Sharing The Love: The Random List Edition

I haven’t been as good about keeping up on this as I should have been, so in the interest of getting the new year off to a good start, I’m going to throw out a quick list of cool things I’ve discovered recently.

  • I’m going to start with the Worcester Writers Collaborative, a group I recently found and joined for its New Year’s Day group dinner. Long story short, I’m usually not comfortable around strangers so attending this gathering was a big step outside my comfort zone, but I met some cool people and I’m looking forward to joining future get-togethers.
  • Star Wars – The Force Awakens. What’s left to say? It was a Star Wars movie in the classic sense.
  • Castle Panic. One of the many games my wife and I got for Christmas. It’s quick and easy to learn, light, fun, and surprisingly challenging. Veronica and I have played this several times since we got it, and we’ve had some real nail-biter sessions.Descent
  • Descent – Journeys in the Dark. Another game, this one a board game-style dungeon crawler. It took me a while to digest the rule book and our first game was definitely a fumble-through, but once I got used to it I found the quests move along quite smoothly. Veronica and I are in the middle of a campaign-style game, which takes about 20 hours to complete and, thanks to the branching storyline, can be replayed several times with different individual quests.
  • Macallan. Single-malt Scotch. I like it. Scotchy Scotch Scotch.
  • Ms. Marvel. Still my favorite Marvel title.
  • Skyrim. I know, I’m very late to the Skyrim party, but I’m enjoying it…not as much as I could, but I have books to write.

Super MegaFest!

Yesterday my wife wrapped up her last big show of the year, Super MegaFest. It was a decent show for her, and as usual, I spent my time there cosplayer watching. Here are my favorites…


My favorite of the con. The back of the sign reads, "Han Shot First."
My favorite of the con. The back of the sign reads, “Han Shot First.”
The first Gleek cosplay I've ever seen.
The first Gleek cosplay I’ve ever seen.
Doom loves conventions almost as much as Doom loves referring to Doom in the third person.
Doom loves conventions almost as much as Doom loves referring to Doom in the third person.
My wife and our friend Jillian of Emrys Finery.
My wife and our friend Jillian of Emrys Finery.
One of two outfits modeled by Ebony Amber - Living Art Doll. Please note that she is, ahem, "packing." It's all about the details.
One of two outfits modeled by Ebony Amber – Living Art Doll. Please note that she is, ahem, “packing.” It’s all about the details.
Here's Ebony Amber's other ensemble, the Wizard of Oz -- the entire story, not the character.
Here’s Ebony Amber’s other ensemble, the Wizard of Oz — the entire story, not the character.
Steampunk Batman with a kick-ass wing rig.
Steampunk Batman with a kick-ass wing rig.

Sharing The Love: Stage Combat

Today’s an editing day, which suits me fine, because Christ, am I sore.

This past weekend was weekend one of the annual stage combat seminars I attend, and it was the first time in several months I’d picked up my weapons — or engaged in anything resembling strenuous physical activity. Even though I’ve been an active stage combat performer for 12 years now, I like to keep my basic skills sharp, and learn whatever new tricks the instructors — my friends Rob and Cliff — might have to throw at me.

I regularly extol the virtues of stage combat to my theatrically inclined friends who have never before dabbled in the craft. I tell them, even if they’re not interested in swordfighting, there are a lot of non-weapons-based techniques that are great for any actor, if for no other reason than to keep them safe. You’d be astounded how many stage actors injure themselves (or their castmates) through badly executed face slaps or arm grabs.

Originally published in Renaissance Magazine #60 (2008) as Stage Combat: The Art of Illusion
Originally published in Renaissance Magazine #60 (2008) as Stage Combat: The Art of Illusion

A few years back, I wrote about stage combat’s role in the New England renaissance faire circuit for Renaissance Magazine. The final article was chopped down quite a bit, so I made a point of re-posting the entire, unedited article on this website as part of its launch content. It’s one of my more satisfying pieces of non-fiction writing.

The Rules of Writing: A Rebuttal

Two posts in one week? Crazy!

But I felt compelled to do something after I stumbled across a collection of “rules of writing” from other authors. Some items contained sage advice, and others made me want to choke the writer because they were so ridiculous, even damaging to an aspiring writer looking for tips on how to improve.

Now, I’m not talking about rules of English — i before e, don’t pluralize a word using apostrophe – S, etc. — I’m talking about the rules of writing, tips on technique that often aren’t a part of formal classes on writing, that you can really only learn from other writers who have already made all the mistakes and discovered all the little secrets.

The problem is, a new writer might hear these little nuggets of wisdom and go, Well, this is a professional and he knows what he’s talking about, so I better do as he says without ever questioning the rationale of the advice, and thus the neophyte writer unwittingly hamstrings himself by placing unnecessary restraints on his writing.

So here’s my first rule of writing: make up your own rules. Create your own process, your own style, your own list of dos and don’ts that work for you and your writing. Don’t take anyone else’s rules as gospel until you’ve made an effort to understand the whys and wherefores of the rule in question. If it makes sense you, then adopt it, as-is or with modifications; if it smacks of bullshit, ignore it.

(This is not new thinking, by any means. Michael Moorcock offers as one of his rules: Ignore all proferred rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.)

Here are some of the rules I came across, and my thoughts on them.

Avoid prologues. Why? Because “they’re annoying,” says Elmore Leonard (one of the modern greats, so please know I do not dispute his advice lightly; the man can write circles around me in his sleep, and I admit that without shame). “A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.”

Prologues are not always backstory. That’s a broad generalization. Sometimes it’s a simple introduction that, in the author’s mind, falls outside the main narrative and needs a bit of separation. Nothing wrong with that.

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. Another from Leonard. “The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.”

It also renders the dialog bland and homogenous. The surrounding context can address this and imply the emotion behind the dialog, but so can a more dynamic choice than “said.” I believe in thoughtful, careful, and strategic enhancement of dialog rather than letting the reader always float free to infer meaning. Sometimes readers need, even want that tiny nudge.

A possibly apocryphal story: when asked why the cast of the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy was so often emotionless, George Lucas  said he wanted the characters to be blank slates through which the audience could invest their own feelings. But what he got was a lot of viewers wondering why the hell the actors were so bloody stiff.

I’ll make the same argument against Leonard’s next bit of advice: Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”. Now, I fully appreciate the thinking behind this. To many writers, adverbs are sort of the bastard child of grammar and should never be utilized, ever, because adverbs are weak, and I agree that there are almost always better choices for enhancing dialog or action.

Most amateur adverb abuse comes in the form of redundancy: “John ran quickly.” Well, duh. If he’s running, it’s implied he’s doing so quickly, because one cannot run slowly. But if the point is to convey the John is hauling ass (maybe he’s running from zombies. Or tigers. Or zombie tigers), that can be achieved with a more dynamic verb: John raced, John sprinted, John booked it, etc.

But what is John was running drunkenly? Saying so isn’t redundant, so it is a viable option, but it isn’t as effective or efficient as John staggering.

Personally, I think adverbs should be used stingily (see what I did there?) because excessive adverb use is extremely distracting. Go check out Michael J. Nelson’s “Mike Nelson’s Death Rat! – A Novel” for an egregious case of dialog modifier abuse (and solid evidence in support of Leonard’s last two rules, but I still disagree with the man).

Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. This is Leonard’s version of a rule I’ve read elsewhere in various forms — no more than three exclamation points per novel, no exclamation points ever. I agree with the first part completely. Runaway exclamation points are distracting, but three per 100,000 words? That strikes me as an utterly arbitrary number (and very limiting since the typical novel length is 50,000 to 80,000 words).

Consider Robert DeNiro’s outburst as Al Capone in “The Untouchables“, rendered here without exclamation points (and, for fun, using Leonard’s “said” rule and “no adverbs” rule):

“I want you to get this fuck where he breathes,” Capone said. “I want you to find this nancy-boy Eliot Ness, I want him dead. I want his family dead. I want his house burned to the ground. I wanna go there in the middle of the night and I wanna piss on his ashes.”

Now, the same line of dialogue, with exclamation points:

“I want you to get this fuck where he breathes! Capone said. “I want you to find this nancy-boy Eliot Ness, I want him dead! I want his family dead! I want his house burned to the ground! I wanna go there in the middle of the night and I wanna piss on his ashes!”

A minor change with major impact.

I’m going to leave the good Mr. Leonard alone now, lest he send thugs over to my house to have a nice little “chat” about my criticisms.

Esther Freud advises writers to cut out the metaphors and similes. Metaphors and similes can be dangerous, because they’re very easy to screw up; bad metaphors and similes sound cheesy and forced and stick out like a sore thumb (yes, that was intentional). So, another case where writers should be stingy, but shouldn’t completely eliminate this tool from the toolbox.

A more general rule I see a lot is write every day, even if you don’t feel like it. I can’t do this. I know a lot of writers who can’t do it. Sometimes your creative energy is absolutely dead and trying to jump-start it by forcing yourself to write something, anything, winds up wasting your time and producing crap you delete anyway. I say follow your instincts. If you know in your heart you can’t produce anything, don’t try, even if it means you don’t touch your keyboard for days or weeks. Sometimes you simply need to recharge your batteries.

I’ve also had dead periods when some part of a project is stumping me hard, and the theory “the only way through it is through it” is a headache waiting to happen. I occasionally need to let a project cool off a bit, and there’s nothing wrong with not writing for a while (as long as it doesn’t become your new lifestyle).

I have mixed feelings about the old saw write what you know. If you write about stuff you know, you can write with unshakable authority, and it can drive you to experience new things so you can write with authority about different ideas, but writers write about stuff they know nothing about all the time. If writers limited themselves to the realm of personal experience, you can kiss most fiction goodbye (particularly genre fiction, unless you happen to know someone who can travel to another galaxy or has fought an army of orcs), so that rule has its practical limitations.

Do you have a personal favorite (or reviled) rule for writing? Post it here.

George Lucas in love (with rewriting Star Wars)

Over the past few weeks, the Internet has been a-buzz over the latest round of changes George Lucas is making to his Star Wars saga, particularly the original trilogy. Most of the changes are further updates to the special effects, continuing a trend Lucas began with the “special edition” re-releases of the first three films.

And then, there is the “Noooooooooooooooo!”

Y’know, this thing right here, from Return of the Jedi:

Why do people hate this addition? Based on what I’ve read, mostly because it’s so damned cheesy — which it is. The anguished “Noooooooooooo!” is one of the worst dialog cliches in writing. Granted, it fits the general tone of the Star Wars films, which (sorry, fanboys) are inherently kind of cheesy, but that’s the kind of line that cannot be taken seriously by audiences anymore…much like the most famous line of the trilogy, “No…I am your father!”

Interestingly, the complaint I’ve seen from a number of writerly types, such as comedian/actor/writer Simon Pegg, who offered this Twitterific analysis:

Always loved Vader’s wordless self sacrifice. Another shitty, clueless, revision like Greedo and young Anakin’s ghost. What a fucking shame.

Pegg gets it. He understands that a scene can have great emotional power without dialog — and is sometimes more powerful for the lack of it. Adding the “Nooooooo!” in this case, because the line is so hackneyed, is totally counter-productive; any remotely savvy viewer is going to hear that and laugh his ass off (or, like me, roll his eyes).

I would like to say that George Lucas is not a true writer because of this…and his use of the same “Nooooooo!” at the end of Revenge of the Sith, when Anakin rises as Vader and learns that Padme has died…and the fact that he cannot simply walk away from his creation and stop tinkering with it (an important trait for any artist to possess, in my opinion)…but I have seen evidence that he grasps the more subtle aspects of telling a story.

That evidence is contained within the first hugely controversial change Lucas made to his movies: having Han Solo shoot Greedo in self-defense instead of just gunning him down.

“Han shot first!” purists cry, but I understand exactly why Lucas altered that moment in the original Star Wars: it was a gentle but significant tweaking of Han Solo’s character based on some old-school writing theory about the good guys being very good and the bad guys being very bad.

There really weren’t any gray-area characters in Star Wars; everyone was a hero or a villain, period, and they behaved in clearly heroic or villainous ways. Han Solo was definitely a more roguish type of hero with some flexible morals, but he was still a good guy, and Lucas decided upon reflection that yeah, Greedo might be sitting there with a gun pointed at him, but shooting him without real provocation diminished Han Solo’s heroism.

Shoot first, and very deliberately? Han Solo comes across as cold-blooded. Shoot in response to someone shooting at him? Justifiable self-defense. It’s a fine line, and Lucas understood, with the benefit of hindsight, that he’d crossed it when he decided that Han would shoot first.

That all said, I think Lucas is poised to start doing serious damage to his movies if he doesn’t leave them the hell alone from now on. Sprucing up the special effects is one thing, but if he keeps fiddling with the story, he’ll eventually wear away at the rough edges that exist in even the most polished of artistic creations and render the Star Wars Trilogy bland, sterile, and worst of all, no fun anymore.