Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Characters we CARE ABOUT

In response to Julie Musil's Building Characters post. Read it and come back here or read it there. I really don't care which you do, satisfy yourself because I know you will anyway -- that's what knuckers do.

All right, missy (Julie), you just touched on something that's been nagging at me these past few months, and in fact has nagged me for many months across many years across many many stories for all the time I've been a-writing.

Here's the nag: ALL characters are important.

Every. Last. One.

If you ever dismiss a character as unimportant, that is you as the writer's fault for not being more sympa/empathetic.

This point was hammered home to me recently when I read Vonnegut's Breakfast for Champions.

I always sensed that everyone was equally important, but V pointed this out in B&W and even drew a human anus to make his point.

That's true. Read the book if you don't believe me.

Your #7 and #9 are the two that got me -- extraneous and non-care-abouts.

There is no such thing as non-characters in your story, anymore than there is such a thing in real life.

We all have agendas. We are all important. We are all meaningful, and if you forget that point you'll alienate your reader who just happens to be a cocktail waitress at a dive bar that you as a high-pedestal author do not think is important.

You see the point, yes? You see the left hook in that comment?

Give your characters respect. Give them your love. You are their God and Creator and Savior.

If they pop up, even tangentially, they are your creation and deserve your respect and affection.

Or murder them. Someone else said that, too, murder your darlings.

But they're your darlings. Nothing unimportant about them, so lay them on the slab and bleed them, but cry about it when you do.

- Eric

ps: I love Julie's site. If you're not on there, go there, join, and make her your friend. Here is the link: http://juliemusil.blogspot.com

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Writing with the kids

So I'm writing a story with my kids. It's not just any story, it's THE story.

It's magical.

It's whimsical.

It's outer-space and out-of-this-world. It's no-limits and no-holds-barred.

It is a ninja monkey who is NOT a monkey, he is a primate by God, and he kicks your ass if you call him a goddamned monkey.

It is the Ultimate Banana. It is zombies and space ships and everything we want it to be plus an extra heaping of upside-down spray-it-right-in-your-mouth nitrogen pressurized bottle of whipped cream.

It is a leather-bound notebook and a stack of pictures drawn on wide-rule notebook paper, a conversation in the car, a deep study in the boy's room beneath the ceiling fan click-clicking.

It is wonderful.

It doesn't say ass or goddamned, though. It's a kid's book. Keep it clean.

The point is I'm sharing my writing experience with my children. I share it with my family. I share it with my relatives and my co-workers. I believe that if not now, then maybe later, when people describe me, they won't say, Eric was a Chemical Engineer from UT Austin, a quality engineer, a process/product/device/test engineer, or a programmer, or a mathematical samurai, or a short white guy with a big nose.

They'll say, Eric was a writer and a story-teller and was incredibly good-looking.

It was his blue eyes, the women will say, and they'll wish I wasn't dead and secretly hope I will come back and seduce them into an army of undead concubines.

My kids will remember the stories we wrote and told and tell the ones we never wrote.

My son said about the story we're writing, Daddy, do you think we'll be millionaires?

Probably not, I said. I made $85 bucks on my last story. That's the sum total of my career in writing.

Sweet! my son said. We can be hundredaires.

Do you share with your family? How will they describe you? Will you be a hundredaire author?

- Eric

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Your Author BIO: Straight-Talk from my Editor

Have you ever written an author bio? If you haven't yet, you will, eventually, because if and when you get published, the publisher is going to ask for a couple of things.

The first thing is this: Your signature. Sign here. And here. Initial there. Here's your copy of the contract, looking forward to doing business with you.

And it is a business for the publisher -- ain't no art in publishing, you knuckleheads.

Now the next thing they'll ask for is a clean draft. They'll probably do a quick read and ask for long edits and send it back to you. Mind you, I'm with a small publisher, so this leg of the process will vary proportionately with larger publishers, but Open Heart Publishing, local to Dallas, has been professional and by-the-book as far as I'm concerned. I imagine the only difference between drafting with OHP and drafting with Harper-Collins will be length between edit responses, and the depth of the personal and professional relationships.

That's a theory.

So while you're drafting and re-drafting and reading and re-reading your piece, the editor will ask you for a couple more things.

We need a headshot for your bio, says Ms. Editor. (Her name is ME, by the way, and her blog is here: An Honest Lie Speaks.)

Okay, you answer. I got a picture from last spring break, just need to clip out my wife and kids from the pose.

Take a new one, ME says. You alone. It doesn't need to be professional, but you need to be the only one in it.


And we need a bio, she says. Between one and two hundred words for your short story in the AHL volume 3 anthology, and another one about three-hundred words for your novel.


Can you get this to me tomorrow? she says.

I guess.

I'll take that as a yes, she says. She then promises to share a beer with you once we get the damned things in print, and off you go to write your bio.

The picture is easy. Grab a beer and a clean shirt. Head to the back yard with the wife. Snap. Done.

But that bio, that ever-loving bio, that freaking fracking macking bio...

There's the hard part, folks. Who the hell are you? How do you sum up the complexities of YOU in three-hundred -- or two-hundred, or one-hundred -- words or less?

I won't share my bio with you, but I will share some of ME's invaluable editorial feedback.

And I quote, where I got too flippant and personal about my non-writing activities and family and such:

Be careful here – you are shifting too much focus away from your writing. Everything that is “in addition to” or “aside from” takes away from your writing career time. You don’t want to inadvertently sound like your life is so filled with other priorities that writing takes a back seat. Writing has to be and remain primary focus.

I ping-ponged ME a bit on the personal aspect (we communicate primarily via email). I wrote that I want to establish a personal connection with the reader in my bio, and that's why I include the personal aspects in it.

ME responded to that point like this:

I agree with you on the personal connection being important, but we always have to remember the potential publishers and agents who might come across our work, and be ready with the bio info they'll want to know.

On the personal part of the bio, for the novel, I have made a couple of alterations. Below is the revision. I have taken out "unbelievably beautiful" wife - this is a bit more personal and intimate than should be included in a bio (remember, a bio is a resume, not a personal journal).

Here is another response from ME, earlier in the pinging and ponging:

That's a good bio, and those are great photos. I think we'll use the photo of you on the chair looking right (yours, not viewer's).

I'd like to see something a little different on your bio. I'd like to take the personal info down to one or two sentences top, include your other writing credits, and talk about your blog and anything else you've been doing in the field of writing. 100-200 words is about the size we need.

Would you mind?

Bios should always focus primarily on credits, even if they were the same credits from the last bio. You want to work towards getting as many credits as you can, and as many writing related projects. After that, when you get new credits or projects, take out those that are less spectacular in order to add new credits/projects.

You see what I highlighted, yes? Are you paying attention?

I was, and I do pay attention to ME. She makes sound points and backs them up. I tell her she has hollow-toothed venomous advice that strikes like a bite to the neck.

But it's a good strike. It's a good feeling. She injects you, the author, with a jolt of reality that is meant to make your writing BETTER.

Here's another diddy from ME, when I originally included my email in the bio:

Never ever include contact info in your bio. Your bio can and will be seen by the world at large and you don’t want a way for perverts or stalkers or other harassers to be able to contact you. You can refer people to your publisher or agent, but never give your own contact info. Delete next sentence. I have deleted same reference from short story bio.

And now, in summary, for those of you knuckers who skim to the bottom and skip all the good stuff I write:

 o Focus on your writing activities
 o Your bio is your resume
 o Focus on writing credits (include significant non-writing, such as a patent, which I always include)
 o Do not share personal contact information

Listen to ME's advice. When you write your bio, remember what ME says.

Just don't get sour if she leaves a little smidge of a mark just above the shoulder and below the ear.

Do you have bio advice? What does your editor say?

- Eric

PS: If you find this advice helpful, you should thank ME at her blog: An Honest Lie Speaks. All email responses are used with her permission.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Half of Something, or All of Nothing? You Choose.

Have you ever watched the show Shark Tank? People with NOTHING approach investors with their idea, and the investors either purchase a chunk of the person's product, or turn it down outright.

What amazes me is that people turn down the investment offers.

Not enough, the people say.

You want too much of my company, the people say.

My company is worth more, the people say.

And then these people turn and walk out of the Shark Tank with the exact thing they walked in with: NOTHING!

Now, if that's not a capital-bold WTF moment, I don't know what is.

Folks, your company is only worth what someone is willing to pay. That's it. It is NOT a million dollar company, or a $100 million dollar company, or a $1 billion dollar company, until someone says it is and slaps down a check.

Until then, your company is worth squat shit and diddly, in that order.

Now, project this onto writers, and aspiring authors, and those of us hocking our words to publishers and agents.

You are the company. Your writing is the product. You are trying to sell it to investors who plan to make money off your work, and they want their cut.

I occasionally run across authors who say they turned down an offer while they wait on something better.

I see authors who say their book should be HUGE, and they plan to secure HUGE up-front bonuses from the publishing houses, from their editors, from anyone who helps them with their magnificent book.

As if by sheer will of force they plan to add value to their product!

I see people, and not just authors, who would rather have 100% of nothing instead of 50% of something!

I avoid these people in business. I avoid them in my personal dealings. I avoid them outright.

They call themselves dreamers, risk-takers, entrepreneurs, and they scoff the world for not seeing the true value of their product, be it a book or a new-fangled contraption for whizzering your gizzard on Shark Tank.

I can't even watch Shark Tank anymore. The investors make an offer, the person turns it down, and the investors laugh and mock the person and say the same things I am thinking: What was that guy thinking? He'll never make it without a business partner. He'll never make it without us!

He wants 100% of nothing, because in that warped and demented dream-state thinkering, the product (book) is worth a hundred bazillion dollars.

I see Dr. Evil: One millllion dollars!

I shake my head. I drink my beer.

I move on looking for that investor (publisher) who is willing to take 100% of nothing and turn it into 50% of something. Size doesn't matter, because something beats nothing.

A rich man commented on game shows, how people tend to keep going once they have a significant amount of cash. That's money in the bank, you idiots! he said. Cash out! A $20,000 profit is more than the $1 million you didn't win! Why can't these idiots do math!

So don't be one of those idgets that rich people make fun of. Don' be that person who, when someone hands you the moon, you say, BUT I WANT THE SUN!

No no no. Please no. Success is found in bites and nibbles, not one large chunk, and it damned sure doesn't happen on the first offer of your first book.

Do you keep your expectations reasonable? I don't mean small, I mean reasonable. Are you willing to let go of your baby and take what someone offers?

Do you realize and accept that your product (book) is only worth what someone will pay?

- Eric

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Show Me, Tell Me

Let me get this off my chest. I'm well-aware of the rule that states a writer should show, not tell.

Show the story! Don't tell the story! Yes yes yes, I've heard it over and over. Preach on, little parrot, preach on.

But let me tell you something about telling.

See, there's something you can only do with telling, and it is this: Bond the reader to the character.

For instance, let's take the security guard floating in my beer as I ponderize this post. It's dark beer, Delirium Nocturnum, whatever the hell that is, and it has 8.5% alcohol. That's nearly twice a Bud Water's content, or at least today it is, and there's a security guard in it.

Guard the Showing
She sits behind a half-round table stacked with split-screen monitors showing each of the cells in the city jailhouse. One bank of monitors reads Holding Tank. Another bank reads Shakedown. Another reads Visitation.

And so on. (I borrow this from Vonnegut, who I am reading at present, all hail V)

A cup of coffee with a lipstick ring sits half-empty next to her hand as she types. She types a name into the computer: Harold Banks.

She types Harold's weight and height and the date he arrived in the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.

I'll stop there. I was showing, not telling. I told you nothing about her, not even her name. I guess I could have shown you her nametag, but I didn't want to ~tell~ you her name. That's telling, not showing.

And this is exactly -- EXACTLY -- what you get with movies and videos and those damned old moving picture thingies. You get SHOWING, not telling.

Now, sometimes you do get telling, even in the movies. We hear it as a narrator's voice, the author, a character, someone filling you in on the details, someone ~telling~ you the details.

Let me re-hash that security guard scene with a little snip of telling, not showing.

Guard the Telling
Henrietta Beecher Snowe scooped up the stack of papers from this afternoon's processing frenzy and laid out the first one face-up next to her keyboard. Jackie, the day clerk, had called in sick and since the officers didn't know how to use the new software system, and since Henrietta had all damned day to kill watching nothing but three-dozen holding cells and Google her name, the task fell on her to perform the day's data entry.

And today had been unusually busy.

It started when Jack Keller, the local busy-body and town drunk, was run over by a dump truck hauling a load of pea gravel. Henrietta had gone to school with the driver, Harold Banks, and had once offered him a sticky-finger behind the band hall after one of the football games. Henrietta played flute. Henry had been a percussionist. Now he drove trucks and ran over drunks who happened to be stumbling along the side of the shoulderless road just outside of Jefferson's Grocery and Deli.

Jack Keller, of course, had been killed. The truck's back tires had squeezed his head like a brown grape and left his brains skid-marked along the side of the road in a gray-matter snail trail.

Henry had tested positive for alcohol, not surprising given he was driving on the shoulder in the first place, and Larry Timbers, one of the day officers who worked nights over in Beaumont, found a bag of cocaine under the driver's seat. Henry rolled the truck, spilling the gravel up and down Poskie Street proper, and that's when things got interesting.

And so on.

Do you see the difference? I told you one story.

I showed you the other.

Yes, I agree showing is the best way to show a story, but telling is the best way to tell a story.

You need both. The showing moves the present-tense action along. The telling fills in the details and the background.

The ~telling~ is the critical point in writing. It's when you bond the reader to your characters.

The ~telling~ is what you do not get with a movie.

The ~telling~ is what people miss when they see a movie adaptation of a book, when they look at you and squint and say, The book was better.

Why? you ask.

I don't know, they say. It just was. I got inside their heads better.

This comes up because I'm editing, and my readers keep asking me to ~tell~ them about the characters. I was trying to show show show. I'm thinking now that I showed too much and told too little.

Don't be afraid to tell. It's how you bond to the characters! It's how you make the reader care about what happens to them!

How about you? Do you have that strange detestation of telling that afflicts so many writers?

- Eric

Monday, August 15, 2011

Pity Reads: Why they are a BAD thing

Do you know what I mean by a Pity Read?

It's like a Pity Fuck. You know what that is, right? We've all had one or offered one (I assume, unless you are a particularly prickly sort who never gives out those good-bye adios vaya con dios love fests just before you break up).

I'll refer to the one as PR, and the other as PF, for simplicity and to reduce the vulgarity, as if that matters to me. It doesn't, but I do it as courtesy to those light-hearted souls.

Often in a relationship, One person is more in love than the Other. Since this is an unbalanced relationship, it is doomed as a one-winged bird a-flapping with the left wing and a-scratching his ball-feathers with the right.

The One wants nothing more than to soar up into the sky and shit on something clean. The Other is busy trying to find bird-balls, which it soon will realize don't exist.

So in the end, just before the dooming occurs, and maybe a few times before, the Other (who is less in love, the scratcher) offers the One (who is more in love, the flapper), a good old-fashioned banging pity fuck.

Other doesn't enjoy it.

Ironically, neither does the One.

It's a lose-lose situation.

Even if it's a guy, he may not be into it. He'll give it a few good thrusts, but then he leaves with a lazy salute, hasta la vista, and he jumps off the balcony onto the carport and rolls into the back of a truck and walks buttoning his pants and pulling on his shirt across the parking lot. He forgot his damned shoes but he'll never go back for them because he doesn't need to -- the One is on the apartment balcony tossing his shoes and socks down after him and screaming to the world how small his Johnny is and that she's glad she gave him herpes.

Now, flip it and Godferbid it's the woman offering the PF, because folks, this can be quickly boiled down into a bone fide long-term guilt-trip, or even worse, a date-rape accusation.

Either way the PF is a bad thing. It's not a safe way to end a relationship, nor is it a healthy act to indulge in.

Doing something out of pity is a sure way to reduce your own personal worth.

So what's that got to do with writing, and reading?

I'll tell you, since you asked politely.

I call it this: The Pity Read

It's when you ask someone to read your book, or your story, or maybe they ask to see it and you show it.

Now, just as one person disliking your pelvic thrusts doesn't make you a bad lover, neither does one person disliking your writing make you a bad writer.

It just means you didn't do it for them. You weren't their thing. They're not into you. No hard feelings, it's me, not you, but not really.

But the reader, the Pity Reader, the PR, is your friend, your confidant, your spouse, your relative, your co-worker, your online buddy.

And since they are your friend, they trudge through the piece. They ache their eyes against your blasphemous words. Your phrase makes them want to peel their eyeballs like the skin of a plum. My God.

My God.

It's not bad, they tell you later, after their Pity Read, as they run through the parking lot buttoning their pants and pulling on their shirt.

Not bad at all.

The first thing wrong is this: They gave you dishonest feedback.

The second thing wrong is this: They will tell their friends.

Oh Lord in Heaven, do you see why this is the Gonorrhea of writers? Not only does the Pity Reader mislead you about your writing, but they then sabotage you with would-be readers inside your own circle.

So I tell you this: Avoid the Pity Reader like the clap!

This comes up because I am at present soliciting beta readers for my novel, and I tell them this, without exception:

I only want you to read this if you want to read it. If it doesn't grab you, put it down. You won't hurt my feelings. Even if your feedback is that you got through the first twenty or so pages and didn't like it, it's not your bag, no problem. That's feedback. That's what I need to know.

And I only want you to be a beta reader if you want to be a beta reader. Just because I asked doesn't mean you are obliged.

Or something like that.

I recommend you do the same thing with your betas, and with your readers, and with anyone inside your globosphere who offers to buy or read your work.

Read it not because you know me -- read it because you like what you're reading.

I say the same thing to you, my online buddies -- only read me if you enjoy this sort of fiction, and for Godsake don't buy me if you don't think you'll like it!

Because I don't need your pity.

What do you tell your readers? Buy my book or I'll cut you!

- Eric

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Moot Argument: Pantsing and Plotting

Should you pants it? Should you plot it?

I've seen that argument over and over, I've even indulged in it myself. Now I think it's a moot argument.

See, either way you put in the same work. Here's the reality.


  • Draft
  • Plot
  • Develop Characters
  • Revise
  • Revise
  • Revise

  • Plot
  • Develop Characters
  • Draft
  • Revise
  • Revise
  • Revise
Do you see it? All I did was re-order the process. There is no reduction or increase in the work! In fact, you can even go further and insert those three Revise steps in different locations. For instance, this is closer to my actual process:

 Eric's Process

  • Draft
  • Revise
  • Develop Characters
  • Revise
  • Plot
  • Revise
I tend to revise as I go. You may increase or decrease those Revise steps, but certainly you'll never find a short-cut! Not for a well-written and understandable body of work. If you go through fewer than THREE deep revisions, it is probably an under-written book.

What are your thoughts? I really don't care, because your opinion is moot, as I just pointed out, but I ask out of courtesy.

- Eric