Thursday, February 25, 2010

A stay of idol execution...

A funny thing happened on the way to killing some idols today. For part two of my barnburner apparently-at-least-two-part Kill Your Idols series, I was good and riled up, ready to tear into an idol or two over their preposterous blanket dismissal of adverbs. (I mean, c'mon, idols, there's a proper place and time, you know? Be reasonable, idols. Just look at my use of "apparently" back there! Modifiers used for a little comedic topspin are perfectly acceptable. A mountain of Douglas Adams and P.G. Wodehouse quotes back me up on that, even if you're of the opinion my usage above wasn't all that funny. Which, upon reflection, it wasn't. And sometimes, they're the surest, most concise path to what you're trying to say. Take a favorite quote of mine, by newsman Bill Stout: "Whether or not you write well, write bravely." If he'd said "...be brave in your writing" instead he'd be sacrificing style and adding words. So tell me, idols, why the hate?)

Only here's the thing: I couldn't find any idols who blanketly (ha!) dismissed adverbs.

Oh, sure, Stephen King said "The road to hell is paved with adverbs." But a) that's hardly a blanket dismissal (he himself cops to using them on occasion), and b) I already beat up on Mr. King last time, and this feature isn't called Beat Up On Stephen King, Who Is A Major Influence of Mine, and Who I Really Quite Like, and Who Also Could Squash Me Like A Bug At Any Time If He So Chose. And then there's prose-genius Elmore Leonard, who advises writers to "go easy on the adverbs". Not a lot of fire and brimstone behind that one. Mark Twain said that adverbs failed to excite him. Not much to work with, there. Henry James quite liked them, so he's no help at all.

No, it seems my idols have little objection to adverbs themselves: what they object to is the fact that they're often a symptom of lazy writing; a crutch for those unwilling to seek out the proper word for a given situation. And the afore-mentioned idols are completely, completely correct. (See what I did there? A twofer of sentence-weakening modifiers! Suck it, hypothetical adverb bigots!)

Point is, it's not the idols that are to blame for the blanket adverb-hate, it's their fundamentalist disciples -- the folks who hang on their every word, and who attempt to codify every scrap of their advice into a set of Immutable Writing Rules. Those nutjobs are the ones who refuse to assess each adverb placement on its own merits. Those nutjobs are the ones who clutter up the internets with their all-caps type-yelling to the heavens about the suckage of adverbs. And dismissing any group based on objections that only apply to their nuttiest of offshoots is a straw man of the highest order. So yeah. All idols alive and well.

My point (assuming I have one)? For that, I'll defer to Mr. Leonard (with one parenthetical caveat): "Easy on the adverbs, exclamation points, and especially hooptedoodle." (But for God's sake, don't blame the words. The words themselves are fine. It's us schmucks who keep using them badly. "Badly"? Crap! I've done it again!)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Westlake, Hitchcock, and Me

Just a quick update to say I received my contributor's copies for the May issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, featuring my short story Action. The issue's set to hit newsstands early next month, and it's their annual humor issue, so keep an eye out; I've no doubt it'll be worth reading.

As you'll see, I'm not on the cover, but I am the first story in the lineup, which I'm delighted about ('about which I'm delighted'? Nah, save it for the lit-fic folks.) I also got a snazzy illustration, courtesy of Andrew R. Wright:

This story is one of my favorites; I wrote it as an homage to the comic capers of Donald Westlake, beginning work on it several months before his death, and not finishing it until shortly after. It seems fitting it should appear in AHMM, since many of Westlake's early shorts appeared there. Many thanks to Linda Landrigan and the rest of the AHMM staff for letting me sully up their pages.

Making Nothing Out Of Something


At the beginning of the year, I boldly (foolishly?) declared I'd be stopping in here once a week or so to dust for cobwebs. Problem is, sometimes news is hard to come by, and it ain't every week I can toss off a couple hundred words about lawnchair aircraft or mix tapes.

So what's an uninspired writer to do? Most writers would tell said hypothetical writer to put his ass in his chair and his fingers on his keyboard, and something will come. That waiting for inspiration is a fool's errand. And you know what? I'm one of those writers.

Here's the thing though, and the thing is this: sometimes, that doesn't work. Sometimes, you put your ass in your chair and your fingers on your keyboard, and shit-nothing happens. Or even worse, your grouchy, nasty, bile-spitting anti-muse isn't satisfied with nothing happening; what that mean little don't-feed-after-midnight-and-never-ever-get-it-wet bastard really wants is to light its charming, erudite, and have-I-told-you-how-nice-you-look-today cousin's deathless prose on fire, dance while it burns, and piss all over the ashes. And the bitch of it is, your anti-muse is a pretty decent mimic. When it wants to, it can coo and purr just like your muse, saying, I know we thought that sentence was lovely yesterday, but don't you think our story would be better off without it? Oh, and while we're at it, maybe the chapter it's in isn't necessary, either. I know, I know, but trust me, we'll be better off without it.

So what do you do when your muse starts talking crazy? You get your fingers off the keyboard, that's what, and your ass out of the fucking chair. Seriously, just walk away. Take a stroll. Read a book. Do anything but delete those words of yours. 'Cause that voice you're hearing ain't your muse. Your muse is bound and gagged in some back corner of your mind next to a stack of old locker combinations and a dusty copy of the quadratic equation. But fear not. Your muse may seem like sweetness and light to you (seriously, muse, have you lost weight?), but make no mistake, your muse is a bad-ass. It's gonna Jack Bauer out of those ropes in no time, and when it does, your anti-muse is gonna pay. You just have to give it time to do its thing.

The trick is to be honest with yourself. You pretend your muse is locked up when it's not 'cause you just don't feel like writing that day, and your (lovely, intelligent, and dare I say sexy?) muse is gonna get pissed at you. Believe me, you do not want that to happen; that, my friends, is how squeakuels get written.

So remember: ass in chair, hands on keyboard, except when not. Long as you figure out when those nots are, you'll be fine.

Oh, look, I wrote a blog post! Guess my muse was in after all. Little cheeky today, though, don't you think? (Kidding, muse, kidding. And is that a new haircut? Whatever you're doing, it looks fantastic.)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Art of the Mix Tape

Today, I woke up with one hell of a sinus headache. Between that and the drugs I'm taking to combat it, I feel like I'm smuggling a brick of heroin in my sinuses, only without the economic upside. Dopey as I am, the logical thing to do is avoid all manner of social media, so as to not make an ass of myself in public. Which, initially, was my plan, but as I took the sick-day opportunity to load some CDs onto my sorely undermusiced (undermusicked?) new computer, inspiration and/or allergy-med-induced-delusion struck. So instead, here I am, rambling on about mix tapes and outlines.

Anybody who follows my Twitter feed (or, for that matter, has talked to me for more than five minutes) knows I'm a huge music geek. (Also, a classic crime fic geek, a grammar geek, a science geek, and a recovering Star Wars geek, but hands off, ladies, I'm taken.) And as such, I miss the classic mix tape. I'm not talking some drag-and-drop CDR bullshit you could whip up during a commercial break; I'm talking a spread all your CDs out on the floor, one hand on the manual fade, listen to the end of every damn track a dozen times to find the song that just fits next, serious time commitment mix tape. The kind of mix tape that when you start it, you have no effing idea where it's gonna take you -- just that it's gonna be epic. Okay, sure, you know you're gonna kick it off with a little Elvis Costello, and maybe finish with The Afghan Whigs' Faded, and there's that Guided by Voices tune you just can't get out of your head (which should tell you, for the record, when I last made a mix tape)(did I just say "for the record"? Geez; I had no idea accidental puns were a side-effect of allergy meds), but as for how you're gonna connect the dots? That, you have no idea. And that journey of discovery is where the fun lies.

Contrast that with the CD mixes today. You go in knowing every beat, every song you want to include. You make a play list, maybe move some stuff around a bit, and bam, you're done. Not as organic, and certainly not as satisfying, but on the other hand, you know before you start that every song's a winner.

That, to me, is the difference between writing an outline versus writing by the seat of your pants. (CDR is, in this example, the outline, and yeah, I know I reversed them relative to my metaphor above, which is bad form, but I'm loopy here, so cut me a break.) In an outlined book, you can control the pace, dole out plot at your leisure, and if you're lucky, you wind up with something taut and lean and paced within an inch of its life (unlike, say, this blog post). That's how I wrote The Angels' Share, and I'm glad of it; I needed the safety net of an outline my first time out, and I think the end product is pretty darn good. But the drawback is, you may wind up with something that is exactly the sum of its parts; no alarms and no surprises.

If it's the thrill of the unexpected you're looking for (as a writer, and in your readers), then it's a seat-of-your-pants mix-tape method for you. That's how I wrote Dead Harvest, and how I'm writing The Wrong Goodbye. Yeah, I know a few big beats going in (usually beginning, ending, and a couple major plot points/set pieces in the middle), but to get there, I just write and write and write, always asking what next? or how'm I gonna top that? The drawback to this method is wandering too far afield of the story you're trying to tell. The benefit is unpredictability, surprise, and, if you're really lucky, a spark of life you're never gonna get from an outline.

So which is right? Neither. Both. Any mixture of the two. Heck, it's your mix tape; the whole point is you decide how it's supposed to go.

Now if you'll excuse me, I think it's time for another dose. I'd hate to start making sense...

Friday, February 05, 2010

Kill Your Idols

Yesterday, over at Do Some Damage, Dave White had a thing or two to say about how a fledgling writer should approach the heaps of writing advice they'll find on these-here innertubes. His post resonated with me, because when I first decided to try my hand at writing, I eagerly consumed every bit of advice I could find, and the wild disagreement on nearly every point damn near paralyzed me.

Here's the thing, though. Most of the advice I was reading wasn't on random writers' blogs; it came from well-regarded books on writing from folks who've proven time and time again they've got the goods. Folks like Block and King and Grafton. Folks a fledgling writer would be nuts to just dismiss.

Right?

Wrong.

See, the thing about writing is there's no one way to do it. So like Dave suggests in his post, you've got to learn to take what you can use, and jettison the rest. Easy if it's some quack you've never heard of telling you he's got the secret to bestsellerdom. Tough if it's someone whose writing you admire. But developing the confidence to know what to keep and what to discard is key to actually ever getting anything down on paper.

All of which serves as a rambling preamble to my first-ever regular (okay, semi-regular) (or maybe not that regular at all) (hey, there's a chance I'll do another one sometime; get off my back about it, would you?) feature here at _holm: Kill Your Idols. Kill Your Idols will focus on specific advice from people I dig that for whatever reason just doesn't work for me, and why.

Now, since I've prattled on for like a book and a half already, I'll make the first installment a short one. And since this is about killing idols, I'm gonna aim high. So howsabout we start with this gem from Mr. Stephen King:

"Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule."

Youch. That ain't no mamby-pamby suggestion; that, my friends, is a capital-R Rule. And I'd bet for Mr. King, it's just as iron-clad as it sounds. For me, though?

For me, that rule blows.

Why does that rule blow (again, for me; your mileage may vary)? Here's why: tattered, battered, timeworn, white-hot, and a half a dozen other words that appeared over and over (and OVER) again in my most recent novel, so often in fact that seeing them upon rereading yanked me right out of the story every time and reminded me that it was nothing more than words on a page, and mighty repetitive ones at that. They're all sort of default adjectives for me, words I didn't have to reach too far to find, and although there's nothing wrong with any of them, their sheer repetition made them wince-worthy every damn time.

Now, it's not that I had to use those words; off the top of my head, I can list plenty of synonyms for each of them. But in the moment, when that's what my brain's supplying me, thinking of a synonym is like trying to remember the melody of a song while another one is playing. And when that happens, I reach for my thesaurus.

So does that mean King's wrong? Yes, but only in his formulation of the rule as universal. For him, I bet it works every time. For me, it'd result in a lesser manuscript than if I just ignored it. So I ignore it.

Should you ignore it? How the hell should I know? I'm not in the business of giving writing advice. All I can tell you is what works for me. But if knowing I'm idiot enough not to listen to advice from people who can really write helps you do the same, then... well, I don't know what, then. But I think it would've helped me to get that message when I first put pen to paper (er, fingers to keyboard.)

So there you have it -- my first sorta regular feature. Unless it's not. Next time on Kill Your Idols, maybe I'll dispel some of this nonsense regarding adverbs...