January 24, 2009

Spill-Chick is Not Prefect

Check it out. New President. New LOST. New rant. Has this been a great week or what?

So, boring as it may seem, I’m going to harp on spelling again. Yeah, two weeks in a row. It’s something that keeps coming up in people’s writing, so I feel the need to keep bringing it up here. Plus, for screenwriters, we’re at the top of contest season, heading into the first batch of deadlines, and in my experience at least half of those folks need to do a major draft to check for spelling errors.

And please note once again—hitting spellcheck does not count as a draft.

In fact, that’s the point I want to stress.

Y’see, Timmy, many would-be writers are soft on spelling, because they’ve got computers. As we all know, computers are godlike, telepathic machines that fix all your mistakes, never make any themselves, and have never, ever tried to wipe out humanity by starting a nuclear war. So, it’s not too surprising several would-be writers have become dependent on this popular deus ex machina.

The catch, of course, is that computers aren’t telepathic and they can’t fix all your mistakes. They’re only going to do what you tell them to do. If you don’t realize what you’ve just asked them to do, well… that’s not their fault, is it?

Let me put it this way. As prefect a sit is, smell-chick doesn’t help yew if ill the warts are spilled write but are all jest then wrong wards, doze itch? Another example of this I’ve given before is–

Inn odor two cell eh vampire yew most half a would steak.

Those past few sentences show one of the biggest problems with becoming dependent on your spellchecker. They’re called malonyms, one of those obscure grammar terms which are the written form of homophones. They’re words that sound like other words, but are spelled differently. If we’re talking about scribbling words, we’re not righting, we’re writing. If I’m carving wood, I want to take the knife to a piece of yew, but hopefully not to you (although if this disregard for spelling keeps up, I won’t make any promises…).

A computer can’t spot a malonym, and will let them through that security checkpoint without a glance (computers don’t profile, either). It hasn’t had any problems with this little rant, for example, even though I’m sure you stumbled over a word or six up above.

Now, there’s also a flipside to this problematic coin, for which I shall tell a little story…

A while back I was reading for a screenplay contest and got a borderline horrible script. What was driving me nuts as I went through it was the inclusion of random words, at least one or two per page. Sometimes they were jarring, other times nonsensical. A dozen or so pages into the story our quasi-hero (the script had other issues, too) encountered a corporeal woman behind the counter at a cafeteria. What? I thought Did I miss something? Is this a ghost story now? I went back and re-read the opening pages again, then read the rest of the scene and the scene after it. Then I read the scene again, trying to make sense of it.

Our writer, it turns out, sucks at spelling. Really, really sucks. Was just throwing letters down that kind of looked like a word he or she had heard before. So said writer typed out the script, spell-checked it, and just hit “okay” whenever the program suggested a spelling.

The problem is, again, these programs don’t know what word the writer intended—they just know what the word on the page was kind of close to. Which is why this writer ended up with a corporeal woman behind a counter (when he wanted a corpulent one), and a man leaning by a plague who was filled with sham (it’s funnier if you figure that one out on your own).

See, this is the real problem. In both of these cases, the spellchecker is working flawlessly. The writer, however, is messing up constantly, because he or she doesn’t know how to spell and doesn’t know what words actually mean. And it’s this vocabulary failure on the part of the writer which is going to make readers (and editors, and producers…) look at the work with less interest and more criticism.

So, let’s do a quick little test. Pencils out, grab the envelope for that power bill you’ve been meaning to pay, and let’s begin…

Chords and Cords – one (and only one) of these words deals with music. Which one?

Very and Vary – one of these words means to change.

Peek, Peak, and Pique one (and only one) of these words means the top.

Dependent and Dependant – one of these words refers to a person.

Here, Heir, and Hear – one of these words refers to a sense.

Its and It’s – one (and only one) of these words is possessive

Their, There, and They’re – one of these words is a location

Trusty and Trustee – one of these words is a title.

Reign, Rein, and Rain – one of these words deals with emperors.

Compliment and Complement – one (and only one) of these words means that things work well together. Like some words do.

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

Guess what—it doesn’t matter if you picked the right words. It only matters if you knew all the words, what they mean, and how to use them correctly. Every single one of them. Knowing one out of three doesn’t cut it.

Now, as I’ve mentioned before, there are lots of people who will try to convince others (or themselves) that the words you use and how you spell them somehow does not matter in writing. That such pedestrian things should be the very least of your worries. There are also, oddly enough, lots of writers who have never been published, produced, or made the first cut in a contest.

It’s dismissed as coincidence.

Next week I want to talk about the path of least resistance and going with the flow. Although probably not in the way you’re thinking.

Until then, go write.

And spell things correctly so I don’t have to knife yew.

January 18, 2009 / 1 Comment

The Many Uses of Spam

Does this look familiar to you, my dozen or so semi-faithful readers…?


Hello Dear Freind,

I am sorry to infirm you that your distant uncle has past away while working in the oil fields hear in Angola. However, before his death he has mentioned you many time’s and it is my belief that he would have wanted you named as his primary hair. It may come as an surprise that your uncle was, in fat, a very wealth men at the time of his deaths.

I is a executive managerial from Nigeria who works with the same company as your uncle. I would like very much to send to you your inheritance, which sums to several hundred thousand’s of dollar’s. However, in order to do this, I will be requiring both your primary bank account number’s there in the United State’s and a small sum of money to cover many probate court costs here and therefore expedition the release of you’re funds…


I think most of us have received this email, or some variation of it, once or thrice over… well, probably even just over the past year, yes? If you haven’t seen this before, PayPal ten dollars immediately to the email address given with this blog and I’ll shoot you the rest of it to read at your leisure.

Y’notice what’s interesting, though? You don’t even have to go to the end of the first paragraph before you know this is a waste of your time. In fact, your brain has already made the automatic “waste of time” decision long before this executive managerial mentions money or starts asking for your account numbers, right?

Why? Because it’s written by someone who has only the barest (if any) grasp of the English language. And we all know there’s just a certain point of literacy someone needs to hit in order to be taken seriously.

This is why spelling matters so much to aspiring writers.

Now, a few folks will tell you that the strength of your writing will carry it past such things, and you shouldn’t worry about it. And, to a small degree, they’re right. Are misspelled words fatal? No, of course not. After all, there’s still a decent chance someone could finish a marathon after shooting themselves in each foot, right? Would you really want to bet on the odds of them winning that marathon, though…? I mean, you’d pretty much need to be the Flash to start with if you think you can get shot in the foot and still have a solid chance of winning, right?

If you think about it, spelling and grammar are the strength of your writing. They’re the foundation that holds up everything else. You may have the most brilliant short story, gripping screenplay, or Nobel-prize worthy novel there’s ever been, but if people are losing the flow while they try to decipher your second sentence then this little magnum opus is never going to be read.

This is also, for the record, why writers don’t get downtime. I see lots of folks who think email or message boards don’t count as “real” writing. So they don’t bother with spelling, capitalization, punctuation, or grammar when they’re online. Some try to argue that they don’t treat their manuscripts this way, but again… the “waste of time” decision has probably already been made by people dealing with them.

Now, again, this isn’t meant to make you completely paranoid. There will always be a random typo that slips through, and just because you put it’s instead of its or swapped letters in refrigreator doesn’t mean your work is gong to be tossed in the large pile on the left. Everyone makes a mistake now and then. Heck, one of my friends gleefully plays the part of phantom editor for me and she manages to catch one or two things a week that slip past me while composing these little rants.

If you’ve got a typo on every page though? Or two or three? Especially ones that show you don’t even know what the word means?

If you can’t get past that, you’ll have better luck getting your uncle’s money out of Nigeria.

Next week I’ll blather on about how simple homonyms can outwit your computer with their ayes closed.

Until then, get back to writing.

November 11, 2008 / 2 Comments

Maybe We Can Fix It In Post…

So, last week I gave a rant that was mostly designed for the novelists and short story writers who regularly look here (all three of them). This week I thought I’d put something out for all the would-be screenwriters who’ve become loyal followers of this blog (both of you).

The rest of you… I have no idea why you keep coming here.

Over the past few months I read scripts for three different screenwriting contests. Two of them are fairly well known. I’m not sure of the exact number, but I probably read well over 200 screenplays in that time period, and I was just helping out part-time.

Seeing this many scripts is, in some ways, a wonderful learning experience. Not only did I get to see the same mistakes made again and again and again (thus reinforcing the fact that I will never commit the same mistake) but I also got to see the entire review process through the eyes of a reader and share my thoughts with other people on this side of the line.

That being said, two important things to remember as I go into this list…

First, readers are human. They generally have to read about a dozen scripts every day (The Stand by Stephen King has fewer pages than a single day’s worth of feature scripts), and they’re usually only making fair to average pay doing it. They get frustrated, they get bored, and they will make snap judgments even when they’re trying to be as fair and impartial as possible. Every time you make it easier for them to render that judgment—one way or the other—you’re doing them a favor.

Second, reading scripts is not about mining for gold, it’s a weeding-out process. For most readers, the job is not to find the best of the best, but to clean away the worst, the barely-adequate, and the mediocre for the higher-paid people above them.

As an additional side note, I’ve determined a simple truth I call the 50% rule. It holds for screenplay contests, and I bet it also counts for anthologies, job applications, and blind dates.

If you take any body of submissions, about half of them will have no business whatsoever being there in that group. These are the submissions where the reader knows by page two there’s no point in turning another page. Maybe it’s because they submitted a western to a sci-fi contest, or vice-versa. Perhaps there’s a 120 page cap and it’s a 200 page screenplay. It could even be handwritten in crayon. One way or another, when you look at the odds for a contest, remember that half those people aren’t even going to be your competition. Or, awful as it may sound, you won’t even be theirs.

Here’s ten of the most common reasons why.


Yeah, can you believe I’m harping on this again? When I first wrote the “Contest Beat” column for Creative Screenwriting (recently resurrected as “Eyes on the Prize”) I interviewed dozens of contest directors and asked each of them what were some tips for aspiring entrants. Across the board, the answer that every one of them gave was spelling and grammar.

Now, a random typo is not going to sink your chances. We all make mistakes, and readers know that, too. If I’m going through your script and there’s a typo on every page, though… Heck, there were a few screenplays I looked at where I wasn’t even thirty pages in and I’d lost track of how many there were.

Whenever you hand off a manuscript you’re trying to convince the reader that you are an advanced writer. You’re ahead of the average Joe or Jane, someone who can do more with words and letters than just sign their name, send a text message, or scribble a shopping list. The absolute, bare-bones basic tools of writing – any writing– are spelling, grammar, and vocabulary. If you aren’t a master of the basics (you, not your word processor’s spellchecker), how can you hope to do anything advanced?

Apostrophe S

You could argue this goes under typos, but to be honest it’s in a class by itself. Messing up an apostrophe S will stand out on the page like a flare. There is no worse mistake you can make. Seriously. None. As I said above, we all make mistakes now and then, but it’s obvious when a writer’s just throwing down random apostrophes and getting a few right by sheer chance.

Knowing the difference between a plural, a possessive, and a contraction is past basic—it’s a fundamental part of the English language. Stop writing, go get some grammar books like Eats Shoots & Leaves or even just the MLA Handbook and actually read them. Promise yourself, as of this moment, no more guessing or taking wild stabs in the dark. A real writer has to know how apostrophe S works.

Excess Title Info

You would be stunned how many scripts were submitted to these contests with things like MY TITLE—crap draft right on the first page. One didn’t even use the crap, but a more vernacular form. No, I’m serious. Sometimes they’re in the file name with electronic submissions, which is also a bad time to see MY TITLE—(other contest’s name) Submission. Even just plain old MY TITLE—1st draft. Only your first draft? And you thought it was ready for a contest? Well, okay… I guess that’s better than the script that was copyrighted back in 2001 and probably hasn’t been changed since…

Don’t give a reader any reason to prejudge your script. Strip off any and all draft numbers or extraneous comments to yourself before you send it out. I’ve got over a dozen screenplays to read today, and honestly, if you’re going to hand yours off and tell me it’s crap right up front… well, you’re saving me some time, thanks.

The script is about a writer

Seriously, you would not believe the percentage of scripts that are about novelists or wanna-be screenwriters. Out of 150 scripts I read for one contest, nineteen of them had writers as a main character. That’s almost one out of every seven–over 14% of them! They were all awful and not one of them advanced.

Not to sound harsh, but no one cares about the day-to-day struggles you go through as a writer. Trust me, I do it for a living, I know. They also don’t care about the day-to-day struggles of a thinly-fictionalized version of yourself. And they also don’t care about the sheer joy of the creative process, the way impossibly beautiful women and handsome men are drawn to creative types, or the wild, quirky, and outgoing nature every writer has.

And for God’s sake, it’s the worst ending in the world when the writer-character finally sells their book or screenplay, everything is now wonderful and perfect in the world, and they win the Pulitzer/ Oscar/ whatever…

The story never addresses things

It’s okay to have mystery in your story. It’s okay not to reveal everything. Heck, it’s even okay to have wild, absurd coincidences. Many movies and shows have had success by not fully explaining who that cigarette-smoking man is, why that girl down in the well is so evil, or what the heck is going on on that damned tropical island. We all like this sort of stuff, and when it’s done well it what makes your story the one people talk about and remember for ages.

However, these things still need to be acknowledged. A story can’t just get away with “it’s a secret” and expect that readers (and an audience) will just accept it. A reader can see the difference between a real mystery and a bunch of awkwardly-withheld information. It’s also apparent when a writer is keeping a secret and when they’re just trying to be mysterious because… well, people like mysterious stuff.

You can get away with a lot of bizarre stuff if your characters at least acknowledge the mystery or absurdity of it. On the show LOST we found out that someone on the plane was travelling with a pregnancy test. Yet before the audience even had a chance to mock this little bit of deus ex machina, one of the characters did. “Who travels with a pregnancy test?” laughed Kate, trying to calm her friend Sun. And with that, this ridiculous coincidence was addressed and allowed. A few years back in an issue of The Incredible Hulk, writer Peter David had sidekick Rick Jones saved from an exploding Skrull warship because he always wore a mini-parachute under his clothes in case he had to escape from an exploding Skrull warship. When Bruce Banner pointed out how absurd that was, Rick looked up at the sprawling cloud in the sky and said “ What do you mean? I needed it, didn’t I?”

Again, there’s nothing wrong with mystery and coincidence. Just make sure it really is a mystery, not just an attempt to look like one.

Crowd scenes

I read one script that introduced twelve characters in the first ten pages, plus a handful of minor ones. The record was seventeen in the first five pages. As I recently explained to a friend of mine, this is like pouring out a truckload of gravel and asking someone to take note of what color stones they see.

Pace the introduction of characters. If you tell me ten people walk into a room, you don’t need to give me all their names, genders, physical descriptions, and character quirks all at once. We can get to know them as the situation arises.

Confusing names

This may sound a little foolish and obvious, but if your story has characters named Paul, Paula, Paulina, and Paola (and one short I read did) it’s going to be very, very difficult for a reader to keep track of who’s who. Confusing as all hell, to be honest. I mention it because I saw a double-handful of scripts that all suffered from this problem and it was one of the factors that kept most of them from making it to the next level of the competition. If you look at many published novels, you’ll see it’s actually rare to get multiple characters whose names start with the same letter—it just makes for an easy mnemonic. You’re more likely to see Andrew, Bob, Cedric, and Dave than to see Andrew, Angus, Bob, and Bill. The Matrix had Neo, Morpheus, Smith, Trinity, and Cypher. Casablanca has Rick, Elsa, Victor, Louis, and Sam. Raiders of the Lost Ark had Indy, Marion, Belloq, Sallah, and Toht. Even with the huge squad of Colonial Marines in Aliens, the only double-up is Hicks and Hudson.

On a somewhat similar note, if you have a wedding planner named Leslie who’s male, make sure it’s plain and obvious he’s a man. Likewise, if your grease-covered auto mechanic Charlie is a woman, it needs to be clear up front she’s a woman, with no ambiguity at all. Nothing frustrates readers more than to get ten pages in and realize they’ve mentally assigned the wrong gender to a character, because it means they have to go back over everything they just read. So be careful with names like Pat, Chris, Sam, and so on.

Nothing ever happens

Most professional script readers will give you to page ten and then stop reading if they’re not gripped by your words. If your writing in and of itself is phenomenal, they might go along with you until page twenty or so. However by page twenty if there isn’t a definite, solid story happening, your script ends up in the large pile on the left. One script page is roughly one minute of screen time (a little less, actually), so try to find a movie where at least the basic story hasn’t been set out for the audience by twenty minutes in.

If your story (your real story) hasn’t begun by page twenty, look back over your script and see what is happening in those pages. Is it vitally important to the character? Is it advancing the story? If not, you may want to trim it out, or perhaps move it to a later scene.

Pointless changes

A common storytelling device is to take a known story (either fictional or historical) and change an element to put a new spin on it. Disney used to do this quite often with their animated versions of stories like Robin Hood. Another way to look at this is the “What if…” method of storytelling. What if aliens did build the Egyptian pyramids? What if a time traveler killed Kennedy? What if someone won the lottery?

The catch here, of course, is that such a change implies other elements of your story would change. If your team of agents find evidence Kennedy was killed by a time traveler and then continue to deal with the OPEC crisis… what was the point? Why bother to have your main character win the lottery if winning it doesn’t change a single thing in their life?

If you’re going to have a major tweak like this in your story, there should be a reason for it. If you’ve decided to tell the history of the Maya with cgi geckoes acting out all the parts… it should be apparent why.

Short brads

Yeah, this is stupid and it really shouldn’t have anything to do with how your script is received… and yet…

Few things are more frustrating than having a script constantly fall apart while you’re trying to read it. You turn the page, the brads bend, and suddenly you’re holding a pile of fanning papers. And the last thing you want is for a reader to be going through your screenplay and feel constantly frustrated.

If you’re alredy investing forty or fifty bucks to enter a contest, go the extra few feet and get the right size brass brads. You want the big, beefy ones that are over an inch and a half long– enough to go through 120 sheets of paper and have plenty left over to bend back.

There they are. Ten things that crop up again and again, most of which will guarantee you a place in that large, left-hand pile.

So go look at your writing, and make sure that doesn’t happen to you.

August 26, 2008 / 2 Comments

Akeelah and the Bee

In these heady days of internet communities, text messages, and failing school systems, spelling and grammar have fallen on hard times. There’s a fair share of people who even think we should just do away with “traditional” spellings. After all, if you can understand what the writer was trying to say, that’s what matters, right?

Alas (or perhaps, thank God) this view is not taken by any serious publishers, agents, or readers.

Some of you are going to chuckle, but it’s funny how many editors, professional readers, agents, and contest directors bring up this same point again and again and again when asked about tips for up-and-coming writers. Grammar. Spelling. These two things are a must. There is no easier way to distract or derail a reader and make them put your manuscript in the large pile on the left instead of the small one on the right.

For now, let’s look at the easiest one to deal with—spelling. Take a look at the sentence below and try to spot the misspelled word.

Two cell eh vampire yew most half eh would steak.

Not too hard, eh? Of course, you understood what I was trying to say, so some people would claim that’s acceptable, right?

(If you are one of those people, stop reading now, turn in your pens and word processor, and go ask to pick up a few extra shifts at Jack in the Box with all the extra time you’ve got.

Go. Go now!)

For those of you still reading, that’s a pretty horrific sentence, yes? And not just because it talks about killing poor, misunderstood vampires. But let’s move on to stage two of our little exercise—how many of you know which words are spelled wrong in that line?

See, here’s the catch—There aren’t any misspelled words in that sentence up above, and a spell-checking program will tell you that too. Because from its point of view, there aren’t. Smell-chick doesn’t help yew if all then warts are spilled write but are ill jest the wrong wards. Every single word in that last sentence is spelled correctly, too, so Microsoft Word will skim right over it without a second glance.

If you want to be a writer, you need to be able to spell. You, not your computer. Your computer, if I may paraphrase someone far smarter than me, is a very sophisticated idiot. It doesn’t understand context. It doesn’t know colloquialisms. Split infinitives will give it panic attacks. You cannot depend on your computer for grammar and spelling checks. Cannot, period, done, end of story (see that? That makes microprocessors cry). If you can’t do it yourself, your career as a writer is going to be a verrrrrrrrrrrryyyyyy long, uphill battle.

Do you always use there, their, and they’re correctly? All three are spelled right, all three sound alike, but they are not at all interchangeable. What about its and it’s? Complement and compliment; wile and while; humans and human’s; peek, peak, and pique. If you don’t know what the differences are between all these words, stop reading this and start looking over all your stories right now…

Any one of these mistakes can kill your chances with an editor or an agent. Will your story, script, or novel get rejected just because you don’t know the difference between it’s and its? Well, it probably wouldn’t be just off that (for the record, with an apostrophe is the contraction of it is, without one is possessive). However, it could be the thing that knocks a “strongly consider” story down to “maybe consider,” and “maybe consider” down to “Thanks for querying, but at this time…” If nothing else, it guarantees your work is giving off the immediate, subliminal message amateur writer to anyone who reads it.

Read your own writing. Don’t just skim it or run it through a spellchecker. Sit down and go through it word by word, line by line. Know what words mean and how they’re spelled. Don’t think you know. Be 100%, absolutely, willing-to-sacrifice-your-right-hand sure you know.

In a similar vein, Stephen King once said “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” This little maxim cuts both ways, for the record. It’s also the wrong word if your readers need to go looking for what it means. Using extremely uncommon or antiquated words like titian instead of red, glabrous instead of bald, or atramentous instead of dark may show off your vocabulary, but the moment the reader has to stop and wonder about what a word means, they’ve been taken out of your story. And knocking people out of your story is one of the certain ways to make sure the reader puts your script in that ever-growing left-hand pile.

Consider a bad sci-fi story. I can tell you that Angnagrog took his zheraful out for a twenty wobosa drive along the neerwoks of Qin’nixxia, but that really doesn’t mean anything, does it? Sure, you could probably sit down, diagram the sentence, and get some very rough ideas of what one or two of these words mean. Maybe. How often do you want to do that, though? Can you imagine weeding through a whole paragraph like that? Or multiple pages?

Of course not. You’d much rather read that Angnagrog took his hovercar out for a twenty minute drive along the ocean cliffs. So would an editor. The fact that you’re not wasting time with silly or pretentious words tells the reader you’re more interested in getting to the story. As I mentioned before with characters, what every reader wants to see is forward motion. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short story, a script, or a novel, the last thing the reader wants is to get hung up on something that just does not matter.

A few great books every writer should have on their shelves—

The MLA Handbook. If you went to college, odds are you already have it. Update it every four or five years or so to get an idea what general standards are. They don’t change much, but they do change.

Webster’s Dictionary or the good old O.E.D. Have an actual, physical dictionary on your desk. Dependency on the internet is a form of being dependent on your computer, and we already discussed that. Plus, you’d be amazed how many interesting words you’ll come across once you get in the habit of reaching for that Harry Potter– sized reference book.

Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. It’s a fun step-by-step guide to basic grammar. A good read and great for all those “I could never really figure out…” problems or questions you may have.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. Punctuation at its finest. She’s approaching things as a Brit, so there are some intercontinental differences (notice my ethnocentric bias in assuming you’re all from North America), but she usually points those differences out. For the most part you can follow her lead, especially when it comes to apostrophes.

If you want to be a writer– in any format– it’s essential you have a grasp of the written word. You, not your word processing program. It sounds harsh, but if you don’t, you don’t have a chance of succeeding.

Now get back to your writing.