January 30, 2015 / 2 Comments

What’s In Your Arsenal?

            Y’know, while I was pulling links for this post, I realized something kind of amazing (and I’m glad I caught it).  This is the 300th time I’ve posted on this page.  Three hundred ranty posts about characters and dialogue and spelling and structure. Wow.
            I’m kind of surprised we’re all still here.
            But let’s get back to it…
            Odd fact—I’ve probably fired more types of handguns and rifles than anyone reading this.  You might be a firearm enthusiast, you might be former military, you might be in the military now… but there’s a very good chance I’ve got you beat.  I once compared notes with an Army weapons specialist and it turned out I could name almost twice as many firearms than him that I’d used, including a few obscure ones he’d never even heard of.
            The reason why I can do this is all my time in the film industry.  With the different procedural and crime shows I worked on, it was very common to have a new murder weapon every week, along with a red herring weapon and possibly some random thug weapons as well. Pistols, shotguns, rifles, bolt action, lever action, pump, semi-auto, full-auto…  And every one of these that was actually used on screen had to be test fired by me and then by the actors. 
            Even with some common weapons repeating, over the course of fifteen years… I fired a lot of weapons.
            Now, with all that being said, even though I’ve worked with a ton of weapons, I would never consider myself any kind of marksman.  Definitely not a sniper.  Because there is much, much more to being good with weapons then just being able to pull a trigger.  An AK-47 might seem like a ticket to badass-dom, but not if I don’t know how to load it. Or hold it.  Or turn the safety off.  I’ve heard some great (and kind of awful) stories from soldiers about gunfights with people who don’t know how their own weapons work.
            I bet a few folks reading this have an acquaintance who buys nothing but the most expensive, top-of-the-line tools yet still can’t put an IKEA bookshelf together.  Most of us have heard stories about some guy who spends a quarter-million on a car and then wrecks it within a week because “the car outperformed the driver.” Heck, we’ve all seen proof that giving a director access to grade-A actors and millions in film technology is absolutely no guarantee of a decent movie.
            Y’see, Timmy, having high-level tools doesn’t automatically make me skilled.  They’re two entirely different things.  Sure, I can keep jabbing at that bookshelf with my $300 DeWalt Max XR  20 volt hammer drill, but if I just need to tap in a few finishing nails it’s not going to help much. And the parts the drill would actually work for… well, a Phillips head screwdriver would do the same job.  It might even work better, all things considered.  DeWalt’s are great, but they can kind of suck when you need to work in tight spaces.
            Anyway… where am I going with this?
            I’d like to share something with you.  As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, I used to work on a text-based online game, what some of you might know as a MUD.  Because it was text-dependent, it was a chance for some people to really show off their skills.  Or complete lack thereof.  A friend of mine still works there and sometimes she shares things with me.
            So, check out this sentence…
            (names have been changed to protect the horribly guilty)
“Lashes aflutter like the wings of a satin bird, Phoebe sets glaukosphaerite lagoons on the newcomer, a smirk glissading across twin folds.”


            Now, I was going to try to sift through this sentence and break down all the places it went wrong.  To be honest, I did.  And I had a page and a half of notes, which is a lot more negativity than I want to have here.  So, instead, let me break all of that down into four simple rules for your writing arsenal.
            And yes, these would be rules, not advice.
            Know what words meanIt doesn’t matter how much my reciprocal saw cost if I keep trying to use it as a butter knife.  An elephant gun is not a sidearm.  And diffuse and defuse mean two entirely different things.
            This is the most important of these rules.  If I want to make my living with words, I need to know them intimately.   Not more or less what they mean or a general idea of how they’re used.  I cannot say words are the tools of my trade and then get repeatedly stumped by vocabulary questions on Jeopardy!. I’ve been doing this for many years, full time for over eight now, and I still pick up the dictionary once or thrice a week to make sure I’m using a given word correctly.  Because I have to know what they mean.
            This is also one of the worst rules to get wrong because it’s a mistake that’s hard to catch.  I won’t catch it because, well, I don’t know I’m using the word wrong.  My computer won’t catch it, because computers are idiots and will only tell me if a word’s spelled right, not if it’s being used correctly. Which means the readers will probably be the ones to catch it… and it won’t give them a good opinion of my skills as a writer.
            Don’t overcomplicate—Stephen King once said that any word you go looking for in the thesaurus for is the wrong word.  I’ve mentioned a few different versions of this rule at one time or another.  I’m not saying my writing can’t have some clever bits to it, but I should never confuse (or equate) overcomplicating my writing with complexity in my writing.
            If I have metaphors for metaphors (like using lagoons instead of pools because I don’t want to use eyes), I am pushing my audience away from reading and into analysis.  This is the kind of thing that destroys the flow of my writing.  And that’s the kind of thing that gets my writing set aside in favor of something else.
            Know how things go together—Remember that AK-47?  It’s not going to be half as effective after I force a lot of shotgun shells into the magazine.  They’re two powerful items that do not work well together.

            People can’t read my sentences if they don’t understand my sentences.  That “descriptive”sentence up above arguably has five completely different similes and metaphors. It’s spinning in multiple directions. This is when things go past overcomplicated and into full-on incomprehensible.  I need to have a firm understanding of the individual parts, how they’ll be perceived, and how they’ll work as a whole.

            Know what words mean—Did I mention this one already? Well, it’s probably worth mentioning again.  It is the most important of these rules after all.  And the one most people will ignore, because I need to be able to admit I don’t know stuff before I can learn new stuff.
            Have a big arsenal of words because you need it and you can use it.  Not just because you think it makes you look cool.  I can spend twenty minutes looking up glaukosphaerite and making sure it’s spelled correctly (because it won’t be in the spellchecker), but I could also just use green and then finish this whole page in that same amount of time. 
            And more people would understand what I was trying to say.
            Next time, I wanted to tell you about something I’ve felt for a while now…
            Until then, go write.
July 8, 2011 / 2 Comments

Can You Describe the Problem?

First off, a bit of shameless self-promotion (because I haven’t done any in weeks now)…

Ex-Patriots, my third novel and the sequel to Ex-Heroes got a slightly early release this week from Audible.com. It’s coming out in paper/e-book format in September, but if any of you are impatient you can go grab it now. There’s also a bunch of videos for their ZombieFest promotion where a bunch of folks wrote in with questions for the authors of all the featured books. So if you’ve ever wondered just how goofy I sound in real life (or look, or act, or dress…) , here’s your big chance to find out.
And now, back to our previously scheduled pontification…
So, if you’ve been reading this pile of rants for a while, you know there was a point a few years back when I helped to run an online fantasy MUD. If you’re not familiar with the term, a MUD is a multi-user dungeon. Because the game is entirely text-dependent, it was a lot like writing or reading a story. In fact, it was a great tool for polishing your writing, because if you got too long-winded with your words people wouldn’t be able to read them—the description would just scroll up the screen and vanish as other things continued to happen. You had to describe things, but you couldn’t get bogged down in useless details. People would either ignore it or lose their forward momentum as they went back to read it.
One of the things staff members had to monitor was the descriptions players wrote up for their characters. We checked for basic spelling and grammar (“His dark hair compliments his thin lips” was a common phrase). We also checked to make sure the style and wording, by way of the game’s narrative nature, wasn’t forcing actions or reactions on other players (“This scarred man may be the most terrifying person you have ever seen, and the mere sight of him makes your stomach churn with fear.”)
Now, I told you all that so I could tell you this little story…
One day, a staffer called attention to the description of a new female character. Y’see, when the game was originally built the coders left some stuff at default settings, and one of those things was the range for the description string. It was ridiculously high, but no one had ever bothered to set it because… well, there were more important things to do. And, really, who would ever fill it, right?
Well, this player had figured out the high-end range and written a description that was yards and yards and yards of purple prose. On a rough guess, their character description was around five or six hundred words. Maybe more. When you accessed it, the first dozen or so lines automatically scrolled up and off the page because it was so long.
I’m sure some of you are already thinking of character sketches you’ve done that are far longer, but keep in mind, this is all just physical description. It isn’t personality quirks or dietary preferences or anything like that. By nature of the game, it’s not clothes or weapons or equipment, either.
Needless to say, we pointed out that it was excessively long and asked her to trim it. She refused. By her reasoning, since the buffer allowed such a long description, it had to be game-legal. And if people didn’t want to see it, they didn’t need to scroll back.
We pointed out that those first dozen lines contained all the gender and age information for the character. This wasn’t “optional” material, it was stuff other players needed to know.
Still, she refused.
Now, stepping away from my tale, let’s think about this for a moment. A writer is refusing to edit a description, while at the same time admitting most people are going to skim over it or ignore it altogether. Even when authorities on the topic are explaining why it doesn’t work, said author is steadfastly refusing to change.
Does this sound remotely like a writer who’s interested in having an audience?
A common problem for all writers is when description gets too excessive. We get caught up in giving all the details and nuances of this character or those rooms or that magnificent sword which seems to be stuck in a stone… a jagged, raw stone, although one could see hints of granite and shale and flecks of white quartz that gleamed like the teeth of ancient dragons, the likes of which the world had not seen in long millennia. So perhaps calling it “a” stone was a misnomer, for it seemed to have a rich ancestry and heritage written through its structure. This was, perhaps, several stones that had come together untold eons ago, perhaps even then sensing the greater purpose they would serve and the rough bed they would form for the sleeping blade. Or perhaps it was just a coincidence that the gleaming sword had found itself in this particular malformed mound of misshapen rock, and in truth any of the many stones scattered around this subterranean chamber could have been oh dear God I think I’m making myself sick.
As I was saying…
We go one and on and sometimes lose track of the fact that somebody’s going to have to read all this. And since most readers are more interested in the story, that active element of your writing, odds are they’re going to start skimming after the fourth or fifth flowery description which they’ve come to realize has no bearing on the story. At which point, any decent storyteller should question why they’re including stuff that people are just going to skim over.

Elmore Leonard famously said that when he writes he leaves out all the parts people would skip anyway. Alfred Hitchcock said drama is life with all the boring parts taken out. And I’ll tell you that a six hundred word description of how a character’s hair hangs over her ears is either wasting time or is going to bring things to a crashing halt.
As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, this kind of overwriting is a deadly mistake in screenplays. Screenwriting is a very concise, minimal form of storytelling. One of the most common complaints I hear from professional readers is when the writer puts in piles of description that just doesn’t need to be there.
That, of course, leads to another issue with massive over-description. We all tend to form our own mental pictures of people and objects in stories. My lovely lady and I were chatting the other day about Lee Child’s character Jack Reacher and realized we both had very different ideas about what he looked like. That’s part of the joy of books. We can all have our own view of different characters like Taran Wanderer or Harry Bosch or St. George or Stu Redman. And nothing’s more distracting or disruptive than to be constantly reminded of all the many details the author’s putting in that don’t match up with that mental picture we’ve already formed.
Now, there’s another side to description, and that’s when writers never actually describe anything. Sometimes this is an attempt to invoke mystery or suspense (check out that dark figure across the street watching our main character). Other times it’s a way to evoke an emotional response with a clever metaphor or simile (when the knife sinks into your back and it’s like every painful sensation you’ve ever had in your life got balled up, hammered flat, and slipped beneath your shoulder blade).
And sometimes… well, sometimes it’s just a cheat. I can try to avoid the monster for as long as possible, which helps build suspense and dread, but eventually I need to say what it is. It’s not uncommon for a writer to try to find a way around an actual description at this point. After all, I’ve been hyping X for three-quarters of the manuscript now, and an honest description may not live up to all that hype.
I got to interview David Goyer (screenwriter of Blade, Batman Begins, and many others) a few years back. He’d just taken a turn in the director’s chair and I asked him if doing so had affected how he approached writing scripts. He laughed, admitted it had, and then told me a very funny story about working on a script with Guillermo del Toro. At one point, it seems, Goyer had “cheated” in the script and just described something as “a complete nightmare.” As they went through, del Toro pointed out this bit, shook his head, and said “What does that even mean? That’s boollshit.”
Which, Goyer admitted, it was. He’d dodged writing any sort of description because he knew it was something the director and art department guys would deal with. But he’d given them nothing to work with. Which was fine… until he was the director and under the gun to figure out what the hell it was that writer-Goyer couldn’t be bothered to put down on paper.
So, here’s an easy tip. It’s so easy I bet half of you will shake your head and ignore it. And some of you are probably already doing it without thinking about it.
If you’re going to describe something, have a reason to describe it. Thats’ it. Not only that, have a reason for the level of detail you’re using. A soldier in a war zone, a housewife, and a forensic examiner can all see a bullet hole in a person’s head, but they’re all going to treat it differently. And if it takes three or four paragraphs to explain what the housewife sees, where does that put the forensic examiner?
If you’re going to describe a person, have a reason for doing it. I’m betting nobody here can list off all the people they crossed paths with the last time they were pushing a cart through the grocery store. Oh, one or two might stand out in some small way, but let’s face it… there were probably close to a hundred. They just weren’t important in the long run. You can’t describe the police officer who gave you your last ticket, but you can probably give a lot of details about the last person you went out to dinner with.
Give descriptions the same weight you’d give characters or dialogue. Y’see, Timmy, if you waste them on the little things, they won’t have any strength when you get to the big things.
And then… well, then you’ve got nothing.
Next time, I’d like to ramble on about cooking school.
Until then, go write.
February 21, 2009 / 2 Comments

Let’s Get Critical

A bit early this week to make up for the time off.

Anyway, let’s return to that mechanic analogy I used a few weeks ago. I’d like to explore it a bit more, because it works really well.

Let’s say you get up tomorrow morning and your car won’t start. The engine will turn over, the headlights and radio work, but that’s it. Unless you happen to be very repair-minded yourself, odds are you’ll contact a mechanic, because working with automobiles is what he (or she– we’re progressive here) does for a living and they know a lot more about it than you do. Car repair is, after all their field of expertise, and they’ve been working in it for a while.

Now, when the mechanic tells you the car’s head block is cracked and it needs major work, would you start to argue? Would you say he doesn’t know what he’s talking about? Or she doesn’t understand your car and then march off in a huff?

What if you took your car in for a tune up and the mechanic told you the brakes were shot and the steering column was dangerously close to failing? Would you ignore the warnings and head out on that cross-country road trip? Perhaps take the car to your cousin Chris, the butcher, with the hopes he’ll give you an answer you like the sound of more?

Hopefully not. It would mean you’ve probably bought a lot of cars in your time. And maybe had some hospital visits in there, too.

If you ask someone with more experience than you for an opinion on something, it’s kind of silly to then ignore that opinion. If an expert gives you advice from their chosen field, you should probably at least consider what they’re saying.

And yet… how often have you heard the angry amateur writer complain the editor/ professor/ contest judge was an arrogant so-and-so who didn’t get their story? That these people were so hung up on perpetuating the system– with stupid, inconsequential stuff like spelling and dialogue and believable characters –they didn’t see the inherent ART!!!

Now, some folks may argue that writing and auto repair are quite different, so my analogy doesn’t really hold up. Writing really is an art, after all, and art is more subjective and gray than, say, fixing a cracked head block, which is pretty black and white. You can’t apply hard-fast, black and white rules to writing.

Well… yes and no.

Based off my own experience (which is not gargantuan, but sizeable enough I feel safe using myself as a reference), I would guess about half of most rejections are because of the small, basic elements of writing—and those are black and white. Spelling and grammar. Punctuation and dialogue. Characters that are little more than cardboard cutouts. I’m not talking about the odd typo here or there—that’s completely understandable. I mean the ones where your eyes are bleeding two pages in.

A short story…

I once ran the builder port for an online text game. At its simplest, we were constantly writing dungeon room descriptions, like the ones for old D&D modules. “This chamber has been carved from the living rock of the mountain, and in places the walls are still raw stone.” That sort of thing. The game amounted to tens of thousands of individual files (a simplification), each one containing five or six (or more) hopefully-coherent sentences forming a solid description. Being who I am, I held the rest of the builder staff to a pretty high standard when it came to spelling, grammar, and continuity. A few of those folks read these little rants, and I’m sure they can tell you I was close to a dictator when it came to such thing.

Well, one time I got an application from a fellow who ignored all our forms and just sent me a huge list of stuff he had done for other games. His first room description had six typos in it. There were seventeen grammar mistakes on the first page. Two days later he began asking when he could start on the builder.

When I explained he couldn’t, and why, he was furious. Where did I get off saying his writing was no good? It was good enough for other games he’d worked on, wasn’t it? And when I tried to explain why– what gives me the right to tell him he needed to work on his spelling?!

Needless to say, after his passionate and strongly worded response, I did not invite him to try again later.

Now, there is a flip side to taking criticism. When it comes down to it, you shouldn’t listen to everyone, and there are some people who you should ignore altogether. Not every single opinion should count. You should be considering who you’re asking and what their own relationship to the material is (you may remember a while back when I talked about the downside to getting opinions from certain folks). Neither of my grandmothers is really qualified to judge rap music or torture porn films. My best friend is not the guy you go to for a review of your girly young adult romance novel, and he’ll admit that, too.

Another story…

Years ago I had this one client, a beautiful woman who wanted to write a specialized exercise book. Well, who wanted me to write an exercise book for her. I tried to explain non-fiction books are more about pitches and proposals, but she really wanted to see a manuscript. And she was paying well. So, over the course of a month or so we did lots of interviews where she talked at length. Then I would go home to edit, do some research, and arrange it into drafts I could show her.

The problem arose when she would then show the draft to someone else and take their opinions as gospel. Her husband the real estate lawyer. Her best friend. A personal trainer she knew. So every time I came to talk to her, she had a new list of things that “needed” to change in the book. Once she even insisted on showing a copy to an acquaintance of hers who was a literary agent—a copy we’d covered with red ink and editing notes. I begged and begged her not to, she did, and much to her surprise (but not mine) the agent said it looked like it still needed work. The six drafts I did for her ended up being six page-one rewrites.

At least, as I said, she was paying well.

So, a few helpful hints when it comes to criticism.

First, ignore anyone who can’t give a why or how for their opinion. Just toss their notes out the window, delete them from your inbox, or turn up your iPod if they happen to be sitting in front of you. If someone’s just going to say “this sucks” or “you suck” or “you’re a sucky writer”… shrug it off. It’s tough, but let it roll off your shoulders. An opinion needs to come with a few concrete examples to back it up if it’s going to have any weight. “This doesn’t work” doesn’t help you at all. “This doesn’t work because you didn’t set up a relationship between Yakko and Wakko” is constructive criticism, because it lets you look back at something specific.

Second, once someone’s given you specifics, pay attention to them. If someone explains a problem that runs through A, B, and C, look at it. You don’t have to agree with them, but if they’ve taken the time to list a handful of what they see as particular trouble points, you should at least have the decency to look at what they’re talking about. This is one of the biggest problems I see—people who are closed to receiving any type of constructive criticism.

Third, be clear on the different types of feedback you’re going to get. Some things you will have to change. Spelling. Grammar. Formatting. Structure. These are the black and white things we talked about up above, and that I often talk about here. There are no maybes or howevers here. You can yell ART as loud as you want but apostrophes still have nothing to do with possessives and black hair cannot compliment blue eyes.

Other things are more fluid. Story elements. Characterization. Locations. And that brings us to…

Fourth, take suggested changes with a grain of salt. Especially those story and character-based ones. In the end, you’re the one telling the tale. It really doesn’t matter if your best friend thought Yakko and the nurse should’ve gotten together in the end. Or if another one of your critics felt Dot should’ve killed Wakko because of that thing with the girl. Or if somebody expected the story to be about zombies and it turned out to be about clones, so it didn’t seem as good. These are personal preference matters. You’re the person writing the story, and if in your story Yakko and the nurse go their separate ways, Wakko lives, and there’s a swarm of clones wandering around… then that’s the story being told. There are lots of other manuscripts floating around out there in a variety of different formats. Just because your story wasn’t what someone wanted to read does not mean your story is wrong.

On which note, shouldn’t you get back to writing that story? You want to polish it up before you show it to anyone, right?