October 12, 2021

Behind the Mask!

Oddly enough, not a Halloween-themed post. Although… maybe it is. It’s all perspective, I guess.

Since I first started taking this whole writing thing seriously, there’s been a general mindset I’ve seen bubble to the surface once a year or so. Maybe more in some places. It’s the idea that I can’t write about X if I haven’t personally experienced X. Can’t write it well, that’s for sure. If X hasn’t been an integral part of my life at some point or another, I’m just wasting everyone’s time by trying to write about it. Definitely by putting that writing out there. It’s a version of the old “write what you know” superball that gets bounced around. If you’ve never known X, you certainly can’t write about X.

Starting out in the horror community, I’d see this again and again. The folks who’d insist it just wasn’t possible to write horror without a horrific, awful background. You want to write horror? Real horror, not this weak “vampires and demons and zombies” crap? Well you better have fought in a war and had several people killed in front of you. Or had a horribly abusive family. All your pets better be dead, and most of your friends too, and if you’re not dealing with it through life-crippling addiction to something, you’re just a goddamn tourist who has no business in this genre.

Because of this, I’d see some folks get scared off from their chosen genre. Have I experienced real, soul-wrenching love? I mean, really experienced it? Maybe I shouldn’t be writing romance. My parents loved me a lot, I get along well with my brother, and I’ve got a bunch of really cool friends. Maybe I don’t have any business writing horror. And, heck, I’ve never even killed a human being before. I guess murder mysteries really aren’t for me.

At least, that’s what notorious serial killer Sue Grafton always said.

And a friend of mine recently pointed out this is such a pervasive idea that even some readers believe it. There’s no way I could write about a character that awful unless I myself am truly that awful, right? I mean, somebody couldn’t just make that stuff up, right? If one of my characters has sex more than twice, I’m clearly a sex addict (and let’s not even talk about what their chosen sex position says about me). Heck, I think I’ve talked before the weirdness that can happen when you name a character after a family member or friend without thinking about it.

Now, before I go any further… as I mentioned above, this has all been proven wrong again and again. Seriously. Yeah, there’s definitely some horror writers out there who’ve seen some awful stuff and I’ve known one or two folks over the years who’ve written intense erotica as an outlet when, y’know, no other outlet was available. There are some action writers out there who have very intense backgrounds in the military or private security, and a few sci-fi writers with pretty solid scientific credentials.

But I also know a ton of horror writers who had really nice childhoods and now live very happy lives, without a single dismemberment or traumatic beating or other ghastly event in their past or present. I know action writers who haven’t been in a single barfight or high speed chase or gun battle. I know people with no military experience  who write very successful military books. There are more than a few sci-fi writers who haven’t traveled in time or even left earth orbit once. And I know people who write sex scenes in their books who have, if I may be so bold, fairly vanilla sex lives. At least, going off all the pictures one of them showed me. Like, insisted on showing me.

That was a really weird brunch.


I think all of this ties back to a few things I’ve talked about here a few times. So I thought  maybe it’d be worth mentioning a few totally valid ways we can write about things we haven’t actually experienced. For example…

Voice—A big step for all of us is the day we realize midwestern grocery store clerks don’t talk the same way as third-generation bio-apocalypse survivors. Dwarven warrior queens have a different vocabulary than techbro CEOs. And fresh-out-of-grad-school schoolteachers don’t sound the same as battle-hardened Army sergeants. And getting that voice right, knowing how she’d say this vs. how he’d say it vs. how I’d say it is a big step in our growth as writers.

Research—seriously, we live in a freakin’ golden age of resources for writers. I’ve been doing this just long enough that I remember ads in the back of magazines for small press books about what it’s really like to be a doctor or a homicide detective . Or I’d spend hours in the library trying to find pictures of Paristhat didn’t involve the Eiffel Toweror a museum. These days, if I need to know something I have access to so many sources. I can find research papers or anecdotal accounts or heck, even actual people who will answer my questions or help me find the answers, and usually tell me some other useful things if I’m paying attention.

Extrapolation— I’ve never been shot in the knee, but I’ve had the meniscus behind my kneecap rupture (and collapse again and again and again). I’ve never done super heavy drugs but I’ve been very drunk a few times. I’ve never been able to fly, but when I was a kid there was a bridge in my hometown we all used to jump off into the river. Yeah, these experiences aren’t the same, but I can use them as building points. If this registers as a six, what would a nine be like? If it felt like this for ten seconds, what would it feel like after twenty? Or thirty? I stayed conscious here but would that much short out my brain for a few seconds (from pain or pleasure or excessive introduced chemicals)? It’s a basic creativity exercise. 

Empathy—I’ve talked about empathy here a few times, and I have to say once again it’s the most important trait a writer can have. Seriously. It’s what everything here really boils down to. Being able to put myself in someone else’s shoes. I’ve never had a parent die, but I’ve had friends who did. I’ve never served in the military, but I have family who did. I’ve never been married or had kids or burned dinner when someone’s coming over I really want to impress. But I look at my friends and family, I listen to them, I take note of what they’re saying and what they’re not saying, and I try to relate it to things I’ve gone through. I try to imagine how I’d feel in a similar situation, based off my own experiences. And I use some of that in stories.

In fact, let’s take this one step further and address one of the points that started this off. If I’m going to tell someone they can’t write great horror unless they’ve been through awful stuff (like I have)… well, isn’t that kind of implying I don’t have great empathy? I mean, think about it. I’m saying I can only write this because I experienced it, and I’m also admitting I can’t imagine being a person who can write it without experiencing it.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think that’s something I should be bragging about.

Y’see, Timmy, much like “write what you know,” this mindset assumes people can’t learn or grow or imagine anything. And if I want to be a good writer, I have to be able to do that. I can’t tell myself not to write about bank robbery until I’ve actually tried to rob a bank. Hell, where does that people who write murder mysteries? Or giant robot sci-fi? Or dark period fantasy. I mean, if you haven’t had sex with at least three people from the twelfth century, how do you expect to write medieval romance? I need to understand most writers research things, extrapolate feelings and reactions, get inside their character’s heads, and just try to have an honest sense of what someone else would feel in this situation.

Look, the truth is, if I’m doing my job right, you should feel like all my characters are real people in real situations. The janitor. The nymphomaniac barista. The half-human, reluctant cultist. The little kid with PTSD. The burned-out secret agent trying to forget most of his life. The world-ending cosmic event that they’re all tied up together in. And when we read a description of a real person, when we hear about the believable, relatable aspects of their life, it’s natural for us to assume they’re… well, real.

And the obvious real person is me, the author, telling you this story. So it’s not surprising some people think I must’ve experienced these things firsthand.

But I shouldn’t need to.


Next time, I want to throw a bunch of characters at the wall and see which ones stick.

Until then, go write.

October 1, 2020 / 1 Comment

Allow Me to Explain…

 There’s a storytelling idea, sort of a method, I suppose, that I’d been batting around for a while as a possible topic. Something I see crop up enough that it was worth mentioning in that “something else to keep in mind…” way. I decided to add it to my list of topics here and then, in a weird synchronicity, said problem showed up in a TV miniseries I finally got around to watching and a book I was reading (some formats may be changed to protect… you know).

The miniseries I mentioned involved an aggressive computer virus. And it explained how the virus worked. In detail. It used a few specifics and a few generalities, but it spent three whole scenes explaining this virus, the logic behind how it worked and how it selected targets.

The problem was… even as I was watching this, I could see a bunch of holes in the explanation. Holes that were only pulled wider as the story went on. And my computer skills more or less peaked in the very early 00’s. But I still knew enough to know the virus wouldn’t work the way it was described. Couldn’t. If it chose targets this way, why didn’t it go after that or that? If it propagated like that, how had it reached here and here?

For a brief time I was wondering if this was some sort of foreshadowing that there was more to the virus than was being let on. Maybe some sort of AI or a living virus that had been transcribed but then… mutated or something? But no, in the end it was just a computer virus that didn’t make any sense.

Which was doubly annoying because the virus didn’t really need to be explained in this story. The plot was much more about the repercussions of this thing being loose on the web and how it was affecting lives, society, and so on. The explanation slowed things down.

And, yeah, sure—part of this is on me. Any genre story is going to involve a degree of suspension of disbelief. Nobody wants to be the guy picking apart the energy requirements of a lightsaber or arguing how the Hulk can’t be that strong because his muscle/bone density would mean he’d sink into the earth. And as for Mjolnir, look…

Okay, yeah… there are some people out there who love being that guy.

(looking at you, Neil…)

But here’s the thing. I couldn’t’ve picked it apart if the writer hadn’t put so much down in front of me. I wouldn’t’ve had anything to pick apart. I can’t complain about your wardrobe if you never show me your wardrobe. But this writer decided they needed a whole scene (three scenes, really) explaining the computer virus in detail. And the details didn’t match up.

So what does this mean for me if my story needs explanation? I mean, speculative fiction is filled with different forms of technobabble. It’s got FTL drives and magic systems and AI computer viruses and alien life cycles and bringing dinosaurs back with cloning and mutant superheroes and… I mean, I’ve got to explain it all somehow, right?

Maybe? Consider Jurassic Park. How much does Crichton (or Spielberg and Koepp) actually tell us about the process of recreating dinosaurs? No, seriously—what do they tell us? If you look back, it’s actually a pretty bare-bones explanation of what’s a fairly complicated process (especially twenty-five years ago!). In fact, it encourages us to fill in a lot of the blanks ourselves and make it seem more complete.

So here’s a few things to keep in mind as I’m writing out that long explanation…

First, be clear if the story really needs this explanation. Is this what the story’s actually about, or is this a minor element I can handwave away or just skip over? Back to the Future gets away with a ridiculously simple explanation of time travel because it’s not really about the time travel. It’s about actions and consequences, and becoming a better person. Time travel’s just the mechanism that lets it happen. It’s just short of being a MacGuffin. We don’t need that explanation the same way we don’t need to read about someone hitting every step on the staircase, how many keystrokes it took to log into their cloud account, or a list of every item of clothing they put on when they got dressed (in order). The reader will fill it in.

Second, if I decide I really need to explain this at length, it’s got to be solid. I’ve waived the right to say “just trust me, it works” and now I need to make this as rigorous and believable as possible. I need to do my research, double-check my logic, triple-check my numbers, and let it marinate overnight in plain-old common sense. Trust me when I say if I get a fact wrong or use garbage science or make a math mistake… people will let me know. I don’t even have to ask them. Not only that, but…

Third, I need to keep in mind the more something gets explained, the easier it is to punch holes in that explanation. Like in the example I first mentioned. As the characters went into more and more detail about the computer virus, the flaws in that explanation became more and more apparent. How often have we seen the person digging themselves deeper and deeper because they won’t stop talking? It’s soooooo tempting when we’ve done all that sweet, cool research, but I need to figure out how much explanation my story really needs and stop there. I’ve mentioned screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin here onceor thrice, and his idea that we experience stories in our gut, but we analyze them in our head. I never, ever want my explanation to drive people into their heads.

Fourth, closely related to the last one, is that this sort of explanation is almost always going to be exposition. Yes, even if I try to work it into a conversation or presentation or something like that. As we’ve talked about here a bunch of times, exposition gets boring really fast because so much of it is either things we already know or things we don’t need to know. For our purposes here, there’s a chance the reader doesn’t even want to know. So if I decide I need this explanation in my story, I need to make sure it’s going to be clever and engaging for the reader.

And that’s me explaining how to explain things.

Next time, I’d like to talk about if you should be reading next week’s post.

Until then, go write.

November 2, 2017


No, we’re not talking about an M-F-K type game.

I don’t know. Some of you are very clever and inventive.  Maybe we are…

Big surprise, I know a lot of writers. Honestly, I’m still surprised to be accepted into their ranks. Any time I’m at a signing or a con party, I kind of feel like Jane Goodall quietly being accepted by the gorillas…

(by which I mean I’m quietly waiting to be mauled)

However, there’s one writer I don’t have that problem with, and that’s the ever-wonderful Elena Hartwell, author of the Eddie Shoes mystery series. Elena and I have, we recently realized, known each other for almost a quarter-century. We met back in our early twenties when we were freelance electricians for various San Diego theaters, and we’ve been friends ever since.

Yeah, I’m not sure how the math works, either. Met in our early twenties, pretty sure we’re both in our mid-thirties now… Maybe it’s like Reaganomics. In that it doesn’t really work.


I got to attend a signing event Elena did recently in my neighborhood, and during the talk she mentioned a wonderful rule of thumb when it comes to research. More to the point, when it comes time to start incorporating that research into my writing. Tattoo this one on your arm.  Or commit it to memory.  Or maybe just bookmark it…

For her books, Elena’s talked to a lot of professionals in various branches of law enforcement and other public servants. And she noticed a lot of their answer to her questions tended to fall into certain groups…

“We always do this.  No matter what, this is a priority.”

“Well, you think it’d go that way, but the truth is… well, it’s a little more flexible than a lot of people realize.”

“That never happens.  There’s a couple different reasons why, but… it just doesn’t.”

This didn’t really surprise me. As someone who worked in the film industry for many years, I was very aware of those kind of divisions. Usually when dealing with people who had a lot of textbook ideas about how the industry worked. And then having to explain to them, “yeah, here’s how that actually goes.” Or, far more often, “ha ha ha, no, that never happens…”

I think most jobs work that way. There’s stuff that always happens, stuff that never happens, and then there’s that gray area where things aren’t well defined or nobody generally talks about it. The stuff that usually happens or, y’know… it’s not unheard of.

I talked to a scientist a while back about lab equipment. What happens to stuff from old experiments or discontinued projects? And I wanted to hear it from her because—like in the film industry—I was willing to bet there was the official, rulebook way that everyone gets taught, and then there’s… well, the simple reality of it. And she laughed and told me, yeah, there’s the expected rules, and for some things you follow the rules to the letter with no deviations. But for a lot of stuff… turns out people are a bit less concerned with what happens to that case of old test tubes or the laptop from 2006.

So, what does all this mean to you, fearless writer?

When we’re doing research, it’s really tempting to bend the facts to fit the story we want to tell. We have something we like, reality goes against it… so we just choose to ignore reality. I mean, that’s what fiction is, right? Just ignoring reality to tell a good story.

Not exactly.

When I sit down to do my research—be it books, bugging professionals, or even risking the internet—I should put all the answers into one of three categories.  Always.  Maybe.  Never.

If it’s always true, I need to get it right.

If it’s never true, I shouldn’t have it happen in my story.

If it’s maybe true, in certain cases…  now I can tweak according to what my story needs.

That’s it.  Simple and quick.

Y’see, Timmy, doing this will make my story so much stronger, especially if I’m trying to set it in the real world.  Because by doing this, I’m enforcing those real-world rules. Heck, even if my story’s set in the kaiju-infested dystopia that is 2217, I should be doing this with my facts.  It’s just me staying true to the rules of that world.

Always. Maybe.  Never.

Next time, I’d like to talk about bullies.

Until then… go write.

Always go write.

            Running a little late today, but still here. Thanks for waiting.
            So, our title this week is one of those not-so-clever aphorisms that folks usually  have to work through for a minute or two.  I only mention it here because Shane Black used it in Iron Man 3… with the whole joke being that Tony Stark (cuffed to a bed frame at the time) didn’t get it.
            In the interest of moving things along, the second mouse gets the cheese because the firstmouse set off the trap… and got killed.  Now the trap’s harmless.
            See what I mean.  Obvious in retrospect, not so much when you first see it.
            That’s what I wanted to blab on about.  The traps that seem like good ideas at the time, for one reason or another, but later it’s clear they were the wrong choice. 
            Lots of aspiring writers fall into traps.  Sometimes it happens when they follow bad advice.  Other times it’s because they insist on using a method or writing in a style which really doesn’t work for them.  And sometimes… sometimes that trap’s just sitting there in the tall grass, waiting to snap shut on someone’s leg.
            We all want to think the traps are clear and easy to spot. But we’re all going to fall into a couple of them. That’s just life out here in the writing jungle.  The trick’s to get out as quick as possible.  Some folks, y’know,  get caught in a trap and then try to convince themselves they wanted to be at the bottom of a hole with two wooden stakes rammed through their legs.  Hell, everyone should be in a pit with two wooden stakes through their legs.  It’s really the best position to be in.
            None of us want to be that guy.  Or to listen to that guy. Right?
            So, with all that said, let me toss out some common—and maybe even dangerous—misconceptions people have about writing.
            Writing is easy  Probably the most common misconception there is.  I mean, most of us learned how to put words on paper when we were ten, right?  We could write passable essays by ninth grade.  So writing for a living, for an audience greater than your immediate friends and loved ones, how hard could it be?  Anyone can do it once you’ve got a clever idea.  Heck, I’d bet 90% of Americans have immediate access to a word processor of some sort.
            Truth is, writing—not basic, grade-school literacy, mind you, but the ability to write— is a skill which needs to be learned like any other.  All you need is to browse Twitter, Facebook, or the comment sections of any news feed to learn how few people can express their ideas through words.  Yeah, I took English and reading classes in school. But most of us went through twelve years of gym class, too, and we all understand that doesn’t qualify us to be in the Super Bowl.
            Writers need to train and practice for months–maybe even years–before they’re ready to show off their writing.  I don’t have hard numbers in front of me, but I feel safe saying Stephen King didn’t make much off the first 100,000 words he wrote.  It’s work.  Hard work.  It requires skill, a great deal of practice, some actual talent, and a heck of a lot of dedication.  That’s why so many people don’t succeed at it.
            This is probably the most successful trap because it doesn’t just catch the writer–it tends to kill them 2/3 of the time.  Most of the folks who believe that writing is easy have never actually written anything.  They also tend to come up with a lot of reasons (unrelated, of course) for why they never complete a manuscript.
            First person is easy   A lot of prose writers start off with first person stories. It’s quick, it’s not hard to get into, it’s easy to find a voice.  It’s also very personable, so a reader can relate to my characters immediately.  Plus there are tons of formats ready and waiting; journals, diaries, letter, memoirs, and so on.  My first two published short stories were both first person.
            Truth is, though,first person is a very difficult, very limiting viewpoint to write in.  There’s a reason lots of professional writers avoid it.  It takes a lot of experience and planning to pull off a successful first person manuscript.
            Writers who get caught in this trap start their first novel and pound out 20,000 words worth of journal entries over one weekend.  There’s always that chance they may be brimming with so much raw talent they’re the next Hemingway or Steinbeck.  Alas, there’s a far better chance, they’ve just wasted a long weekend.
            Writing doesn’t require any writing  I think we’ve all heard or seen that person who talks about their brilliant story ideas, and usually follows it up with—“Well, I’ll write it out when someone’s willing to pay me.”
            This mindset is a remnant of the huge spec script boom in Hollywood a few decades back.  It was one of those rare periods when studios acknowledged the importance of writers and were paying millions for screenplays—or even just the idea for one.  And that frenzy sold some books, too
            However… this was almost thirty years ago. These days producers and publishers are much more cautious and they’re not interested in ideas.  They’re interested in complete, finished works.  Not two-thirds of a manuscript.  Not most of a script. 
            Want easy proof of this?  What do you think will happen if I self-published my idea?  Not a complete manuscript, just my one-page, cool idea?  How far do you think that’ll take me? 
            If not having a manuscript doesn’t work for self-publishing, it’s sure not going to fly in traditional publishing.
            Just to save time, knowing the right people won’t change this.  No, it won’t.  I don’t care what that website said.  As a first-timer, I’m an unknown quantity.  Who spends money on unknowns?
            Not to sound too harsh but… well, no, this is harsh because people can only end up in this trap by choice.  If someone can’t write and complete something, they can’t be a writer.  That’s really all there is to it.  I should stop now and go back to those criminal justice classes I thought about signing up for.
            Writers don’t need to read  Somewhere along the line, some numbskull started pushing the idea that writers shouldn’t waste time reading—they should spend all their time writing.  This is kind of like saying drivers shouldn’t waste their time stopping for gas. 
            Every professional writer I’ve ever met, interviewed, or even just read about (myself included) reads voraciously.  A writer should be devouring works in their chosen field to stay current and snacking heavily on everything else to stay fresh.
            Alas, the folks who fall into this trap tend to write plain awful stuff.  Not from any inherent lack of talent—they just have no clue what’s been done.  They go for every easy idea, hit every cliché plot point, and tend to follow the textbook formulas they were taught in some creative writing class somewhere.  What else can they do?  They’ve had no other input.  They end up trying to mimic one or two famous examples of what they aspire to… and usually end up looking just like the worst of the worst.
            Research everything – This one’s  more insidious than deadly, which is why I saved it for near the end.  We all want to get the facts right in our stories.  We check books, make phone calls, visit locations… okay, yeah, and maybe some of us just spend a lot of time on Wikipedia.  Point is, how can I be expected to move forward with my story if I don’t know the exact month they started laying railroad track in Independence, Missouri?  It’ll ruin everything if I say June and it turns out to be July.
            This is an awful trap because getting stuck in it means I’m trying to do the right thing.  Research is important, but I can’t ever forget that research isn’t writing.  There’s a time for putting noses in books but there’s also a time for putting fingers to keyboard (or pen to paper if you’re old-fashioned).         
            Some folks get caught in an even deeper layer of this trap.  They get stuck researching how to write.  We’ve all known someone like this, yes?  The one who buys books, takes classes, studies YouTube tutorials… but never does any actual writing. 
            For some people this becomes a defense mechanism of sorts, sometimes subconsciously and sometimes… not so subconsciously.  If I never start, I won’t have to put the work in, and my work stays in that wonderful hypothetical stage where it’ll be the greatest thing ever committed to paper… if only I had time to write it down.

            Rewrite until it’s perfect– The last and deadliest of the traps in our showroom.  For some folks, rewriting turns into an endless loop.  There’s always another opinion to listen to, more feedback to get, and revisions which need to be done because of them.  Just thought of a new way to do those action scenes?  That calls for another draft.  Maybe last night’s Agents of SHIELDinspired a new opening?  Perhaps my old college beau is visiting and s/he thought the ending needed a touch more romance, and any decent writer knows changing the end means changing everything that leads up to the end.
            There are two ways people fall into this trap.  One is a combination of bad advice and bad judgment.  So many gurus tell people to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.  How many times have you heard “writing is rewriting” parroted in classes or on message boards?  There’s some truth to that, yeah, but eventually, a writer just needs to call it done and move on or they’re going to be trapped in one manuscript forever.
            The other way people fall into this trap is on purpose.  A bit like with research, constant rewrites are an excuse not to actually produce anything.  You don’t expect me to show you an incomplete or old draft, do you?  I was going to send it to some agents or publishers, but I think it needs one more polish to make it perfect.  Maybe one more after I go through and clean up a few loose threads.  Rewrites are a way some writers–again, consciously or not– can avoid possible failure yet still keep up the illusion of forward motion.
            Are all of these traps deadly?  No, but getting snagged in one can definitely cost me some time.  Yeah, I’ve fallen into one or three of them over the years.  Fortunately, one of those things only has to slam on your ankle once and you’ll rarely let it happen again.
            Assuming, of course, that I get out of it the first time.
            Next time, I’d like to talk with you real quick about my buddy Marc, who I was stationed with in Kuwait six years ago…
            Until then, go write. 
            And watch your step.