Writing Rules from Emmy-Winning Writer and Producer Dan O’Shannon

Even a blind pig finds acorns once in a while. I ran across some writing rules from Emmy-Winning writer and producer Dan O’Shannon and am passing them along to you. Ignore for the moment that Dan’s career spans hit series’ like Cheers, Frasier and Modern Family. Now he’s back in Ohio, spinning out wisdom on writing via the Facebooks. Instead, let’s focus on the fact that he’s telling you how to not suck as a writer in three or four simple sentences:

Tip for young comedy writers: whenever possible, avoid the rule of three.

Second and final post on the rule of three. A lot of comedy people learn the rule of three and then they start using it all the time. sometimes it’s effective, but often it’s used to prop up a joke that isn’t very good; the rule of three makes it kind of joke-shaped, and they can sometimes fool the audience (but mostly themselves) into thinking they’ve written something actually good.

Then there are jokes that would work just as well without the punchline being the third in a list – the structure is unnecessary, but still used by writers who automatically plug it in because that’s what they’ve learned. the rule of three is used so often and so carelessly that it calls attention to itself as a hack form. it’s frequently used to parody bad comedy writing. I’d say use it when it works, but don’t use it just to use it.

Sure there are exceptions to the Rule of Three and exceptions to the exceptions. I might even tell Dan that Tom Raymond disagreed with him, but I know his first question would be ‘who’s Tom Raymond?’

Polish Your Diamonds – Quick Notes on Re-Writes

Polish Your Diamonds - Quick Notes on Re-Writes

The heatwave is over, thank God. Makes you wonder how Tennessee Williams, and William Faulkner did it. They wrote amazing, poetic stories about love and loss. All I could do was take care of the cats and try not to think about moving to Siberia. A rejection and a round of feedback from my beta readers is the source of this blog post. These quick notes on re-writes are a reminder to you, and me, of an important writing rule: polish your diamonds.

What does it mean to polish your diamonds? What do you do when you have a story idea you believe in that keeps getting rejected? The same thing you do with a diamond you dig up from the earth. A raw diamond doesn’t look like much of anything, at first. As you can see in the picture above, it may look like a piece of glass. But jewelers have a trained eye and the ability to see the gem underneath the flaws. Gems are made through the act of removing the stones flaws, and that is the perfect metaphor for your story.

Every story is a gem unto itself. Maybe a half-carat, maybe five, who knows. The craft of writing is about unearthing those gems from the deep mines of your mind, and then polishing them until they are the precious stones you always knew them to be.

Frankly, I blame other famous writers for the misconception that first draft = last draft. It’s not true, like ever. Writing, re-writing, feedback, more re-writes. That’s all part of the game. Sure, you may run across the occasional fully-polished gem ready for market as soon as you see it, but professional miners know not to expect those kinds of miracles. Instead, they know it’s about climbing down into the pit, doing a day’s work, and then seeing what you find.

So for both of us, my advice through these quick notes on re-writes is, polish your diamonds! They’re there. They’re beautiful. Your stories are waiting for you to do the work to make them shine.

 

Effortlessly Build Your Scenes with This Writing Hack

Effortlessly Build Your Scenes with This Writing Hack

Shout-out to @ThomHarp for this writing hack, which lets you effortlessly build your scenes whether you’re writing a novel, a short story, or a movie screenplay. Like many of you, I’m on the lookout for any tool or hack that simplifies the process of writing. That’s why I found this little trick to be a brilliantly clever way to connect your story diagram to ‘what is actually happening in this scene.’ Here’s how it works.

Step One: Diagram your story out, end to end using the aforementioned Story Diagram technique. If you’ve never diagrammed a full novel before, the easy way to figure out how it works is to watch your favorite movie and diagram that. Diagramming forces you to think about all the story plots (usually 2-4 in any good movie) in a linear structure. Once you’ve done that, go back to your story and then start blocking it out the same way. Where do you start, where do you end up? Start from each end and work inward. 

Step Two: After you’ve got your story diagram down, start breaking your story into scenes using the writing hack we’ll now discuss. You can use a fancy writing app (looking at you, Scrivener) or you can use Post-it Notes. It really doesn’t matter. Write down on each piece of paper like so:

– SUMMARY:

– WHERE WE’VE BEEN:

– THIS SCENE IS ABOUT:

– POWER MOVES:

– CHARACTER GOALS:

And, looking in your story diagram, start filling out the details! Tell us what the summary of your scene is to start, so you know how much information to put into this scene. Tell a little bit about Where We’ve Been to help fit the scene in the overall continuity of your story. Write down what this scene is about to help your story focus on key elements. Document any power moves, anything a protagonist, side character, antagonist, or innocent bystander might do to make the reader go ‘Wow.’ Finally, write down your character goals; how does this scene help your character grow and change?

It’s important to remember one thing: you don’t have to do any of this to be a writer. Some writers love the process of creativity, writing by the seat of your pants, seeing where the story takes you. That’s wonderful, and I use that process when I’m writing short stories. What I’ve learned about longer projects like novels is this – Chapter Twenty-One is a heck of a time to figure out you have a plot hole in Chapter Two. By enacting some structure and focus to the story, you eliminate a lot of revisions, re-writes, and hassle. If you have a better way to do it, or another hack to share, feel free to drop me a line!

At the end of the day, writing is a craft and I want to be good at it. I share what I learn out of respect and gratitude toward those who were kind enough to share with me. I dropped this writing hack into my Free Author Tools page. If you want more info, you can also check this NoFilmSchool blog post for more ideas.

Write on!

New T-Shirt Design

Inspiration comes from the strangest places. Two weeks ago, a news article about unruly air passengers led to an idea that I expressed on Reddit: “BRB, making a ‘If you act up on this plane I will help the flight attendants kick your butt’ shirt.” Some Redditors expressed interest, leading to a new t-shirt design you can see here.

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. We have a reasonable expectation that people will behave themselves, especially after the horror show of 2020. Sadly, that isn’t happening. COVID ripped the Band-aids off of civilization, revealing the suppurating social wounds we’ve been trying to ignore. Now, like battlefield surgeons, we’re attempting to stabilize our patients while holding onto what little patience we have left. It’s times like these that create something called ‘gallows humor.’ This new t-shirt design is my small contribution.

Do I think this is the coolest idea in the world? No. It’s important to capture those lightning bug ideas when they pass.

That’s ultimately the purpose behind the website, when I’m not writing scifi novels. One of these days, this will all be behind us and we’ll laugh. It may be one of those laughs that builds into a maniacal scream, but you take the fun where you find it.

Anyway, if you want this t-shirt, you can pick it up on Custom Ink. I don’t get a dime if you buy one of these, it’s another freebie from the world of Inkican.

Author Idea: Get It Out of Your Head

Some quick notes for this Wednesday morning – while Mesh makes the rounds with lit agents, I’m starting work on a new novel. This includes story mapping to help me figure out where and when everything will happen. I will admit, right now I’m not happy with what I have so far. That’s okay. One author idea I’ve learned over time: to make a story work, you have to get it out of your head.

Author Idea: Get It Out of Your Head

I didn’t follow that advice at first. Ideas are like seedlings, I thought. They need to germinate, grow in a safe place, before coming out to the world to blossom in the sunlight. Horsefeathers. One thing you should know about any idea, story or otherwise, is that your brain is a great place for them to be born, but a terrible place to grow. When you leave an idea stuck in your head, it quickly starts to fester as all of your neurological systems come into play. Yes, imagination and insight are cool but they’re also hard work!

Here’s what’s going on inside your head. Ideas start out great, but as we flesh them out we need critical thought to make judgements on how to make that idea work. For that, we need critical thought – guess what we’re low on when we’re creative? 😉 From a neurological standpoint, ‘creativity is reflected in the brain as increased lateralization, as a reduction in critical thinking and long-term memory and as heightened emotionality.’ We’re really bad at judging whether an idea is good or bad while we’re being creative.

When you write your ideas down, you get it out of your head. You also do something else – you feed your subconscious! By translating the idea into a memory, you give your unconscious brain some fuel for it’s next session of creativity. It might happen when you’re out for a walk, asleep, or in the shower. A word of caution: this process is going to feel very counterintuitive at first. As you shift from creative to critical, different parts of your brain are going to conflict with each other. The warm fuzzies of the creative brain are going to feel diluted by the critical brain going “yeah, how is THAT going to work?”

Because of that discomfort, many people keep their ideas inside their head. It’s fun to think you have an amazing creative idea! Not so fun when you realize that even if you can find an investor for your purple unicorn dishwashing service, your target market are a bunch of people who don’t wash dishes anyway. But here is where we have to ask ourselves an important question as creative professionals:


Are we in love with our idea, or are we in love with the idea of our idea?

You’ll never know until you get it out of your head.


Are we in love with our idea, or are we in love with the idea of our idea? We’ll never know until we get it out of our head. Some people are in love with the idea of having ideas. You know them. ‘Serial entrepreneurs’ on Facebook. People in MLM schemes, crypto, NFTs. They post Robert Kiyosaki and Tony Robbins quotes all over social media as ‘influencers,’ never figuring out that those hucksters are only good at influencing people to pay hundreds or thousands on their seminars.

We’re not those people, are we? We’re committed to making our dreams live and breathe, which means we have to be there as those ideas crawl, walk, and run. None of that is easy, sexy, or instantaneous. Like babies, sometimes they spit up, break your TV, or skin a knee. Nurturing a real idea is rewarding, but make no mistake: It’s work.

The first step of that good idea? I target authors with this, but it applies to any creative person: get that idea out of your head! Get it onto paper, a whiteboard, or a Google slide. Look at it. Realize it’s terrible. Walk away for a while and let your subconscious chew on it. You must have faith in your idea, the creative process, and yourself to let this happen. If you do, when you do, you’ll experience some transcendent results.

As authors, as creative professionals, we owe it to ourselves and to the world to get our ideas onto the page and into the hands of our readers. If you remember nothing else, let it be this: when it comes to author ideas – get it out of your head! Have a great Wednesday!

Author Ideas: Your Query Letter and You

Author Ideas: Your Query Letter and You

No Sci-Friday this week. I’ve been shooting out author query letters for MESH and that brings up another author-related topic for you, the aspiring writer. You’ve written your first novel – congratulations! That’s a big step, and you should be proud of yourself. Now it’s time to think about selling your project to a publishing house if you don’t want to self-publish. You can do that in two ways, make a direct deal with a publishing house (that’s it’s own animal for another blog post) or engage with a literary agent who sells your project for a percentage of the profits. Engaging with a literary agent starts with a QUERY LETTER. So let’s talk about your query letter and you.

What is a Query Letter?

According to Writer’s Digest Shop, “Writers use query letters to pitch article ideas to magazine editors or book ideas to agents and publishers. It’s a one-page letter used to get an editor or agent interested in the work you’d like to send them. Sometimes writers submit a query letter about a piece they’ve already written—such as a manuscript for a fiction novel. Other times, you query to determine if you should write the piece, such as a nonfiction book.”

Your query letter is a message to someone you don’t know that hey, you’ve got a book – would they be interested in selling it? There’s a lot of nuance and protocol that goes into the process of writing a query letter but at least you know what a query letter is in a nutshell.

Author Ideas: Your Query Letter and You

Do I Have to Write a Query Letter?

Short answer, no. Long answer, no, of course not – only write a query letter if you plan on selling your book. Authors who don’t write query letters include: publishers or their friends, famous people, and animals with no opposable thumbs. You wouldn’t expect Clifford the Dog to write his own query letter would you? He’s a dog! Plus, he’s the size of a house and I’m not sure his signature can translate down to an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet. So because many of us do not fit in the aforementioned categories, it’s safe to assume yes, you need to write a query letter.

How do I Write a Query Letter?

From a basic structural perspective, you can pick up some tips in the aforementioned Writer’s Digest Shop blog post:

“[I]nclude in your query is the basic information about your proposed story or idea. If you’ve written a fiction piece, mention the title and genre your work fits best in. If you are a nonfiction writer, talk about your proposed title or category for your book. You should also include a one-sentence summary of your story and your final manuscript’s word count or proposed word count of your nonfiction book.

The third element is the hook, which makes up the bulk of your query letter. This is where you talk about the subject matter (for nonfiction) or the characters, plot, and conflict (for fiction). This section should be between 100 and 200 words long.”

It’s important to remember though, that this is a TIP ONLY. There are many schools of thought on what a successful query letter looks like. Since it’s a sales letter, your job is to sell your project – not you – to a professional buyer and seller of book projects.

In fact, you can get some ideas on recent query letters on /r/pubtips, which is dedicated to the process of writing perfect query letters for novel projects. Keep in mind, these people make good query letters by destroying query letters. Word of caution: these people are BRUTALLY HONEST. At first, I thought I would be okay with their level of criticism, but it took me six months and six tries to get a query letter they found acceptable. Unless you’re up for making your dreams come true by destroying your dreams, do not post your query letter here for feedback.

Here’s some more information on how to write a query letter from Bookends Lit Agency:

Wrapping Up

So in conclusion, you can be the best writer in the world and hate the process of writing query letters. It’s okay. I don’t enjoy the process, but it’s a necessary evil along the way to my overall goal. So … writing query letters. If you’re also writing a query letter, good for you! I hope this information helps you write your query letter and brings you closer to your dreams of being a published author.

Grinding Scifi Short Stories

Grinding Scifi Short StoriesRan into this helpful site while discussing short story publishing. The Submission Grinder is a website dedicated to the process of submitting scifi and fantasy short stories. Why? Because you get rejected a lot! Every SF/F writer has about a million rejection slips on their desk these days.

This revelation has given me new energy to go back to the drawing board and give some short stories another chance at publication. Visit my Short Story Board to find out where my stories are being submitted to.

In the meantime, I hope you find Submission Grinder to be helpful. I pass along all the free tools I find – let’s get better together!

Visit The Submission Grinder

Mesh Update – Beta Readers and Stuff

Fun fact: You can type the phrase ‘beta readers’ only using your left hand. These are the things you learn, slamming to a stop after months of writing, fretting, honing, and polishing your very own novel. Last Friday, I turned Mesh over to my beta readers and stood back to let them read, review, comment, and suggest. I’m already learning some valuable points about Mesh that I would never have seen on my own.

So yes, Jackson uses beta readers when he writes. Not every writer does, but I do. Let’s take a moment to discuss beta readers, so that if you write, or if you want to be a Beta Reader, you’ll have a sense of what is involved.

What is a Beta Reader?

A concise discussion on the topic is provided at the link above (Thank you, NYbookeditors.com). Books need beta readers like software needs beta testers. Nothing sucks worse than trying to get a book published only to hear crickets from agents, publishers and the general public. Beta readers will tell you if you suck, where you suck, why you suck, and how to suck less.

Remember, you will suck before you succeed.

Do you want to be a beta reader? I promise you, there’s some effort involved. Some readers are great at pointing out plot inconsistencies, while others focus on spelling and grammar. In any case, it’s almost like doing a book report. You won’t enjoy it, unless you like what you’re reading.

That’s why I’m profoundly grateful, having found some readers that are willing to help me. It’s not easy to do what they’re doing, but it’s absolutely necessary in the process of writing things people want to read.

Thanks folks! 😀

How Sci-Fi’s First Drop-In Should Work

Writing more Mesh this week, and thinking about this whole Sci-Fi’s First Drop-In thing. I feel like I should explain more of what I have in mind, and how it should work.

As I said before, there’s a weird dynamic in scifi where people – and I include myself in this group – are a little, shall I say, rambunctious to the new creators of science fiction. There are all kinds of reasons why this happens, some of them have to do with group dynamics and others have to do with basic negativity. But rather than complain about that, we should find a way to solve this problem.

First, let’s talk about what celebrating your first drop-in should and shouldn’t be. Some of these may seem obvious, but let’s write them down, anyway:

  1. Your scifi first drop-in (SFFDI) isn’t about self-promotion, it’s about putting yourself out there for the first time and building trust
  2. Your SFFDI isn’t about negativity, is about what happens when you break out of your comfort zone
  3. Your SFFDI isn’t about hating on someone or something, it’s about making something you can enjoy

I might add some more ideas as I think of them, but this seems to be a good start. We (the scifi community) should be able to celebrate, and be celebrated without turning it into a ‘look at me’ thing. We should be able to try, and try new things without it turning negative. We should be able to create without the mad rush to monetize, build brands, go viral. Scifi began as a community of creators that just loved to dream and create. We should be able to build a mechanism to continue that proud tradition.

I even thought of a hashtag we could use: #SFFDI – nobody seems to be using it.

Feel free to contribute your feedback. This is 100% a community effort.

Sci-Fi’s First Drop-In

My I don’t know if you were like me last week when I first saw this video. It’s a crowd of skateboarders celebrating a kid’s first drop-in, a move that takes a lot of trust and willpower for boarders to execute. My first reaction was “Oh, man … those skateboarders are so supportive. I wish someone was that supportive of my sci-fi.”

View post on imgur.com

I have no idea who these people are, or who that kid is, but I don’t have to. We connect with this video on a human level. We’ve all been that kid at one moment of our lives or another. He may have been scared, a little bit intimidated. What will the big kids think? What will the crowd say?

Where most people have experienced indifferent scorn the first time they try something, the kid is surrounded by people who are saying, in effect: “You can do it. We’re here for you!” And then he drops in. That boy will skate for the rest of his life, and wherever he goes he’ll take that formative moment with him.

My second thought this video was “I should blog about this. We’ll know that scifi has turned the corner when we can support new scifi creators like these skateboarders support this kid.” Imagine how much different the world would be if we all experienced that level of support on our first try. But that’s when I had my third thought, and that’s what “Sci-Fi’s First Drop-In” is all about.

My third thought was “Wait, why don’t I do that? Why don’t I support someone’s first try? Why don’t I become the change I want to see?”

So, here we are.

There’s a weird dynamic in scifi where people – and I include myself in this group – are a little, shall I say, rambunctious to the new creators of science fiction. There are all kinds of reasons why this happens, some of them have to do with group dynamics and others have to do with basic negativity. But rather than complain about that, let’s be a part of the solution.

So here’s my thought, and I’m inviting others to weigh in and participate. If you’re a first-timer and you want to show off your work, I’m happy to make room on Inkican to celebrate you. Not sure how it’s all going to work right now, people often think of problems I didn’t consider after I say something, but at the very least it might be a fun way for us to support each other in a non-threatening, consequence-free format.

Interested in participating? Have something to share? Reach out to me via Reddit or Twitter. Let’s see if we can make some magic happen.