Friday, August 17, 2012

Writer's Rules Revisited #4

I'm heading out to Star Wars Celebration and Dragon*Con next week and wanted to get another installment of these posts elaborating on my "50 rules and tips for writers" out before I left.

This series is all about fleshing out each individual rule and offering myself (as well as other writers) some food for thought on the process of writing.

You can read Part 1 here.
You can read Part 2 here. 
You can read Part 3 here.

These next three all generally have to do with dialogue.

Dialogue is very crucial in prose and screenwriting. And giving characters unique voices is a challenge for any writer, even the best of them. These next three rules in the series are, more than anything, here to make you think differently about dialogue and how it looks on the page and what you can do to make it better.

Sometimes, considering a different perspective is all you need to put you on the right path.

15) Monologues are for the theatre. Break up long stretches of dialogue with actions, reactions, sense of place, other senses, etc.

This rule might seem as though it fits mainly with screenwriting, but it's something that one needs to be conscious of in whatever medium you're writing in. There is nothing more obnoxious to a reader than seeing a character talking for a full page or more without a break or a pause.

In screenwriting, remember that it is primarily a visual medium. You need to tell the story with cinema as often as possible, and tell it with dialogue as little as possible. The average rule of thumb for a screenplay is that one page of text will translate into one minute on film. If you're writing a blue-print, how does it help the cinematographer know where to point the camera if there's a monologue with nothing to break it up? A full, uninterrupted minute is an eternity on film.

What is the speaker doing during that full minute of speech? Could you break into the dialogue to say that they prepare themselves a drink as they speak? Could they be twitching somehow? Might they need to draw in a breath?

What is everyone else witnessing this monologue doing? Checking their watch? Slugging a shot of scotch? Anything?

In screenwriting, it's very easy to break these long chunks of talking up with small reactions. In prose, it's even easier. You can pause and write an internal monologue of the character, showing us how they feel about what they're saying. You can give us clues to let us know if they really believe the nonsense they're spouting. If you're going to have something important enough to take up that much time and space, you better pack as much extra meaning and emotion into it as you can.

With prose, you need to rely more on sensory description, you could cut into the monologue and let us know if the characters voice is getting raspy, with words coming out dry, as if across the sandpaper of their throat. Or if they're struggling to maintain their volume or emotion. Or if they're holding tears back.

As I've said before, screenwriting and prose writing are very different beasts, and the tools you'd use to break up the same problem are very, very different.

But knowing that both tools exist are good for you. And being watchful of these long monologues will help make your writing more visual or vivid.

16) Be as conscious of how the page looks as you are of what it says. If a page looks easy to read with little text, readers are more likely to read it.

Going along with the last rule, you need to make your pages look enticing.

In the realm of screenwriting, a page that looks difficult to read will often get skipped or skimmed by a reader. If it looks inviting, they'll carry on.

In prose, it's much the same thing. How many of you have skimmed through thick page-long paragraphs of description in a novel in favor of something with lots of white space and dialogue? Be honest. Pretty much all of us have. It's human nature to seek out the path of least resistance and you, as a writer, want to offer as little to resist as possible in your aesthetic.

One page long paragraph seems easier to read if it is broken up into four smaller, more easily digestible chunks.

Taking that a step further, having shorter chapters makes it more likely that you'll drive your reader to read more in a sitting, or come back to the book for more because they know they can sneak in a quick read and have a natural stopping point.

It's true that so much of pacing is in the story and how it's, told, but a major component of it as well is how you engage the reader with the physical look of your pages.

Again, it's another one of those things that you need to pay attention to. It might not change your writing style, but being aware of it is better than being oblivious.

17) People talk in contractions and broken sentences. Virtually no one speaks perfect English. (See Twain's dialogue.)

This is one of my pet peeves in reading dialogue. Unless you're Data the Android, you're speaking in contractions, incomplete sentences, and colloquialisms. You can make a stodgy, stiff sounding character set apart from the rest on purpose, but short of that, you need to be using contractions and broken sentences to breathe life into characters.

Characters have different ways of saying things and they're all unique. The way a character contracts certain words over others, or has certain phrases they use help set them apart.

If there's one place you can get away with breaking all the rules of proper writing, it's in dialogue. You can cram in all the "ain't"s, "I dunno"s, "shoulda"s, and "I'd've"s you want. And there's still room for more.

The other thing to be conscious of and careful with is dialect. No one could handle dialect quite like Mark Twain. The man had an ear for any and ever sort of dialect he ever heard and had the uncanny ability to create phonetic versions of those dialects in a way that made sense to just about everybody. Sure, his dialogue is riddled with apostrophes, but it works.

I would heartily recommend studying all of his dialogue. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, both free for the Kindle.

When it's easy for your readers to identify your character by the patter of his or her speech alone, you've travelled a great distance in your characterization. 

Be sure to check out Part 1Part 2, and Part 3.

If you want to check out the whole list, you can find it here. And while you're thinking about it, feel free to order a signed book from me, or check out my collection of work that's available digitally.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Writer's Rules Revisited #3

I'm continuing my series on the "50 Rules and Tips for Writers" that I began a couple of weeks ago. These were 50+ rules and tips I'd collected over the years as a writer. As I think of one or read one in a book, I'll put it down in my notebook and save it for later. I've been collecting this list for well over a decade and it will continue to grow as time goes on. 

This series is all about fleshing out each individual rule and offering myself (as well as other writers) some food for thought on the process of writing.

You can read Part 1 here.
You can read Part 2 here. 
You can read Part 4 here.

These next three words are largely for use during the editing process. You can't obsess about self-editing while you're writing a first draft. Sure, you want that draft to be as clear and concise as possible, and as close to a final as you can get, but you need to focus on putting down each and every word that will allow you to put down the next word and sentence and paragraph and scene and so on. If you stress out about trimming things and paring them down while you're working on your early drafts. 

If you're constantly revising before your draft is done, your draft will never be done.

With that caveat in mind, we'll dive into the next three rules on the list.

12) Be economical with your words. Omit all words that aren't 100% necessary to tell the story. 
“My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.” --Ernest Hemingway
During the editing process you need to strip out every word that doesn't help you move the story along. Some misinterpret this to mean that you shouldn't stop for a moment to smell the roses, but if stopping to smell the roses in nice flowery prose is appropriate to set the scene for the story and advance an idea about the character, then it becomes necessary to tell the story.

Your job is to make the story and the characters and the prose flow as effortlessly as possible and having extra words, phrases, and ideas gets in the reader's way.

But brevity is hard. It takes longer to be short and quick than it is to be long winded. Pouring everything out takes no training at all, being concise takes hard work and plenty of time and effort.

It's your job to find the right word in every situation. In the English language, there are incredibly specific words for just about everything. And if there isn't, we steal it from another language. But we keep our concision that way. One of my favorites was a word Graham Greene used quite a bit was "sangfroid." It means composure of coolness as shown in danger or under trying circumstances. It's an incredibly specific word and it doesn't always fit, but knowing that it's there to helps make your job easier.

Your job is to find the right word. And so what if your reader has to go to the dictionary now and again? 
The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. --Mark Twain

One of my favorite quotes (which I constantly mis-attribute to Mark Twain) sums up the effort of being concise perfectly:

I'm sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn't have time to write a short one. --Blaine Pascal
Don't think editing is easier because it's all cuts and trims. It's rewrites and adding elegance. You might rewrite every single word of your story. And because you've already written it down in a way you thought was good enough as it is, it'll be harder to come up with a way to do it better. But that's what must be done.

But a good rule of thumb is to cut everything that gets in the way of the story.

To make sure you stay out of the way of the story, there's a couple of rules I try my hardest to follow:

13) Statements like "begins to" and "starts to" are nonsense. Someone does something or they don't. It's just more words for people to read for no reason.

I still find myself breaking this particular rule in my first drafts, but I'm moving so fast that I don't even notice. There are certainly acceptable reasons to use phrases like "begins to" and "starts to," especially if you're going to cut the action off before it really starts. But using it to say a character is doing something is an incredibly weak and wasteful way of doing it.

It's very passive writing. You're told constantly to make your writing more active by removing words like "was" and that's good advice, but these two are equally horrific offenders.

Take this sequence:
Jonathan was looking back and forth, from the beaker to the chemicals, wondering what sort of reaction he'd get. Then, he began to drop the acid into the beaker. It sizzled and popped, smoke started to waft into the air.
It's just overloaded with words that don't need to be there. It can be much more dynamic by removing the offending phrases, investing it with an energy that will subconsciously transfer to your reader.

Try this again:
Jonathan looked back and forth between the beaker and the chemicals, unsure of the reaction he'd get. Then, carefully, he squeezed droplets of the acid into the beaker. They sizzled and popped, filling his eyes with smoke.
Doesn't that add a level of "here and now" to it that the first lacked?

But that doesn't mean that the first paragraph isn't correct. If that's how it comes out the first time, there's no penalty for rewriting it later, bearing all of these things in mind.

Mark Twain found "very" to be a damn overused word:
Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. --Mark Twain
"That" is another word I find myself overusing. My editor is constantly circling it in all of my drafts in an effort to force me into evaluating each usage. You need to take away everything you can in your editing process.
Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away. -- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
14) The more sparing you are with adjectives and adverbs, the more impact they will have when you do use them.

Again, this is a rule that might apply most to screenwriting, but it crosses over to prose remarkably well.

Adjectives and adverbs are very powerful description tools. Sometimes (a lot of the time) they're just too much. They can clutter your prose, get in the way of your story and annoy your readers. (Sidenote: There is a dedicated group of misguided zealots who find that all adverbs should be eliminated completely, but they are wrong. That's like buying a toolbox full of all the tools you need to craft a couch, then tossing all the screwdrivers and say you're building it with everything else available.)

When you use them sparingly, they have a greater impact when you do use them.

If you've got one or two adjectives and adverbs to an entire page, do you think they'd have a greater resonance and impact when they were read? Or less?

Since they are fewer in number, they will stand out and remain, rattling around in the reader's head longer.

Words are important, those that are written and those left unwritten.

Use them wisely.

That's what all of these rules really come down to: use your words wisely and don't waste a single one.

Be sure to check out Part 1Part 2, and Part 4.

If you want to check out the whole list, you can find it here. And while you're thinking about it, feel free to order a signed book from me, or check out my collection of work that's available digitally.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Free Books today!

I'm unenrolling a bunch of books from Amazon's KDP Select program so I can make them available on the Nook soon and I still had plenty of promotion days left.

So, for their last hurrah as Amazon exclusives, I thought I'd make them free for today and tomorrow.

If you want them for free, now is the time to grab them.

1) Confessions of an Independent Filmmaker: Part 1 - Missy: I've been working on a series for a while now of my adventures through the film industry. The first part of the series describes my desire and love for film and documents the first film I made. And how I built an entire spaceship in my mom's backyard and how I ended up in Park City showing the film at festivals. (Part 2 covers failed projects and proposals and Part 3 covers my time as a guerilla marketer at Sundance, Part 4 is forthcoming, but documents my adventures dealing with producers and agents in Hollywood as a screenwriter).  But Part 1 is a free taste right now.

2) Letters From Elsewhere: This is a collection of short stories all in letter format. They run the gamut from war stories to love stories and a few interesting points in between. There are 4 stories in all and I think they're a quick, enjoyable read for anyone even half interested.

3) The Whiskey Doctor: Stories From the New Great Depression: I think of the three pieces I have here, this one might be the most "important." It's three heartfelt stories about people trying to make it in today's tough economy. I love that Depression era literature that came out of the dust bowl with guys like John Steinbeck and this is my modern take on those themes.

These are completely free for you. The only thing I ask is that you consider reviewing them or passing the word on about them if you like what you've read.