It’s Good to Have a Backup Plan

O Best Beloved is in grad school, where you occasionally have to do unpleasant-sounding trials like “Prelim” and “Defending” and so forth.  I’m not sure what any of them actually entail, but they sound like the sort of thing that’s administered somewhere deep underground by old men in hooded cloaks.

Pictured: grad school (artist's rendition)

So her lab has a tradition:  you go into your Prelim with a backup plan that’s way more fun than grad school.  That way when the monks open your veins and begin draining your blood into the holy chalice you can close your eyes and think about teaching little children in Micronesia, and fishing for crabs during your afternoons off, rather than screaming and violating the Third Holy Instruction.

I think this is a good stress mechanism for everyone, whether you’re facing trials of torture or not:  have a backup plan.  It doesn’t have to be in preparation for a specific make-or-break moment; it can just be your backup plan for the day you get fed up with all this shit.  When this shit gets extra shitty you can take a deep breath and relax, secure in the knowledge that you have a plan.

What’s that?  My plan?  Oh — I thought I would take up yak herding in Alaska.  They don’t have yaks there yet, and I think they’d like the climate.  I’ll be like Johnny Appleseed, except with baby yaks.  Geoffrey Baby Yak!

Baby yaks also happen to be the cutest thing ever.

Do you have a backup plan?  And if not, why not?

Word Choice: How to Only Say Positive Things (Even about Very Negative Subjects)

Fiction authors don’t actually use the same skillset as journalists, despite our love of giving advice “for writers” as if they were some unified whole, but I’m increasingly convinced that journalism is the place to go if you want a really, really strict command of your usage and vocabulary skills.  Limited text space makes word choice a sentence-to-sentence priority in a way that it just isn’t in novels, and if you can cross-apply that same focus to a novel you get a very tightly-written piece.

Exhibit A:  The Wall Street Journal Covers Its Own Internal Scandal, Sort Of

Also, you learn how to create evasions so elaborate they might as well be works of art.  Consider this piece from the Wall Street Journal‘s weekend edition:

Dow Jones CEO Hinton Resigns; Move Follows Brooks’s Exit

If you haven’t been following the News Corp. hacking scandal closely, or don’t know much about the newspaper industry, you might be excused for missing a very salient fact in this story:  the “Dow Jones CEO” Les Hinton is also the publisher of the Wall Street Journal.  Right now.  Or up until Friday, anyway, meaning that very very very shortly before this story ran he was the absolute top boss of everyone involved in writing and printing it.

This guy (drawn WSJ style).

It takes style and grace — and judicious use of synonyms — to write a front-page article about your publisher retiring in shame and scandal that never once suggests he is, in fact, the publisher of the newspaper your reader is holding in his or her very hands.  They actually make it past the jump with this evasiveness; far down on the Page A6 continuation the reader finally gets the statement that

The resignation of Mr. Hinton creates a challenge for News Corp. The company is eager to wall off the properties Mr. Hinton has lately overseen—including the Journal and Dow Jones Newswires—from the messy British tabloid scandal.

..oh my!  The Journal!  You don’t say!  Surely not the…Wall Street Journal?  The one I am holding in my hands?  Why, that’s news indeed!

The Lesson for All of Us

Hopefully most of you will not ever need to use this lesson in actual crisis communications (PR-speak for “lying when you fucked up”), but here is what the article ably demonstrates:  you can, in fact, write long and descriptive pieces about uncomfortable subjects that would never, in a million years, bring up the idea of that uncomfortable subject to the casual reader.

You can’t do anything about the inside baseball crowd — the people who already know the players in the story, their histories, their significance — but you can sure as hell make sure that, if someone totally unfamiliar with the story picks up your coverage first, they come away without having connected the awkward dots.

And you do it all with word choice.

I may overstress this point on my blog, but content is cheap.  There are no new ideas under the sun — try to have a good one, but don’t kill yourself making it perfect.  How you say something matters more than what you say.  For authors and for multi-billion dollar news conglomerates.

Expressing Basic Physical Concepts in Words (That Don’t Suck) — Now With a Lesson from George Lucas

This is a longer post, but bear with me — there’s real advice here as well as the obligatory pop culture references.  Seriously, what lessons can’t I teach with Star Wars?  Here we go:

Have you ever seen that exercise they do at leadership seminars and the like where participants have to “teach” the instructor to tie his or her shoes?  And then the instructor does everything with Amelia Bedelia-like literalism until hilarious frustration ensues?

It's funny because the servant class is inherently inferior to us! Ha!

If you have (or if you just read Amelia Bedelia when you were a kid), you already know the challenge technical writers face:  how to express basic physical concepts in words that readers can understand and translate into actions.  I’m always reminded of this around the middle of the year because my page-a-day desk calendar is one of those that you flip around in July, and I’ve always goofed the stacking up so that (in today’s case) January 3rd follows July 14th (and the back side of the Jan. 13 page isn’t July 15 either).  “Just turn your calendar around and start from the top,” my ass.

If you’re not a technical writer or desktop calendar manufacturer, you might be struggling to see the relevance of this.  Bear with me.  It’s because this is awesome:

While this is not:

The erratic course the galactic cruiser was traveling was intentional, not the product of injury but of a desperate desire to avoid it.  Long streaks of intense energy slid close past its hull, a multihued storm of destruction like a school of rainbow remoras fighting to attach themselves to a larger, unwilling host. 

One of those probing, questing beams succeeded in touching the fleeing ship, striking its principal solar fin.  Gemlike fragments of metal and plastic erupted into space as the end of the fin disintegrated.  The vessel seemed to shudder.

The source of those multiple energy beams suddenly hove into view — a lumbering Imperial cruiser, its massive outline bristling cactuslike with dozens of heavy weapon emplacements.  Light ceased arching from those spines now as the cruiser moved in close.  Intermittent explosions and flashes of light could be seen in those portions of the smaller ship which had taken hits.  In the absolute cold of space, the cruiser snuggled up alongside its wounded prey.

Those are all George Lucas’s* own words (yes, even “snuggled”), from the novelization released shortly before Star Wars hit theaters for the first time.  You may have noticed that it’s kind of awful.

Setting aside the odd vocabulary choices, the excerpt’s problems can mostly be traced back to one obvious issue:  it was written from a screenplay, and it still reads like one.  Three paragraphs in we’re still hearing a laundry list of sequential actions.  Every sentence has included some new action that happens:  in the first, a cruiser travels an erratic course.  In the second energy beams shoot past it.  In the third a beam hits it.  In the fourth bits fly off into space.  In the fifth the vessel shudders (or at least seems to — one wonders who it’s seeming to).  And so on.

On the bright side, the cover is pure, unadulterated 1970s awesomeness.

The problem here is one of pacing.  When you describe actions there’s a tendency to want to use the simple, one-thing-then-the-next approach that we use when teaching an overly-literal leadership coach how to tie his/her shoes.  It is, after all, how we learn most things.  Why not use it for teaching people “what happens in my book” as well?  (The answer, hopefully made obvious by the excerpt above, is that it sucks.)

So what’s the alternative?  Well, people have been struggling with that for a long time.  Some have succeeded; others are Stieg Larsson.  But in general there are a few broad options to choose from:

  • The Big Gloss.  Here you cram a lot of action, several minutes of “screen time” or more, into a description of the end result:  “After a flurry of blows and a short you-push-I-pull dance along the flagstones, Captain Rake’s blade slid beneath El Dastardo’s elegant basket hilt and tore the sword from his grasp.”  This is particularly merciful when used to describe naval (or space) battles or massive movements of armies.
  • The Justified Confusion.  Similarly efficient, this plays up the realistic confusion of most intense actions to skip to the point:  “From that moment everything was a blur of fists and hastily-improvised weapons, and the bar was still roiling when she finally tumbled out the door and into the street, away from the beer-scented madness.”  It has the added advantage of seeming to throw a little “gritty realism” into a story whether it actually possesses said quality or not.
  • The Interspersed Non-Sequiter.  If the individual steps of an action are really too important to gloss over you can at least break up the laundry list of “this happened, then that happened” statements (see the Lucas excerpt above) by shoving in some non-action non sequiters:  “She laid the candle in the bowl and sprinkled the herbs carefully around it.  Her knife lay close to hand.  Was this really the right thing to do?  They’d find out soon enough.  A dip of her fingertips in water was all it took — the spell was prepared.”  This keeps the rhythm more varied and avoids the plodding feel of one action described after another.
  • The Slide Show:  It’s possible to skip through a long period of time by simply watching the big points in rapid succession through one charater’s eyes:  “She could already see the outcome.  The cruiser would bend to the starboard, following the gravity well, and they would have to tilt their bow downward to compensate.  From then on it was a matter of physics:  the ponderous range-finding blasts “walking” slowly down the planetary curve, the nauseating yaw, and, finally, the inevitable drop below the horizon.  Assuming the shields would hold…” This at least puts the reader in the more interactive role of an eavesdropper on a character’s thoughts, rather than a movie-chair-seated passive observer of bland description.

I won’t swear by any one of these, or that they’re a particularly comprehensive list, but they’re at least a start on some alternatives.  Feel free to share your own in the comments section (or to tell me my examples suck — my feelings won’t be hurt).  And while we’re at it, does anyone want to know a really cool way to tie their shoes?


*In fairness, they are Alan Dean Foster’s words, ghostwritten for and approved by George Lucas.  But he did publish the novelization under his own name. 

2 cats! Free to a bad home!

This is Oh Best Beloved.  Geoffrey has a post planned out that he’s ready to share with you, but last night our pair of hell beasts (aka cats) managed to dump water on his key board and chew through my laptop cord so this morning there are 0 working computers in our apartment.  As soon as we get a working computer in the apartment there will be a real post.

In the meantime wouldn’t you like this pair of adorable balls of destruction?

Disclaimer: Of course we’re joking, as per the 10 page contract we filled out with the Human Society we are not able to give the cats away.  Making them into pies on the other hand….

The Physical Hazards of Writing

My brother the lighting designer swears that all his peers go blind in very specific parts of their eyes.  O Best Beloved the crop geneticist claims all corn scientists end up with skin allergies.  I have no idea what public relations directors cultivate as chronic ailments besides black humor, but I’m sure my father will tell me when he gets there; the point is that we all have our inevitable job hazards.  And writers?  Well, yes.  It may come as a surprise to you, but huddling in a dank cave and scratching out word count for your daily bread does take its inevitable toll.

$1250 a month plus parking, downtown.

And if you’re self-employed you can’t even file with OSHA.  So what do we have to look forward to in our old age?

  • Eyes: painfully light-sensitive from hours of staring at a low-lit computer screen as they daylight vanishes unnoticed behind us.  Squints common.
  • Speech: gradually more halted as we think in longer and longer chunks of written text.  Conversation and its lack of revisability becomes increasingly frustrating.
  • Fingers: curl permanently into keyboard-pounding claws.  Snatching fish from nearby rivers becomes gradually easier (and can get you through a rough month).
  • Back: conforms over time to the shape of your chair.  Problem goes unnoticed until the chair wears out and you have to switch, which you take worse than a divorce.
  • Figure: gravitates slowly toward the extremes.  Diet and health will determine whether you end up with “writer’s butt” or “famine survivor chic.”
  • Legs: Whither away and atrophy without regular exercise such as kicking the cat when it bothers you.  Pets a worthwhile investment.
  • Personal hygiene: hardly bears mentioning, really.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that you’ve found some sort of in-your-chair yoga routine that solves all these problems, or just balance your life and your writing in a normal and healthy way (ha! just my little joke).  Have I missed your malady of choice?  Leave a comment and I’ll add it to the list!

Those Impossible Daily Tasks

I think everyone has some basic, ordinary task that they’re secretly horrible at.  I, for example, am a cereal box mangler.  I distinctly remember my father looking at a box of cereal I had opened and saying “what did you do to this thing?” some time back in high school.

The answer, of course, was that I opened it.  Perhaps this is a skill that can be taught and my parents simply failed me, but somewhere along the line I learned a way of opening cereal boxes that turns the narrow rectangle into a badly-bowed oval shape.  This happens without tearing or folding the cardboard.  I just melt its stiff edges away like soggy Cheerios in the bottom of yesterday’s bowl.

Or, in the case of starving artists everywhere, the cheap Cheerios knock-off.

In the grand scheme of things it’s not too worrying a disability.  O Best Beloved probably isn’t even awake enough to notice the stretched boxes when she’s fumbling with the cereal.  But it does make me wonder what other people are doing miserably badly at in their very ordinary, everyday routine.  Tying their shoes?  Shaving?  Using the urinal without talking to the dude next to them?

Seriously, guys, don't.

What are your tiny daily failures?  Do you feel a little worse because I made you think about them?  I’m sorry.  Wednesday’s post has a fuzzy pony, if that will help.  See you all on Monday!

The Vetting Process: How Ideas Become Written Works

A pretty large chunk of the advice writers get from other writers (and from even less qualified critics) is mechanical:  how to space paragraphs effectively, how to use a semicolon; the use and uncertain fate of the Oxford comma.  Rather less focuses on the awkward journey from vague idea to finished work.  I suspect that’s because it is a bloody, violent journey that culls the weak and promotes the strong, and when you start writing about that sort of thing on your blog you get a lot of odd inbound links from white supremacist groups.

I looked for an associated image and they were all terrifying. Here's a fuzzy pony instead.

But the fact of the matter is that good writing leaves a lot of abandoned bad writing in its wake, from the first napkin-jotting to the final revision.  Everyone has some sort of triage or vetting process in place (or ought to); here is mine.

Step 1:  The Idea

Contrary to popular belief, ideas do just pop into your head out of nowhere.  The best way to have a head that does this is to nurture a busy, observant brain that knows lots of things, so get on down to the library and do some learning.  The broader your net of general knowledge is the more likely you are to say “well that incredibly obscure thing in history would make a great novel!” or the like.

Step 2:  The Scribble

If you have any sense in that idea-netting head of yours you’ll write all these odd inspirations down as they occur, even if you have absolutely no idea how to use them yet.  Write it on your arm if you have to, and feel free to use shorthand, as long as you’re confident in your ability to extrapolate meaningful text from a blurry “snrrk poo” hours later.

Step 3:  The Notebook

Here at last we are into the realm of written words (if you’re lucky enough to only get good ideas when you have some paper and some free time on hand, of course, you can skip Step 2).  The Notebook is where ideas get tried out.  It doesn’t have to be an actual physical notebook, of course, just somewhere you can draft and draft again to your heart’s content.  Take those scribbled ideas and write out longer scribbles.  Explore the ideas.  Write question-and-answers with yourself, or just start writing from Chapter 1 and see what it looks like.  The point is to give each idea a few pages of experimenting.  Some might take up whole notebooks — there’s no rules here.

Step 4:  The Draft

At some point you’re going to like an idea so much you turn it into a start-to-finish product.  I highly recommend doing this on the computer, but on your aching, cramped fingers be it if you want to play the traditionalist.


This is the draft.  It may all flow out from the first word to the last in unbroken prose, or you may go over each chunk of it a few times before moving on to the next.  Everyone works at their own pace.  Just remember that it is a draft, and don’t get too bogged down in perfecting it.  There’s plenty more carnage to come for the poor, innocent words!

Step 5:  The Revision

Set the draft aside.  Let it stew for a few days.  Go back and edit it, either by making changes as you read or with little editing marks — your choice.  (A lot of people find that the latter makes for a better overall picture, since they’re not stopping their reading all the time to make lengthy alterations).  Try to limit yourself to a single time through.  Make every change you think you need once.  Then move on, or else you’ll be on this step forever.

Step 6:  Public Humiliation

I’m sorry, that should read “editing by other readers.”  But at this point you’ve had your opportunity to weed out the weak.  Send the words off to your editing friends (possibly in filthy, overcrowded boxcars) and see what they want to cull from the herd.  Take their suggestions with a grain of salt — it is your work, after all — but at the very least put some serious thought into changing anything that more than one person flagged in some way.

Step 7:  Repeat as Needed

Fix what you think you should from the other readers’ edits, then send it back to them.  See if they’re happy with the new work.  See if you’re happy with the new work.  You’re not, because you’re a perfectionist, but try to restrain yourself to one or two more rounds.

Now you’re done.  Wasn’t that easy?  All you have to do is decide where you’re publishing, possibly find a good agent, send in submissions, deal with rejections, and maybe in a few years you’ll have a published work that still resembles that idea you had way back in Step 1.

Cheered?  Disheartened?  Got an idea for how it all works that vastly differs from mine?  Leave a comment!  We’re not shy here.


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