Monday, April 8, 2013

86 Things I've Said on Twitter, Part 6

We march forward in the series of things I've said on Twitter, here's Part 6. Part 5 from last week is here (and so are the other parts).

You're never going to write like Author X, Author Y or Author Z. The good news is that they're never going to write the way YOU do.

I remember being a teenager and even later into my twenties and reading books by my favorite authors and wanting to BE them -- presumably because of the wealth I assumed they had, but also for the talent they demonstrated with words. I wanted to write just like they did, because they're successful, so being like them must make me successful too, right?

No. There's a couple ways to explain this, but here's one -- the market doesn't need another Rowling, King, Stout or Hammett. The market doesn't need a Wendig or a Forbeck clone. If you're trying to be like someone else, however well intentioned that might be, you're not being yourself. And it's all about being you. YOUR voice. YOUR skill. YOUR talent.

That's what the market wants - a new story. YOUR story.

And it can be daunting to enter an arena where Kadrey, Brett, Mixon and Blackmoore are already firmly entrenched (Yeah, I'm name-dropping left and right). But there's room for [INSERT WHATEVER YOUR NAME IS HERE]. Honest.

It's not about sounding like other people, it's about sounding as yourself. Be you, tell your story, you'll be happier.

If an editor does their job right, writers, you won't see their work, you'll only see your work, more clearly.

Editors on the whole, are ghosts. We don't really leave visible signs of our presence unless something catastrophic or extreme happens. We come in, help you, and go away. Frequently, we're under-appreciated, under-credited and under-thanked. That tide is turning, especially on social media, but by and large, the view of editors is a lot like how you view the hammer in the garage -- great when you need it, but you don't have a whole lot of reason to thank it, even if it made your house possible.

What an editor does isn't (and shouldn't be) a mystery. Our job is to take whatever words you have on the page and make them not only mesh but illuminate the idea you had in your mind. We do that by changing the text on the page, by clarifying it, by fixing the errors, by taking extraneous elements away.

When we do our job correctly, you don't see the footprints, and we don't leave any scars behind from our literary incisions. All you see is the text the way it should be - in the best shape possible to deliver the idea you want it to.

When we do our job poorly, the text suffers. Ideas become muddy and confused, the pace and flow becomes sluggish and overall the text isn't one you want to read.

How can you sort out the good editors from the bad? Ask them what they've edited. Then go read it. See if you like the finished style. See if they have a website, and go read that. See how they put words together. Do they sound like they know what they're doing AND that you can get along with them?

That question is food for another blog post by itself. Maybe even two.

To avoid too many dialog tags, let the words the characters say imply their feelings. Not the punctuation either.

I had a teacher once who marked down my short story from an A to a B because in her mind "I used too many 'said's". When I asked her how many I was supposed to use, she told me that you're supposed to use enough to figure out who's speaking with whom, but that the dialogue itself should be doing the work.

I didn't understand that for the rest of the school year, and ultimately got a B in her class. No one said squat about the number of saids in college, so I just figured she was crazy.

She wasn't crazy. She sucked at explaining her point, but she wasn't crazy.

Here's a line of dialogue:

"Good job," he said loudly to her.

Does that look like he shouted? Do you feel as though, if you're in the scene, that he's hollering or exclaiming?

No, and if you had to pinpoint the issue, maybe you'd circle the verb, and say that said isn't correct for the scene. Or maybe you'd circle the comma and say that commas don't really indicate shouting.

So let's make the changes:

"Good job!" he yelled to her.

Great, now we have an exclamation point, so the dialogue is louder, and we have a clear verb.

But let's look at the sentence a little more broadly. You have two spoken words (Good job) and four words that give directions or explanations (he yelled to her). If (and yes, this could be a big if) there's only two people in the scene that we're paying attention to, why do we need so many directions? And why should we spend our time reading more than just the dialogue, which is what we came to the scene to experience anyway?

"Good job!"
"Thanks! Couldn't have done it without you!"

No tags, because we know who's speaking. And we know how they're saying whatever they're saying, because the tone of the words tells us far more than anything else.

Remember: Punctuation tells us HOW something is said, not what is said.

I'm not saying you can never use tags, or that you should cap the number of "said" tags in whatever you're writing. That's crazy. But what you can do is shape the words, the substance and subtext of what they're saying to better describe how they feel so that you don't need so many directions tacked on to it.

Not everything needs have a sequel or be part of a great series. Some stories are just stories.

The Hobbit is going to be three movies. There's already an Evil Dead sequel AND a prequel on the way. There are three sequels to Beauty and the Beast.

Most of the reason this is done is entirely financial - there really isn't a lot more you have to say in the Hobbit once the plot wraps up (but I'm sure there will be like 35 minutes of additional endings), but because we can read a book at our leisure, and a movie is a contained experience, films get stretched until their plots are translucent at best and non-existent at worst.

But if you're writing a thing, and it's the best thing it can be, don't think you need to simultaneously map five future installments so that your first product gets picked up.

Tell the best story you can, worry about sequels and series later.

You cannot mentally sigh.

Characters can't sigh in their heads. Characters don't yell through gritted teeth. Characters can't see with their eyes closed. A lot of this is cliche-hunting. But it's important that you've got your characters acting like real people so that they're taken as real people, in a real world.

It's not the stretching of believability that kills fiction, it's the lack of consistency within your own construction.

When you're writing, you can stretch credulity as far as you need to. Science fiction introduces physics-defying technology. Fantasy fiction brings us magic. But we're willing to "go with it" so that the story makes sense and is compelling.

Where things come of the rails is where within the same story, there's no consistent adherence to a set of rules.

We've talked about how writing is the act of making decisions. A corollary to that idea is that they have to be consistent decisions. The sky is blue until you say otherwise. Magic works a certain way until you explain or provide a reason why it doesn't. But when things change without rhyme or reason, the story you're telling starts to feel like a story, like something hastily composed and sped through - a rush job.

I'd recommend you make yourself some notes about how elements in your world work. What does magic look like? How does faith work? How are the angels and demons supposed to interact with humanity? Whatever the element that makes your story deviate from the experience of our real world, write it down, and flesh it out. Be consistent, it makes for a stronger story.

Do some research. Figure out how things work. Sure you can tweak things, but lay a strong base.

There's a vocal segment of the population that takes a great deal of pleasure telling the rest of us how things really work, and how the movie/book/TV show we watched is inaccurate. Now, this operates under the assumption that our favorite fiction is supposed to be just like our lives, and opens the door for debate between simulation and fantasy.

The more research your do about how things (guns, corporations, explosives, farms, taxes, whatever), you're giving yourself not only the ability to give accurate detail, but you're also giving yourself more things to write about (the components of the engine breaking down, rather than a blanket statement that the car's not working).

More specificity gives your story more depth, more credibility (if that's what you're after) and makes it feel more engaging to the reader.

You don't need to slavishly adhere to realism. You can invent brands of soda or manufacturers or streets or whatever the story calls for, but partner those faux-truths with actual truths. We won't be able to tell. Really.

If you're writing a children's book PAY YOUR ILLUSTRATOR(S).

This one's a really short one --- if you're creating something, and there are other people involved in that process, PAY THEM. Pay them appropriately and fairly and on time. They have a job to do, just like you do.

If your story ends in the middle of act 2, then either it wasn't act 2, or that's not the whole story.

One of my favorite guilty pleasure movies is The Devil's Advocate. Keanu Reeves has an inconsistent accent, Charlize Theron can't act, and Pacino triple over-acts. It's also two and a half hours long, despite the plot being resolved at just before the two hour mark. Those last thirty minutes are a chance for Pacino to rant and Keanu to stare at a naked woman. It's the whole third act of the movie.

My point is that if you resolve your plot twenty chapters in, then you're done the story. You don't need to pad the story for ten more chapters...unless you're laying the groundwork for whatever comes next, and the big climax you thought wrapped things up was just a rung on this crazy ladder of a story.

Whatever system you use to organize your thoughts (note cards, Scrivener, whatever) - if it works for YOU, great, use it. If not, move on

There are lots of ways to put together thoughts. Some people love Scrivener, I like legal pads. Other people make note cards. No one method is better than another, they're just different. Anyone who says otherwise might be selling something or looking to make themselves feel better at someone else's expense.

If you have a system and it works for you, keep at it.

If you don't yet have a system, try lots of them until you find one that suits your patience, your research and your writing method. You can even cobble your own method together, a little from this system, a little from that system over there.

Whatever works for you is ideal.

Want to see if a story makes sense? Give it to 4 readers - a tween, an adult friend, an enemy and a loved one. See what happens next.

I have a lot of people asking me how they find readers. There are websites you can use (google 'beta readers'), you can turn to writing groups, you can go to friends and family for instance.

When you're building a pack of readers, try to get a diverse group. I use a tween, a friend, a loved one and someone who hates my guts. Here's why:

1. The tween will tell you if they're enjoying the story, if they get it, if it's cool.
2. The friend will give you the highlights, saying what they like and what works.
3. The loved one will give you encouragement and support and help turn those good parts into promotional material.
4. The enemy will hate whatever you do, ground you in reality and teach you where you lose readers or bore people, so that you can improve your craft and earn their readership.

Now, I don't always talk to the people who hate me, because it's kind of annoying and dramatic and stupid to do. So I usually go to a relative stranger, someone who isn't a dick but who doesn't know me well enough to be favorably biased.

The third act is never a great time to introduce new characters.

"There are no drive-ups in the third act" is the old Hollywood saying, which means that by the time the third act is about to kick off (or underway) you're not introducing critical elements or people who just sort of appear and then prove themselves vital. We're not really connected to these new characters, and when they accomplish more than the established characters, it makes those characters we have been following less cool and less capable - and that's not good for the story.

By the time we get to the soon-to-be climax and the story is moving at top speed, we should have all the characters in play and have relationships and a connection to each of them. Sure, it doesn't need to be the same reason, but we need a reason, other than "it's what the story needs". No one wants to read something that feels convenient.

There's still plenty more to come in this series. I hope you have a great week.

Happy writing.