July 6, 2017 / 2 Comments


            I’m relatively new to Twitter.  I mean, I’ve been there a couple years now, but there are some early-adopters who’ve been there for ten years or more.  I remember a while back when Ernie Cline finally got verified, and he noted that he’d been on Twitter longer than the Twitter verified account…
            Anyway, I follow a lot of writers, and most of them (and me, too) tend to toss out storytelling advice of one kind or another.  As best you can in 140 characters, anyway.  Sometimes it’s threads, random encouragements, simple reminders—there’s all sorts of stuff.
            Of course, like any statement made on Twitter, this advice is often followed by a response like “Well, actually…”  You’ve probably seen it applied to a lot of things beyond just writing advice
            In simple terms, this kind of response is people pointing to an exception to the rule in an attempt to disprove the rule.  And a lot of the time, they’re doing this to justify their own opinions and behaviors.  I don’t like statement X, or what it implies, so I’ll find one or two examples where X isn’t true and use it as proof that X is never true.
            Here’s the thing about approaching writing—or anything in life—with that kind of mindset.
            Vesna Vulovic.
            For those of you who came in late, Vesna was a flight attendant back in the early ‘70s.  I’ve mentioned her here once or thrice before, and a few times at the Coffeehouse.  Y’see, her DC-9 was bombed in mid-air back in 1972.  She was trapped inside the plane’s hull as it plunged six miles to the ground. 
            Somehow, through a near miraculous series of events and conditions, Vesna survived.  She fell 33,000 feet, was in the hospital for a couple of months afterwards, and left under her own power.  No wheelchairs.  No artificial limbs. No iron plates in the skull.  She was fine.  They did a whole Mythbusters episode about her fall.
            Vesna lived a very full, rich life for another forty-four years, just passing on back in December.  She ended up working as a political activist for most of her life. And she still holds the Guinness Record for an uncontrolled fall.
            So… this means one of my characters can fall six miles and live, right?  It really happened, so it must be believable.  Heck, I could probably say they fell a mile without even needing hospital time.
            Let’s be clear on one thing—there are always exceptions to the rule.  Always.  Anyone who tells you that something is 100%, never-question-it always wrong–especially in art–can be ignored.  Especially if they shriek “no exceptions!!”
            Here’s the catch. Exceptions to the rule are very rare.  Exceptionally rare, you could say.  That’s why they’re the exception to the rule and not the rule. 
            For example, maybe I can point to a dozen people who sold the first draft of the first novel they wrote.  But I can also point to the tens of millions of people—actual, literal millions—whose first draft submissions were rejected. 
            Yeah, there’s a double handful of authors who sold manuscript full-to-the-brim with horrible spelling and bad grammar and not the slightest clue about formatting.  There are hundreds of phone books full of people, though, whose manuscripts were tossed out almost immediately because of these same issues.
            And sure, we can point at a dozen or so people who got their first book sold because they knew the right people or were related to the right people or were sleeping with the right people. But there are also the hundreds of thousands, probably (again) millions of writers who broke in by taking their time and writing really good books.
            The downside of this is… well, none of us want to be in the majority, right? Nobody likes the thought of eventually breaking in, we want all the success and recognition now!  We want to be the exception!
            And, yeah, some folks have gambled everything on being the exception. That’s their entire business plan. I don’t want to take the time or do the work or try improving myself and my skills.  So I’ll latch onto anything that says I don’t have to, anything that proves the advice from that experienced pro is wrong.
            Okay. Fine. Just ask yourself one question…
            D’you want to go skydiving without a parachute?
            I’m willing to bet a fairly large-denomination bill that right now someone is itching to write a “well, actually…” down below that will explain how this isn’t the same thing.  Or that you can go skydiving without a chute. Or that there are two or three schools of thought that Ms. Vulovic maybe didn’t fall quite as far as all the reports said.  It’s just human nature. Some people need to argue the way you and I need to breathe.
            Even if it amounts to arguing against parachutes when you go skydiving.
            When professional writers offer advice, they’re handing out parachutes.
            So, here’s my bit of advice for you, and it’s one I hope you’ve seen underlying most of the stuff I’ve said here since the first post you may have read.
            Y’see, Timmy, the best thing I can do is assume I’m not the exception to the rule.  No matter how clever, how witty, how perfect my writing is, I should not consider myself to be the one person who gets to ignore all the established standards.  The absolute worst thing I can do is scoff at the rules and think they don’t apply to me.  No matter how vastly superior my work is, I should always assume I’m working under the same conditions as everyone else.
            The reason I should assume this is because the person readingmy work is going to assume it.  That’s what I’m fighting against when I plan on being the exception to the rule.  My audience—whether it’s an editor, and agent, or just someone reading my story for free on their Kindle or on Wattpad.  All these folks have seen attempts to break the rules again and again and again, and the overwhelming majority of these attempts have been simply awful. 
            Remember—exceptions are rare.  Very rare.  The vast majority of would-be writers who break the rules do it for the wrong reasons and in the wrong ways.  So when I veer away from the rules, most everyone is just going to go with the numbers and assume my work is simply awful, too.
            Does that mean all these things won’t happen or can’t be done?  Not at all.  My writing may be so utterly, mind-bogglingly spectacular the reader will forgive and forget those atrociously dull opening pages.  The structure could be so rock-hard that no one notices the abundant typos.  It’s even possible my idea is so fiendishly, unbelievably clever that nobody will pick up on the fact that every single character is carbon-copied from Game of Thrones   Yeah, even my dwarf, my teenage assassin, and my Princess of Wyverns.
            A nice, simple rule of thumb.  If at any single point I find myself questioning if something matters—I should assume it does.  Does my main character need to be developed more than this paragraph?  Will a reader care that I misspelled forty or fifty words?  Do I need to make that part of the story clearer?  Should I bother to look up the exact format rules for this?
            My default answer for all of these questions needs to be yes.
            Again, I shouldn’t be scared to do something new, because if I break the rules—break them well, mind you—I’ll get noticed and rewarded for it. 
            Just remember a lot of people break the rules because they don’t know what they’re doing… and I don’t want to get lumped in with them.
            Next week—okay, I have to be honest.  The next few weeks are going to be rough for me, from a blogging point of view.  One week from tonight I’m going to be down in San Diego at Mysterious Galaxy, talking with Daniel Price about his new book The Song of the Orphans. If you’re in the area, stop by and hang out with us.
            And then the week after that I’ll be back in San Diego for SDCC. I’m doing at least one panel, possibly two (but I haven’t heard back on that one, soooooo…), and I think there may be a signing or two and some cool Paradox Bound swag we’re giving away…
            So we’ll see what happens next week.  As always, please feel free to make requests below.
            Until then, go write.
September 24, 2016

Re- Formatting

            Not so much a pop culture reference as a tech reference.  Came up with that title and then remembered working with my first computer when I was… nine?  I remember having to format floppy discs before you could use them.  Anyone else remember that?
            Very sorry I missed last week.  Deadline crunch. Which I’m still in, really, but I didn’t want to miss two solid weeks in a row.
            I was rewatching some episodes of an old show recently, and it struck me that it had a major format problem.  And as I mulled on it, it struck me I’ve seen this problem a few times before. Sometimes firsthand, happening right in front of me.
            I want to point out something… well, I’d say it’s obvious, but I don’t think it always is. I think it’s been muddled by a lot of would-be gurus and experts spreading bad information.  And since that’s what led to the ranty blog in the first place, well…
            Anyway, let me throw some wisdom at you.
            Novels are not comic books.
            Comic books are not television scripts.
            Television scripts are not movie scripts.
            Movie scripts are not stage plays.
            Stage plays are not novels.
            As I said, should be obvious, right?
            Thing is, each of those storytelling formats is unique unto itself.  Seriously. I can rattle off at least half a dozen inherent differences between any of them.
            We always hear people complain about changes when something is adapted from a book into a movie, but the simple fact is things have to change.  I cannot tell a story in a screenplay the same way I’d tell it in a book.  And I can’t tell a story in a motion picture script the same way it’d be told in an episodic television script.
            Let me give you some examples.
            Based off my own experience—as a crew person, a contest reader, and a screenwriter–I’d guess that 99.9% of all film, television, and stage work is done from the audience point of view.  The only parts that aren’t are the very limited POV shots that sometimes crop up in horror movies or thrillers(usually outside windows, inside closets, or across parking lots) and the rare experimental film like Hardcore Henry that was funded entirely by the powerful carsickness/nausea lobby.
            Contrast that with a book, where the author, with full control, can shift to any point of view they want. I can make the reader see, hear, and experience everything through one character’s senses, knowledge, and memories… and then shift to a different character.  There’s no real way to do that on film.
            However… a book is, for a lack of a better term, a one-source format.  I have to write things out.  There’s no way for the reader to know George has blond-brown hair without me putting “George has blond-brown hair” down on the page.  I might be able to get a little subtle with it, maybe pull some literary sleight-of-hand, but at the end of the day all I can do is put words on the page.  That’s it.  I can’t slip in some details in the background, because everything in a book is presented in the foreground—right there in front of my reader on the page.
            If I’m writing for television, I also need to be aware of the very specific format that most television writing requires.  Episodic shows are usually done with a four or five act structure (not to be confused with three act structure, which is kinda-sorta something else) which requires my story to have a series of mini-cliffhangers where the commercial breaks will be.  If it’s a show with an arc, it also needs to address that a week’s passed since the last episode, and some story points may need to be repeated or re-addressed to cut down on audience confusion.

            Of course, if I’m writing for, say HBO or Netflix, then that doesn’t apply and I have a bit more freedom, structure-wise.  These episodes are almost more like mini-movies.  Except that now I need to be clear people may be binging these stories, watching them back-to-back-to-back, and take that into account.

            Stage writing is also unique because it’s happening right in front of us. There’s an inherent storytelling conceit that we’ll accept these actors don’t see us.  Or that they’re not actually in a forest.  Or they can’t hear that guy behind the tree bellowing his lines out to the back of the theater. This is a different kind of storytelling mechanic, and that’ll be reflected in my writing.
            And none of these are like comic books. Comics are this fantastic medium where we can have an active, flowing story that’s being told completely through static images.  So my comic script has to reflect this. Each panel has to be a single moment, and it has to be the right moment to convey the most impact and information while still flowing smoothly into the next moment I choose to continue the narrative.
            You’re wondering why I’m talking about all this, yes?
            These days it’s not uncommon for a story—or a storyteller—to jump mediums. As I mentioned above, we’ve all seen a ton of books and comics adapted for the movies.  I know several novelists and screenwriters who’ve worked in comics.  I’ve worked with theater directors and playwrights on film projects.
            Thing is, a story can’t go directly from one format to another.  The devices and mechanisms I use here won’t always work here.  Usually won’t, in fact. And I need to be able to make those adjustments.  A really common mistake I’ve seen is when people just yank a story from one format to another with no changes.  Or when they start using the conventions of one format in another
            That show I mentioned up at the top?  In one episode it had three reveals. Thing is, each one was essentially revealing the same thing.  But the filmmakers had assumed since Yakko was the main character for that scene, and Dot was the central figure in that scene, and Wakko was the focus of the final scene… well, they could do the dramatic, big music reveal for each of them.  Alas, it just doesn’t work that way, because—as I mentioned above—we can focus on different characters but it’s all really audience POV.  So the second time around it was more eye-rolling than dramatic and the third time was… well, laughable.
            Last year I had a chance to be in an X-Files anthology.  Truth is, though, the main spine of my short story actually came from a spec script I’d written for an old TV show called The Chronicle.  And I had to make adjustments for that.  Most notably, all those mini-cliffhangers in the story had to be smoothed out.  Some things had to be described much more than they were in the script, because now all those details actually had to be on the page.
            Y’see, Timmy, if I want to shift a story from one format to another, I better understand the conventions and limitations of each one.  And if I want to write in a different format. I need to learn that format as well as I know my current one.  I can’t just go in assuming it won’t matter, or that I’ll be the exception who gets to slide.
            So know what you’re writing.  And how you’re writing.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about some artsy character stuff.
            Until then, go write.
September 4, 2014 / 4 Comments

Oh, My Nose!

            Okay, I think I’m pretty much caught up with things on my end.  Even have the next four or five weeks planned out.  If there’s something you’d like me to babble on about, though, please drop me a note down in the comments.  There’s a good chance I can fit it into my semi-themed schedule before the end of the year.
            That’s what I’m saying at the moment, anyway.
            Speaking of which…
            As I’ve said once or thrice before, good dialogue is everything.  We learn so much subtle stuff from characters by what they say and how they say it.  There are dozens of words for police, for teachers, for bosses, for jobs, and more.  Does Phoebe call Wakko her boyfriend, her partner, her man, or her boy toy?  Does Wakko think of her as his lover, his bitch, his piece of ass, his significant other, or his friend with benefits?  No matter what their relationship is, the words they each use to describe it tells us something about both of them. 
            One term that comes up a lot in criticism is on the nose dialogue.  I’ve seen it tossed out to beginners numerous times in feedback, but usually without any explanation.  I saw it a lot when I used to read for screenplay contests (and wrote it on many, many forms).
            At its very simplest, on the nose dialogue is when my character is saying precisely what they’re thinking with no subtlety to it whatsoever.  It’s the difference between “Do you want to come up for a cup of coffee?” and “Would you like to have sexual relations in my living room now?”  There’s no inference or implications, no innuendoes or layered meanings—no subtlety at all.  It’s dialogue stating the obvious, and I’ve mentioned a few times before how bad it is to state the obvious
            If I have on the nose dialogue, it usually strips away some layers of character, too.  How people avoid saying things is just as revealing as what they’re trying not to say.  If they don’t have those nuances and habits in their voices, they start sounding like robots.  Or cartoon characters. 
            Not the good kind of cartoon characters.
            In real life, people beat around the bush. We’re coy.  We feel each other out, in a verbal sense, and avoid saying things directly.  We use metaphors and similes and white lies and more.
            Here’s a couple things I should be doing to make sure my dialogue doesn’t get too on the nose…
            Casual English—I’ve mentioned before the difference between written English and spoken dialogue.  When dialogue follows all the rules of grammar it starts to get wooden and lose a lot of its flavor.  Sometimes there’s a point to this.  We’ve been taught to expect that aliens, androids, and super-geniuses tend to have very good grammar in stories.
            For the vast majority of us, though, we get a bit loose when we speak.  We use contractions and mismatch verbs and numbers.  It just happens.  Look up above where I said “Here’s a couple of things I should be doing…”  When we don’t, dialogue becomes rigid, and that’s just a short shuffle from being wooden.
            Jargon—Somewhat related to the last point.  The idea of slang has been around for a long time.  Bram Stoker talked about it in Draculaover a century ago, and it’s a safe bet printers developed their own special terminology in the workplace less than a decade after Guttenberg made his printing press.  Everyone has their own set of words and terms that gets used within their particular group, and these words spill out into most of their conversations.  In other words, doctors speak like doctors, engineers talk like engineers, and sci-fi geeks speak like Dothraki.  When my characters lose these basic subtleties, their dialogue starts getting on the nose.
            Humor—Many years back I was on a road trip with a friend and we got horribly lost on the way to meet up with some folks.  It was all back roads and single-lane highways.  When we finally found a sign I could use to locate our position, I discovered we’d somehow got about a hundred miles off-course in about an hour and a half.  No chance we’d meet up with our friends on time.  Possibly no chance of finding a gas station, leaving us stranded in the middle of nowhere.  He saw my expression as I checked the map again and asked what was wrong.
            “Well, the bad news is we’re lost.  The good news is we’re making excellent time.”
            We make jokes at the worst possible times.  Office reviews.  Breakups.  Traffic accidents.  Courtrooms.  Funerals.  It’s just the way we’re wired.  The more serious the situation, the more imperative that release valve is for us.  In fact, we tend to be suspicious or uneasy around people who never crack jokes.  Not everyone and not at every moment, but when there’s no joking at all… it just feels wrong.
            Flirting—Similar to the above, this is another fact of human nature.  We show affection for one another.  We all flirt with friends and lovers and potential lovers, sometimes even at extremely inopportune times.  It’s not always serious, it can take many forms, but that little bit of playfulness and innuendo is present in most casual dialogue exchanges. 
            Like joking, it’s impossible to flirt with on the nose dialogue because it requires subtlety and implied meanings.  Flirting without subtlety generally comes across as propositioning, which gives a very different tone to things.  If no one in my story flirts with anyone on any level, there might be something to consider there.
            Not Using Names—There’s an old mnemonic trick of repeating someone’s name after you meet them.  Great for real life, not so great in fiction. 
            If I use someone’s name every time I speak to them, it starts to sound a little mechanical.  Yeah, even nicknames.  Yeah, even in crowds. We just don’t use names that often.  Think of your last few conversations and think about how often names get used.  Watch your favorite movie and see how often people address each other by name.
            Show Don’t Tell—You’ve probably heard a version of this before, but I’m talking about it in a slightly different way here.  Yeah, it’s clumsy if I’m just using my narrative to describe what’s happening.  It’s even worse if my characters are describing what’s happening.  Especially when they have absolutely no reason for doing it. 
            To be clear, I’m not talking about when they explain what they’re doing (say, trying to perform CPR or maybe cook dinner), but when they’re just speaking their actions aloud.  If you’ve ever heard an old radio-show where the actors had to depend on just dialogue with no visuals, you know what this sounds like.
            This kind of clumsy dialogue immediately tells the reader that I’m not picturing this scene at all.  For screenwriters, this kind of thing is almost guaranteed to get my script tossed in the big pile on the left, because I’m clearly not thinking about what’s on screen.
            Talk with other characters—This may sound silly, but if someone’s talking, they should be talking with someone else.  Nine times out of ten, if a character’s talking to themselves, it’s on the nose dialogue.  All those monologues about stress, long ethical debates, Yakko psyching himself up, Dot trying to figure out how to get past the thirteen Hydra agents… odds are every bit of that is on the nose dialogue.
            I also shouldn’t try to get around this with a “sounding board” character.  Talking is communication, which means it has to be a two-way street.  If I’ve got someone who serves no purpose except to be the other person in the room while someone thinks out loud, then they’re not really serving any purpose. 
            And that’s six things I should be doing with my dialogue.  I don’t need to do all of them, but if I’m not doing any of them… well…  Maybe my dialogue’s a little on the nose.  Or maybe a lot on the nose.
            Next week, I want to talk about inflation.
            Until then, go write.
May 16, 2014

Character Cheat Code

            Up up, down down, left right, left right—novel.
            If only it was that easy…
            I haven’t blathered on about characters in a while.  Well, not strictly about characters.  Characters are the heart of storytelling, so really I’m always blathering on about characters.  And I saw something great a few weeks ago that got me thinking.
            Anyone here watch Game of Thrones?  I wanted to talk about a bit at the start of this season.  No, don’t worry, no spoilers
            On the off chance you don’t watch, Arya Stark is the tomboy daughter of a noble family.  She’s on the run after a good chunk of said family’s been killed.  The Hound is a giant, mercenary brute who’s served as bodyguard, champion, and enforcer for the king, depending on what the moment calls for.   He snatched Arya up thinking he might get a reward for saving her, and they’ve formed sort of an uneasy alliance since then.  In the bit I mentioned, Arya and the Hound are riding doubled-up through the forest and she’s complaining about their lack of food and her lack of horse.  She berates the Hound for not stealing any gold from the King before he fled the city.
            “I’m not a thief,” he growls.
            Arya, who’s had some unpleasant encounters with the Hound in the past, glares at him and says “So killing an unarmed eight year old boy is fine, but you won’t steal?”
            The Hound looks past her, shrugs, and says “A man’s got to have a code.”
            My friends and I all chuckled at that.  The truth is, I think the Hound went up a few notches in everyone’s opinion right there.  He became a better character.
            We like people who have a code.  It doesn’t need to be something spoken aloud or written down or sworn to in an oath.  It doesn’t mean they have to give up their possessions or disavow their former lives or change their name.  It just means these people are true to their beliefs.  True to themselves.  They say this is who they are and what they do, and they’re being honest.  The Hound.  Leon the Professional.  Dexter.  Barney Stinson.  Hannibal Lecter.  The Terminator.  All of these characters should be villains, or loathsome at best, but we like them because they all have a certain code they follow, and they won’t change that for just anything.  Awful as it may sound, we all like the fact that the Hound can kill a child without question, yet be insulted at the thought he’d pocket a few coins he wasn’t entitled to.
            From a writer’s point of view, a code is good because it means my audience can get a clear definition of my character.  It gives me a bit of background and development, because I can now explain or hint at why this person has said code.  It also provides me with an immediate source of conflict, because I now know there are things my character won’t be willing to do (and because a character who can do anything gets boring fast).
            The downside, of course, is that once I establish a character has some form of personal code, it’s tough to have them go back on it.  Y’see, Timmy, people don’t base their lives around an idea and then just change their minds on a whim.  These beliefs are an integral part of the character, so altering them is a major thing.  If someone tosses their vows or beliefs aside over something minor, it makes them look like very weak. 
            Which, by extension, doesn’t make me look too good as a writer.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about compression.
            Until then, go write.