Thursday, October 8, 2015

Common Mistakes: The Ten Deadly Sins

Just because I'm a writer and have been published doesn't mean I don't make mistakes.  I do.  I make 'em all the time.  In fact, some of the worst mistakes I make in writing, I don't even see until someone smugly points them out to me.  Usually, that person is one of my current or former students, and more often than not they are pointing out a mistake for which I've beaten them about the head and shoulders.  So I'm not perfect.  In fact, if it weren't for beta readers and editors, a great many writers would never make it to print.  What I want to do, however, is point out a few of the most common mistakes with the hope that you will learn to avoid them.

See, I'm not saying "be like me" or "do as I say, not as I do."  What I'm saying is, I want you to be better than me.

Had - Had is bad.  I've typed that phrase over a thousand times.  Several professors questioned me on it.  But I stand by it. "Had," when used in anything other than the indication of former possession (he had a ball, but now he doesn't) or distant past is just plain wrong. Here's the thing... If you're talking about something that happened just moments ago, "had" doesn't work.  It's not the word you want.  "He had come into the room" vs. "He came into the room."  See the difference?  The first one was an example of something he did repeatedly over a long period of time.  The second one, he walked in just a moment ago.

Excessive Adverbs - We've all been told that adverbs are just a way of defining a verb.  He ran quickly or whispered softly or screamed loudly.  the problem with adverbs is that they're largely superfluous, and they are perhaps the most overused part of speech since the "had."  To wit:  How does someone run?  Quickly.  Do you know anyone who runs slowly?  Okay, yes, some people do, but the expectation in the written form is that, if a character runs, he's doing it quickly, thereby making the word "quickly" superfluous and redundant.  Of course there are exceptions, but they apply when something happens that is out of the norm.  For example, "He ran slowly.   In this case, slowly is not the expectation, so it's necessary.  You also run the risk of what we used to call "Tom Swifties," which is an adverb that so mimics the meaning of the verb it modifies as to render it superfluous, but comedically so. For example, she sang musically.  Well... Yeah.  Singing is, technically (in most cases) musical. If it's not, there's something wrong with your character's singing voice. "I don't know where we are," said Tom lostly.

Right or Left - Who cares?  Does it really matter whether a character's right or left hand is the one that got slapped?  Do we say that when we speak?  Do we say "I hurt my right hand?"  No, we don't.  Right or left, it doesn't matter.  What matters?  Hand.  I hurt my hand.  I got hit in the temple.  I put the keys in my hand.  He stepped on my foot.  See?  Right or left, who cares.  It's a superfluous piece of information that really does nothing more than muddy up your writing.  Unless there's a specific purpose for the mentioning of right or left, leave it out.

You - When you write, typically, you're writing in 3rd or 1st person.  And as such, the reader (or the audience) is stuck behind what we call "the fourth wall."  This is the invisible wall that is removed so we can get a glimpse into the lives of characters that sit in that three-camera set-up of sitcoms.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, go watch an episode of The Big Bang Theory.  See how we only see the apartment from one side?  Ever wonder what's on that 4th wall?  The audience, that's what.  So when you, the writer, use the word "you" (as I'm doing here frequently), it should only be done when directly addressing the reader.  In theater, this is called an "aside."  In literature, this is known as "annoying" and "distracting."

Starting - More often than not, I come across statements that say "he started to run..." or something of the like.  Perform an experiment with me.  Start to run. No really.  What you'll see is that there is actually a moment between not running and running, but "starting" to run is nothing but intention.  There's no movement there.  So if someone "started" to run, I'm left to wonder what stopped him.

Distancing and Filters - Look, I get it.  We all want the reader to know what our characters saw, felt, heard, etc.  It's called description.  But we also want the reader to become thoroughly absorbed in the story, right?  So writers tend to use filters.  "He saw," "She heard," "they knew..."  They're all sensory of one sort or another.  But here's the thing:  Every time you use one of these, you're reminding the reader that "hey... You're reading a story, and being told the story second hand."  There is a way to draw the reader in further, to deepen the POV:  Remove the filters.  Consider the difference:  "He heard birds sing" vs "birds sang."  In the first instance, we are told what he heard.  But in the second, we are there with him.  We hear it when he does.  We know what's going on.

Weak Words - I see words like "this," "these," and "those" all the time.  And guess what.  They're a cop-out.  Words like "this," "these," and "those" are lazy.  They're weak.  And worse, they make your prose read like stereo instructions. The three words listed have their proper places, but their place is not in your narration.  Ever.

Its vs It's - It's really quite simple.  "IT'S" is a contraction.  It means "it is."  "Its" is used in all other cases.  Period.  There's no debate here, no questions, no exceptions.  It's simply how it is.

Your vs You're - Again, easy.  "Your" means possession.  Something that belongs to you.  Your ball, your bat, your nervous breakdown.  "You're" is a contraction which means "you are."

There, They're, and Their - I see this one butchered all the time, and, frankly, it pisses me off.  Someone wasn't paying attention in junior high school.  So for those who still haven't grasped it, "there" is spacial.  "Here or there," "go over there," "what's that over there."  "Their" means "belonging to them."  "Their car."  "Their rugby team."  "Their funeral costs."  "They're" is a contraction which means "they are."  "They're going to murder me when they find out what I've done with their schnauzer, which a buried over there."

So there you have it.  Ten of the most common mistakes I come across in creative writing classes.  There are more.  Sooooo many more.  But these are the most common, outside of basic grammar and punctuation (which are for a whole 'nother blog).  Hope this helps someone.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Ranty McRantypants: On Marriage Equality

Normally, this blog is dedicated to writing tips, advice, and other aspects of the artistic profession that I so love.  But today, I feel the need to talk about something else.  And, since it's my blog, I can do that.  If you find yourself offended by what I'm about to say, please take this opportunity to bugger off and find something else to do.  We'll be back to writing advice soon enough, but do please keep your opinions to yourself.

Over the past few years, I've seen a lot of ink and airwaves about "gay marriage."  I prefer to call it "marriage equality," but that's not the subject here.  I've seen people on both sides of the fence, and I've heard all kinds of arguments, and I think it's time for me to come right out and take a stand on which side I fall.  So here's the short version:

Everyone has the right to be happy, to be loved, and to declare a life-long bond with whomever they want. Everyone.  "But what about..?"  See the first word.  It's important.  "Everyone."  Live it, love it, deal with it.
Because I said so. That's why.
Look, I've seen so many right-wing Christian fundamentalists scream and bitch about the "sanctity of marriage" and the the "abomination" of what gay sex means, and every time another one opens his or her mouth, my eyes roll so hard that I'm afraid they're going to roll out and wind up in my shirt pocket.  First off, it seriously cracks me up when people who have been divorced, people who are in abusive marriages, or people who got married because one of them was pregnant gives anyone else lip about the "sanctity" of marriage.  Newsflash, people:  You have no room to talk.  And, while marriage can be a religious thing, it doesn't have to be.  Which means that your supposedly religiously-mandated homophobia doesn't apply.  "But God says..." Nope.  Sorry.  The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America (remember that little holy document? The one that allows you to be an asshole?) provides for the separation of church and state.  Which means that the moment you say "the bible says" or "against the will of God," guess what... 
Don't let the door hit you where the dog should've bit you.
But why is that?  Why would we want the country to be run by people who actually make laws based on logic or on, Gods forbid, what's  best for everyone instead of based on what your God wants?  Picture this...What if someone got into power who believed in something other than your God?  Let's say, just for the sake of argument, Tom Cruise decided to run for president.
Mr. President... 
Suddenly, all laws are based on the beliefs taught by the Church of Scientology.  Your beliefs as a Christian?  Thpppt.  That's wrong now.  Sorry.  All praise Xenu.  "But that couldn't possibly happen!" you say.  "Because Christianity is the right religion!"  Weird.  That's what pretty much every other religion believes.  And they're just as convinced as you are.  Believe it or not, your beliefs don't really make a big difference to the rest of the world.  They're content to let you believe whatever you want as long as you don't try to force those beliefs on other people.  Which, by the way, you're doing.  Pretty sure you wouldn't like it if the same thing were being done to you.   Moving on.

I read an article today that stated that the "militant" homosexuals are targeting the Christians.  
Yeah... These guys...
Look... I grew up in a small town on the Texas coast.  It was so inundated with Christian fundamentalism that the largest arguments around town was who was more Christian than whom.  And the one thing I saw targeted more than anyone else?  Gays.  I grew up around slurs of "faggot," "fairy," "homo," "queer," and every other slur you can imagine.  I've seen gay men (and boys) get beaten nearly to death for loving someone.  I've had gay friends commit suicide rather than face the hatred they got for being something they couldn't help.  I've seen families ripped apart because people were too afraid to be who they were.  Here's another news flash:  The homosexuals aren't targeting Christians.  They're not "targeting" anyone.  They're not harassing anyone.  They just want to be considered equals to everyone else.  And they should be.  That the homophobic hatred is being called out for what it is, many find threatening.  But really, it's just exposing it for what it is:  Hate.  Plain and simple.
This is you.  Seriously.  This is you.
Really, look at the central message of Christianity (or most other religions, for that matter).  Boil down all the messages and lessons and everything else and you come up with a pretty easy message to get:  Don't be an asshole. And that's what you're doing.  So, if you're really trying to follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, cut the shit and quit preaching inequality and hatred.
So there's this woman right now who is refusing to do her job, which is to hand out marriage licenses, because she is religiously opposed to same-sex marriage.  The Supreme Court (you might've heard of 'em) have ordered her to do the job for which she is paid.  Let me repeat that:  HER JOB IS TO HAND OUT LICENSES.  I wonder, does she also refused to hand out licenses to people on their second or third marriages?  How about mixed-race couples?  How about couples in which the woman is not a virgin (look it up... It's a "sacred" requirement)?  Let's say, for the sake of argument, that you or I refused to do our jobs.  What would happen to us?  We'd be fired, right?  What if our religion prevented us from doing the job for which we were specifically hired?  Fired.  Done.  Do your damned job or we need to find someone who will.  The thing that gets me is that she's being held up like some sort of martyr over her "heroic" stand for God's rules.  In a government job.  Re-read the whole "separation of church and state" thing.  Yeah.  She's not a martyr...She's a hate-monger.  What else should we do, lady?  Have "gays only" drinking fountains?  Make 'em sit on the back of the bus?  Have special "gays only" entrances to movie theaters?
Let's be perfectly honest here.  If you are trying to deny someone the right to marry or love because they are gay, it isn't because of your religion.  It's you.  You just don't want them to.  For whatever reason, you just want to discriminate.  And guess what.  That makes you a bigot.  That makes you a bad person.  That makes you everything that your religion, in theory, stands against.  And, if you truly believe in God, then you have to know that he's staring down at you with sadness in his giant metaphysical heart and disappointment on his face.  Congratulations.
Hope you're happy.
I'm getting married in March, to a wonderful woman.  It's one of the most amazing things I could've ever hoped for, and I can't fathom denying anyone else that kind of joy.  Love is rare.  True love, even more so.  We don't choose who we love.  We don't choose who we're attracted to.  If all the scandals of the past have taught us anything, it's what happens when bigoted assholes deny people the right to be themselves.  Gay, bi, pan, trans, straight... It doesn't matter.  Everyone deserves happiness.  EVERYONE.  Say it with me.  EVERYONE DESERVES HAPPINESS.  Love is not wrong.  Remember the whole "God is love" movement?  Love is not wrong.  Love is good.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

June 2015 Residency

Another June is gone, and with it, another June residency at dear old Seton Hill University.  I treasure every residency at SHU.  Apart from it being one of two weeks out of the year where people treat me like I know what I'm doing, June is always special because that's when WPF alumni show up for the In Your Write Mind writer's retreat, and it's a chance for us to catch up with former students who are now our colleagues.  And it brings up a few great points.

First off, I've been lucky.  A large number of people I've mentored through the program have gone on to publish their thesis and other books.  That has little to do with me, I promise, as those people are talented and would most likely have succeeded with or without me. But they're all genuinely good people.  When I'm done being a teacher, I consider those people my dear friends, and I feel my life is richer for having them in it.

Second, residency is an amazing time for networking.  In addition to our guest speaker, Chuck Wendig, we had people who represented a great many other industries.  We had video game companies, movie producers, teachers, personal assistants, and, of course, publishers.  And half the time, no one knew to whom we were speaking.  We just knew that we were interesting people having a real conversation and that we treated each other with respect.  Only after speaking to someone (and perhaps being ignorant of their profession) did we discover that all these wonderful people were... Well... Wonderful.  I am always and forever humbled by the fantastic people associated with our department, and it makes me proud to be a part of it.

Lots of talk about the newly legal gay marriage happened at this res...

Third, there is just no substitute for being in a room full of creative types who are all throwing their weirdest ideas out on the floor.  It's a bizarre game of one-upmanship.  And no matter who is declared the victor, anyone who hears the crossfire of insanity that issues forth wins.  In one evening, we dodged the pack-hunting Scottiraptor.  In another, we found ourselves examining the merits of the wall-o-beer at Headkeepers.  We danced with superheroes and discovered that, in our hearts, we love to play the villain.  It was an amazing time.

Pictured:  Better dancing than ours...

Fourth, I am a writer.  No kidding, I hear you say.  But every six months, my batteries get recharged.  And only once in that year am I held accountable.  I meet with my former-students-now-colleagues and am asked the fateful and feared question:  "What'cha working on?"  I hear their success stories and am proud of them for all they've done, and it motivates me to get my ass in gear.  And I think that's the real magic of the program.  Yes, people learn how to be a better writer (and, believe me, I learn just as much from the students as they do from me), but more, the program inspires.  The program conjures greatness and drags creativity from people that few other activities or workshops or retreats or seminars can.

Get back to work, you...
So, to my beloved Seton Hill University, and to the Masters of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction program housed therein, thank you.  Thank you for being you, and thank you for being so generous with your students, and for letting me be counted among your proud faculty.  Now if you'll excuse me, I have work to do.
Every story begins with a single line...

Monday, June 15, 2015

Writing as Solace

Ever get into a group of creative people and just listen?  I mean, really listen?  If you go to a place where creative types hang out (and I'm not talking about Starbucks...Nothing against them, but this is different) and actually engage your ears, you learn quite a bit about creative types. It doesn't matter whether their medium is paint, cloth, the stage or words, there are common traits amongst them all.  In a sense, they're all share one commonality that binds them together and allows them to write, paint,  act, or whatever. 

They're damaged. 

In some way, we all are.  In some way, large or small, we have issues.  That doesn't mean every artist has been raped or were abused children or were into self-harm or whatever.  It doesn't mean we're all alcoholics or drug users.  It just means that, somewhere in our past, something happened that left a lasting impression.  It might've been a lot of things.  It might've been just one.  This is not a condemnation, just an observation. If you doubt me, look at every famous creative person of which you know.  Look at all the great painters.  Look at all the greatest writers.  Moreover, look at yourself. 

The cracks are in you, not the glass...

Where do you draw from?  If, like me, you write horror, from what part of your psyche or soul do you pull the darkness, the blood, the tears, the pain?  What is the source of all the terrible things that flow out of your brain and into your fingers so you can inflict them upon the world?  What is it that drives you to be creative? 

I'm not a psychologist, and the point of this entry isn't to label every creative person as needing intensive therapy, though many of us do.  Most of us have learned coping mechanisms or have "gotten over it," whatever "it" was.  The point is this:

Use your art. 

I ran into a guy at a convention a while ago who wanted to be a writer.  He wrote for a while, but quite after a relatively short time.  When I asked him why, he said he was too depressed to write, too broken to create.  It struck a chord with me.  I asked him his genre, to which he replied horror.  We talked for a bit, then I asked him the big question:  "Why aren't you pouring those emotions into your work?  Why aren't you using that creative process as an outlet for your pain?"  He looked at me like I was crazy, which, admittedly, I'm used to.  

I can't imagine why...

Let me explain. 

Art is a world in which you, the artist, are God.  The world works the way you want it to, for the most part.  I mean, we still have to follow rules of silly things like physics (not always, but that's for another article), but for the most part, what we say goes.  We can take things like, say, an abusive relationship, and amplify it into a creature or metaphor where we can throw that pain on the page and kill it away.  We can make that pain eat, make it kill, make it fight, and make it die.  A painter can have an outpouring of emotion on the canvas through bold colors and long strokes of the brush.  Writers can solve all their personal issues in a world they create.  Whether that problem is a traumatic childhood, the death of a loved one, overcoming addiction, or deep depression, your art can help you.  

And not just by killing the metaphorical beast on the page.  For me, to put the pain I go through on the page is a form of catharsis.  It's a reassignment of the pain from me to the reader, who will be done with it when the book is closed.  I'm able to get the hurt off my chest, little by little, dispersed through four hundred or so pages.  So when someone says to me they are in too much pain to write, I say to them to use it.  I know.  I've been there.  I've been defeated and broken before.  

Pictured:  So done with everything...

It's not secret that, in 2013, I lost my wife of twenty years to cancer.  What may or may not be common knowledge is that, for the two years she fought, I didn't write.  Not a single word.  I was busy.  I wanted to care for her and, frankly, there was no creative muse left for me.  My muse lay in a bed while cancer took her away from me.   When she passed away, I was a broken man.  I didn't care anymore about writing, about the program for whom I work, or for my own life for that matter.  Nothing mattered to me.  I spiraled into a very deep depression.  Then I met someone who made me want to write again.  She inspired me.

But the pain still lingered, and I suspect it always will. 

Here's the point, though.  I started working again.  I started writing again.  I pushed myself to turn on my computer, pull up a blank file, and pour all those emotions into characters and situations and monsters and mayhem and symbolism and rage and... and...  

And something curious happened.  I felt better. 

Found my tail...
Characters died, others wept, and my emotions were thrown on the page, raw and bare, for the world to read.  I can't tell you how many times I caught myself in tears as I typed away, not even aware I was crying.  My characters went through loss and pain, and I didn't feel so alone anymore.  I pushed everything I felt out onto the page and it felt like a deep breath released.  And when I emerged from my writing room, I felt alive again.  I felt energized.  I felt like me. 

So this is the advice I wish to convey:  Use your art.  Truly creative people are a rare breed, and we can use the pain, the joy, the anger, the rapture in our lives to drive or work.  But more important in this case, we can use our work to soothe our souls.  We can use our art to give ourselves peace. 

One other thing you'll notice if you ever get the opportunity to sit and listen to creative types:  The crazier the work, the nicer we are.  Some of my favorite people in the world write some of the most demented stories imaginable.  People like Tim Waggoner, Gary Braunbeck, Mike Arnzen, Jack Ketchum... People read our work and assume we're terrifying individuals.  But I can tell you from personal experience that every person mentioned here are the nicest individuals you'd ever want to meet.  Of course they are.  All their demons are trapped in words on pages.  

Tuesday, June 9, 2015


While mentoring young writers, I often come across similar issues.  One of my favorites is when the writer in question has a brilliant imagination, but clearly hasn't thought things through enough.  I teach a module called "Evolution of the Species" in which we discuss this type of issue, but here' i'd like to focus on a small problem that turned huge pretty quick as an illustration. 

For the purposes of this exercise, let's assume you're a writer.  

Your genre is fantasy (or "high fantasy").  You've created a race of people who have wings.  You have a gift of description that leaves your readers breathless with the beautiful images of purple feathers and soft collars of down.  In fact, this race is so ancient that you have no real reason to create a complete backstory for them because they "have always been."

Submitted without comment...

Then one sits in a chair. 

Now, for a moment, lets ignore all the other issues this world has, such as your winged people living in houses.  Let's just focus on that one detail for a moment. 

In your home, you have chairs.  No, really.  Don't believe me?  Go look.  I'll wait.  See?  Told you.  Now, in your description of these chairs, you go on and on about highly decorated ornate backs of wood and employ your gift of descriptive imagery to its full extent.  The chairs in your world are beautiful and realistic to all the readers.  

Pictured:  Your character's chair.

They're also wrong.  Here's why. 

Follow my thought process here.  Intelligent species first begin designing object to use out of utilitarian need.  We design things that fit our bodies, and if it doesn't, then why on any world would we create them?  Do you see the problem yet?  Okay... Here it is:  If your character, which you describe as the size of a roughly good sized human, has wings large enough to bear him aloft in accordance with the laws of physics, he could not physically sit in a chair because he would break his wings.

"Dammit!  This is why we can't have nice things!"
The same thing applies to every aspect of this new world in which the dominant species has a twelve-foot wing span.  So now it becomes your job as a writer to build your world backward, so you can see what would've been built how, and why.  A species with a twelve-foot wing span would not, for example ever build anything that would necessitate the crushing of one's own wings.  In fact, if you take into account physical limitations, this particular species would, likely, have invented the bar stool long before it ever invented something as obviously meant for torture as a "chair."

See?  No backs, no wing crushings.
Now apply this to other areas.  For example, a "bedroom."  What's the first thing you like to do when you wake up in the morning?  Stretch, right?  Now take a good look at your bedroom.  Hard walls, low ceilings, etc.  If you had a twelve-foot wingspan, would you ever be caught inside something like that?  Chances are, no.  Chances are, it would be torturous for you.  Small windows, roads, vehicles... None of it would even exist in a world where the dominant species had wings.  Hell, roads might not even exist. 

The point is this:  You need to think it through.  Build your world from the bottom up with the dominant species in mind.  There's a brilliant joke that the late great Douglas Adams wrote in The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy which involves a multi-limbed creature that was unique in the universe in that it invented underarm deodorant before it discovered the wheel.  Necessity.  It's why we create things.  Your species would do the same. 

When you build a world, start with your species.  Then ask yourself a series of questions:
  • What are its needs?
  • What are its limitations?
  • How are they like me?
  • How are they dissimilar?
Make good choices for your characters and make your world more believable.  I don't mean make your readers think the world is real, but at least make them wonder at the possibility.  Otherwise, you have creatures who are doing incredibly uncomfortable things for their anatomy.  Like sitting in chairs.