January 19, 2012 / 2 Comments


            Okay, first off, it’s time for some shameless pandering.

            Permuted Press just released a collection of short stories I wrote called The Junkie Quatrain.  I talked about it here a couple weeks ago.  There’s a little picture/ link of it over there on the right (the green one).  It’s four connected/ interwoven/ overlapping short stories set in the same post-apocalyptic world.  I’ve been explaining it to people as 28 Days Latercrossed with Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon.It adds up to a mid-sized novella, so it’s also very cheap.
            Anyway, I was thinking about today’s little rant and a phenomenal analogy sprung to mind.  No, seriously, phenomenal.  You’ll be talking about this one for months to come.  Ready?
            Have you ever watched an episode of Jeopardy where Alex Trebek will give an extremely easy clue and everyone just stands there?  He’ll say something like, “It’s the longest river in Egypt,” and all three contestants will twist their faces with intense concentration.  The timer eventually runs out and an eight hundred-dollar clue vanishes into the game-show ether.
            The answer is “The Nile,” by the way.
            Thing is, you all knew that, didn’t you?  And so did those three hypothetical contestants.  They were just overthinking it, because there’s no way the answer could be that easy and straightforward.  So they convince themselves it has to be something other than their automatic first response.

            If you watch Jeopardy a lot, you know one of the most challenging categories (statistically) is “Stupid Answers.”  Guaranteed, every time that shows up on the board, the players will miss the first one or two questions.  They’ll get something like “It’s the tomb memorializing soldiers whose identities are unknown,” and all three contestants will frown, furrow their brows, run through lists in their—oh, time just ran out again.

            There’s actually a catchy little term for this you might’ve heard before.  It’s called paralysis by analysis.  It’s when we get so caught up in thinking about how to do something that we never get around to doing it. 
            Some people do this with writing.  They get so wrapped up in having the right word and exquisite language and  perfect characters that they don’t write a single thing.  They’ll spend their time going to seminars with gurus, buying books, and reading article after article about how to write.  And in doing so, the one thing they never get around to is… well,  writing. 
            These folks are convinced there has to be something more to it than just sitting down and putting words on paper.  They think there has to be some special trick of structure or plot, and once they learn it writing will be a breeze.  Until then, it’s not worth doing anything.  They end up paralyzed by constant attempts to break storytelling down to a simple formula.
            The only way to move forward in your writing is to write.  Like so many things, a week of experience is worth more than months of instruction.  I’m not saying instruction is useless, mind you, but I have to know when it’s time to put other people’s books aside and start writing my own.  Put another way, I can’t expect anyone else to think of me as a real writer if I acknowledge I’m still studying how to be a writer, just like I can’t think of someone as a real doctor if they’re still studying in medical school.  We might earn our titles someday… but that day isn’t today.
            It’s still close to the start of the year, so next week I’d like to blab about something for the first time.
            Until then go write.
January 15, 2010 / 1 Comment

The Golden Rule

Just to be clear up front, this is not about doing unto others. Sorry.

When I started this blog way, way back in the dusty year of 2007, there wasn’t much to it. To be honest, it really started as a column I was pitching to one of the editors at Creative Screenwriting. If you look back at some of those early posts you can still see that more formal edge to them. Anyway, I pitched the idea and a few sample columns to one editor, then to the editor that replaced him, and then casually to the publisher once at a party. Then I said screw it and tossed them up at Blogspot under the best name I could come up with in fifteen seconds. Where they sat for many months until I decided I wanted to spew about something else I was seeing new writers doing. I think I’d just finished reading for a screenwriting contest and was just baffled how so many people could keep making the same mistakes again and again.

It was also about the time I was giving up crew work in the film industry to start writing full time. It meant I was browsing a lot of other blogs and message boards. It struck me that while there were all-too-many folks offering “useful advice” about getting an agent, submission formats, publishing contracts, and so on, there were very few that offered any help with writing. Which seems kind off bass-ackward, as old folks say to young folks. Also, the few folks that were speaking about writing tended to do so with absolute certainty, despite a lack of credentials of any sort whatsoever. Worse still, a huge number of people were blindly following those folks and their bizarre “rules” of writing..

Now, I did lots of writing stuff as a teenager, but it wasn’t until college that I discovered how many markets there were, and how many magazines devoted to the craft of writing. Again, old fashioned as it may make me sound (granted, there was a different guy named Bush in the White House then), this pile of magazines did something the internet doesn’t. It actually forced me to learn the material rather than just plopping it in front of me. I had to search every article, every column, and read through them in their entirety hoping to find a hint or tip on how to improve my writing skills.

One thing that became apparent pretty quick, even to not-yet-legal-to-drink me, was that a lot of these tips contradicted each other. Here’s an article about how you should write eight hours a day, but this one says four, and that one says don’t write unless you’re inspired. She says to outline and plot out everything, he says to just go with the flow and see what happens. One columnist suggests saving money by not asking for your submission back, but another writer points out that this creates the instant mental image that your manuscript is disposable.

Y’see, Timmy, if you ask twenty different novelists how they create a character, you’re going to get twenty different answers. If you ask twenty screenwriters how they write a scene, you’re going to get twenty different answers. And all of these answers are valid, because all of these methods and tricks work for that writer.

Which is the real point of the ranty blog. I want to offer folks some of the tips and ideas I sifted out of all those articles and columns, along with some I’ve developed on my own after trying (and failing and trying again) to write a hundred or so short stories, scripts, and novels.

To be blunt, I don’t expect anyone to follow the tips and rules here letter for letter. Heck, as I’ve said before, I don’t follow all of them myself. I sure as hell wouldn’t call it a sure-fire way to write a bestselling novel or anything like that, because writing cannot be distilled down to A-B-C-Success. The goal here is to put out a bunch of methods and advice and examples which the dozen or so of you reading this can pick and choose and test-drive until you find (or develop) the method that works best for you. That’s the Golden Rule here.

What works for me probably won’t work for you. And it definitely won’t work for that guy.

There are provisos to this, of course. Not everything about writing is optional. You must know how to spell. You must understand the basics of grammar. If you’re going into screenwriting, you must know the current accepted format. A writer cannot ignore any of these requirements, and that is an absolute must. Past all that, you must be writing something fresh and interesting.

I think this is where most fledgling writers mess up. They assume it’s all-or-nothing. Not only do you have the artistic freedom to ignore the strict per-page plot points of Syd Field or Blake Snyder, you can actually ignore plot altogether. You’re also free to ignore motivation, perspective, structure, and spelling.

It doesn’t help that there’s a whole culture of wanna-bes out there encouraging this view because… well, I can only assume because they’re too lazy to put any real effort into their own writing. If they get everyone else doing it, then it means they’re not doing anything wrong.

To take veteran actress Maggie Smith slightly out of context (she was talking about method actors): “Oh, we have that in England, too. We call it wanking.”

Anyway, I’m getting off topic. I hope I’ve made it clear what the cleverly-named ranty blog is about, and that most of you will still tune in next week to see what I decide to prattle on about.

Speaking of which, next week I wanted to talk about prattling on.

Until then, go write.

June 13, 2008 / 1 Comment

The Rules

One of the challenges with writing is that it’s something you can only learn by doing. You can take classes, read books, and study examples, but at the end of the day the only way to improve your writing is to write. I’m not saying all that other stuff is bad, but remember my single, simple rule—find what works for you.

As you study the act of writing more and more, you’ll begin to discover countless hints, tips, and tricks. Each one has its own faithful followers, and some of these folks will swear by three or four more of these ideas. After awhile, you’ll find a large number of people fall into one of two camps.

First, there are those who think of writing as a mechanical process. They’ve broken it down to a hard, cold science with no talent or experience needed. There are set moments and beats and page counts and pacing and all of that. All paragraphs are three sentences minimum, seven maximum. Scenes are never longer than two pages. Introduce your main character by page six, and your first plot point by page eleven. Your conflict by page nine. Your antagonist by page fifteen. Action begins on twenty with a major turning point on page fifty-three. These are the folks who will quote Syd Field to point out the flaws in your screenplay, or use the MLA Handbook to explain why your novel will never be published.

These folks, by and large, are wrong.

At the extreme other end of this are the folks who think none of this matters. They’re the ones who broke the rules, tossed the guidebook out the window, and still roared past the finish line. Kevin Smith. Diablo Cody. Cormac McCarthy. Robert Rodriguez. These writers started from scratch, winged it, and came out on top. And, of course, they’ve got legions of students and online fans who all say “Well, if they did it, of course I can…” Page counts don’t matter. Formatting doesn’t matter. Spelling and punctuation don’t matter. What matters– the only thing that matters– is the pure, raw creative genius and letting it shine through, because that’s what people will see on the page and that’s what always matters. If you constrict yourself in any way with rules or guidelines, you’re just hampering your muse and diluting your talent.

These people are also wrong.

I’ve been lucky enough to attend conferences twice now where I got to listen to a very well-spoken agent by the name of Esmond Harmsworth. He gave a wonderful little talk the first time I saw him on ten rules for writing a mystery novel, and he set down some basic commonalities that all such stories have as far as location, characters, and complexity. What was even more interesting, though, was when he started talking about breaking these rules.

You see, if you follow every single rule for writing a mystery novel, a screenplay, or even a blog post, you’re following a formula. As in, a formula story. It’s where anyone with the slightest bit of experience can predict X, Y, and Z when all they’ve seen so far is A, B, and C. If you’ve watched a movie or television show where you can immediately guess who the murderer is, who the girl’s going to end up with, or how Captain Scarlet’s going to stop the missile launch, it’s probably because the writers are following a formula.

Now, that being said, you’ll notice there’s a lot of formula stuff out there. Formula is not necessarily bad. It’s the foundation and the ID card of every genre, and it’s the common thread that lets all of us access material. Hundreds of writers make really good livings writing novels, television shows, and movies that follow a formula.

Am I saying all formula is good? No.

Every now and then something comes along that breaks all the rules, twists every expectation, and is still magnificent. The novel (if it can be called such) House of Leaves is a prime example. Trying to even define that book is a whole separate post. It’s got a cult following and has been a bestseller in several countries (and several languages) for the past decade.

Does that mean any writer can do whateve they want? Nope. Especially not an unpublished, unproduced writer.

As a writer, you need to know what rules you need to follow and which ones you can get away with breaking. Which means you actually need to know what the rules are and how you’re breaking them. Study your chosen format. Study your chosen genre. Be aware that if you’re going to break a rule, you need a reason, and it can’t just be “because I felt like it.”

The vast majority of the stories you read will follow most of the basic guidelines for their form. The memorable ones will break a rule or two. The truly spectacular ones will break three or four. And in very, very, very rare– exceptionally rare– cases some writers may get away with shattering the rules altogether. The real trick is knowing why and how.

And if you don’t know why and how, don’t assume you’re the exception to the rules.