Let’s start with a question. I’m guessing most of you have read a Sherlock Holmes story or three, yes? Seems like everyone ends up going through the first dozen cases or so at some point in their lives. So let me ask you something about them.

Why did Doctor Watson live with Sherlock Holmes?

No worries if you don’t know. I want to talk about the answer a bit. Truth is, this is a trick question because there’s two very different answers.

One answer is that Watson moved in with Holmes because he’d just returned from abroad (Watson was a retired soldier and battlefield medic, as some of you may know) and, well, he needed to find an apartment in London. A friend put him in contact with Sherlock Holmes, who needed a roommate, and the two found each other agreeable enough and bam, a legendary duo was born.

But…

Watson also moved in with Holmes because Arthur Conan Doyle (still a few years out from being “Sir”) needed a reason to explain why the two of them were always together. Since Watson was going to be narrating these stories, it gave him an excuse to be there when Homes had a third-pipe breakthrough. When Holmes woke up early with a solution, Watson was just in the other room. This meant Doyle didn’t need any odd additional exposition to explain how/why Watson knew things he otherwise wouldn’t be present for. He was an active witness for everything.

Now, I chose this particular example for a reason. There’s a pair of terms that’ve been drifting around for a while– Watsonian and Doylist (or sometimes Doylistic). Essentially, they refer to the different reasons things happen in a story. On one level, they happen because the characters are responding to plot events, making decisions and being active participants in the story. But on another level, things happen because I—the author—have structured and plotted the story in such a way that it passes information to the reader and gets certain specific reactions from said reader.

Let’s pick apart the first few chapters of one my recent books– The Broken Room. I want to talk about meeting Hector and what happens in the bar. And why it happens.

When we meet Hector it’s mid-afternoon and he’s already had a few drinks because he’s a guy with a lot of regrets and guilt he’s trying to forget. He’s chosen this particular dive bar for safety/security reasons, because Hector’s trying very hard to live off the grid, but old habits die hard. Especially when you’ve maybe got good reason to be cautious. When little Natalie walks up and starts talking to him, he’s immediately suspicious of who she is why she’s here because… well, nobody should know him (see all those previous points). When he realizes she’s at least somewhat on the level, and hasn’t eaten in a few days, he orders her some food because he’s a halfway decent guy. And when the men show up to claim her, Hector’s gut reaction is not to trust said guys (again, see above). Then there’s a moment where Hector’s weighing his own desire/ need to stay under the radar against… well, two guys harassing a little girl. And then he beats the crap out of said guys very quickly and efficiently, because that’s how Hector was trained to deal with problems.

All good in-character, in-world stuff, yes?

Now, on my side of things… I began with Hector half-drunk in a dive bar in the middle of the day because it immediately tells you he’s a bit of a burnout. Right there on page one. But there’s also all these little hints about the kind of person he is as we’re giving a description of his average morning and his tactical analysis of the bar. It’s the kind of stuff that makes the reader intrigued about who he is (or was). When Natalie shows up, it’s more analysis, we’re getting a stronger sense of who Hector is and how he views the world. And again—it’s intriguing. We’re immediately understand this guy comes with a lot of backstory. Getting Natalie some food is basically a “save the cat” moment. It’s him doing something decent early on that he didn’t need to do, reinforcing in the reader’s mind that Hector’s a good man. Finally, when the two men in suits show up, it’s Hector’s big moment. Now he’s given a chance to step away and go back to his normal life and instead he’s making an active decision to become part of the plot.

There’s two and a half chapters roughly broken down for you. The Watsonian reason why Hector is doing things. The Doylist reason he’s doing things.

When I’m reading something (or maybe watching something) that’s just not working for me, one thing I ask myself is what is the storyteller trying to do here? What reaction is this chapter/ scene/ interaction/ line supposed to get from me? What information is it trying to get across?

I think it’s important to be able to answer these questions. Last time I talked about how it’s fine to break the rules as long as you have an actual reason for breaking them. This is kind of the same thing. If I want to do a weird structure or have a horrible protagonist or an odd way of doing dialogue, that’s cool. There are a bunch of stories out there that went against the norm and did some amazing things.

But…

There’s also a lot of stories out there that went against the norm and did… well, nothing. They end up being boring, erratic, confusing, or just plain bad. And I think it’s because those storytellers didn’t know why they were doing things. Their only reason was… they wanted to? They saw someone else do it in a book and just decided to do it in their own completely different book. They just… thought it’d be cool because they were doing something different?

Y’see, Timmy, I need to know why my characters are doing things, and their reason for doing things need to make sense, on some level. But this also holds for me as the author, I need to know why I’m doing things with my story. What I’m hoping to accomplish. How I expect my readers will receive this structure, that format, those creative choices.

And like most things in life, if I’m just doing it to be cool… it’s probably not going to be cool.

Next time, tis the season and all, so I thought I’d talk about Leatherface, UberJason, and Frankenstein.

Until then, go write.

April 1, 2021 / 4 Comments

Assorted Magical Spills

The comments section has been pretty dry lately, so I’ve gone digging through my list of “things to talk about,” trying to come up with a semi-interesting topic. I was about to fall back on recycling some general writing/publishing stuff from one of the other blogs I used to keep and then I thought “hey, you know what we haven’t talked about lately? Spelling!”

More importantly, when computers try to spell.

Three really common features these days are autocomplete, autocorrect, and spellcheckers. I’m betting the device you’re reading this on has at least two of them. Maybe all three. There’s also a good chance you’ve shut at least one of them off. Because…. well, they’re not that ducking great when you get down to it. Yeah, sure, some of them build up custom dictionaries or preferences, but even those can have issues.

Truth is, the more complex and nuanced we get with language, the less these things work. Because they’re tools. And that’s what tools do. They don’t replace skills, they just help focus them.

Think of it this way. I’m guessing you’ve got a hammer, right? Maybe it’s in that drawer in the kitchen (or was it in the office…?). Maybe you’ve got a little emergency toolbox with some basics in it. Maybe you’ve got a big rolling tool chest out in your garage with four different hammers and a rubber mallet and that other hammer you loan out to people who come over and ask if they can  borrow your tools. Anyway, wherever it is, you’ve got a hammer, right?

But we accept that a hammer only does so much. Owning a hammer doesn’t instantly mean I can now build a bookshelf or a rocking chair or a new deck out back. I’m more handy than some folks thanks to a few years of film and theater work, but I’ve got two friends who are professional carpenters and they both make me look completely unqualified to even own a toolbox.

And we all get this, right? The tool doesn’t amplify ability or replace it. It just allows me to use that existing ability better. If I didn’t have the skills to build a rocking chair before buying a hammer, owning one’s not going to change anything. And if I’m convinced holding a hammer suddenly does give me abilities and skills… well, I’m probably about to hurt myself.

(weird fun fact—the majority of cases where men lose a finger or toe involve them using a new tool. Seriously)

Spellchecker is a tool. So is autocorrect. And autocomplete. They can make things faster and more efficient, but only if I know what I’m doing in the first place.

For example…

faze vs. phase – one of these you grow out of

feet vs. feat – one of these is a measurement

losing vs. loosing –one of these is a release

week vs. weak—one of these is not that strong

bear vs. bare—one of these is a bit revealing

sconces vs. scones—one of these you eat

All of these are words I’ve seen recently in articles, headlines, and so on. And in every one of these cases… they should’ve been using the other one. But if I’m trusting my spellchecker to know more than me, it’s just not going to end well.

Seriously, computers are ducking idiots. They really are. Remember when I talked about Watson, the IBM supercomputer that was specificallybuilt to understand language and nuance and crush opponents on Jeopardy? Do you remember how his success rate ended up working out?

If Watson isn’t going to be able to pick up the slack, why would I think the spellchecker they bolted on to my word processor at the last minute is going to be better?

Learn to spell. If I want to do this professionally, it’s not enough to have the tools. I need the knowledge that makes them useful. Cause if not… I’m just hammering away wildly.

Next time…

Honestly, the next thing on my list is an overdue update of the FAQ. But to be honest, nothing’s really changed since the last time I updated it (well, nothing I can talk about, anyway). So I’ve got… hmmmmmm, well a question about plot we didn’t get to during the WonderCon Writers Coffeehouse. Or maybe talk about my old trunk novel a bit?

Any preferences? Drop ‘em down below.

And 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.
Right?

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
reign
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.

September 27, 2018 / 1 Comment

Elementary

            Many thanks to all of you who tossed some new topic ideas at me (here and on Twitter).  I think this might fill up all the slots I had for the rest of the year.  I may even take some time to rethink my upcoming plans.

            Anyway, for now, the potential Sherlock Holmes idea stuck in my head, so let me babble about that for a minute or three.

            There’s a pair of terms that have been floating around for a bit now—Watsonian and Doylist.  On the off chance you don’t get the reference, the terms come from Dr. John (or Joan) Watson, constant companion to Sherlock Holmes, and also to their creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  When we use these terms, we’re saying there’s two ways to look at any story element.  The in-story reason for this happening, and the author’s reason for this happening.  They’re often very different, but they’re both very important.

            For example…
            Why did Sherlock Holmes die in “The Final Problem,” plunging to his death at Reichenbach Falls?  Well, from Watson’s point of view, Holmes sacrificed himself because it was the only way to stop Moriarty.  The two evenly-matched men fight, and while Holmes dies, Moriarty’s now-leaderless criminal empire will crumble.  A net win for society. 
            From Doyle’s point of view, though, he was just sick of writing Sherlock Holmes stories.  He was making money off them, yeah, but he wanted to move on and start writing more serious, important stuff about, well… ghosts and fairies.  No, seriously.  So he killed Holmes off and tried (unsuccessfully) to move on.
            Yeah, don’t be the person pointing out Doyle later retconned the death.  When he wrote this story, Holmes was dead.  Toast.  Joined the choir invisible.
            Of course, this principal doesn’t just apply to Sherlock Holmes stories.  If you look at most stories, the elements break down into these two categories.
            –Whydid Han Solo get frozen in carbonite?  The Watsonian reason is that Vader wanted to test the carbon-freezing process and Boba Fett wanted to collect on Solo’s sizeable bounty.  The Doylist reason is that Harrison Ford wasn’t sure he wanted to come back to play Solo again, so George Lucas needed an ending that could explain Solo’s potential absence but also contain the possibility of bringing him back.
            –Whydid the Twelfth Doctor regenerate?  Watsonian reason—he was shot by the Cybermen and managed to hold off his regeneration briefly before transforming into the Thirteenth Doctor.  Doylist—Peter Capaldi was leaving the series, as was showrunner Stephen Moffat, and the new team decided to cast Jodie Whittaker.
            Here’s one of my own—Whydoes Ex-Patriots begin with a Fourth of July fireworks show?  Well, from a Watsonian point of view, the citizens of the Mount are celebrating.  It’s the Fourth, but it’s also one of their first major holidays since things have (for them) kinda stabilized after the zombocalypse.  So they’re partying hard.
            From a Doylist point of view, though… this opening lets me start with action.  There’s a lot going on.  It gives me a chance to re-introduce our four main heroes. It also lets be immediately bring up the idea of nations and patriotism, which are key themes in the book.  Heck, because this was one of those very rare times where I knewthere’d be another book in the series, this was also a setup for a plot thread in Ex-Communication.
            This all makes sense, yes?
            Why are we talking about it?
            I think it’s really important to remember these distinctions when we’re talking about writing.  To be more specific, when we’re talking about aspects of writing.  If we’re discussing dialogue or characters or settings, we should be clear if this is an in-world discussion or an authorial discussion.  Are we talking about things as they relate to the characters, or as they relate to the author (and the audience)?
            “Authorial”?   Ooooh, don’t I sound all clever…
            For example, once or thrice I’ve mentioned my belief that all good, successful characters have three common traits—they’re believable, they’re relatable, and they’re likable.  But I’ve seen some pushback on this.  I’ve had people online and in person argue that characters don’t need to be likable.  Characters just need to be fascinating or compelling or… well, look.  They don’t need to be likable.
            Here’s the thing.  In a Watsonian sense—I agree with this.  I mean, I’ve said this myself lots of times (pretty much every time I talk about these traits).  Likable doesn’t mean we want a character to marry into our family and they always have a kind word to say.  Within the story, there are tons of popular protagonists who aren’t remotely likable.  Who are kind of awful, really.  There’s not a version of Hannibal Lecter—books, movies, or television—that most of us would want to have a private dinner with.  We probably couldn’t count the number of books and movies that have hit men or assassins as their main characters.  And to bring us back around, most modern interpretations of Sherlock Holmes rightly point out that the guy’s an abrasive, condescending ass. 
            (…and that’s with the people he likes.)
            But in a Doylist sense, viewed from outside… we kinda like these people.  We admire Lecter’s twisted ethics.  We envy the ultra-competent man or woman of action.  And it’s kind of pleasant to watch Holmes point out what’s sitting right in front of everyone’s face.  That separation of fiction, the thin sheath that keeps us from absolutely immersing into the story, lets us enjoy these characters in ways we couldn’t in real life.
            I mean if we didn’t like them as readers, why would we keep reading about them?  Who’d torture themselves like that.  Hell, why would we keep writingabout them if we didn’t like them?  I can’t imagine sitting down and working for months on a story about a character I didn’t enjoy on some level.

            This holds for so a lot of aspects of writing.  I’ve mentioned before that realistic dialogue in fiction is different from the actual conversations we have with each other in the real world.  Other characters might not get my protagonist, but the reader should be able to relate to them.  And I’m never going to be able build any sort of tension if I don’t understand the difference between what my readers know and what my character knows.

            Y’see, Timmy, when I’m taking in advice I need to be clear if we’re talking about things in a Watsonian or Doylist sense.  And when I see advice from other writers, I should stop and think about how they mean it.  Are they talking about the actual pace of events in the timeline of the story, or the pacing in the narrative?  Are they talking about the motives of the characters or the writer?
            In the future, I’m going to try to be better about this, too.
            Next time…
            Well, thanks to some of you, I’ve got next time all planed out in advance.
            Until then… go write.

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