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We’ve watched Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive To Survive recently. Let me say it introduced me to two things about Formual 1. First, those drivers are fucking amazing. Anyone who can thread a needle when they’re strapped into a massive engine on wheels going 200+ MPH is incredible. Second, F1 has some spectacular wrecks. There were scenes of guys hitting a wall at 195 MPH, or flying upside down over other cars, rolling several times, and skidding to a halt in something that only barely resembled a car.

wreck2

Robert Kubica’s crash in 2007. He survived.

The truly amazing thing was after those crashes, the drivers not only walked away, but got back in a car the next day and kept racing. I was in a car in a friend back in the early 90s when a truck shoved us off the road. To this day, I’m leery of being next to big rigs. And not just because I’m worried that they’re a bunch of cross-dressing pill-hounds hopped up on every goofball imaginable.

Fear is a natural thing. It’s what keeps us alive. The first time you burn yourself you realize fire is a bad thing to play with. The first time you get kicked in the teeth, you learn to keep your guard up. It’s a natural survival mechanism and something to be respected. No one likes to be hurt, so we avoid things that will cause pain. Simple.

The problem is, any F1 driver would probably tell you that crashes are a natural thing in car racing. Just like anyone will tell you fire has some valid uses and any fighter will tell you sometimes you have to take a blow to get in position to land a better shot. Being completely risk-averse will land you a nice position on your couch, surrounded by all manner of security mechanisms, watching the world pass you by while you slowly turn into a non-entity getting more and more entrenched in your ways until all that’s left for you to do is squawk about how thing should be.

In other words, survival mechanisms can keep you alive, but they can also keep you from living. Change is inevitable. Shit happens. Whatever. Pick your aphorism.

Sometimes things kick you square in the balls and steal your wallet. At that point, you can lie there holding your nuts and grumbling about how there’s never a cop around when you need one or you can get up, kick out your mugger’s kneecap and steal his wallet.

rock-dog

This has nothing to do with the text, I just think it’s funny.

Which leads – in a roundabout, profanity-laden way – to the point. I’ve written about how Twitter has become a haven for writers before. For the most part, that still rings true. Sure, there are some dicks out there, but that’s true of everywhere and most of the writers on Twiter are decent folk. They’re happy to listen, dispense advice, and generally be supportive. To a point, anyway.

There’s always that one person who’s going through a crisis of faith in their writing. It happens. You wake up at 3am, convinced you’re a no-talent hack. If you’re like most of us, you fret about it for a bit and then remember there are plenty of no-talent hacks doing all manner of things successfully and go back to sleep. Some people perseverate to the point that it becomes all-consuming and there are only so many times you can say, “Let it go, everyone goes through this” before it gets to be too much work and you go back to looking up dog videos. Especially, when the problem is painfully obvious. For instance, if there’s a fundamental disconnect with your writing style – say, you only want to write in Mayan Haiku – then you either need to change it or accept that your audience is going to be limited.

I get it. It sucks hearing something you poured your heart and soul into isn’t working. It’s the 200mph smack into the wall or the fist in the teeth. It hurts. But if you really want to do something, there are going to be times when you have to work at it. And that means you have to dust yourself off, get back in the game, and learn to get better at it.

truckflip

Got an interesting story (that doesn’t name names), tell it in the comments…

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Roadside Attractions – Blurb Hell

Roadside Attractions has been picked up for publication by Kyanite Press. It should come out sometime in 2020 or thereabouts. In addition to the text and the cover (both of which are undergoing modifications), I have to come up with a damned blurb.

Blurbs are one of those things that you have to deal with. I’ve written about how to do them a few times on this blog, but like a lot of things, they’re easier to write about than to actually write. I think I’ve got a decent one, but any input would be welcome.

A piece of Hell exists in a tiny town in southern Arizona.
During a not-so-routine investigation into a haunting, a pair of ghost hunters get a strange text message beckoning them to Dragoon, Arizona. The message promises them a ghost unlike any they’ve ever met and riches galore for investigating the entity. They find the ghost, but more sinister forces are lurking in the town and soon the ghost-hunters – and the ghost they were sent to hunt – find themselves caught between a renegade devil and the hitwoman sent from Hell to stop him. With time running out and no one to turn to, they’ll have to dig deep into science, magic, and themselves to stop a great evil from awakening or the world will suffer an eternity of darkness.

Comments? Thoughts? More rotten fruit tossed at me while an angry mob chants at me to give writing and go back to whatever rock I crawled out from under?

Also, is this a dope-ass cover or what?

RoadsideAttractionsR4Small

When Is It Enough? Showing and Telling and All That Jazz.

the Witch, on Twitter, asked a very interesting question: At what point have you done enought showing? Or telling for that matter? When, for the love of all that’s holy, is it done?

Everyone knows the story is done when it’s done. It may not seem obvious in the beginning when a story will be finished, but as you progress down the road of writing it you’ll soon realize there’s a central conflict (renegade necromancer out to destroy everything because she’s pissed as hell) and perhaps some side issues (vampire with similar problems, but wanting to take over her people instead of wrecking the city) that the protagonist (gun-toting badass with a drinking problem who really just wants to be left alone) has to deal with. Once the primary conflict is wrapped up and the side conflict gets taken care of, the story is done. The denoument should tie all the parts together, slap a bow on it, and call it good. We don’t have to worry about what comes next; that’s stuff for the sequel.

The plot is a necessity, but it’s in the midst of the story is where the magic happens. That’s where you show all of the things that led us to this point and give readers insight into the why as well as the how. So, you could sum up my latest work in progress using the descriptions above and you’d have the basic plot of a book that still doesn’t have a freakin’ title because I can’t think of one even though it’s nearly half written. You could even summarize the ending by saying “Bullets with a side of throat ripping”, but four disconnected phrases does not a book make. Why and how are important. So is building the world the characters live in. Those are the places to spend your time. On the plus side, you could use those disconnected sentences to come up with a half-decent blurb.

In a city where life is cheap, someone is leaving corpses that won’t stay dead. There’s no rhyme or reason to what’s happening, but Ace Colton’s recently deceased on-again-off-again girlfriend just tried to introduce him to the business end of a knife. At her funeral, a vampire finds him and explains that she made a promise to protect him. While everything implodes around them, they’ll make their way through a city where vampires and magic are real, leaders are fighting to imprison every last magical thing, and regular humans are pawns in a deadly game that could decide the fate of a world.

Okay, so it’s not perfect. Sue me. It’s a first cut.

Anyway, back to the magic of the story. What makes a story engaging starts with the plot. If it’s a tale of some doof brushing his teeth, no ones going to care, unless it’s some avant-garde house movie where the audience can convince themselves they saw something that wasn’t there and look down their noses at everyone who missed it. Get a decent plot, make some memorable characters, throw in some sex with a vampire, and don’t be afraid to unleash a bunch of hot lead. That should be enough of a hook to get people interested.

It’s the world of the book that will keep people interested. I wrote a post a while back about why I thought writing urban fantasy was harder than regular fantasy because you have to make all the weird shit seem natural when it’s dropped into a mundane setting like Albuquerque, New Mexico or Tijuana, Regular Mexico. The world building requires more effort because you have to shoehorn in fantasy elements and make them seem like they belong there. And that requires description.

Which, finally, takes us back to The Witch’s original question: When have you shown enough? There’s actually an easy answer to that, but it’s not the easiest thing to understand. It’s done when it’s done. Let’s say I’m describing magazines on a coffee table in a weird sorcerer dude’s house:

The table was covered with half-formed rings of spilled coffee, the kind of thing you only see with people who either drink too much coffee or don’t give a shit about cleaning up anymore. In the middle, staring up from a leaning pile of crusty, dog-eared, and tattered “Big Butts” magazines, a girl in a bikini looked over her shoulder, shoving her ass into the camera. Someone had drawn an eye patch and a fake scar on her face with a cheap ballpoint pen and the ink was smeared from recent use. On the corner of the table, neatly aligned and staring at me with a smirk on its face, was a pristine copy of Jane’s Defense Weekly with a cover depicting the latest in the military application of magical weapons.

There’s a lot of information built into that paragraph, even if it’s not obvious. That’s what I like to call information density. You don’t have to have spell out every little thing to have the world building work, and you definitely don’t have to tell the reader what you want them to realize. That’s showing in a nutshell.

You’re trying to accomplish a few things with world building:

  • Describing the world (duh)
  • Laying out the important points
  • Fleshing out a character

The trick to it is figuring out the important points and that’s the key to understanding The Witch’s question. What’s important? What does the reader need to know to understand where this madcap tale of guns and sorcery is heading? That is something only the author can answer. If your book is about a half-assed sorcerer who’s never done anything important with his life and is catching shit from his parents and the general world around him, the description of a coffee table shed a lot of light on both him and his world. We know:

  • He’s probably an obsessive coffee drinker and that makes his hands shaky
  • He likes to punch the bishop on the couch.
  • The world not only has magic in it, but someone’s working to weaponize it.
  • Our sorcerer has a thing for degrading women and possibly mutliating them.
  • He likes big butts and he cannot lie.

While some other brothers might deny, our sorcerer dude is probably a messed up individual on track to get himself and everyone else in a lot of trouble. If that’s the description of the character you’re going for, you’re good to go. If not, replace the magazines or clean up the coffee table. Or whatever. Just realize when to stop. The table might also have a half-empty box of Kleenex, or a cold mug of coffee, or any number of other things. He might also have a half-empty box of ‘Nilla Wafers in the cabinet and some Chinese noodles in the trash, but you don’t need to say that. In the case of the Kleenex and the cold coffee, we already know he likes coffee and boxing the clown on the sofa, you don’t need to hammer the point home – no pun intended. In the case of the ‘Nilla Wafers and Chinese noodles, who cares? All we know is he likes vanilla wafers and Chinese food and everyone like vanilla wafers and Chinese food. It’s junk information just like saying he owns a pair of pants or breathes air.

All the information in our world building needs to have a valid reason for being there. It needs to describe a character and how they’re different or what their motivations might be, explain some aspect of a world that’s not what’s expected in our world, or leave clues and reasons for plot points that will happen later on. If it doesn’t fall into one of those categories or doesn’t help breath life into a world, let it go. And if you’ve already shown it, there’s not much reason to beat that dead horse some more (also no pun intended). Leave some space for the action that drives the story forward and don’t overload the reader with details that aren’t important. Bored readers put down books and that’s not what we’re shooting for here.

So, to answer The Witch’s question: The showing and telling are done when they’re done. And they’re done when the pertinent information has been presented. Everything else is icing and remember, while sitting on the couch with a jar of chocolate mocha icing and a spoon sounds like a good idea, it gets old pretty quickly.

One final thought on world building: Realize we learned an awful lot about a character from describing his coffee table. Not all character building is obvious.

Follow The Witch on Twitter. She’s worth your time.

How Twitter Became a Haven For Writers

Everyone knows Twitter, that bastion of toxic bullshit that’s driven people off its platform in droves. We’ve all heard the stories about gangs of roving assholes that attack anything they don’t like and relentlessly gnaw at it like a burlap hood filled with hungry rats. Or how it gave a voice to extremists and white nationalists and idiots of all stripes.

While all of those stories are true to some extent or another, there is another side to the platform that Dorsey and crew would be wise to publicize: It’s become a haven for writers to share snippets of their work and interact in a world that’s not actively spying on them like, say, Facebook. Or, at least if it is, it’s not as overt as the clowns running Facebook.

When the Internet first started gaining ground, there were all sorts of wild rumors floating around about how terrible it was going to be for everyone from children to moral adults and everyone in between. There was porn! There was violence! It was a haven for all kinds of bad behavior and you couldn’t turn it on with getting hit in the face with titties! What people failed to realize was while all those things were there – except for getting hit in the face with titties, that’s hard to do over a monitor – they were things you had to seek out. You didn’t just turn on the Internet (whatever that meant) and see naked chicks doing thing that would make the Marquis DeSade blush.

In the early days, the Internet was a lot of Geocities pages about The Simpsons and pilfered Star Wars scripts. It was cheap ani-gifs, dial-up 14.4kbs access, cybersquatting, and chat rooms. Yes, there was porn and stupid shit, but it didn’t bring down the Republic and turn us all into Satanists. If you didn’t look for it – and searching was a dicey affair back in the late 90s – you wouldn’t find it. It wasn’t like you just opened Netscape Navigator and bam! titties in your face.

Twitter’s a lot like that. What you see is largely dependent on who you follow. Somewhere along the line, artists, writers, and other miscreants started flocking to the platform and creating little communities. This is the kind of thing that needs to be shouted about. Fuck the Nazis, screw the incels, take all those worthless hatemongers and toss ’em in the trash heap of history where they belong; this is our time now.

Sure, there’s a bunch of crap out there, but there’s also an amazingly supportive community of writers and artists and an opportunity to branch out and see what other people are up to. There are daily writing games that let you explore and expand your own skills. There are people you can bounce ideas off of and get honest responses.

If you want to start out, start with Steven Viner. He’s the guy that’s pushing the #writerscommunity. Meet people, follow people, retweet people. Explore and expand. It’s that simple.

From there, start checking out the daily games like #musemon, #martialmonday, #btr2sday, #tuestell, #1linewed, #talesnoir, #thurds, #thurspeak, #fictfri, #satsplat, #slapdashsat, #saidsun, #sunwip, #seducemesunday, and the ever popular #vss365. Don’t expect immediate fame and glory, that’s not what this is about, but it is a great opportunity to meet some cool people from the comfort of your couch.

And now, since I’ve been talking about titties in your face, I’d be remiss if I didn’t put up a pic of a nice pair of tits.

tits

By the way, you can follow me on Twitter here.

Got any other good places or people to follow? Drop ’em in the comments.

No One Writes Plays About People Brushing Their Teeth

My play writing teacher back in college used to regularly tell us, “No one writes plays about people brushing their teeth.” At the time, my first thought was, “Oh, yeah? Just wait.” Of course, she was right and no one gives a rat’s ass about people brushing their teeth. People turning into rhinoceroses or people standing around waiting for some mysterious thing or person to show up are still perfectly acceptable, even if they are so mired in dense allegory that most folks never get past the rhinos or just who the fuck Godot was.

Hint: Godot was all the stupid shit we spend our time waiting for. At least according to Samuel Beckett, but what does he know?

But here’s a funny thing: Everyone brushes their teeth. And, just like there’s no one right way to eat a peanut butter cup, everyone does it a little differently. For some people, it’s a ritual: Present the toothbrush, bow, and move to each tooth with military precision. Others, slap some toothpaste on the brush and go to town while humming Bliss N Eso songs and drooling toothpaste on themselves. I’ll leave it up to you to determine which one I am.

How we approach things tells people a lot about us. Are we the kind of people who want a neat, tidy meal where the burger wrapper is folded exactly so and there’s a distinct place on the wrapper for the burger, the fries, and the ketchup and they DO NOT TOUCH? Or are we the kind of people who can eat the whole meal straight out of the bag and toss it in the back seat for the next owner of our car to deal with?

Little things that seem trivial when we’re doing them can cast long shadows on our psyches. They’re the kinds of things that add richness and detail to characters, too. Little quirks like collecting Pop Swatches or having an affinity for Teen Beat magazine might not be important to the character’s arc, but they can help explain why a character is doing something without, you know, explicitly explaining it.

Think about this way. How interesting is reading about a character when the author comes straight out and says, “She was anal-retentive”? Boring. What about describing how she opened her burger, pushed it gently to the side of the wrapper, poured the fries neatly on the other side, and put the ketchup perfectly in the middle. Or a character that eats burritos with a knife and fork? Or describing a room so organized that the books on the bookshelf were all exactly the same height and organized in perfect alphabetical order? Those little keys add up to saying someone’s a neat freak without resorting to actually saying it.

While it’s doubtful anyone will write a play about someone brushing their teeth, it’s entirely likely that describing the way someone brushes their teeth can create a more complete picture of the character.

When You’re Going Through Hell, Keep Going

My first book was easy. That may or may not be the case for everyone and doubtless Henchmen could use some rework. Maybe at some point in the future I’ll go through the whole series and do some big ol’ honkin’ revisions. The bones of the books are good and some of the flesh is even tantalizing, but there are things that need work.

That said, I’ve learned a lot over the past five years or so; enough to make me realize I wasn’t the mad genius I thought I was. Five years from now, I’ll probably be saying the exact same thing along with words like “dumbass” “egotistical brat” and “no-talent ass-clown”. Such is the nature of the growth and change.

The more you work on something, the better you’re gonna get at it, especially if you pay attention to the feedback you’re getting. Yes, even the stuff that says you suck and should go back to giving handjobs for meth or the ones that say you should have your tongue cut out because you curse too much. Okay, I haven’t had anyone tell me the first one (yet), but the second definitely happened.

I tend to take valid criticism to heart. If there’s something actionable (get an editor) and enough people say it, it’s worth listening to. If there’s just that lone nut griping about something, it’s probably okay to pass it by. After all, you can’t please everyone.

Anyway, I stumbled across this image that I thought summed up the artistic pursuits nicely.

I-wish-I-was-born-with-Talent

All too often we assume we can’t do something just because someone else is already doing it better. When I first started Kenpo, the white belts stood in the back of the class and our instructor told us – first day – the only thing that separated us from him was time and practice. That’s the kind of thing that sticks with you and it’s the kind of life lesson that only sinks in after a while. What do you mean I’ve got to wait? I want it now.

Sorry. Can’t have it now.

Neil Gaiman has also said the first million words or so that come out of a writer are shit, but they’ve got to come out so you can to the good ones. It’s like a pipe stuffed full of bad ideas, anxious alliteration, and trite jokes. Push all that crap out and get to the good stuff. Hell, there’ll probably be some real gems floating around in the first million words or so, too, so polish them up and save them.

Now, I’m not saying your book sucks. I’m saying it’s not as good as it could have been if it was your fifth instead of your first. But guess what? You have to write the first through the fourth to get to the fifth.

Like anything else, writing takes time to come to grips with, time to find your voice, and time to get good at it. It can be a hellish journey, but that the end you’ll be able to experience the absolute terror of trying to explain to someone what your book is about without sounding like a babbling lunatic.

If you’re writing – keep writing.

If you’re feeling down about your writing – keep writing.

If your sales suck – keep writing.

Do it until your soul bleeds and you never want to see another word again. Then write some more.

But above all – keep writing.

Serve Your Sentence With Aplomb

There have been several claims about what the longest sentence in English is. They range from over a thousand words (1,288 in Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!) to nearly 14,000 (13,955 in Jonathon Coe’s The Rotter’s Club). Even though Coe’s apparently got the record nailed down tight until new sentence technology is discovered, 1,288 is freakin’ long sentence. Especially when most sentences range between 10 and 20 words with outliers on both sides.

The Oxford Guide to Plain English recommends 15-20 word average sentences because as the author, Martin Cutts, explains, “More people fear snakes than full stops, so they recoil when a long sentence comes hissing across the page.”

Jyoti Sanyal’s Indlish has this to say on the subject: “Based on several studies, press associations in the USA have laid down a readability table. Their survey shows readers find sentences of 8 words or less very easy to read; 11 words, easy; 14 words fairly easy; 17 words standard; 21 words fairly difficult; 25 words difficult and 29 words or more, very difficult.”

Sentence length and ease of reading

  • 8 words or less: very easy
  • 11 words: easy
  • 14 words: fairly easy
  • 17 words: standard
  • 21 words: fairly difficult
  • 25 words: difficult
  • 29+ words: very difficult

While there’s evidence that the average sentence length has shrunk 75% in the last 500 years – it wasn’t uncommon to see 70+ word sentences in the 1600s – that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea (or good writing) to go for the long sentence. The reason for that has to do with readability. There’s evidence that the average person reading a 14 word sentence will pick up +90% of what they’re reading; that number drops to less than 10% at 43 words.

All this sentence length and reading comprehension stuff is something that’s been pinging around in my head ever since I wrote that post on words back in June. The gist of that post was understanding average vocabulary size with a brief foray into reading levels in prose and why writing to a 7th grade level wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. While that post spent more time with the number of unique words in a book, it touched on the idea of sentence length impacting readability and that idea stuck in my craw. After all, even a short sentence filled with words like fustian, byzantine, and polyglot can make a minefield for some people:

The polyglot’s mind was a byzantine mass of competing ideas and definitions that led to her fustian speech.

Okay, so at 18 words that was slightly over the standard sentence length, but not so outside the norm that it should be hard to parse. On the other hand, most people don’t regularly use words like polyglot, byzantine, and fustian, so those will be speed bumps on the superhighway to comprehension. Other than that, there’s nothing untoward about the sentence. A simple parsing, even accounting for the odd word choice, should reveal she has a whole whack of ideas and definitions and that does something bad to the way she speaks. If you want to go full information density on it, we can also assume she’s probably smart since she knows multiple languages, but her thoughts are jumbled since she sometimes gets lost juggling all those languages and that reflects in the way she talks. Basically it’s an excuse for what seems like pompous oratory.

Parsing is the key element here. While there can be multiple types of sentences – declarative, interrogative, exclamative, and imperative – all sentences come down one key thing: relating words into a complete, coherent idea. Or, if you want to get all fancy with it, according to dictionary.com, a sentence is “a grammatical unit of one or more words that expresses an independent statement, question, request, command, exclamation, etc, and that typically has a subject as well as a predicate, as in John is here. or Is John here?

So, really, a sentence is a bunch of words meant to convey a singular idea, no matter how complicated that idea might be. The kicker is, in order to understand the idea, you have to get through the sentence. That usually entails finding space in your head to store the words and brain CPU time to parse and process the words. All of this has to happen in the background as you’re reading and, in some cases, even moving onto the next sentence.

And you thought you weren’t smart. Shame on you. Even reading this post is requiring you to brain and brain hard.

By the way, if you’re thinking you’re going to break Coe’s longest sentence record, go for it. According to linguists, there is no functional top end in how long a sentence can be in English. Because of the way the language is structured, it’s possible to keep adding recursion (He said that she said that her grandmother said that Cthulhu said that guy over there did something…) or subordinate clauses or semi-colons or iterations or enumerations until the end of time. Even with just enumerations, it’s theoretically possible to write an endless sentence: She started counting to herself, never intending to stop: One, two, three, four, five, six… That sentence will only end when she runs out of numbers and I have it on good authority that there are a lot of them.

Does all this mean you should never go full Coe and write two short-stories’ worth of words into one sentence? Not necessarily, just realize longer sentences are harder to parse and, therefore, less likely to engage your reader. 15-20 words should be enough to convey the message you need to get across with a sentence. If it takes longer than that, or if you find yourself going balls to the wall with recursion, subordinate clauses, and whatnot, you might want to consider breaking longer sentences into shorter sentences. After all, it doesn’t matter how good your ideas are if no one can load and parse them.

A quick addendum to this: As was pointed out in the comments, vary the length of your sentences. Shorter sentences read faster which allows you to speed up the pace; longer ones slow reading down, which allows a reader time to rest.

Just try to avoid the 1000+ word sentences. No one wants to read those.

What are your thoughts on sentence length? Leave me a comment.