The Rules of the Game

All games have rules. Some games take that further and have rules that are as detailed as they are nit-picky and annoying. Then there’s golf, which has so many damned rules, even the professionals don’t know them all — they have to rely on freaking TV viewers to call in and report violations!

See…this is why I play hockey, our rules are simple: if it would be a felony in real life, it gets you two minutes in the box.

Writing, like *ahem* golf, has rules. More rules, in fact, than any one human can truly master….or even care about. Rules about grammar and punctuation, yes, but also rules about word-counts and naming conventions and style, rules about structure and pacing and subject matter, rules about this and that, rules about rules…

E646353B-E58F-4564-826C-B8FE4166E50AMy preferred — and flippant — answer is to treat those rules like I do the rules of hockey: do your crime, then do your time*. To put it in terms my current protagonist would use: you do what you have to, then you pay the price.

*I have, I should probably mention, visited the penalty box a time or two in my hockey life…

Neither editors nor agents particularly like that attitude, however, so maybe I should be a bit more deliberate with my answer (and my rule-breaking).

So, here it is: rules matter…until they don’t. Or, put more accurately: you can never break the rules, until you can break them successfully.

Tom Wolfe broke just about every rule of grammar and dialogue in existence. He even invented a few just so he could break them. But he’s freaking Tom Wolfe, for God’s sake. He did more than make that rule-breaking work, he made it his inimitable style. When it comes to the rest of the writer-ly universe, every (good) beta-reader and editor in existence is going to slap you silly for breaking the accepted rules of grammar and style…

…unless you make it work.

Heck, George RR Martin broke all kinds of rules, too, with the Game of Thrones* series. He broke rules about using names that were “too similar,” rules about depicting sex and rape in darkly explicit terms, rules about tone and content and subject matter. And…well…all that rule-breaking kinda worked out for Martin, too. But it worked precisely because that rule-breaking was the very basis for his world, and for the storytelling of the series. Oh, and because he’s pretty damned good at that whole “writing” thing, too.

*I know, I know — it’s technically the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, but “Game of Thrones” is just so much easier to type!

Robert Jordan didn’t just break the rules about word-count and story pacing with his Wheel of Time series, he had those rules hung, drawn & quartered, shot, stabbed, drowned, burned, and shot into the goddamned sun. Now, Jordan is an interesting case about rule-breaking: he made it work in that every single one of those books* spent time at number one on the bestseller lists, but…well…not to put too fine a point on it…he needed an editor able to say the word “No” in the worst freaking way.

*And the over four million total words!

There are any number of articles and posts out there with all kinds of rules and suggestions. Editors, authors, agents, readers…you can find a piece from any perspective you want. A good compilation of “rules” from successful writers can be found here, if you want a single go-to resource.

One suggestion I have — I’ll not call it a rule, thank you very much — is to spend some time researching those voices, and rules, that apply to your current story’s genre. Whether you choose to break them or not, you probably should know what those rules are.

Just one simple example as to why I mention doing that research based on genre: a new fiction writer with a first book is “expected” — which translates to “demanded” in agent- and editor-speak — to come in between 90,000 and 100,000 words. More than that and you’re in trouble. In sci-fi & fantasy, however, that expectation becomes 105,000-125,000 words, and it is when you come in below that lower expectation that the trouble really starts.

All that being said, however, there are some general writing-specific rules I have gleaned over time and practice that apply* across the board.

*Err…do I really need to add the caveat that these rules are just my opinion, and that your mileage may — and probably will — vary?

1) Read your stuff out loud — there simply is no better way to find those run-on sentences and awkward constructions and instances of stilted language, bad grammar/tense, and jacked-up tone/POV. The key corollary to keep in mind is that if you can’t read a sentence in a single breath, it’s broken. I find it best to do this process when I am revising for the second draft…which can lead to all kinds of, umm, interesting interactions in the taproom.

2) Words are meant to be cut — no, really, go through and kill all kinds of ‘em. 90% of the time, the sentence is — like biscuits — better with shortening. Shorter is (most often) more powerful. You almost never need, for instance, the word “that”…or adverbs…or most adjectives… And, yes, I do fully understand just how much of a hypocrite I am with this rule! Hey, I’ve mentioned more than once just how little editing I do on these posts…

3) Try alternatives — if a scene feels awkward or forced, try something different. A different tone, a different tense or structure, a different something. My favorite trick here is to write the damned thing from a totally different POV. Even if I never use that alternative, it makes me think about the scene in a completely different way, and (most of the time) gets me over that hump of “awkwardness.”

4) Don’t be afraid of your characters — let them speak to you, let them call their own shots from time to time. Far too many writers out there are slaves to their plot. X has to happen, in their world, because, well, it’s part of the oh-so-holy-plot…even if X is completely wrong for the character(s) in question. In the end, you’ll find that letting your characters make their own choices makes them deeper and more real. Of course, it also means that the lure of letting them call the shots just gets worse and worse as you get the deeper into your story…but that’s a good problem to have, not a defect.

5) Let go your conscious self — yes, I’m quoting Obi Wan Kenobi, dammit. He’s freaking Obi Wan, and I can quote him if I want to! Stop worrying about the details, stop worrying about what others will think, stop worrying about the real world, and let yourself go. Immerse yourself in what you’re writing. You had a vision and an idea when you came up with your story, and you have to let that idea (and the tone/feeling of it) run through everything you do. You’re a writer, dammit, so be a writer, not just someone trying to write. If you don’t believe in yourself and your idea enough to truly let yourself go, why the hell are you writing it?

Soundtracks And Music To Write By

6A5072FE-4223-43BE-9690-BB8282C350BDIf history is a major influence on what I write, alongside philosophy and literature, then music is the catalyst that actually gets everything going. Music influences — and in some cases even shapes — the words I write. And I mean everything I write. Even the posts on this blog are shaped and focused by what I am listening to at the time (for the record, I’m listening to Mumford & Sons’ The Road to Red Rocks live album as I type this).

I’ve mentioned before that the very first thing I write for any story is the final scene. That final scene gives the story shape and focus by giving me an end-point to work towards. It also helps to define the emotional tone and message of the story itself. For Somewhere Peaceful, that means I wrote the final scene of tragedy and loss even before I wrote the words to get folks there…and that process defined the (sad and bitter) tone and mood of the story.

But how did music play a role?

Well, like the writing process for the scene I described in this previous post, that concluding scene had a “soundtrack” to it…a soundtrack that, through that initial creation process, shaped the entire damned story.*

*If you’re wondering, the two key songs for that final scene are “Ghosts That We Knew” by Mumford & Sons and “Be Still” by The Fray. Both songs, by the way, still have the power to evoke all the emotion and loss and pain that went into creating that scene every single time I hear them…

Over time, the soundtrack for Somewhere Peaceful to Die grew. It grew by songs and bands; it grew by genres and styles; it grew until it was well over a hundred songs and a dozen artists. Somewhere Peaceful’s soundtrack led directly into the one for Silence, but for that second story the music has changed…it has changed a great deal. It had to change. Even as my protagonist changed and grew, so too did the soundtrack have to. And it will continue to change, I know that. The music is a reflection of both myself (as the writer) and of Connor, so of course it has to change…

But The Silence That Never Comes is not the only story I’m writing. Nope, I’m also starting the conception and background work for Once Magnificent. Not just a different genre (fantasy versus sci-fi), that story will also have a very different tone and focus from Connor’s stories.

But I don’t have a soundtrack for it. Not yet, anyway.

Crap, I can’t write without a soundtrack!

Oh, all the work I’ll do as part of the background and prep will help, especially the work to “get to know” my characters, but I still don’t have that “one song.” Not in the way Ghosts That We Knew is the “one song” for all of the stories about Connor & Oz.

On the other hand, the quest for music is fun…almost as fun as the writing itself. I love music*…more than almost anything else, I live for music. I need music to listen to just as much as I need books to read, so the prospect of doing a few hours of “shopping” through the iTunes store excites me as much as the chance to browse the shelves of a good book store…

*I took piano lessons as a kid. When I decided to quit, my mom told me, “You’ll regret it later!” Holy shit, was she ever right. I regret stopping those lessons more than I can even begin to describe. Yep, Mom was right…again. *sigh*

0465BAE2-CB70-4D05-A832-7ACD2787E9F1I am, by the way, always shopping for new music…so any and all suggestions are welcome!

Living in Yellowstone last year introduced me to a dozen new bands that I have come to love, but I’m not up there this year. Instead, I’m hoping other folks will come forward with ideas for new stuff to help me out…

Once Magnificent is a story about nostalgia and growing old. It’s about watching your place in the world disappear, even as you fight to hold on to everything you once had. So…err…think about that, then suggest away!

…Cannot Get Out…

This has not been a good morning. Actually, this morning has pretty much sucked donkey balls.

Okay…look…I’m bitter and cynical, so if I add honest to that list, my bad morning means I’m pretty damned sure my entire day is already shot to hell, and I’m not even done with my coffee yet.

*sigh*

And my friends wonder why I titled my current story The Silence That Never Comes

E627885B-BCD9-494E-90FC-D3EFF940E24AAside from the metaphor involved, there is also the reality of mornings like this one. Mornings of distraction and annoyance and — worst of all — people…

The reality of people and activity and noise around the house.

I have to get out.

I try to head down the mountain, then, to a quiet little coffee shop. But, no…there’s construction and delays and noise on the road. More noise and chaos than home.

I have to get out.

I turn, I change…I try one of the lakes instead. A bit of hoped-for peace and quiet around the still waters to do some writing. But no, not today…of course not. Loud music and many, many people crowding the shores and the waters. Noise and chaos everywhere.

I have to get out.

09AE17E4-8CE3-4A69-87C9-D1A3F07CBB17Holy shit, I’m like the fucking Moria dwarves in Fellowship of the Ring: “…cannot get out…they are coming…”

Just how the hell can I explain this need for silence to people who actually enjoy noise and activity and bustle? People like, you know, all of my family, and most of my friends? People for whom the presence and noise of others is not just enjoyed, but preferred?

The constant presence of people — and all the noise and activity and bullshit that goes with that presence — is goddamned kryptonite to me. It builds and builds until it finally drives me nuts to the point where I can’t think, can’t function…and I sure as hell can’t write. Look, I spend most of my week around people, spend most of it being nice and friendly and “chatty”…

And I’m lying and scamming worse than my protagonist ever does. It’s all a lie, that false persona. Although it happens to be a lie I’m good at, that is not who I am.

I finally did get out, by the way…but it took over an hour of off-trail hiking to do so. At this very moment, I’m sitting on a goddamned rock, with my iPad perched precariously on another one, a couple of miles from the nearest trail (let alone the nearest day-use or camp site). I wish it was farther, to be honest, but I actually want to write, not hike all day.

Thankfully, all I now have around me are birds and squirrels and bears.

Bears…

Dammit, if I survived six months — and several close calls — dodging grizzlies in Yellowstone, only to get eaten by a lousy black bear here in Colorado, I’m gonna be well-and-truly pissed.

Hmmm…I wonder if a ghost can actually haunt a bear? If so, I’m coming for the bastard who finally does get me…

The Cutting Room Floor

Ugh…streaming video can be a dangerous thing.

In general, since I killed off cable, I watch much less TV…and I (usually) waste less time watching random crap that is of no real interest to me. On the other hand, I also have this nasty tendency to head down rabbit trails of binge-watching…

33B58394-E08D-4DEB-A984-5CECAADC751AI watched Stripes last night. Well, let me amplify that — I watched Stripes for about the 10,000th time. I can — quite literally — quote that entire movie, line by line, from beginning to end. So imagine my surprise when the version I was watching last night started throwing scenes at me that I had never seen before.

Wait…what the fuck?

This is Stripes, for God’s sake…nothing should surprise me about that movie!

I had to back out of the movie at that point and check out just what the hell was happening. I know I should be surprised that someone decided to put out an “extended cut” of a 30-year-old lowbrow comedy, but I’m not. Sadly, nothing about Hollywood’s money-grubbing desperation surprise me anymore…

NO! I am not giving in to that particular squirrel-moment! I have a post I want to write, dammit! This is NOT a Hollywood post, it’s a writing post!

Now, I should probably point out that I am in fact a fan of watching extended cuts and deleted scenes and the like. But I’m a fan of those things for different reasons than the studios and directors actually intend; I watch them not for “more,” but rather to study and learn and understand just why those scenes were not included in the movie in the first place.

Few movies benefit from the re-introduction of deleted scenes. Most, in fact, are made worse. It is that “made worse” that offers valuable insight and instruction for writers: Not every scene works…not every scene should be included.

Look, when we conceive and plan and write a story,* we are usually too damned close to the material to evaluate dispassionately just what scenes — and portions of scenes — work, and which drag the story down.

*I’m talking long-form stories here…100,000+ word novels.

C9143392-2DB6-4518-B184-63924E93FDE4In spite of all the revision and editing passes we do with our stories, that closeness to the story is why we still need good beta-readers. We need outsiders to point out just when a scene belongs on the cutting room floor.

The Stripes Extended Cut reinforced that reality for me. Without exception, the extra scenes I watched added absolutely nothing to the movie. Worse, they took away from it. At the end of that now-two-hour movie, I was less than impressed.

Of course, being a writer, I also took the opportunity to reflect not on the one-and-only shitty experience I’ve had with Stripes, but to focus on trying to evaluate my current scene-list for The Silence That Never Comes.

Somewhere Peaceful to Die, for a separate example, was by no means “long”, but it still held half-a-dozen scene-fragments that were — as was pointed out to me — better removed. But it took someone else to really point out that to me…I was too close to the material to say that to myself.

You can imagine my reaction to that advice to cut them…probably better than I can illustrate it. “But…but…but, this scene is important! It reinforces X about Character Y!”

You know what? That beta-reader/editor was 100% right. After I made the changes, the story did flow better. The cut scenes did drag things down, they did take away from the story itself.

Just like most deleted scenes.

So, for you other writers out there, I’ll offer this homework assignment: pick a handful of your favorite movies, and watch a video (YouTube is your friend on this) showing a roll of scenes deleted from it. Then think about how those scenes would change things, think about why the writers & director originally wanted them, then then why they chose to cut them.

Was the scene with Bill Murray and Harold Ramis dropping acid with Colombian guerillas funny? Kinda. Did it belong in the final version of Stripes? Not a chance in hell.

Look at my “homework assignment” and remember my oft-expressed lesson: writers need to learn from everything.