In the old days, back when MTV actually played music videos, it took some doing to shoot, edit, and release a music video. You needed a serious film camera, an editor, lights, an actual band, and a platform where people could see it. Thus, MTV.
In the ’80s–and even today–there are music videos shot by Hollywood directors and budgets in the millions.
Yet these days, we all carry supercomputers in our pockets, and fool with an iPhone can shoot a video and edit it on their laptop.
That doesn’t mean they should, or that it will be good.
Which brings us to RED DRESS by Sarah Brand, which is dividing the musical world. Is it horrible, intentionally horrible, or disguised brilliance, with the singer trolling us to boost her name ID before she releases her real music?
There are comments in the YouTube that try to explain this is “microtonal music,” and amazing, while vocal coaches and other smart people say that’s nonsense and that when she was asked what key this song is in, Sarah replied, “All of them.”
Here, watch this thing so we can properly discuss and dissect it.
What say you?
I believe, deep in my soul, that the evidence clearly points to Sarah Brand as being deadly serious about this, and not trolling us at all.
This wasn’t a quick little joke.
She composed, sang, directed, and edited this video. There’s a bit of a blooper real at the end. And it’s clear she recruited every friend in sight to be in it.
But hey, I’m not going to beat her up for trying. She’s not asking us to buy concert tickets at $100 a pop. There’s no link to buy T-shirts or anything.
Sarah wanted to make a music video and did it, and the Series of Tubes is a much simpler way to share it than trying to get MTV execs to play the thing.
Is it bad? Yeah. HOWEVER: there are tons of pop stars who sound great in the studio and terrible live.
Just like anything else creative, the editing and polishing means everything. Writing, photography, painting, whatever.
Here’s an amazing look at how much editing can fix. Same raw material, same voice.
I’m not going to do the easy thing and hate on this, or the hipster thing and try to claim this is microtonal goodness that regular people just don’t understand.
My point is this: art is hard. Yes, some geniuses like Dave Grohl can play all the instruments on an album they make in their garage for kicks and accidentally give birth to Foo Fighters, and some filmmakers can shoot and edit a film with a skeleton crew of themselves, their dog, and Neighbor Kid Walter to fetch Taco Bell when the actors get hungry.
But those are the rare, rare exceptions. Every artist is better when they have a team of professionals behind them.
I believe our natural instincts–to write not to fail, and follow all the rules–tends to strip our ability to evoke emotion in readers. And no matter type of writing you do–poems, screenplays, speeches, novels, newspaper articles–the trick is getting something to resonate with the reader.
That doesn’t happen with facts or logic, though both of those elements have their place.
It happens emotionally.
The best writing makes you laugh and cry, smell and taste, hope and fear. It awakens something inside of you.
So: I believe, deep in my evil little soul, that every writer is trying for this, consciously or not.
Except 99 percent of pieces I read miss the target. Wide left or wide right. Not because of grammar or syntax, or breaking any of the rules you were taught from kindergarten through college. There are technically sound pieces published ten times a second that follow the rules, except none of that matters because the text utterly fails to resonate in the reader’s emotional core.
Which is a waste, both of talent and good material.
In journalism school, they drill us to be objective and factual. Spock-like, unless you’re doing a flowery feature story, in which case you’re allowed to show the subjects expressing some emotion, though you have to be invisible, My Young Reporter, invisible and unseen and unmoved by any of the joys or horrors that you’re witnessing. Fiery car crash? Give us the who, what, when, where, and why. Cute little girl with a pet turtle that plays soccer with her in the backyard? Spend the last line of the piece inverted pyramid style by telling us the color of the little girl’s house.
I’ve discovered, the hard way, that (a) emotions matter most and (b) few writers are trained in how to evoke them. Believe me, I felt plenty of emotion covering those fiery car wrecks, little kids with turtles or hedgehogs, and murder scenes. You always feel something. It wouldn’t be worth covering if you didn’t.
If evoking emotion is important to all writing, how do you do it?
My old friend Robin Boyes had the first step. He said, “You have to feel the emotion you want the audience to feel.” He was a speechwriter and coach, so that advice was aimed first at speakers. Except it applies to speechwriters, and all writers. If you’re not feeling something when you write it, the fact that you intend for the audience to feel something during that part of the text is completely irrelevant. They don’t know your secret plan. There are no album liners, no footnotes telling people “hey, be sad here” or “this is where I hope you get truly pissed off.”
True emotion starts with you, as a writer or speaker. Because you can’t fake it, or cheat your way to this. I believe this is why a lot of writers, rock stars, and other artists tended to turn to alcohol and other things.
I tell people to overdo it at first. Go wild. Let go of your inhibitions, your extensive notes, the mound of quotes and facts you planned on including in the text. Put all of that away, as George Pica taught me, and tell me the story like you’re sharing it with a good friend. “You would not believe what the city council just did. What the hell?” Write it like that.
Include the passion, the short-hand, the slang, the things you felt and why.
That’s your first draft.
Then go back and clean it up. Insert the facts, quotes, details. Take out the slang and short-hand. Fix the structure to give it a beginning and end, because we’re taking the Inverted Pyramid out behind the barn and sending it home to heaven and the angels.
This is your second draft, which you’re going to have edited by somebody else. A pro. Not your husband, cousin, neighbor, or best friend from college. A professional.
Third draft should be the final, where you want to double-check all the usual things, as a habit, while looking at the emotional arc. It can’t be one-note, entirely happy or sad. That’s repetitive and ineffective. If it’s a story about a mom and her daughter getting hit by a drunk driver, you don’t start with that and end with details about the license plate of the suspected drunk. When you’re ending is down, the beginning should be up, and vice versa. You don’t pile horror on top of horror, or stack joy on more joy until you have a mountain of happiness. Doesn’t work that way. It’s why the Marvel movies use humor so consistently–they’re cleansing your palate. More thrilling action scenes would actually detract from the movie.
Whatever you’re writing, the goal should be the biggest possible difference, emotionally, from the beginning to the end. A hero sheriff becomes a villain, stealing money from the evidence locker while arrogantly believing whatever he did was right, because he was the one doing it, and the money was being taken from criminals, so who cares? Two estranged brothers, who refused to talk to each for fifty years, forgive each other during a five-shots-of-tequila night at the local biker’s bar.
Because there’s always a beginning and an end, though you wouldn’t know it from how most pieces are written, and the audience doesn’t want to be told how to feel, or beaten over the head with an explicit message. Give them subtext and details, then let the audience decide for themselves.
So I hope this helps even one writer struggling to figure out why a piece isn’t working. I hope it helps generate a few more stories which make people laugh and cry and see things differently.
And I hope you feel more than a little something the next time you brew a fresh pot of coffee and start banging on the keyboard. Let yourself feel a lot. It’s the only way your audience will feel anything at all.
As is my custom, and habit, and my Bobby Brown prerogative, I’m going to go with the first page — as printed.
You know, printed with ink at these places we used to call “stores full of books,” where you handed the nice folks who live there paper decorated with dead presidents and they let you walk out with ALL KINDS OF YUMMY BOOKS.
So if you read the first page of this thing on a Kindle or iPad or Atari 2600, your page 1 will doubtless look different and such. Please give my regards to the Complaint Department.
After a line edit of Page 1, we’ll talk about our general literary impressions — about how metaphors are like similes, only different; about how my hatred of semi-colons runs deeper than my loathing of A-Rod; and how somebody wrote a mainstream and incredibly successful novel about sexy nonsense without putting any sort of sexy nonsense whatsoever on page 1.
Note: I’m striking out text, with any replaced text or notes in red, because my version of this novel would be called ONE SHADE OF RED after all the red ink we spill on this thing. Also, I don’t know what happened to this post. A friend wants to use it as an editing example, so I’ve resurrected it and updated the piece a little. Enjoy.
Also: If you have a famous novel with a brilliantly awful first page that needs serious red ink, send me your nomination.
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY
I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. (This may be a world record: bam, in the first sentence, she breaks a cardinal rule of fiction writing: don’t tell readers what the hero or heroine looks like by having them stare into a mirror, gaze upon their reflection in a pond or, I don’t know, whip out their driver’s license and say, “Huh, five-foot-ten, a hundred and twenty pounds, red hair, green eyes and a few freckles. Howbout that?” Ugh. This is not exactly “Call me Ishmael.”)Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal.(Unless the heroine’s hair is crucial to the plot — unless she starts out with unruly hair in Act 1, switches to a bob in Act 2 and shows how much she’s grown and changed by rocking a purple Mohawk in Act 3, the hair, it is Boring, and a Distraction. Also, nobody refers to friends and such by their full name. If she’s your bestie, you say “Katherine.”)I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet.(Enough already with the hair. Seriously. The only two words with any kind of real conflict and potential are “final exams,” and unless she flunks those, and therefore gets kicked out of university and has to live under a bridge in a cardboard box, it does not matter for the story.)Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush.(More about the hair? MORE? Not necessary, not interesting and not entertaining, unless her hair is secretly a sentient being, organizing a plot to take over the world, one follicle at a time. I’m guessing Bruce Willis, being immune from such attacks, will foil this plot.)I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. (Back to the staring-at-the-mirror trick, which has to go. Find another way to describe the heroine.) My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable.(Now we’re beating the Dead Hair Horse on its way to the glue factory.)
Kate is my roommate, and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu. Therefore, she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do, with some mega-industrialist tycoon I’ve never heard of, for the student newspaper. (Awkward. First reference is Katherine Kavanaugh and now she’s Kate — just call her Kate both times, and let’s clean this whole thing up. Also, how many student newspapers score interviews with “mega-industrial tycoons” … who you’ve never heard of? If they’re really mega, then you have herd of them. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and so forth. If they you haven’t heard of them, they aren’t mega at all. Edited text follows in red.)Kate is my roommate and she’s chosen today, of all days, to succumb to the flu. That means I’m stuck interviewing some industrial tycoon for the student newspaper.So I have been volunteered. (Redundant.) I have final exams to cram for, (already said that) one essay to finish, and I’m supposed to be working this afternoon, but no – today I have to drive a hundred and sixty-five miles to downtown Seattle in order to meet the enigmatic CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc. As an exceptional entrepreneur and major benefactor of our university, his time is extraordinarily precious – much more precious than mine – but he has granted Kate an interview. A real coup, she tells me.
Damn her extracurricular activities. (The last sentences were brought to you by the letter E: enigmatic, exceptional entrepreneur, extraordinarily, extracurricular. There are other modifiers that start with the letter E: extraneous, excruciating and ejector seat. I am looking for the handle, because it’s time to pull it.)
Kate is huddled on the couch in the living room.
“Ana, I’m sorry. It took me nine months to get this interview. It will take another six to reschedule, and we’ll both have graduated by then. As the editor, I can’t blow this off. Please,” Kate begs me in her rasping, sore–throat (compound modifier) voice. How does she do it? Even ill
(end of page 1)
Are you kidding me? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
So this the first bit of a novel that sold a gazillion copies and rocked the literary world. It starts with an extended riff about wet hair and ponytails, as the author tells us how the heroine looks by having her look in a flipping mirror, goes back to the hair, uses every adjective and adverb in her dictionary that starts with the letter E and sets up the incredibly high stakes of whether or not a college student can tame her unruly hair and cram for her finals when she is forced — FORCED — to drive to Seattle and interview some billionaire for her friend.
God bless anybody who sells a ton of books or movie tickets. I adore books and movies, and the more people read books, and see good movies, the better.
HOWEVER: the first page of a book is a lot like the trailer for a movie. You start out with your best stuff, and it’s a rock-solid guarantee that the writing doesn’t get magically better ten pages or 100 pages later. The first page, and the first chapter, get polished and polished until they are a shiny diamond made of words.
Maybe you could argue this book is the one exception to that rule. From the reviews of this book, though, that’s not the case.
Why did it sell so well?
I believe, deep in my soul, that packaging matters more than the product.
The title of a book — or a movie, or a TV show — can save your bacon or kill you dead.
The cover of a book, or poster for a movie, is the next most important thing, because it’s what people see when they decide what to buy in Barnes and Noble or what to see on Friday night at those giant buildings where popcorn costs $9 a bucket.
You can’t pitch quality.
If you gave this a more typical title for the genre, and a more typical book cover, you’d probably end up with a title like A BUSINESS AFFAIR and some kind of Ryan Gosling looking guy wearing a suit on the cover with the heroine nearby, messing with her ponytail while she wears the highest of high heels and a business suit with a skirt that is just this side of immodest. Or the cover would feature a blindfold and a pair of handcuffs. That sort of thing. You know, something like this:
See? Here we go. The cover above isn’t just a good representation of what I’m talking about. I bet it’s a far, far better book. If you gave FIFTY SHADES OF GREY a more normal title like this, and more typical cover, I would bet you my house, my car and my first-born son that the book would not sell like hotcakes and get turned into movies.
The unusual title and cover isn’t a side issue. I believe it’s the entire reason this book went viral.
True story: guess what the author of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO wanted as a title for his novel? Go ahead. Guess.
Here’s the answer: MEN WHO HATE WOMEN.
Raise your hand if you think that title would have set the world on fire and led to hit movies.
The title and cover — the packaging — are 90 percent of the battle.
The packaging matters more than the product.
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is an interesting, literary title. The cover photo of a grey tie is also atypical of the genre and really stands out. The combined effect gives the book a literary veneer.
Some people might feel embarrassed getting on Flight 435 to Frankfurt and pulling out a paperback with A BUSINESS AFFAIR on the cover with a blindfold and handcuffs on the cover. And you can bet the male audience for such books is hard to find with a microscope.
Give it the gloss of lit-rah-sure, though, and that makes it okay for some people to read what they might never do: romance and erotica.
And hey, I respect the hell out of romance authors. Have learned a ton from them. So I’m not talking smack about the genre here–I’m specifically talking smack about the first page of this specific book. There are far, far better examples of romance out there. Amazing writers. Go support them.
FIFTY SHADES reminds me of the early Eric van Lustbader novels, like THE NINJA, which I think were hot sellers because they slipped in naughty bits to readers — mostly men — who expected, I don’t know, ninjas sneaking around at night and fighting. It was like a James Bond movie where they didn’t fade out when 007 kissed the girl. I can tell you 14-year-old boys around the globe had their minds blown. You can print this kind of stuff without getting arrested? I can buy it at the store and they don’t ask for ID? NO WAY.
And let’s give respect where it’s due: there’s an editor somewhere who came up with this title, and a cover designer who thought up the idea, got the right photo and nailed it.
Open up that brilliant cover, though, and you eventually get to the first page, which is a hot mess. And from the reviews, it doesn’t get better on page 2 or 152.
I truly thought, deep in my soul, that you couldn’t top the first page of THE FOUNTAINHEAD for a famous novel that is famously bad. But yes, we have a new champion.
Yes, that headline is an intentional nod to Marie Kondo and her method of tidying up, where you hold up each possession and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?”
I keep seeing some writers talk about how hard, or even painful, writing can be.
And sure, writing at a high level isn’t easy. It takes a lot of time, talent and sweat.
Yet I’m going to argue that conventional wisdom here is completely wrong. The entire process of writing and editing not only can be, but SHOULD BE, a joy. And if it’s not, you should switch things around to make it fun rather than torture.
Reason Number 1: A better product
Humans are designed, through millions of years of evolution, to seek out pleasure and avoid pain.
If your writing and editing process are inherently painful, your body and brain will rebel every time you sit down at the keyboard or pick up a pen.
That’s unhealthy and unsustainable. And it makes for a bad product, because you’ll rush through it as fast as you can, to get that pain over with.
I’m not arguing against speed here. Writing fast, and in the flow, is a beautiful thing that should be embraced.
Yet if the process itself is painful, you’re going to (a) avoid it, (b) catch writer’s block a helluva lot and (c) not produce what you’re capable of doing.
Reason Number 2: You have to make a mountain, then let things go
Marie Kondo’s key instruction when tidying up is to make a mountain–of your clothes, your books, your papers, whatever it is you’re cleaning up. Then you go through each item and decide whether it sparks joy. If it doesn’t, you give it away to Goodwill, recycle it or send it off to Never Never Land.
Writing anything important should begin the same way.
Never try to research and edit while your write a first draft. Make a mountain of your research, ideas and notes. Look at each item. Does it spark joy?
Put the ones that spark joy in a special file or folders.
Keep the marginal things in Give Away place, a scratch file. This is also a good way to let yourself edit ruthlessly, and avoid feeling terrible about possibly killing words that took you hours to research and write. You’re keeping them in a safe home. They’ll be fine, and you can recycle them for something else if needed.
Trash what you’ll never use. And surprisingly, doing all this tends to cut your mountain down to a hill that’s only 25 percent of your original pile.
When you’re only dealing with a tiny hill instead of a mountain, writing anything of length becomes insanely easier. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, you feel confident, and all the raw material’s you’re working with spark joy.
Writing anything of length takes discipline to get through the hard parts. Which will happen.
Joy is the fuel that gets you over those speed bumps. It’s hard to crank away at something kind of boring, like proofing a document, or doing layout, if you don’t have a reward waiting on the other side. If you only anticipate more drudgery and pain, why push through it?
Cutting down your mountain of raw material to a small hill that sparks joy also helps make these tough spots a lot smaller and more manageable.
Reason Number 3: You have to feel the emotion you want readers to feel
This is literally the advice we give, as speechwriters, because simply delivering lines without mangling them–in a speech, a play or a movie–isn’t enough.
You have to actually feel the raw emotions you want your audience to feel.
Because an audience doesn’t feel what you TELL them to feel. They mirror your emotions.
And I’ll argue that the best writing and speaking evoke the emotions of joy and wonder.
Sure, there are times in novel, screenplay or speech when you want the audience to feel sad or angry. But you can’t write anything of length that’s entirely angry or 100 percent sad. There has to be a mixture of emotions.
What do people want? They want joy, wonder and laughter. The other emotions, like anger, fear, sadness and horror, are powerful spices you can’t pour into a dish. They need to be used carefully and sparingly.
The best writing I do is full of joy and wonder because that’s what I feel while writing it. And yes, if you’re doing a story or speech about something sad, it’s a good sign that you tear up while writing it. If I don’t cry a little when writing something profoundly sad, then I’m doing another draft.
And if something buried in your mountain doesn’t spark joy–whether it’s a chapter in your epic novel about elves with lightsabers and the trolls who love them, a play where all the actors are hanging upside down the entire time or the process by which you edit and proof something–try something else.
Talk to other writers and editors on Twitter, by email or in person at conferences. They’re a friendly bunch. Ask what they’ve figured out to make some of the hardest and sometimes painful tasks into activities that are fun. Personally, I find the final spell-check and editing of a novel to be a long, hard slog, so I’ve turned it onto a game to see how many words I can kill, especially repetitive words or phrases. And now it’s a kick in the paints.
So please, embrace the pleasure of writing and editing. Feel the emotions you want the audience to feel. All of them.
Because writing and reading should do always, always spark joy and wonder.
No, I’m not a zombie, sparkling vampire or Jean Claude Van Damme-ish universal soldier.
I simply haven’t posted in forever, and have missed the readers of this silly blog, who’ve taught me a lot and are always, always witty and entertaining.
So: with a crazy busy session at work, my evil choice was (a) come home and write a blog post, (b) hang out with the wife and son, (c) do laundry, pay the bills and possibly sleep or (d) finish and edit a novel.
I chose everything but (a) and it was the right choice. And now I’m coming up for air.
To folks who are into these things I like to call “books,” here are a few things I learned finishing a new novel, which is the most fun you can legally have as a writer.
(1) Keep switching it up and taking risks
If you keep writing the same sort of story with the same sort of heroes (6-foot-4 and Hollywood handsome) and villains (posh British accent and disfigured somehow) in the same sort of scenarios (stolen MacGuffin could destroy the world!), then hey, it’ll get stale. Same thing with non-fiction, whether it’s newspaper and magazine pieces, speeches or whatever you’re into.
Mix it up. That’s how you grow and learn.
There are endless ways to structure and execute writing. You can steal from anywhere:
Stand-up comics are amazing at setups and payoffs, and can do them in the most ruthless shortage of words.
Poets make sure every line is a magical spell.
Narrative non-fiction is actually a secret treasure chest of great stories that totally work as fiction except they actually happened, and they use the same structural tools as narrative fiction, also known as fiction.
Playwrights spell their own names wrong, yet they’re the masters of dialogue.
Linked movies and serial shows show you how to plot mega-stories (22 movies by Marvel that all tie together!) and how great beginnings can go completely wrong (Season Eight of GAME OF THRONES).
Screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the evil secret to anything of length. And everything has SOME length.
Even if you write stark Nordic mysteries or spy thrillers, romance authors and horror writers show you how to do emotions right, and nothing matters without emotion.
(2) Writers are helpful souls–take the help, and offer help whenever you can
I only started this blog after romance authors found my silly ad to sell the Epic Black Car.
And I learned an amazing amount from them. Am still learning.
For a journalist-turned-speechwriter, writing thrillers for fun, romance is the last place I expected to look.
Look in those unexpected places.
Answer questions from folks starting out.
The other person who taught me an insane amount is my sister, Pam, who won a Nicholl Fellowship for screenwriting. You wouldn’t think screenwriting has anything to do with speechwriting or novels. But you’d be completely wrong. Screenwriters are the absolute best. They’re building skyscrapers that hold up to hurricanes. Meanwhile, other books on writing tell you to build a two-story house out of drywall, then you wonder why the thing falls down after the first rain.
Also: there are authors, writers and editors I met here from around the world, folks who are continually witty, talented and interesting. I want to give a shout out to two in particular — Alexandria and Joshua the Sharp — for their help this year. You two rock.
Keep on meeting people, on Twitter, the Gram, the Book of Face or whatever new thing Silicon Valley invented last week. You never know who’ll turn out to be amazing and will change your life, or whose life you might change. YOU NEVER KNOW.
(3) Take things apart to see how they work
If you read this silly blog (and hey, you’re doing that now), it’s clear just about every post involves taking something apart to see why it’s either (a) horrifically good or (b) beautifully bad.
That’s the interesting and fun part of stories, books, movies, music videos and speeches. How do they work and why?
What could you do to fix a flawed piece or improve something that’s already amazing?
Complaining about something is the easiest thing in the world. You can throw a Nicholas Spark novel across the room (go ahead, that’s kosher any day that ends in Y), walk out of a lame movie or end a show on Netflix after 5 minutes and say, “That sucks.”
Except there’s behind those words. Zero intellectual weight. Anybody can kvetch about something that stinks, or gush about artistic things that are seven separate flavors of awesomesauce.
It takes no talent to do those things.
Figuring out HOW things rock or stink–that’s the fun and difficult part.
Listen–whether you write for fun or to pay the rent, and whether it’s (a) screenplays about mafia members dumb enough to kill Keanu’s puppy or (b) novels featuring elves with lightsabers and the robot ninja pirates who love them, one thing is constant: editing is everything.
Editing and rewriting is where the magic happens.
Magic because the first draft of anything is a warm bucket of spit.
And magic because a great editor can polish your text until it’s a shiny diamond made of words.
HOWEVER: Despite my love for skilled, professional and fully human editors, I do believe in using whatever tool you can.
Is this sacrilege?
Will they kick me out of the writing temple?
No. It’s good manners to clean up your text. That lets your human editor focus on kicking butt instead of chasing down typos, split infinitives and dangling modifiers.
Here’s the problem: just about all the non-human editing tools stink worse than a corpse flower, you know, the one that only blooms every 10 years because smelling it once every decade is torture enough for any soul.
You won’t notice how badly these editing tools stink when you edit small projects.
Spend the entire month of December editing 74,000 words, though, and all of these flaws become insanely clear.
Problem No. 1: Spell-check has transmogrified into a Grammar Nazi that’s terrible at his job
So you want to hunt down typos, do you? Good luck.
Standard spell-check in Word doesn’t want to let you do that job. It wants you to swan dive into a lava pit full of demons with pitchforks labeled Punctuation, Usage and Grammar, all of which are typically blinder than the referees at an NFC championship game.
Come on, man. Let’s hunt down typos. Nobody likes them, nobody needs them and we all want to squash them like cockroaches hiding under your kitchen cabinets.
The workaround solution: Turn off grammar checking entirely in Word, and if you can, kill it with fire. Nuke it from orbit. Go with old-fashioned spelling only.
A better solution: Separate spell-check from grammar, usage and punctuation entirely. Don’t even give people the option of combining them all, seeing how that idea is an achy breaky bad mistakey.
Problem No. 2: Grammar checkers tend to be stubborn beasts
Grammarly is a decent spell-checker and far, far better than Word at pure grammar, which shouldn’t be shocking since the word “grammar” is in the tool’s name.
The trouble with Grammarly is I couldn’t find a way to tweak settings, so 80 percent of the errors it found were…missing Oxford commas.
Want to take a guess on how many missing Oxford commas you might find in a ginormous document that purposefully didn’t include a single one?
Yeah. It was a fiery train wreck.
I don’t believe in Oxford commas, though I’m agnostic about the matter and have no quarrel with my brothers and sisters who adore them. God be with you.
Wading through five bazillion false positives, though, got old in a hurry. And yes, I tried everything possible to find a way to toggle Oxford commas on or off.
There are other style choices that would be super useful to turn on or off. I simply couldn’t find a way to toggle them.
The workaround: I have no idea. Help me, Obi-Wan.
A better solution: Grammarly and similar tools need to give users more options, so we don’t waste crazy amounts of time catching errors that are actually style choices.
Problem No. 3: Online-only tools aren’t super useful for anything large
Autocrit is an app full of good ideas and features. It catches all kinds of things spellcheck and apps like Grammarly don’t even touch, like over-used words and phrases, which is beautiful. I like it, I love it, I want some more of it.
Here’s the deal-breaker: you have to paste your text into online apps like Autocrit, do your business, then paste your text back into Word (or whatever final shebang you use).
Most online apps like Autocrit have upper limits on how much text they can digest at a time. This can be an explicit limit or one that you find out when you cram enough words in there and watch it jam up.
I’ve subscribed to Autocrit a couple different times and had to stop using it for that reason. It chocked on the text, every time, and feeding it bits and pieces just wasn’t practical.
The workaround: It is possible to help apps like this handle big meals by predigesting your words and turning them into plain text. However: Even if these online-only tools cranked through 74k or more with ease, the trouble is you have to then paste it back into Word and REFORMAT THE WHOLE MSS AGAIN. No. Just no.
A better solution: Not sure. Unless online apps can fix the reformatting problem, there’s no way I’m going back to them for anything large and important.
How we can do better
I wound up only using things that worked within Word, to avoid the whole cut-and-paste then reformat-an-entire-novel dance. Because it takes more than one pass to edit things right.
What worked for me this time? (1) plain old spell-check in Word with grammar turned off, (2) Grammarly for actual grammar and punctuation and (3) SmartEditPro for the tougher stuff like over-used words and phrases. It’s similar to Autocrit but works inside Word.
I believe, deep in my soul, two things would make the life of writers far, far easier:
First, having every writing app and tool work inside your doc as a plug-in vs. a separate app or web page.
Second, focusing on doing one thing well. One thing, not three or five. Because that’s how writers tend to edit, in phases.
What do you think?
Tell me your editing horror stories. Whisper the names of apps I’ve never heard about and reveal the secret ways you’ve tweaked Grammarly to ignore missing Oxford commas and such. I would offer a reward for that.
Firing up Word is fine for writing anything short. For anything big–novels, screenplays and such–you need specialized tools.
Believe me. I’ve done it both ways, and trying to do something large and important on a word processor will drive you to drink.
Word processors don’t cut it
Writing a big project is like building a house. To keep on track and make sure the thing doesn’t fall down, you need (a) solid blueprints and (b) heavy equipment.
Short writing projects are like the little bits you can tackle in your garage, with the tools sitting around and the scrap wood in the far corner.
And sure, you can try to wrestle Word into doing heavy lifting by going wild with navigation options and headings. It’s sorta possible.
Yet no matter how hard you try to force Word into being able to handle a giant project, it’s like trying to excavate the foundation of your new house with a shovel instead of a bulldozer.
Even if you try to organize a single Word file that is organized enough to hold all three acts of a screenplay or all 100,000 words of your epic tale of when the elves rose up against the great tyrant, Santa the Claws, there’ll be all kinds of OTHER files hanging around.
A file about settings and another for characters. One for ideas and notes.
Another for loose text you cut out of a scene but might want to use elsewhere. You get the idea.
Switching between all those files is tough. Just getting a feel for things are is hard. How many words are all the chapters in Act 2 right now versus all of Act 1? Dunno. Get ready for a whole lot of highlighting and scrolling.
One tool to rule them all
I don’t care what you pick–Scrivener, yWriter, Manuskript, OneNote, Atomic Scribbler–as long as you test drive a bunch. For starving artists and writers out there, some of those choices are open source and free.
Try them all and pick one. You won’t go back.
There’s nothing like being able to see the whole project at a glance, then dive into different bits without digging around for which Word file or folder you put in all that stuff about pickpockets in Istanbul.
I just typed THE END on a novel written in Scrivener (yes! very excited about this one, and to beta readers, let’s chat). Am in the middle of transferring into Word for the final formatting and editing. Believe me, writing 80,000 words in Scrivener was a happy walk in the park compared to when I climbed that mountain using Word.
Haven’t used every single alternative, though I use OneNote at work and home and it’s both (a) pretty common and (b) pretty good.
A few lessons learned from my own silly mistakes
First, don’t get in a hurry to export your screenplay, Great American Novel or picture book about knitting hats for cats from Scrivener into Word.
You don’t want to export the whole thing right off because there’s an excellent, excellent chance you’ll have to import it all back in, which is a massive pain. Because once you look at it all in Word, you’ll spot six zillion structural things to fix that are a sweaty endeavor in a word processor and far, far easier in something like Scrivener.
And yes, I’ve made this mistake. As in last week.
Heavy equipment, right? If you’ve got a choice between hundreds of hours with a shovel versus two hours with a bulldozer, pick the dozer.
The second thing is don’t ever export the entire project.
Seriously. Do it in pieces.
Sure, every program out there has some kind of magical option on the menu tree that saves your entire creation as a .docx, PDF or whatever. Resist temptation.
Put the first few scenes of your screenplay or novel into Word for that final editing and polishing. Meanwhile, keep on doing heavier work on the later stuff of Act 2 and 3.
Only export scenes or chapters into that Word file when they’re truly, truly ready.
The third thing is that paragraphs that seem short and sweet in something like Scrivener–especially if you have a big screen–turn ginormous when you pop them into Word on double-spaced pages.
Finally, get religious about making backups. OneNote, Scrivener and similar programs work their magic in mysterious ways, especially in how they save all those separate bits. It’s complicated. I believe quantum particles and gravitational waves are involved.
The way these beasts save their files is nothing like a Word doc, where you can see that solitary file and copy the thing to a thumbdrive or email it to yourself. OneNote in particular is tricky with saving. I’m still not sure where, exactly, it’s saving things half the time. Be careful out there.
But those are little tips and tricks. There are no giant tradeoffs, like a choice between a moped and a pickup truck. The switch to heavy writing equipment is always worth it. The only real question is what type and brand of literary bulldozer you should drive.
P.S. What heavy writing equipment do you use today–and what other ones have you dated or divorced?
Yes, I watch movies with subtitles, even if they’re in black-and-white, with people smoking French cigarettes while speaking French and watching things happen to other people in some scrappy, destitute part of Paris or, for variety, a tiny farming village in Normandy.
We are talking about a different sort of foreign film with subtitles.
Bonus No. 1: This film is 3 minutes long instead of three hours.
Bonus No. 2: There is hardly any talking, or any need to read the subtitles at all.
Bonus No. 3: Most importantly, this little film can teach us all great big lessons about storytelling and structure.
Also, unless you have no soul, it will make drops of water drip from your eyes and scurry down your cheeks.
Here. Watch the clip in high definition. Or low def, it that’s your thing. Whatever floats your boat.
Okay. All done?
Let’s take it apart and see what makes it tick.
This little film has strong bones. The structure is a roller coaster: things are bad (son is running away), things get even worse (son nearly dies, is paralyzed), then in the climax, things get resolved and the world is forever changed, at least for this family.
The father is not sympathetic at first, right? My first thought was bad casting. No. Good storytelling. The main narrative question is, “Will they get together?” This is a love story, which doesn’t have to be a rom-com with a high-powered professional woman who eventually gets together with a chubby, unemployed virgin who owns the Largest Comic Book Collection Known to Man, because for some reason, that’s what half the rom-coms are these days.
The other half of rom-coms star Matthew McConaughey.
Back to this little film: if they’re getting together in the end, they must be split apart in the beginning.
Another narrative question is, “How do these people suffer, change and grow?”
The father moves from stern, humorless taskmaster to loving and dedicated. He’s the hero of this little film, because it’s his actions that matter most. The normal thing would be for him to let the doctors do their work, right? But it’s his turn to rebel. He carries his son out of the hospital, out of the wheelchair and back into the world. Rehab isn’t going to be nurses and machines and doctors. It’s going to be father and son, learning to walk again.
And all that suffering and sacrifice pays off. The son also transforms. In the beginning, he’s rebellious and aloof. In the end, he’s loyal and connected to his family.
The mother is a flat character. She suffers, but she doesn’t change. That’s OK. Having two characters go through all this in three minutes is plenty.
Real stories beat Michael Bay explosions
This tiny film, which is a flipping COMMERCIAL, moved me far more than bazillion-dollar CGI blockbusters involving dinosaurs, vampires or robots that transform themselves into Chevies.
You can take those $294 million budgets full of special effects and a scripts credited to five different writers. (Pro-tip: the more screenwriters you throw in the kitchen, the crazier the thing that comes out of the oven.)
Give me a story with strong bones and a tiny budget.
Give me people I actually care about, because I don’t give a hoot about Shia LaBeuf and Megan Fox fighting robots or whether the awkward teenage girl gets together with the Sparkly British Vampire vs some kid who used to be a Power Ranger.
By request, today we’re taking on page one of a classic of lit-RAH-sure: THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Sidenote: There are 5,832 various editions and such, so you’re page one may end on a different sentence and such. I tried to stop at the end of a paragraph, though as this is an older book, back when paragraphs lasted longer than most CBS sitcoms, this is kinda hard.
THE GREAT GATSBY
In my younger and more vulnerable years, (missing a comma here) my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
He didn’t say any more, (this feels like odd, unplanned repetition of the “any one” in the previous graf, so strike “any”) but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. (Listen, we’re on the third graf already, and I’m not inclined to reserve all judgment, seeing how you’re coming off like a veteran bore.) The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I wasbecame privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought — frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon.; for the intimate revelations(“intimate relations” twice in this sentence, so close together, doesn’t work at all)of young men, or at leastThe terms in which they express them, (comma deleted) are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, (here we get repetition with a purpose for once and it does work) a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth. (This is an awkward mouthful)
THOUGHTS: This is 100 percent interior monologue, which isn’t required by law to be boring. Though it sure leans that way.
Maybe it sets the mood.
However: If you’re basing a tragic hero’s entire motivation for making a ton of money to become a rich snob to impress a girl he loved and lost, and you’re hell-bent on starting page one with interior monologue about backstory, MAKE IT ABOUT THE GIRL.
Not the narrator. Not the narrator’s dad.
Not boring people who tell the narrator secrets while he pretends to sleep.
Make it all about the girl and Gatsby.
A huge part of the novel is throwing fancy parties to impress each other, right? I’m going off my memory from doing my own term papers on this thing. Never saw the movies. And when I do a first page, I try NOT to cheat by reading plot summaries and such, even if I’ve read the book.
Put a gun to my head and I’d delete this first page and start with the real inciting incident, which should be Gatsby and the narrator meeting the girl at a party way back when, so you can echo that later.
Or make it about about a small betrayal, from college or back during the war, to foreshadow the bigger betrayals and tragedies to come.
VERDICT: Doesn’t make me want to read more, which I wouldn’t unless the English 101 prof gave me no choice.
Sorry, F. Scott F.–can’t lie and say I liked this. Nuke the first page and go with a better hook.
Here’s the deal: I’ve been crazy busy with Other Things, and did not post to this silly blog much lately. And I missed it.
Missed dissecting the first pages of novels, the full three minutes of insane music videos and the reasons why the Series of Tubes will always, always be awash in videos of cats.
Missed talking smack with writers, editors and creative types scattered on every continent.
Missed the whole damn thing.
It’s good to be back here. Am writing a post every day for the month of August (so far, so good) and it’s made writing other things, for work and fun, much easier and faster. A happy snowball.
So: thanks for reading, thanks for commenting or tweeting at me–and thanks to many of you for teaching me a lot.
P.S. Just shout if you have suggestions for posts, such as which novels, music videos or movies (a) desperately deserve to get bled on with a red pen, (b) need to be taken apart to see why they work so well or (c) are so godawfully bad they circle back to good. I may open this thing up for guest posts, even. YOU NEVER KNOW.