— That can be a killer. There are times when it’s necessary for comprehension, or maybe even grammatically required depending on how I’ve structured things, but on a guess I’d say 75-80% of them are unnecessary in a story. It’s not uncommon for me to delete around 200 thats during my initial editing, if not more. Think about it. That’s almost an entire, actual page cut from my manuscript just by focusing on one word.
An editor friend of mine came up with this a while back. It’s from a bad habit I had of modifying, well, everything. Even in a loose third person POV, it’d seem odd for someone to look across a room and say “Yakko was six-foot-two and weighed one hundred-ninety-five pounds.” It just feels unnaturally accurate, doesn’t it? Sure, some characters might have that sort of precision, but not many. So I’d soften it up a bit. “Yakko was somewhere around six-foot-two and weighed maybe one-hundred-ninety-five pounds or so.”
Over the years I’ve come to add a few other words to this list, but for starters just try looking for things like somewhat, about, around, maybe, might, sort of, a bit, and kind of.I’ll also toss out that I saw a similar list from Benjamin Dryer recently and he suggested cutting very, rather, really, quite, so, of course, and in fact.
Heck, while we’re at it, let’s mention appeared to beand its evil step-siblings seemed to be and looked like. The thing is, these phrases aren’t supposed to be used alone. They’re almost always part of a literary construction where the second half of that structure is either an implied or actual contradiction.So when I’m saying “Yakko seemed to be six-foot-two,” what I’m really saying is “Yakko seemed to be six-foot-two but really he was barely .”And what I meant to say all along was just “Yakko was six-foot-two.”So I should probably triple-check these and make sure I’m not accidentally establishing a contradiction I don’t mean to be (and wasting a bunch of words in the process).
Looking back over this list, it’s probably worth mentioning that, yeah, when I delete some of these words and phrases it might mean I need to spend more time rewriting other things so my dialogue or narration still makes sense. Sorry. It happens. Probably want to make sure I also don’t just repeat the problem. It’s all part of the normal editing process.
And again, I want to stress–these words aren’t always wrong. I can use multiple adverbs on the same page. I can say someone’s around six-foot-two. There are totally valid reasons for these things to happen. But the whole point of this initial editing is to look at how often I’m using these words and patterns. And to figure out if they’re really necessary.
Now, these aren’t the only things I tend to look for in this initial editing pass. There might be (will probably be) plot threads, descriptions, characters, and more that can use a little trimming. If any of you like, I could talk about editing those, too. But I think for now, this is long enough. We’ve all got things to do.
Speaking of which, to bring things full circle, this Sunday at is the Los Angeles Writers Coffeehouse at Dark Delicacies in Burbank. Come on by and talk with us about writing and publishing and all that sort of stuff. Or just lurk in the background and browse the store while you listen in. Either was, I’m bringing little danishes.
And next time, yes, twists. Finally. After that it’s up to you.