November 26, 2019

Word. By. Word.

Thursday’s Thanksgiving and my parents are coming into town tomorrow, so I’ve got a lot of cleaning to do. No post on Thursday. But I had a simple idea I’d been meaning to toss out to you for a while now and this seemed like a good time.
Random theory of mine, probably not all that original. I think we tend to batch-read words. We tend to look at larger text elements—the clauses and phrases and sentences, rather than the individual words that make up those elements. I mean, you’re doing it right now. You’re not picking out the individual words, you’re reading this as a whole. And that’s a good thing. It’s what we want readers to do. It means my writing has a great flow to it.

But…

By the same token, this can make us kind of blind to things in our own work. Once we’ve written a sentence, we tend to gloss over it. Especially after reading it three or four times. We get overly-familiar with it. Even when we’re re-reading it in an edit draft, a lot of the time we’re just taking in the big picture and not looking at what’s actually there on the page.  It’s how we can read a sentence a dozen times and never notice that glaring typo in the middle of it. Or not notice there’s a word missing altogether.  Or that twice on this page we refer to Stu as Ted, but we don’t think about it because we know Stu was called Ted in an earlier draft and so they’re the same person in our heads.

That kinda thing.

So here’s my quick tip for you.  Do at least one pass where you  don’t read your story. Read the words on the page. Actually look at each individual word there on your screen  and. Read. Each. One. Of. Them.

Yeah, it’s slow. And it’s tough. That sounds silly, I know, but it is super-tough to go through a story this way. Especially a story we know. You need a ton of patience and focus. But I guarantee you’ll find dozens of things that were missed on earlier passes.

In fact, here’s a tip for that tip. Before you do this pass, change the font on your whole document. If you normally write in Times, switch it over to Courier. If you normally write in Courier, switch it over to Times. If you normally write in Wingdings, what the hell’s wrong with you? Seriously, nobody’s going to be able to read that. Put it in Times, make everybody’s life easer.

Anyway… remember what I said about how we get overly-familiar with things? Well y’see Timmy, by changing the font, I’ve just made the whole document unfamiliar to me. The spacing’s different. Things will sit on each page in new ways. Which means I’ll be looking at it with fresh eyes, and things will be a little easier to catch.

And there you go. This writing tip has been brought to you by cranberry sauce. And by Nana’s special holiday rolls.

Next time… well, look. Black Friday’s coming up, and if you’ve been here for any amount of time you know what I’ll be talking about. And then there’s Cyber Monday, plus NaNoWriMo will’ve been wrapped up for a couple of days. I’m going to be blabbing about a lot of stuff for the next week or so. Check back often.

Until then, go write.

August 2, 2019 / 1 Comment

Killer Sex Robots and Other Stories

I’m having a really crap day, but fortunately for you, this was already pretty much done. And maybe blabbing on about writing will make me feel better about stuff.  Probably not, but what the hell…

I’d like to babble on about another one of those “this is so self-evident why are we wasting time on it” ideas that… well, seems to come up a lot. 

As writers, we get cursed with ideas. Tons and tons of them. Books, comics, movies, epic television franchises, soooo many ideas. And, naturally, we want to use as many of them as we can. Cause they’re all friggin’ fantastic, right?

But, as I’ve mentioned here once or thrice before, that’s not always a good thing, no matter how fantastic my ideas are.  More isn’t always better. Sometimes stories get cluttered with ideas. I want to create a certain kind of character, use this cool idea I saw in a Gizmodo article, explore a few different themes, develop this awesome backstory I came up with, and then wait until you see all the stuff in chapter two!

We’ve all done this. Be honest. If I think I haven’t done this, it probably means I don’t realize I’m doing it right now in my current work.

Now, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having a lot of stuff in a story.  My book Dead Moon touches on zombie horror, body horror, sci-fi, action, mystery, and comedy. There’s a lot of talk about sex. There’s some politics. There’s some questions about self-worth and finding your place in the world (or the solar system).

But if you asked me… I’d tell you it’s about zombies on the moon.  Horror and sci-fi.

Let me give you a less personal example. I watched this geekery movie recently that was… okay, let’s just say it was about AI (or was it?  Maybe cloning? I’ll never tell). Anyway, there was a lot in it about the ethics of creating an intelligence solely for a specific purpose (is this slavery??). There was also stuff about the morality of assassination. Plus a lot of assassination-related action scenes. Then questions were brought up about the possible ethical issues when the scientist starts having sex with this thing she created. More so when it turns out the body said scientist made for this AI is the spitting image of her dead husband. Plus there’s a heist element as they plan to rob the CEO of the company. And some torture porn. Arguably some parenting, nature-vs.-nurture aspects, corruption of the innocent bits, too.

Now, all of these could be cool things to bring up in a movie. Hell, any one of them is probably a story in and of itself.  There’s a lot of fascinating character moments that can happen with almost any of these.

But again… what is this story about?

’Cause this AI movie made it about everything. The filmmakers gave every one of these elements equal weight. It was the ethical AI-assassination morality-action-sex issues-heist-torture porn-corruption movie we’ve all been waiting for. Just search for that category on Netflix.

(it’s not on Netflix—the category or the movie)

Is something just a conceit for the story?  Cool.  But to be clear… what’s my story then?  If I’m using clones to tell a long-distance love story, that’s cool.  Super clever. One of you should take that and run with it. But if that’s the case, I probably shouldn’t spend half the book talking about the science behind the cloning.  Likewise, if I’m writing a taut thriller about cloning assassins… maybe there shouldn’t be 250 pages of clone-love in there.

Subplots? Great.  Parallel plots?  Fantastic. Twiststhat subvert the plot? SOOO COOL! But what is this book about? What’s the dominant idea here? What aspect of the story are we spending the most time with?

Here’s a way to think of it.  There’s a Hollywood term you may have heard—the elevator pitch. It basically means I should be able to explain my story in one or two sentences, the length of an elevator ride. It comes from the awful idea that I should leap at people when I find myself alone in elevators with them. Because who doesn’t respond positively to that?

Anyway, if I got a chance to elevator-pitch the AI story above, how many of these things do I mention and explain? How many would I leave out? When I’ve only got thirty seconds to tell my story, what parts of it do I not bother telling?  It’s not going to be 100% accurate, sure, but it’s a safe bet my elevator pitch is going to make me really focus on the key things in my story.

And if I can’t focus on them… well, that’s probably telling me something.

Y’see, Timmy, it shouldn’t be that hard to explain what my story’s about.  It can have lots of elements—and hopefully it does—but there should be an overriding idea I can point to and sum up in a few lines.  “It’s about an android assassin who starts to question the morality of his existence, especially when he learns more about his creation.”

Which, alas, is not what that movie was about.

Next time, let’s talk about winding things up.

Until then, go write.

June 29, 2018 / 2 Comments

But If I Just Do This…

            A quick post this time.  As I mentioned last week, I’m kinda in a deadline crunch and… well, this time nobody stepped up to bail me out. Thanks again to Kristi Charish for helping out.  Screw you, every other writer friend I have.
            Naaaah, not really…
            Anyway, what I wanted to talk about this week is a bad decision I see every now and then. I saw it a lot when I used to read for screenplay contests. And I still hear mentions of it now and then.
            So… okay, look, we all love the idea of getting published, right?  Of getting some kind of recognition—maybe even some kind of payment—for what we do. I mean, it’s the big goal.  The brass carrot.  The… something. 
            I’ve already run out of humorous mixed metaphors.
            As I was saying, back when I was reading contest scripts for ramen money, one thing I’d see again and again was people who’d done a clumsy, half-assed pass on their screenplay in a feeble attempt to make it eligible for a contest.  A few cuts here. A find-and-replace there. Maybe adding in a random scene or two.  Believe me, it was very clear that’s what happened.
            Plus, talking with writers at many points in their careers, I sometimes hear ideas and plans. Cutting this novella down.  Bulking that short story up.  Maybe doing another quick draft and playing up Phoebe as a bisexual half-Asian for this one magazine. Especially if Phoebe isn’t either of those in the current draft.
            It’s really tempting.  I get it.  We all want to get published, win the prize, get the recognition.  And we’re willing to do what it takes to get there.
            But…
            I probably don’t want to make sweeping changes or cuts to my story just to fit a market or contest or trend. If a magazine doesn’t touch anything over 8000 words and my short story is 8108… okay, maybe I can snip a bit here or there. But if they don’t want anything over 5000, well… my story’s probably out.  That’s almost half of it gone.
            Likewise, cramming in a romance just so I can try to get into a Valentine’s Day anthology… that probably won’t work.  Or some hamfisted references to God and angels so I can win some of that sweet faith-based contest money.
            And I know you’re probably smiling right now, but keep this in mind…
            I’m not making up random examples.  People do stuff like this.  All the time.  I read scripts for a faith-based contestand—in the course of two years—read no less than five sex-romp comedies where characters would suddenly, for just one scene, look up to the sky and beg for God’s help.  And one of these was—dead serious–for help getting the hot female supporting character out of her clothes.
            Because that’s funny and sexy and religious.  See? Triple threat!  How can it lose?
            (it lost)
            I saw someone in an online writers group just push for “cutting your story down to meet their requirements.”  This was a discussion about an 11,000 word novella being trimmed to meet the needs of a 8,000 word market. And an amazing number of people chimed in to say “yeah, go for it.”
            Y’see, Timmy, once we’ve been doing this for any amount of time, we start to get a feel for ideas.  Some are great for flash fiction or short-short stories. Others are made to be novellas.  And some are just waiting to be fleshed out into books.
            And, yeah, some books are bigger than others.  The book I’m wrapping up is a solid 100,000 words, but I know Chuck Wendig recently finished a monster almost three times that size, and another friend who has one coming in at a nice tight 85,000.
            My point is, if I rewrote and edited and polished and my final story came in at 12,000 words… there’s a chance it’s a 12,000 word story.  And cutting 25% of it will make it… well 25% less than a good story.
            In my experience, most editors aren’t interested in 25% less than a good story.
            Likewise, if I can make major changes to a character and it has absolutely no repercussions anywhere in their story… maybe I don’t have a great character.  If making Phoebe bisexual instead of straight doesn’t change anything in my story, it’s doubtful this is the kind of story a niche market is looking for.
            As always, there’s no absolutes here.  Maybe I really can afford to lose three or four thousand words.  Perhaps my story does need a different viewpoint to excel.
            But…

           These aren’t the kind of alterations that get rushed out overnight.  They’ll have repercussions throughout the story. They’re require other changes.  And then more revisions to make sure those changes don’t cause changes.  A good story—even a short story—is a house of cards.  I can’t just pull one out and replace it and think nothing’s going to happen when I do.  Or take ten out altogether.

            I should think long and hard about forcing a story to meet a new set of requirements.  Length, style, content, whatever they may be.  When I’m done, it may not be what it was.
            Which would suck if it was good.
            And this has turned into a much longer rant than I planned.  Apologies.
            Next time… well, I just finished a draft.  Maybe I’ll talk a little bit about that whole process.
            Until then, go write.
October 12, 2017

Time For A Break

            Well, this is overdue.
            So sorry for the long delay.  I’d hoped to get this up before I left for NYCC, but that day turned into the usual rush of dealing with this and that and more of this.  I don’t know why it’s always so frantic. It’s not like I was going to be there for a week or something.  Two nights, but I always pack as if I’m gone for a week anyway. I’ve got stuff for different weather conditions.
            Stuff for downtime.  Some stuff for fans. I’m ridiculously overprepared.
            But let’s take a brief break from that and talk about paragraph breaks.
            Like that weird one I just did up there.
            I’ve mentioned paragraphs here once or twice before.  If sentences are taking a nice bite of the story, paragraphs are three or mouthfuls before having a taste of something else.  I eat some spaghetti, then I have a sip of wine or maybe nibble some garlic bread.  The different tastes and textures work together to make the meal more enjoyable.  If I just had to sit and eat a bowl of spaghetti with nothing to break it up, it’d get kind of monotonous. No matter how much I like spaghetti.
            Hell, at some point, depending on the size of the bowl, I’d probably even start dreading the stuff.
            And that’s what I’m trying to avoid with paragraphs.  I don’t want readers to get bored or intimidated by what they see on the page. I want to break up the text in a way that furthers the story.
            For example, when two people are talking, my attention goes back and forth between them.  Yakko to Wakko.  Someone new talks, and my attention shifts to them.  Perhaps it’s going back and forth, or it could be bouncing between three or four people.
            Think of paragraphs as those moments of attention.  If something shifts my attention away, I should have a new paragraph.  And then maybe it’ll shift back. or perhaps shift to something new, and my attention will follow it there.
            Even if the same character keeps talking, it can get broken into two or more paragraphs. In any long monologue, I should be able to sense the pauses and shifts, the places where our attention moves on to a slightly different aspect of the topic.  Maybe I’m going on about death, with a slight shift into funeral arrangements, my time in Kazakhstan, maybe even thinking ahead to my own end.  Perhaps we’re talking about relationships, and being in love vs. young love vs. older love, and maybe those few times we mistook sex for love, or knew it wasn’t love and didn’t really care at the moment.  In each of these long discussions, it’s easy to see where it could—and should—spin off into a separate paragraph.
            Y’see, Timmy, when I don’t break things up, I end up with a paragraph where it jumps around a lot, nothing’s really described, and it covers a lot of ground.  Sometimes I may do that for a certain effect, yeah, but most of the time… that’s not great storytelling. Of course, the flipside to this is breaking something in the wrong place.
            When I do that, the flow stumbles, because it means I’ve probably broken a point of focus.  Like up at the top, when I broke the second paragraph in the middle of describing the items I was packing.  Or just two sentences back.  I should’ve started the new paragraph on “Of course,” because where I did break it cut off this whole idea I’m trying to explain.
            Which, granted, helped to explain it.
            See—new idea, new break, great flow.

            Breaks also alter the pacing.  Have you ever noticed in a lot of movies and television shows, we get more cuts (jumping from one camera angle to another) as action and tension build?  We jump from Arya to Brienne, back to Arya, to a wide shot, to Sansa watching them duel, then back to Brienne and Arya for that dagger flip… 

            You can feel the energy and the pace right there, just seeing it written out, can’t you?  We understand there’s a lot going on and that all these people are—in their own way—involved in making this complete scene.  Our attention jumps around in one paragraph, but it does it fast because this is a fast-paced scene. 
            See, in prose (unlike film), those breaks would slow down the action.  Notice how the whole Arya–Brienne fight, almost two minutes on film, gets summed up really nicely in there?  When an action scene moves into several paragraphs, it tends to make things drag.  If I take six or seven lines to describe something that happens in one or two seconds, I’m altering the flow and forcing the action to that pace. 
            There may be reasons to do that, sure… but I’d better have a reason if I’m doing it that way.
            There’s also another issue at work here.  As readers, we kind of expectthese breaks.  How often have you seen a wall of text in a book or online and just groaned a bit (out loud or internally).  They make that TL;DR reflex twitch in the back of our brains.  It’s because we understand information doesn’t come in giant slabs like that.  A wall of text is someone going on way more than necessary about a single topic. 
           The breaks help us keep things organized, too.  Remember I mentioned the back and forth aspect of watching a conversation?  We tend to follow that in prose, too.  If I have dialogue between Yakko and Dot, we don’t expect that dialogue to share a paragraph.  The breaks help us set the back and forth rhythm in our minds.  And when something disrupts that rhythm, it also breaks the flow.
            And, as I’ve mentioned many times before, breaking the flow of my story can be fatal.
            Because that’s my ultimate goal.  To have my story be smooth and readable. For it to draw people in, not push them away.  You’ll find people who try to tell you the punctuation and formatting of a story don’t matter, that a good story will stand on its own despite those things.  The truth is, though, the way it’s set out is going to have a huge impact on how it’s interpreted by readers.  How easily it flows.  How fast it feels. How accessible it looks. 
            So break things up. Y’know before your readers decide they need a break…
            Next time, I’d like to talk a little more about the center of our attention.
            Until then, go write.

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