July 16, 2008

A Few Quick Cuts

A common mistake I see from a lot of people is length. It does matter, but not in the way you’re probably thinking right now (pervert). People produce things that are just too big, be it novels, screenplays, even short stories and short films. This can be especially deadly in genre fiction, where publishers and producers have a lot of expectations—and limitations—about what they want.

For publishers, word count translates to page count which translates to the size and cost of your novel. Size tells them how many copies of it will fit in their limited shelf-space at Borders (and how many other things they can’t put there). Cost tells them how many they can hope to sell, as folks tend not to choose a $9.99 paperback when they’re just looking for something new to read. Series books (like mysteries or epic fantasy) tend to be smaller, too, to encourage readers to buy more of the series.

For film producers, a long script means a long production time, which means keeping cast and crew on payroll longer. It also means more raw expenses. One second of 35mm film costs about two dollars. A longer film means the thousands of prints that go out to theaters will each cost more to make, and it also means theaters don’t have time for more screenings. One huge weakness of Peter Jackson’s King Kong in theaters was while Kong ran once most other films had two shows—they were pulling in ticket money twice as fast.

As always, I’m sure there’s a bunch of folks reading this and saying “Oh, but what about…” Yes, there are always exceptions to these rules. Stephen King’s The Stand or Desperation easily go far beyond what would be expected for genre horror novels. J.K. Rowling wasn’t mincing words on those Harry Potter books either. I think we can all agree, however, that the Man from Maine and the boy sorcerer have shown a certain degree of strength in the marketplace. Publishers are probably not gambling too much by taking on their latest double-sized novel.

When any of us are selling like King, break out that 150,000 word mystery.

Speaking of the King, in his excellent book On Writing he states a simple rule for revisions. If you’ve read this page more than thrice and you don’t own that book, stop now and go to your friendly neighborhood Borders or Barnes & Noble. No, seriously, go right now. The internet will be here when you get back. Heck, take your laptop and mooch free wireless up in the cafe. It’ll make up for the price of the coffee.

Anyway… that rule…

Second Draft = First Draft – 10%

Couldn’t be simpler, right? If you scribble out a 5000 word short story, trim 500 words before you show it to anyone. Your 120 page screenplay could probably get cut down to 108 pages without too much trouble. And that 100,000 word novel? Odds are there are 10,000 words you could lose.

While this sounds ruthless, brutal, and perhaps even a bit arbitrary, there’s solid experience behind it which is worth at least considering for a moment. Since seventh grade you’ve had composition teachers telling you to remove unnecessary words. There’s a reason tight writing lasts and purple prose—no matter how popular it is at the time– gets forgotten.

So, a few easy ways to cut some of the fat from your writing…

Adverbs These are the most common sin (not original at all). As most of us get caught up in the flow of words, the impetus of a scene, and the thing that slides by most often is the all-but-useless adverb. For example…

–She ran quickly.

–He excitedly tore open the package, and happily said “This is the best Christmas ever!”

–They shouted loudly.

“Maybe I saw something, maybe I didn’t,” Slim said coyly.

Of course she ran quickly! Have you ever heard someone shout quietly? Three out of five times if you’re using an adverb, you don’t need it. The fourth time odds are you’re using the wrong verb, and once you find the right one, again, you won’t need the adverb. And that fifth time… well, maybe it’s only one in six. If you’re using your vocabulary well, there aren’t many times you need an adverb. For screenwriters, adverbs are the parentheticals of prose (which means you should be stomping out parentheticals, too).

Adjectives—These are the deadly ones, as people create compound adjectives from hell to describe things that tend to be pretty mundane when you think about it. We all do it now and then, however, because we’re convinced this person, this place, this thing needs more description.

–He had sky-like cloudy dark blue eyes.

–She wore polished glossy black designer boots.

The tall, majestic, awe-inspiring cliffs of weatherworn, charcoal-gray stone loomed over them.

There’s an odd habit I’ve seen among fledgling fantasy writers to use dozens of adjectives per page, if not per sentence. It’s part of that purple prose I mentioned above. Writer/ Editor/ Publisher Pat LoBrutto tossed out a great rule of thumb last time I heard him speak—”One adverb per page, four adjectives per page.” It’s only a rough guideline, of course, but if you’re averaging six or seven adjectives in each paragraph maybe you should give them all a second look…

That—This is a new rule someone introduced me to just a few weeks back, but I’ve already fallen hard for it. That is a word people tend to drop into their writing a lot, and a good four out of five times their writing would be tighter without it.

He believed that once the button was pressed, the world would be saved.

–She ran off in the same direction that John had.

–George knew that once Jane saw the puppy that she would want to take it home.

Just use the Find feature in Word (it’s up there under Edit). Search for uses of that and see how many of them are necessary. Odds are you’ll find at least half of them aren’t.

Appeared to… – This is one of those phrases people see used, latch onto, and use all the time—without understanding it. It tends to be used as an introduction of sorts, leading the reader into some purple-prose description. This phrase sometimes disguises itself as looked like or seemed to be or some variation thereof.

The thing is appeared to… doesn’t get used alone. It’s part of a literary construction where the second half of that structure is either an implied or actual contradiction. So when you’re saying…

–She appeared to stand just shy of six feet tall.

–His eyes seemed to be burning embers in his skull.

What you’re actually saying is…

–She appeared to stand just shy of six feet tall, but she was actually closer to five foot five without her monstrous boots.

–His eyes seemed to be burning embers in his skull, but really they were just catching the light.

And what you mean to be saying is just…

She stood just shy of six feet tall.

–His eyes were burning embers in his skull.

Note that clever metaphor you just used in the second example. Nobody is going to think this poor guy has actual glowing coals in his eye sockets. They’ll understand the visual image, honest.

Long Names – The King himself offhandedly suggests this rule in the above-mentioned On Writing. If you’ve got a lot of characters named Vandervecken, MacMortimerstein, or Bannakaffalatta, they’re going to take up a lot of space as their names get used again and again. Not only that, several of them will die as other characters rush to blurt out “Dear God, Doctor MacMortimerstein, look out for that… ahhhhh, too late!”

Try using simple names like Vander, Mort, or Ban, which are easier for readers to keep track of as well. True, this will not lessen your word count, but it can shorten your page count, which is the next best thing. Of course, if there’s a solid reason for alien cyborg billionaire midget Bannakaffalatta to be called Bannakaffalatta and not Ban, stick with it. But if it’s just a background character you’re using for two chapters or three scenes…

Somewhat Syndrome — This one’s the albatross I bear, and one of my friends points it out to me all the time. Symptoms include littering your writing with somewhat.., a bit…, slightly…, and other such modifiers. Nine times out of ten they’re not doing anything except adding to your word count and slowing your story. Use the Find feature again, see how many of them are necessary, and look how much tighter and stronger your writing is without them.

So, grab your manuscript and snip, slice, and cut a few dozen words. See if you can make those sentences leaner and meaner. Suggest some of your own easy ways to trim if you’ve got them.

Then come back next week and I’ll rip apart your characters.

July 8, 2007 / 1 Comment

Fueling the Fires

So, now you’re writing. Good. It may have been a slow, arduous process to get started, but you’re putting words on paper (or on an electromagnetic memory bubble) and that’s the important thing. You’ve got forward motion and momentum.

The question now is, how can you make sure you don’t lose that momentum? How do you make sure that you keep writing, and this doesn’t become a scattered, every- third-weekend activity? Well, this problem was covered in your driver’s ed class. The simplest way to keep moving is to make sure you have fuel.

Now, hold on, before we go any farther, let’s pause for a moment so I can explain my one, single, simple rule. What works for me may not work for you and it almost definitely won’t work for that guy over there. That’s one of the most important things about writing– finding out what methods and habits will work best for you. My girlfriend requires near-silence to work, but I usually put some music or a classic movie on in the background (the first draft of this little essay was written during The Day The Earth Stood Still). I also dislike too much input once I’ve got the idea in my head, while my friend Eric writes best working with his wife, Trish. I’ve read that Stephen King works mostly in the morning, while Neil Gaiman writes almost exclusively at night (but I’ve never met either gentleman, so that could all be a pack of lies I just made up to round out this paragraph).

In the end, if anyone (including me) gives you a rule for how you have to write, take it with a grain of salt. If they tell you this is absolutely the one and only way the process of writing can take place, have a whole spoonful of salt. Writing is a very personal, individual process, and all any of us can do is suggest what works in our own day to day lives to keep us at it. One of your jobs as a writer is to sift through all the hints, tips, and suggestions you hear and figure out which ones work for you.

Which brings us back to momentum and fuel. The simplest law to follow is the basic input-output rule we’ve all heard since our school days. What goes in influences what comes out. In order to write, you must read. And if you want screenplays to come out, you have to put movies in. Good movies and bad movies, screenplays and scripts, movies in your favorite genre by your favorite director, and movies you’d never watch by people you’ve never heard of.

Now some of you may be like my downstairs neighbor, the Vamp. She wants to write a book, but she’s not really into reading. She’s still pretty sure she can write a best-seller, though. If this also describes you, ask yourself this– if you don’t love watching movies, or if you hate reading scripts, how can you possibly hope to write one?

So, that’s what you need to be doing. Read scripts, watch movies, and study them with a passion. Where you can, read the screenplay and watch the film. Find the best movie you can think of in your chosen genre, examine it, and figure out what it does right. Why is he or she your favorite character? What makes this your favorite scene? Why do people like this film?

Now, once you’ve done that, watch the worst movies you can find and pin down what they do wrong. Yes, anyone can say “it just sucks,” but can you identify specifically what needs to change with the story? Watch the whole movie (not just a random scene or two) and track problems that plague the script. If you got hired for the remake, what would you change?

This is one of the hallmark skills of a good writer. Most of us can tell that a scene works, but being able to tell why things work in a scene is a separate skill altogether. How often have you seen a screenplay copy a scene from another film without really understanding why it worked originally?

Oh, and before you start downloading or running to the Writer’s Guild Foundation to read scripts, here’s one more additional tip. Don’t read screenplays from thirty or forty years ago and use these as your golden standard. Styles change; formats change, and while Chinatown is still an amazing movie, odds are no one would touch that script today. On a similar note, don’t read screenplays by Quentin Tarrantino, Robert Rodriguez, or Christopher Nolan. They may be some of your favorites, but these gentlemen are usually in the extremely lucky position of writing scripts they know they are going to direct, which gives them a little more leeway and freedom in their work. They weren’t necessarily doing anything wrong, but if you or I tried it, we would definitely not be doing it right.

So, now that you know what fuel to use, go forth and stoke your fire. Give yourself the energy to keep moving forward on your projects. And keep writing. Above all, you must write.