Monday, March 18, 2013

86 Things I've Said on Twitter, Part 2

Last week, I started a new series on the blog: 86 Things I've Said on Twitter, a lengthy collection of Tweet-sized advice covering all kinds of motivation, writing, and publishing advice.

Part 1 is here. This is part 2, with eleven items.

And there's still time to pre-register for tomorrow night's online workshop.

No one's going to know if you wrote the thing you did over the course of a month or a year or a decade IF YOU DO THE BEST YOU CAN.

I'm not sure why, but a lot of people, and a lot of books about writing put a large emphasis on how long it takes you to write something. Novels in 90 days, poetry in sixty minutes, twenty-seven overtures before lunch...and I get it, in part. If you give yourself a deadline, you're challenging part of yourself to be disciplined, and treat it like a short-term goal. And I'm a big fan of discipline when it comes to accomplishing your dreams. BUT, the downside to that discipline is this -- sure I can write something in 90 days, but if I'm new at it, if I have my doubts as to my ability, is it going to be any good? (I mean from my own perspective, let alone some other person's).

Yeah, I can paint a wall in two minutes, but it might not be the prettiest job. I've always been the sort of guy who freaks out during timed elements in video games, always worried that I'm going to be late for appointments, always worried that I'm behind some curve -- so why would I impose that sense on my work?

There's no prize for getting it done quickly (and in a lot of cases, instead of a prize, you get a nice assumption that it's done poorly). It doesn't matter how long it takes you, so long as eventually, it gets done. Want an example? Check out George RR Martin's writing/release schedule. Dude's like a glacier with words.

When you're explaining what makes your story cool/exciting. THAT'S THE SAME THING AS A PITCH, just less dressed up.

So much emphasis is placed on the pitch - making it sound good, giving it to the right person in just the right way, making sure it has the right words and not these wrong ones over can get really overwhelming and confusing.

Let's simplify it. When someone is listening to (or reading) your pitch, what are they looking for? Action, the juicy exciting parts that make them want to read/hear the rest of the story. Isn't that much simpler to think about?

Here's an example. Pick your favorite movie of all time. Now pick your favorite part of it (just a scene or two). Describe it out loud. Sprinkle in some back story and some explanation on who the characters are, and that's a pitch.

If you wanted to dress up that pitch, you'd probably use more formal language, maybe chop out a few um's or uhh's or something, right? But on the whole, you just pitched your favorite movie to me. You can easily repeat this process for your favorite book, or for the thing you're writing now.

Have you considered taking one of your characters and changing a trait you take for granted? A king who curses, thieves who like cats?

Characters are a tricky thing. They can be the centerpiece of a great story. They can be memorable for reasons both good and bad. They can also be staler than old crackers. How do you prevent that? How can you keep your characters from "just" being whatever they are, somewhat generic and a little dull?

When you map out your characters, when you write out a character's aspects, make one of them stand out from the others. I don't mean suddenly make a guy green or something (though maybe that's okay, depending on what you're doing), I mean give the character a trait that isn't typical for who and what they are.

An alcoholic divorcee who always wanted to get into snorkeling is far more compelling than another drunk lech who mistreated his wife. Having one element of a character stand out is something people will connect to, and make the character memorable.

If you've got a word count (like in a contest), don't forget to cut out adverbs, double-verbs and excess dialog tags. Make words matter

As an editor, I love word count. I make a living on word count. But as a writer, as a game creator, word counts make me break out into cold sweats. They seem like limits that I'm uncontrollably rocketing towards at Mach 1. They seem like hurdles I have to leap...or else meet some grisly fate.

You can trim down the adverbs, they get to be like a crutch, not clarifying the verb as much as you think they do (why can't you just use a different verb?).

A double-verb is something like "was running" or "had been thinking". And yes, there's a place for this sort of construction every once in a while, but on the whole, show this stuff out the door if you're trying to be more declarative about what your character is or isn't doing. (Hint: Being declarative is a good thing)

If there are only two characters talking, and you just spent the first two lines of dialogue establishing a rhythm that he-said, then she-said, you don't need to keep reminding us of that.

Like this:
            "I like your hair." he said.
            "Thanks." She blushed. It made her prettier.

Whatever line comes next, we can assume that HE's going to say it. Save a little space here by not reminding us "he said" "she answered" etc etc. You may need those words later for awesome sentences.

If a character gets shot/blown up/stabbed/burnt in Chapter 1, I'd expect them to be limping/in pain/hurting in Chapter 2.

Unless you're writing Superman, your character is not a superman. Especially if you're aiming for "gritty realism" or whatever hot new buzzword corresponds to "realistic". Many authors, especially new or nervous ones, think that the best way to hook readers is to really go all Michael Bay on the opening pages, blowing up a building or something, as if to set a bar about what you can expect within the next three hundred pages or so. Which is awesome, except...

It sets both a pace and a "power level" for the story that might be too hard to maintain. Blow up a building and I expect repercussions, else the building didn't really matter to the landscape. Shoot a guy in the gut and I expect blood loss, pain and likely a slow death.

When story elements happen early, I treat them like setups for what happens later in the story, and am satisfied as a reader when they pay off. When things happen (and often they're fights or injuries) but are immediately shrugged off as if they don't really hurt or don't matter, I have to ask myself, "Well, why did the author spend time telling me about them if they aren't important?"

If that question comes up too many times in a book, I will likely stop reading that book. That's not a good way to build an audience.

Don't write a trend into your book. Your story is whatever your story is. It'll find an audience. It just might not be the one you think.

Trends are short term waves of popularity for ideas and concepts. Remember when everyone told supernatural romance stories? Or when everyone really liked saying sports were "extreme"? Those are trends. And while they make great fodder for magazines and blogs and get scrutinized and predicted by talking heads everywhere, a writer should never feel like they have to include a trend or two just to capitalize on it or be perceived as popular.

It's not the trend that makes an author popular. It's what the author does in their story, with their words, in sharing their vision and their world that makes an author popular. Trends are short lived. Audiences last longer. And every book will find an audience eventually, if the search is honest, open and earnest.

If you want to show two characters in love, saying "and now they're in love" doesn't cut it. SHOW us scenes to help draw that conclusion

Love is really hard to see. Sure there are actions we undertake to demonstrate that we love someone else, but there's no giant neon sign over our heads pointing out "she's in love!"or "he digs her!".

So look to our actions to figure out whether or not we're in love. And when you're trying to convey that character A loves character B, sure they can say it to one another, but proving it is another matter altogether.  Granted, if you're working in a visual medium, the characters can look at each other and we can see it, but if you're in print, you need to play out those scenes that help us draw the conclusion that yes, this couple is in love.

Think of exposition like a camera, zooming in on details or pulling back to show us how big the picture is.

This idea is called "psychic distance" and I teach a lot about it in workshops. Your exposition is where we get to see the whole stage, so where are we to focus? We'll follow the narration. How are you describing the birds in the trees? If it's just a word or two, then maybe they're not a big deal. If you've broken out two paragraphs on the merits of sparrows, then clearly, you've got something to say about birds. (The amount of words you spend on a thing tells us that the thing-described has more "narrative weight", meaning, it's a big deal)

You control what the reader focuses on, from the littlest detail about an eyebrow quirk to the big importance of the wind during a hurricane. And we want to follow the 'camera' as it tells us the story.

You know what's annoying? Written st-st-st-st-st-stutters. When a person stutters, we get it.

S-s-s-s-s-s-ee h-h-h-ow ann-n-n-n-n-oy-y-y-y-y-y-ing th-th-th-th-th-is looks? Don't do it. Don't use the actual display of text to convey something. Typography is great and cool when we're doing layout and games and things, but when we're cranking out 300 pages of fiction, how about you just say "he stammered" and move forward?

Shockingly not every story has to risk the whole of existence, the fate of all beings or the entire kingdom. Small stories work too.

We talked a little before about how a story's "power level" can be this huge monumental thing, which causes a story to be very much weighted towards the maximum side of whatever scale we're talking about. It may seem obvious that when a story involves all a race or an entire planet or whatever, that we're supposed to care extra because of the quantity of danger.

But can't the flipside also be true? If you've only introduced four characters in the whole story, and you risk a pair of them, that's 50% of the characters in the story. Keeping the psychic distance close to the characters and keeping the story intimate is what makes us care about the risks. It's only a numbers game in comic books, summer action movies or those B-movies on SyFy.

You don't have to write in dialect in order to be understood in dialect. That's for the reader to manage.

Before we go further, congratulate yourself on reading this far. Now, our last point of the day. Earlier in this list we talked about that annoying stutter. The same is true for breaking out accents and dialects. It might be funny the first time character A encounters character B, but on the sixtieth time, when I'm supposed to have these two characters as buddy cops solving a crime, I'm more wanting B to just make some damned sense so the killer gets caught.

You accomplish more saying "He spoke in a brogue" than trying to parse out the vowel sounds and where the apostrophes go in the lines of dialogue. You'll get less frustrated typing it, your editor will gripe less at you, and most importantly, the reader won't be confused as to what a character is saying.

Part 3 will be up Friday. Happy writing.