November 26, 2019

Word. By. Word.

Thursday’s Thanksgiving and my parents are coming into town tomorrow, so I’ve got a lot of cleaning to do. No post on Thursday. But I had a simple idea I’d been meaning to toss out to you for a while now and this seemed like a good time.
Random theory of mine, probably not all that original. I think we tend to batch-read words. We tend to look at larger text elements—the clauses and phrases and sentences, rather than the individual words that make up those elements. I mean, you’re doing it right now. You’re not picking out the individual words, you’re reading this as a whole. And that’s a good thing. It’s what we want readers to do. It means my writing has a great flow to it.


By the same token, this can make us kind of blind to things in our own work. Once we’ve written a sentence, we tend to gloss over it. Especially after reading it three or four times. We get overly-familiar with it. Even when we’re re-reading it in an edit draft, a lot of the time we’re just taking in the big picture and not looking at what’s actually there on the page.  It’s how we can read a sentence a dozen times and never notice that glaring typo in the middle of it. Or not notice there’s a word missing altogether.  Or that twice on this page we refer to Stu as Ted, but we don’t think about it because we know Stu was called Ted in an earlier draft and so they’re the same person in our heads.

That kinda thing.

So here’s my quick tip for you.  Do at least one pass where you  don’t read your story. Read the words on the page. Actually look at each individual word there on your screen  and. Read. Each. One. Of. Them.

Yeah, it’s slow. And it’s tough. That sounds silly, I know, but it is super-tough to go through a story this way. Especially a story we know. You need a ton of patience and focus. But I guarantee you’ll find dozens of things that were missed on earlier passes.

In fact, here’s a tip for that tip. Before you do this pass, change the font on your whole document. If you normally write in Times, switch it over to Courier. If you normally write in Courier, switch it over to Times. If you normally write in Wingdings, what the hell’s wrong with you? Seriously, nobody’s going to be able to read that. Put it in Times, make everybody’s life easer.

Anyway… remember what I said about how we get overly-familiar with things? Well y’see Timmy, by changing the font, I’ve just made the whole document unfamiliar to me. The spacing’s different. Things will sit on each page in new ways. Which means I’ll be looking at it with fresh eyes, and things will be a little easier to catch.

And there you go. This writing tip has been brought to you by cranberry sauce. And by Nana’s special holiday rolls.

Next time… well, look. Black Friday’s coming up, and if you’ve been here for any amount of time you know what I’ll be talking about. And then there’s Cyber Monday, plus NaNoWriMo will’ve been wrapped up for a couple of days. I’m going to be blabbing about a lot of stuff for the next week or so. Check back often.

Until then, go write.

March 28, 2019

The Most Basic of Basics

I don’t have a lot of time this week because tomorrow is the start of (cue cheering) WonderCon in Anaheim.  I’m going to be there hanging out for parts, signing some books, and Sunday I’ll be holding a two hour version of the Writer’s Coffeehouse.  Please feel free to stop by, say hi, and listen to me talk about this crazy business of writing stuff.

Speaking of which…

Keeping in mind our limited time, I wanted to take a quirk moment to chat with you about one of the most important thing to learn in storytelling.  This can easily be a make-or-break thing.  I’ve heard contest directors talk about it, agents talk about it, editors talk about it.  They all see it constantly and it makes all of them roll their eyes.

Spelling and vocabulary.

I’ve got to know how to spell if I want to make it as a writer.

Now I’m sure a couple folks have already rolled there own eyes and moved on to watching some cool YouTube videos.  I mean, I said this was going to be about basics, but nobody thought we’d go thisbasic, right?  We don’t need a grade school refresher.  Besides, its the 21st century.  People have spellcheckers on their phones!  Technology’s made knowing how to sell pointless.

Well…  As I’ve talked about once or thrice before, spellcheckers are pretty much idiots.  They can tell me if a word’s spelled right, but they can’t tell me if it’s the right word.  It’s the classic there, their, or they’re argument.

And that’s the vocabulary half of this.  Some of the greatest computers out there are pretty bad when it comes to understanding grammar, which means it’s doubtful they’re always going to know which word I’m trying to use.  Which means there’s a good chance it doesn’t’ actually know if this word is spelled right or not.  Did I want thereor their?  Only one of them’s correct, and if I don’t know which it’s supposed to be…

F’r example, check out this list.  I’ve done this sort of thing before.  These are all words people used in articles on fairly popular, journalistic websites (some news, some entertainment) pared up with the word they meant to use.  I’m willing to bet all those articles were spellchecked and given a good thumbs up from the computer, but the writer didn’t know the difference.  Or maybe their editor.  Or maybe both of them

lede and lead
poles and polls
borders and boarders
allude and elude
right and rite
peek and peak
serfs and surfs
and rein

Yeah, a couple of those are laughable, I know, but I swear I didn’t make any of these up.  They meant to use X, but they printed Y. A couple of these I’ve seen multiple tines, even.
And I’m sure you know what they all mean, right?  You wouldn’t be laughing if you didn’t know bothof the words.  If I only know one of them, well… that’s not entirely helpful, is it?  Especially as a writer.  Words are supposed to be my thing, the raw material of my trade, but I don’t know what they mean?  Would you want surgery from a doctor who knew what some of your organs did?

Now, a common defense I see for this a lot is that I don’t need to know.  Spelling’s not that important, and it’s all just an arbitrary constrict, anyway.  Readers will get my meaning from context.  If I meant polls and I wrote poles, when it’s actually in a sentence people will still understand what I’m trying to say

Yeah.  Yeah, they will.  That’s why most readers and agents and editors will excuse a mistake or two.  We’re all human.  We make typos.  We get a little tired and bleary-eyed during that 2 am line edit the day before a book’s due (not that I’ve ever done that…).

But, y’see, Timmy, if I don’t know how to spell, if I don’t know my vocabulary, if I’m just depending on the computer too do it all for me… I’m going to make more of these mistakes.  More and more, the longer my manuscript is.  Dozens, maybe hundreds of them.

And, yeah, we’ll all gloss over one or two points where we just need to get it from context.  Maybe even three or four.  But there hits a point—and it really isn’t that high—where we start to wonder if this person really knows what they’re doing.  Again, how many times do you really want to here your doctor joke “Wow, what do you think thatdoes?”

Want proof?

Well, I’ve littered half a dozen or so of these mistakes all through this little rant.  You probably noticed some and chuckled.  Hopefully all of them.  I’m tempted to say someone might even leap down halfway through reading this to comment on the irony of my post on spelling having such blatant spelling errors.  And they’d be kinda justified.  Here I am, trying to say I understand the craft, that my words are worth your time, worth reading, and yet…

I’m making a lot of really blatant, basic mistakes in just three or four pages. 

It’s understandable that they’d shake their head, scoff, and say “oh, no, good sir.  Not you.  Not today.”

To put it another way, we’d understand if I got rejected over that kind of thing.

And I don’t want to see anybody here rejected over that kind of thing.

This weekend—WonderCon!

Next time, I want to talk about what you can do.  Or, really, what your characters can do.

Until then, go write.

November 20, 2018

Top Ten Rules for Writers

            Two posts a week is becoming a  kinda regular thing here, isn’t it…?
            So, hey, you may have seen that a certain set of writing “rules” was passed around Twitter recently.  Not so much rules, in this case, as a collection of trolling and rejected fortune cookie messages.  People made fun of it.  I was one of them.

            But a few people also put up serious, much more useful lists.  Things to help with being a writer and with the writing itself.  And I thought, hey, I’m not going to be posting on Thursday because of Thanksgiving (I’ve got a turkey to cook and classic movies to watch)… maybe I could do a top ten list, too!
            Because I always make sure to jump on every trend a good week after it’s dead.

            I did a whole post about it over on my MySpace page.
            Anyway, for your enjoyment and possible education—and with the Golden Rule firmly in mind—are my top ten rules for writers.
1 – Write Every Day
            Yeah, this is one that gets batted around a lot, pros and cons, all that.  I’ve talked about it at length before.  Here’s why it’s the first rule I’m going to toss out…

            If I want to do this for a living, I have to think of writing as a job.  That’s an ugly truth.  This is my job.  I do it full time.  Probably more than full time.  I’d guess at least once or twice a month I’ll have a week where I work hours close to my film crew years.
            Yeah, you may not be there yet.  I get that.  But the whole reason I got here is because I started treating my writing like something that had to happen every week.  It wasn’t a hobby, it was something that needed to get done.  Because if it didn’t need to get done… well, it usually didn’t.

2 – Read
            As I write this, I’ve just finished reading my 46th book of the year.  That’s not counting a ton of comics, research material, a bunch of gaming rule/ sourcebooks, and probably three or four Washington Post articles every day.  Like anything, writing is input-output.  I can’t get the engine to run of it doesn’t have fuel.
            No, alcohol isn’t fuel.  It’s just lubricant.  And too much lubricant eventually just makes you spin and place without accomplishing anything.
3 – Learn to Spell
            I’ve talked about this many, many, many times.  Learn words. Learn how to spell them.  Learn what they mean.  Words are the building blocks of writing.  The bare-bones foundation.  Wanting to be a writer when I can’t spell is like wanting to be a chef when I don’t know the difference between salt and sugar.
            Don’t be scared to grab a dictionary or type something into Google.  Nobody will judge you for it.  I do it all the time, even just to confirm I’m right about exactly what a word means.  Hell, I did it twice late last night as I was finishing up copyedits on a book.
4 – Exercise your mind
            I just talked about this a while ago, too.  I’m a big believer that the mind is like any other muscle group.  You can’t just do one thing with it.  Don’t be scared to experiment with other creative things.  Build a bookshelf.  Play with LEGO bricks.  Cook a meal.  Sketch something.  Paint something.  Sing something.  Hell, balance your checkbook.  Do your taxes.  Let your brain flex in different ways.
5 – Exercise your body
            Another sad truth about writing.  It generally involves sitting on your butt and well, not doing much.  From a physical point of view.
            Cool science fact.  The brain needs oxygen to work.  Oxygen comes from blood.  Blood flow increases with exercise and decreases when we… well, sit on out butts.  So exercise actually makes it easier to write.
            And I don’t mean go buy a punching bag or get a gym membership.  If you can do these things, great, but just stand up from your desk or kitchen table and move around a bit.  Go for a walk.  Play with your dogs.  Just get that blood flowing.  Khorne cares not from where the blood flows, as long as it flows!  Skulls for the skull throne!
            Wait, sorry, ignore those last bits…
6 – Learn the Rules
            I know nobody likes to hear this part but… there are rules to writing.  Like spelling (see # 3 up above). They aren’t ironclad things, but they do exist and they exist for a reason.  Rules are the common ground we interact on as authors and readers.  You know why I can’t read Chinese?  Because I don’t know the basic language rules of Chinese.  Those writers are communicating in a way I can’t understand.  And the same holds for writing in English if I don’t know the basic rules of English.
            Likewise, there are rules to storytelling.  Again, not unbreakable ones, but they’re real and. on one level or another, we’re all aware of them.  Certain universal expectations, and also some that are more tailored for different genres or styles.  I need to have a good sense of how these rules work if I want to tweak or openly subvert them.
7 – Have Fun
            I know, I know… After some of the other things I’ve said, this sounds impossible, right?
            Whatever reason I have for writing, I should be having fun with it.  Don’t listen to those weirdoes who talk about starving artists or suffering for their art or any of that nonsense.  All that approach does is make you… well, not like writing.  Why would I want to spend all my time doing something I inherently don’t like?  Believe it or not, you can be a real writer without ever once feel tortured, anguished, or misunderstood.  Like so many things in life, if writing makes me feel miserable and frustrated… maybe I’m doing it wrong.
            Again, be really cautions about listening to those “artistic” folks who insist writing has to be  a traumatic experience.  Write about stuff you love, about ideas you’re enthusiastic about.  Let writing be the high point of your day, and let that joy carry through onto the page.
8 – Write
            Yeah, again.  It’s important.
            At the end of the day, the only real yardstick we have for progress is making words appear on the screen (or in the legal pad or on that parchment you make yourself at that secluded cabin out in the hills).  I can attend all the conferences and seminars I want, read every instructional book or blog post with a list of rules, but if I’m not actually writing… it doesn’t really matter. 
            I was that guy for a while.  I could tell you a lot about writing, what it meant to be a writer, what I planned to write… but I never wrote anything.  I never made any headway.  And if I don’t write—if I never produce a finished manuscript—it means I can never write a second manuscript.  I can never have a better draft. 
            The only way to move forward is… writing.
9 – Don’t be Scared to Break the Rules
            So there are rules.  No question, no discussion.  Rules exist.

            But I don’t need to be trapped by them.  I shouldn’t feel like rules are the end-all, be-all of writing.  Just because someone can quote a rule that my story breaks doesn’t necessarily mean I’m doing anything wrong.  It doesn’t mean I’m doing anything right, either, but it doesn’t mean automatic failure.

            This is why I always get a bit leery about gurus and books that say things like “by page twenty-three, you should have…” or “heroic quests follow this pattern…”  A side-effect of saying “do this” is people get the idea things always need to be done that way.  If the worksheet’s telling me I mustknow the answer to these seventeen questions about my character, the implication is that if I only know twelve I must be a bad writer who made a bad character.  Even if I know the answer to seventeen different questions, or twenty-nine other questions, the book said those were the important ones.
            Yeah, screw all that.  Ignore it. 
            I read these books sometimes, but I don’t worry about ignoring half of what they say and just pulling out what works for me and the story I’m telling.  Or using none of it and just tossing the whole thing.  Writing is an art.  Even if I’m writing for commercial purposes, it’s still an art.  And art is unique to every artist.  I can use creative misspellings and odd story structures and characters who don’t fit perfectly in that heroic mold.  Or the heroic tights.  Or the heroic top… which seems to have shrunk a little in the mid-section since I became a full-time writer.
            For example, if everybody’s doing lists of ten, you could just stop at nine.  That’s okay.  It doesn’t mean your list is wrong

            And that’s that.

            I’ll see you all at the end of the week for the usual Black Friday talk, and next Thursday we’ll talk about, well… next time.
            Until then, go write.
            Once you nap off all that turkey.

April 5, 2018 / 6 Comments

Anneal Spilling Post

            Oh, get your mind out of the gutter.  It has to do with strengthening metal and glass. Which kinda illustrates the point I wanted to make…

            Well, you know what I haven’t talked about in a while?  Spelling!  Sure, it comes up a lot in random posts, but I wanted to focus on it for a moment.
            However, I didn’t want to just shout at you not to depend on your spellchecker.  I’ve done that plenty of times.  For now, I wanted to talk specifically about misusing words–valid, correctly-spelled words and the problems this creates for my readers.
            What’s that?  How can it be a problem if I’m using wards that are spilled the write way? Wall, here’s the think.  While spell-chick well ignore these worms—because all if then art correctly smelled—a person won’t.  Their going two peck up on each won, even if there pretty close too what I indented, and they’ll stubble wile they reed.
            And, sure, it’s easy to laugh off sentences or examples like the ones above because the rhythm of the sentence is still there.  It only takes a moment for my mind to adjust and then I’m reading just as fast as I would normally.  Understanding the actual meaning, too.
            But it only takes a small slip of a finger to type closet when I meany closed, and that’s a pretty big break.  It reads different and sounds different in my head.  Like how you stumbled over meany at the start of this paragraph when it should’ve been meant. A ridiculously simple typo that spellcheckers will just wave past, but it derails the reading experience.
            Here’s a couple of misused words I’ve collected over the past few months, in no particular order. These are words that were misused by journalists, politicians, even a copyeditor.  Plus the words they meant to use.  I think.
milk-toast vs. milquetoast
effect vs. affect
affects vs. effects
horde vs. hoard
hawk vs. hock
shotty vs. shoddy
peel vs. peal
peek vs. peak
peak vs. pique
heroin vs. heroine
cite vs.  site
desert vs. dessert
            I’ve seen people make a lot of excuses for this sort of thing in their manuscripts or articles.  Readers will get it from context.  The story is strong enough to cover for things like vocabulary.  An editor will fix it when it gets published.  Heck, one person shrugged it off and said “I’m just happy someone’s reading it.”
            Reading for how long, though?  Every time I have one of these, my reader is knocked out of enjoying my story and needs to figure out what the hell I’m trying to say, and that means I’ve killed the flow. It’ll create confusion as it guides the reader’s thoughts down the wrong paths and possibly shift the tone… creating more confusion.  Look at heroin or heroine.  If I plan on having my protagonist do one of these all weekend… well, I really need to be sure which one I want to use.  Those are two verydifferent weekends, and each one’s going to make my reader view the protagonist in a certain way.
            Y’see, Timmy, this is why I need to know more than my spellchecker.  If I mess up, I’d guess 99% of the time it’s going to suggest a word.  And that suggested word will always be spelled correctly.
            But… it isn’t necessarily the word I meant to use.  Just off my own experience, I’d guess at least one out of four times it’s the wrong word. Maybe as high as one out of three.  If I’m just glazing over and automatically tapping change, I’m going to end up with a lot of mistakes. 
            And if I don’t know if the new word is a mistake or not… well…
            I probably won’t need to worry about an editor fixing it when it gets published. 
            Next time, I’d like to share this little idea I had about how active my plot and story should be.
            Until then… go rite.