Put your writing to the Screen Time Test

writing meme spiderman dear diary

While we are all busy BLOGGING, instead of writing what we’re supposed to, I want to steal a concept from Hollywood (thanks, sis!) that all writers can use: Screen Time.

This works for any bit of writing, whether it’s an oped in a paper of news, a 30-minute keynote speech about saving the three-toed sloths of Costa Rica or an epic doorstop of a novel clocking in at 984 pages entitled ELVES WITH LIGHTSABERS RIDING DRAGONS AND THE VAMPIRE WITCHES WHO LOVE THEM. (Note: Don’t speak of this, because it tempts me, and I may write the first chapter of that book, then email it around until we actually hold in our evil little hands 984 pages that eviscerates Game of Thrones, Twilight, the Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings.)

So, back to the point: Screen Time is an essential test for any piece of writing.

I could put a gun to your head and ask, “What’s this novel / screenplay / letter to the editor really about?” and you might answer, “a time-traveling World War II nurse and the men in kilts who love her / waiting for some dude who never shows up / why the federal government is building secret tunnels underneath Wal-Marts in Texas to stage an invasion in cahoots with ISIS cells hiding in Mexico.”

And you might INTEND that to be the point of what you wrote.

The Screen Time Test will say if you’re a lying liar or not.

Movies are the easiest, so let’s go with AVENGERS: JAMES SPADER IS A SHINY ROBOT WHO HATES HUMANS. You take the heroes, sidekicks, villains, minions and nameless civilians in the film and add up the the number of minutes (or seconds) they actually show up on film. If you’re feeling insanely generous, add up minutes where other characters talk about them, too, though we may call you Cheaty McCheatypants. Continue reading “Put your writing to the Screen Time Test”

The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT

writing meme spiderman dear diary

worst-twilight-memes-funny-pictures-8

CHAPTER ONE – FIRST SIGHT

My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. (Fiction Law #1: Don’t open with the weather or your mom.) I was wearing my favorite shirt – sleeveless, white eyelet lace; (Fiction Law #2: Don’t open with what you’re wearing, because nobody cares.) I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. (Here we go, our first bit of conflict or story: a farewell.) My carry-on item was a parka. (This relates to how much it rains in Forks, and I guess you could argue it’s a bit of foreshadowing, but my God, no story on earth turns on whether a teenage girl is taking a parka as carry-on luggage versus stuffing the damned thing into her Samsonite.)

In the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington State, a small town named Forks exists under a near-constant cover of clouds. (This reads like was cut-and-pasted from Wikipedia, with a surplus of Things in Caps, and it is all Rather Boring.) It rains on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America. It was from this town and its gloomy, omnipresent shade that my mother escaped with me when I was only a few months old. (Conflict! A tiny bit of it, finally.) It was in this town that I’d been compelled to spend a month every summer until I was fourteen. That

(END OF PAGE 1)

Continue reading “The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT”

Reading times for famous book-like objects

Reading times for these famous piles of dead trees

Okay, I’m surprised that George R.R.R.R.R.R.R. Martin wins this contest, though for some reason they skipped over Stephen the King, who may be a literary god, but who also can turn a grocery list into 1,034 pages featuring an evil clown.

Here’s the link to the original post, and God bless them for doing this.

Also, J.R.R. Tolkien gets credit for writing some kind of 60-page prologue to LORD OF THE RINGS that was like some sophomore history sociology major’s paper on hobbits and elves. It put the B in Boring and made me throw the book across the room, which was hard to do since I was on a beach in Maui, drinking margaritas and in the Best Mood Ever.

Also-also: J.R.R. Tolkien gets double-credit for starting the whole stupid trend of fantasy and sci-fi authors, male and female, renouncing first names in favor of initials for some reason. The trend will continue and hipster authors writing about elves with lightsabers riding dragons will, within ten years, pick pen names like “GRRRRR the Grizzly Bear” and “Sw33tn3ss M00nb3&m the Z0mbi3k1ll3r” and “Darth Elvis Skywalker III.” Bonus points if you indie-publish a book with any of those pen-names.

WORD CRIMES by Weird Al is a writer’s anthem

music video meme sound of music

Back in the day, Weird Al Yankovic was proudly, loudly weird. Today, he’s the master of parody videos, which keep getting better and better.

This one is a dream for writers and editors everywhere. He speaks the truth. Sing it, Al, and let the rumors that you’re retiring be false.

 

Success is often accidental

success kid

How many times have you seen somebody trip, or do something stupid, then they act like, “Oh, I meant to do that?”

The reverse is actually more interesting: you did something random and unintentional and it turned out great.

I didn’t write a silly blog post with the intention of WordPress putting it on the front page. Which is probably why they did. You can’t force it.

Here’s that post: How weird news teaches us great storytelling

So a big thanks to the editors at WP and all the people who visited, commented and subscribed.

Bad Writing: The Six Horsemen of the Writepocalypse

writing meme spiderman dear diary

Want to become a better writer? Learn from bad writing: how to spot it, how to fix it and how to prevent the disease from happening in the first place.

Note: All writers, including myself, tend to go overboard at times. As a reformed journalist who now writes speeches, blog posts and novels, I will happily say that I’ve committed every possible writing sin at one time or another–and no, this is not meant to make anyone recycle their Underwood and switch to pottery.

So as a public service, here are the Six Horsemen of the Writepocalypse:

1) The Ivory Tower of Pretentious Poppycock

This comes from never learning that out in the real world, nobody wants to read blog posts, novels or screenplays written in the same dense style of term papers about dialectical materialism.

How to spot it: There is never a short, simple sentence, not when long, insanely complicated ones will do. Pretentious Poppycock will have sentences flavored with giant German words that are too intellectually sophisticated to be translated into English, though schadenfreude has appeared in low-brow venues such as Newsweek often enough to lose all its previous cachet.

Writers of Pretentious Poppycock are actually offended if the masses (a) buy, (b) read or (c) dare to enjoy their work, because that means (d) it is not dense and sophisticated enough and (e) they have therefore failed via mainstream success and must (f) become an elusive recluse working on a new, six-volume masterpiece that will take 26 years to complete.

2) The Gonzo Kool-Aid Acid Trip

There are subspecies of gonzo, entirely dependent upon which substance the writer employs to destroy his liver: gallons of whiskey, blunts the size of telephone poles or some kind of toxic toad sweat they picked up in Brazil.

The whiskey types tend to go hyper-macho. Their sentences are shorter than Hemingway, because Hemingway was a wussbag nancypants who only watched bullfights. Get in there. Kill a bull, with your bare hands.

This trap is a particular danger for newspaper reporters who decide to write novels.

Another form of gonzo writing happily bounces around through time, since chronological order is for squares — or goes ironic hipster with a 500-page book, written all in haiku, about a retired accountant who makes sculptures out of lint from the dryer.

While the style of writing is completely different than the Ivory Tower of Pretentious Poppycock, gonzos are also typically unhappy if too many of the masses buy, understand or like their work, because that means they sold out and not enough fans took up their suggestion to “steal this book,” though the money does allow them to pay steady rent and purchase a higher class of bourbon and psychedelics.

However, a taste of success will also remove the last remains of internal censors from a gonzo of any stripe.

3) The Purple Prose of Cairo 

This is gonzo writing without the drugs, Loony Tunes Lit-rah-Ture, performance art with ink. It’s passages chock full of modifiers or throwing words around the canvas of Word like Jackson Pollack chucking paint on the floor.

Tell me if you’d pay money to read more of this:

Ethel.
Ethel.
Ethel.
Next to barber.
Next to barber bury.
Next to barber bury china.
Next to barber bury china glass.
Next to barber china and glass.
Next to barber and china.

Whether you’re a reader, English Lit professor or a mom wondering if your teenager is alright upstairs, this sort of text is makes you buy something else at Barnes and Noble, scribble a big fat F with a red marker or google “therapist” on your iPhone.

It’s bad, right? Incoherent, and I didn’t make this up or pick a bad section of something that gets better. The whole poem is like this. But no, this is Gertrude Stein, so it is magical and amazing and you’re just too low-brow and uneducated to understand how brilliant that bit of word wizardry truly is.

4) Dear Diary

Everything is in the first person: blog posts, poetry, newspaper stories, memoirs, novels, screenplays.

It all goes through the filter of me-me-me.

The Series of Tubes has enabled this to reach epic, world-wide proportions. In the bad old days, being a writer meant slaving away at a newspaper, writing novels that didn’t sell until you died and became famous or writing in an actual diary that you locked up and hide in the sock drawer so your brother Steven, the snoopy creep, couldn’t read it and tell his idiot friends at school.

Now every writer is required by law to have a blog, be on Twitter and live on Facebook, so it’s quote possible to spend 20 percent of your day writing a masterpiece and 80 percent of your time at the keyboard documenting every tragedy, insult and triumph.

Dear Diary can be mundane, giving you daily updates about the type of sandwich they’re eating (PB & J today, then some laundry!). It can be full of humblebrag name-dropping nonsense. Or it can be one giant Pity Party.

If Dear Diary writes a screenplay or novel, the hero is a barely disguised doppleganger, except younger, taller, better looking and richer.

You also find this in bad mysteries about often written in the first person. Here’s a great first line from a 2013 entry to the Bulwer-Lytton contest for truly wretched first lines: “This was a very easy mystery for me to solve, so I never considered putting it in a story until I was telling some friends about it, and I realized the average person, such as yourself, has trouble figuring it out, although it is really laughably simple.” — Thor F. Carden, Madison, TN

The most epic Dear Diary moment in fiction I can remember is an entire chapter of a Clive Cussler novel where his hero, Dirk Pitt, has a classic car race with a car collector and Dirk-Pitt clone named … Clive Cussler.

5) The Never-Ending Lecture

This style of writing has an agenda and woe unto those who ignore it. It beats you over the head with a literary sledgehammer, damning you for not understanding how right the writer is, and how wrong the world is for not seeing it the first 593 times they explained it.

Lectures don’t even attempt to be subtle. Every bit of prose and dialogue is on the nose and characters are made of the thinnest cardboard.

Combined with the Ivory Tower, the Never-Ending Lecture may spend 235,000 words on the history of natural gas industry in Paraguay and the lessons to be learned about America’s telecom monopolies.

Matched up the Purple Prose of Cairo, a Lecture may give birth to THE FOUNTAINHEAD and another novel, ATLAS SHRUGGED, that contains a speech that goes on for sixty pages. Yes, not six pages, sixty. (Note: Was that too easy? Yes, yes it was.)

6) The Grammar Nazi

This is the polar opposite, and mortal enemy, of both Gonzo and Loony Tunes Lit-rah-ture.

Each sentence is absolutely fine in terms of usage. There are no dangling modifiers or split infinitives — and nothing ever, ever ends in a preposition.

Text written in the Grammar Nazi style devotes all of its energies into being technically correct, but at the price of having no soul, no life, no heart. And you are bored out of your gourd, even if YOU HAVE NO GOURD AT ALL.

How to fix and prevent this nonsense

Despite the incredible variety in this list — and you could probably come up with six more types — there’s a common thread to all bad writing.

That thread is this: the writer treats the audience with indifference, if not arrogance and contempt. It’s all about doing things their specific way. Readers who want to enjoy or understand their work, and complain about it being difficult, dense, narcissistic or weird — well, clearly all those readers are the problem, not the writer.

You can avoid all six of these bad kinds of writing by remembering the First Rule of Rhetoric, which is three simple words: “Know your audience.”

The audience isn’t you. Never is and never will be.

The audience isn’t even your mom, who might be the only person willing to read the thing, and even then, mom tends to lie and say yes, she loved it, where’s the rest?

If you want to write for you and you alone, do it in a diary and lock it up in that sock drawer.

Writing should be read, understood and enjoyed other people. Period.

That doesn’t mean good writing is shallow, low-brow and always happy.

Paul Krugman, Malcolm Gladwell and every issue of The Economist prove you can write intelligently about deep subjects without resorting to any of these types of bad writing.

People want actual substance, some real meat on those writing bones. They want to laugh and cry, to learn new things.

They want to think and ponder, and sometimes have so much fun that they read it again and again.

Let them.

It’s that simple.

Bad writing puts barriers between readers and all of those things.

When your ego puts up any of those walls–and it happens to every writer–go back and tear them down.

The Red Pen of Doom harpoons MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

writing meme spiderman dear diary

MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

Now, this classic book is so ingrained in our culture that movies can get all deep and interesting simply by alluding to a metaphor–which is like a simile, only different–that refers to this doorstop of a book.

Like this: “Maybe I’m Ahab and he’s my white whale” uttered by Bruce Willis in DIE HARD 17: THE HAIR DYES HARDEST could change that movie from just another 120-minute shootout in a nursing home into a penetrating examination of the purpose or life, or lack thereof.

Does that make editing the first page of this thing any harder?

Not really. Bring it, Melville.

MOBY DICK

by Herman Melville

Call me Ishmael. (People have been riffing off it for so many years that those three words are invincible. Can’t touch this.) Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. (This second line is also good. It makes the narrator a smidge unreliable, which is always interesting, and gives him a motive that everybody can relate to: being poor and wanting to see the world.) It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. (On your third swing of the bat, Herman the Meville, you whiff. Nobody cares about other peoples’ spleens and such. Kiss those words goodbye.) Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul;, whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. (Whenever I read a ginormous sentence with five zillion semi-colons and commas, I reach for the red pen and turn it into a nice, short sentence with one comma.) This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. (Another semi-colon, but this is the last one that gets to live.) There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs–commerce surrounds it with her surf. (Hate this sentence. It’s like our friend was talking to us about an interesting story, then started reciting beat poetry. Rewrite follows.) The city of Manhattoes is belted with docks and ships, like an Indian isle is encircled by coral reefs. Right and left, the streets take you waterward.

Verdict:

The fact this book is a classic doesn’t mean page one is perfect.

Herman the Melville is wordy on this page and he only gets wordier later on in this book, where he stops the action entirely to devote entire chapters to lectures about whale tails and such.

There’s a lot of fluff to kill, and I was pretty gentle with the word slaying. You could kill more.

Compared to most first pages, though, he does a good job of setting things up. Ishmael wants to see the world and that means sailing, because he’s not rich. So we’re in for an adventure.

How could we improve this? More foreshadowing. Maybe he mentions a friend who’s a sailor, the one who told him stories that got him interested in a life at sea, and this friend just served on a whaling ship that limped into port after getting attacked by a big whale. A ghostly white one. But his friend was drinking a lot of rum and tends to make up stories…

Some of my favorite editors OF ALL TIME

friendly friday friendly dog meme

Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. So come closer and listen to what I’ve learned from experience: Editors are a writer’s best friend.

Not when they’re patting you on the back, because anybody can butter you up.

They’re your best friend when they take a red pen and blast through your complicated writing pets, when they check your wildest instincts and find order out of the natural chaos that comes from banging on the keyboard to create anything of length and importance.

So it’s wrong to say that every writer needs an editor.

You need more than one, if you want to get serious about any sort of real writing.

It’s like building a house. As a writer, you’re trying to do it all: draft the blueprints like an architect, pour the foundation, frame it, plumb it, siding, drywall, flooring, cabinets, painting–the whole thing.

Every step is important. And getting the right editors is like hiring great subcontractors.

My bias is to think of structure first, because if the blueprints are bad, it doesn’t matter how pretty the carpentry is, and how great the writing is line by line.

This is why every professional architect hires an engineer to do the math and make sure the foundation is strong enough to hold up the house, that the roof won’t blow off and your beams are big enough to handle the load.

So you need different editors for different things. The best possible professional editor for the structure, the blueprints. Then beta readers to look over the whole thing another time, looking for medium-size problems. A line editor to smooth things out and make it all pretty, and finally a proof-reader to take a microscope to the entire thing and make it as flawless as possible.

That sounds like a lot, and most pro editors can wear different hats. But I’m going to argue for dividing it up, because when you’ve been staring at the same thing for weeks, or months, you stop seeing things. A fresh pair of eyes is always smart.

Even though I’ve always had editors, starting way back in college when I was putting out newspapers, there’s a natural inclination for writers to screw this up, to see using editors as some kind of sign of weakness. The thinking goes like this: “Hey, I have (1) a master’s degree in creative writing or (2) have been cashing checks as a journalist for years or (3) am far too talented to need the crutch of a professional editor, which is for wannabes who can’t write their way out of a paper sack if you handed them a sharpened pencil.”

I’d did editing wrong by having friends and family beta read, or asking fellow writers who yes, wrote for money, but cashed checks for doing something completely different.

And it was a waste of time.

Here’s how I learned my lesson, and no, I am not making this up: On a whim, I posted a silly ad to sell my beater Hyundai and romance authors somehow found my little blog that started from that. Pro editor Theresa Stevens got there somehow and I started talking to her, and on a whim did her standard thing to edit the first 75 pages of a novel, the synopsis and query letter. Didn’t think anything of it and expected line edits, fixing dangling modifiers and such.

But she rocked.

I learned more, in the months of editing that entire novel, than I could’ve learned in ten years on my own. It’s like the difference between a pro baseball player trying to become a better hitter by spending six hours a day in batting practice, alone, versus one hour a day in hard practice with a world-class batting coach. I’d pick the batting coach, every time.

As somebody who used to lone-wolf it, let me say this: I was wrong.

And so on this Friendly Friday, I want to plant a big smooch on editors of the world, and encourage writers of all backgrounds and specialties to see editors in a different light. That having an editor isn’t a sign of weakness, but of strength. That it says you’re crazy serious about what you do and not afraid of working with the best of the best rather than a cheerleading squad of yes-men who think your 947-word epic about elves with lightsabers riding dragons is the best thing ever.

That it’s not about you, and doing whatever you want, but about making the finest product you can give to readers.

So I want to give a shout out to Theresa the Stevens, who has taught me much, and Rebecca Dickson, my uncensored female doppleganger, and to great beta readers and editors like Alexandria SzemanJulia Rachel BarrettAnna Davis, Mayumi, Donna — because just like a single person can’t be expected to build a beautiful house alone, a smart writer gets help and advice from the smartest people possible.

Find one of those smart people with a red pen.

Hire them, hug them, listen to them, buy them flowers when you succeed. But use them, if you’re serious.

Writing secret: all you need is CURIOSITY and SURPRISE

The kitteh is surprised

Whether you write novellas about fierce mermaids, magazine stories for Cosmo (insert your own joke here) or speeches about the Austrian school of economics for the IMF — whatever sort of writer you are, two things matter most.

Not correct grammar and spelling. Those things are assumed.

Not pretty paragraphs and sentences that sing. That’s word gravy, while we’re talking about the main course.

What matters most: making your readers curious, then surprising them.

The kitteh is surprised
Surprise Kitteh is surprised.

This is why the inverted pyramid is a terrible structure for any writer. (Click with your mousity mouse to read Why the Inverted Pyramid must DIE.)

The inverted pyramid grabs a heavy rock and smashes the skull of curiosity. Then it takes that same bloody rock and crushes all hope for any surprises.

How does it achieve this epic level of failure? By giving you the answers before you even know the questions. The payoffs have no setups.

Ways to make your audience curious

Create setups by raising interesting questions (a) about real people where there are (b) high public stakes or (c) high private stakes and (d) serious conflict.

WHAT happened? (mystery)

Debates about the past are about facts, and assigning blame.

  • Who really killed JFK?
  • Did aliens really land at Area 51?
  • What caused the Great Depression?

WHY did it happen? (whydunit)

This is often more interesting than the question of who did it.THE BUTLER ALWAYS DOES IT, so tell us why instead.

How do you CHOOSE between two goods or two evils?

Debates about the present are value choices.

Choosing between good and evil is simple and cartoonish. That’s why its for kids. Truly tough choices are between two good or two evils. Does believing in true justice mean setting a killer free? That sort of stuff. These things are deep. They’ll exercise your head.

What WILL happen? (thriller)

  • Can we stop these evil cats from taking over the earth BEFORE a giant comet destroys it?
  • What might happen if you brought dinosaurs back to life?
  • Will 5.93 gazillion pounds of TNT make a dead whale disappear from a beach — or will something else happen instead?

WHO will get together — or split up? (romance)

  • Will Matthew McConaughy get together with Kate Hudson already or do we have to suffer through all 120 minutes of this stinker?
  • Why is Tommy Lee Jones in some movie with Meryl Streep about lovey-dovey nonsense?
  • What specific drugs were involved when Hollywood executives decided that Sarah Jessica Parker was some kind of sex symbol? (I’m cheating here and inserting a mystery question about the past into a romance setup, and I should be punished by the Storytelling Gods but, to be completely honest, and to use more commas, which is usually against my religion, I JUST DON’T CARE)

What should you do about the FUTURE?

Debates about the future involve costs versus benefits.

  • As a promising high school athlete, should you let your studies suffer to chase the dream of playing in Major League Baseball, when there’s a greater chance of being hit by a logging truck than being drafted?
  • Should we try to go back to the gold standard, to make Ron Paul all happy as he shuffles off into retirement, or does destroying the global economy kinda put a damper on that whole idea?
  • Next year, should you sell all your possessions to build a zombie-proof bunker in Montana for a zombpocalypse that will never come but is fun to think about — or should you focus on that whole “driving to work and paying the bills” thing?

Ways to surprise your audience

It’s unfair to have things happen for no reason, like Anne Hathaway getting smooshed by a truck in ONE DAY.

Also cheating: letting people off the hook via deus ex machina, which is fancy Latin for “the sidekick shows up at the last minute to shoot the bad guy, right before the hero dies” (every action movie known to man) or “it was all a dream!” (an entire season of DALLAS) or “let’s bring in something we never told you about, then run away” (every sci-fi movie you’ve ever seen on cable).

Surprises shatter expectations and stereotypes. Did you expect the scientist handling the landing of Curiosity on Mars to be a young man rocking a mohawk? No. You expected a stereotypical nerdy McNerd, and bam, that little surprise turned Mohawk NASA man into a national phenom.

A good surprise must reveal something:

  • a secret you hinted at before
  • how a person has changed after suffering and sacrificing
  • a subtle setup that they may have noticed, but will remember (PRESUMED INNOCENT does this better than Anything in the History of Stories)
  • how society has changed after suffering and sacrificing
  • a shocking decision (the hero gets what he wants but rejects it, an unhappy ending to a Hollywood movie OR a happy ending to a French existentialist movie, a romantic comedy that doesn’t feature an put-together and ambitious heroine with a loser man she fixes up)

Build your own Writing Monster (Part 2 of Why critique groups MUST DIE)

Conventional wisdom is conventionally wrong.

Nowhere is this more true than in the fields of writing, social media and publicity — three lands where tradition and mythology rule the day.

Those who haven’t read these posts should start here, so they don’t get all Confused, because this is really Part 2 of Why critique groups MUST DIE.

So: if people listen to this silly blog and (a) stop trying to use Twitter to sell books and (b) go all Michael Bay as they blow up old, obsolete critique groups, what should they do instead?

Get a team. Build your own Writing Monster.

Hopefully, better than one of these.

Now, this is the opposite of a critique group, which is typically people who live in the same area, have the same rough skill level and do essentially the same thing, whether it’s writing romances about Men in Kilts, epic fantasies about elves with lightsabers riding dragons or dark mysteries about haunted detectives who are allergic to razors and brush their teeth with bourbon.

That’s not a team. Those are your buddies, your clones.

Successful authors, actors, pro athletes and other public figures have a team full of world-class specialists: publicists to get free ink and airtime, marketers to sell widgets, trainers to make them look good if paparazzi shoot them on a beach in Maui, minions to handle the scheduling and correspondence, editors to edit their words and speechwriters to, I don’t know, write the speeches.

If you want to truly break through and be world-class at whatever you’re trying to do (punk rock, zombie movies, novels about undead orcs and the high school girls who love them), then you must at least PRETEND to do things in a world-class way.

A traditional critique group is like trying to win a Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers with you as the quarterback and a collection of buddies who play flag football sometimes. If football is a foreign language, try this: the usual critique group is like playing a game of chess with a board full of the same piece: all pawns, all bishops or all knights. You need pawns and rooks, bishops and a queen, knights and a king. You need balance.

And if you’re competing against the best in the world, you can’t do it all yourself. That’s like playing the Super Bowl by yourself, or taking a lonely king into a match against the Bobby Fishers of the world.

How to build a Writing Monster

Name your Writing Monster whatever you like: an Anti-Critique Group, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Riot Grrls with Bloody Pens, The Legion of Doom, The Flaming Squirrels, Spork Hunters.

Whatever you call it, your team should consist of a TEAM OF SPECIALISTS, though not an A-TEAM, because that movie was worse than terrible, which I am willing to testify to in open court, under oath, despite the fact that I only saw the trailer once.

Unlike a critique group, it will:

  • Use the powers of the interwebs, connecting you at the speed of light with experts and buddies around the globe, orbiting the International Space Station or hunkered down in the secret bunker preparing for the zombie apocalypse.
  • Do many, many things — typically, short things of less than a page — rather than focus on critiquing 120,000-word memoirs about growing up on a potato farm in Idaho.
  • Run on friendship, barter or monies, kind of like a car that can run on gas, diesel, electricity or tequila.
  • Only consist of people you choose and adore, avoiding the whole group dynamic and political nonsense of an in-person critique group, meaning you not only don’t have to care if Steve thinks Tyler is a pompous and pretentious nancypants, but Steve doesn’t even have to know Tyler exists.

Bartertown for writers

Because you are not all yacht-owning members of the 1 percent, and cannot afford to have minions write a check to hire a team of world-class experts, you should try to do this by enlisting friends, making friends, bartering and yes, paying monies.

Unlike critique groups, you’ll start backwards, with VERY SHORT THINGS of four words or less than a page, things people don’t mind helping with.

Example: You could not send enough UPS trucks with suitcases stuffed with purple euros (the purple ones are worth 500) to get me to read your 120,000-word novel, you know, the one about elves with lightsabers and the orcs who love them. But if I knew you on Twitter, and by know I mean “vaguely recognize your Twitter handle,” and you were testing out different four-word loglines and taglines for the thing, like “Wizard ruins elf prom,” that’s no big deal. In fact, that’s quick, painless and fun. Nobody minds that sort of thing.

An anti-critique group should focus on the quick short things that actually matter the most.

Four words times four

The usual way is (a) write a novel / play / screenplay / punk rock album, (b) have everybody read it / listen to it / edit it, then (c) spend five minutes thinking about how to pitch it and sell the thing.

No. Start with the pitch, logline, tagline and headline.

Four words apiece. Five is cheating.

If you can’t do all four of those things in four words, it’s not a good idea yet.

Who you need: For loglines and taglines, a screenwriter or Hollywood vet. For pitches and headlines, talk to a publicist or a journalist.

Quirks and hooks

Unless you’re a household name already, you’ll need free ink and airtime to bust through.

Quality is not a hook. Right now, it doesn’t matter how great your novel / play / screenplay / punk rock album will be. You can’t pitch quality. Reporters and TV cameras will not show up because your shebang is just “so great.”

They need a hook, a quirk.

Think of AT LEAST three possible hooks and quirks that could get your free ink and airtime.

Who you need: A publicist, preferably in that specific field. Or a journalist, hopefully one who’s covered that beat. Buy a local reporter lunch. Ask what they’d do in your shoes.

A useful post: You can pitch ANYTHING except quality

Blueprints, setups, payoffs

Don’t skip ahead now and spend a year writing your 120,000-word novel or recording your punk rock masterpiece.

Draw the blueprints first. Lay out the turning points, setups and payoffs. Make sure the engine is hooked up to the transmission before you spend all kinds of time on the paint job.

Who you need: A screenwriter. Accept no substitutes. If you insist on accepting substitutes, go with a playwright or novelist, but only if that novelist is a plotter instead of a pantser. A pantser will be absolutely no use to you whatsoever. They’ll tell you to “just write it first.” Kiss six months of your life goodbye.

Useful post: Everything they taught us about stories was WRONG

Editing for structure and story

This is the most valuable kind of editing and worth every penny.

You should not barter for this. The deep editing of a screenplay or novel is a massive undertaking.

Who you need: the best book editor you can find.

I will once again pimp Theresa the Stevens, who is a Glowing Mystical Being, and say that she starts out editing your first 75 pages / query / synopsis for something like $200. That is a bargain.

Look around and hire somebody who edits YOUR genre of fiction, not for free as a favor to buddies on weekends, but for a living.

Before you write anything of length and get an editor, read these books on storytelling and structure:

  • SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder
  • STORY by Robert McKee

Useful posts:

Copy editing and proofing

If you’re a beginning writer, this is your bread and butter for bartering and making friends.

No matter how long you’ve been writing — for monies or for fun — you need somebody to copy edit and proof your stuff. This is the law. Newbie writers who offer to beta read or copy edit / proof, and are meticulous at it, will be universally beloved.

Who you want: Don’t go with a specialist like a book editor or novelist. That’s like using a Ferrari as a grocery cart.

Go with new writers. Ideally, a copy editor at a newspaper who’s writing her first novel — that sort of thing. But you want multiple people on tap for copying editing and proofing, especially if it’s anything of length.

Dialogue

Find yourself an actor, playwright or screenwriter. They rock at dialogue. Or find a novelist who is GOOD AT IT. Different novelists are good at different things.

Polishing 

For something short, or important, bribe a poet.

Yes, I make fun of Gertrude Stein, who is a babbler, not a poet. HOWEVER: Real poets are amazing writers. Nobody is better at polishing a bit of text until it is a shiny diamond made of words.

Layout, art and design

These folks are really specialized, though more and more people are teaching themselves how to format e-books, design their own covers, etc. However, most book covers, album covers and websites designed by amateurs look like they were, I don’t know, designed by amateurs. Try for somebody who does this for a living. It’s the first thing potential readers / buyers see, and you can’t undo that first impression.

Tools for free ink and airtime

Headshot: you need a high-resolution headshot, black-and-white, for media kits.

Hire a photographer for this. If Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie get the best pro photographers in the world plus hair and makeup for an hour, then burn 200 shots on SLR cameras that cost more than your car and photoshop the four best photos until they have one photo that is OK to publish on the cover of a magazine, then you having a buddy shoot your head shot on an iPhone and thinking that’ll do is delusional.

A lot of portrait photographers have what they call a Realtor special, because every Realtor needs a headshot for ads and such. Ask about that.

Twitter / Facebook / online headshots: Use a smaller version of your pro headshot. Sometimes, Twitter and Facebook will do funky things when they munch down your mug shot. This happens. Try different photos. Do not use a great photo on your blog and such, then a terrible shot on Twitter and elsewhere. Ask Katy Perry: one bad photo can erase the good done by 1,043 beautiful shots.

Pen name or stage name: If your name is hard to pronounce, or people won’t be sure if you’re a man or woman, get a pen name. Do it now. Talk to whoever.

Media kit: Get a publicist or journalist to help with a media kit. Put it on your blog  or website.

Social media audit: Does your profile on Twitter stink? Is your blog a mess? Find a publicist, journalist or one of the Barons of the Blogosphere.

Press release: One or two pages. Get a publicist or journalist.

Letter to the editor: 200 words. Best of the best would be an opinion page editor or speechwriter. Just fine would be a publicist or journalist.

Op-ed: 600 to 800 words. Find an opinion editor, speechwriter or publicist. You’d think a journalist would be good, but if they do hard news, probably no. Opinion is a different animal.

Speech or speech coaching: To get free ink and airtime, you must speak in public, charm reporters, go on radio and TV — all without sounding like a dork. First, read some books, like THANK YOU FOR ARGUING by Jay Heinrichs. Before you give your first speech, talk to a speechwriter or publicist. If that frightens you, talk to a high school /college debate coach or a community theater nerd. They rock. Note that a keynote speech — 30 minutes / 3,000 words — is a huge flipping deal that takes a ton of time and can cost $3,000 to $10,000 out in the freelance world. Don’t ask a speechwriter friend to write your keynote speech because “Hey, they’re your buddy.” They will quickly stop being your buddy.

Publicity and marketing: Get a publicist in that specific field (book publicist, Hollywood publicist, pro sports publicist, punk rock hype man). And get a copywriter or advertising / marketing genius who has experience selling books / punk rock CD’s / whatever. Do not barter or pay them in goats. Hire the best you can and pay them monies.

Making it work

I listed the best possible specialists under each shebang, and yes, you may not know such people, or be intimidated by the idea of talking to them on Twitter or whatever.

If that gives you hives, start small. Find somebody who does community theater and buy them coffee to yack about three-act structures and such. Ring the local high school debate coach and ask them about rhetoric and public speaking.

Doing this from the opposite direction also works, i.e., thinking of the experts you need rather than the products. Example: A good publicist will know marketing folks, a pro photographer that does good headshots and a speechwriter for clients giving keynotes. That’s a smart shortcut.

Journalists will also have similar strengths. Every reporter on the planet is required, by law, to write The Great American Novel, but journalism and fiction are completely different, so reporter struggling to crank out that novel would be happy to talk smack about possible hooks that might get you free ink and airtime, while writerly writer types can help them with the craft of fiction.

Later, I’ll do a post or page on standard word counts and industry rates, because (a) people wonder about such things and (b) it is quite useful.

HOWEVER: Don’t build a Writing Monster that you try to run with some kind of Excel spreadsheet, saying that since the press release you wrote for Jane is worth $200 out in the real world, she owes you five hours of copy editing your memoir about being in the failed boy band called Not In Sync At All.

And when I say hire experts when you need to and barter when you can, I don’t mean take that ball and run with it straight into Crazy Town for a touchdown. Writers are helpful, but don’t abuse that. Start small. Four words times four. Then the other things that are less than a page.

Final thought. Here are my suggestions for acceptable forms of barter: rounds of Dutch cheese, bottles of bourbon, purple euros, links to funny videos, French cigarettes, black beater Elantras, stapled stacks of 10,000 rupees and boxes of 7.62 mm ammo for the coming zombie apocalypse.