Friday, April 18, 2014

Delivering Notes In Collaborative Writing

Collaborative writing is a bruising business. Knowing how to deliver useful notes that move a project forward, rather than paralyzing the writer (or making enemies) is a vital part of the process. It's the difference between evaluation and criticism.

I’ve learned these rules (which are not inviolable, but let's call them rules) through collaboration on all kinds of writing projects -- both as a contributor and as the director of the process. I've been guilty of all of the transgressions described, and I've been the recipient of them. 

The most collaborative form in the United States is television writing, but the concepts set out here are applicable to theme park writing, advertising, motion picture screenplays, even novels and journalism. These rules work in any situation in which writers must critique other writers -- and are especially germane for the person in charge, who will set the tone for everyone else. Speaking of tone, this list reads like a series of admonitions -- don't do this, don't do that. I suspect I'm guilty of violating at least two of them even as I write them down, in fact. Rather than tinker with them until they sound like inspirational poster messages, however, I present them in their stern original form, and beg your forgiveness if I could have made 'em friendlier.

-- Most of all, keep it professional. Don’t try to air personal differences, insecurities, or grievances within the context of delivering notes. When you do that, you’re revealing your opinion of the writer, not the writing. Both will suffer.

-- Respect different voices and approaches to the craft. Writers should not be expected to act as stenographers. If you want to write everything yourself, do so.

Pursuant to which:

-- Don’t instruct professional, working writers in the basic craft of writing. This isn’t a question of giving your colleagues the benefit of the doubt. It’s a question of respecting their professional experience. *

–– Be consistent and stick to the story outline. Asking writers to come up with a bunch of different versions until you happen to find one you like is guaranteed to create a train wreck. It’s bad for morale. It’s bad for the project. It undermines the authority of the work that precedes it.

At the same time, it’s important to: 

-- Allow writers to follow the material where it leads. If someone finds a new or different way to do something, it shouldn’t be shot down simply because it’s not precisely what was outlined; there will always, always be a better way to do a thing. Ask them why they think it is better.


-- You can’t read the minds of the writers. There are a million micro-decisions that go into any piece of storytelling. In your notes, always enquire why a particular choice was made rather than simply dismissing it out of hand. There may be a good reason something is the way it is.

The reverse is also true:

-- Writers cannot read your mind. Don’t expect them to come up with exactly what you had in your head. Rather, decide whether the desired intent has been conveyed. If the mood, theme, and story move forward in the direction desired, it’s successful writing. If there is a reason why some some specific element must be written in a particular way, it should be noted in the outline beforehand.

And do think about your reasons:

-- Know the difference between mandate, opinion, and whim. A mandate is something that must be a certain way, in order to meet the needs of the project. An opinion is how you personally react to something. A whim is whatever pops into your head. The first is a basis for criticism, the second is a basis for discussion, and the third has no authority whatsoever.

-- If you hate something, say so. Don’t try to sugar-coat it by making the writer work ten times as hard to guess what you’re talking about.

-- If you love something, support it. Make sure any changes you wish to make don’t undermine that good material.

And finally:

-- Relax. It will all change again anyway.

* Sometimes, as in any endeavor, someone will prove to be unqualified for the task. That is a separate problem which should be addressed outside the writing process.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Advance Reading Copies

Always a kick to get the first few specimens of a book. These are paperback, while the retail version will be hardcover, and the jacket design isn't final yet, but pretty much all the words and pictures are in here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Brief Ukulele Discursion

I know this is a writing blog, but my dear friend the Great Buz Carter has made this fantastic tool, which will be of interest to our fellow ukuleros who seek to write chords and tablature for the ukulele.

He coded this thing himself. It's comprehensive and amazing and simple. Watch the video for a quick-start review of how it works, and then start making a library of excellent songs nobody can find on the internet.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Big Bang And Storytelling

"What if I believe this just because it is beautiful?"

I think as a storyteller that's a question I ask myself all the time. It's where 'kill your darlings' comes from. It may be where purple prose comes from, as well -- writing that is so ornate it draws attention to itself. The storyteller is just as likely to be swept away by the tale as the reader, which isn't good for the story.

Storytelling has incredible power. In the video linked at the beginning of this post, we mortals have no idea what Professor Chao-Lin Kuo is saying to Andrei Dmitriyevich Linde and Renata Kallosh. It's a bit of an equation. But Linde is so astounded to hear it he needs it repeated three times. Kallosh embraces Kuo, a complete stranger. It's difficult not to be moved by the intensity of emotions flowing between these three people. We don't need to know what the message means. We can see what it means. It's the biggest news these two people have ever received.

Kuo instinctively told them the shortest, best story he could. He might have attempted a preamble outlining what had happened in the fifty years since Linde predicted this discovery would be made. But he didn't. He simply went ahead and supplied the proof.

Yet Linde, whose mind is as rigorous as a human mind can possibly be, still cautions himself: "What if I believe this just because it is beautiful?" That's something we storytellers need to ask ourselves every time we set out to spin a yarn. 

Charles Dickens was prone to sentimentality, and some of his work suffers from it. The death of Little Nell (in The Old Curiosity Shop) would make Richard Wagner blush for its emotional grandiosity.
  Oh, it is hard to take to heart the lesson that such deaths will teach; but let no man reject it, for it is one that all must learn, and is a mighty universal truth. When death strikes down the innocent and young, for every fragile form from which he lets the panting spirit free, a hundred virtues rise, in shapes of Mercy, Charity, and Love, to walk the world, and bless it. Of every tear that sorrowing mortals shed on such green graves, some good is born, some gentler nature comes. In the destroyer’s steps there spring up bright creations that defy his power, and his dark path becomes a way of light to heaven.
Nonsense, and Dickens knew it better than anybody. Death is death, and the world is no less cruel because a child dies than because a leaf falls or an insect is trampled. But he was so carried away by the terrible necessity of destroying his creation, so overwhelmed with grief, he went on like that for several pages before he could set aside his own response and resume the mantle of storyteller. He got wrapped up in the sorrow and beauty of the moment, became the witness to his own story, and in so doing lost the power of objectivity required to convey that story to readers without prejudice.

One of the reasons we tell stories is to illuminate new ways of looking at the world, or to see it from a perspective not our own. The weakest stories, the weakest prose, reveal nothing new, but reinforce what we expected to find. If the villain is perfectly evil, the protagonist perfectly noble, the scenery straight out of a travel book, the plot precisely according to genre, we get nothing but refinement of what's already been established (at best). There's no inquiry, no discovery -- only a quest for perfection. What is perfection, if not beauty?

I suspect Dr. Linde wasn't thinking about fiction when he qualified his reaction, but we won't suffer from applying that question to our own work: "What if I believe this just because it is beautiful?"

Monday, March 10, 2014

Proofreader's Marks -- The Top Few Examples

I've written about proofreading before, and it's been a popular post on this site. So I thought it might be a good idea to look into the subject a little more closely. There are lots of diagrams showing all the proofreading and copyediting marks available. These can be terrifying -- they look like Mandarin. But ninety percent of the time you'll use the same dozen marks again and again.

We don't generally learn these marks in school. With school writing you're expected to hand in a finished, fully polished draft. Teachers, except English teachers, don't always know the marks, either. With most writing going straight to digital formats, corrections are made directly to the file. Nothing wrong with that.

But for writing that must be perfect, that's going to be typeset and printed, there is nothing so effective as a hard copy and red pencil for catching errors and making corrections. That's when you need these marks.

Here are the most common ones. After a couple of hours' worth of editing you'll know them by heart.


This is why manuscripts are double-spaced. Everybody needs room to write in the corrections.
In order of appearance:

• Spelling errors are circled. Sometimes the correct spelling is added in the margin or the correction is made directly on the word.

• A triple underline indicates a letter or word should be capitalized. A double underline indicates small capitals (for example AM/PM for times and BC/AD for dates).

• Insertions are shown with a V-shaped dart to indicate where the added element should go. In the above sample you can see indications for a word and a double quote. 

• The paragraph symbol or pilcrow (¶), written above like a backwards 'P' with two stems, indicates there should be a break to a new line with an indent.

• One underline indicates italics.

• The strikethrough lines with a little cursive-looking loop at the end indicate deletions. This one is important. Don't laboriously cross out or scribble over any errors like you did in school to hide your shame. It's vital that the original text be completely legible for typesetting purposes.

• To indicate two lines (or paragraphs) should be run together, rather than with a line break, you draw a line between the ends of text you wish to join up.

• Stet is the Latin word for 'let it stand'. That one gets used if the copyeditor makes a mistake in pen (use a pencil) or if the author wants to cancel out an edit. In this example a letter has been deleted and then stetted, indicating it should be kept.

• The slash with sideways parentheses above and below indicates 'close this space'.

• A circled word or passage with an arrow pointing somewhere else indicates that element should be moved to the place indicated.

• I use em dashes -- the long ones -- obsessively. The stacked-up 1m and eyebrow symbol indicates two typewriter dashes should be made into an em dash. The en dash (not shown) is used for things like indications of range (0-100MPH) and ordinary hyphenation and is indicated 1n with an eyebrow.

• A slash indicates 'make space'.

• Punctuation inside a circle means 'add this'.

There are at least another two dozen symbols of increasing rarity, many of them used for scientific and mathematical texts, but these are the ones you'll work with the most. Not all such indices are aimed at the author, either. Very often the marks concerning punctuation, dashes, layout, and so on are intended for the typesetter. For example a centered element will get outward-facing brackets to indicate this, even though it's centered on the manuscript page. It's all part of the process of reducing the possibility of errors.

Learn these few marks and you'll be ready for most editing tasks -- in a world of self-publishing, it's important to know at least the rudiments of the secret, extended alphabet of proofreading.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

How To Pitch A Movie With A Hook

The attached list is one of those memes the kids pass around these days. It's also a perfect example of what sells a pitch.

It's a list of two-sentence horror stories. These are miniature 'tales of the hook'* -- that is, a simple setup with a frightening twist ending.  Scary one-liners. Once you get the hang of how they're created, they're fairly easy to generate, but good ones are rare. This list has some excellent examples of the form.

The gimmick is to set up a norm -- pet ownership, relationships, mundane objects -- and then, using a natural assumption the reader will make about that norm, turn it upside down (tapping on glass is always a window. What if it's not the window?) Most of the story goes untold. The point is to get readers to think up their own endings.

I've been in scores of pitch meetings. They're horrible things, probably responsible for fifty percent of what's wrong with Hollywood these days. Every story, regardless of its subject matter, has to be boiled down into an essence that sounds like it would make $500 million. That's why this town only produces about thirty movies a year any more, and they're all intended to be 'blockbusters' and are usually sequels or reboots. An enormous amount of Hollywood's storytelling power is, unfortunately, aimed at itself rather than audiences.

You can see this during awards ceremonies -- the mythologizing, the rose-colored glasses with lenses two inches thick. There's this vacuum at the center of the business into which stories are flung, and very few get spat back out again so anyone outside the business can see them. It's the same reason comedy scripts are written to make the reader laugh, not the audience. Seriously. Half the jokes are aimed at the two hundred people who will read the script rather than see the film. But if you get as far as the script, you're already way ahead. Most projects die in the pitch room.

The worst thing about pitching? Sometimes you know your story has what it takes. It's good. The characters are compelling and evolve in interesting ways, the second act really cooks along and the end is so strong people will talk about it for years. But then you're sitting in the meeting and an MBA with a mood disorder and fifteen-hundred-dollar horsebit loafers who hasn't watched two dozen movies in his entire life is telling you your story doesn't have a hook.
I'll give you a hook, buddy.

No, really. A tale of the hook. It doesn't have to be the central premise of your story. But if you can work one of these little micro-narratives into your pitch somehow, it will set itself in that executive's head and help secure the rest of the material in position. Everybody wants to be entertained. If your pitch doesn't entertain, it fails, even if you're pitching a project that will be very entertaining when completed. I'm not just talking horror, either. The 'tale of the hook' form works with any genre. If they're funny, for example, we call them 'jokes'. The tale of the hook just happens to be a joke told in horror form instead of humor form.

So the pitch isn't you explaining the story in the movie. The pitch is its own story, which happens to have some resemblance to the story in the movie. You need to tell the hell out of the pitch without wandering too far from the story you want to film. You need gimmicks for that. Hooks to keep the room interested in what you're saying. In fact the industry term for a catchy premise is 'a hook' -- call it parallel development, but tales of the hook make great hooks.

Find places you can work miniature cliffhangers like these into your pitch and you might even get another meeting.

My first novel is one of these, in a way. 150,000 words of setup and then a three word twist at the end.

*Wikipedia explains The Hook

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Prague, Marseille. You Know. Research.

My far better half is a TV writer. She does mostly European television these days, which she can do because she's got an Irish passport. Seriously. It even has the cutest accent.  Because of this, she's been in Europe on a project for several months. I don't need a better excuse than that to leave town. So I spent most of the last month following her around -- through Prague and the Czech Republic, then down to Marseille and Provence in France. Only just got back.

Initially I was gathering material and impressions for the second part of my fantasy trilogy for Tor. That was the Prague leg of the trip -- mostly related to the Golem, which creature hails from there. In fact the temple in which it was born still stands in the old Jewish quarter. Frankenstein, among many other stories, is based on the legend of the Golem. Something like it plays a part in the next fantasy installment. It was amazing to stand there at ground zero of the man-made man mythos.

While in France, I researched and wrote a chunk of a thriller concocted for the occasion. It involves a television production and espionage and takes place in Provence. Suiting the concept to the circumstances, obviously. I took reams of notes on places and scenes in the Marseilles region. Also got to know folks from all of the different departments on the show and watched how the various relationships fit together to make television. It was tremendously interesting.

I mention all of this mostly to make you jealous, but also to highlight the vital importance of footwork.

If I don't have a lot of time or resources for a project, I do what everybody does: I go to the internet and fake the rest. But if you can possibly make the opportunity, get out into the world. There's so much to discover that isn't online. Or in books, for that matter. What does Prague smell like on a cold winter day? If you're near the river, it smells like wet stone; if you're in the 'new' part of town, it smells like the cold air in a refrigerator that hasn't been opened in a long time. The days I was in the old city it was too cold to smell anything. I couldn't find that information on the internet.

Research doesn't have to mean travel to distant locales, of course.  It can involve asking to ride along with your local police for a shift, to see what their days are like. There's so much you won't read about, the little details -- the feel of a plastic seat in the back of a police cruiser, the tedium of waiting after an incident for the shift captain to show up, or how people behave when you walk into a restaurant with a uniformed officer. All stuff that can spark ideas and associations and give your work a feeling of verisimilitude.

Research can mean a trip to a specialized library to dig around in old archives and get some serious mildew up your nose. It can mean sitting in a laundromat for eight hours, or driving across the country, or taking a train up the coast. It can mean watching a lot of movies in a particular genre, going to museums, ball games, or funeral homes. It can mean attending a church service, or a town hall meeting, or simply talking to people like the people in your story. You never know where the material is hidden.

I stress this because it's far too easy -- I do it all the time -- to simply make stuff up, check a few facts for cover, and consider the work done. But that doesn't make for surprising, fresh work. When you rely on someone else's facts or observations, you can't have any fresh insights of your own. Or if you do, they're made up. They're synthetic. If you get it right, it's luck. It's usually better to get away from the desk and experience something.

Some things can't typically be researched in person, like spending eight years in prison or lifting off on a Soyuz rocket. For that kind of material you will have to take someone's word for it, and make up the rest.  But if you can get out there and do your own footwork, it will have an amazing influence on your projects. You'll meet characters and see things and make connections that would otherwise not have happened. There's something airless about the writer's world, which must usually be sealed off in order for writing to get done. When you get out and research things, you're changing the air.

The air, which smells like soot and seawater and flint in Marseille.