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?

Fail Less

So, I think about writing all the time.  About characters and settings and plots; about, in the end, the stories that are more than the sum of all those things.  I think about not just the stories I write, but also those I read.

It’s important to think about, and to learn from, the stories and writers you admire.  Whether that admiration is for the whole package, or for just an element or two, there is (almost) always something to study and learn.  But just as important — if considerably less pleasant — is the need to learn from the…err, less successful* stories and writers.

*And, yes, I am in fact using “less successful” as a euphemism for BAD.

When I watch some jackass set himself on fire in a drunken stunt gone wrong, I learn that most important of human lessons: don’t do that.  When I read some book where everything falls apart in a raging inferno of shitty characters or bad plotting, I (hopefully!) learn that same lesson: don’t do that.

But learning don’t do that isn’t enough, no more than is just learning the other great lesson of be more like this.  No, you have to continually work and think to apply those lessons to your own writing, too.  You have to be able to look at your own stuff like a reader, and to find and understand the flaws in your stuff even more than you do in the works of others.

There are a great many people who can identify the flaws in what they read.  Whether they have knowledge and vocabulary to explain those flows is immaterial, they can see and feel them.  What sets the “few” apart from the “many” in this respect, however, is the ability to see and feel the flaws in your own stuff.

Failure-350x264.jpgMy whole object in thinking about writing all the time is to learn that third great lesson of life: try to fail less.  You can’t beat yourself up about failure — that way lies madness, trust me — but nor can you be afraid of it.  If you’re afraid to fail, you’ll never try…and that lack of trying is the greatest failure of all.

Look, everyone who writes starts off rough.  Everyone has their collection of “trunk material,” the stuff that will never (and should never, honestly) see the light of day.  As Stephen King once said, the first million words are practice.  But those initial, arguably necessary, “failures,” those opportunities to learn, are one of the greatest barriers to making this whole thing work.  The vast majority of folks, no matter how great or how small their talent, often give up the authorial ghost with that first “failure.”  They simply stop trying.

Which of those failures was worse?  Writing a bad story?  Or refusing to start on the next one?

By now, you probably know my answer to that…

Now, I do have to add one caveat here.  If you write that first bad story, then start on the next one with no effort to learn from the first, nor to improve…well, let’s just add that to the list that defines writers who are less successful.

The military has this concept of the After Action Report.  It records everything that happened in a particular incident (battle, accident, event, etc..).  Now, the record itself is valuable, but the greatest value is found in explaining and understanding the mistakes — of judgment, of execution, of command — that are part of any operation.  Listing those mistakes, and going on to define the Lessons Learned for the future, is the heart of the whole damned thing.

In writing terms, that translates to doing an After Action Report on what you write.  What went right?  What went wrong?  What can you do differently to improve the next one?*

*By the way, this whole concept works in pretty much any sphere of life — I used to do it after every single project, back when I was still living the life of a cubicle-weasel.

I would guess that most writers already think about that stuff when wrapping up a story, but just thinking about it gives far too many chances, and too much excuse, to “forget.”  Or even, sadly, to ignore.  No, do yourself a favor and do an actual written AAR document.  It is really hard to not internalize and understand/learn the lessons when you write them out.

On a personal level, I have an ever-growing spreadsheet of Lessons Learned from every story I’ve written — good, bad or indifferent.  And I fully expect to keep that sheetWarGames-Trailer-700x300
growing as I keep writing.  Remember, my goal is not to not fail, it is to fail less.  In the end, the only way to not fail is to go all Wargames and not play, and that’s just not an option.

The Movie Marathon

I started thinking about movies…both the good and the bad.  More importantly, I started thinking about the greats that stand the test of time, and their contrast with, well, the rest of the shit.

Okay, okay…so I’m grumpy and ranting at the moment, but have you really looked at the formulaic crap the current studios and directors and actors are trying to pawn off on us?  If they think I’m going to waste my Netflix subscription — let alone the $567,834 a trip to a movie theater costs — on “Boss Baby” or a remake of “Jumanji” or **shudder** “I, Tonya”…

Oh, for God’s sake, just how low can we sink?

Where the hell are the real writers and directors?*

*Before you ask, I know essentially nothing about writing screenplays.  I’m a prose guy — my only interactions with scripts came in various high school and college acting classes.

I mean, c’mon…when even STAR WARS fails, when even those “remakes” are so bad as to make the damned prequels look like outstanding cinema, we’ve reached peak-stupid.

This all got started when I watched an Andrei Tarkovsky movie the other day (Ivan’s Childhood).  Shit howdy, what a difference.  Maybe it’s because I’m writing “dark” in the current stories, but I have a real thing for Russian writers and directors at the moment…

The thing is, that movie got me going.  It started a movie jag — a GOOD movie jag: Casablanca, The Shining, Unforgiven, The Godfather (I & II), Fargo, Bridge on the River Kwai, Dr. Strangelove, Empire of the Sun…and the gut-punch at the end of the (multi-day) marathon, one of my all-time favorites, Au Revoir Les Enfants.

Shit…how do you go watch The Commuter after that?!

I’ve said it before, but I want to stress again this point: stories are stories, no matter the medium.  You can — and should — learn from all forms of storytelling.  And movies — good movies — have a great deal to teach about storytelling.  Go watch the movies I list above, and pay attention to how they develop the themes, and the characters…pay attention to how they communicate, and how they elicit emotion and thought.

And don’t stop there.  Go watch a bunch of Kurosawa films, then change things up with some Mel Brooks.  Watch the classics (African Queen is another great Bogart movie), then dive in to some foreign stuff.  Watch the indies and the low-budget, then change things up with some anime (Akira still stands the test of time).

Watch to enjoy, yes, but also watch to learn.  How Spielberg tells Jim’s story in Empire of the Sun is a freaking masterclass, and when you follow that up with Eastwood’s handling of Unforgiven…well…if you can’t learn something from those, I don’t know what to tell you.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I can hear Terry Gilliam’s Brazil calling my name…

Inspiration And Influence

C6ucM8rU0AI0vbtI’m pretty sure anyone who writes, or creates, can sympathize with this!

As an aside: greatest comic strip ever.  No, really…Calvin & Hobbes had it ALL: art, writing, humor, and the right touch of feeling and honesty.  Even more than the next two on my list — Bloom County and The Far Side —  Bill Watterson was a freaking genius.

Today’s strips?  That’s harder…Dilbert comes to mind…but that’s about the only one that really stands out at the moment.  Some of the web-comics are interesting, but nothing out there comes anywhere near those “top three”.

[Note – apparently Berkeley Breathed is drawing Bloom County again, via Facebook and GoComics … I haven’t yet had a chance to check it out, but that might very well be enough to get me to create a Facebook account…we’ll see.]

At any rate, due to lack of anything resembling coherent thought at the moment, I decided to call out some things that, well, just plain work for me.  Not necessarily things that are groundshakingly amazing, but things I admire…and learn from.

Simple, powerful prose is a wonderful thing, especially when it has a sense of humor.  From Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere:

“Richard found himself imagining the earl sixty, eighty, five hundred years ago: a mighty warrior, a cunning strategist, a great lover of women, a fine friend, a terrifying foe. There was still the wreckage of that man in there somewhere. That was what made him so terrible, and so sad.”

Dammit, but I love that passage.  As a character description? It is incredibly evocative, and paints a picture in a mere fifty words that well and truly nails the character.

Writers, they say, write.  Well, writers also read.  And in reading, they study and they learn…and, hopefully, they improve.

To stay on theme, here’s another passage*…one that nails its setting (London) in an equally effective way (actually, this quote is pulled from the single longest run-on sentence I can think of — don’t try that at home…not, at least, until you are as successful and well-known as Gaiman himself):

“It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces…”

*Can you guess what I’m re-reading right now?

Books are not the only thing from which to learn…not by a long shot.  I’ve talked enough about my love of music, even quoted from a few songs.  Well, there are some lyrics out there that are, quite simply, powerful.  As with good prose, good lyrics evoke and inspire…they make you think and question, and bring to mind thoughts and feelings far in excess of their few words:

“With everything discovered just waiting to be known,

What’s left for God to teach from his throne?

And who will forgive us when he’s gone?”

—The Gaslight Anthem, National Anthem

 

“With nothing left but a chord to stretch

And a word to get on by

Sometimes you reach for the bottle before the sky”

—Chuck Ragan, Nothing Left to Prove

There are dozens of additional examples I could give…an entire iTunes library, in fact, from which I could pull quotes and lines.  That’s not the point of this.  No, the simple point is this: words have meaning, and power.  Poetry and music just as much as prose.  Give yourself the time, and the reason, to study and to learn how others have harnessed that meaning, and that power.

Read the good and the bad, the new and the old…read to enjoy, but also to understand, and to learn.  There’s an old saying about “standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Well, that applies to writing as much as to science: read what has been done, read what has worked, and take it onboard*.  Pull it all in, mix it around, and feed your own style…

*An interesting writing exercise I’ve heard about a few times (but have never done): instead of reading a story you truly admire, transcribe it.  The thought is that, by writing, you will internalize the structure and words in a way you would not through simply reading…  Hand-cramps and time aside, that is an interesting thought. If anyone out there has actually done the exercise, let me know how it worked!