Thursday, August 22, 2013

Marking the Day

Today would have been Mom's 74th birthday. To commemorate it, I thought I'd post some pics from her 64th, which was the birthday I wrote about in Mom's Cancer. August 22, 2003. Here's the big page from that chapter:

And here's the real thing. What, you didn't think I made it up, did you?

We put out a nice spread.
Opening gifts with Kid Sis.
Nurse Sis demonstrates the proper operation of a scalp massager.
Nurse Sis, Mom, and me workin' the Hawaiian

My daughters, my wife Karen, me, Nurse Sis and Kid Sis. Not sure what we're all doing with our hands. Let's say we were channeling healing energy, although more likely we were acting silly for the camera.

Mom and her Hero. Hero's doing fine with my sisters, by the way, although he's gotten gray around the muzzle. Haven't we all.

I think and dream about Mom a lot, almost always happily. Memories of this party are some of the happiest. It was a good day.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing

Writer Elmore Leonard died yesterday at 87. I wasn't a fan--don't think I ever read one of his books. However, after reading his Ten Rules of Writing, I think I'll have to. These are good rules.

(The list below is just a summary. See the original New York Times article for Leonard's entertaining explanations and examples.)

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than ''said'' to carry dialogue.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said'' . . . he admonished gravely. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

6. Never use the words ''suddenly'' or ''all hell broke loose.''

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

* * *

Once you've digested that, take a look at the Leonard obituary posted on The Onion, which deliberately breaks every one of the rules. What a sly tribute! (That's my exclamation mark quota for the day.)


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

It's Supposed to be Hard

Geez, I can't believe it's been 12 days since my last blog post, although we did wring a few days of fun out of Mr. Language Person. Sorry. Time just slipped away, as it does. Slipperier and slipperier it seems.

In the last post, reader Dave commented: "I enjoy your insights on how you design your characters. I expect I will be referring to your writings again and again. I will admit that although I have come up with original character designs, I do have trouble giving them stories. You might say that I would be better off approaching things in the reverse order - story first, characters second - and I would probably agree that it may lead to better success. But, what is a visually motivated person to do? Perhaps you have some of your own insights to share on this subject, as well."

"Insights" is too strong a word, but I have some thoughts. If they appear disorganized and even contradictory, I'd say you're observant.

Stories are important. Characters are important. Text is important, and visuals (at least in comics and educational books) are important. So be excellent at all of them.

That was easier than I expected.


Oh! More.

Dave's question first reminded me of my experience trying to pitch stories to the various newer "Star Trek" series, which I described on my old blog back in September 2006 (I assume everyone has read all of my archives?). Boiling it down, what I learned in failing to sell episode ideas to "The Next Generation," "Deep Space Nine" and "Voyager" was that the writers and producers of those shows were VERY interested in characters and NOT AT ALL interested in brilliant sci-fi plot twists. Pitches that hinged on space anomalies, weird aliens or strange new worlds drew yawns, while a pitch that took Captain Picard on a character arc from Challenge A through Experience B to Insight C always got their attention. It took a long time to really sink in that a good story isn't about fantastic original plots, it's about people.

If there's a secret to writing, I think that's it. So to answer Dave's question, good characters are a good and necessary foundation but, I think, are by themselves insufficient.

Your characters have to have something to do.

Now, you could create some neat characters and send them off on an amazing adventure. That can work. The Hobbit works. But better still (I think) is to create characters with strong differences in perspectives, abilities, attitudes etc., plop them down in an interesting situation, and let their conflicts drive the story. If your characters are distinctive, you'll write dialog for each that could only come from them--no other character would say the same thing the same way. Create three characters, put them in a cave facing an ogre, and one will run off, one will charge ahead, and one will take advantage of the confusion to steal a golden egg. Now you've got something!

Your characters also have to change.

Another cartoonist and I once commiserated about how hard it is to develop arcs for characters. We concluded that because we really love our characters and want readers to love them, the urge to introduce them as virtuous heroes is strong. But the characters have to earn it; that's the point of the story. So they start out timid (Bilbo Baggins), callow (Luke Skywalker), greedy (Scrooge), discontented (Dorothy Gale), an abused orphan (Harry Potter), or a poor vagrant hooligan (Huckleberry Finn), and through the course of your story grow into the hero you always knew they were. Tragedy works similarly but in reverse: your heroic character is brought low by overwhelming forces or, ideally, faults of their own (Oedipus, Macbeth, Gatsby...). So give them room to grow.

Another thought: my friend Otis Frampton draws a distinction between what he calls plot and story. I think others would call it text and subtext. The story is what your tale is about; the plot is how it's about it.

So, for example, the plot of "Star Wars" is that rebels have stolen the secret plans to a horrific weapon being built by a galactic empire. Just before she's captured by the villain, Princess Leia stashes the plans inside a robot that lands on a planet and meets Luke Skywalker, who yadda yadda. In contrast, the story of "Star Wars" is that a simple farm boy yearns to enter the exciting universe beyond his humble home and, with the help of friends and mentors, defeats the villain and saves the galaxy. Change the hero's sex and it's also the story of "Wizard of Oz."

(And yeah, I've read Joseph Campbell. I even read Joseph Campbell before George Lucas read Joseph Campbell. Check the Hero's Journey if you want to spelunk that rabbit hole.)

I read a lot of graphic novels and webcomics, and the most common criticism I have is that they're not about anything. They may be loaded with characters and plot, gnashing and churning away like a clockwork meat grinder, but the characters don't change or grow. Stuff happens to them. Time passes. But there's no story.

A Litmus Test: you ask someone what their book is about and they tell you the plot, as anyone naturally would. You say, "that sounds great, but what's it about?" If they stare at you blankly or retell the plot, they either don't know what it's about or it's not about anything.

[I'll play my own game. Mom's Cancer is about the strains and cracks in a family in crisis. Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow is about the cultural change from scientific utopianism to pessimistic dystopianism. My dopey little zine, The Adventures of Old Time-Traveling Brian, is about regret and forgiveness.]

These notions don't necessarily apply to serialized narratives, such as comic books or comic strips, which can feature the same characters for years. There, you may not want your characters to grow, and there's a real art to providing the illusion of change without actually changing anything. That's a different problem. I'm talking about stories with a beginning, middle and end.

I can't advise Dave or anyone how to create a story. But let me suggest this: ask yourself what you have to say about life that only you can say. What's your unique take on birth, death, school, childhood, adulthood, parenthood, geezerhood, or eating lasagna on Mondays? That's where your story (not your plot) awaits. Some characters will suggest themselves. Drop them into a situation and put them in conflict. Two writers could start with the same story but one will make their characters sharecroppers in 1920s Mississippi while the other makes their characters androids on a 25th Century moon of Saturn. Now you're developing a plot.

From a literary analysis perspective this is all pretty elementary stuff. However, I've found there's a big difference between knowing it and applying it (or criticizing others' creations versus actually creating something yourself). There are a lot of balls to juggle. It's hard!

Just remember: as Tom Hanks said of baseball in "A League of Their Own," "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard everyone would do it. The 'hard' is what makes it great."

EDITED TO ADD: Over on Facebook, Otis Frampton (creator of "Oddly Normal" and many other great comics projects) responded with the following, reposted with his permission:

"One of the hardest things to do when someone asks me what my comics are about is to avoid laying out the plot. Stories tend to be universal ("heard it before, what else ya got") while plot tends to distinguish one tale from another more easily during an elevator pitch. It's a catch-22. Story is what makes your particular tale resonate, but plot is what makes it sound unique. And yet the former tends not to be the best way to "sell." Oh well. I will say this about character design... it should be the last step when creating characters for your stories. It's like giving birth to the car instead of the driver."

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Mr. Language Person

Time for another installment of Mr. Language Person, the feature whose title was stolen from Dave Barry since he's not using it anymore, and whose previous and only appearance in "The Fies Files" was in 2009.

Today's inspiration was an article I just read that used the phrase "diffuse the situation." Twice. Unless the professional journalist who wrote the article meant that the situation slowly faded away, the word they wanted was "defuse," as in removing the fuse from a bomb. The problem here is that "diffuse" almost works in this context, but lacks the urgency and danger of "defuse." I am now tempted to come up with a sentence in which "diffuse the situation" is precisely correct just to tick off people like me.

I do a lot of editing in my science-writing day job, and have concluded that if I could strike any two-word phrase from the language it would be "in order." It is never necessary. "We followed the yellow brick road in order to see the Wizard"; "We followed the yellow brick road to see the Wizard." Skip right to the verb, no one will mind.

Three paragraphs in, and I can already tell that this Mr. Language Person post isn't as good as the last one.

However, after four paragraphs, it seems to be picking up a little. Here, this will help:

Much better.

I don't enjoy the company of Language Nazis, although I have one living inside my head. I believe (and for the rest of this sentence I'm being totally sincere) that clear writing indicates clear thinking, and sloppy writing indicates sloppy thinking. Ask a person who's written a confusing sentence to explain what it means, and half the time they'll answer, "I don't know." The other half, they'll reply with the sentence they should've written in the first place.

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” If you already knew that Mark Twain wrote that, you might have a Language Nazi living inside your head as well.

Your/you're, its/it's, then/than, yeah yeah yeah. Tell me another one, grandpa. And yet it matters. It has to matter, doesn't it? At least sometimes?

For example, if it's on your chest forever (from here).

The difference between "imply" and "infer" is the difference between pitching and catching. "Implying" is transmitting, "inferring" is receiving. I imply that you're a filthy degenerate; you infer that I'm an excellent judge of character.

Assure/Ensure/Insure: this one's tricky and gray, and also depends on whether you're speaking U.S. English or the other sorts. To be on the safe side, limit "insure" to times you're talking about actual insurance policies. "Assure" is to make another person confident of something (think of "reassure"), while "ensure" is to make certain something gets done.

I almost didn't include that paragraph because in my mind it's a fine point that's hard to explain. But what the heck. Mr. Language Person likes living on the edge.

Like starting a sentence with "but," which there is absolutely nothing wrong with.

With which there is absolutely nothing wrong.

I have a unique problem in that I wrote a book whose title includes a question mark: Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? Try working that into a sentence.

"I loved Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?" Well, did you or didn't you?

"Does your store carry Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow??" Why are you shouting at me??

Just to avoid confusion I usually omit the question mark and, should I have the opportunity to publish more books in the future, will not make that mistake again.

Do you, like me, deliberately mispronounce some words because you know no one else pronounces them correctly and you'll just end up explaining yourself anyway? My best example is "forte," the French-derived word meaning something you're very good at. "Drawing cartoon spacemen is my forte." Everyone says "for-tay," it's actually pronounced "fort," and if you say it right everyone thinks you're talking about a frontier stockade built from pointy logs. So you say "for-tay" and 99 times out of 100 it works fine, until you meet that Language Nazi 1% who corrects you and you have to explain, "yes, I know," but they don't believe you and you walk away hating each other. It's a fair trade.

Wanna start a bar fight? Bring up the Oxford (or serial) comma and watch passions flare. The Oxford comma is the last one in this sentence: "I ate ham, bacon, and eggs." When I was a cub reporter, the Associated Press Stylebook taught me to omit the final comma in a series: "I ate ham, bacon and eggs." I infer (see there?) that one reason was to save one character space on a packed page of newsprint. I was also told that the commas take the place of the implied word "and" (ham and bacon and eggs), and since the final "and" is still there you don't need a comma. Oxford defenders return fire with some good counter-examples: "I'd like to thank my parents, Oprah and Jesus" really needs another comma. As with so much else in writing, clarity > economy. The Oxford comma looks clunky to me and I tend to omit it out of habit, but always keep an eye on whether it's needed.

(above music video is apropos but contains one naughty
word that begins with an "f." You have been warned.)

Lost Causes
Language evolves. Only a fool would try to hold back the tide. English in particular is a raucous riot of adaptation, appropriation, and mutilation (Oxford comma). As I mentioned in the previous Mr. Language Person post, Ben Franklin grumped to Noah Webster about the fashionable use of the new verbs "notice," "advocate" and "progress," which up to his time had been only nouns. Complain all you want, English is moving on and leaving you behind.

I knew a great teacher and journalist who raged at the misuse of "decimate," which most folks mean to destroy completely but properly means to reduce by one-tenth, which is considerably less than completely. He lost. English moved on.

After working me over for several years, my friend Mike Peterson--journalist, editor, writer, scholar--brought me around on "alright" as a valid alternative to "all right," arguing that it had a different clear meaning, filled a need, and had historical precedent. I still can't bring myself to use it but no longer cast a stink-eye at those who do.

Those who do include The Who.
Bob may have been all right, if not alright. Pastis.
Mike also champions the plural "their" in place of the singular-but-clumsy "his/her" when the subject's sex is unknown or irrelevant. "Each astronaut must bag their waste." Until very recently this would've been avoided by "his," which was understood to apply to both male and female, but that's extinct and probably for the better. The singular "their" shows up in Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, Shakespeare, Chaucer and the Bible, which is a better pedigree than most of our mongrel language can claim. Still, I worry that Mike's flying his hippy rebel flag on this one, and while I'm with him in spirit I try to avoid the singular "their" when I can, usually by shifting to plural: "All astronauts must bag their waste."

"Hopefully" is a lost cause and I'm glad. The word should only be used as an adverb describing someone acting with hope: "They waited hopefully for rescue." It should only modify a verb ("waited"). However, these days it takes the place of "I hope" and doesn't modify anything at all: "Hopefully, the rescuers will arrive soon." That's wrong but I'm all right (alright?) with it. English needed a word that performed that function so we took "hopefully" into the back alley, beat it up, put a different suit on it, and shoved it back onto the sidewalk.

I don't think that metaphor works but I so enjoyed writing it that it stays.

I recently reread Strunk and White's Elements of Style, a classic guide I pull off the shelf every few years and have given to a few young budding writers, none of whom seemed to appreciate the significance of having Excalibur bestowed upon them by a battle-scarred knight. Ungrateful punks. But I digress. I actually find myself arguing with Strunk and White more than I used to, but I think it's always an argument worth having and still recommend the book.

Stephen King's On Writing may be the best book on writing I've read. Thank goodness, because if it were on neurosurgery it would be wildly deceptive. Also recommended.

Forty-five states no longer require their schools to teach cursive writing. I think learning cursive is important but I can't explain why.

Go ahead. Disagree with me.

EDITED TO ADD: In the comments, Jonas pointed out the Onion piece "4 Copy Editors Killed in Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence." Beautiful! And it even mentions the Oxford comma.