July 10, 2014 / 3 Comments

Reverse Engineering

            A quick tip for this week.
            When I was still a scrabbling writer looking for my first real success, I was sure there was some sort of trick to writing.  That it wasn’t about putting in years of work and getting experience, it was just about finding the right topic or the right genre.   I wrote lots of stories that focused on all the wrong things, because I was convinced it wasn’t how I wrote, it was what I wrote about.
            Needless to say, this wasn’t true.
            It wasn’t just me, though.  Lots of writers think this at some point in their learning curve.  They think success is some wave that all those other people are riding.  They figured out what was going to be hot this year and jumped on that wave.  Young adult stories.  Werewolf stories.  Space opera stories.  Western stories.  All I need to do is aim my story at the next wave and then I’ll be successful, too.
            Again… this isn’t true.
            A while back I saw Joss Whedon’s fun and super-low budget Much Ado About Nothing.  Some of the actors were there and did a little Q & A afterwards.  Someone asked Alexis Deinsof about the wisdom of deciding to do a slightly-updated Shakespeare play as a movie.  He smiled and said “You can’t start at ‘success’ and work backward to ‘What should I write about?’
            When a story finds a home with an editor or a producer or a reader, it’s not because of trickery.  It’s because that writer knew how to tell a story and that story appealed to said reader or editor at that particular time.  That’s all.  So copying a theme or a genre from something successful isn’t going to help me.  Rushing to copy the current “hot thing” isn’t going to help me. 
            The only thing I can do to improve my odds at success is be the best writer possible.
            Next time, because it’s always good to have your website noticed by lots of people in the NSA, let’s talk about nuclear weapons and blowing up cities.  We can watch the hit counter go crazy together.
            Until then, go write.
March 11, 2011 / 4 Comments

Spilling Redux

Yep. It’s that time again.

I figured I was about do to talk abut spelling, as I due every sex months or so. It’s on of those things that needs to get hammered home again ant again, because no mater how many tines I say it, their is still this huge grope of people who incest that smelling doesn’t really effect how an editor vies you’re writing. Either that or they fill back on the hole “language evolves” defense.

Now, sum of you may bee giggling or filling a bite smug rite about now. After all, hear I am gong on about you’re bad spilling habits and halt of these wards are spelled wrong. Except, you seen, they aren’t. Not won singlet thin is spilled wrong inn these too paragraphs.

Which is the point I’m trying to make.

Y’see, Timmy, spellcheckers are idiots. Forget Watson or Deep Blue, your spellcheck program can be outwitted by my three-week old nephew banging on the keyboard with his little palms. Anyone depending on their spellchecker to save them from mistakes like the thirty-five in those first two paragraphs is doomed to a lot of rejection letters.

Yup, thirty-five. Count ‘em up. Keep counting until you find them all.

Of course, this doesn’t address the real problem. A lot of people don’t just have crappy spelling, they’ve got crappy vocabularies, too. When the idiot spellcheck suggests a word, these folks blindly accept it because they don’t really know which word they wanted in the first place. Which, if you think about it, is a bit like two homeless guys giving each other advice on the stock market.

So, let’s have a pop quiz. Pencils out, grab that spare Netflix envelope off the television, and let’s begin.

vicious or viscous — One of these words applies to wolverines.

cords or chords – One of these words deals with electronics.

sheer or shear — One of these words means see-through.

very or vary – One of these words means to change.

yore or your – One of these words applies to the past.

peak, peek, or pique — One of these words means the top.

discrete or discreet — One of these words applies to manners.

it’s or its – One (and only one) of these words is possessive.

corporeal or corpulent – One of these words means solid.

their, there, or they’re – One of these words is also a possessive.

trusty or trustee – One of these words is a person’s title.

canon or cannon — One of these is a big gun.

reign, rein, or rain – One of these words deals with emperors.

compliment or complement – One of these words means that things work well together.

So, got all your answers? Are you ready to grade this little test?

Well, here’s the catch. You’ll notice I never said what you were supposed to do. If you managed to pick the right words, that’s only part of the quiz.

You need to know all the words, what they mean, and how to use them correctly. Every single one of them. Knowing one out of three or even half of them doesn’t cut it because every one of those words is going to breeze past your spell check program without a problem– no matter which word you meant to write.

Bonus questions. Which one of the above words is a verb that means to cut? Which one’s an adjective that means thick? How about the musical noun? Which one of those words is best applied to a pile of books?

None of these should be hard questions. Seriously. These aren’t obscure words.

As I’ve mentioned before, there are lots of people who will try to convince everyone that the words you use and how you spell them does not matter in real writing. Spelling is all arbitrary, anyway, right? Such pedestrian things should be the very least of your worries.

There also a lot of people who fall back on the “language evolves,” excuse, as I brought up at the start. Modern English is not the same as Middle English or Old English. They also like to bring up Shakespeare as an example of someone who made up words that are now in common use today. Going with today’s theme of knowing what words mean, let me point out that ignorance is not a synonym for evolution.

Now, there are also lots and lots of people who have never been published, produced, or made the first cut in a writing contest. By an astonishing coincidence, a very large percentage of this group is made up of members of those first two groups.

What are the odds of that, I wonder…?

Y’see, Timmy, I know what all those words up there mean. Each and every one of them. So do most editors. Which means we will know when they’re used incorrectly, and each one’s another check mark in the “this writer doesn’t know what they’re doing” column.

How many checks do you think you’ll get before your manuscript ends up in that big pile on the left?

Stop asking your computer to write. Go buy a dictionary. Use it.

Next time, as I have a few times before, I’d like to look at one of the seminal influences of my childhood and where–in my opinion–it went horribly wrong. Even though I somehow managed to turn out okay.

Well, more or less.

Until then, go right.

May 7, 2009 / 7 Comments

A Few Times Around the Block

This week, I wanted to discuss something I’m sure nobody wants to hear about. No, not about the test results or that it looks like Chuck is being cancelled by those idiots at NBC. What I wanted to talk about is an affliction more deadly than Ebola and swine flu combined.

Well… sort of. Not really. It just feels that way a lot of the time.

I have to be honest. I don’t really believe in writer’s block. Oh, I believe someone can have trouble finding the right words and phrasing and it can trip them up for a minute. Or that they found too many good sentences and have written themselves into a corner. That happens. It’s happened to me several times.

But, really… that someone could get so stuck that they can’t write anything? Nothing at all? Any writer who comes to an honest-to-God dead halt when they hit a problem is a bit more of a poser than they’d probably like to admit.

Sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov never suffered from writer’s block. Neither has prolific author Piers Anthony. Stephen King got hit by a high-speed van, hovered near death for a few days, and a few weeks after he could move had his wife set up a desk and his laptop computer for him. The screenwriting team of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have three movies coming out this summer, right after their new series Fringe. Almost all of them were written in one six month period.

Y’see, Timmy, one of the biggest things that stops folks from writing, in my opinion, is just fear. Plain old fear. To be honest, I think it’s the only reason someone can’t pick up a pen or set their hands to the keyboard and put out something.

Now, a lot of folks like to toss around terms like inspiration, craft, and my all-time favorite, ART, as reasons they can’t write. And in all fairness, there does need to be an idea that’s compelling you. There is more to writing than banging your fingers on the keyboard to form phonetically-spelled words. And even I’ll admit to there being a chance that your writing could be labeled art by the high-fallutin’ folks at the New Yorker. But none of these should have any bearing on your ability to write.

As a writer, you are your own boss (unless you’re working on a television series in a writer’s room). Can you imagine walking into your day job and telling your supervisor “Actually, Dot, I’m not sure I’m ready to work today. It’s just… it’s not there for me, y’know?” It wouldn’t fly at the Buy More, so why should it at your desk?

Now, this is going to be one of those tips that sounds incredibly stupid, but that’s because it’s so simple and straightforward most people don’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak.

The easiest way to never get writer’s block?

Don’t stop writing.

Told you it’d sound stupid. But it’s true. You can’t have writer’s block if you’ve always got words pouring out of you. It isn’t something that happens when you’re writing, it’s something that happens when you’ve stopped writing.

So, with that in mind, here’s a few ways you can keep the words flowing and never stop writing.

Why so serious? One thing I know can make people freeze is the sheer thought that they are writing. This is that big fear I was just talking about. They are partaking in the same art as Shakespeare and Dickens, Steinbeck and Hemingway, Hitchcock and Serling.. How could someone not approach this with the gravity it truly deserves? How could they risk putting down a single word that isn’t gold-gilt and ready to head off to the publisher so it can change the lives of millions?

Easy. Just remember most of them aren’t. We all get a first draft, and often a second and third, too. Way back at the dawn of the ranty blog, I talked about finding a place or a format you can write in that takes all the pressure off you. For some folks it’s writing in longhand. Some use a different word processing program—or a different computer altogether. Just remember, the majority of the words you write will never see print, so don’t stress that they’re not flawless.

Move on. This is another suggestion you’ve probably heard before. Have more than one project going at a time. It also helps if they’re all a bit different, in terms of genre, format, and so on. If you get stuck on script A, you can switch over to short story B or tell-all book C. At any given time I’m juggling screenwriter interviews and articles for the magazine, the ranty blog here, and whatever fiction projects of my own I’m working on.

Prime the pump. If you need to start writing, just start. Write anything. Type out a list of your pets. Favorite books. Favorite Christmas presents. People you’ve slept with. People you wish you’d slept with. Just get the words flowing, and then start tossing in some verbs and adjectives. Go with stream of consciousness or random fragments or quotes you’ve been meaning to jot down for other projects.

After fifteen or twenty minutes of this, you’ll probably find you’re writing coherent, consecutive sentences. Even if they don’t have anything to do with your current project—or any of your side projects—they’ve still gotten that part of your brain up and running for the real work of the day.

Reload! Sometimes the reason you’re not moving forward is because you’re out of gas. Read a book or watch a movie. Not one of your favorites, but something new. Get some fresh words and ideas and images into your head. Once they start swirling around in there, they might find that starting point you were looking for—or maybe even an all-new one.

Quit while you’re ahead. No, it’s not as harsh as it sounds. Simply put, if you feel like you’ve five or six pages of writing to get out today, only do four. If you know where the rest of this page is going, stop after the first paragraph.

What you’re doing is giving yourself an easy starting place tomorrow. There are few things more intimidating than sitting down with no idea what to write, so this way you’ve got that last page or so from last night to start with. Like the tip above, once you’re going it’s a lot easier to keep going.

And that’s that. Five ways to keep writing.

Do they all work for me? Nope. To be honest, one of these methods I’ve had spotty luck with and another has never worked for me at all, but I know folks who get by fine with it. That’s the whole point of the ranty blog’s golden rule. Please feel free to toss out any of your own, as well. I know I’m always happy to have a few spares on hand.

On which note, we should all get back to writing. Next week I want to go back to my roots and talk about some sci-fi/ fantasy stuff. We’re long overdue for some hardcore geekery here.

But until then, go write.

August 14, 2008

Art for Art’s Sake

In these modern days of telecommunications, where everyone has an equal voice that can be heard instantly almost anywhere on the planet (and into high orbit, even), there has arisen an unusual movement in the creative fields. This movement usually takes the form of a high, shrill voice shouting…


A lot of people like to shamelessly use the word art, or some of its poor, bastard stepchildren (creativity, genius, literature, and even more, I’m sure). It’s why they don’t follow any rules of grammar, ignore spelling, and why they brush off anyone who tries to correct them or offer helpful hints.

Worse yet, some of these “artistic” folks try to get others to follow their twisted path. They condemn the rules of English and will try to convince you none of “that stuff” is important in your writing. What matters, they insist, is the ART. Nothing matters but the art, and they’re quick to leap on anyone who dares to hint otherwise.

Short story time…

In college, I had a teaching assistant openly mock me because I said I wanted to write stories to entertain people. In front of the entire class he told me if I wasn’t writing words that were intended to change the world I was just wasting everyone’s time. My first assignment (a vampire story) came back with a lot of red ink on it. So did my second one (a tale about a dimensional shortcut cutting across the worst possible dimension). Only my third story gave me a passing grade, because he read a lot of stuff into it that… well, I wasn’t going to say it wasn’t intended. I had a GPA to consider.

Slightly longer story…

A few years after college, but still several years back, I was a full-time carpenter and stagehand at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. The Rep is a small space in downtown (in the basement of a mall, to be honest) and used to help pay the bills by renting out space on one or two of their smaller stages. There were late-night improv teams, experimental theater groups, things like that which could usually only afford one or two performances. One night I was finishing up late and came across the house manager watching some kids doing a theater class project. They had an “audience” up on stage with a video camera while three or four other kids were out in the house trying (emphasis on trying) to build a full-sized scaffolding with 2×4’s and power tools. It was an attempt at “art,” and the house manager and I had a few giggles over it.

A few minutes after I stopped to watch, one of the kids with a Makita drill balanced it wrong on a drywall screw and ended up stabbing himself in the hand near the base of his thumb (almost anyone who’s used a cordless drill can probably identify with this injury, even if none of us have done it since the second or third time the drill was placed in our hands). Well, construction came to a grinding halt, all the students checked out his thumb, and it was decided they would continue.

“See,” I told the house manager. “That’s my problem with modern art.”


“Was he supposed to stab himself with the drill? It fit with what they’re doing. Did we just see an accident or part of the performance?”

She laughed, I laughed, but this offhand comment stuck with me. Y’see, I firmly believe art is not an accidental creation. You can’t throw paint at a wall and call it art. While statistically a million monkeys with a million typewriters can produce the complete works of Shakespeare in a million years, we all really know that many millennia from now it’s still just going to be piles of gibberish and crap. And maybe an Ann Coulter book or two. Art can’t happen by accident.

Which brings me to my second point, which will sound a bit contradictory. Art is always accidental. It is never, ever a deliberate act. The act of creation is deliberate. The artistic merit is not. History has shown this again and again, yet people still like to think they can make “art” and that others are fools for not recognizing it.

Ray Bradbury. William Shakespeare. Frank Capra. H.P. Lovecraft. Charles Dickens. Stephen King. Joss Whedon. Robert Louis Stevenson. When each of these writers and screenwriters started their careers, they were considered populist hacks at best, and at worse… well, critics can come up with some creative terms. Most of them weren’t writing to create art, but to pay rent and cover debts. They just loved to write and that was their main concern. Telling a story and getting a paycheck.

As time went on, however, people looked back and said “Hey, you know this guy really did say something about the human condition!” Did you know every one of these writers now has an entire college course devoted to them? At a number of universities, you can study Joss Whedon and the feminist empowerment of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or modern political undertones of Stephen King. Heck, I even understand there are a few schools where Shakespeare is considered a full major. William Shakespeare—who almost always wrote under a deadline and had to make constant changes to please patrons and actors. Just like the guys who wrote Transformers.

Now, here’s the rub…

Let’s take 100 writers and split them into four even groups. Each one of them publishes a handful of short stories this year. The members of group A are hailed as geniuses in magazines, newspapers, and on the newly-created inter-webbing thing. The others collect a paycheck.


Next year, several folks from group B are asked to contribute their stories to an anthology, while several of A are forgotten. Ten years after that, people are asking whetever happened to those writers from group C. And a decade after that, people are pointing at the D stories as unrecognized classics of the time.

So… who’s the artist?

This is simplified, granted, but it gets the point across. What counts as art changes day by day, generation to generation. I had a college professor once freely admit that the canon of great American literature changes every time someone hits tenure and publishes a new paper, crediting one person while discrediting another. How can your work aspire to a state which changes its definitions almost on a daily basis?

Trying to create art is like trying to hit a mosquito with a laser pointer. Between either end of things, it’s almost impossible. Don’t worry about “art.” Nine times out of ten, I’ve found “art” is an excuse to explain rejection and criticism.

Just write the best story you can.