InboxWednesday – Dialogue Construction

Hello and welcome to InboxWednesday, where I use the carnival claw machine on my inbox to pull out a question and answer it for public consumption. If you have a question you’d like to see answered (I should point out that if you submit a question, you also get an answer in email, I don’t just leave you hanging), you can email me.

Today’s question comes from Mark, who asks:

Hey John, got a question for you. I’m writing a lot of dialogue, and don’t want to keep saying, “Bob says,” before every quoted thing. What are some things I can do, and how can I keep it interesting, not just for the reader, but for me as I keep writing?

There’s actually a name for this issue, and it’s constructed repetition. Normally it’s a speaking concept where a person references the same phrase to establish it as a buzzword or theme for their discussion. Partner that with a physical gesture, and you’re looking at one of the tenets of neurolinguistic programming.

But since Mark isn’t asking me for a recipe on how to rally loads of people into action or organize disparate minds into a frenzy, we’ll just look at the constructed repetition that causes boredom.

To get into this, we’re going to have to first talk abstractly about what it means to read. I’ll spare you the load of science I know, and condense this down to one idea — reading is about pattern recognition, where the patterns are shapes and lines that have a sound associated with them. We call them letters, and groups of letters are called words. We see the same words over and over again, and we intuit and then understand their meaning.

This is how we know that a “dog” refers to a domesticated pet, and not that thing with a peel you eat as part of a balanced breakfast. This collective understanding is called context.

Pattern recognition works because our input system (eyes, braille, hieroglyphs, cuneiform, etc) processes the same symbols over and over again, and we derive meaning from them. (We call this reading.)

The tricky bit about reading is that it’s also about sameness in those patterns. We see the same letters forming the same words repeatedly, and we get lulled into less careful processing. We realize that all the paragraphs are going to start with “So”, and then we skip that word, because we’re used to seeing it, and we’ve built this momentary expectation that it’s going to be there, so skip ahead and get to the new bits.

When we get to dialogue, we need to focus, because not only can that dialogue convey new information (I mean stuff we didn’t already know, not specifically plot-stuff), it’s an opportunity for us get insight or access to the character doing the talking.

The two words Bob says are called a dialogue tag, because they tell us who is expressing themselves and how. The who is most often a proper noun, though it can be a pronoun, and the how is a combination of the verb, but also any adverbs hanging out nearby. Remember that verb choice carries with it an expectation and a context, so that we can distinguish saying and yelling by different volumes, for instance.

Dialogue tags can be found in three places: pre-line, mid-line, and post-line. Let’s take a look at each of them. And it’s important to think about a dialogue tag as two+ words functioning as one item. It’s not just the “said” or “Bob”, it’s their combination that we’re talking about here.

Pre-Line
Bob opined, “Why can’t anyone pay attention?”

The sentence opens with a tag, using the comma to indicate a pause, and the quotation marks to trigger a switch from exposition/narration to character. All dialogue tags mark and make obvious this transition.

By setting this on its own line, as you should always be doing, you’re making a paragraph.

Giving Bob two more things to say, we can create this example:

Bob opined, “Why am I an example?”
Here is a sentence about something happening in the room.
Bob huffed, “I’m not sure I like being this example.”
Something else happened in the room.
Bob spoke, “I’m glad this example is over.”

Remember that Brady Bunch complaint about “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” ? That’s what you get with a proper noun + verb dialog tag as a sentence or paragraph starter. It sounds whiny. It reads monotonously. It’s not striking visually. It seems safe and simple.

Is it wrong? No. It’s sort of like setting the cruise control at one mile under the limit then sticking to the center lane – you won’t get a ticket, but you’ll only aggravate the people around you.

There are uses for it, sure, but to have it dominate the text is to get a bit formulaic. Here’s another point about pre-line tags – where do you want me to focus. You’ve name-checked Bob, but to what idea within this line of letters am I supposed to be rapt? Should I care who’s talking and how they’re doing it, or am I supposed to care about what they’re saying?

Mid-Line
“This,” Bob said, “isn’t much better.”

Don’t let the ‘mid’ fool you, the tag doesn’t need to be precisely 50% of the way in the line to have the effect I’m about to describe. It could be one word (most common is one to three), it could be a whole sentence, then a tag, then another heap of words. So what’s wrong with this?

First, it makes the text look like a pair of bubbles or wings, with the tag between them. My second writing professor referred to them as “swimmies on a toddler”, meaning those blood pressure cuff inflatable pontoons you lash to a kid’s biceps before putting them in water.

Second, and more critical to me, you’re breaking up the line of dialogue just to tell me who said it. It’s a sometimes unnecessary pause. If the context is clear enough, I should be able to figure out who’s saying what, particularly if you’ve only got the two characters and they’re going back and forth. Bob, then Alice, then back to Bob … even if you don’t name check a character with a “Holy dicksnot, Alice” or “By Zeke’s flowing beard, Bob!” So long as each line of dialogue gets its own line, trust me to be smart enough to know who’s saying what to whom.

Again, this has its uses, particularly if your swimmies run long and technical (I’m looking at you, SF/F manuscripts redolent with technocrunch), or if you adding a bit of weight to the moment the dialogue speaking creates. As in:

Now,” Bob loaded the shotgun, “this is where I stop being your monkey.”

Post-Line
“I think I really love Janice from the examples in the draft,” Bob said.

Here the dialogue tag is hanging out at the end of whatever’s been said, and that’s often vestigial. Again, context should help the reader figure out, so sometimes we don’t need any tags.

The tag at the end can render the whole line in a kind of decay, where all the good stuff happens (long) before the period, which means I don’t need to be paying complete attention at the end of the sentence, since I’m only there to see what the character says and move on.

So What’s The Fix?

The fix is pretty straightforward – mix and match. A combo of pre-and mid-. Throw in a few post-. And stop relying on the same verb. There’s nothing wrong with “said” but there’s nothing wrong with changing up the word while still being specific as to what’s happening.

Said
Spoke
Cheered
Replied
Chatted
Yelled
Griped
Screamed
Hollered
Whispered

Loads of words exist, and use them. Place tags where you like and need to, but also be willing to not have any. Remember, you’ve got revisions and editing and beta readers to tell you if something does or doesn’t need a tag.

Break the repetition. Make a conscious effort to try and not go with that first instinct with “said.” You might just surprise yourself.

*

Mark, I hope that answers your question. It’s a kinda crunchy one, and I’m hoping the examples streamlined it a bit. Let me know how it goes.

I’ll see you all back here Friday for more bloggity goodness.

Happy writing.

What The F Did I Just Watch – Batman V Superman

Note: I am about to talk about a movie that is still in theaters. I will do my best to avoid spoilers that aren’t otherwise available in the trailers or in the reviews

Note #2: I am about to give my opinion on a variety of topics. It is possible that we, dear reader, won’t agree.

I can count on three fingers the number of movies I have walked out of, and I can now count on one finger the number of movies where I have asked for my money back. At the time I write this, I am 55 minutes removed from leaving Batman V Superman (hereafter BVS) during what I suspect was its third act. Maybe, hopefully that was the third act, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

On the ride home, I struggled to compose this blogpost. Not because I had no place to start, but that I had so many potential elements to discuss. To that end, I’ve divided this discussion into three parts: characters, plot, and writing.

Characters
Let’s detail the major characters, as well as some of the minor ones.

Superman – Ostensibly, this is a Superman movie. I mean, he’s the established property already, and everything new is being added to his material. That said, I can’t say I saw a lot of Superman in a Superman movie. Sure the actor was there, and I saw his CGI version doing stuff, but Superman wasn’t really there. See, Superman (like all the comic book characters), represents an ideal that we the readers can project ourselves towards. We see these characters and we are inspired, firing our youthful imaginations one more time until we tie towels around our necks and fight the badguys.

What Superman represents is the best and idealized version of “doing the right thing.” He’s the Big Blue Boy Scout for a reason, and he is empowered (literally) with all the best traits. Granted, this makes him exponentially over-powered to handle mundane problems, as his superiority does place him in a deific position, and this movie is fat with religious imagery.

Wait no, it’s not just fat. It’s so packed with images of ascension, silhouettes of light, and light over darkness, that I ‘m surprised Jerry Springer didn’t appear to saw off part of the house it lives in and drive it on a flatbed truck during sweeps week. Again though, I’m getting ahead of myself

Because he possesses such an increased power, it’s hard for conventional plots to challenge him. (The old joke about Superman standing still while getting shot, but ducking to avoid the gun? It’s so the actor wouldn’t get hit in the face.) This is why you need to give Superman a global threat as a challenge. This is particularly true in the Snyder universe, where Superman is only the Man of Tomorrow if your tomorrow includes building demolition and eye lasers.

Batman – I have a deep love for Batman. Of late, that love has been wrecked by video games, advocating that Batman be Batman behind the wheel of a tank during timed missions, rather than the predator of criminals from the shadows. Gone are the detective and ninja, replaced with a cowled gladiator and his large weapon inventory.

Affleck as Batman was a risky choice. He completely shit the mattress store as Daredevil, but that was ten years and two huge relationships ago. Here, Affleck’s Batman has seen some shit go down, and I would go see an Affleck-Batman movie. The Batman movie within this movie was actually enjoyable, to a point.

And that point is exactly the thing that soured me on digital Batman – the video game-esque antics, where Batman can press LB + Triangle, or LB+Square and deal a whole lot of damage to one guy, but can’t quite press Triangle twice to get past a damned knife guy.

Side note: If you’re the sort of person who’s about to say, “Well Batman isn’t a very good/interesting character, because he’s a psychopath.”are you suggesting that psychopaths aren’t interesting or that we shouldn’t be showing characters who aren’t psychopathic on-screen? How is that not stigmatizing mental health? That’s not very social justice-y of you. Batman’s premised on the idea of trauma and his extreme coping strategies. Also, it’s fiction. Lighten up, Francis.

For as deific as Superman is built, Batman is our everyman, assuming every man is infinitely wealthy and trained across multiple disciplines to near-perfection. But still, he’s not flying around and shooting eye lasers, so he’s at least slightly more credible. It’s too bad we have no idea what his motivations are, but that will come up later.

Wonder Woman – Oh, goody, we’re at the part of the blogpost where I’m going to ruffle feathers. How you ask:

With this sentence: Wonder Woman is Superman with boobs.

Meaning she’s the immortal daughter of the gods, imbued with powers and equipment that mortal man (even Batman) doesn’t have access to. She’s in this movie because DC has elected to truncate the Universe-building down a movie or two, rather than a patient decade of quality cinema, barring Thor 2 and Iron Man 2.

She’s also here to break up the superpower sausagefest, and girl power. I’m aware that as a man, I’m not supposed to say she looks good in her outfit, but she looks good in her outfit, and she’s got all the moves down: bracelets, sword, shield. She’s hollow.

Great, she can show up in the third act (she’s present in the rest of the movie, but only to do what some reviews called ‘flirting’, and she gets an email in the second act, but we’ll talk about that), and “save the boys.” Yawn. Give her a standalone movie. The internet needs more things to criticize, so I’m sure it’ll be fine.

Lois Lane – I’m pretty sure she was central to the first Superman movie. She suffers from Gandalf Syndrome, meaning she is the instigator and resolver of her own problems. She’s also the female romantic lead, and she’s got lines and everything.

Lex Luthor – Now in the comics, Luthor is an omnipresent force. He becomes President. he builds a powersuit. He’s Gene Hackman. He has a vast intellect and clear badguy motivations. Aside from some tics and a penchant to dress like he’s a Columbia undergrad, I’m not really sure what the Snyderverse Lex Luthor has. At one point in the film, I can’t tell if he’s wearing a bathrobe or a trenchcoat. He suffers from plot o’clock, which I’ll talk about further down in this post.

Plot
Okay, I could easily recap the plot for you, but the clearest route takes us right through Spoiler Town. I’d like to avoid doing that, so I’m going to say that if you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve got the plot. You don’t have all the vestigial pieces, but you’ve got the bulk of it. Basically, superhero fights superhero for reasons. Stuff happens, for more reasons, then other stuff happens for reasons.

If you want a clearer explanation, so do I. I watched this movie while wide awake, sitting in a center aisle seat, in 3-D. I have no idea why people did what they did. I mean, I know the immediate reason of “the script says so”, but if we’re doing that thing where we assume these characters are real people, I couldn’t find a lot of expressed or explained motivations.

It was incoherent. But it was that sort of pretty incoherence, where the visuals and color palette cover the magician’s act. Snyder waves a CGI wand, and the good story disappears.

Writing
Here’s where I can deconstruct the film without giving specifics. Since you know we’re talking about this film, and I’ve already set the table above, I hope you’ll indulge me with a few paragraphs of disjointed commentary.

“Plot O’Clock” is a pacing and momentum problem that means time is malleable, and not in the Doctor Who sense. In Plot O’Clock, things take as long as they need to, even with a literal timer in a scene. The action occurs within 3 chronal planes: The amount of time it takes to watch as an audience; the amount of time relevant to the danger (see literal timer); and the amount of time spent actually doing things. An example of this would be setting a timer to have someone killed, and having it tick down while a hero fights their way through an army of people. As an audience, we’ll watch this for 5 minutes. The timer may tick down 10 minutes, and the hero dispatches the army in one combo, about 17 moves long.

The audience 5 minutes is not the same as 17 moves as 10 minutes of threat timer. I’m not suggesting all movies need to be in realtime, but if you’re going to introduce a time-based threat, keep that threat relevant. Make the potential failure matter. Even if all you need to do is press LB+Circle, LB+Triangle, and L2 a few times.

Cute Dialogue is another area where tension gets saturated. Comedy beats can teach us about character relationships, they can lighten mood, they can even advance plot, but placing them like hinges in the middle of action beats neuters the action beat. Let’s suppose you have that plot o’clock problem from before, where a hero fights to rescue a character. They fight through that army … to do what? Make a joke? Quip? It undermines the tension. It’s a wink and nod to the audience. Why not just break the fourth wall and give a big salesman smile with a lens flare off a bicuspid? Judicious use of comedy can underscore the relationship that is currently being tested or established via the action beat. Think of the buddy cop movie. Two cops crack wise to each other in a show of solidarity and friendship, and having that relationship be greater than the yakuza currently shooting at them.

Essentially an ensemble superhero movie is a series of relationships, where the powers and abilities augment those relationships. (See Civil War). It’s not just a measuring contest of empowered genitals and suits. Your heroes need not look like bad art.They need to be people, even if the audience cannot completely relate to them in all aspects. (And I’d argue that no character is perfect in that regard).

Metaphor and Allusion clog up story pretty quickly. Sure, it can be smart and helpful to draw parallels stylistically and narratively, but do it too often and you’re just diddling yourself. A reader deserves better than a bloat of imagery and reinforced theme in dialogue. Yes, he’s a god. Yes, gods and devils are a really easy binary to establish. Yes, man-god-devil is an age-old convention you can play safe. The reason that triune works is because the reader is often on man’s side. The least powered and the most tempted. But Superman is the christ-figure, and badguys therefore have to be the devils, so who exactly is man in this three-way? Not Batman. He’s touted as just as powerful, and he’s in power armor for about fifteen minutes. Don’t worry though, it vanishes pretty quick once he starts flying the Batplane.

Unclear Motivations will ruin any creative effort. Why are characters doing whatever they’re doing? Worse still, do they have to say out loud what they’re doing so the audience can follow along? This isn’t a team of thieves mapping the heist with miniatures. This is Bob saying to Sally, “I’m going to the kitchen to get a sorbet and then I’m walking to the couch and clipping my raptor claw toenails.”

Motivations are built in strata, through a combination of actions, consequences, and decisions. Characters know why they’re doing things, because they’re doing them. Other characters should be able to deduce why other characters are doing things, and dialogue can be a reaction to that. The thinking behind the decisions should be understandable, even and especially when the actions taken are out of the audience’s abilities (as in, I’m going to fly away either by superpower or weaponized plane). Audiences should be able to see why characters are doing things because they’re SHOWN the process of reaching that point, not just TOLD that X needs to happen.

Telling hurts motivation. It’s the villain monologue that allows the hero to escape. It’s the stomped on cliches of daddy issues, jealousy, uninteresting vague want for power, and because cooties.

Showing builds motivations. Show us disappointment with failure. Show us friendship through partnership. Show us hope through action, and confirm all this via soundtrack. I know, it’s not that easy, but it can be damn sure better than the movie I watched.

Did it have any good parts? Yes. It was pretty. It looked good. The product placement was obvious, but tasteful. The outfits looked comic book. The explosions looked large and not so rubbery or watery. The side characters like Ma Kent, Kevin Costner, Perry White, and that guy from the Blacklist are applied fairly effectively for world-building.

The soundtrack felt a little bit Mad-Max-and yay-we-have-Wonder-Woman power chords to me. It wasn’t screechy, but it didn’t hit all the emotional notes the way Man of Steel made you want to wear the towel and run around, and the Nolan soundtracks invited you to sail over the city while yelling at movie crew to get out of your light.

I know a lot of people have talked about how you don’t have to go see it, you don’t have to support the film, but without viewing the material and developing your own opinion, how can we have any discourse?

I’ll see you guys Wednesday, where InboxWednesday has a GREAT question about dialogue. See you then.

Happy writing.

The Issue of Anxiety And Worry

Good morning, my friends. My apologies for missing time with you earlier this week, I hope you’ll forgive me, I neither wanted to bring you inadequate thoughts, nor did my body want to cooperate and be in less pain for a few hours. But I’m here with you today, and it’s good to be here with you at the end of the week.

While I’m writing this, it’s in the mid-60s, the sun is out, and I hear the scrape of neighbors’ rakes. Normally that sound would lead me to turn the stereo louder and grumble, but frankly I’m pleased to be surrounded by ambient sounds right now.

Let me further apologize for not speaking to today’s issue sooner. I have been meaning to, the outline for this post has called my Drafts folder home since FiYoShiMo, and this was almost going to be one of the early days, but the thoughts hadn’t congealed to more than day old pudding, so it sat around, fermenting, until I was pleased with it.

Today we’re going to talk anxiety, but not the specific anxieties. I want to focus on the anxiety about writing, the worry about what you’re writing being “good enough”, the idea that you’re being “original enough”, and the fear that you’d be better off yelling at a sock puppet instead of querying.

I hear this fear a lot. I hear it directly as people doubt that they’re doing the right thing. I hear it indirectly as people downplay a day’s work, or shrug off a compliment from a reader. It’s an insidious pirate, sailing the high seas of creativity and plundering your word and publishing booty. It’s a legion of cockroaches in power armor, marching strident towards your couch, even with the lights on. It’s a jerk and a bastard and a bitch.

But what can we do? We can’t let the pirate scuttle us, we can’t let the roaches set up an embassy and Starbucks franchise, can we?

If the worry is that what we right isn’t “good enough”, shift your focus from ‘good’ to ‘enough’, and realize that ‘enough’ assumes you have a context and contemporaries to whom you can be judged. Think about the face of it: if you’re talking about your not-complete manuscript, and you’re saying you’re comparable to finished book X, on how many levels are you judging yourself?

Their book is done. Yours isn’t.
Their book is about … space weasels. Yours has housewives.
Their book is published and available in paperback. Yours is available in that folder on that thumb drive you keep in the bottom of that old plastic cup you got from that date you took to the carnival and you thought you two were totally gonna kiss then they decided that just after getting off the Ferris wheel with you, they were going to go meet up with their friends and they’d totally call you later, so you raced home, only they never called you, but you eventually saw then about eight years later, they became a skiing instructor with a spray-on tan and a bad boob job and you decided not to call her back either. (I may have said too much)
Their book is the fifth in a series. Yours has barely got five chapters so far, but you’re like, really close on figuring out what happens in the sixth.

There should be a law, so let’s call it … the Adamus Law of Judgmental Comparison, because it’s my blog, and I need more ego strokes. (Make with the stroking…), which says: For every point of difference you can find between your work and someone else’s, you knock down your own sense of value and quality ten per cent on average.

I say this because there’s a huge difference between comparing and contrasting two items, and putting one on a telescopic pedestal so you can always fall short.

This is particularly the case if you’re not done writing and you’re judging your words on the paperback you picked up in the airport bookstore. An incomplete thing, whatever it is, cannot measure up at all to a finished thing. Even if what you’ve got is already bigger or more complex, or has better LEDs, you can’t let the finished state of one thing be the judge of your incomplete work … unless you’re comparing completeness. And if you do that, it’s binary: you’re either finished or you’re not finished.

Will it be “good enough”? What does that mean? Do you mean “Will people like it?” How about you finish it and then go find out? Neither you nor I know whether or not your book is going to be liked, but being liked doesn’t make it good “enough”. It doesn’t even make it “good”, because there are loads of things people like that aren’t good (political discussions, victim social politics) and loads of things that people dislike that are good (episodes of Maury not about finding out who the father is).

Also, you and I will define “good” by different definitions, based wholly on our subjective experiences, our educations, our own tastes, and a host of other influences.Neither of us is wrong, we just disagree. (It’s important to remember that people can disagree, and neither has to be the wrong one)

Instead of chasing good enough for other people, go after good enough for yourself. This isn’t a call for narcissism, for blind arrogance, or intransigence. The internet has plenty of that, often in a variety of hair colors, funny hats, suits, and photo filters.

Don’t move the goalposts on yourself, that’s not the same as setting a new goal and accomplishing it. What’s wrong with setting a goal, accomplishing it, feeling good about it, then setting off to achieve a new goal? Do you just want to cut out the part where you feel good, because you don’t think you’ve earned it?

Remember please that feelings aren’t facts, so your feeling that you don’t deserve praise is noted, but in no way does it need indulgence. You’re better than that, and you should hear that more often. Set a goal, celebrate its accomplishment, and set another.

As for your fears of originality, so long as you’re not lifting wholesale story chunks and badly filing down the serial numbers (sorry, writer of Winged-Rodent Young Woman), and so long as you’re doing you, to the best of your ability, you’re good. Keep going.

Oh, you want more? Sure. While there are only so many basal stories for our foundations (I covered them here), anything you do creates original content. Yes, anything. So, yes, you’re being original “enough.”

Will any of what I said allay your worries? I don’t know. I hope so, it would be nice to be less worried, wouldn’t it? But ultimately I cannot know how you’re doing unless you tell me, so I look forward to hearing from you.

Have a great weekend, make amazing art. I’m going to see a very heavily promoted and poorly reviewed movie this weekend, so Monday’s blog will likely be called, “What the hell did I see at the movies?”

See you then. Happy writing.

Of Identities and Legacy

I write this post on Sunday afternoon, starting less than twenty minutes after returning home from a friend’s memorial service. This post is not to detail what was said by whom and how, nor is it to eulogize a man the vast majority of you never met, but it is to talk about two elements brought up in this service.

To do this right, I have to sit you next to me. There, in bleached yellow church, in the old cherry pew, on a burgundy cushion that’s likely been in place since the Nixon administration, though it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that the cushion was somehow responsible for the Croatoan mystery. We sit here in a large room of stale air, where the stuffiness reminds you of old people’s living rooms just after they invite you in, and the atmosphere fills every gap and space with a kind of foamy quiet. And we listen.

We listen to people speak, and people grieve, and we’ll go past that, because really what else can we do as writers, our minds forever swirling away with how these moments of our raw lives might be mined later with either delicacy or vulgarity, everything influencing us, intentional or otherwise. We’ll sit and listen and dissect. Not on the merits of the speaking, not their technique, but the undercurrent. There, in those favorite quotes they pick, and in the memories they share.

In so much of this pomp and circumstance, we grab onto the sadness. We wad up tissues, we stifle sobs, we feel the emotions like blades carving us apart. We hurt. Our pain fades over time, our ache morphs into not a raw wound with ragged edges, but a dull weight that takes hold in some part of our being. It’s there, in between all the happy times and funny memories, and those weird quirks that you start to see mirrored elsewhere and then take them as a sign from elsewhere that the person is with you.

But today I saw the legacy of a person. And that is sadly only something truly appreciable in their absence. So let’s talk about legacy and identity today. Who we are, who we were, who we effort every day to be and become, this is the path to legacy.

Will we be known by our pretense? By our attention seeking? By our victimization? By our faults? By our incomplete lists? By our successes? By our ambition?

It’s easy to forget that we have a great deal of control over what we provide the world as to how they can remember us. I, for instance, assume I am forgotten easily, that I am unremarkable, just a guy who writes and talks to people, punctuating the rants about grammar and technique with complaints of ill health or mention of food and video games.

I have an appalling sense of how I am remembered, and a worse one still of how I am regarded. In every glance, in every person moving out of the way without seeing me, I read disgust or shame. That I am contemptible in some contexts by some people is irrefutable, because I make no attempt to hide that I spent many years being a rotten little shit of a person, and only recently have I begun to climb my way from the slag heap and cesspit to hopefully scratch out at least a tolerable sort of pleasantry usually reserved for that aunt you only see every third holiday. At least my eyebrows are natural, and not carved into leathery flesh with a sharpie and dime store hope.

Identity is not the fact that I prefer a t-shirt to a suit, or John to Mr. Adamus, or cold soda to fancy wine lists. Identity is not my physical or mental health, my abilities or disabilities, my vices or virtues. What I broadcast as my identity is not bound in my heterosexuality, my gender, my age, my hair color, my astigmatism, or even my education. These these do not define me alone, and I routinely snarl at the forces and people who look to say that because of them I can be so easily categorized.

And you should too. It shouldn’t matter who or what you are, and it is, I tell you, very likely that the reason it matters is because you’ve brought it up like it’s a sticking point rather than a simple fact like you enjoy a certain food, or prefer your sandwich served a certain way. Creativity transcends all these labels, who you are informs what you make, but does not, should not, and cannot limit it.

Your art doesn’t suffer because you’re a woman. Or because you’re genderfluid. Or because you’re in a wheelchair. Or _________ (that’s where you fill in the blank with whatever element you like). You can and should still go make art. And it won’t be like anyone else’s art, because it’s yours. Your identity is within the art, it’s not separate from it.

And when you keep making art, when you stay true to your identity, not the politics of it, but the substance of it, so that you can do away with the ephemeral nature of buzzwords, that becomes your legacy.

What you leave behind, who you leave behind, that’s all going to get judged, and there’s a big pile of nothing you can do about it. People will try and slap labels to you, try to make you posthumously conform to their narratives, even when you spent all your life trying to establish your own.

Let the art do the talking when your own words can’t. That partnership, let that be the reference for people when they try to affix some label on you.

Build that identity in your art. This is what you make, to the best of your ability, no matter who gives it one or five stars, who buys it or pans it, who calls it ruinous or sings it praises.

But beware, there’s an edge to this, that you become only identified by what you create. That you forget the other elements of identity, the things not found in what you make. Your love of trout. The way you like sunrises. How you feel about conversations with someone through a closed bathroom door. Or whatever.

You are more than your creations, you are more than the things you don’t get around to, you are more than the things you’re still working on. You are a person who creates. And your life extends past the easel, the keyboard, the legal pad, the potter’s wheel.

Bring that life into your creativity, and your creativity into life. It’s not something to hide, or keep tucked in the back of the cupboard until everyone’s fast asleep and only then are you permitted to indulge. It doesn’t need to be some secret. It’s creativity, not the technologies we acquired from the lizard people who live among us and wait for the day of their uprising when their leader is elected on the Republican nomination, after all.

We can spend so much time looking forward to our legacy that we forget we’re still standing in the present. These are our opportunities, right here, one word at a time. We may draft them in our heads during the lulls of a memorial service, but we give them a half-life when we put them out into the world for consumption.

Let your words and worlds and whirls live. They carry with them the silhouettes and fingerprints of who you are. They matter, just as much as you do.

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I’ll see you Wednesday when we dive back into the inbox.

Happy writing.

BonusInbox – Writing & Focus

Good morning. We’re going to deviate from what I had planned for today’s blogpost (you’ll see that on Monday), because I wanted to bring you an extra question and answer from the inbox. It’s an important question, and honestly, I think it’s got elements that need to be discussed more often, so I’m going to do that along with my answer.

Today’s question comes from PJ:

This is a difficult question to ask because like the problem itself, it’s rather complex. I have an issue with over plotting and too many characters. I get to the middle or even the end of a first draft and realize I’ve packed way too much into one story. Which seems a simple enough issue to deal with; just edit it down. My real problem is the thought process I go through that leads me to these messes.
I think the writing itself is okay and that makes it even more frustrating. I have stories to share but it’s like I can’t settle my brain down enough to get one finished. My mind wanders, my attention span is a tad bit short and I’m on a few different medications that make me a little foggy. So with all that and the desire to just get a well-written story out there I get extremely overwhelmed.
Now I’ve written with & without outlines. Both methods fly off course, just one a little less than the other. So I guess my question is should I just admit to myself that being a writer just isn’t going to work? Is it possible to have the skills to tell a story with a mind that is incapable of keeping it on track? Or is there a way to settle myself down and salvage these stories?
On a personal level I’ve lived with a lot of health issues both physical and mental throughout my life and it’s sad to say but I’ve gotten used to wanting to do something but either my body or mind won’t let me. I was hoping this wasn’t one of those and I really don’t want to quit. I just don’t know what to do or when someone in this situation should just throw in the towel.

There’s a lot to unpack here PJ, so let’s go a chunk at a time.

“Too Much”
There’s always caution to be taken when we start tossing around “too” when we’re getting creative. Because the more “too” we spread around, the more judgmental we’re being of our work, and by extension, ourselves. Granted, there’s some wisdom in seeing that you’ve put too much in, so other people may agree with you once they read  it, but there’s still that risk that maybe you’re being overcritical and there isn’t actually too much. Holding yourself back, overthinking the process is a great way to breed frustration about the process, which can lead you to doing less and less of it over time.

Did you write too much, PJ? I don’t know. But your frustration is palpable in the question you wrote. My answer there is get someone to read it. A beta reader, someone who isn’t going to be biased in your favor, someone who you haven’t said, “Hey I think there’s too much in this story, give it a read?” and have instead said, “Could you read this for me?”

Over-plotting, Too Many Characters
Let’s suppose we have a popular television show. Let’s call it “Contest of Chairs.” And on our show we have, oh I don’t know, 180 characters. Sure, we’ll kill off a third of them, leaving us 120. Since we can’t have too many plots, let’s find a nice divisible number for 120, like 5. With 5 plots, that’s 24 characters to a plot.

Wait, you say, this television show is serial, so we can split these five plots over, I don’t know, 50 episodes. So let’s do some math.

50 episodes * 60 minutes to an hour = 3000 minutes
3000 minutes / 5 plots = 600 minutes per each of 5 plots

600 minutes / 24 characters per plot = 25 minutes per character per plot

So over the course of 6 seasons, each character per plot gets 24 minutes of narrative focus, according to my crude math. That’s about 4 minutes per plot per character per season.

Conclusion: Too many characters. Too little time spent focusing on them diffuses the story arc, making it hard for an audience member to do anything other than stay on top the show. The onus is on them to do whatever possible not to skip or miss an airing, and not be confused, because this story train is a-running, and we got not time to be slowly down.

Don’t confuse complexity of plot or character quantity for any mark of quality. Some of the movies collectively loved and appreciated don’t have many featured characters. Do you know why? Because too many characters makes it hard to follow along. And when you get into trying to distinguish Sal from Salvatore from Sally from Sal Jr, you’re doing yourself no great service as a writer.

You don’t need more characters, you need to focus more on the characters you do have.

As for plot? As we learned in FiYoShiMo, plot is a conflict that the character(s) effort to change, and as a result, change themselves. The more complex it is, the more you’re requiring the reader to follow along, and making it harder for them to do so.

I get it, you don’t want to be boring. You don’t want to be like all the other books on the shelf. You want to stand out. Let the quality of what you do be the thing that puts a spotlight on your work. How well you tell a plot, even if it’s “simple”, says way more about your craft than whatever the plot is.

What this tells me PJ, is way more about you as a writer than the specifics of your writing. Whether it’s fantasy or sci fi or Regency romance or who knows what, what your question tells me is that there’s an element of frustration and self-doubt floating around. I don’t know if you’ve asked yourself why you have to make things so big and twisty, and maybe you’ve often chalked it up to, “That’s just how I think of these things…”, but before you answer, this is going to segue us to our next section.

Schedule and Focus
Let me draw back the magic writer curtain. No matter what author you want to talk about, no matter the era they live in, no matter the genre they produce, the single greatest unifying trait, the strand that ties all writers together is that they write. Whether that’s foolscap and ink, typewriter, Macbook Air, dictation to a secretary, or even interpretative dance, a writer writes. And looks for opportunities to keep writing.

You’re on the right track with outlines, and good for you for trying them out, but the downside to an outline is that they can be just as complex as the MS they support.

But PJ, there’s no magic bullet. There’s no one solution to put in place so that all anyone needs to do is outline in this one particular way, and then write paragraphs of a certain length, then draft a certain number of times. There just isn’t.

In that space though, you have freedom, and I think it’s a double-edged sword. Yes, you can go about creating this MS in a dozen billion million different ways, but that can also be paralyzing. Like looking at a closet and not knowing what to wear, but knowing you need to put on something. Like looking at an open fridge and not knowing what you want to eat, but knowing that if you don’t eat, a tiny muse will appear in your office and insist you eat because otherwise you get grumpy and then you’re way less fun to talk to (I may have said too much there, PJ).

Couple that with whatever anxiety, shame, frustration, and anger you’re feeling about being foggy and having some expectation of success (see next section), and it’s little surprise to me that you’re often discouraged. It’s entirely possible for you to write, and write well, with whatever meds and attention span you have. It’s gonna require some discipline and you’re gonna have to challenge yourself, but you can do it.

Smaller successes queue just as nicely as larger ones, although we seem to value them less. We prize getting a promotion at work as being “better” than being able to walk up and down a flight of stairs. We tout qualifying for a mortgage over the sheer fact that last Wednesday you got out of bed. Just because we don’t put it in a Facebook status update or a tweet doesn’t mean it’s not worth celebrating (says the guy who shuffles when he walks and occasionally feels like there’s a conga line of blue whales on his chest). Give yourself credit for the small stuff as well as the large stuff. It’s not small or large, it’s just stuff.

So when you sit down to work, work in small chunks, as your attention span allows. Is that five minutes an hour? 3 minutes a day? Two words at a time? 46 minutes straight? Whatever your attention span, make the most of it. And then, give yourself a fucking break. You just put words on the page, stop judging them, and be proud that you did it. You can hash out if they stay or go when you finish writing and start revising. Play to your strengths.

Expectations
PJ, a big part of your question seems to be about expectations. That you need X Y and Z elements to happen in certain ways in order to be successful, and if you don’t write this, or do that, or submit here, or whatever then … what exactly? Does the world end? Are you going to smash your keyboard on the cliffs? Rigidity in expectation can be a killer.

If your goal is to get published traditionally, so long as someone signs you and the terms are amenable, are you going to quibble over the name on the letterhead? If your goal is to sell a certain number of books, are you going to be upset if it takes more than a week? Especially if the number is large and has a comma in it?

There are many ways to skin the success cat, but holding on too tightly to the idea that there’s only ONE way to have “success” (I’m making airquotes because I mean success in a broad sense), is a great way to never be satisfied and keep those fires of self-doubt and not-good-enoughness burning.

This is also a great way to keep blaming yourself and feeling bad for having attention issues and being on meds for them. I don’t know if that’s what you’re doing, but if you are, I gotta say, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn’t make you less of a person or a creator if you gotta go take a pill for something. You’re not a bad person for needing meds. I’m sorry they make you foggy, but you’re still capable, so long as you play to strengths and don’t give up.

Find your goal. Boil it way the hell down. Is it to be a published author? Is it to just have a complete story that someone will buy?

And then start questioning it. Would you feel like less of a writer if you serialized the story? Or if you recorded it as audio? Or paired with, I dunno, a theater troupe to perform the first four paragraphs?

How you measure that success is going to often provoke the frustration. Don’t live up to some standard or bar that you’ve set, and you can easily drive yourself to feeling like you should quit. But you shouldn’t. Because you didn’t “fail.” You did something, you wrote, you produced something on a given day, and sometimes it’s just gotta be good enough, because you’re always good enough, whether you wrote 1 word or 10,000.

So What Do You Do?
Start small. Way small. Set tiny goals that you can demolish. Set goals that you can demolish where you can accomplish multiple goals then reward yourself.

When you map out the story, don’t limit yourself to just an outline. Try note cards. Try audio notes. Try visual diagrams.

And keep it small. Write out your characters. Read about plot. Go slow, stay organized.

Maybe this video will help.

BUT DO NOT GIVE UP.

THERE IS NO NEED TO GIVE UP PJ.

FIGHT BACK. KEEP WRITING. DISCIPLINE AND SUCCESS. MEASURABLE PROGRESS AND GIVING YOURSELF SOME CREDIT.

Keep going.

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I’ll see you guys Monday. It looks to be a good weekend here at Castle Adamus. There are things to read and new shows to feast upon. Have a great time doing what and whoever it is you do.

Happy writing.

InboxWednesday – Reach, Platform, and Audience

Hello again everyone, I hope you’re doing well. How am I? Oh, not too bad thanks for asking. I spent the weekend recuperating and generally enjoying myself, and have taken advantage of the warmer temperatures to break out the lighter bathrobes. Because jobs have uniforms. #becomfortablewhileworking

So it’s Inbox Wednesday, and that means I reach into the inbox and answer questions. If you’ve got a question, and would like to see it answered on the blog, send it to me.

Today’s question is from Mike, who has actually a pile of questions all tossed together. Here I’ll just let you read it:

John, I don’t know what to do. I got my Writer’s Market, I’ve been putting out queries and getting rejected. I’ve been reading a lot of blogposts that say I need to develop my reach and use my platform to build a community and not just a consumer base. When people talk about platform, do they mean social media? Isn’t it enough that I’m blogging 4 times a week and doing videos? What exactly is a community, and how is that different than an audience? What do I do? – Mike

I will disclaim that I edited that paragraph to insert some punctuation and capitalization.

What Mike is worrying is separate from the manuscript’s completion, but isn’t necessarily contingent on the MS being done. Yes, I know, there are blogs out there that say you start building that audience after the MS is done and out the door, but I’ve always felt like doing that is like inviting people to dinner while you’re doing the dishes already.

Yes, you can’t build as strong or as large an audience mid-writing as you can post-writing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be writing while building the audience. If you’ve had three or four or two or ten books out the door already, I’m assuming there’s some measure of audience already present, so to that portion of my readership, frame this in terms of expanding the audience. For the first-time crowd, we’re coming to this without the established elements.

The tough part in publishing, be it self-publishing or tradtional publishing (though this applies also to loads of things outside of writing and publishing) is navigating the jargon and buzzwords. People love them. They dress up everything with a term like it’s a hat on Derby day, as if that’s going to give the substance of their words, their content, more importance.

Buzzwords are not fairy dust. They will not allow us to sail over the streets off to Neverland with the creepy kid in green tights. If your content is clear, actionable, and engaging, then you shouldn’t need to trot out the buzzwords to validate credibility. Speak clearly, honestly, passionately, and you don’t need to crutch on anything.

Here’s where the gasps come in, when I start talking about clarity and people start questioning things like professionalism or tone. So now we move from one minefield about buzzwords to another about tone and assumptions.

A platform is whatever medium you use to communicate whatever ideas you have to whomever listens. On the internet, there’s a gap between you the speaker and the audience, built out of time and distance. It’s totally great that people in Guam and the Seychelles can read your blog at 4 in the morning, but 4 in the morning over there may be 2 in your afternoon, when you’re out walking the aisles of the grocery store trying to choose raisins. Likewise, any comment they leave for you on the blog, even if you get a notification message on your phone, still has a gap between them expressing it and you receiving it. These gaps are baked in, and we can easily take them for granted or rage about them as it suits our purpose.

It doesn’t matter if you blog about your teacup collection, or your love of bad dye jobs, or if you write blistering thinkpieces about how what kind of breakfast you eat reflects your political views. It doesn’t matter if it’s all tweets, all Facebook updates, Peach notes, Slack channels, or whatever. What matters to you is that you use your platform and that you’re comfortable with it.

Let’s look at the other side, put on your publishing professional hat. Mine has a pom pom on it. Traditional publishing is going to look favorably on people with a large audience or a large potential audience (that’s called “reach”), because there’s a chance/hope that audience will go buy products they sell.

There’s no guarantee that if you’ve been self-published and have a large audience already, that a traditional publisher will come along and acquire the book and put their machine behind you, catapulting you to even bigger heights. Remember, we’re still wearing our publisher hats, so we need to consider the expense of working with a self-published author versus acquiring a new author and giving them a bit of direction and grooming.

Take off the hat now. Your platform is more your tool than anything else, because you can put anything on it. But the more erratic your content, the more undisciplined (and that’s not the same as scheduled) stream of material you produce is going to make it hard for the audience to get a handle and become interested. Mike, it’s great that you’re posting so much, and keep at it if you’re digging it, but don’t think that throwing a ton of all-0ver-the-place content out there is going to keep people coming back. Find your message, find the core idea you burn hot for, and focus on it.

Because you’re not out there video after video, post after post, repeating a sales link over and over, right?

Be a person. Yes, you’re a person who’s making stuff, and would love for people to buy that stuff, but I don’t know many people who feel comfortable building relationships with sales robots.

womanrobotcor_450x350

Some robots have all the luck.

The “community” buzzword is as much a group of people who regularly enjoy your content, as well as being the group of people you could reach and “convert” (meaning they’d buy a book). The more sales-y these buzzwords, the more I slink away with a sneer.

Think of the community as the people who you want to communicate with regularly. Treat them well, because they’re people, even if you’ve never seen their faces since you do all the word-making and they do all the reading. You grow that community not by throwing sales links out over and again, but by bringing injections of reality into your platform.

Talk about the rough writing days. Talk about the days you’re taking off to go parasailing around Costa Rica. Talk about the book fair, conference, convention you’re going to, and how you’re totally going to go all gelatinous in the knees when you meet your writing heroine. Basically, Mike, be a person who writers, not just a writer who exists among people to produce pages and receive money for them.

This isn’t to say the money isn’t there, or that it’s a hostage negotiation to liberate the dollars from wallets, but you’re going to have a way easier time doing that when you treat the audience like they’re as much a person as you are. The money will be there. I’m assuming Mike, that your MS cashes the check your query and platform write.

Everything goes out the window if that MS doesn’t work. This is why I say over and over that the MS has to be in its best shape possible before you go query, and in addition to editing and beta reading, another form of shaping up that MS is holding yourself accountable to that platform. Say you’re going to do something, then do it. No, I’m not perfect at this at all. I suck quite a bit at doing this. I say I’m going to do a ton of things, and forget about half of them until I randomly look at my Dropbox and say. “Oh yeah, I was going to break down Jessica Jones, wasn’t I?”

Here’s a great way to think about reach – Do I come across as someone who has a passion/skill to produce something that people would want to buy?

Here’s a great way to think about platform – Do I comfortably (because if you hate doing something, you won’t be likely do it often, see: holiday resolutions) discuss and share my creativity and passion in ways that encourage other people to take an interest and communicate their own creativity and passion back to me?

Here’s a great way to think about conversion – If I keep doing what I’m doing in the way I’m doing it, will people want to exchange money for what I’m doing, or do I need to change the way I get the word about what I’m doing?

Here’s a great way to think about audience – They’re people. I’m people. I can’t control how each and every person will respond, so all I can control is how well I do my work and how openly I communicate and share it. I do me, they do them, we all get together and benefit over common intersections.

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Mike, I hope that answered you question. Thanks so much for asking it. I’ll see you guys Friday for more bloggity goodness.

Happy writing.

 

Show vs Tell, Emotion vs Information

Welcome back to your work week. I know, I know, weekends always seem so short and the hours you do other stuff seem to vastly outnumber the hours when you don’t have to put on pants. And as a guy makes his living doing the opposite of that – I only have to put on pants when I’m not working – I get it. So let’s dive into making good art and we’ll get through this.

There’s a big deal made about “show versus tell” and it’s worth the big deal, for sure, but I ask a lot of writers what they think it means, and I hear a lot of differing answers. They’re not all wrong, some are just incomplete, or vague. Today, I want to give you another definition for it, maybe you’ll find this more applicable or understandable than how I normally talk about it.

But that means we need to give the usual definition first, so we can build a point of comparison. Usually, I talk about show vs tell as a way to give the reader a sense of investment, or “room” to be a part of the story, as the writer doesn’t over- or inflexibly explain the elements in text, so the reader is drawn deeper and forward into the fiction.

And that’s not a bad definition – you show the canvas, you don’t have such a rigid sense of what’s been painted on it, and you had the reader a little brush and a little color and say, “Yeah, I know I’m talking about a coffee table, and it’s not that critical that I need to be so controlling, so you picture whatever table you want, it’s cool.” A fair definition and explanation, but it’s hard to grasp if you’ve never done it well.

Here’s the new way to come at this. We’re going to talk information transfer theory, but rather than get super technical and duller than bad paint, we’re going to stay simple.

Information transfer theory is the idea that one person has something to convey to someone else, and how they choose to do that. Maybe it’s spoken, maybe it’s a gesture, maybe it’s written. Maybe it’s smoke signals and arranging rocks. Whatever it is, info goes from one person (the creator) to another (the receiver), and we use have very declarative verbs to express that transfer: speak, say, yell, write, draw … tell.

Telling is all about conveying information. And yes, when we relay information, we don’t want there to be any wiggle room, we want our meaning and our specifics conveyed, especially when the information relates to something critical. Would you be okay with playing the telephone game if the original message is “Your house is on fire!” or “Would you like medical attention for that gunshot?”

We learn a lot of telling in school. We tell the class about the book we read. We tell the teacher the answer for question 18. We tell the attractive person that we want to go to the dance and then she tells two people she doesn’t want to go with you, so they tell you her message, with their fists. (8th grade was a very strange experience for me).

We learn a lot of telling from our media. The television tells us the news, weather, sports, political atrocities and traffic updates. Those blogs you subscribe to tell you all kinds of stuff about whatever you’re interested in.

Telling lets the receiver be very passive in the transfer relationship. You sit there, the other person does all the work. Telling is the lapdance of writing. You get an experience … but is it really the experience you want? Save some dollar bills and keep an eye on how much telling you’re doing.

Showing though is the champagne room. You get past the expositive bouncer, and you have some ability to feel something (that’s some wordplay for your Monday). The flip side of information transfer theory is emotion prioritized over information. We feel however we feel based on the information, but we can be steered towards some emotions over others based on context.

A writer has a responsibility, though I’d call it a duty and obligation, to make the reader feel something.

But, you say, if I’ve got information to convey, and I can’t control whatever the reader feels upon hearing that the sky is overcast on a particular day, how can I make my reader feel anything?

Well, writer, assuming they feel nothing doesn’t speak very highly as to what you think of your readers. What you’re subcutaneously asking is how you can make them feel “what you want” when they read that the sky is the color of pigeon wings.

Which is why we need the combination of show AND tell when we create art. No, you can’t and don’t want to be all one or the other.

All tell, and you’ve got a dry stack of words with minimal warmth and interest. You’re Spock telling me about planetary life signs. After a while, we need to go find another crew member to interact with.

All show, and you’ve got words with greater width than depth. You can go on and on, adding adjectives and flourish to same ideas, making them more ornate or being more specific, but you’re not combining them with other information to build a complete picture. It’s a teenage love letter, happy to be repeating “I love you” a thousand times, but not having a depth to the idea. And after awhile, it loses its meaning.

But telling serves a critical role: it gives us a boundary, or more like several boundaries. It establishes the perimeter within which we can do all the emotion-evoking we want. And the more definite the boundaries, the more detailed we can get within them.

For example, let’s look at the room I’m sitting in while I’m writing this. It’s Sunday, at 1 minute past noon as I write this sentence, and I’m in an office chair, a bottle of water on my left side, next to my phone that I’ve plugged in to charge while it streams Spotify. The blinds are up on the windows to my right, and the windows are closed. I can hear morning doves. My feet are cold.

That’s a whole lot of telling. I’ve put together quite a few boundaries:

  • The time of day, and the day of the week
  • The chair I’m in
  • Some of the items to my left and right
  • The state of the window blinds and windows
  • What I hear
  • A physical sensation I’m experiencing

With those things defined, I don’t have to qualify additional boundaries. You have enough there to picture me sitting here writing on a Sunday afternoon. What I can do now is add in elements I think will help you feel something in the ballpark of what I intend the text to feel. I can add character and color and shading and narration so that we see a completed picture that tells you a story, not just a set of facts.

Like this: It’s Sunday, just after 12 noon, and as I write, there’s two thoughts at war with the writing – first, I want a shower, second, I want it to be about ten degrees warmer and ditch this grey sky. It’s a downer, no matter how loud I play swing music or think about delicious food. The chair creaks under even the gentlest strains, locking me into a posture like I’m stuck in an economy seat next to some shoe salesman named Earl. Checking wordcount, I’m through 1260 right now, so I’m pretty satisfied. My feet are cold, and I wish I had something other than water to drink as I stare out the windows.

No, the above facts didn’t all make it, because when you aim to evoke emotion, you’re not going to need all the facts to stay, because narration isn’t recitation.  Nor will there be a perfect 50-50 balance that you can always strike.

But you need to define the sandbox somewhat before you go play in it. Information is the basis upon which we educe emotion from our audience, whether we’re writing a touching eulogy or using green on a canvas to make someone remember the lawn of a childhood home.

Consider your boundaries. You control the focus and camera movment, so why do we need THAT piece of information in THAT spot at THAT time? Is it to get us to feel a particular way in a particular moment? Or are you building towards something in word-increments so that when we soon reach another point, we’ve got this whole context in hand so we can appreciate what you mean?

Consider the emotions. How intensely do you need us to feel them? Do we need to feel them as intensely in every sentence, every time? Is that going to yield diminishing returns, constantly keeping the reader cranked to 11? Don’t forget you also hold the ability to push/pull, to vary the words and the emotional triggers and state. The audience has come to you for a whole story, and you’re leading people through the experience a word at a time.

I know, it’s one thing to talk about it, another to do it. So go practice it. Draft after draft. Paragraph after paragraph. You’ll get better at it, the more you do it, and the more you push yourself to do it in ways and places you didn’t think you could or should (yes, you can and should do it all over the place).

See you back here for #inboxwednesday. Happy writing.

The Ins and Outs of “Good” Fiction

I hope you’re enjoying your Friday. Fridays as a freelancer have always felt like every other day of the week, in that there’s always some kid of work to do. Granted, the workload isn’t always the same, but there’s always something I could be doing that isn’t a video game or watching Netflix.

Today I want to talk a bit one of those questions I tend to deflect, because there’s always some other question to answer first, but today seems like a great day to answer it. I don’t skip this question because it has no answer, it’s just that the answer it does have is really … never what a person is expecting.

When the question is “What makes good fiction?” there are two ways to take that question. First, it’s “What book can you recommend?” but more often than not, I’m being asked as a freelance editor or as an editor at Parvus Press, “What makes for a good MS?” meaning “What can I do to get my MS published?”

If you’re asking for book recommendations, I just finished The Force Awakens audiobook, because I’ve been listening to it while driving places. It was a full production, with the Williams score and sound effects under great narration. Totally worth the $20-something iTunes price tag.

But chances are you didn’t come here for books to read/hear today. So let’s talk manuscripts.

Before we get too much farther along, I have to disclaim that what I’m talking about here is specific to me, and that while many people may share similar suggestions, because “good” can be such a subjective decision, you may find that what I like, some lady over there may hate. And I know, I know, a lot of writers decry the fact that there’s no enforced standard, but I’m glad there isn’t. Because all of the variation in writers and criteria and edits and revisions, we get a wealth of books on the shelf rather than a collection of sameness. We’re not making beige cubes at our local Norse furniture emporium, we’re telling stories – we wouldn’t want them to be the same.

Here then are my signs for “good” fiction:

Characters I can connect with in multiple ways. I will prize a character above all else, because they’re the people doing the stuff in the stories. A good character has many different ways  I can connect/agree/believe in them, whether that’s their attitude, their decisions, their moral compass, or their skills I envy. I put myself as the character in the story, and ask, “Were I in this spot, would I do the same thing?”

It’s not that I believe myself to be the character (do you know many cops, detectives and superheroes I’d be?), but I can project myself into their situations and get a sense of whether or not I’d do what they do. It helps ground the character for me. It helps me to feel like I’m connected to an actual person, even if they’re a space robot with shoulder missiles.

Conflict that matters. A boring story is boring because I’m not sure why people are bothering to do whatever they’re doing. There are supposed to be stakes, and they should be high, relative to the scope of the story. The bigger the scale, the higher the stakes. If the whole world is in trouble, I expect to see a big deal at the heart of the matter.

I want to see the characters on an atypical day, a day that isn’t like the ones you haven’t mentioned, even if all your characters do is save the world Monday through Friday. Why should I care about what you’re making these people do? What’s the point? Why do I want to read on if you’re just telling me that they’re going out for tapas? Find your stakes, and elevate them, consistently, keeping a view on the consequences and their potential rewards or failures. Make what the people do matter. Give these things weight.

Dialogue that sounds like people. Yes, I know, you’re maybe not writing people. You’re writing an advanced race of techno-yeasts that want to save the galaxy from the outbreak of the Bast virus, but if you want people (readers) to relate to your yeasts, they need to communicate in a way that we can understand and empathize with, else we’re right back to the “Why should I care?” problem discussed above.

One of the ways, and I think the strongest way, is to get a ear for hearing how people speak. Get a sense of their cadence, their volume when speaking some words over others. Listen for how they break up the sentences. Listen to how they run on. Find the quirks. No, I don’t mean manufacture quirks just you can insert world-building jargon (looking at you BSG and “frak”, you’re that sore in the mouth that would just heal if everything stopped being so damned cutesy about it), I mean distinguish characters not only by aesthetics or cosmetics, but also their linguistics. How someone says something can be as or more important than what they’re saying.

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These are all practical skills that take time to learn. Nope, it’s not easy. But that’s why we take our time writing and rewriting. You can get better at this stuff, just keep writing.

I’ll see you guys next week. Have a great weekend.

 

Happy writing

InboxWednesday -Racing, Reviews, and Respect

In case you missed it Monday, the survey (still free, still anonymous) about editing and coaching is up. If you could take a minute or two and fill it out, I’d really appreciate it. Check it out right here.

Welcome to the middle of your week. We’ve made it this far, I think we can get through. I don’t know why we’d want to put noses to grindstones, that seems like a great way to end up like Voldemort or Skeletor, so how about we instead jump into the inbox and answer some questions?

John, I’ve been trying to finish this MS for 4 years, ever since my daughter went into school, and have days to myself when the house isn’t a wreck. I’m writing a little nearly every day, but it’s so discouraging seeing other people talking on social media about how they’re querying manuscripts they wrote and revised in half the time. What am I doing wrong? – Danielle

Danielle, you’re not doing anything wrong. I’ll say that again, you’re not doing anything wrong. Publishing (like so many other things in this world) isn’t a sprint with a gold medal on the line. There’s no bonus prize award for speed. There’s no achievement you unlock for writing a novel in less than thirty drafts. Writing is meritocratic, meaning the good work goes forward, and the duds don’t (even though all work teaches us stuff).

I know what you’re talking about. That sense of near-failure or struggle that you’re taking so long to do something that other people seem to do in the blinks of a few eyes, and then to top it off they talk about all the other good things going on in their lives and you start wondering if you’re doing anything right at all because you’re not done writing AND your kids just spilled juice on the rug AND your spouse forgot to get the eggs AND you’re supposed to be out of the house within the next 10 minutes. Yeah, it’s a maelstrom of suck, or at least you keep telling yourself it is, so long as you lens everything through whether or not that manuscript is complete.

But, Danielle, you are not your manuscript. You are not your rejection letters. You are not your to-be-done text file of ideas. You are not your Pinterest boards and daydreams.

You’re a whole person, and the only one driving you to compare your manuscript to someone else’s is … you. The reader over there? They don’t care how many drafts it took you. They’re not aware that you wrote chapter 23 while you were sick with flu and ran to the bathroom every six sentences. They just want the book. And since they’ve made it this far in life without your book, I’m pretty sure they’ll be happy to wait for the thing they didn’t realize they would enjoy.

What I’m saying is this – make the  best manuscript you can Danielle. Be bold and fearless and take risks. Put your guts on the page. Write as best you can, when you can. Don’t fall prey to the comparisons about other writers. You’re not other writers, and they’re not you.

Write your story. Finish your story. Keep going.

Hi John! I just got my first book published last year, and the first months of reviews were positive. And for a while, I would run into people who read the book, and they really liked it. But now it’s been nearly a year, and the reviews have slowed down, and I started getting a few negative ones. What do I do? Is this normal? – C.

Hi C. Congratulations on getting your first book published, and I’m glad to hear the reviews have been positive. Yes, what you’re experiencing is typical. There’s a great surge up front, and then things cool off. There are a couple reasons for this.

First, that initial surge probably had some promotion behind it. You were tweeting about it, you were blogging about it, you had friends talking about it when it first came out. It was a new experience, and there was a rush behind it. After a bit of time, it’s no longer as new.

Second, there’s something called “initial push and conversion” which is the immediate reach you have to audience, with a little bit of extension. What that means in English is this: how many people can you directly talk to about your book, and how many of those people will go pick up your book, read it, AND review it. I have 1520 Twitter followers, so while I can reach that many people, I can’t control all 1520 to read my blog, nor can I many all or any of them share what I post with their friends. That’s a lot of people who have the potential to read the blog, but I can’t go to each of their houses and make them not only read, but also comment. Past those 1520 people, my blog is just out there in the wild, so some element of the traffic is based on people googling stuff or just stumbling upon it.

Third, it’s always tough to get readers to leave reviews. That’s not the book’s fault, that’s a combination of factors like assuming someone else will do it so they don’t have to, the perceived amount of time it would take to do more than just click on a number of stars, and the amount of time it would take to sign into a website people may use all the time anyway. And while it’s great that Mary from Anchorage gave the book 5 stars, you’re hoping that Mary takes a few minutes to put some words down along with her 5 stars, so that people read the review and want to buy the book.

The funny part is where you may struggle to have people write lengthy praise, you may have no trouble getting them to bomb your book, especially if it somehow pisses in their cornflakes, upsets their apple cart, or challenges their previously held thoughts. Oh, how the heavens shall tremble when you make a character a race other than what they’re expecting. Oh, how the world shall fall asunder when two characters of the same gender decide they want to go hang out without pants on.

Yes, I should say here, I am a believer in the idea that even bad press is press, and you can use this to your advantage (without the horseshit of generating your own controversy so you can play the victim though, I have no patience for it, and if you want that, there are plenty of websites where you can go for that experience) with sharp marketing copy like “Come check out the book everyone says is ruining all of mankind because two ladies go out for latte.” or “Do you agree with X number of reviewers that anthropomorphic hot dog aliens are the worst thing ever since ‘we let the gays marry’?” But that’s just me, and maybe your preferred response to bookcritic4lyfe88 is to get your ice cream and beer on.

What you do is this – keep writing. Go make that next book, tell that next story, don’t lose yourself to tending the garden of reviews when you have so many other seeds to plant and watch bloom. Just keep going.

Hey John, love the blog. Glad to hear you’re recovering from surgery and I’m happy to see you posting again. I’m not sure you’re going to answer this email, but I wanted to tell you that I’ve taken the plunge and starting writing. I’m a SAHM, so I squeeze my writing in during irregular hours when I’m not being a chauffeur or referee between two kids. My husband has started working from home two days a week, but I’m having trouble convincing them that I’m seriously trying to write. Any tips? – Allison

Allison, thanks for the question. Yes, I have some tips.

First, one of the things that you need to look at are those “irregular” hours. Yeah, I know, kids can throw a wrench in a lot of routines sometimes, but that’s not always the norm is it? Sometimes, yes, there are just regular downtimes and a sort of unspoken schedule. Spend a few days really trying to figure out what that schedule is and write it down.

If your kids are both in bed and asleep by 8:30 (I’m making times up here), and your husband is happily content doing his own thing by then too, then you’ve got let’s say 8:30 to 10pm to yourself. Explain to your husband (always start with the adults) that you’re going to make a habit out of writing from 8:30 to 9:15 (again, I’m making up times Allison), and that during that time, you want to keep the distractions to a minimum. Now I don’t know what you consider a distraction, maybe you want him to yell at the Xbox a little less loudly, or when the kids pop up because of whatever reason, you send them to see your husband first before you. Yeah, there might be some grumbling, there always is when a status quo changes, but if you stick to it, people will come around.

You deserve the opportunity to have your time and interests respected. But the other people around you aren’t going to know what’s up without you putting down a boundary and enforcing it. Sure, some distractions are going to require your intervention, and that is going to cut into that writing schedule, but by and large, you can set up a schedule and stick to it, so long as you ride out that initial anxiety you have that people will freak out because you’re going to go be creative. It’s worth pointing out that you don’t know how they’re going to react until you start, so start, and trust the people around you to be supportive. You’re good enough to respect yourself and be respected by others.

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If you have a question you want to see answered on #inboxwednesday, send me an email. Yes, I really do read them all.

Go create. We’ll talk Friday.

 

 

Of Writers and Scotsmen

Welcome back to the week. Hope your weekend was a good one. Mine wasn’t too shabby, thanks for asking. The weather’s getting warmer, so I’m encouraged to leave the blinds up and I’m counting those days until the clocks shift an hour when we’re one step closer to me having windows open and music blaring – it remains my favorite stretch of the year.

Also, on a personal note, I’m getting better. The meds are working, I can afford them now (yay insurance!), and I’ve got more energy than I had last week. I’m not completely up to speed again, but this is definitely a big step forward.

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Before we get into today’s topic, I’ve got a favor to ask. I’ve put together a short anonymous survey (you don’t need to give your name or e-mail address) that I’d appreciate you taking. It’s 10 questions, and won’t take more than a few minutes.

Check it out here. Thanks.

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Today we’re going to talk about sort of a hot button issue, depending on how often you frequent message boards and forums for writers, though the problem exists outside of writerdom. I want to talk today about the No True Scotsman fallacy and how it kills rather than strengthen writing and its communities.

What is the No True Scotsman? It’s an assertion that a “true” (read: “real”) __________ wouldn’t do whatever it is they’re doing.

Like this:
A: No writer succeeds without an MFA.
B: I’m a successful writer, and I don’t have an MFA.
A: Yeah, okay, but no real writer succeeds without an MFA.

Swap “writer” for any label you can think of, and swap the back half of the sentence  (start with the verb and go forward), and you’ll see this a lot. Here are some examples I’ve heard and read over the weekend.

No real writer writes children’s books.
To be a real larper, you need to be out there every weekend.
No real feminist thinks penetrative intercourse is acceptable.
No real chef makes a casserole.
A real writer would know that only trad pub makes you legit.
No real parent lets their child eat a doughnut.
To be a real gamer, you had to have played Dungeons & Dragons first edition.
No real patriot thinks we need to get rid of guns.

Maybe you’ve heard this sort of stuff before. Maybe it hasn’t been in the form of a single sentence, but the idea gets put out there that there are “real” writers and then there are “not-real” writers based on what people do or don’t do. You see this a lot on message boards when people ask questions or challenge assumptions or just plain don’t know because they’re new or unsure.

What this does is create an unnecessary division within a group, so there’s an opportunity to create an us-versus-them environment, where one group can deny access, praise, legitimacy, information, or experience from another group. It’s another form of gatekeeping, since it makes one group have to validate themselves to the other group, if they want to be considered “real.”

It’s a giant crock of applesauce and horsefeathers.

Because a real writer is someone who writes. Period. A real gamer is someone who plays games. Period. A real ____ is someone who does/is _______, because the act of doing a thing is  what makes you a person who does a thing. To suggest that someone isn’t legitimate because they don’t conform to your metric says that you’re somehow the arbiter of other people’s efforts and talent and thoughts.

I just checked. You’re not the arbiter of other people.

I’ve also noticed that the people who want to spend their time talking about who is or isn’t a “real” writer are often doing so at the internet watering holes for writers, and often do so repeatedly over the course of several hours. I watched one user write 7 or 8 posts over the course of 2 hours, feuding with anyone within 60 virtual feet about how you shouldn’t go to Author X’s blog, that Author Y’s blog was better, how you can’t trust any editors, how you need to be doing A and B and C things … all this talk, when they could instead let the writing and production of writing be a meritocracy.

Want to be a real writer? Then be writing. Make good art. Art hard. Challenge yourself. Don’t poison the watering holes by pissing in it. That time you spend yapping about who is and isn’t a writer is time YOU could be writing, helping yourself rather than shutting down others. Unless, of course, you feel you need to shut down other people to feel better about yourself.

We’re all true Scotsmen. We’re all real writers, even if we disagree with each other or work differently.

See you later this week for #inboxwednesday.

Happy writing.