Thursday, December 11, 2014

Charles Reznikoff

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Revision & the Diagonal Rule

“The goal is perpetual motion. […] At every corner you leave yourself an alternative.  You move diagonal.  You turn the wheel when you hit a red light. You don't drive down Broadway to get to Broadway.  You move diagonal, you're gonna get perpetual motion.  That's what you want.”—Copland.
Reading your work as if you hadn't written it has a lot to do with being forgetful.  That's why you want to put a project out of your mind for a period of time before you pick it up again, to foster impartiality.  The challenge of revision, however, only partly depends on distance.  What the task really comes down to is asking questions.

What am I trying to do with this moment?  What does this bring to the story?  Does it fit? 

You should be able to justify any part of your story.  If you look at your writing and feel lost, it is likely because you cannot answer these questions.  Consider them at every level, from the broad movements of your story down to the individual images.  You'll usually know when you've written something wrong, because you won't be happy with it.  This should help you explain why.  That, or beat off the perpetual self-doubt that plagues our fugitive kind.

Sometimes once you've identified a misstep in your writing, a solution quickly presents itself.  You make the change and continue.  Other times, you struggle. 

In these moments remember: there is more than one way your story can come together.  Unless you enjoy staring out the window for twenty minutes at a stretch and sucking all the momentum out of your process, take the block as a sign.  Instead of forcing the issue, come at the problem from a different angle.  Move diagonal.  Surprise yourself, even, but keep your goal in mind.  Whether for sentences or a whole scene, try out enough approaches and one is bound to stick.

Don't be afraid to do something you didn't expect, even if you're not sure where you'll end up.  You try things.  That's your job as a writer.  Let your writing push out into the dark.  You'll be pleased how often you can bend what at first seems like a tangent into the overall scheme of your work.  It is all you, after all.  Let your brain make its subtle connections—your storyteller's intuition.  Blind intuition, misguided maybe, but at least you're moving.  Inertia kills creativity.  I'll gladly write 500 words to cut them all when I find 30 that are gold.  Prospectors dig in the dirt their whole lives and don't enjoy that sort of return.  I'd rather keep typing and get close than stare out the window and have nothing to show for it.

Sometimes your goal is itself the problem.  You may need to rethink what you initially intended.  It seems silly to have to say it, but your first thought is not always your best.  Here we stumble across that famous line “kill your darlings.”  Some struggles are worth the fight.  Anyone who has fruitfully banged their head off a keyboard feels this in their aching bones.  You don't have to cut out the things in your story that excite you just because they're flawed, but if you can't make them work, you have to be honest with yourself about it and let them go.

It's a shame if an otherwise good idea doesn't fit in with the rest of your story, or you can't quite find the right shape for it, but you shouldn't be distressed.  You're a creative person.  You can drum up a thousand thousand such ideas.  You got this far, after all.  Why wouldn't you have more in you? 

The core of this whole strategy is that it lets you to see just how many ideas you can generate.

In short, don't railroad your work.  Don't feel tied to any draft or plan.  Jag.  Move diagonal.  If you surprise and excite yourself, there's a good chance you'll do the same for the reader.  The opposite is also true.  If you're bored with your work, consider that a red light and turn the wheel.

Try it.

Monday, September 22, 2014


“Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.”―Raymond Chandler.

Revision is your safety net. It will keep you from splattering on the ground. Revision introduces you to yourself as a writer. You get to know your tendencies, good and bad. We all misstep. Account for this in your process, and don't be ashamed of it.

I have learned the most about my writing through the trial and error of revision. When you're inside of a draft, a first draft especially, you can't see it for what it is, just maybe what you want it to be, if you even know what that is yet. It is only when you step back that you can take the measure of what you've done.

Sometimes writers eschew revising their work to preserve its authenticity. They argue that whatever else their draft might be, it is true. They have captured something raw and from the gut, or heart, or whatever organ was liveliest at the time of composition, and their work should remain untouched to maintain that experience. In fact, they are not wrong in this. Not wrong in principle.

I've tried writing straight out of the emotional moment. Tried riling up my gut and sicking it on the page. The problem I saw when I looked back, though, was that while my work certainly seemed like it came from an emotional person, it did not evoke that emotion in a reader. It did not craft the scene in a precise and believable way, or even in an interesting way. Some smart, cold editing helped to fix that. So did throwing out a great deal and trying it over again with a sober stomach.

Who are you writing for? If at least part of your answer is “other people,” you owe it to them to make your work as good as it can be. The first draft can always be for you. Wholly for you. Either just the experience or that separate saved copy on your desktop, every feeling and intention captured in time. But thereafter, roll up your sleeves.

This doesn't mean you have to revise your work until it is without blemish. A worthwhile goal, that, but nonetheless unobtainable. There is no perfect in art, only better for me or better for you.

Eventually you have to call it – time of death, date/time, and move on. If the story doesn't get published, maybe in five or ten years you open up its drawer and discover now you know how to breathe life into it. Either way, wrestling with the peice has made you better. You're stronger now than when you began the struggle. Always.

So struggle mightily and mindfully. Don't be complacent in your process and call it authenticity. Don't shrug off honing your work out of some half-baked sense of snaring “true emotion.” That sort of dull writing never cut straight to a reader's heart and left a mark.

The best short story I ever wrote I revised three or four times over the same number of years, adding to it and rearranging and thematicising – all the proper embellishments any good student of the craft should fritter away at. Intending to look over what I had done, I started reading the first draft by mistake. That draft was the best of them all. Flawed, but the cracks were so thin they took nothing away from the rest. It was compact, simple, and playfully succeeded at what it set out to do. This, a story I wrote in two days?  But I took the time to know it.

And there you have it. Not wrong in principle.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Writing Rules

“These are my rules. I make 'em up.”—George Carlin.

Nothing beats good writing. If you write something and it works, it works. End of discussion. Doesn't matter whose rules you break along the way. And there are plenty of dumb rules writers regularly kick down like rotting fences in the path of their creative wanderings.

Never start a sentence with a conjunction. Clearly hyperbolic. But start too many this way, and the reader will wonder if you forgot there was any such thing as a comma. Do not write sentence fragments, use exclamation points, or modify dialogue with adverbs. “Ha! As if!” he whispered contemptuously, scrawling his seditions with a broken pen.

Some writers in their early development cannot see the arbitrary nature of these barricades and go through all the painful contortions of avoiding them at every turn. Rest assured, no one owns these rules, and you will not be fined for breaking them. In fact, break down the right ones in the right way, and you might be celebrated for your originality. Then again, some of these obstructions are more like guardrails along a cliff. Indiscriminately leap over every one, and you can find yourself falling a long way.

I admit these grammatic examples seem trifling, or at least they should. More substantive rules have become so ingrained we hardly think about them. We consider them conventions. If you spend the first third of your book following a specific character, the reader assumes the story will follow them for its duration. Hitchcock famously breaks this rule in Psycho, killing Janet Leigh's character off soon after the movie's plot seems to have been established. From there the film jolts in an unpredictable and fascinating direction. But then no one remembers that cinematic flop.

Intrepid writers in search of some structure on which to hang their story frequently seek out new rules, however arbitrary or absurd, and add them to their sacrosanct vault. They don't just pick them up as they stumble along; they mine for them. Each clanging of the pick and scraping of the shovel sounds out the same. “What's the right . . . ” clang. “What's the best . . .” scrape. Book length, chapter length, narrative perspective, balance between narration and dialogue, number of characters? Can I divide a book in two? What about three? Should the sections be the same length? If I have a prologue, do I also have to have an epilogue?

The labor grinds right along. Back breaking, anxious effort that avoids the only rule that ever mattered: the story only exists if you write it. No answer ever satisfied like the thing itself. What is right and best is a matter of the story at your fingertips, not what everyone else has done. Many books may be eighty-thousand words, but that doesn't mean yours has to be—or even can be. Their hearts are in the right place though. They simply want to get it right, and not do anything that might rule them out of the running for publication.

There is no one right way for a story to be. You have to decide. Good writing is undeniable, whether it charts an unheard of course or tracks along a premise that has been stamped into the ground. Don't let your work be clubbed into dank submission.

Write well enough, and you make your own rules.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Post Draft Anxiety

“I need a fix 'cause I'm going down”—The Beatles

Every time I finish a draft of a longer project, first or final, and put it away to cool, I never know what the fuck to do with myself. This hits especially hard on the weekend, when I have no contractual obligations to anyone. It's not exactly boredom. It's a combination restlessness and fatigue. I'd like to be content with reading or watching something all day, but I guess if I could do that I never would have started writing in the first place. I just can't get my mind to sit still. Any time I spend not writing makes me feel like I'm screwing around the week before a paper is due.

I'm not complaining. Or at least that's not the reason I'm writing this. Maybe you feel the same way sometimes and it's worth knowing other writers struggle with the same post-draft anxiety. Right, because I'm so talented and successful.

I have two projects laid out on the cooling slab now: a screenplay and a novel. The novel is with my personal editor and trusted reader, KP, who has worked with previous drafts of the same story. The screenplay, a re-write of a late undergrad project, is waiting on my hard-drive for a second pass. I just finished the screenplay. I suppose a great deal of my restlessness comes from my excitement about both projects. That excitement, without a proper outlet, turns back against me, and then here we are kicking around the bottom of nowheresville.

Then I suppose there is the fear, but that's much deeper. Fear of bad writing, wasted effort, and more painful toil if the work is ever going to be good enough.

But even that is only anxiety. Bad writing is always unappealing, especially your own when you are forced to see it for what it is, but no effort is ever wasted in this art. As long as you are attentive to understanding your missteps and work to correct them, you are always moving forward. Sometimes things click, and you actually feel your writing improve from one project or draft to the next. You can hold more of what you have to do in your head at once, and better intuit how the task must be done. But mostly writing is a game of inches, and you only see your growth retrospectively.

As for the pain, don't worry, there are no writing injuries. No one ever went blind on account of a rambling plot and misplaced character motivation, though we may wish it on others fiercely when reading such faults in their work.

There is a significant sting when you first see those red hashes on your manuscript, but that does not linger long. As soon as your mind returns to construction, any temporary damage is quickly repaired. Then again, when you are on your own it can be much harder to get out from under, not knowing which way to go. You have to be prepared to make hard decisions. Keep your old drafts and you can always put any cuts back in.

The challenge in this lost and scrambled state is not to dive straight back into the familiar. Leave your work to cool or you'll never get anywhere with it. Yes, the characters all feel close. Yes, the setting feels rich in your head. That's part of the problem. You know it all so well now that you won't be able to put yourself in a position to be introduced to any of it for the first time. You'll remember too well what you wanted to do, or what you thought you did, and this will obscure what you actually did.

It's hard enough to see your work as a reader. Give yourself a fighting chance.

Starting is always difficult, but that's the best medicine to calm your brain. It doesn't have to be serious. It doesn't have to properly start or come to an end. Write an unconnected scene that breaks every writing rule you can think of. Write a poem. Take up an old rag of yours and finesse part of it into a pleasing shape. Pick something your writing lacks and chip away at it in your workshop. No one will see any of these things if they come to nothing, and it's just as well if they don't. You do it because you have to write. Writing is your fix.

Sorry if this came to nothing.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Prejudice Against Genre Fiction

“You eat what you like, and I'll eat what I like!”—Yukon Cornelius
Genre is a four letter word in some literary circles. It's tossed about with derision. Those works unfortunate enough to fall under the label are condemned as inferior, the playthings of lesser minds and lower sensibility. Not such a grave sentence, maybe. Some of us are not the least ashamed to relieve the burden of our sensibility by dragging them along in a sack. But the word is tragically misapplied when used this way.

In the first place, everything is a genre. “Genre” is simply any collection of works that share enough of a family resemblance for them to be reasonably grouped together.

For instance, stories with a central character who navigates challenges, gains allies, learns skills, and acquires knowledge on the way to overcoming a final obstacle are a genre. We refer to them as Fantasy, especially if they trade in magic and archaic landscapes. But contemplative, closely interpersonal stories guided largely by themes rather than action or plot that line the Literature shelves are a genre as well. Maybe you couldn't pick them out straight away by their covers, but that does not somehow set them apart.

But literary fiction is broader than that, they say. You can't just wrap it up in one so-called genre, that's what makes it exciting. Yes, the Literature section can have a great deal of variety, notably because it so often robs the nests of other genres. Magical Realism, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery; Literature drops down with its heavy talons and plucks its choice from each. What is The Road (2007 Pulitzer prize winner) but a sci-fi horror—the struggle for survival in a burned out world where cannibals and blood cultists are the only visible survivors.

So when anyone snidely says “genre,” what they really mean is “those other genres.” Those few genre books that enjoy an elevated literary status are the exceptions. But this sort of thinking begs the question while ignoring its own conclusion. There is not one kind of fantasy novel, just as there is not one kind of literary novel—clearly, or there would be no fantasy novels in the Literature section.

Yes, there are plenty of cliché, one dimensional fantasy novels. Go to the appropriate aisle in your bookstore, pull a book off the shelf at random, and there's a good chance you'll have selected one of these books. They're popcorn fiction. One piece tastes like the other, and after you've had a handful you probably can't remember much about any of them, or which was which. But the same can be said of books shelved in the Literature section. Slow, run-of-the-mill, “my mundane/tragic life makes it hard to be happy” novels are published every year—books that try very hard to be big serious stories, and throwing their weight around, fall all over themselves and land in a heap.

If our literary regents bent their astounding linguistic potential to the task for a moment they might say “plot fiction” is the real offender. But since when is there anything wrong with a story that's headed somewhere? Where the story goes and how it gets there is only part of the thrill, though. A good plot is a mode of conveyance, and there are all sorts. Bullet trains cover more ground than roller skates; maybe one is more direct than the other, and the scenery goes by faster, but it's who's inside them that makes all the difference.

I suppose there is little sense trying to talk the literary faithful out of their prejudice, sad though it is to see. But they like what they like, and only what they like, and if you like something else, you simply have poor taste. For my part, there are too many fantastic novels across every genre to think of excluding any of them from consideration. And anyway, who the hell doesn't like popcorn now and then?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Popular is not Good

“A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.”—Mark Twain  
There is a difference between popular and good.  A lot of people like books that are riddled with all kinds of problems from story to style, right down the list.  It's not that these works don't conform to some kind of entrenched, literary credo of correct storytelling, it's just that they don't function well in terms of, say, character motivation, or consistently delivering meaningful sentence.

Many people detest the most popular of these books—you know the ones—but not only on account of style.  Bad books can be had by the cartload, and are otherwise ignored, but somehow these books excel at bringing up bile.  People hate them because others claim to love them so ardently, and they have to keep hearing about it.  The conversation gets stale.  For you, maybe it's sports.  For someone else, it’s those damn books.  This reaction is only fair.  Turnabout is fair play, after all. 

Of course no one is harmed by bad writing.  Bad ideas, maybe, but not bad writing—that is, so long as a story or series doesn't start well and slack off towards the end.  But let's face it, these books enjoy their popularity because they have reached a critical mass of expressed interest.  Put enough copies of a book on a prominent shelf and mention it enough times online, and people begin to wonder if they're missing something worthwhile.  People like to have something to get excited about together.

The merit of a book is not determined by how many copies it sells.  That is a matter of business and circumstance, not craft. 

Don’t put a match to any books just yet, though.  It's unlikely their popularity is based on charlatan hawking of otherwise worthless texts.  There has to be something about any popular book, however flawed, that got it started on its way to deification, or at least the New York Times bestseller list.  There must be at least a glimmer of real quality in a book’s premise, its protagonist, its conflict, its environment, or its tone that attracts a reader's interest.  That always has value, and deserves recognition.

Let's be clear.  No one can tell you what you like.  If you read anything that does something cool to your head, it doesn't matter what section of the bookstore it's shelved in, what press did or didn't publish it, or where it ranks in sales or notoriety.  Your enjoyment is never wrong.  But understand it is entirely possible that you like something that isn't very well done, even if you're not alone in your admiration.

What does any of this matter?  If you're an idle reader and like to turn your brain off and skim along, I suppose nothing.  But if you’re really interested in reading something worthwhile, and especially if you have aspirations of writing yourself, consider listening to the thoughtful criticism of work you've enjoyed, and works you’re considering.  Ask any person offering that criticism, and they likely have a short list of fantastic books by authors you've never heard of, or never considered. Delve.  Explore.  The reward is worth the effort.

In short, if you're only reading the top bestsellers or following the latest trend, you're missing out.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Writing Sex

“I think it could only be a masterpiece of pornography, but not a masterpiece which was pornographic. [. . .] You can get as dirty as you want, but not also excite people because exciting people during the course of a story—exciting them sexually—is changing the subject so completely that you have no more narrative form.”—Orson Welles

Sex stands out prominently whenever inserted into a narrative. It has to be handled with care.

I've read a lot of badly written sex. A lot of sudden, unnecessary, over the top sex that goes on for too long, or is otherwise eye-rolling. This is the case in developing and popular fiction alike. People have sex, and they should have sex, and plenty of it, and sex should be in your writing, but only when pertinent. Too often when writers delve into a sex scene, it seems like a personal fixation rather than an appropriate part of their story. One of those little darlings—a shortcut to get a rise from the reader in place of more substantive content.

This fits into a larger discussion on subject and focus—the question of what a scene or story is “about”—but bad sex is so often a stumbling block it deserves to be taken aside and roughly whipped.

If you're writing an erotic sexventure or if your story features sex as a prominent theme, by all means, oil up and dive in. Unload all the juicy details your little heart desires (Goatboy, you big old shaggy smelly thing). But if your story isn't otherwise erotic, carefully consider the tone you set as well as how much of those moments to actually include on the page. Take a few queues from the world of film. A look, a kiss, and a soft dissolve do wonders in maintaining your narrative and exciting your readers without becoming a distraction.

If you decide to have sex, don't think you're cute and don’t try to be clever. Sex isn't the place for devices like metaphor or analogy. They will always come off as silly. Pet names for private parts are a non-starter. “She guided my little dingy into her watery cave” is a train wreck every time, if you catch my driftwood, by which I mean penis.

That's right, if you're going to be specific, get your terms out and use them. All the good ones are four letters or less, so you have no excuse. They’re easy to type. If you don’t have it in you to plainly write the mechanics of a sexual act, that act has no business in your story. On the other hand, you'll be pleased how far generality—bodies rather than body parts—can take you. “She pulled him against her.” Like that.

Your sex doesn't have to be titillating. Make it uncomfortable. Make it bizarre, a joke, sweet even, if you should be so perverse. But above all, make sure it belongs in the context of the story you are telling, even if it is just a cheap thrill.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Having Your Writing Critiqued

“There are only two people who can tell you the truth about yourself – an enemy who has lost his temper and a friend who loves you dearly.”—Antisthenes  

Shut up and listen. That's the first and best thing you can do for yourself when sitting down to hear someone's critique of your writing. You've given them your work to see what they think, so give them free rein to tell you.

There is nothing gained by defending your work against someone who is trying to help you. Every critique is a learning experience, a chance to better understand your writing, flaws and successes alike. Treat it as such.

If you have specific questions for your reader, write them down ahead of time and wait until you are well into what should be a one-sided conversation before you bring them up. Don't ask your reader to watch for anything before they've read your work. You don't want to influence their reading. They have to come to your writing fresh, just as they would anything off the shelf. Say as little as possible to them about what you've written. It is for them to tell you what you have done.

With that in mind, keep your questions open ended. First ask, what did you think of this character, before specifying, did you find them funny. The most of what you should say during the critique is why, why not, and can you tell me more about that.

Not everyone offering you a critique is a master at the craft. Even editors and writers with endless bestsellers and lavishly awarded works can be uncertain what needs to change in a given draft, or how. The best readers will critique your work with an eye for helping you achieve your vision instead of manipulating it into something they want to see. If your reader does not appear to make an effort to understand your intent, consider the value of their advice accordingly, but do not disregard their reactions.

Your reader's reactions to your work is the single most important feedback you can ask for, whether or not they have any interesting suggestions. Faults may not be where a reader thinks they are, but that does not mean nothing is wrong. Sometimes a moment would otherwise work if it were better supported earlier in the story. But if your reader was confused, or put off, or bored, it falls to you to discern why that might be and what you can do about it. Every comment is a question you have to answer to in your writing. If you don't have good answers, you have work to do.

There is such a thing as bad advice. Listening to everybody is as mindless as listening to nobody. What you do with your work is up to you, but the better you know your work, the easier it will be to tell the good advice from the bad.

As a last word on intent, what you first wanted from your writing is not always what needs to happen for it to be the best it can be. Despite what your intentions may have been, not only may your execution have been poor, but the intentions themselves may lack merit. What is most interesting about your work is not always what you assumed. Sometimes you have to do what is right for the story, not your ego.  

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

How To Critique Someone's Writing

“A brave man is a man who dares to look the Devil in the face and tell him he is a Devil.”—James A. Garfield

Writers need help. Its hard to see your work for what it is. But a bad critique can make you confused and miserable, and the vapid reassurance of a pat on the back can be worse than no critique at all, leaving you without any sense of direction, more uncertain about your writing than when you handed it out, because you know it's not as good as you want it to be, but can't figure out why.

When you sit down to talk with someone about their work, try this:

1. A brief description of the story. One or two sentences free of evaluation. This can be difficult with poetry or novels that resist a concise summary, but your impression of the work is sufficient. This is a conjuring trick. It draws a shape around you and the writer in the form of their story and says, we're starting. It also gives the writer your snapshot of what they've written, which hopefully they recognize.

Ex: “This is a moody piece, mostly about a young woman with a troubled past. Older now, and perhaps stronger, she returns home for her mother's funeral, confronting the demons of her family and former relations.”

2. Tell them what they did well. Anyone who gives you their work is looking for validation, even if they swear they want you to tear their work apart, so validate their good work. This is not a matter of what you liked, though your preferences are worth discussing.  The reason you found something effective is a far more valuable insight. Help the writer see where their strengths are. This can be difficult because you may have to set context aside, but if the ending of the story, screenplay, or poem seemed like a real ending, tell them so. Do this every time, even if you're reading a revision for the third time. Hopefully you'll have more good things to say each revision.

The goal is to coax the witter into lowering their defenses, and helps put them in a mindset to participate in the critique rather than brace for it. You're not trying to hurt them. If they've done anything well, there's hope.

3. Highlight problems and pose questions. This is the real meat of the critique, and will likely take the most time because it lends itself to discussion. Keep in mind you don't have to diagnose the writer's work with surgical precision, nor do you have to have the remedy for the problems you find. You're only trying to help someone understand their work and figure out where, if not how, to begin improving it. If you do have suggestions, by all means, offer them. You might consider making a list of the biggest issues in the work, and work into the details from each of those.

When posing questions, do not ask the writer what they were trying to do, or meant by a particular passage without first telling them what you thought based on what they wrote. If you don't know what to think, try to describe what about the given passage defeated you.

Trace your experience as a reader. Show the writer where the story and their writing went astray for you in contrast to where it was tracking well. This is valuable information. You don't have to walk them step by step through their entire story. The longer the work, the more taxing this would be. Keep to the broader strokes. What you leave out, they should be able to pick up based on your conversation and their freshly marked manuscript.

4. List bad habits to watch out for going forward. Just as you drew the writer's attention to their successes, point out the reoccurring weaknesses. You'll undoubtedly touch on these as you go through the story, but it's valuable to reiterate.

5. Final summation / marching orders. For any writer, dealing with the pros and cons of their work can be a taxing experience. Help send them on their way by reminding them of the strengths of the work and underscoring the major aspects you feel (and hopefully the writer agrees) they need to develop. This should take no more than a few minutes. Thirty seconds if you can help it.

At last, hand the manuscript back, tell the desperate fool, “Good riddance,” and wash your hands of them. Or thank them for looking to you for guidance. Whichever seems more appropriate based on their reception of your critique.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Character Development

1. Emotional or intellectual
2. Physical
3. Their relationships with other characters
4. In the eyes of the reader

What does it mean for a character to develop? And is that development necessary for a story to succeed?

Some writers and instructors hold up character development as the focus of any good story. They are advocates of the epiphany, a turn in a character's inner life that divides them into who they were before and who they are after. There is no question that this kind of personal realization has its place in storytelling, but it's hardly the epitome of the craft, and it certainly isn't necessary.

Self-styled literary writers have wrung out the epiphany in their novels and short stories until the trick has dried up and become stale in its predictability. Not uniformly so, there is always outstanding work, but it's gotten so that many writing programs have forgotten the flavor of any other kind of writing. Ask yourself, how many of your favorite stories have an epiphany as their climax? How many use it at all, and was it even the most interesting part of the story?

Character development does not have to be pronounced. Big, dramatic change isn't a must, but neither are little changes either. Take your lead character and spin them through a few challenges, or stroll alongside them during an moment in their life. Write them as just exactly the same person at the finish as you did at the start. I have it on good authority that, in spite of every superstition to the contrary, neither you nor, more importantly, the story will be consumed by fire the instant you type the final word.

In any event, characters always develop. Contrary to your best efforts, they do so. It happens because of the most crucial element of this discussion: the reader.

Every new character you write, you introduce to the reader for the first time, and each subsequent page is an opportunity for the reader to get to know that character a little better. Even if you write a totally unoriginal character like a lone gunman of few words who rides into some downtrodden town and doles out justice in hot lead, the reader doesn't know what he's going to be like as he crests that first hill at daybreak. They don't know what few words he will say, or how he'll say them. Or if he'll talk differently to the barkeep than he did the stable boy. Anyway, no character is ever totally unoriginal if they are authentically rendered.

All reading is discovery, and as we discover the characters of a story, they develop in our minds. Maybe some of those developments change our impression of them. Maybe not. But on page 800 or the fourth book in a series, the process continues. Each event and interaction, every moment of quiet contemplation, represents a choice. The decisions your characters make constantly redefine them.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

 “A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.”—Oscar Wilde

“Take, take, take.”—The White Stripes

A common question many authors sneer at, likely because the answer isn't nearly as simple as the question is innocuous. As if there could be any one place a writer gets their ideas.

I once told the editor of my former English department's newsletter, a man who wanted to publish one of my poems, that, in fact, I had not written any of my own work. I admitted to him confidentially that I had unearthed the various stories and poems at the end of a long stone wall beside a big oak tree. The scribblings were folded into a box under a rock that had no earthly business in that Maine hayfield. A piece of black, volcanic glass. I threw myself on his mercy for my literary treachery. If he believed me, I was pardoned, but my work was never featured in the newsletter.

Stephen King takes the opposite approach, saying he gets his ideas from “everywhere.” I don't know whose answer is more unhelpful, but his is closer to the truth.

Yesterday a middle school aged girl asked me, wasn't it true writers get most of their ideas from dreams? Never mind what I was doing talking to a middle-schooler, but the prevailing interest in the question surprises me. (I wasn't doing anything talking to the middle-schooler, just having lunch with my friend, her relative through marriage. She isn't married, he is. Never mind.)

Being a writer isn't something you are born with. You don't wake up one morning with a headache and a little case of being a writer. You don't have special story dreams, or invent a whole world halfway through breakfast. What you do is teach yourself to pay attention to things that are interesting. An artist might watch for interesting images; a musician listens for interesting sounds. Ideas don't pop into your head so much as you stumble over them in your reading, watching movies, or just walking down the street. What you have to do is know to stop and pick the thing up, wherever it comes from, so you can play with it later to see if the idea goes anywhere.

All writers are forgers. There's no need to be ashamed of that so long as your thefts are piecemeal. If you spent your whole life on a lonely island, what chance is there that you could write anything beyond the limited scope of the horizon and your own meager thoughts? You wouldn't even have any youthful fairy tales to populate your imagination. What you have to do is “stuff your head,” as Ray Bradbury said. Dive in to anything that interests you, and then when you sit down to write, or even if you're just daydreaming, you'll start shuffling the pieces around until you hit on something that excites you. You won't be able to help it.

Don't forget to play—that's key. Misbehave. Surprise yourself. Take what the other guy did and do just the opposite. Pluck a quote from The Shawshank Redemption and twist it to your own purpose. See what happens. Just maybe leave the antics out of your correspondences with publishers. Such people often have no sense of humor about the seriousness of their work.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Tenth of December

"Two fallacies that need to be debunked. One is, 'To be a writer you have to get an MFA.'  False. Two is, 'If you get an MFA you'll be a published writer.'  False."—George Saunders

George Saunders reads a near-sci/fi story from his latest collection, Tenth of December, and answers writing questions. Literary circles consider his work to be outstanding. Maybe worth a look. His advice, at least, seems sound.

At this reading he talks about editing, and honoring the readers intelligence to keep a story interesting. "As a general writing principle, you're main job is to do something, and then notice it, and then adjust accordingly. And then notice a thing that you've done, and adjust accordingly. Kind of rinse, lather, repeat, you know, a million times."

George addresses other questions such as what makes a good writer, and how a writer approaches truth in their fiction, “one phrase at a time.”

Monday, April 28, 2014

Unity in Imagery

“. . . the unity of effect or impression is a point of greatest importance. . . . without unity of impression, the deepest effects cannot be brought about.”—Edgar Alan Poe.*

Obviously you want to maintain tone in your writing to establish atmosphere. You don't write a somber scene in which your leading character's thoughts “scamper” through their head when they hear the “cheerful” ring of the telephone. You could make a case for cheerful because it juxtaposes with the mood of the scene, but only if it appeared without the other misstep. Scamper is the real offender here. There is something light and playful about the word that nudges the reader off course emotionally. Just think of how totally you would be thrown out of the scene if the character scampered over to the phone. The difference is a matter of degrees.

Your imagery should support the scene as well. However clever or accurate you may think a given simile, if it distracts from the intent of the scene, it probably has to go. But it's also a good idea for your images to support each other. This is to eliminate clutter.

Developing writers have a tendency to jump around with their imagery. He exhaled smoke like exhaust from a rusted Buick. It was the color of sour milk. The crowd moved like a school of fish. Things like that. Those images could well fit the atmosphere of the scene, but not one of them ties into the other. They're disjointed. The reader is jerked along from one to the next and doesn't know how they add up.

When you write concurrent images, it helps make a scene feel solid. As an example, I wrote a scene set in a jazz club that has an entrance like a cave. The music inside ripples, builds into a wave and comes crashing down on everyone. Later, a musician cups a hand like a great shell to his ear to catch what his bandmates are saying. A thread of water related imagery runs through the scene, cementing the sense of place. I stumbled on the idea because I happened to have named the club The Blue Room. You should look to your scene when possible to suggest a direction for your imagery. Use every part of the writing buffalo.

It's actually easier to work this way than a helter-skelter approach, because once you have your first image you've given yourself something to build on. Now you'll know whereabouts to reach for the next one instead of having to start from scratch each time.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ways to Show: Association and Atmosphere

 “It was a dark and stormy night . . .”—Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Showing is a difficult technique because what is often most important to you as the writer, that which you want understood about a moment or a character, is left unsaid. You leave it up to your readers to put the pieces together. Done successfully, this pulls them into the story because whatever they do put together is theirs, it belongs to them. Unfortunately this can feel a bit like jumping out of a plane with a chute you made yourself, often the night before, in the dark, but know it's worth it.

Also know showing may be a bit too broad to call it a technique. It's more of a method or an approach. There are a lot of ways to show. Characters pulling faces at one another is probably the most fundamental, but it only conveys so much. Sometimes you may want to evoke something more nuanced than a frown, or write something a bit more fun—and what if you're writing a somber character who already frowns all the time? What then?

It's not always how your character looks, but what they're looking at that can offer a reader insight. 

When you write, you focus the reader's attention. There is an implicit agreement between you and the reader that you won't waste their time, which means the things you're writing about are understood to be important. You don't write optional chapters. So when a character is sitting in a bar after a break up, for instance, what they focus on can reflect what's going on internally. It's a great way to fill out a scene. Maybe they see another poor shlub sitting at the end of the bar, or a couple talking together affectionately. Maybe you go for something more subtle: the stool they're in wobbles because the legs are uneven, so they can't get comfortable, or a waitress carrying an overloaded tray of dirty dishes trips over a chair and all the dishes come smashing down. We're talking about metaphors here.

Experiencing details through a character suggests an association with that character, but because it's the reader's attention that really matters, it isn't necessary for the juxtaposition to work. Proximity will also do the trick because atmosphere contextualizes story elements, and I don't mean bad weather. When you stack up enough concurrent actions and images, the effect becomes undeniable, especially if the reader knows what the character has been through. In both cases, whether through direct association or the context of atmosphere, you're inviting your reader to feel a certain way, thereby allowing them to connect with your character. The trick is to be patient.  Also, try not to be too heavy handed. I struggle with that myself.

Try it.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Show AND Tell

“If I wanted you to know, I'd have told you.”—Robert Frost*

Trying to show everything in your writing can be exhausting, and can lead to painfully obtuse prose. Maybe you don't want every scene to be a riddle, and every character's emotions to be a mystery. You're not wrong in this. It is often the case that if you want your reader to know something, you have to tell them. Don't avoid this because of that tired mantra, “show, don't tell.” Showing is a technique, not writing dogma.

It is expedient to tell your reader things. Page time matters. Your writing focuses your reader's attention. You don't always want to distract them from the important part of a scene with a lot of page time spent on inconsequential details.

For instance, if you wanted to write a scene in an old bar, but the state of the place wasn't relevant to the story, you could spend a lot of time on peeling lacquer, creaking chairs, and cracked beams, or you could tell your reader “it was an old bar” and move on to the interesting stuff. What could be objectionable about that?

Similarly, maybe you want a character to sit comfortably in one of those old chairs. You could probably wrangle together a sentence or two about their position and expression, and maybe you could even make it sound natural enough, or you could tell your reader straight out and avoid the burden for both of you. Telling might especially be the right choice here if this detail is meant to imply something further about the character. Sure, you could show the comfort in an attempt to show whatever is behind it, but know that choice moves the desired detail further off the page and away from your reader. Is that where you want it?  Obscured?

Finally, maybe you want your reader to quickly know something beyond surface details. There is nothing wrong with readily supplying that information. For instance: “The old bar had been through a fire, and there were still scorch marks on some of the walls. Danny sat comfortably in one of the wooden chairs. Having grown up poor, she felt at home in the decrepit surroundings.”

Or how about something as direct as, “She was happy to see him, and it showed on her face.” It's not poetry maybe, but it doesn't have to be.

Of course, saying you can and should tell your reader things doesn't mean that you can tell them any old way. “Show, don't tell” has become an adage because it so often applies to mismanaged writing. Writers can want their readers to know something so badly, they beat it into the ground. This forces sentiments and steals the experience of the story from the reader. You have to maintain a balance. The nature of that balance is up to you. That's style.

See Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon (historical fantasy) for a good example of an author who tells often and well.

*note: The quote is Frost's response when asked what the “promises to keep” were in his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Sometimes the audience doesn't get to know. Sometimes they are better left wondering.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


 “But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep.”—Robert Frost.

It doesn't have to be November for you to set concrete goals for your writing. NaNoWriMo is great and all, but if you only put pressure on yourself one month out of the year to get things done, you're missing out. Writing is hard work—learning to write is even harder—and it's always easier not to write instead, to put it off, to day dream about your characters a little more, to just watch something on the Internet. Even when you are working regularly, after struggling to get down 300 words in an hour or two, its always easier to wipe your brow and say, “enough for today,” than to keep going.

Is it enough? Or are you dragging your feet?

Try this: set a deadline for your project, and stick to it.

Get rid of the guess work and the excuses, hold your feet to the fire, and write. Don't set some psychotic deadline like writing a novel in a week. You'll kill yourself trying to reach it, you won't make it by half, and then you'll feel terrible. Plan an obtainable goal, and then strive for it. You'll write more than usual and you're writing will be better, because you'll have to cut down on distractions and focus when you're working or else you won't reach your deadline. You'll also feel better about the whole process when you do reach that deadline, because not only will you have a finished draft, but you'll have kept your promise to yourself. Even if you do go into overtime, if you've planned appropriately, it shouldn't be by much. Anyway, life happens. If you've been working hard to reach your goal, you'll know it, and it won't bother you.

But maybe you think that kind of pressure would stifle you. Deadline? The very word sounds like it kills creativity. No, not for you, you're an artist, a flower blooming in the moonlight, you need time to be inspired. Okay. Keep doing what you're doing if it's working for you. Is it working for you?

Set goals big and small. Make a deadline to write a poem by midnight every day this weekend, or a short story by Monday. If you have no idea how long it would take you to write a novel, or if you even could do such a thing, set a deadline for 50 pages. If you estimate you can write two pages a day, roughly 500 words double spaced, that's about a month of work to reach your goal. Keep track of your progress, and if in a month you find yourself woefully behind schedule, reassess. Have you worked earnestly enough? Have you gotten too bogged down in minute details? Maybe you should start with a smaller project. Or maybe a month is simply too little time right now.

Calibrate a new deadline and nail it to the wall over your desk. Be sure its a nail, though, that way the you who sits down to write later will get the point. I don't recommend escalating to writing the date in blood. Blood draws flies, and you'll have to paint over it each time. I recommend even less writing it in your own blood. Stick to the more working class intimidations of . . . you know what, never mind. I may be a little punch drunk since I recently met my own deadline of April 1st to finish rewriting a novel. Just Try it.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Process

“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything good.”—William Faulkner

I'm sure you've heard this already and heard it a hundred times until it doesn't mean anything anymore. Maybe that's a bad way to start an article, but you can't just know this advice, it has to be part of what you do. It's probably the single most fundamental element of doing anything creative, writing especially. It's this: writing is process.

So much depends upon . . .

You're going to—and you should—agonize over a first draft. I'm not telling you differently. You want it to make sense, you want it to be exciting, interesting, fun, all that and more. You want it to be like real writing, and you're not wrong in the least to strive for that. But know for a fact that you are not going to get there the first time. Every first time. Become at home with that fact. Own it. Writing is process. It can suck now if it has to. You'll make it better later.

Fear of writing the wrong words will paralyze you. That's what writer's block is, and that's all writer's block is. When you sit down to write for an hour and barely manage to drag out three or four sentences, each of which you have no faith in, it's awful. Don't be afraid to write the wrong words. Make mistakes. Write the wrong word because it's the only one you can think of now. If you get a silly idea that seems interesting but isn't what you intended and you're not sure if it will actually play out, write it anyway.

You cannot judge the merit of your writing until it is actually written. Get it down.

There is no one process. You write a thing, and then read it, and then either refine it, change it, or throw it away. Outline, first draft, second draft, final—whatever. That's a matter of preference. Experiment. Find whatever works for you, but embrace the principle of process. You cannot get away from it, and you shouldn't want to. Take comfort in it. It's your safety net. You don't have to get it right the first time, or the second. You just have to get it right eventually, and even then only once.

I know by the time you write to the end of a project, big or small, you'll be exhausted and you'll want so badly to be done. You won't want to write another word because you'll feel there aren't any other words. Know that isn't true. Put the stack of pages in a drawer and don't think about it for several months. Rest up. When you're ready, pick it up again, read it, and think. You wrote something from absolutely nothing. Now you actually have something to work with. It should be to your advantage.

The process isn't just about making writing better, it's also about making a better writer. Don't avoid it. Don't feel tied to your outline. Don't be trapped in a draft. There is no such thing as wasted effort. You didn't carve the words in stone, you wrote them to be changed. Don't be too quick to give rough work to a friend. Do your own thinking. As much of it as you can stand, anyway.

That's how you get better at this. That's the process.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Strength of Common Words

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”—Ernest Hemingway.

The thesaurus is bad for your writing. The only acceptable use for the thesaurus for a writer is to recall that word that you know is exactly what you want, but can't quite remember. Even in these cases, you should only draw on the thesaurus in matters of extreme importance, otherwise if you can't quite remember the word that means the same thing as “energetic,” for instance, just put down “energetic” and move on. When you read back over your work you'll find it didn't really matter anyway; “energetic” plays just fine.

I'm disappointed every time I see a vocabulary post on all the different and better ways to say “happy” or “angry or “sad.” I understand being excited by language—I feel it myself and encourage it in others—but nothing says happy quite like the word itself, or perhaps better yet, a smile or a laugh or an arm thrown around someone's shoulders.

Context communicates a great deal. One of the remarkable aspects of writing is that the total effect of a story, a scene, or even a thought, is greater than the collection of words that make it up. Big, ten-dollar words tend to keep me at arm's length from a story. Sure, I may enjoy the language for its own sake, but I won't feel close to any of the characters because the language draws too much attention to itself and distracts from the story.  Maybe you've felt that some.

I had a poetry workshop with a girl who adored words—obscure, archaic, flowery words. She wrote gems like “coquettish clouds” and “cast a pall.” I can't remember much of it because none of the poems made me feel a damn thing. They didn't even paint vivid images. If they were about much beyond the language (and I think she wanted them to be), I couldn't tell. She hid too much behind her fancy words. Her poems were uninteresting series of interesting words.

I am not arguing for anyone to dumb down their language. Write the way you want to write, that's style. I'm only advising you not to try so damn hard to punch above your weight. If you really feel your vocabulary is weak, read some more good books. Your writing is never going to sound natural if you always have to stop to look up shinier words. As long as your writing is sensible, that's what is important. It's enough work to maintain a consistent tone and focus and pacing through a story without also worrying about sowing linguistic pearls into your sentences every twenty to thirty words.

Be clear and write what you mean. That doesn't mean be stupid and flat footed. You can still turn word somersaults if you like, but it's important to know where and when in a story you can get away with such showy arrangements. If you want a moment to matter to a reader, trust in a light touch. The common, compact words that we all know so well are always the ones that knock us out. We all have so much invested in such words—they're familiar, so we never see the punch coming. 

I have never in my life been jubilant. Not once. But now and again, for a little while at least, I have been happy.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Writing Warm-up: Tenderize Your Buttons

 “It shows that dirt is clean when there is a volume.”—Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons

When you sit down to write, sometimes you may find it difficult to get into a writing headspace. Sometimes a warm up is in order to break from the rest of your day and say to your mind, “Alright, now we're going to do the thing.”

Try this to limber up your language and creativity: tenderize your buttons.

Alright-alright, I'll explain. Gertrude Stein wrote this little book called Tender Buttons (read here), which was a kind of urtext for Modernist writing. Her writing emphasized sounds and rhythms rather than meaning. Tender Buttons is her experiment with automatic writing. She would sit down and just let her mind spool out a ribbon of words, one after the other forming, if not sentences, at least kinds of sentences.

The thought at the time was that your subconscious would push forward and take control, spilling out your deeper self in semi-coherent patches. As it turns out, that's mostly stupid, like most Freudian thinking, but it does make for a really fun and freeing writing exercise.

What Gertie discovered was that she could never really achieve automatic writing, in which one word randomly popped up after the next. She could never totally stop thinking, I guess because she was of literary mind and, you know, awake. Certain words she associated with other words, which had definitions and connotations that led her mind down familiar paths. Basically, you end up in this wind tunnel of free association.

So here's what you do. Your writing feels constipated, or you don't want to sit down because the task seems too arduous, the work ahead of you too serious. Relax. Just have a little fun with language for a few minutes to stretch out your brain. Open up a blank doc, and without any hesitation, start typing. Nope, don't question a single word. If thoughts form, write those thoughts. Don't be afraid of any of it. Never mind syntax. Never mind sense. Follow the sounds of words. Chant, rave, just keep typing. Jump from one thought to the next. Drum up an obscure word, then follow it, and fast. Don't wait. It feels good. It feels good to keep typing, to keep moving, to watch the blank space fill up. All out in a burst. Here's mine:

Flipper melon wilting in the sun. Sunbird picked away the rind but never mind the sweet. Can't swim full up anyway. Marching hares, debonair, james dean metal sling fired the ever wary off into the world. So long my shining diamond.

It's just that easy. Now you.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Finding Time to Write: Block it Out

“Brick by brick, my citizens. Brick by brick.”—Roman Emperor Hadrian

Waiting for inspiration is a waste of time. Creativity doesn't really work like that. You don't wait around for it to show up, and then get to work. This puts the process exactly backwards, and is detrimental to a developing writer. You sit down to write, and as your brain bangs ideas together, interesting things happen. So sit down already!

When you're learning this craft, your writing time can and will be frustrating, difficult, slow, and exhausting. This makes the prospect of sitting down to write each day that much more daunting. It becomes oh-so easy to find something else to do with your free time if you are feeling at all unmotivated to write. You make deals with yourself. You procrastinate. “Oh, I'll write some later when I have more energy, more time, when this show isn't on T.V., after the Olympics are over, it's not like I’ll get that much done anyway, I'm not in the right mindset,” all that crap.

How do you overcome this impulse, reliably sit down, make progress, improve your writing, and feel better about the whole process?  Try this:

Block out time, and stick to your schedule.

You can not improve and you will not finish projects without sincere effort. Sincere effort starts with time management—getting your butt in that chair. But don't fret; you don't have to kill yourself slaving away. Anyone with an artistic disposition is likely taken with the idea of working only once the sun goes down and toiling through the night fueled by little more than coffee or alcohol, and passion. If you're struggling to meet a deadline, you may have to burn the midnight oil, but otherwise, write when you would normally be awake. Writing is thinking. Every person I know thinks better an hour after breakfast than they do at 3 am.

One to three hours regularly set aside to write pays dividends. 1½ to 2 hours is probably a sweet spot for most people, but if all you can spare is 45 minutes, then get your 45 minutes. My first semester in college, I would wake up at 6:30 Monday, Wednesday, and Friday so I could write for a little less than an hour before class. It was not much time, but I always felt better about the rest of my day knowing I had put it in, even if I didn't get another chance to write.

Decide ahead of time when you will write and for how long. Write it down if you have to, but when the appointed hour rolls around, no matter what you're doing, get your butt in that chair and get to work. Don't let yourself be distracted. Don't pop online for a few minutes here or there. Concentrate. This is your writing time. Use it to write, even if you're just writing ideas. It doesn't have to be the same time every day. It doesn't have to be the same duration. If you have to skip days, that's fine, but write when you can. I know this sounds overly simple, because it is, but it still works.  

Start promptly and, just as important, stop when the time is up. Finish your thought, save, and get on with the rest of your day. You'll feel secure in the knowledge that however much you wrote, and however good it is or isn't, you were there and you were working. You put your time in, and you'll be back tomorrow. Now you're free to do whatever you want, guilt free. By the end of the month, you'll have real progress that you can be proud of.

Pick a time, sit down, and do it.

Monday, February 17, 2014

R.A. Salvatore: Writer's Block and Being an Author

"If you can quit, quit, because if you can quit, you're not a writer."—R.A. Salvatore 
R.A. Salvatore was my fantasy youth. Anyone who loves sci/fi or fantasy has their first novel that opened the genre to them. For Salvatore, as with many other fantasy authors of his generation, that book was The Hobbit. For me, that book was Homeland, which started The Dark Elf Trilogy. The adventures of Drizzt Do'Urden and his friends throughout that trilogy and the many to follow didn't just make me a fantasy enthusiast, they made me a reader.

In this clip, Salvatore gives his seasoned perspective on writer's block: “There is no such thing as writer's block. You know what writer's block is? Writer's block is lack of confidence. […] Forget it. Sit down and start typing. Type. Type. Type.”

Having written more books than years he's been alive (55), more than twenty of which have been New York Times best-sellers, doesn't mean Salvatore is the final word on writing, or even on writing fantasy, but it does mean maybe you should listen to what he has to say if you're interested in a career as a working author.

Thanks for the adventures, Bob.  And the nostalgia every time I read, or re-read, one of your books.

Do you have any books that started you as a reader, in fantasy or any other genre?  

Monday, February 10, 2014

Crying and Writing

"I'd try to make you sad somehow
But I can't so I cry instead." —The Beatles, I'll Cry Instead
If you're crying when you're writing, are you doing it right?

In a word, no. Your emotional state when writing is not an indicator of the quality of your work or the emotion that will be evoked in a reader. Your crying does not mean a reader will find your work moving. Your laughing does not mean a reader will find your work funny. Being emotional is not the same as effectively communicating that emotion.

This isn't to say that if you are crying when you're writing, you're doing it wrong. There are several reasons you might be emotional during a project. Maybe you're reliving some difficult experiences, either to record them or borrow from them. Maybe you're just an emotional person and you're trying to really empathize with your characters. This is all especially acceptable during a first draft, when you're just trying to drill into a story and feel it out.

My worry, though, is that writing is not like acting. It's not performance art. No one can see the tears on your keyboard. I've sat through many readings of poetry and short stories in which the writers have forced undeserved emotions onto the reading of their work. If you cannot help but get emotional when you consider your work, of course you won't be able to tell if it's any good. You're too close to it.

In order to judge the quality of your writing, you have to be able to step back and look at what you have done dispassionately, like a passing reader who happened to pluck it from a shelf. Revision. Rewriting. Rethinking. These are the tools of the trade. They are how you learn to write, and how you (eventually) write well. You hammer out your ideas, get some distance on them, and then sit back down, dry eyed, and see if you can make anything of it.

Hopefully you'll find good things in your writing, even if it's just parts of conversation or pieces of description. You'll know these because you've read good books before and recognize competent work. But when you come across less effective sections of your work—too heavy handed, lacking character motivation, overt expositional dialogue, boring, etc—if you can be honest with yourself when you see these flaws and diagnose them, right there! You're doing it right.

As a writer, you're always going to be bias about your own work. You have to learn to compensate for this bias, or at least be aware of it. Everything you write is going to seem that much better to you (or worse, depending on your inclination, or just the time of day) because you wrote it. This is what makes learning to be critical of your own writing, and thus learning to write, so difficult.  

That is why we all need a good editor—another pair of eyes on our work to tell us when we're full of shit, and when we've done something really well. The perspective of a serious reader is invaluable. If you sincerely can't tell what is good and bad in your writing, ask someone with a critical eye to read it for you. Have a friend who thinks the Sherlock finale wasn't so good for reasons 1, 2, and 3, but still enjoyed other parts for reason 4 and 5? They're probably a good place to start.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Read This: His Majesty's Dragon

     “'Very well, but do hurry,' he said. 'I would like to go up to those mountains. And I could just eat those,' he added, looking at a team of carriage horses standing nearby[. . .].
      'Oh, no, Temeraire, you cannot just eat anything you see on the street,' Laurence said in alarm.” —Naomi Novik, His Majesty's Dragon

What would it be like to have a baby dragon, fresh out of the shell, choose you as his lifelong companion? How would a person feel if this choice meant you had to abandon all your life's ambitions, from career success to marriage and family, and join the Aerial Corps in service to king and country? Captain Will Laurence, a man of duty and propriety, formerly of the HMS Reliant, discovers that while this charge is at times deeply painful, it is also the most wonderful thing that could have ever befallen him.

Set during the Napoleonic War in a Europe where dragons, while not exactly commonplace, have been harnessed, bred for speed and size, and incorporated into the military as the Aerial Corps, Naomi Novik fully imagines the impact and use of dragons in a society, right down to the massive amount of livestock that must be kept on hand for their feeding. Oh yes, dragons eat a great deal—something Laurence learns all too quickly as baby Temeraire strains the provisions aboard the Reliant, at least when he isn't sleeping, as they sail fast for home.

Though some of the book may be dedicated to Temeraire and Laurence training with the Aerial Corps in Scotland, as well as subsequent battles with Napoleon's forces, His Majesty's Dragon is not about dragon battle tactics. It's about the journey Laurence and Temeraire make together into the clandestine ranks of dragon riders, where the usual stiffness of British society falls away, and women find equal footing among their male counterparts, a state of conduct Laurence struggles adjusting to. But more significantly, the story follows the development of Laurence's touching kinship with a creature as extraordinary as Temeraire. He never knew anything could be so dear to him as his own dragon.

The two of them are really lovely together. It's worth a look.

I'm not alone in my appreciation of Novik's Temeraire. Last I heard, Peter Jackson bought the film rights to the series. If my word isn't good enough (and there's no reason it should be), maybe you'll take a hint from Pete.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Writing Annoying Characters

Holmes: Shut up.
Lestrade: I didn't say anything.
Holmes: You were thinking. It's annoying.
         —Sherlock: A Study in Pink 
Try not to write annoying characters. Making a character unattractive is perhaps the simplest task a writer could ever set themselves, and that is why it is so, so easy to do exactly wrong. Instead of rendering an engaging character who antagonizes other members of their story, writers all too often erect effigies to annoyance itself with little else to offer the story than a headache for everyone involved, including the reader.

Why would you want to annoy your reader?

I have never met a wholly annoying person whose company I enjoyed. I have universally wished them harm, if not at least inconvenience and distress. I have bullied them intellectually, probably unfairly, whenever I've had the energy for it. And these have all been real people—or so I've assumed—with lives and families, sometimes even goals, at least those with the capacity to imagine much beyond their next meal or text message; imagine how unforgiving I am of fictional annoyances. How often have the overdone antics of an annoying character made you want to throw a book across the room and never pick it up again? Why do this to someone else?

Hopefully by now you have shaken from the dusty storage of your brain a number of annoying characters from books or otherwise who you feel added to their stories; maybe you even enjoyed them greatly. Excellent. Hold on to those examples. I suspect these characters were not overstated. I suspect they mostly annoyed us indirectly through their antagonism of our protagonists. Even Lucius Malfoy, a popular and adamant pest, does not torment Harry Potter and company beyond what we would expect of any other age appropriate Slytherin. What is most important, though, is that the conflict he, or other such characters bring to their stories is interesting. We want to see how other characters will interact with them, and potentially put them in their place.

So if you're dead set on writing an annoying character, be careful who you are annoying, and don't over do it. Remember annoying characters, however ridiculous or petty or twisted, are people too. In other words, don't write annoying characters; write interesting characters who annoy people.

Do you have any beloved annoying characters, or can you think of any who added a good bit conflict to the story, however minor?  

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

After the Last Page

“'Who can say whether we shall ever see them again?' said Morrel with tears in his eyes.
'Darling,' replied Valentine, 'has not the count just told us that all human wisdom is summed up in two words?—“Wait and Hope.”'” —Alexander Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo.
There is a unique sadness waiting at the end of every great book.

I finally finished The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. I say finally, but I think that conveys a sense of relief that I don't at all feel. My heart was heavy when I took away my bookmark and laid the weighty volume aside. The Robin Buss translation that I read from Penguin runs just over 1200 pages—more if you count the notes, which of course I also read . . . mostly. To be clear, I do not consider this an accomplishment. I have not since checked one more capital 'c' Classic off of the sacred list handed down to me by my former professors, those high priests of the English canon. I read Dumas because I love his pension for the dramatic—those lofty notes of Romance.

I probably spent about five months with the book. When you spend that long with characters who you like and who capture your interest, watching them navigate equally engaging settings, the effect of parting is modified somehow, if not enhanced. You get to know them, obviously, but more than that, you become comfortable in their company. You look forward to sitting down with them, as with dear friends, and losing track of time. And suddenly, when you reach that white gap after the last page, it is distinctly the end of more than just a story. It's like moving away from a town you can't ever go back to. That favorite spot where you used to sit, half in the sun with a hot cup of something within easy reach—that place is gone. You'll have to find its steady reassurance somewhere else.

Its the time that makes the difference. The longer you spend, the harder it gets. I've read shorter works that I have enjoyed more intensely than The Count of Monte Cristo, but my enthusiasm for the work often carries me past the last page, even if there is an acute pang of regret that the story is now over. Not surprisingly, I have been the saddest at the conclusion of anime series, such as Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. I'm having trouble thinking of live action experiences that produced the same effect. The Lord of the Rings comes to mind, but I think the yearly release of the films gave me adequate opportunity to prepare myself. I'll probably have a hard time when Sherlock airs its final episode, but lets none of us think too long on that inevitable tragedy.

Dumas's novel should have such modern day series for company. The Count of Monte Cristo is not a novel as we understand the term today. The novel was released in eighteen monthly installments from August 1844 to January 1846, and was only later collected as a complete novel. This is the long running series and subsequent blueray box set of its day. Anyone who reads The Count of Monte Cristo should do so with this understanding in mind. The book does not follow what we have come to accept as the traditional structure of rising narrative tension. There are smaller climaxes throughout the novel which you could point to as the finale of a given season, after which the story collects itself and begins building again.

Anyway, it was great. The book was a journey, from the bustling port of Marseille, France, to the lightless dungeons of the Chateau d'If. Dumas fills the page with the uninhabited Isle of Monte Cristo from which the profoundly betrayed Edmond Dantes takes his alias, and on from there to carnival in Rome and Parisian society and elsewhere. We see Edmond Dantes transform from a naive, but good-hearted merchant sailor, to a terrible instrument of revenge in the form of the Count of Monte Cristo. Admittedly, I can only read about a character 'emotionally turning their eyes heavenward' so many times before the phrase ceases to communicate any sentiment, but nonetheless, a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Clearly I am not alone in my appreciation—no, my outright demand for more of what I like. Not only do so many people seem ravenous for the next novel series, but we continue to find ourselves in a golden age of television (thanks again, Mark Gatiss). In some ways, I suppose, I measure my affection for a work by how profoundly I feel its loss when it is over, as well as my dread of that moment. I could read the book again, or watch the episodes over, but it's never the same. All I can do is steel myself for the coming famine and return to the hunt for the next piece of wonder.

To all the mourners with hunger pains, happy hunting.

As it happens, I have at least found some relief in Naomi Novik's gem, His Majesty'sDragon. Laurence and Temeraire, you darlings!  If you have any works that have especially touched you, share it below.