Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Research: Know what you write.

In the world of writers, there's a trite, glib statement that is often shouted at us, and just as often causes feelings of murderous rage:  Write what you know. It's really meant in the best possible way, I know, but it's possibly one of the worst pieces of advice that you could give a writer. "Write what you know."  Why is that so bad? Well, let's look at that statement for a moment. What, exactly, do you know? For most young writers, what you know consists of living with your parents and teenaged angst. And if that's all you write about, where did all the amazing novels about witches and goblins and historical romance and fantasy come from?  You don't know about any of that stuff, do you? Of course not.  Not unless you have a dragon in your back yard or you actually are a serial killer.  In which case, this blog doesn't pertain to you.

I prefer a different maxim:  Know what you write.

Let's say, for example, you're writing about hard science that is based in reality. Internet, nano probes, genetic engineering, prosthesis, bionics, etc. Every one of them are favorites of writers because they evoke the sense of wonder in the reader. They are rife with potential because no one really knows how far the technology can go, and your guess is just as good as the next person's as to what the next stage of technological evolution will be.
I, for one, welcome our robot overlords...
So does that mean that you don't need to research the tech? I mean, really, if I'm writing for the next step, or even several steps, in the future, why do I need to know about the tech now? Of course, you need to research it. How will you know where it can go if you don't know where it is? But, you say, the research is boring and I don't really care about the tech so much as I do the story! Well, here's the thing... If you don't care, why should your reader?
Says the voice of God...
Look, your readers aren't stupid. Your readers are a cagey bunch. If you don't care, they can tell, and there's nothing more off-putting for a reader than to read something where the author doesn't care. And if you don't care, they won't care, and then they'll put your book down. Say it with me:  If I don't care, the reader won't care. It's a truism. And this is where research comes in. If your story features tech of any kind, you owe it to yourself and your readers to have more than a passing knowledge of that tech. I'm not saying you can't create a whole new tech for your novel, but everything follows basic rules and laws. Everything. Everything. Little things like physics and thermodynamics still apply. And, no, I'm not saying you need to have a PhD in either subject to write about them, you should still know how to write about something that obeys said laws, or at least comment on why it doesn't.

Here's where things get weird:  You owe your readers. Seriously, you do. You owe them the best possible reading experience that you can muster. Why? They're buying your work. If you betray that trust, well, they won't be buying your work anymore, will they?

So, instead of relying on your own limited experience to write something and hoping it's in any way accurate, how about doing a little research? If you're reading this, you have access to the sum total of all human knowledge. It's called "Google." You can seriously ask anything about anything and the answers will appear. Then you can read about it and appear to know what you're doing. But it doesn't stop there. You can actually contact real, live people who know about stuff. For some of these people, the things you write about are, in fact, their jobs. Like, policemen, fire-fighters, doctors, lawyers... And people really like to talk about themselves and what they do. So call them up and ask them questions. It can't do anything but help.

But wait, there's more.
Tell 'em all about it, Billy!
Primary research is such an invaluable tool, I can't stress the importance enough. Let's say for a moment that you want to write a scene in which someone shoots a gun, but you've never fired one. How do you research that? Watch movies with lots of gun play?  No way. They're full of inaccuracies and can't possibly convey what it's really like to shoot one. No, if you want to write about it with accuracy, go to a gun range and fire off a few rounds! Use different calibers. Figure out what kind of gun your character would use, and how it would feel to him.

How about this... You want to write a scene of your POV character getting kidnapped and thrown into the trunk of a car. What do you do? First off, you call your best buddy, someone you trust, who you hope doesn't have a sick sense of humor. Then you climb into the trunk of his car and have him drive around the parking lot. You think I'm kidding, but I've done this. And now I know what it feels like to be jostled around in the trunk of a car.
Seriously, I've done this. 
There are simple practical things that you can do for almost any situation, and for the few that there aren't, there are experts who can tell you about their experiences. You owe it to your readers to put in at least some effort. And, as an added bonus, you will not just write better things, you'll grow as a person. So do your research. You, and your readers, will be glad you did.

Until next time...


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Waiting Game

I'm sitting at my desk staring at the little icon for my email.  When I get a message, it jumps up and down like an excited pug and I get the nervous butterflies in my stomach. But then, when I click on the little hyper bastard and see that the incoming message is spam, my mood sinks just a little bit more.

Welcome to my life.

Actually, it's the life of every writer, agented or not. People who don't do this make assumptions that you can send your manuscript out and, like any other piece of email you send, you'll get a reply back within twenty four hours. But that's not how it works. Don't believe me? Here... Look at this:

Blow that up and what you'll see is a listing from Ralan.com, which a site dedicated to folks like us who write and want to make a living at it.  Specifically, they update submission requirements every day.  See those highlighted areas? Those are listed as "RT."  That means "response time." Notice anything?  Yep.  Some of them are more than six months for a reply. Six. Months. Why? Because these people are professionals.  They are in the business of making money and publishing the very best manuscripts that they can find, which means, of course, that everyone wants their manuscript published by them. One (conservative) estimate is that editors receive about 600 queries per week. That, if my math is correct (and I'm using a calculator... Math isn't my strong suit) is more than 31,000 queries per year.  Now, if each query is, let's say, a 400 page novel, that's more than 12 MILLION pages that these people have to get through. See where I'm going with this? 

Pictured:  Agent/Editor
Sure, your book may be the greatest thing written since the invention of the QWERTY Keyboard, but the agent/editor has to get to it before she offers you gobs of money, and that means wading through all the rest. Fair or not, it's how it works. And, by the way, agents have the same type of wait, just like unagented people do.  They just get to nag when they feel it's appropriate. 

Pictured:  You.
To clarify, you've just spent four months (or more) of your life writing a novel that is the best thing that has ever been written, and now you have to wait even more? Yes. That's just how it works. Deal with it. But what, I hear you asking, am I supposed to do while I wait? Start the next novel. 
Move it, monkey. 
Okay, yes, take a break. Take a mini-vacation, if you must. But if you are like me, while you were busy hammering your last opus out, thousands of ideas hit your brain and you lamented not working on them then because you had to finish what was already in front of you. So go write them. All of them or any of them, but get back to work while your creative juices are flowing. The point is, once you send something out, there is no point in worrying about it anymore.  It's out.  It's gone. You can no longer tweak it or fix any errors. Now you just have to deal with the fact that your little baby sparrow is trying its wings out. Wherever you sent it, put a mark in your calendar for whenever the response time is, and if you've received nothing by then, send it out again. 
This is your life now.
I'm playing the waiting right now. I'm waiting on word back from my agent about the manuscript for my latest novel, Ungeheur.  I'm also waiting on a reply from another publisher for another manuscript for Bokor Island. And, last but certainly not least, I'm waiting for the yea or nay from Emerson University to see if I got into their MFA program. I hate waiting. Since I'm someone prone to stress and suffer from depression, waiting is really hard for me to do. So what else am I doing? Working on a new novel. Sewing (yes, really) a couple of new shirts. Petting my pug. Paying attention to my wife and kid. I'm trying to let all the anxiety slip away while life happens. Then, if something wonderful occurs, I'll be thrilled. But in the meantime, waiting is all I can do. 

Until next time...


Monday, August 8, 2016

Movie Review: Suicide Squad (what went right and what went wrong)

If you are in any way attached to the internet (which, if you're reading this, you are), you've probably seen at least some of the hype surrounding the new DC movie Suicide Squad. Since this movie seems to be very polarizing, I figured it would be a good exercise to take a hard critical look at it to see what went wrong and what went right in it. Why? Because there's a lot to be learned from a movie like Suicide Squad, whether you loved it or hated it. Me?  I'm one of those people who fell squarely in the middle and found it flawed, but entertaining. We'll get into the whys of that in a minute. But, for now, I'd like to focus on picking this movie apart from the point of view of the actors, the plot, and the overall production.

Oh... It should be obvious that beyond this point lay spoilers a-plenty.
You've been warned...
Suicide Squad is a movie about a government official who has the bright idea to take super-powered bad guys out of prison and use them as a disposable and deniable task-force against other super-powered baddies. This is accomplished by asking nicely.  No, just kidding... They put a micro-explosive in their heads that, should they disobey, try to escape, or act otherwise true to their nature, will blow their freaking heads off. So far so good, right?  So let's look at the list of participants, shall we?
My high-school reunion photo...
Left to right:  Slipknot, Captain Boomerang, Enchantress, Katana, Rick Flag, Harley Quinn, Deadshot, Killer Croc, and El Diablo. Right away, I can see at least one major plot-hole. Can you?  It's Harley and Boomerang. I mean, okay, I get why everyone else in the group was chosen. Slipknot can climb anything...Which makes his name kind of stupid. Katana wields a soul-snaring sword with deadly ability. Enchantress is a 6000-or-so-year-old entity with magical powers. Deadshot never misses. Killer Croc... well, look at him. And El Diablo is a pyrokinetic. Captain Boomerang and Harley Quinn, on the other hand, have no powers. Boomerang fights with possibly the most inconvenient weapon on the planet and Harley... Is crazy. With a  bat. That's it. So, in a group of super-powered people, why would they choose a crazy person with a bat? It doesn't make much sense, does it?  Look at the photo again, however, and it becomes evident that she only is part of the group to wear tiny shorts and be psycho-sexy. But, for the time being, let's just accept her and move on.

In the opening scene, Amanda Waller (played byViola Davis) gives us a rundown of almost every character in the show.  It takes a good chunk out of the movie and is a reminder that not all of us in the theater are comic book geeks. See, we already know the characters. Non CBGs don't, so the film spoon-feeds the non CBGs the characters.  As if you couldn't already tell they were bad guys.
It then goes into details of how Batman captured most of them, with gratuitous cameos by Ben Affleck and his stunt double. Not that it's a bad thing... it works in this context. Thrown into the whole mix is Jared Leto's Joker, who really has very little to do with the movie. Which brings us mistake numbers two and three:  Telegraphing and Superfluous Characters. 

Remember up there where I said almost all the characters got an introduction?  Well, the first one who didn't was "Slipknot," played by Adam Beach. Everyone else gets a detailed introduction complete with snappy dialogue and capture footage.  Slipknot, however, steps out of a van and all we get is "This is Slipknot... He can climb anything." Right at that point, I knew "This character is unimportant, so he's going to die." And he does.  In fact, he serves only to prove that the explosive charges in our heroes' (villains'?) necks could, in fact, take a head off. The poor guy gets maybe 45 seconds of screen time before BOOM... No more head. This is called telegraphing.  This is where you create a thing so obvious that even someone who is only half paying attention can see it coming. It's lazy writing, and it doesn't work well. Which brings me to...
Superfluous characters.  Despite all the hoopla around Leto playing the Joker, the whole movie could've played without him.  Which made his presence in the film seem forced. Sure, he rescued Harley Quinn, but then she turned around and went right back to the group after they shot her helicopter down. Now, had they saved her rescue for the end and only showed The Joker at that point, it would've been better. In fact, it would've been a great moment.  But as it stood, The Joker didn't need to be there, and his scenes made the movie feel even more disjointed. 

Let's move on to the actors and their performances. We'll forget Slipknot since we really only got to see him look pissed off and then die. 

I know you can't tell, but that's Will Smith under that weird-looking mask. Immediate impressions were that Will Smith didn't work in this role. Not that he didn't give it his all, not that he didn't do well with what he was given, but Smith was miscast in this role. Say what you will, but I just didn't buy him as an unrepentant killer. Look, there's a line in this where he says "Every time I put on this suit, someone dies. I like putting it on." And Smith couldn't pull that line off. He seemed full of regret, hesitant to kill, and even angst-ridden over it. Even when attacked by monsters, he still looked less "cold-blooded assassin" and more "dammit, more people I have to kill." Also, the mask was stupid and pointless. The point of the mask in the comics is that it holds his targeting eyepiece. But Smith wore that without the mask. So what was the point? None. Moving on. 
Captain Boomerang
Jai Courtney's Captain Boomerang came off as woefully underutilized, and, worse, as a one-note joke. In fact, he came off as completely unnecessary, so another superfluous character.

Katana, played by Karen Fukuhara, had the opportunity to be a wonderful character, driven by revenge and pain. We, however, were only given a one-dimensional view of her. Moreover, we were told her sword stole the souls of whoever it kills, but we were given no evidence of that. 

While the character of the Enchantress is fascinating in the comics, I question the reasoning of her transformation on the screen. Played by Cara Delevingne, the Enchantress starts off as a cool and genuinely terrifying villain, but then is reduced to parody by means of a wiggly-dance she does while constructing her doomsday machine.  Her costume is designed primarily to show off her body, and apart from that, she does little more than chew as much scenery as she can get. 

Rick Flag
Joel Kinnaman gave us another one-note performance in this film, and I don't blame him in the slightest. It was the writers.  They did it. As the government leash-holder Rick Flag, Kinnaman's job in this was to keep the squad in line. As a military leader, he comes across as incompetent, clueless, and, at many points, lost.
There were very few characters in this movie that I thought were well drawn, and Diablo (played by Jay Hernandez) was one of them. As the fire-throwing man who was wracked by guilt over the accidental killing of his wife and kids, Hernandez did a great job with what he was given.  Unfortunately, the writers had to go over the top by changing his heroes' journey into a farce at the end. When Diablo attacks the main bad guy, Incubus (who is really nothing more than window dressing), he is sacrificing himself to save the team. But instead of letting him have a redemptive death of dignity, the character burns away his own flesh to reveal (I couldn't make this up) a giant Mayan fire monster. Still, Hernandez deserves accolades for his performance.

Killer Croc
I may be in the minority in this, and I frankly don't care.  I loved Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje's portrayal of Killer Croc. The guy owned the role and committed entirely to the beastial nature of the human reptile. Of course, we couldn't even see him under the prosthetics, but that didn't stop the character from coming through, nor did it make his one of the best performances in the movie.  I just wish we'd seen more of him.
Harley Quinn
Margot Robbie owned this role.  Hands down, one of the best performances in the movie, despite the character's inexplicable presence or costume choice (hot-pants and a t-shirt). She genuinely came off as damaged, crazy, scary, and everything that Harley Quinn's punk alter-ego should've been. She also managed to pull off the tragic nature of the character, which is difficult to do.

Amanda Waller
I had a real problem with Amanda Waller, played by Viola Davis. Here's a character that should, by all rights, be colder than any of them, more frightening than even The Joker, and ruthless, and she came off in the movie as just... Tired. One-note performances seemed very common in this movie, and none of them were more saddening than this one. Waller should strike terror into the hearts of anyone because she doesn't have a problem shooting a room full of interns to keep her secrets. But instead, we got droopy eyes and what I assume was supposed to be a mean look. She just didn't work. 
The Joker
After months of speculation and anticipation over Jarod Leto's Joker, I can honestly tell you that he comes across as a disappointment.  Not a "beautiful disaster" as some would have us believe. And it's not the tattoos or the capped teeth, though they didn't work (I mean really, who needs "damaged" tattooed across the freaking JOKER's forehead?  Like we don't know he's damaged...).  It was Leto's performance. He came across as more slimy than maniacal. More oozy than chaotic. The Joker should be an agent of chaos. He should anything but what Leto made him. In addition, the laugh just didn't work.  It wasn't The Joker. Nothing about Leto's performance worked for the character. Now, another character might've worked with the same performance but a different name, but The Joker, he wasn't.

Whew... That was a lot, wasn't it? 

Movie made me tired...
On the other hand... I really did have a good time while I watched it. Yeah, I know, it sounds like I hated it, but I didn't. I didn't love it, but I didn't hate it. I had a good time watching it, and I know I'm likely going to buy the soundtrack. As summer movies go, it was a great way to spend two hours, and it's what I like to call a "popcorn flick." I mean, I love the premise, a few of the performances were great, and the movie just overall looked impressive.

So what can we learn from Suicide Squad? Well, for starters, if a character's only purpose is to die, your'e being a lazy writer. Figure out another way to make the point. Second, too many characters can muddy up the plot. Third, and possibly most importantly, you need to make choices in your plot that make sense. Even if those choices only make sense to the other characters, they still need to make sense.  Why would you send a psycho with a baseball bat with a group of super-powered individuals?  She'd be worse than useless... She'd be a hinderance. So it makes no sense to put her on the team at all. It's also not a coincidence that the two most likable characters (Harley Quinn and Diablo) were also the ones with the most depth of character. I'm pretty sure Deadshot would've made that list, but Will Smith just couldn't pull off "bad guy." See, at the end of the story, your characters shouldn't be the same as when the story started. They need to grow and evolve as the story goes. That's what makes them interesting. 

So how would I have made the story better?  First, cut Captain Boomerang, Slipknot, and Katana. Their parts could've been absorbed by others pretty easily. Second, cut Incubus as the bad guy and just left Enchantress as the big bad. Third, Different Deadshot. Fourth, give Amanda Waller more range than "I'm pissed off and cold-hearted." And finally, give Harley Quinn a reason to be there, or cut her out entirely (even though I loved Margot Robbie). 

So that's my take.  I give this movie three stars. Not the greatest thing I've ever seen, but also better than a sharp stick in the eye. 

Until Next time


Friday, July 22, 2016


It's bound to happen.  In fact, if it doesn't happen, you're not trying hard enough.  I'm not talking about the eventual publishing contract that comes with a suitcase full of money and promises of questionable moral fiber. I'm talking about that little thing that comes before. The little thing that can destroy your self esteem, cripple your ego, and make you wonder if this "writing" thing is ever going to happen:  Rejection. And, like it or not, it's just a part of life for whatever kind of writing you do.  So today, we're going to talk about rejection, how to deal with it, and what it means to your career.

Pictured:  Your dreams...
It has been theorized that a writer must get about a thousand (feel free to add a few zeroes to that number) rejections before ever getting an acceptance. And, unless you're insanely lucky, it holds true. The process goes something like this:  Write the novel, be certain of its ability to make you rich and famous, send it out, wait three months (or more), then get back the rejection and watch your certainty slip just a bit. Lather, rinse, repeat. When the rejection comes in, you read it, then you go through every stage of grief possible. 
  • Denial - No, they couldn't possibly have rejected this!  It must've been mistaken for someone else's piece!
  • Anger - Obviously, it was just too intelligent for those bastards at the publishing company! How dare they reject me? When it gets published, I'll buy this publisher and fire him!
  • Bargaining - Okay... But how could I change it to make it better and make you love it?
  • Depression - Maybe I'm just not good enough. What if I've been fooling myself all this time and I'm actually that guy that all my writer-friends make fun for deluding himself?
  • Acceptance - Yeah... they rejected it. That's their right. It wasn't right for that house, so maybe I'll try sending it to another house.
Again, lather, rinse repeat.

Guess what... You're not alone. So far, I've had thirteen books published. That sounds like a lot, but really, it's been mostly through micro presses and smaller presses. But before that, i got my share of rejections. And I saved them all. 
Pictured: rejection pile
Of them all, I've gotten some really nice letters, some pretty nasty letters, and even a few about which I was certain the sender got me confused with someone else.  My favorite rejection to date was on a torn scrap of paper one inch wide with the word "nope" scrawled on it. Yes, someone actually spent postage to mail me that. Thirteen books later, I still get rejected. 

So how do I deal with it, Uncle Scott?
The short answers are "The best you can" and "With grace." It's easier to talk about what not to do than what to do.  For starters, you don't quit. If you quit, you won't get the acceptance that you're after. You keep writing, keep improving, and keep trying to write that novel that will put your name on the shelves of bookstores. Second, you don't log onto social media and pitch a wall-eyed screaming crying fit. Oh sure, you can pitch a fit, but not where anyone can see you. It's okay to be hurt or angry, but what isn't okay is taking it out on anyone.  If you go throwing a fit, believe me, someone's going to catch wind of it, and it will get back to your agent and/or the publisher. 
But here's the thing... Read the rejections and see if you can get something out them. Take, for example, the latest rejection I got for my new manuscript, Ungeheur:
Thanks for sending UNGEHEUR by Scott A. Johnson. I’ve had a chance to read it, and I’m afraid I’m going to have to pass. I thought the writing was sharp, and I liked the mounting suspense, but I felt the plot was too standard, and I didn’t think it did anything different with the genre. I also would have liked more backstory on the creatures to elevate them beyond simple monsters. 
This, sent by my agent. So what can we glean from this?  First, this editor thinks my writing is sharp. That's a positive. The editor also liked the mounting suspense. Another positive!  Okay, so there were a few negatives, but this is constructive criticism, and it'll do nothing but make me better if I follow the advice and try to get something published with the same editor, but if I focus on the positives, I actually feel pretty damned good about this rejection.
Of course, a lot of rejections that people receive are form letters. Most agents get personalized responses. But when you do get a personalized response, first, focus on the fact that it's personalized. That means that the rejector took the time to write something out. That's a positive. Then pour through it to see if there are any positive notes that you can use. And, whatever you do, don't quit writing. Keep going, and learn from every rejection.  Hone your craft. 

But Uncle Scott, what does rejection mean to my career?
Honestly?  Not a damned thing. I mean, it means you're trying, but other than that, nothing. Want to feel good about your writing?  Take a look at this list of folks who were rejected numerous times:
  • Agatha Christie
  • J.K. Rowling
  • Louis L'Amour
  • Dr. Seuss
  • Zane Grey
  • C.S. Lewis
  • Judy Blume
  • Vladimir Nabokov
  • Beatrix Potter
  • Peter Benchley
  • L. Frank Baum
  • Madeleine L'Engle
  • H.G. Wells
  • Herman Melville
  • Stephen King
  • Frank Herbert
  • John Grisham
  • Norman Mailer
  • Mary Higgins Clark
  • Jack Kerouac
  • George Orwell
  • Sylvia Plath
  • Mario Puzo
  • Ursula K. LeGuin
  • William Faulkner
  • Jack London
  • Isaac Asimov
The list goes on and on. You've been rejected?  You're in good company. Look, writers number in the millions.  And there just aren't that many open slots for a new book at any given time. So the absolute best thing you can do is look at the rejection for what it is, and just get over it.  Move on.  Send that manuscript back out, get back on your horse, and start writing the next book. 
Get back to it, monkey!

Until next time...


Monday, July 18, 2016

Worldbuilding: Who is particularly bad at it?

I go on and on about world building. It's kind of annoying, really, and I know it, but if a world isn't properly constructed, I get yanked out of the story. I know I should just sit back and enjoy the show/book/movie/whatever, but I just can't.  See, that's one of the drawbacks to being a writer. Not only are you hyper-cricical of your own work, you notice when others aren't doing their job. Which brings me to one of my favorite television series:  Star Trek: The Next Generation. Now, before anyone goes powering phasers to "obliterate" and launching photon torpedoes, let me restate:  I LOVE ST:TNG. I feel Lt. Commander Data is one of the greatest characters ever written, and I'm not just saying that because my wife loves the guy. However, as a writer, there are lots of things about the show that makes me cringe, and it all comes down to proper world building.  So, crew of the Enterprise, I've judged you to be guilty of poor world building. You will confine yourselves to quarters until evidence has been given.

My prisoners...
Ignoring for a moment the whole Deus Ex Machina that is the "Universal Translator" (a gizmo that can translate any language into English for whomever might be listening....) there is still much for which the crew needs to answer.  For example:  With a universe as vast as the one they traverse, how, exactly, does one just arbitrarily use "ENGLISH" as the default? I mean, come on... There are literarily a billion stars out there, and millions of species each with their own languages. But even if there weren't, there are also more languages than just "ENGLISH"on Earth, so who picked it?  And why? Why not French? Or Russian? Or Spanish for that matter?

Donald Trump's America...
Here are a few other things that take me out of the moment when enjoying ST:TNG:
  • Sound doesn't travel in space... So why does the Enterprise (and other ships) whoosh along? How do we hear the phasers fire? 
  • Why do other alien species, with whom the Federation has had no previous contact, refer to their planets as Planet-name-NUMBER? How would they know what we call it? If they've never been off planet or their world is primitive, how would they know how many others of their planet be? It makes no sense to call this world "Earth 6" because if we did, we'd have to worry about what happened to Earth's 1-5. 
  • Ever notice how in almost every episode, someone has to make some sort of non-standard modifications to the warp-coils/engine/computer/dish array or one of a thousand other little issues on the ship?  Is any of it standard configured anymore? It's a miracle the Enterprise still flies with all the psychopathic rigging that Geordi LaForge has done on her. 
  • Okay, I'll go with the Holodeck and the Replicators, but why not, y'know, actually use them to their full potential? Whenever someone says "if only we had..." on this show, I roll my eyes. Why don't you just describe it to the all-powerful Computer (Long may Majel Baret reign, first lady of nerds) and make one? 
  • And, for that matter, with all the insanity that has come from having a Holodeck onboard, wouldn't a competent captain taken the damned thing offline by now? 
  • In space, everything moves in three dimensions, and there's no gravity... So why are all the other ships we see right-side-up? How does all the tech manage to match up? Why have we not yet met up with another "Federation of Planets"-style group? 
  • What are the odds that EVERY species that the Enterprise comes in contact with are bipedal with two eyes up front and compatible anatomy (I'm looking at you, RIKER)?
Pictured:  Kirk's Girlfriend
There are dozens of other examples as to why the world building in ST:TNG could've used some tweaking. From how certain races who were portrayed as very simian in nature ever got to the technological state where space travel was possible, to the way the captain repeated slaps around the Prime Directive, it's infuriating. 

So how does this apply to your writing? World-building, simply put, means you must first ask why. Why is her skin green? Why is the Holodeck left online? Why is the planet called Melos 4 BY ITS OWN INHABITANTS? And if you can't answer the question of "why," you've got some more thinking to do. 

Crew of the Enterprise, evidence has been presented... How do you plead?
Thought so.
As I suspected.  Guilty as charged. Look, I love ST:TNG. I love it for the positive message it tries to send, and because it's brain candy.  But, as a writer, there are things it does that I just can't abide, and poor world building is one of them. So don't hate ST:TNG, but learn from it. Ask the simple question with every point of your world:  Why? Your writing will be better for it.

Until next time...


Thursday, June 30, 2016

Getting Down the Basics

Here we are, the first week back from residency at Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction Masters in Fine Arts program. And while we're all simmering in the creative juices (alcohol) from a week of hanging around with other crazy people (writers), I figured now would be a good time to remind everyone of a simple truth:  If you're going to be a writer, or be in a MFA program (and keep in mind, technically, this is an MFA in English) you really should know the basics. I mean, if you want people to take you seriously, you want to come across as someone who knows what he's doing, right? I mean, if a mechanic opens the hood of your car and doesn't know what he or she's looking at, you wouldn't take him seriously, would you? If a doctor asked you to remind him where the lungs were in the body, you'd leave pretty quickly, wouldn't you? The same holds true if you are a writer. If you send your manuscript in to an agent, editor, or publisher, and you appear to not know the basics, your manuscript will find its way quickly to the circular filing cabinet.

Pictured: Rejected Manuscripts
So what are these "basics" of which I speak?  If you've ever been a student of mine, you already know the answer. It can be broken down in four simple terms:  Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation, and Sentence Structure (GSPS). And, let's face it, if you find yourself in an MFA program and you don't have at least a basic understanding of this, you've got a lot of work to do. By which I mean outside work.

Buffalo Custardbath tells it like it is...

So, in case you don't really know what these things are, here's a helpful guide. 
  • Grammar - is the set of structural rules governing the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language.  The term refers also to the study of such rules, and this field includes morphology, syntax, and phonology, often complemented by phonetics, semantics, and pragmatics.  Put simply, what are nouns, adjectives, adverbs, tenses, clauses, and the like? If you don't know, you should really figure it out. Things such as subject-verb agreement, irregular verbs, who vs. whom, prepositions, etc. are all part of grammar, and they're all tools in your writers' toolbox. 
  • Spelling - Right... Who needs it, write? I mean, owl are computers have spell-checker on them, right? Nobody kneads to no how to spell anymore, right? Read that sentence again. Realize every word in it is spelled correctly, and realize that spelling actually goes beyond just what letters make up a particular word.  It's also figuring out which word is the one you actually mean. 
  • Punctuation - Commas. They are the bane of my existence. Whoever started the whole "put a comma every time you take a breath" should be taken out back and beaten with a well-worn copy of Strunk & White. Punctuation deals with spacing, periods, semicolons and colons (never use them in popular fiction), quotation marks, hyphens, ellipses... As well as a thousand other little rules that you need to use to make yourself look like you know what you're talking about. And don't ever believe that's what the editor is for. Your work won't even get to the editor if you don't have a firm grasp on this. 
  • Sentence Structure - Quick!  How many sentence structures are there?  One? Ninety?  How about four?  Yep, four.  Can you name them? If you can't, you might have a problem. How about fragments? Run-ons? Comma splices? Any idea what I'm talking about? 
Didn't think so.
But wait, you say!  I'm a creative writer!  The rules of grammar (etc.) don't apply to me! It's art! Listen to me very carefully.  The rules. Still. Apply. You have to know the rules to know when and why to break them. Also, that's the difference between amateurs and professionals. Pros learn their craft. Pros take the time to improve their skill level. Pros never stop learning. Amateurs?  Not so much. So choose. Which one do you want to be? 

Two paths converged in the woods...

But where, you ask, can I learn such things? Glad you asked. There are so many books out there. Here are a few that I often recommend:
There are also a lot of FREE online resources that you can use to hone your sword of knowledge.  Here are a few:
And, of course, if all else fails, always trust in your good buddy "Weird Al" Yankovic to break it down for you.

Also, while we're at it, learn the proper expressions and idioms, unless the character is supposed to be a blithering idiot.  For example:

  • It's "For all intents and purposes," not "For all intensive purposes/porposes."
  • It's "I couldn't care less." "I could care less" means you do, in fact, care.
  • It's "Specifically," not "pacifically" unless you're referring to the ocean.
  • "Literally" means it actually happened. You've not been waiting "literally" a million years for this blog post. "Figuratively" is the word you want. 
  • It's not the "Statue of Limitations," it's the STATUTE of limitations. 
  • What the hell is a "mute point" anyway?  It's MOOT.  
So that's it.  Education is your weapon.  Use it. 

Until next time...


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

It's That Time Again!

Twice every year (January and June), I travel to the wooded wilds of Pennsylvania to the quaint village of Greensburg. There, I teach in the low-residency MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program at glorious Seton Hill University. During the week-long residency, I (along with people far better published than me) attempt to take students and mold them into something that they most desire: Professional writers of popular fiction.  Aspirations of sci-fi, romance, horror, children's lit, mystery, steampunk... You name it, we have someone who writes it. We take those aspirations and distill them down into something workable. We take the unpolished turd, as it were, and polish that sucker up nice and shiny, until it's something that a student can submit to an editor or agent with pride. And we break egos and dreams by the dozen.
Hello, Ones...
Just kidding about that last part. Our job is to nurture, and that's what we do. Students draw on various experience levels to try to make it in this disturbing profession. Its a unique and remarkable blend of creativity and chaos when the students are in town, and from workshops to modules, there are always ears to listen to pitches, human backstops against whom to bounce ideas, and opinions about how to improve your manuscript.
Pictured:  Workshop
But this term, the June residency, is always special. It's always something a little different. See, this is the term when all the alumni come back to throw themselves back into the volley of insanity, and that's something truly special. See, a few years back (I've been teaching with the program for nigh-on twelve years, so I can't remember when it happened), a bunch of graduating students realized how special the program was, and also that they didn't actually want to leave. They realized that Seton Hill doesn't just look like Hogwarts, it is really a magical place. So they began showing up anyway. Remember that creepy guy who graduated from high school and just never left? Same thing, only with insane writers. 
So out of this need to still be involved with the cadre of writers, the alumni founded the In Your Write Mind (IYWM) Writer's Retreat. And boy did it grow. They now feature modules of their own, guest speakers, an ENORMOUS book signing, agents, publishers, fellow writers, editors... It's become quite a to-do. And it's fabulous. And I look forward to it every year. Why? Because I missed all these crazy bastards. Many of them were once my students, and they've gone on to publish extensively. And I couldn't be more proud for them. But they're not my students anymore. They're my colleagues. They're my friends. They are my tribe. We are cut from the same cloth, which, oddly, is made from paper. And just being around them gives my creativity a boost. 
Pictured: Recharging my Creative Batteries
I love these people. They're the family I never knew I wanted, until I got them. 

Which brings me to my point: Every year about this time, I publish a blog full of helpful hints for all the incoming ones. The points become more and more important as time goes by. So I just wanted to reiterate a few of my favorites:
  • Listen - There are people in the program with more experience than you. Also with less experience. Open your ears and you'll get gold in the form of sage like wisdom from everywhere, and from places you least expect it. 
  • Socialize - Don't sequester yourself with your fellow ones. By the end of the first full day, you should know the names of at least five people who are not in your incoming class. They can show you the ropes. 
  • Be Nice to EVERYONE - Because you never know who you're talking to. Wondering the halls in the past have been editors, famous authors, Hollywood producers (no kidding... Sweetest guy in the world), and other people who will remember you. You want them to remember you in a good way, not as that asshole who was so full of himself. 
  • Check the Ego at the Door - Listen, everyone in the program is after the same thing:  To get better. And they also have another goal in mind:  To help you get better. Take the advice in the spirit in which it is given and don't swell up that someone dared to not like your high-fantasy-elfquest-ripoff-story-about-a-fish-out-of-water-girl-with-big-purple-wings. Listen, learn, and accept the words with humility. It doesn't mean everyone gives good advice... There are some real nut jobs. But you have to decided what advice is good or bad on your own. Just try not to burn any bridges while you're at it.  
Pictured:  Your relationships.

This term, I'm teaching several courses: The Language of Fear, Characterization and Dialogue, Using Magic in Popular Fiction, Worldbuilding 101, and Primary Research: Why You Need It. I'm also leading four workshops and attending at least three thesis defenses. It's going to be a busy week for me, but worth it. So very worth it. 

So, to the ones, welcome aboard. This is a tough program, and people do wash out. It's time to get serious about your craft. But if you work hard, you will never have more fun in your life. I look forward to meeting you. And to the rest of you still in the program, a few of you still owe me a blood sacrifice. I'm coming to collect. 

And to all the alumni... Gods, how I've missed you all. I hope you came with your chaos-boots on. It's going to get weird. 

Until next time...