December 11, 2014 / 3 Comments

On the Cover of a Magazine…

            As promised, two in one week.  Both with clever titles.
            So, want to know an easy way to boost the hits on your website or Twitter account?  Post a sentence along the lines of this…

            Wakko slammed a fresh clip into his pistol and got back to spraying lead across the street.

             I’m sure several of you already see the problem, yes?  I used clip instead of magazine.  Well, here’s the catch…
            Yes, as usual here, there’s a catch.
            At the risk of angering a lot of folks… If I ever feel the need to correct someone about this, I’m probably not a good writer.  Seriously.  I would say nine times out of ten when I see other would-be-writers make this complaint…they’re wrong.
            (And I say would-be because that does seem to be where a good three-quarters of the comments come from—newbies intent on explaining to established writers where they messed up)
            Now, I’m sure a few folks are already leaping down to the comments to tell me I’m wrong.  There is a difference between a magazine and a clip.  And it matters! 
            To those people I have one thing to say.
            You heard me.
            Remember Bob Ross, the happy painter on PBS with the bushy hair?  Even if you never actually saw his show, he’s such an iconic part of Americana you probably know him.  Heck, it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s a large number of people outside the US who can identify him.
            Bob Ross could paint a gorgeous landscape in under half an hour and make it look easy.  He did it with an array of paints, a few specialized tools, and maybe six or seven different brushes.
            Name three of them.
            Any three brushes he used.  Or any painter uses.  Go.
            I’m sure a lot of you thought of the fan brush.  Then maybe smiled and thought of the happy brush.  Maybe… wasn’t there an angled one, like a… a wedge, or something? 
            But even then… their actual names?  No clue.
            That’s not really surprising, of course.  I’m willing to bet most of us here have never done more than dabble in painting.  It’s not our field of specialty, so we don’t know a lot of the specific terms.  We just know the brushes on sight or maybe by the names we’ve given them or heard a few times.  Like the happy brush.
            In a similar manner, if my characters don’t know anything about weapons, it wouldn’t be unusual for them to not understand the difference between a magazine and a clip (or between a Sig and a Glock, or a broadsword and a longsword, or…).  They’d just go off what they remember from television and movies, or maybe some novels they read.  Sure, Yakko the former black ops guy would know, but Wakko the homemaker?  Odds are, he’s going to call that thing full of bullets a clip. Just like Mr. T did on The A-Team.
            Y’see, Timmy, all those people muttering about magazines vs. clips—they’re not wrong about terminology. They’re just focused on the wrong thing (one might even say it’s an empathy issue).  The important question here is not which term is factually correct, it’s which term should be used in my story,  We’re not writing textbooks, after all, we’re writing fiction.  And one of the bigger lessons to learn in fiction is that sometimes my characters will get things wrong. They’re not going to know everything.  Because characters who know everything tend to be very boring and wooden.
            If I had to guess why some people get so adamant about this—and I’ll try to tread lightly here—I’d think it’s because firearms are a divisive subject.  They tend to divide people politically, ethically, and even socially.  And this can cloud a writer’s view of things in both directions.  Some folks don’t want to make a stupid libtard mistake.  Others don’t want to listen to some crazy, overbearing gun nut.
            But, as I mentioned earlier this week, this isn’t the real world—it’s fiction.  If I want to keep my point of view consistent, I’m going to have some characters who load their pistols with clips.  Maybe a lot of them. And, yes, also some who know it’s called a magazine.
            Next time, I’d like to keep talking about characters and gunslingers a  bit by talking about bulletproof people.
            Until then, go write.
September 1, 2013 / 1 Comment


            Is this pathetic or what?  Someone else offers to write a ranty blog post for me and I still can’t get it up on time.  It’s sad, really…
            Well, here’s Thom Brannan, author of Lords of Night and (with DL Snell) co-author of  Pavlov’s Dogs and their new book The Omega Dog, talking a bit about clarity.  I’ll be back later this week (hopefully on time) to talk about Easter eggs.
            Hello is alright, again. On occasion, Pete has stuff to do; like, a lot of it, and he knows there are a lot of you who come to this blog for tips and tools.
            So this week, it’s me again. Thom Brannan. I’ll try to avoid disappointing you. Those of you who know who I am, congratulations! For those who don’t, here is a picture.
            Today, I’m here to talk to you about transparency. It’s a thing, a real thing, where you can read something an author wrote, and there’s a lot of the author in there, one way or another. Sometimes it’s political, sometimes it’s in the interests… most times, you’ll find it in the details.
            For your readers who are just like you, no doubt this will be a source of delight and entertainment. But not everybody is like you. For those readers, this will induce the effect known as “God, I’m skimming this part.” It happens.
            Let me hit you with an example. I recently finished reading something by Robert A. Heinlein. He’s one of my literary heroes, okay? I love his work and his verve and his ideas and just everything.
            I’m now catching up on works of his I’d missed previously, and it’s great joy. Except when he devotes entire paragraphs to doing math. Really, honestly, when I started reading his stuff, it made me want to run out and get a slide rule, just so I could keep up. True story. But that was a different me, back in high school. Math was one of my things. Now, when I get to a part where any of his hyper-competent characters go on about anything that remotely resembles figuring, I just skim over it.
            But that wasn’t enough to spark this blog entry. I’m also reading a WWII story about… well, about spooky stuff. (I don’t want to put too fine a point on what or who I’m reading.) So, there’s a passage where some dirty, nasty Krauts are in a plane with a creepy box which may or may not have something moving in it, and the author is clearly enamored with the plane. With the plane. There is a serious chunk of text dedicated to the plane and why it was chosen for this type of mission and the capabilities of the plane and how it got its nickname, et cetera.
This will cost you
extra with FedEx
            But what about the spooky box?
            The spooky box, if I’m reading the foreshadowing correctly, contains something (someone?!) which is going to be major later on, and next to no text is dedicated to it. It’s just kind of there, and the Nazis eye it, and the plane they’re in is endlessly fascinating.
            Now, in other places in this very blog, Pete has said things like have a reason to describe it, or to avoid being focused on the wrong thing. Sometimes, it’s hard to figure out when YOU’VE LOST YOUR GODDAMN… excuse me. Sometimes it’s hard to know when the thing you’re writing is what people need to read about the story. Or if people will even read it. Skimmers gonna skim.
            For an easy litmus test, corner someone your work with. Or someone you live with. Or someone in the grocery store. Whatever. Start telling them all this cool stuff you’ve unearthed about maybe Einstein being a plagiarist, or the use of Tesla technology to cripple other nations, or how the innards of a watch work, or how the Warthog got its nickname of the Warthog, or whatever stupidly addicting thing you’re bound and determined to include in your current or next work.
This is what it’s like…
            If at any point their eyes start to glaze over, cross that crap off your list.
            And since I didn’t say this from the get-go, this is what I’ve found works for me. I have a relatively diverse background, and I find a lot of things fascinating. But only a fraction of that stuff finds its way into my prose because I’ve seen the look in people’s eyes, that loss of focus when they’re not really listening to me anymore. It happens quite a bit, as I tend to ramble.
For instance, in my most recent work, The Omega Dog(with D.L. Snell) there’s a section where the protagonists travel in the Gulf of Mexico in a narco-sub. I’m a former submariner, and the intricacies of the works of subs, even the fiberglass jobs used to transport drugs, kind of trips my trigger. So I sat and wrote maybe two pages of all this, and then I stopped.
            There was also a drug lord, my protagonists, a person who may or may not have been human, a strapped-down zombie and a goddamn WEREWOLF, all in this tiny space… and here I was writing about navigation and whatnot. A little bit of submarine development history had made it in there, too. What the hell?
            I deleted all that before I sent it to Snell, because he would just delete it. He’d be nicer about it than I was to myself, but the end result would be the same.
            There are exceptions, of course. What’s his name, the legal writer guy? The one who wrote The Pelican Brief. He leaves a lot of that stuff in there because hey, that’s what his readers are reading him for. The same with gun porn. I mean, men’s adventure. My good friend Doug Wojtowicz knows a lot about guns, and that kind of detail is not only expected in The Executioner, but welcome. God help him if he leaves something out. Or gets it wrong, yikes.
            But I guess I’m starting to get long-winded. Shaddap. I guess my point is this: if you’re including something like that, be sure it moves the story along, or is at least an interesting tangent with some story elements to it. If at any point, your manuscript starts to read like a Wikipedia entry, you’re doing it wrong.
            So there. My two cents. Again, your mileage may vary.
            Go write something.

January 11, 2013 / 6 Comments

Guns. Lots of Guns.

            This is my rifle, this is my gun.  One is for killing, the other’s for fun.

            A while back there was a discussion on a page I browse semi-regularly.  A few folks were moaning about the overzealous use of firearms terminology in some stories.  It can get frustrating and distracting, I admit.  There are writers who feel a need to show off their knowledge by naming every single weapon, component and accessory their protagonist or villain is using.  Every time they’re seen.
            The term I’ve heard for this, which I have to admit I love, is gun porn.
            The real question, of course, would be… is this a bad thing or not? 
            The answer is one of those gray areas of writing.  It depends a bit on what the author’s trying to do.  It depends on the character.  Honestly, it’s a simple issue, but because firearms tend to be a very divisive subject—where some folks love and worship them to an almost obsessive degree and other folks hate and revile then to an equally obsessive degree—they get brushed into their own special category sometimes in writing, even though they don’t need it.
            See, a pistol or rifle is really just like any other object in my story.  It’s a name, and there’s a time for proper names and a time for pronouns.  To paraphrase the song, if every time Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla walks into a room, Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla makes a point of patting the holster of Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla’s Sig Sauer Pro2340 pistol and considers that now maybe it’s time for Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla to draw his Sig Sauer Pro2340 pistol…
            Well, Peter William Clines will be putting that manuscript down pretty fast.  Peter William Clines can tell you that much for sure.
            We’d all much rather read that when Rufus walks into a room he makes a point of patting the holster of his pistol and considers that now maybe it’s time for him to draw it. 
            On the flipside, I was watching an old giant monster movie the other day.  Not one of the classy ones from Japan, but a western attempt to cash in on the  craze.  At one point, the characters are gathered in the war room looking at a map of the city, trying to figure out if they’ll be able to stop the monster or not.  And the three-star general stabs his finger down on the map and says “We’ve got to get it out in the open so we can throw all our stuff at it!”
            All our stuff…?
            Y’see, Timmy, just like some characters, there’s going to be times it makes perfect sense to write out the full name of a pistol, and some when it’s perfectly fine to just call it “her pistol” or “his rifle.”  There will be times when the full name of a weapon is going to be a distraction more than anything else, but also times that it’s going to seem silly and out of character not to use it.  It’s important for me to remember that it isn’t always about what I know or what’s right—it’s about what the character knowsand thinks is right.  A trained assassin might see a Heckler & Koch G36, but a schoolteacher’s probably just going to see a big, scary-looking machine gun.
            In my own book, Ex-Patriots, Stealth is a deductive genius and a walking Wikipedia.  She’s Sherlock Holmes in spandex and body armor.  Early in the book, when she first encounters the soldiers from Project Krypton, she immediately identifies the exact model of rifles they’re using and realizes the unusual way the weapons are being used.  Yet in that same moment, it’s clear St. George—a former maintenance guy—has no clue what kind of rifles the soldiers are using.
            Watch The Matrix sometime.  Is that a love letter to gun culture or what?  And not a single weapon is named in the movie.  Not one.  The closest they get is when they talk about the EMP they use against the Sentinel robots.
            I just finished reading one of the Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher, and at one point Harry and his friends end up with a few pistols and shotguns.  And that’s what they’ve got—a few pistols and shotguns.  Harry identifies one of the pistols as a 9mm when he gets it, but that’s all the explanation we ever get.
            Ash may have his double-barreled Remington 12 gauge, but most of us just think of it as his boomstick.  And that name really fits with a guy who’s not too bright and making a lot of stuff up as he goes.
            We all know Chekhov has a rifle hanging above the mantle, and we accept that as sage bit of writing wisdom.  Yet who among us has stopped to question what kind of rifle it is?  I’d bet a ton of money that nobody here has, because it’s just not important.
            As a small side note, I mentioned a ways back that this is a good rule of thumb for screenplays.  Unless it is life-or-death important to the plot that the bad guy is carrying a Glock 34 9mm with a custom rubber grip—I mean, the plot will collapse if he doesn’t have this specific weapon—then I’m not going to waste my words naming weapons.  When the movie gets made, there are going to be prop masters and armorers who know much more about this stuff than me, and they’re going to make good choices so we all look good.  Until then, my characters can just have pistols, shotguns, machine guns, and so on.
            And on another somewhat related note… a common criticism I see is folks shrieking, “They’re called magazines, not clips!”  This is kind of the same issue as above.  Sometimes I need to make sure that the weapons are loaded with magazines, but there are just as many times it makes more sense to call them clips—even though it’s inaccurate.  Yes, many folks who knows their weapons knows the difference.  If my characters don’t, though, then it wouldn’t be that surprising for them to call that thing holding bullets a clip.  It’s been a common mistake for almost eighty years, after all.  In fact, it’d come across a bit odd and fake if every non-soldier and non-gun-enthusiast in my story used precise firearms terminology.
            So here’s a little suggestion I’ll toss out for you.  Maybe this’ll work for you, maybe it won’t.  The next time one of your character pulls his pistol or swings up her rifle, ask yourself this…
            Would you be as specific and descriptive with the weapon’s name if it was a bow?
            There are lots of different types of bows, with many strings, grips, pulls, models, extra add-ons, and so forth.  That’s not even counting the arrows themselves, and the different shaft lengths, fletching, heads, and notching.  Professional archers are very specific about what they will and won’t use.  So at this moment in your story, if someone aimed their bow at your character… how much detail would you feel compelled to use?
            If the answer is “not much,” maybe that’s a sign to rethink how much detail’s going into that firearm.
            Next time, courtesy of the Beatles, we’re going to take a little trip.  Odds are you won’t enjoy it.
            Until then, go write.