October 1, 2010 / 4 Comments

Avoiding Reality

So sorry that I didn’t post anything last week. The past several days have been a mess of articles and book stuff and dental nightmares. Yup, I’m one tooth down from the last time we were all here. And my gums are sore as hell right there, let me tell you…

This is going to be one of those rants where I come across as especially harsh and bitter, so I apologize right up front for that, too. Awful as it may seem, I’m doing this for your own good. And mine, so I don’t have to deal with this sort of thing anymore. Hopefully not as much, anyway.

I’ve blathered on here a few times about reality and truth in storytelling. Not in the sense of getting your facts correct, but in the sense of telling true stories based on real events. Awful as it sounds, no one cares if a story is true or not. They really don’t. They might be interested or impressed after the fact (“Wow, someone actually went through all that?”) but while a reader’s going through a manuscript the fact that it’s based on a true story is even less important than if the writer submitted it in a white envelope or a manila one. And most people submit their work digitally these days, so that should tell you how piddling the envelope factor is.

So, for the record, odds are none of the following events will make a good story. Not a “based on true events” story. Definitely not a memoir.

–Birth of your child

–Loss of your child

–Finding true love

–Loss of a loved one

–Loss of a parent

–Recovering from cancer/ AIDS/ Parkinson’s/ et al

–Not recovering from cancer/ AIDS/ Parkinson’s/ et al

–Finding your faith

Now, before anyone leaps down my throat, as I write this a very dear friend is going through chemo and radiation therapy because he had a bunch of cancerous material removed from his neck. I’ve got two sets of friends who just had their first child within the past week and another who are expecting twins within the month. This summer I lost my grandmother and the cat I’ve had for sixteen years within 36 hours of each other.

Are all of these powerful, emotional events? Without a doubt.

Are they story-worthy?

Probably not.

See, here’s the thing. Hundreds of people are diagnosed with cancer every week, probably dozens with the exact same variety my friend Tony has. Babies are born by the bucket load every hour and, if the census is to be believed, people die at about half that rate. It’s awful to think of, but most animal shelters end up gassing a few hundred cats every week.

So why are the versions of these events I mentioned above any different? Why are they special?

Well, because they happened to me, of course. It sounds silly to say but we all see the world through our own perspective. These events are powerful–to me. They elicit a strong emotional response–from me. Some of them will linger with me forever– the rest of my life.

To most of you, though, these are just dry facts. As we said before, birth, death, and illness aren’t exactly rare anywhere in this world. I’m sure most of you have a certain degree of empathy–you’d be lousy writers if you didn’t– and that you have some honest congratulations/ well-wishes/ sympathy for what I’ve said above, but in reality it’s just stuff you file away and move on. It’s only been half a page, but how many of you can remember how long I had my cat for?

There’s a saying I’ve brought up here before– “Tragedy is when I stub my toe, comedy is when you fall down a hole and die.” This little bit of black humor is usually pointed at would-be-comics, but I want to use the inverse. To wit…

This story may be extremely powerful and dramatic to you, but to me it’s just silly nonsense.

This is why so many of these thinly-fictionalized stories don’t work and make readers roll their eyes. The writer hasn’t grasped that basic empathic truth, that these events don’t have an emotional weight past what was personally experienced. Again, it’s absurd that I have to point this out, but it’s more absurd how many people don’t get it. Real stories about family and friends are generally not good for the same reason family and friends don’t make good critics when you need feedback. You’re too close. It’s like when I mentioned game scripts a while back. It may be the most amazing night of Warhammer 40K you and your friends have had in months, but that doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to make for a good story. It seems cool because you experienced it.

I’d never say you can’t make it with one of these stories, but if it’s the way you’re leaning you may want to stop and reconsider. No one will ever convince me losing the Terrible Cookie Monster wasn’t powerful and tragic. I know better than to write a book about it, though.

Don’t be surprised if a little white and black cat shows up in one of my books, though.

Next time, I’d like to address the negativity that so often runs through my little rants here.

Until then, go write.

Despite every loudmouthed producer or “saying it like it is” celebrity you’ve ever seen on TMZ, one of the hardest things to find in Hollywood is an honest opinion. People are terrified of saying “No.” They’ve almost brainwashed themselves against it. Everyone worries about offending someone and the possible ramifications it could have. You can lose your job in Hollywood for upsetting someone. That same someone could be your boss three years from now. The person asking “Do you like this?” could end up deciding whether or not you get health insurance and a new office next year. So “no” is all but forbidden.

Instead, people dance around answers. They waffle. They make excuses or use doublespeak. In some cases they flat-out lie. Anything to avoid speaking the truth or giving their opinion on something.

And the result is movies like Sahara and X-Men 3.

But that’s material for another rant. Three or four of them, really…

Where am I going with this? Well, you’ll see in a moment or two, if you haven’t already…

Except for a few rare exceptions (those lucky folks who’ve found a long-time partner to work with), writing is something you have to do alone. The odd conundrum here is that one of the very few ways you can improve as a writer is to get feedback. People need to read your work and express their thoughts and opinions about it. You need an audience. And it needs to be a real audience.

What’s a real audience? Well, it’s people who will give you a real opinion. An honest opinion. They’re the ones who won’t mince words or spare your feelings, because they understand you need to know what’s wrong with your work so you can improve it. Being nice, just saying it’s good no matter what, doesn’t help you. It only undermines your attempts to get better.

Another little story…

My mother read a lot of crap writing when I was a little kid. The vast majority of it was mine (reading Stephen King’s Christine was her own decision). She slogged through at least three versions of Lizard Men from the Center of the Earth between third and seventh grade, several pieces of Star Wars fanfic (long before there was such a term), countless short stories, and a truly awful sci-fi “novel” that would put the old 1950’s serials to shame with its clichés. I know for a fact I wouldn’t be where I am today if she hadn’t kept reading and encouraging me to write more.

However, there came a point when I made a realization. My mom was always going to say she liked what I was writing because she was my mom and that’s what good mothers do. It didn’t matter if the material was good, bad, or borderline nonsensical, mom would congratulate me on it.

Which is when I realized I needed to start getting other opinions.

Now, granted, this is an extreme example. I’m not saying my mother should’ve told the twelve-year-old me that my writing was childish and predictable and I didn’t have a chance of ever getting published. That would’ve just been cruel, and also a bit unfair. So in one way, this blind kindness was a good thing.

However, this kindness can also be a trap, and many people, willingly or not, fall into it.

Let’s take Bobo for example (not his real name). Bobo surrounds himself with people who won’t give him honest opinions. He’ll only show his writing to family members or to friends so close they’ve got all the same interests and background. Parents, siblings, friends, lovers—people with a strong desire not to hurt his feelings, and, on some level, a vested interest in keeping him happy.

Surprise, surprise, wha’d’you know—these people all say Bobo’s writing is great. His mom and dad think it’s wonderful. His friends got all the jokes. His brother likes it. His girlfriend (or boyfriend—Bobo is open-minded) even thinks he should send it out to some magazines or agents.

Are they all lying to him? Possibly not. There’s always that chance Bobo is the next John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury, or Harper Lee, unable to produce anything except pure gold when put in a room with pen and paper. A regular Rumplestiltskin of words, that Bobo.

But, as the men in Vegas say, I wouldn’t put money on it.

Finding a real, honest audience for your work can take years. I came out of college with one friend whose opinion I completely trust and am always desperate to hear. She is tough and merciless, make no mistake, and I absolutely love her for it. In the many years since then (almost–gasp— two decades now), out of the hundreds of people I’ve met, there are maybe five or six more I know I can show work to and get real, useful criticism.

That’s what you’re looking for, after all. Criticism. The real stuff, not the whiny, jealous, ranty stuff of people online or people who never finish their own writing. As the word implies, you want people who can make practical, critical observations about your work. Better yet, people who can make those observations and suggest improvements.
And then, of course– you have to be willing to listen to them. As I mentioned before, honest opinions can be hard to come by. Opinions that come with useful suggestions are almost unheard of.

But the real shame would be if you finally get some and you ignore them.

Now, get back to writing.

June 21, 2008 / 1 Comment

The Pod Six Jokes

The title of this week’s little rant might seem a bit odd, but it’s an important lesson every writer needs to learn, and several never do. I’ve been shown two or three examples of it just in the past month. And what better way to demonstrate this lesson than through the wonders of Star Trek.

Honest, this is brilliant. Stick with me.

The fifth season of Next Generation really began with a wonderful episode called “Darmok.” The Enterprise encounters an alien race, the Children of Tama, that has repeatedly halted first contact attempts because its language baffles the universal translator. The Tama language can be rendered in English, but their words still make no sense. In a bold move, the Tama commander, Dathon, kidnaps Captain Picard to a hostile world where the two must fight together against a near-invisible energy creature to survive. Through their trials and a few garbled campfire discussions, Picard comes to realize that the Tama language is not based on ideas and concepts, but on stories and metaphors. Literal translation has been impossible because the Federation does not share the same history and folklore with the Tama.

In a way, all of us do this every day. Some of my best friends and I make frequent references to Pod Six (those guys were jerks), Lucky Bob, and “the girl’s evil cheater magic.” In college, the folks I hung out with understood when you talked about Virpi Zuckk, the third Pete, and nice shoes. Heck, my girlfriend and I almost have our own language with phrases like French Mousey, cat-switch, and Mr. Sexypants.

We all have circles of family and friends where there are shared memories, private jokes, and special references that few people outside these groups would understand. Some people like sports, others like science. Some crack jokes from Playboy, others from Prairie Home Companion. These folks watch CSI obsessively and these folks watch Reaper whenever they happen to catch it. And everyone talks about what they know and what they like.


A common failing I see again and again in stories and screenplays are oblique references and figures of speech that the reader cannot understand. While it makes sense within the writer’s personal circle or clique, outside readers end up scratching their heads. Many of the writers responsible for this will try to justify their words in a number of ways…

One is that since their friends are real people, people obviously talk this way, and therefore there’s nothing wrong with it. Alas, “real” does not always translate to “good.” In fact, unless you happen to be shooting a documentary, it usually doesn’t. That’s a large topic for another rant, though.

Two, usually reserved for screenplays, is the auteur excuse. The writer plans to direct this script and cast their friends, so it doesn’t matter if no one else can understand the writing (or if there are tons of inappropriate camera angles, staging instructions, and notes for actors). The flaw here is that the screenplay will invariably end up getting shown to someone else. An investor. A producer. A contest reader. Someone out of that inner circle of friends who needs to look at the script and needs to be able to understand the writing.

Three would be arguing common knowledge. The writer will try to say this material is generally known– universally known, even– and it’s the reader who is in the feeble minority by not being aware of it. This is probably the hardest to contradict, because if someone honestly believes everybody should know who lost the 1969 Orange Bowl, there’s not much you can do to convince them otherwise. It’s much more likely, in the writer’s mind, that those readers are just uneducated, pedestrian simpletons who never learned the periodic chart of elements, don’t collect Topps baseball cards, and couldn’t tell you the plainly obvious differences between Venom and Carnage if their lives depended on it.

Alas, their lives don’t depend on it.

Your writing does, though.

This is one of those inherent writer skills. It’s something you just need to figure out how to do on your own, and the easiest way is by reading everything you can get your hands on all the time. You need to know words and phrases. You have to know them and you have to be honestly aware of who else knows them. Using rare or antiquated words like atramentous instead of dark or glabrous instead of bald may show off your vocabulary, but the moment someone has to stop and think about what a word means, they’ve been taken out of your story. And knocking people out of your story is one of the all-but-certain ways to make sure the reader puts your manuscript down and goes off to fold laundry, make a sandwich, and read something different.

It’d be foolish to say your writing has to appeal to everyone and be understood by everyone. That’s just aiming for the lowest common denominator and that’s how you end up with The Love Guru or anything Anne Rice has written in the past decade. By the same token, however, you can’t be writing just for your five closest friends.

Well, you can, of course. But not if you want to do this for real.