January 6, 2021 / 3 Comments

To Start With…

Well, here we are in 2021. A serious sci-fi year. 2021! It feels like it should be in a cool chrome font, doesn’t it? We should all be heading to work in flying cars, jetpacks, or giant robots. And instead we’re dealing with a pandemic. Oh, and an attempt to overthrow the government of the US by a bunch of domestic terrorists inspired by an unstable President.

But other than that… Happy 2021!

Anyway… hey there! I was thinking about my usual start-of-the-year post and trying to think of something new I could bring to it. I’ve talked in years past about how I started doing this and what I’m trying to do here. I thought maybe this year I’d talk about you and what you might get out of this. And what you won’t get.

This collection of scribbled essays is probably 83% writing advice. Straight writing and storytelling. Not publishing, marketing, networking, or any of that. Those are all other things, and being clear about that—really understanding it—is a big step in becoming a better writer. I do talk about them here sometimes (thus, the above links) but they’re the minority topic by far. Maybe 15-16% If that’s the kind of thing you’re really interested in, there are a lot of better places to get it, and more regularly than I’ll talk about it.

That last one or two percent? Cartoons. A tiny bit of politics. Maybe con schedules, back in the clean days when we all went to cons.

But let’s talk about that writing advice. I think there’s a bunch of conditionals that should get applied to any advice someone gives. Or gets. Seriously.

That’s pretty much conditional number one. If you’ve been following me for a while, that’s my Golden Rule here—what works for me probably won’t work for you, and it definitely won’t work for him. I’m not saying my advice—or anyone else’s—is necessarily bad. But the simple truth is we’re all different writers with different projects at different points in our career, and trying to make advice a one-size-fits-all thing just isn’t going to work.

I’ve mentioned before that a big part of maturing and growing as a writer is figuring out what works for you. Because that’s all that matters. What makes it easier for you to write, and what helps you write better. I don’t care if the advice is from Stephen King, N. K. Jemisin,  Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or whatever author you consider your writing idol. It doesn’t matter that it works for them—if the advice doesn’t work for you, you shouldn’t be following it.

Which brings me to conditional number two. There’s a difference between advice and rules, and—much as some folks hate to hear it—there are rules to writing. Yes, there are. Spelling is a real thing. So’s grammar. And structure. These are real, quantifiable things I can get wrong.

However… this is art. You’re an artist (don’t say wordsmith don’t say wordsmith don’t say wordsmith). And that means we get to bend and break rules when we need to. Again—key thing—when we need to. Not on a whim. Not because we don’t know the rules to start with. Not to show those gatekeepers they’re not the boss of me! There’s got to be a reason for rule-breaking, and there still need to be enough rules in play that other people can understand me.

And this brings me to my third and probably final conditional for advice. Unless I think of a fourth one while I’m writing this out. Third is that I need to be aware most advice is intended for people at different points in their writing development. If I get asked the same question by a pro, by someone just breaking in, and by somebody just starting out, there’s a chance I’m going to give a notably different answer to each of them. And it could be really harmful if someone’s following the wrong advice.

Okay, that feels a bit clumsy so let me try it this way.

I’ve talked about cooking as an analogy for writing a couple times, and I’ve compared the ranty blog to a sort of cooking school. But it struck me a while back that even that’s a little off, because I can take a beginner cooking class at my local community college or I can take a course at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. But I think we can all agree those are two very different things.

Y’see, Timmy, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with what they teach at Le Cordon Bleu. It’s one of the world’s greatest culinary institutes and the instructors have a lot to teach. That said, a huge amount of what they teach is assuming I know a lot of basics, and probably a few advanced techniques as well. Again, world famous institute.

If I can’t tell the difference between sifted flour and corn starch, I can waste a lot of time and money at Le Cordon Bleu. Good chance I’d develop a bunch of bad habits, too, as I try to absorb and implement lessons I don’t have the foundation to fully understand. Heck, I could even come out of there a worse cook than I went in, trying to spatchcock a lobster thermidor or something like that.

This collection of rants is kind of a cooking school, but it’s maybe a second or third level community college class. I’m expecting everyone can tell salt and sugar apart, that you know how to softboil an egg, and you understand the difference between baking and broiling. And, maybe most importantly, that you actually want to learn more. I mean, that’s the whole point of taking a higher-level class, right? You don’t take it to argue with the instructor or tell all the other students how you don’t need to be there.

Well, okay, there’s probably some people who take classes for those reasons…

But you get my point. The advice I’m offering is for people who’ve written a few short stories, maybe a few chapters, maybe even a first novel. You’re already a few rungs up the ladder and I’d like to help you go a few more. But if you’ve had a book or two published, maybe a good string of short stories… you’re already near the top of that ladder. There’s not much I can do for you that you probably couldn’t do quicker and easier on your own.

So that’s what I’m serving here. Advice and tips and maybe pointing out a few rules. If any of that sounds good to you… stick around. And if there’s something in particular you want to hear me blather on about, just let me know down at the bottom. I feel all warm and special when people leave comments.

Next time, to start us off, I’d like to talk about success.

Until then, go write.

October 23, 2015 / 4 Comments

Yeah, That’s True, Except…

            Okay, this is late.  A week and a day.  Do you want excuses?  I was away at New York Comic Con and then came home to layouts I needed to go over, on top of all the things I just needed to get caught up on. 
            So, that ate up some time.  Sorry.
            Anyway, I’ve mentioned this idea before, but a few recent blog posts and comments I’ve seen made me want to bring it up again.  If we’re going to talk about writing, we need to agree that any such discussion is going to get broken down into either rules or advice.  Or drinking, but that’s not relevant right now.
            Right now, I’d like to talk about the rules.
            Rules are things that all of us, as writers, have to learn.  No questions.  I need to learn what words mean and how to spell them.  I must have a firm understanding of grammar.  A solid grasp of structure is required.  Characters have to hit certain benchmarks. You may notice these things come up again and again when discussing good writing.  There’s a reason for that, and it’s not that professional writers and publishers and editors are all jerks.  Learning the rules means study and practice and failure and more study and more practice and more failure. 
            Why do I bring this up?
            See, I brought up the rules because they’re a good lead in to what I actually wanted to talk about.  Exceptions.  Those cases where the rules don’t apply. Some people love exceptions.  They approach them two different ways, but usually to get the same result.
            Allow me to explain.
            The thing about rules, as so many people have said, is that I have to learn them so I can understand when and where and how to break them.  Because all the rules are breakable.  Never doubt that.  Pick any rule I mention above, or any other rule I’ve ever blabbered on about here.  Mention it in the comments and I’m sure some of the other folks here can give a dozen examples
            Now, some folks think if the rules can be broken anyway, well, why should I bother learning them?  Richard Matheson and Daniel Keyes wrote stories with lots of spelling mistakes. Cormac McCarthy and Peter Stenson don’t use much punctuation.  If they don’t need to do all this, why should I bother learning it?
            Y’see, this mentality means I’m looking at the exceptions, not at the rule.  Yeah, I can point to a handful of stories that break the rules, but I can also point to tens of thousands that don’t.  More importantly, I can point to hundreds of thousands that broke them and were rejected for it.
            Here’s another way to think of this.  Driving a car means following the speed limit.  The exact numbers vary from state-to state, but we all acknowledge that driving in a school zone requires that I travel at a certain speed. So does going through a residential area or traveling on a freeway.  Makes sense, yes?
            An experienced driver knows there are situations where I can flex those rules, though.  There are times I can go a little faster through school zones or residential areas and not worry about it.  In all honesty, I’ve driven over seventy on the highway next to a police officer and only gotten a raised eyebrow.  A lot of you probably have similar stories.
            And yet… none of us are assuming traffic laws and speed limits no longer apply to us.  We just know how to work within the framework of the laws and when we can step outside of it.  We know the rules and we know how and when to break them.
            Contrast that with the guy who goes roaring through a residential area at 70mph in the middle of the day… and then gets annoyed with the officer who pulls him over.  He’s assuming he’s the exception.  He’s doing the same thing I did, but… he’s really not, is he?
            I can’t start with the assumption that I’m the exception.  That the rules or requirements don’t apply to me.  I’m always going to be bound by the same rules as every other writer, and I’m going to be expected to follow them.  Until I show that I know how to break them.  If I don’t know what I’m doing or why, I’m just a monkey pounding on a typewriter, unable to explain how or why I did something and also probably unable to do it again.
            Also, monkeys do not get paid well.
            Now, there’s another mentality I’ve encountered a lot of online.  This is that other way of viewing exceptions that I was talking about.   They’re the folks who use the exception to the rule as a means of dismissing the rule as a whole.  For example, you say every writer needs editing.  Except, I say, Yakko published his book without editing and it did very well.  Ipso facto, writers do not need to edit.  That rule’s out the window and can be ignored. I could probably give a dozen examples of this without trying, I just don’t feel like writing them all out.  Besides, you’ve probably seen them, too.  Everything I mentioned as a rule up above—and dozens more—there’s someone, somewhere right now arguing that’s a stupid rule that this exception proves doesn’t matter.
            Now, to be clear again, I’m not saying these exceptions don’t exist. That’d be silly—they clearly do.  But it’s important to understand that they are the exception. They’re the unusual rarity, not the common thing.  That’s why we’ve heard of them.  Just because there were a hundred news stories about a writer who turned in a handwritten manuscript on yellow legal pads and got it accepted does not mean the publishing industry prefers handwritten manuscripts or legal pads.  We’re only hearing about it because it’s such an oddball thing to happen.
            Now, I try to point out such things when I can, and I think I’ve been pretty open all along on the ranty blog that exceptions do happen.  But I don’t really push them. Honestly, if I had to offer or explain every exception to every rule, this blog probably never would’ve made it past the second or third post.  And each one would be the equivalent of thirty or forty pages long.  This is kind of a teaching 101 thing.  As I said above, you learn the rules, then you learn the exceptions to the rules. 
            Y’see, Timmy, exceptions don’t disprove the rule—they prove it.  Always.  If not editing or handwritten legal pad manuscripts actually demonstrated that these rules don’t matter, then shouldn’t we be seeing hundreds of examples?  Maybe thousands?
            And yet, we don’t.  The majority of our examples are still people following those basic rules.  And flexing them here and there where they can.
            So why do some people do this?  Why do they convince people to ignore the rules?  We could probably debate that for a while.  Regardless, it’s kind of like looking at a thousand cancer patients, finding that one person who spontaneously went into remission, and then loudly declaring no one needs chemo or to get those growths removed—cancer cures itself!  First, it’s just plain wrong. Second, it belittles the 999 other people who are all struggling to do things the right way and undermines the folks trying to help them.
            Exceptions are great.  They’re why all of us can do so much as writers.  But exceptions can’t be my excuse not to learn.  All these rules have developed over the decades for a reason, and they apply to all of us.
            No exceptions.
            Next time, I’d like to take a quick minute to reveal something.
            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.