January 15, 2010 / 1 Comment

The Golden Rule

Just to be clear up front, this is not about doing unto others. Sorry.

When I started this blog way, way back in the dusty year of 2007, there wasn’t much to it. To be honest, it really started as a column I was pitching to one of the editors at Creative Screenwriting. If you look back at some of those early posts you can still see that more formal edge to them. Anyway, I pitched the idea and a few sample columns to one editor, then to the editor that replaced him, and then casually to the publisher once at a party. Then I said screw it and tossed them up at Blogspot under the best name I could come up with in fifteen seconds. Where they sat for many months until I decided I wanted to spew about something else I was seeing new writers doing. I think I’d just finished reading for a screenwriting contest and was just baffled how so many people could keep making the same mistakes again and again.

It was also about the time I was giving up crew work in the film industry to start writing full time. It meant I was browsing a lot of other blogs and message boards. It struck me that while there were all-too-many folks offering “useful advice” about getting an agent, submission formats, publishing contracts, and so on, there were very few that offered any help with writing. Which seems kind off bass-ackward, as old folks say to young folks. Also, the few folks that were speaking about writing tended to do so with absolute certainty, despite a lack of credentials of any sort whatsoever. Worse still, a huge number of people were blindly following those folks and their bizarre “rules” of writing..

Now, I did lots of writing stuff as a teenager, but it wasn’t until college that I discovered how many markets there were, and how many magazines devoted to the craft of writing. Again, old fashioned as it may make me sound (granted, there was a different guy named Bush in the White House then), this pile of magazines did something the internet doesn’t. It actually forced me to learn the material rather than just plopping it in front of me. I had to search every article, every column, and read through them in their entirety hoping to find a hint or tip on how to improve my writing skills.

One thing that became apparent pretty quick, even to not-yet-legal-to-drink me, was that a lot of these tips contradicted each other. Here’s an article about how you should write eight hours a day, but this one says four, and that one says don’t write unless you’re inspired. She says to outline and plot out everything, he says to just go with the flow and see what happens. One columnist suggests saving money by not asking for your submission back, but another writer points out that this creates the instant mental image that your manuscript is disposable.

Y’see, Timmy, if you ask twenty different novelists how they create a character, you’re going to get twenty different answers. If you ask twenty screenwriters how they write a scene, you’re going to get twenty different answers. And all of these answers are valid, because all of these methods and tricks work for that writer.

Which is the real point of the ranty blog. I want to offer folks some of the tips and ideas I sifted out of all those articles and columns, along with some I’ve developed on my own after trying (and failing and trying again) to write a hundred or so short stories, scripts, and novels.

To be blunt, I don’t expect anyone to follow the tips and rules here letter for letter. Heck, as I’ve said before, I don’t follow all of them myself. I sure as hell wouldn’t call it a sure-fire way to write a bestselling novel or anything like that, because writing cannot be distilled down to A-B-C-Success. The goal here is to put out a bunch of methods and advice and examples which the dozen or so of you reading this can pick and choose and test-drive until you find (or develop) the method that works best for you. That’s the Golden Rule here.

What works for me probably won’t work for you. And it definitely won’t work for that guy.

There are provisos to this, of course. Not everything about writing is optional. You must know how to spell. You must understand the basics of grammar. If you’re going into screenwriting, you must know the current accepted format. A writer cannot ignore any of these requirements, and that is an absolute must. Past all that, you must be writing something fresh and interesting.

I think this is where most fledgling writers mess up. They assume it’s all-or-nothing. Not only do you have the artistic freedom to ignore the strict per-page plot points of Syd Field or Blake Snyder, you can actually ignore plot altogether. You’re also free to ignore motivation, perspective, structure, and spelling.

It doesn’t help that there’s a whole culture of wanna-bes out there encouraging this view because… well, I can only assume because they’re too lazy to put any real effort into their own writing. If they get everyone else doing it, then it means they’re not doing anything wrong.

To take veteran actress Maggie Smith slightly out of context (she was talking about method actors): “Oh, we have that in England, too. We call it wanking.”

Anyway, I’m getting off topic. I hope I’ve made it clear what the cleverly-named ranty blog is about, and that most of you will still tune in next week to see what I decide to prattle on about.

Speaking of which, next week I wanted to talk about prattling on.

Until then, go write.

August 21, 2009 / 3 Comments

Say Say Say

Michael Jackson, as promised.

So, this week I wanted to talk about… well, talking. I prattled on about dialogue descriptors just a few weeks back, and the simple power of said. However, a few recent things I’ve read over the past couple weeks– plus one god-awful movie I saw which was supposed to be about a real American hero– have had me thinking about dialogue as a whole.

Dialogue really is the lifeblood of fiction. Sounds corny, I know, but it’s true. If you’ve got dialogue problems in a novel or short story it’s really bad. In a screenplay it’s pretty much fatal. It’s a killer because everyone knows what people sound like. They may not all disarm warheads, fight ninjas, or race dinosaurs, but everybody talks to people, so it’s the first place a writer’s work can get picked apart.

So, here are five easy things to spot in your writing which can keep dialogue from flowing naturally.

Extra descriptors— Even if you’re using said, you don’t always need to use it. After a point, it should be apparent who’s talking. Look at this…


Tom cracked his knuckles. “You really want to do this?”

“I do,” said Jerry.

“No holds barred?”

“All out. Mano e mano.”

“You’re going to get hurt.”

“I better, for your sake.”

“Cocky little rodent, aren’t you?”


No problem keeping track of who’s talking, is there? Plus with less words it’s leaner and faster. You can feel the tension building in the exchanges because you’re not getting slowed down by excess words.

Not only that, once you’ve got speech patterns down for your characters, you should need descriptors even less. In my book Ex-Heroes, Gorgon’s dialogue could never get confused with Stealth’s. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy doesn’t speak the same way as Belloq, and neither of them sound like Toht, the black-coated Gestapo agent. Their voices identify them just as well as a header would.

Spoken names— It’s very rare to address someone by name. Pay attention during your next phone call, or look at The Road by Cormac McCarthy. We never learn the character’s names because they never say them. Why would they? They’re the only two people around, and have been for ages now. Look at that last example up above. Tom and Jerry know each other, and we get the sense they’re speaking directly to one another, so they don’t have to keep saying each other’s name again and again. It just starts sounding kind of cartoony.


“You know, Fred…”

“Yes, Barney?”

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about Wilma. Fred, do you remember that week Betty was away and you had to work late a lot down at the quarry?”

“Barney, you son of a–“

“We didn’t mean to, Fred. It just happened! It was–Fred, no! Put the club down, Fred! FRED!!!”


Even if you’re doing it a bit more seriously than I just did, spoken names can also come across as a bit fake. It’s the author acknowledging the audience may be having trouble keeping track, and throwing in a name is the easiest way to deal with it, rather than the best way. Remember, if you’ve got two characters who have been introduced, it’s really rare that they’ll need to keep using each other’s names. Especially if they’re the only ones there.

Cool lines D’you remember that bit in The Incredibles when Syndrome reveals his master plan? “And when everybody’s super… no one will be.” It’s an ugly truth–everything becomes mundane when there’s no baseline. If everyone’s a millionaire, being a millionaire isn’t all that great. If everyone on your basketball team is eight feet tall, who’s the tall guy? If anybody can hit a bullseye at 100 yards out, hitting a bullseye doesn’t really mean anything, does it?

The same holds for dialogue. We all want to have a memorable line or three that sticks in the reader’s mind forever. The thing is, they’re memorable because they stand out. Even in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s old films, when he had piles of one-liners, he also had piles of lines no one remembers that just advanced the story. We all remember the first line he says to the Predator, but do you remember the first line he says to Dylan? What about any line he gave to Hawkins, the skinny guy?

Fun side note–believe it or not, Hawkins is screenwriter Shane Black, the guy who wrote Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.

If you try to make every line a cool line, or even most of them, you’re shooting yourself in the foot because none of them are going to stand out. When everything’s turned up to eleven, it’s all at eleven– it’s monotone.

“As you know…” – If you take nothing else from today’s rant, take this. Find every sentence in your writing that starts with this phrase or one of it’s halfbreed cousins like “You know, (insert character name)…”.

Once you’ve found them, delete them ALL.

This is probably the clumsiest way to do exposition there is. Think about it.

“Yakko, you know I get grumpy if I don’t eat.” If he does know, maybe you should just get to your point.

“As you know, Wakko, my birthday is coming up…” Well if Wakko knows, why does the speaker need to point it out?

“You know, Dot, we’ve been friend for twelve years now…” Did Dot have a head injury and needs to be reminded of this? If so, cool, if not…

“As you know, men, this war against the Zentradi has been going on for seven years now…” Seven years and you’ve got to tell a room full of soldiers who they’ve been fighting against and for how long? Where did these folks get shipped in from?

If you’ve got a really solid manuscript, you might be able to get away with doing this once. Just once. As long as you don’t do it your first ten pages or so. Past that, get out your editorial safety scissors and start cutting.

Grammatically Correct – very few people speak in perfect, grammatically correct English, aside from a few freaks with inferiority complexes. We all speak differing degrees of colloquial English. Our verbs don’t always line up with our nouns. Tenses don’t always match. Fact is, a lot of “spoken” English looks awful on the page. If you’ve got the grammar function on in Word (and, seriously, why is it on? Kill that thing right now. And the spellchecker while you’re at it), spoken English is a nightmare.

This is where a lot of new writers choke, because they can’t reconcile the words on the page with the voices in their heads (so to speak). Thus, they end up with several characters, all of whom speak in a precisely regulated manner which seems wooden, affected, and does not flow by any definition of the term. To help beat this, you want to have someone else read your words out loud. Not you, because you know where to pause and emphasize. See what someone else does with it, how natural the words really sound, and how well they really flow.

And that’s that. Five things you should be able to spot and fix with almost no effort at all.

Next week… I don’t know. Part of me was thinking about talking about action scenes, but I’ve also been bouncing around some thoughts about antagonists. Any preferences?

Regardless, go write.

April 23, 2009 / 3 Comments

Tool Time

One might wonder why I spend so much time going over basic stuff. After all, everyone knows how to write, yes? The sheer fact you can read this implies you could write it, too.

So why spend time on simplistic things like spelling and adverbs and character descriptions? Why not do the important stuff, like how to get an agent, who to submit things to, or what’s that magic word or phrase a paid reader needs to see on a page before he or she passes material up the line? After all, that’s what most people are asking about.

There’s three parts to that answer.

The first is I was supposed to be a teacher. Went to college for it and everything. Combine that with my own nature as a storyteller, and it makes me far more inclined to talk about things where I can instruct by example rather than parroting something available on four or five dozen websites, online newsletters, and print magazines.

The second can be best explained, and was inspired, by this dream I had the other night about the most amazing power saw ever.

No, seriously, this thing was fantastic. It was about the size of a Red Bull can and it cut through anything with no effort at all. Even a computer screen. I’m pretty sure the image of it was inspired by a detonator I saw on 24 last week…

But I digress.

Pretty much any toolbox is going to have a hammer and saw. They’re two of the most basic tools in existence, and you can find evidence of them going back millennia. Think about that. Thousands and thousands of years ago, countless generations before the Roman empire, the Egyptians and the Babylonians were using hammers and saws not much different than the ones you might have in your own toolbox.

Of course, nowadays a toolbox can have so much more in it. Just from my years in the film industry I built up a ridiculously diverse toolbox, and I wasn’t even in a tool-heavy department. Crescent wrenches. Allen wrenches. Screwdrivers of all different types and sizes. Tape measures. Clamps. Drill bits. Stud finders. Speed squares. Dremels. Tile knives. Tin snips. And, of course, a hammer and saw. Those basic tools built the pyramids, Abu Hol, and the hanging gardens of Babylon.

Thing is, a lot of folks will start building a toolbox with just the cool stuff. All-in-one screwdrivers. Multisocket sets. Laser-levels. Robo-grip wrenches (there is such a thing, I swear). They’ll hold off on the hammer and saw—those are the easy things, after all. Or they’ll get one of those bizarre, dainty little ones from the 99 Cents Store that might help drive thumbtacks into a corkboard.

Y’see, Timmy, any contractor will tell you it’s great to have all the latest gadgets. At the end of the day, though, if you can’t work well with two of the most basic tools in existence, you probably shouldn’t be on the jobsite. And just because you do know how to use them… well, it’s a great place to start. Work your way up, try a couple smaller projects, and maybe you can be building apartment buildings next summer.

And that leads us, finally, to the third part of my answer.

The reason I tend to go over the basics more than anything else is because the basics is where I see most fledgling writers having problems. Oh, yeah, their third act reveal was flat, the romance felt forced, and there wasn’t really a satisfying denouement to Yakko’s character arc. Thing is, most readers didn’t get past ninja-master Professor Lance Braniac fixing his time machination’s electoral system on page four of this 73-page novel so he can go back to 1957 and challenge Adolph Hitler to a dual.

When we’re dealing with all that, those other issues really need to wait on the sidelines for now.

To stick with our construction metaphor, there are tons of people out there talking about interior design while they drive a nail in with the handle of a pipe wrench. Or, to make it a bit clearer, they’re worried about shingling the roof and hanging gutters long before they’ve poured a workable foundation.

Yes, most of us took shop class in school, but that doesn’t mean we should all be building skyscrapers. Aspiring chefs don’t expect to run the kitchen on their first job. And it’s silly to assume you can call yourself a writer when you haven’t mastered the basics. Or even when you’ve mastered them.

To be a writer, you need to have all the right tools. Starting with the basic ones, which you need to be the complete and unquestioned master of. Until then, you have no business worrying about wrapping up character arcs.

Or building skyscrapers, for that matter.

With that fresh in your mind, next week I’d like to talk about how some of you apparently think I’m some kind of idiot.

Until then… go write.