July 21, 2011 / 1 Comment

Tastes Like Chicken

There’s about a hundred jokes in that title. Hopefully one or two of them will fit with this week’s little rant…

Sorry about missing last week, by the way. I’ve been trying to stay ahead on the new project and prepare for Comic-Con, and the blog somehow slipped right past me. Shouldn’t happen again. Well, not for a little while, anyway.

My dad is a phenomenal cook. Have I ever mentioned that? For a guy who refuses to retire and spends his working hours writing up safety protocols, his cooking skills are just fantastic. There was a time when my mother and brother and I were all trying to convince him to open a restaurant, but he wasn’t interested. Cooking was the fun thing he did to relax. He didn’t want to take that extra step and make a job out of it.

We were all fine with it. Mostly because it worked out great for us. My dad can turn Thanksgiving leftovers into a sandwich you’d gladly pay twelve bucks for, so I’m definitely not going to complain. Not as long as I keep getting invited to Thanksgiving.

No, really, this is all relevant. You’ll understand why soon.

As it happens, I’ve had several different friends and acquaintances ask me for writing advice over the past few months. Granted, they all had different skill levels, but none of their questions were really about writing. They were about improving by buying the right books or starting blogs or catching the interest of publishers. I tried to answer as politely as I could, but I’m pretty sure none of them were really listening. I know at least two weren’t.

So, here’s a better way to look at it.

Should you go to cooking school?

I’m sure a lot of you are shaking your heads at that one, but let’s stop and consider it. Cooking is a great metaphor for writing, on a bunch of levels. It’s an art. The end product has to hit certain benchmarks but it also, to a fair degree, is a matter of personal taste. A few rare people have a natural knack for it but most of us need lots of practice. It’s something most of us do every day, but we know only a small percentage of people are good enough at it to deserve recognition or make a living off it.

So, if you want to get better at cooking, should you go to cooking school?

Right up front, let’s be clear. Any cooking school is going to expect that you have a minimum degree of experience and knowledge right off the bat. They’ll assume you can tell flour from sugar on sight and that you know the difference between basil and oregano. The point of cooking school is not to teach you how to make peanut butter sandwiches. If you’re still struggling with these things, cooking school is really a waste of your time and money.

Now, if you plan on making a living off food, cooking school is almost a necessity at some point. Not everyone needs to take classes on desserts and soups and seafood. We’re just never going to use them. There’s about a hundred better, cheaper things we could be doing to improve our cooking skills. There are free recipes online and on the back of most staple ingredients. There are tons of cooking shows and podcasts where we can learn little tips.

And of course, the easiest thing we can do—what hopefully most of you have already seen as the obvious thing I’ve skirted around—is cook stuff. Just get in the kitchen and cook. If I want to be a better cook, the most useful way to spend my time is cooking. Makes sense, yes?

Y’see, Timmy, if you want to be a chef, there’s a point that you need to take some classes, and you’re probably going to keep skimming through cookbooks forever. But it’s all going to come down to spending time in the kitchen. That’s how you become a good cook. Going to Harvard doesn’t automatically make you a great journalist and going to MIT doesn’t guarantee you’ll be a phenomenal engineer. At the end of the day, it all comes down to just doing the work and how hard you’ve been doing it.

In fact, there’s a fair argument to be made that cooking school won’t help you become a great chef. It can make you into a good chef, but the greatness comes when you go out and start doing stuff on your own. You don’t hear about Wolfgang Puck or Gordon Ramsay taking classes. Neither of them probably has in over a decade, at least. If you just keep going back to cooking school and never really stepping into the kitchen, it should be clear you’re dooming yourself to a life of mediocrity (at least, on the food-preparation front).

You’ll always learn more by doing the job than you will by reading books about doing the job. Doing the job is almost always more educational than taking classes about doing the job.

So, with all that being said… should you go to cooking school?

A bit clearer now, isn’t it?

This pile of rants is cooking school, in a way. Not one of the great French academies, but a bit higher up than the Home Ec class you might’ve taken in seventh grade (if you’re of a certain age). Probably better than those cookbooks aimed at recent college grads.

A few people who are reading this right now desperately want advice on getting agents and publishers interested, but they haven’t bothered to learn how to spell. They’re convinced they’ll learn some magic structure or word (mellonballer…) that will make it all easy for them. They’re so desperate to learn the secrets of a good Hollandaise sauce they haven’t bothered to learn how to boil an egg.

I’m guessing most of you can use about half of the various tips and suggestions I throw up every week. There’s weeks that you learn a clever trick or new approach to an issue in your writing. There’s also those weeks you just skim because it’s something you’ve got a good grip on.

And a few of you… well, you’re probably just killing time here, aren’t you? There isn’t much I go over that you don’t already know. You’re just putting off doing some actual work for half an hour or so.

Learn the basics first. Don’t worry about level five before you’ve mastered level one. If you aren’t sure what the basics are, that’s probably a good sign you haven’t mastered them yet. I’m not being glib. If you’re reading this rant with the goal of becoming a better writer, you should already know what it means when someone says “the basics of writing.”

And then, once you’ve hit that level, start thinking about cooking school.

Next time, just for something different, let’s chat about slasher porn and why it’s not as bad as you may think.

(Yeah, I’m probably misleading you a little with that title…)

Until then, go write.

June 17, 2011 / 4 Comments

Jane, You Ignorant Slut!

Pop culture. Really. I pity you if you don’t get it.


I know I said I was going to write about mystery tips, but I got distracted by a few things. And then my mind went other places. So I ended up scribbling notes for some potential rants down the road rather than working on the one for… well, this week.

So I thought, hey, what if rather than doing a rant about mysteries, I did one about getting distracted by other ideas? Yeah, it’s more of the procedural end of writing than I usually deal with, but isn’t it about time to try something new? Doing something a little different could really ignite the old spark again, right?

Well, let’s see…

A while back my girlfriend told me a wonderful story about the slutty new idea. I laughed a lot and immediately identified with it. She’d read it on a message board, but couldn’t remember who posted it. I dug around and found it here on Richard F. Spencer’s blog, and he’ll be getting credit from me unless I hear otherwise.

The story goes something like this…

You, the writer, are out with your story. Maybe it’s a novel or a screenplay or just a short story you’re working on. Whichever it is, you’ve been together a while and you’ve fallen into a good pattern.

Perhaps, in fact, too good. Maybe a bit of a rut. You just don’t have the enthusiasm for the story you once did. There was a point that it was fun and exciting and all you could think of, but as of late… well, the honeymoon’s over and now it actually takes a bit of work to get anywhere with your story. Things have almost become mechanical.

So, anyway, you and the story are out and you happen to notice an idea across the room. It’s big and bright and it’s got that look to it that just says “you know it’d be fun to tumble around with me for a while.” It’s got a naughty edge to it, and it’s showing just enough to make you think about all the stuff you aren’t seeing, and how great it would be to get at those hidden parts. Just looking at it across the room you know that is the kind of smoking hot idea a writer’s supposed to have, not the dull thing you’ve somehow wound up with

In fact, let’s just take a moment and be honest with ourselves. That’s how we all want things to be with our ideas, right? It’s supposed to be a wild and spontaneous and intoxicating relationship you just can’t get enough of. You want it to keep you up late and wake you up early so you can get right back at it.

By the way, any innuendo or double meanings here are purely your own inference, I assure you.

Alas, more that a few of us know the awful truth of the slutty idea. Oh, it’s fun at first, but then one of two things happens. Sometimes you find out there’s not really anything else to it. Oh, that first night is fantastic, maybe the week after it is pretty cool, but it doesn’t take long to realize the slutty idea is… well, it’s a bit shallow. You had some fun, but after a couple days you realize things just aren’t going any further.

On the other hand, things might work out with you and the idea. The passion fades a little bit, but you’re still giving it your all and getting quite a bit in return. Eventually the two of you settle down into a comfortable story together. And just as you realize things are becoming a bit of work with your story, the two of you are sitting down one evening and you happen to notice a slutty new idea hanging out over at the bar…

Again, let’s be honest. We’ve all been there.

Now, a sad corollary to this that I’ve developed is the booty call idea. This is the idea you used to spend a lot of time with, but now you don’t for one reason or another. Maybe you needed some time apart. Maybe it just wasn’t working out between you. It’s possible you decided to call it quits altogether.

But, there you are late at night, and suddenly that idea looks really sweet again. There’s a lot of stuff you could do with that idea if you had a little time. Nothing serious, mind you, just a writer and an idea hooking up for a few hours and doing what they do. Yeah, there’s other things you should be working on—putting serious effort into, really—but one night won’t make any difference, right? Heck, not even the whole night. Just a couple hours to ease back into it and take care of that little itch you’ve had.

And yeah, maybe this time it’ll be different. But more often than not, come morning you’ll feel a bit guilty about that time you spent with the booty call idea when you should’ve been, well, doing other things.

Y’see, it all comes down to focus. Writing isn’t always going to be fun and fast and exciting. Sometimes it’s going to be work. There are going to be periods when the days just blend together. But if you stick with it and don’t just chase after every little idea that flashes you a bit of plot, you’ll find that most of the days are going to be good ones. And more than a few will be fantastic.

So, don’t chase after the slutty idea. Resist the urge to check in with the booty call idea. You’ll be a better writer if you do.

Speaking of which, I should really go work on that top ten mystery rant so I’ll have it for next week.

Until then, go write.

January 20, 2011

I May Have A Few Ideas…

So, two weeks back I mentioned an online conversation I had with a friend of mine. At least, the first half of it. I wanted to ramble on a bit now about the second half of that conversation and expand on some of the thoughts and ideas it sparked.

The topic is, what do you write?

There’s two ways to read that question. One could be reworded to that ever-popular, where do you get your ideas? I’m sure most of you reading this have heard a few of the punchier answers to that query. Some people want to sit down and write, but have no idea what to write about, while other people polish off a new screenplay over a long weekend.

There’s one very important thing any writer needs to understand if they want to be successful. Ideas are cheap. Ridiculously cheap. They’re a dime a dozen. I would guess on an average day I have at least ten ideas for books, short stories, screenplays, or television episodes. Last year one blogger (and for the life of me I can’t recall who) posted an idea on her page every day for the entire year, just to demonstrate how simple and cheap ideas are.

Now, from where I’m sitting, there are two issues beginning writers often hit when it comes to ideas, and they’re really two flipsides of the same problem.

Some folks lament that they never have good ideas. Yeah, they have a couple clever thoughts, but none of them are on that high level like Jurassic Park or American Gods or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The ideas these people come up with are… well, kind of pedestrian. They’re not worth writing about, so these folks don’t write. They hold off and wait for the good ideas to strike.

The second group has too many ideas. They’re barely done writing their fourth screenplay this month when they get an idea for a series of epic novels. And they’re only on the second one of those when they think up a hit television series (which, naturally, leads back to a movie franchise).

Both of these groups are suffering from the same misconception. They think anything that goes on the page has to be pure, award-winning gold. The difference is that the first group won’t put anything down because they know it isn’t gold, and the other folks are assuming it must be gold because they got it on the page. Make sense?

The catch, of course, is that most of the stuff that you put down isn’t going to be gold. It’s going to be rewritten and edited down and polished. Don’t think of story ideas as gold, think of them as diamonds. When a diamond first gets discovered, it’s a black, crusty, misshapen thing. Its got potential value, but not much past that. Diamonds need to be cut and recut, measured and examined, cut one more time, polished, and placed in a setting. Then they’re worth something.

The first group is tossing out all those black, coarse stones because none of them look like engagement rings. The second group is sticking the little lumps on gold bands and asking three months salary for them. Hopefully it’s easy to see why neither of these is the right approach.

So, once you’ve got an idea, it needs work. It’s not ready to go as is. Which brings us to the back half of this week’s rant.

The second way to read “what do you write?” is to ask which of these ideas do you pursue? If you have three or four solid ideas, which one do you start working on? How do you pick the idea you start with?

Well, first you need to keep in mind that one idea all on its own rarely translates to a story. “Some kids go to a haunted house,” is an idea, yes, but there’s not really a bestselling novel there. Likewise, you can’t do much if all you’ve got is “a girl who wants to build a time machine.” Just like cooking, you can’t make a story with only one ingredient. An egg on its own is an egg. An egg with cheese (and maybe a little turkey and a dash of pepper) is an omelette.

Once you understand this, then it just comes down to writing. How do the kids going to the haunted house and the girl who wants to build a time machine intersect and overlap? Is the girl one of the kids? Is the haunted house her secret lab? Is she going to rescue them? Is she hiding there after being made fun of and they’re coming to save her? Is anyone going to die in this house? Will anyone make it out? Is it just part of a plan cooked up by Mr. Haversham, the carnival owner?

Is that a hand in the back? Ahhh, yes. The question is, but what if the idea leads to a dead end? How do you know it’s a good idea until you actually sit down and write it? This one’s easy to answer.

You don’t.

Again, this kind of thinking goes back to that “it has to be gold” mentality. Sometimes you work your way through a hundred pages and discover there’s just nothing there. You wrote a chapter (or a bunch of chapters) that don’t work for one reason or another. Maybe more than one reason. Sure you could cheat a bit, tweak a few things, maybe toss out a deus ex machina or three, but in the end it doesn’t work because it doesn’t work. There’s no clever phrase or substituted word that’s going to change it.

I know a lot of people have trouble accepting this, even though it’s something we’ve all seen in other jobs. Chefs come up with recipes they never use. Architects design buildings that are never constructed. Hell, how much money does the auto industry spend on concept cars each year?

Consider this…

Once or thrice here I’ve mentioned a rule Stephen King talks about in his phenomenal book On Writing (there’s a link to it in that carousel at the bottom of the page). Said rule is–

Second Draft = First Draft – 10%

You remember that one, yes?

Well, if Mr. King follows his own rule–and we’ll assume he’s not a hypocrite–lets do a little math. The final version of Under The Dome is 1072 typeset pages. Even if we say there weren’t any other cuts in later drafts, that implies he cut just over 119 pages from his first draft. In standard manuscript format (Courier, double-spaced), that’s closer to 240 pages. Heck, that’s almost half of Ex-Patriots. It’s almost 2/3 of Ex-Heroes. Think about that. He typed up 240 pages of character and plot and description… and then tossed all that work.

Y’see, Timmy, almost every writer puts out a fair degree of material that’s never going to be seen by anyone. Again, don’t get paralyzed wondering if the next words on the page are going to be gold. Odds are they aren’t. But you will find some diamonds in the rough, and once you know how to spot them it’ll be an easier (and quicker) process to find them.

For now… take what you’ve got and work with that. There’s a good chance there’s a diamond or two in there somewhere. If you really put the work into it.

Next time, on a somewhat related note… well, contest season is lapping at my ankles. Which means more bad scripts to read. So we’ll talk about some of those.

Until then… go write.

November 19, 2008 / 3 Comments

Staying Focused

One of the contests I was reading for recently is not anonymous. That means quite often I could see the screenwriter’s name on the script he or she had submitted. And the next script they submitted. And the one after that. And the one after that.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with multiple submissions, but what struck me was how many of these people were consistently just above average. Not enough so that they’d make the next cut, but enough that you could see a seed of actual talent. Alas, none of them bothered to focus or polish that talent—they just pounded out a screenplay and then moved on to their next idea.

On a similar note, I visit a few message boards run by different publishers. It’s not unusual to see people talking about their latest trilogy or the epic series of novels they’ve written over the past year. They haven’t even sold their first book, mind you, but they’re already working on the fourth or fifth sequel.

Now, logic and statistics would seem to tell you that multiple manuscripts means multiple chances to advance. Which would be true if getting a screenplay or story selected was just random chance. Granted, with some of the stuff in theaters and on shelves these days, it’s understandable that people would think random chance was a major factor…

The reality is, out of more than a dozen screenwriters I saw who submitted more than one script to the above-mentioned contest, only one went forward to the next round. And did so with both of his scripts.

One writer out of fourteen (to make it simple) is a little over 7%.

Those are not great odds.

There’s a publishing fact I mentioned a while back, and I personally think it holds with screenwriting as well. Only one out of 100 people who call themselves writers ever finish something. Yep, out of all those folks who are working on a novel or beating out a screenplay on the weekends, only 1% of them will actually produce a completed manuscript.

So if you’ve got the enthusiasm and ability to write over 2000 pages of anything a year, you have a better-than-average shot at making it as a writer. Probably not a Stephen King/ William Goldman/ David Koepp level writer (there’s only room for so many of them), but there’s a definite chance of you being published or produced.

So, here’s a suggestion. Next time you’re thinking of multiple submissions to a magazine, a screenplay contest, or an anthology, stop and count them up. For every additional submission you plan on making, put your favorite manuscript through another draft. Don’t just run it through the spellchecker and call it a draft. Take your time and do it right. Then submit it, move on to the next one, and repeat.

For example, if you were planning to submit four screenplays to a contest (not as unusual as you’d think) take the main one and take it through three more drafts. Look at some of the random hints and tips I’ve posted here over the past few months. Go through your manuscript and tighten up dialogue. Then get some feedback, go through it again, and cut a bunch of those excess words. Maybe triple-check all your spelling line by line or polish your characters on the third time through.

Once you’ve done all that, submit it. Then look at the second script. Well, there are still two more past that, so this one has to go through two more drafts. Tighten. Polish. Feedback. Cut. Check. Submit. Repeat.

Now, I can already hear the low rumble of complaint. How’s the writer supposed to get all this done in time for the contest? Script number four’s never going to make it in time. Heck, there’s a chance script number two won’t even be done in time. Following this advice means most of the other scripts won’t make it into the contest.

That’s right. They probably won’t.

The point here is to focus your efforts. You don’t want to submit a double- handful of rough drafts. Quantity is not the key here, quality is. You want to put out a single, polished, meticulousy-revised manuscript that you know beyond a shadow of a doubt cannot be improved. If you had the time to submit four mediocre, second-draft scripts, what you’re really saying is you have time to submit one phenomenal one.

So go write. Write a lot. Just try to focus some of that writing.