May 9, 2024 / 3 Comments

Art Dies Tonight

If you’ve been reading the ranty writing blog for a while, you may have picked up that I’m not a big fan of focusing on ART. And I’m even less of a fan of people who start to talk about ART in very lofty terms. Especially when they get dismissive of people who aren’t trying to make ART.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about art. Writing is an art, yeah, and I’m a big believer in that. I’m referring to those folks who go on and on about the ART of writing. You know the ones I’m talking about. Those people who really believe in the ART over all things.

Now, full disclosure, part of this may be a reaction to a writing TA who berated me in front of the class my junior year of college because I wanted to write, well… fun stories. Stories that entertained people. Said TA basically shredded the story I was working on (a sci-fi horror thing about a government teleportation experiment that went wrong) and told me in no uncertain terms, that if I wasn’t trying to CHANGE PEOPLE’S LIVES with my writing, then I was just WASTING everyone’s time!


As it happens, a year before that fateful class, I’d been studying early American literature and my class discussed Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown, first published in 1798. It’s considered an early American classic, the first noteworthy American novel, and its author died penniless and drunk in a snowbank. Story is, his own mother wouldn’t even buy his books. Seriously. He was pretty much unknown during his lifetime outside of a small circle (which shrank rapidly after his death) and it wasn’t until the 1920’s that he became semi-known and retroactively entered into the canon of literature.

Well, I decided to be bold and asked my professor about this. Why was the book being considered literature now? I mean, it’d failed back then, barely anyone knew about it today, so how does it qualify? If it was actually great, we wouldn’t need to be told that it was great, we’d already know, right? Why should we consider it relevant now when the author’s own mother didn’t even consider it relevant then?

Rather then telling me to shut up or tossing me out of his class, said professor congratulated me for bringing up a good point. What’s considered “great literature” changes all the time. Every time someone publishes a new paper on Brown or Shelly or Lovecraft or Dickinson… the canon changes. A lot of what people refer to as “the classics” now were looked at very differently then. A bunch of them were critical and/or financial failures. A number of them were… well, nowadays some folks would probably call them mass-market tentpole crap. Things written to appeal to the proles. They might’ve made money, yeah, but they weren’t literature.

They definitely weren’t ART.

Now, weirdly enough, at pretty much the same time I questioned my professor about Brown’s book, Robin Williams gave an AP interview and talked a little bit about a theater show he’d done with Steve Martin. “I dread the word ‘art,’” Williams said. “That’s what we used to do every night before we’d go on with Waiting for Godot. We’d go, ‘No art! Art dies tonight!’ We’d try to give it a life, instead of making Godot so serious.”

Williams understood something a lot of folks can’t wrap their heads around. We can’t make art. No matter how much I try or how long I work or how many guidelines I follow, art isn’t up to me. It’s up to everyone else. And how they define art changes all the time. With every new paper or critique or review, what was art suddenly becomes shallow and tired. And the fun, entertaining stuff that stands the test of time? Well, now that’s art. Or maybe not. Seriously, there’s no way to tell.

Y’see, Timmy, art in and of itself doesn’t suck. But I really, truly believe that trying to make art sucks. And usually (not always, but very, very often in my experience), the results of trying to make art suck. I think one of the big reasons why is that if I’m trying to make ART it means I’m trying to make my work fit a bunch of preconceived notions about what art should be. Maybe not even my own notions. Could be someone else’s.

So I end up less concerned with, y’know, creating something and more concerned with following rules and delivering messages. And it feels forced and pretentious. It’s so busy trying to be ART that it doesn’t feel alive.

In the early drafts of GJD, I tried to make art. I tried to convey my message. And I made sure that message got in there. Beat it in there. Hammered it into every little gap so people could see how clever I was. So they could see my beautiful ART.

And—looking back on it, being honest—the early drafts kinda sucked. Weird to think that all the beating didn’t make something great. One character specifically—arguably my protagonist in this ensemble piece—really suffered for it. He was just… well, a jerk. He was obnoxious. Irrationally, unbelievably stubborn. Completely unlikable. To the point that my agent cautiously suggested I might want to do a substantial rewrite.

Which I did. And the book was much, much better for it.

Look, here’s the ugly, simple truth. If I don’t have a good story, ART is irrelevant. Really. Because nobody’s going to know about my ART if nobody reads my story. Nobody walks into a bookstore and says “hey, do you have anything with really powerful symbolism?” If my characters are boring or annoying, it doesn’t matter that I’ve got the most magnificent sentence structure and vocabulary ever committed to paper. Because boring stories and boring characters are… well, they’re boring. And when readers get bored they stop reading. That sounds painfully obvious, I know, but you’d be surprised how many people ignore that in the name of ART.

Last time I ranted about this I mentioned a quote (really a quoted quote) from Star Trek: First Contact. “Don’t try to be a great man—just be a man. Let history make its own judgments.” The same goes for my story. It just has to be a good story. One people want to read. Someone else will decide if it’s art or not.

I just need to focus on writing the best story I can.

Next time, I’d like to talk about reading something for the second time.

Until then, go write.

March 4, 2022 / 2 Comments

Those Are All Made-Up Words!

I wanted to jump back to something I mentioned a few weeks ago. Creating my own words for stories. Yes, all words are made-up– don’t be the clopos in the room, okay? I recently got a new laptop and as I was bringing everything over I stumbled across a very old blog post about using made-up words. It had a few nice rules of thumb for separating good uses from bad uses, and I thought it might be worth revisiting them.

So let’s dive right in.

First off, let’s talk about names. Proper names for people, places or things. This may sound kind of simple, but I’ve seen it go wrong enough that I think it’s a good place to start off.

When we’re worldbuilding an alien or fantasy world, or sometimes one in the distant past or future, there’s an urge to hand out a lot of different names. For characters, towns, deities, what have you. On the surface, there’s nothing really wrong with this, but I should think a bit about how I’m going to introduce these names. Especially if I’m going to do it in dialogue or a first person POV.

Let me give you a few quick, example sentences.

    “Tim, it’s good to see you.”
    “We’re going to try for another child, if Phoebe’s willing.”
    “Sarah, what are you doing here?”

Pretty straight-forward, yes? No confusion about what any of these sentences mean. Heck, the second one even slips in some personal information about the speaker. But watch what happens when I switch the names like this?

    “Jesus, it’s good to see you”
    “We’re going to try for another child, if God’s willing.”
    “Christ, what are you doing here?”

See? Now these these sentences are conveying different information. They’ve shifted to expletives and figures of speech. But we only know that because we recognize this second set of names. Because watch what happens when we don’t have reference for any of these names…

    “Tokar, what are you doing here?”
    “We’re going to try for another child, if Ostriax is willing.”
    “Grothnixian, it’s good to see you.”

Soooooo…. now what are these sentences saying? We can’t really parse them without a frame of reference for those names. Is Ostariax the speaker’s wife, husband, or chosen deity? Heck, Tokar and Grothnixian might not even be names at all. Maybe they’re swears I made up and they’re just capitalized because they start the sentence. I mean, it’s clear to me, the writer, so I guess if you don’t understand it in context the problem’s just you…

The problem here is that when a reader stumbles across this, their brain’s going to make a decision and stick with it. It’s going to say Grothnaxian is a proper name, Ostariax is a god, and Tokar is one of those words you might use with your close friends, but not in polite company. You definitely wouldn’t use it on the internet where it might come back to haunt you years from now.

And when, fifteen or twenty pages later, my reader realizes Ostariax is actually someone’s sister… It’s going to break the flow. Like, shatter it. My reader’s going to stop and re-read those last ten pages to see how many things they misunderstood, or if some things make more sense now. And they’re going to double check Tokar to make sure they aren’t misunderstanding that name, too. Heck, odds are pretty good they’re going to be cautious moving forward, because I’ve shown I can’t really be trusted to be clear about this. All the names are suspect now.

As I said above, I need to be very careful about how I first introduce these.

Also, as a quick aside, something to consider for distant past/future names. Truth is, they’re probably not going to be that different. I mean, how many Biblical names are still in common use today? Matthew, John, Mary, Joseph, Luke, Thomas (and let’s not forget Peter). Odds are you even run into some of the Old Testament ones on a regular basis—David, Abigail, Joshua, Leah– heck, Adam and Eve. Regardless of your religious beliefs, it’s clear these names have been around historically for thousands of years. It’s not hard to believe a lot of our present names will go that far into the future. I mean, does anyone even think twice about it when names from today show up in the hundreds-of-years-from-now world of Star Trek? Christopher, Michael, James, Will, Beverly, Ben, Miles, Katherine, Tom, Harry…

You get my point. Do I really need to create “ancient” or “futuristic” names? Probably not.

As for making up words for regular things—calling eyeglasses optykwear or motorcycles bipulsors or a breastplate torsarmor—maybe I should stop for a moment and consider why I’m renaming them. Am I doing it because it actually matters to the story or plot somehow? Or is this a cheap, quick attempt at worldbuilding? Just hitting something with a coat of literary paint to try to make it look shiny and new?

Here’s one of those easy rules-of-thumb I mentioned up top. Try to sum up your whole story in about two pages. You don’t actually need to write it all out, but try to at least have the whole thing organized in your head so you could jot it down or explain all of it to me in under five minutes. This is the long-ish elevator pitch.

Got it?

Okay, if at any point find myself simplifying some of my terms for this summary—just talking about my character’s glasses or her motorcycle or the breastplate that saves her life—then this is the term I should probably be using in my story. Why force the reader to remember an awkward name for something common? Let’s just call a sword a sword and be done with it. We’ve got better things for our readers to spend their time on, right?

Y’see, Timmy, I don’t want to overcomplicate my story with details that are just going to slow it down and drive readers away. If I don’t need to make up a name or a term… then why would I? It’s better just to keep it simple and let them enjoy the read without me getting in the way.

Speaking of getting in the way, this is the point where I awkwardly insert a reminder that my latest book just came out this week. The Broken Room is an action/thriller/sci-fi/horror story with a lot of heart. No, really. One blurb called it “a cosmic horror John Wick” which I was kind of fond of. You can pick it up at your friendly local bookstore, and probably in any format you could want. Fair warning—it does sound like there may have been some supply chain issues this week, so try to be patient with folk if they can’t put something in your hands right this second.

On which note, I did a signing with Mysterious Galaxy last night and scribbled in their extra copies. You could give them a call and they could ship you one. And this Saturday, for you LA-area folks, I’m going to be at Dark Delicacies in Burbank, scribbling in even more books. If you’d like one personalized, please swing by. Or give them a call ahead of time.

And speaking of time… next time, I’d like to talk about framing things.

Until then, go write.


July 15, 2021 / 1 Comment

Don’t Say It

So, there’s something I was hoping we could avoid talking about this week…

Subtext is one of those things that gets mentioned a lot. In fact, I’d hazard a guess it gets mentioned more than it gets defined, and it probably get defined more than people actually give examples of how to do it. Which is weird because it is so important to good writing. It shows up in prose, it should be all through dialogue, it’s just… it’s everywhere

I think we all get a little nervous around subtext because when it’s done well it’s soooo friggin’ good it becomes intimidating. How many college professors went on and on about it? It’s also one of those things where if I dig deep enough, I can find almost any meaning to anything I want. Which then—through the power of the internet—makes it look the author crafted these twelve layers of intricate meaning when they wrote this chapter and holy crap I don’t know about you but I’m intimidated again.

So what is subtext? It’s the conversation beneath the one my characters are having out loud. Or maybe it’s beneath the conversation I’m having with the reader—that I’m telling you this but we both know we’re talking about this. And sometimes it can be that simple. Subtext doesn’t always have to be rich and elaborate and layered with exquisite meaning. There don’t need to be twelve layers. Or even six.

But good dialogue almost always has some kind of subtext, because that’s how people work. We talk around things more than we say them directly. We have in-jokes and shared experiences and understood context and all these things that let us say exactly what we mean without saying… well, what we mean. Without subtext, it’s really tough to do comedy. It’s almost impossible to flirt.

Here’s a few common examples of subtext you’ve probably seen before. Maybe even used before. They’re really simple and even just using these can bump my dialogue up a notch or two. Also, these are just my own names for all of these. I’m sure there’s some literary or psychological theory that gives them a much more accurate name. But I think you’ll know what I’m talking about, and that’s what matters.

The Friend— Let’s start with the most familiar one. So familiar it’s pretty much become a comedy gag. How many times have you read a story or seen a show where someone goes to the pharmacist to pick up their “friend’s” ointment for… their rash.  Or maybe I know this, uhhhh, person from my book club who got really confused by this one Doom level, and was wondering if you could explain how to beat it in simple terms. For him. And the obvious subtext here is that there is no friend, it’s just the character trying to put some distance between them and the embarrassment of needing that ointment. This is an easy form of subtext, because I’m still saying everything, I’m just pushing all the emotions and thoughts onto a different character—even if it’s a nonexistent character.

A close relative of the Friend is the Hypothetical. That’s when we’re talking about the accursed book of damned souls and I ask you, “well, just for argument’s sake, what if I had read a page of the book out loud? What would happen? Not that I did it, I just want to be sure we all understand the stakes here…”

The Metaphor—This is basic subtext 101. It’s the one I mentioned above, when we’re  talking about X but everyone knows we’re really talking about Y. It’s like talking about my friend, but we’re broadening our palette a bit. I’m talking about cleaning out the garage, but it’s really about letting go of the past. Perhaps my co-worker and I are talking about how much we enjoyed doing this project together when it’s clear we’ve fallen in love. Or maybe the boss is telling his new employee about how much he loves the Klingons in Star Trek, and how in their society you advance by taking out the people above you. Ha ha ha, anyway, welcome to the company. Good luck!

Sometimes an example of this sort of subtext gets repeatedly used so much the metaphor becomes a euphemism—it’s so broadly understood, the subtext has essentially become the text. If my partner calls me up at ten at night and asks if I’m up for some Netflix and chill, we all understand she’s not hoping I’ll sit through the first three episodes of Sweet Tooth(although we may have it on in the background).

The Reverse—Another simple way to use subtext is for my character to just declare the exact opposite of what they really mean. At one point or another, we’ve all probably heard something along the lines of “It’s okay, I really didn’t want the promotion. It would’ve been too much work, anyway.” And we all knew Wakko was lying, but we just nodded and politely agreed with him. Or think of Michelle in Spider-Man: Homecoming, who’s not obsessed with Peter Parker or anything, she’s just knows his class schedule because she’s very observant. That’s all.

Worth noting–a lot of times the reverse can be sarcasm, because sarcasm is all about the subtext. Odds are all of us have made a suggestion where one of our friends has rolled their eyes and said “Oh, yeah, I’d love to do that.”

The Next Step—If you’ve ever read about someone ordering a double at the bar before they break some bad news to their tense friend, you know this method. Or maybe when I know the in-laws are coming for dinner, and I take three or four pictures down from the wall and put up other ones. It’s when a character shows they’re one or two steps ahead. She’s not thinking about now, she’s thinking about fifteen minutes or an hour from now, and planning accordingly. Through their words or actions, my character’s saying “I know where this is going and I know how it’s going to end.”

The Blank—This one’s a slightly trickier way of doing subtext. It’s when my character demonstrates their opinion on something by offering no opinion. Sometimes they do it by ignoring the topic, like when Wakko asks his brother’s opinion on Phoebe and his brother instead pointedly wonders aloud how much the DJ gets paid at this club. Other times he might just dance around it, saying he doesn’t know Phoebe that well or giving a very vague non-answer (“Look, how well can you really know anyone, right?”)

And there’s five easy ways I can put a little subtext into my writing. You’ve probably seen a lot of them already. You may already be doing it—good on you.

It’s worth mentioning that all of these methods need a bit of skill and practice, because sometimes people are just really observant. Every now and then we really do just want to relax and watch something on Netflix. And maybe the boss just really likes Star Trek and I wasn’t supposed to shove Dot down that elevator shaft

Y’see, Timmy, the trick with subtext is making sure it’s clear what I really mean. I can’t be so blunt that my characters aren’t really hiding anything, but I also can’t be so subtle that people think my characters… aren’t really hiding anything. It’s a fine balancing act, and it’ll take a few tries to get it right. Nothing to be ashamed of. I have this one friend and none of his early writing had any subtext in it at all.

Next time…

Okay, so, next week, in a world where everyone had masked up last year and gotten vaxxed as fast as they could this year—in that world, next week is SDCC. Alas, we don’t live in that world, so next week is another virtual con with lots of Zoom panels. Which are fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not doing any of them. In fact, at best, I may do a more public Saturday geekery and watch a couple fun B-movies. Like maybe the MCU Incredible Hulk and Resident Evil: Apocalypse.

I was also thinking about the blog post for that week. Normally I’d just update my “Top Ten B-Movie Mistakes” list (found footagewas finally going to get a slot). But that just feels kind of needlessly negative, especially after the past year, and I want this place to be more constructive.

So here’s what I’m thinking about doing…

Next week I’m going to do two posts (Tuesday and Thursday) about how to make a better B-movie. Tuesday’s going to about writing it (based on my experience as a writer, screenwriter, and entertainment journalist) and Thursday’s going to be about filming it (based on my experience working on a few dozen B-movies and TV shows, some of which you’ve actually heard of). It’ll probably just be a “top seven tips” sort of thing, and I doubt anyone from the Asylum will ever see it, but I’ll feel better putting something more positive out into the world. And maybe it’ll help somebody.

Sound like fun? 


Until then, go write.

And get your shots!

March 21, 2019 / 4 Comments

Not Just Heroic…

Trying something a little new with the formatting here. Please make your comments/ thanks/ complaints in the space down below.

Anyway, looking at the calendar, it’s getting to that season where I blather on about superheroes again.

Or maybe superpowers.

Or both. They’re kinda related after all.

As some of the book covers displayed on this page suggest, superheroes are kinda my jam. Have been for years and years now. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but I feel safe saying my knowledge level is in the higher percentiles. I thought about these stories a lot as a kid growing up and, in a way, even more since I’ve moved into this odd career of “professional storyteller.” It’s a topic I can blather on about a lot.

As I’m about to demonstrate…

One thing I’ve noticed in some corners is a bad habit people have of labeling a lot of things “superhero” stories, because that title carries a lot of weight. About twenty billion dollars worth, if we go off the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not exactly a bad weight to have hanging on your shoulders.


I think it’s worth noting that there are a lot of differences between a superhero story and a story about people with superpowers.  They are not the same thing.  Not remotely.  And if I try to do one while using the devices and tropes of another… well, I’m going to mess with people’s expectations.  Which usually leads to a disappointed audience.

Now, granted, none of what I’m spouting here is formal rules set down by tenured professors or doctoral candidates.  If we just look at a lot of fiction, though, we’ll see that this idea’s been around for ages.  Superhero stories and superpowers stories have always been two very different animals.

So, what are some of those differences?

Let’s break ‘em down…

First off, superpowers do not automatically equal superheroes. We can all agree on that, right?  CarrieBlackbirds. Limitless. Girl Like A Bomb. Glass. Stranger Things. All of these stories feature people with superhuman abilities.

But are any of these superhero stories? Not really.  Just having some sort of superpower doesn’t automatically make someone heroic. Heck, in a couple of those stories the person with the powers is arguably the villain.

And that brings me to my second point (one of the big ones). Heroics depend very much on motivation. The same action can be heroic in one situation, almost cowardly or bully-ish in another. Or maybe it’s just an action. We all do things on a daily basis that are personally motivated, and maybe even a bit challenging, but it doesn’t make them heroic, right? A superhero story’s almost always defined by a character who makes a conscious decision to use their powers for a wider goal that may not benefit them (and often doesn’t). Obvious as it may sound… superheroes act heroically.

And just to be clear, when I’m speaking about heroic actions…  Don’t confuse heroic actions (i.e. actions that are brave and selfless and pure of heart) with the actions of our hero (i.e. actions taken by the protagonist). Just because he or she’s the hero of the story doesn’t mean all their actions are automatically heroic. Make sense?


When we read stories about super-powered folks, though, they’re almost always more personal and intimate. Dare I say… a little selfish. In these stories, people are doing things much more for themselves than for any sort of greater good. It’s not that they’re evil, it’s just that the plot concerns them first and maybe the world second or third.  If at all.

Another common point of confusion here is doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Is Yakko taking down the bad guy because it’s the right thing to do… or just to get revenge? Is Dot stopping the bomb to save thousands of innocents… or just to save her friends who are handcuffed to it? Is Wakko fighting the Automata Society to end their reign of terror… or just so they’ll stop coming after him?

A third point (strongly related to the last one) is that superhero stories tend to be about public use of powers and abilities. They’re about people who’ve decided to use their abilities to help others, and they get seen doing it. This public nature also means they deal with public reactions of one kind or another. Sometimes they’re loved, sometimes they’re feared and hated.

I’ll note a lot of stories that are just about folks with superpowers tend to involve hiding abilities. Keeping things secret from the world at large. In the same way their motives are personal, their actions tend to be a lot more low-key and behind the scenes. In fact, when abilities get revealed in a superpowers story, it’s almost always a cause for panic.

That flows nicely into point number four. The abilities in superhero stories tend to be much more extreme. Phoebe’s not just strong, she’s throwing-cars-down-the-street strong. Wakko doesn’t just move things with his mind, he can throw cars down the street with his mind. Dot doesn’t just start fires, she can throw fireballs that blast cars down the street.

You get the point. Superhero stories involve throwing a lot of cars around.

But when a story’s just about someone with superpowers, we tend to see a lot more limits on those abilities. Not always (Dark City and The Lathe of Heaven come to mind), but most of the time they seem to be much more grounded in reality.  A little easier to rationalize, at least. Side effects and odd handicaps are much more common.

And for our fifth and final point, let’s talk about the elephant in the superhero room. The costume. The outfit that hides our hero’s secret identity from the world.

I wouldn’t say a costume/ secret identity is absolutely necessary, but I do think it creates a lot of odd situations in my story if there isn’t one. If everyone knows who Yakko is, then they know who Yakko’s friends and family are.  They can find out where he lives and shops and eats. If he’s not using a secret identity, he’s either aiming for a very solitary life or he’s painting a lot of targets on people and places.

One other aspect of this a friend of mine once brought up (he’s one of the writers on the new Pet Semetary movie (shameless plug)) is that a superhero often becomes an identity unto themselves. They’re iconic symbols, and not necessarily tied to the people who first created them. Spider-Man, Batman, Ms. Marvel, Superman, Captain America, the Flash… all of these superhero identites have had multiple people behind them.

Compare all of that to a story about superpowers, where secret identities almost never come up because… well, like I mentioned in point three, nobody knows about them. I don’t have to hide my identity when I teleport because I do everything I can to make sure nobody finds out I can teleport. So the people in these stories tend to wear… well, street clothes. They never duck into a phone booth to change before using their powers in public because—again—they almost never use their powers in public.

Okay, for our sixth and final-for-reals-now point, let me add this. The setting matters a lot in these stories, too. If I’m just telling a story about superpowers, they’re almost always set in the real world. Or, at least, a world indistinguishable from the real world to the casual viewer. Because if they weren’t, it’d imply having superpowers wasn’t that impressive. Being telepathic in the sci-fi world of the Federation—a coalition of hundreds of alien races with unique abilities– is checking a box on a recruitment form. Being telepathic in a documentary about 1940’s Paris, though… that’s freakin’ amazing.

Superhero stories, though, tend to take place in worlds that are already fantastic. They’re already pre-loaded with amazing things. Consider the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Aliens are real and publicly known. Magic is real and publicly known. Cyborgs.  Androids. Inhumans. Demons. People fly! Lots of people! This is not the world outside anyone’s window.

Now, again, this is not a set of iron-clad guidelines. I have not defended my thesis or gone through rigorous peer review. This is just forty-odd years of observation paired with forty-odd years of thinking about how stories are told. And, as I often say, there’s always going to be exceptions. So if I’ve got a superhero who doesn’t wear a costume or a super-powered person who’s acting very heroically, it doesn’t mean my whole story’s about to collapse.

But maybe I should run my story of super-powered beings through this list and just see what side of things they fall on. Does most of it line up with the kind of story I want to tell? Is the label I’m putting on it—and the expectations that label will bring—going to match up with what my story delivers?

Because if it doesn’t… maybe I’m writing the wrong thing.

Next time, I’d like to quickly revisit an old favorite before heading off to Wondercon for the weekend.

Until then… go write!