10/19/19

Handling Early Feedback

Once a writer has finished a story, they probably want to put it in front of other people for feedback, especially if they’re trying to polish it up for submission. Writing groups, beta readers, and critique partners are excellent for this. If you have a great friend with an MFA in writing, he may also be a wonderful resource. However, if you want to preserve your relationships, you need to know how to handle the feedback you receive.

Quick note: Not all of the following advice is applicable when dealing with feedback from a professional editor. That’s different, and deserving of its own post. As soon as I have more of that particular experience, I’ll be sure and write it up.

You are Not Your Work

The first step is to put some emotional distance between yourself and your story. Early drafts have problems. The quote is “the first draft of anything is shit,” but there’s actually quite a bit more to the quote. I’ll leave the rest of that advice to Hemingway.

When someone tells you there’s something wrong with your story, it hurts. You put a lot of time and energy into your writing. You made sacrifices. You did the research. The story represents days of your life you will not get back. What monster would not flinch when a part of their life is attacked?

First off, is it so bad if there’s something wrong with your story? There are lots of very successful novels with numerous flaws. Perhaps they are all flawed. As much as you may want your story to be perfect, it never will be.

This doesn’t mean you need to settle, and while it takes some sting off the criticism, let’s not stop with the defeatist notion of inevitable imperfection. A more positive lesson, even if the story you created is a part of you, it only represents you in the moment. If you learn from the mistakes you made writing that story, you’re less likely to make the same mistakes in your next story.

We Learn Through Our Mistakes

Think of anything you first started doing as a child that you still do today. Anything at all. When you first started, your efforts were clumsy and you probably had to work harder at it for lesser results. As you grew in skill and confidence, you grew in ability . What once was difficult is now routine.

You can always get better at writing. The greatest leaps in skill you will enjoy happen after overcoming mistakes. If someone points out one of your mistakes, it’s an opportunity to improve ALL of your stories.

Critique on an early draft is awesome because it gives you something concrete to work on in your revisions. It’s an opportunity for you to take something initially perceived as broken and turn it into something beautiful.

Processing the Feedback

Now that you’re emotionally and intellectually ready to receive your feedback, let’s talk about what you do with it. You gave your story to your buddy or your critique group, and after 1 or 6 months, they deliver the good and bad news.

First, thank your critics. They just spent a bunch of time with your story and put some effort into trying to make it better. It is unlikely they’re receiving any kind of compensation for their time, so whatever they’ve given you, they’ve done you a favor. Thank them. Maybe buy them a coffee, if you can.

Next, read straight through all the comments. Put it all in your brain without analysis. This will eliminate surprises when you begin to properly digest the feedback. It will help you gain some perspective on their perspective.

When you get deeper into the comments and criticisms, start with the assumption that the person giving you the feedback is right. This is important. If you just went through an entire chapter where they lambasted your pacing, characterization, over-use of blocking, poor dialog… whatever… you may find yourself closing off to future advice because it all stings. The counter to this is to always start with the assumption that they’re right.

They may be completely wrong, laughably so. That’s a bad starting place, though. If you begin with the assumption that they’re wrong and they JUST DON’T GET IT… you wasted your time sending them the story, and they wasted their time providing feedback. That’s a tragedy for everyone involved, so don’t do that.

Don’t get defensive or argumentative as you go through the feedback. The defense is the story itself. It’s the prose you put on the page. If it didn’t land, it didn’t land, and the best thing you can do is revise and make it work.

Also, if you get argumentative with the people that are offering feedback, they will be less inclined to offer honest feedback in the future.

Once you have given a piece of feedback due consideration, it is okay to dismiss it if it is realistic to do so. For example, if you gave someone an adult scifi story and you know they don’t like either adult or scifi, and the things they are complaining about are pillars of the genre, it’s okay to let that go. But again, don’t assume it’s wrong, and certainly don’t start with the assumption that the one providing the feedback is incorrect simply because they don’t read your genre.

That last example happened to me recently with Spin City, and I bring it up because, as difficult as it was processing feedback from someone that really didn’t like my story, I learned valuable lessons from the experience. They pointed out things I did all the time. I had no idea until she pointed it out.

Parting Thoughts

Everything I’ve talked about today I learned through direct experience. I’ve burned through writing groups trying to learn these lessons, and I’m still not sure I’ve learned enough.

One of the things you can do to avoid pain, both for you and for the people critiquing your work, is to be honest with yourself and with them about what you’re looking for. If you aren’t actually trying to improve the story and you just want a pat on the back, acknowledge that. It’s okay.

Having a conversation about the kind of feedback you’re looking for will help set expectations and make the time spent valuable. Maybe you’re not interested in a particularly type of feedback, or maybe you’re looking to see if one specific aspect of your story delivers. You are more likely to get what you need if you have that conversation with your critique partners.

10/18/19

Trusting the Reader

Writing is communication. The content of the communication changes, and as a SciFi and Fantasy writer, I’m usually commuting fantastical fiction. But communication involves a sender and a receiver, a writer and a reader.

It’s usually easy to gauge whether or not your message is being received when you’re talking to someone face-to-face. Even on a phone call or via text, it’s possible to evaluate feedback offered by the other person in the conversation.

One of the challenges a writer faces is a matter of trust. They have to trust themselves to convey their message clearly, and they have to trust the reader to receive the message and see the story in their mind.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a short story as a Christmas give for Melissa. I ran into a time crunch so I asked my friend Jennifer Brozek to take a quick look at it for me. I wanted the gift to be special, and I wanted my story to be the best I could make it. Jen went above and beyond and in the process, taught me something about writing I needed to learn.

She said, “You really need to trust the reader┬ámore. Some of the details you gave were toooooo much.”

And she was right! After she mentioned it, I started to see all these places in my stories where I was trying so hard to get my ideas across that I was hitting the reader over the head with repetition and an overabundance of details.

I learned my lesson, but it’s something I still struggle with. I’m desperate to get the vision in my head onto the page. That desperation leads to over-describing. It’s something I watch for now during revisions.

In my case, it isn’t so much that I don’t trust the reader. I don’t trust myself. My confidence ebbs and flows when it comes to my writing. Sometimes I feel like I’m on top of my game, but most of the time I wonder if I’m just shoveling manure with my keyboard. Not trusting myself to tell the story is effectively the same thing as not trusting the reader.

What it Means to Trust the Reader

Trusting the reader means allowing them to fill in the blanks. If you go overboard with your descriptions, you don’t leave room for the reader to be an active participant in the story.

This is an important point, and one that I think a lot of writers may not realize. It goes back to what I said at the beginning, which is that writing is communication. When someone reads your story, they are participating in the event, and they are active.

A reader’s imagination is the place where the story takes place, and as such, the reader has control over all the details the writer leaves blank. The reader becomes attached to their contributions and may even swear up and down that these details were in the story all along.

As an example, let’s look at Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. The magic wielding ladies from The White Tower are called Aes Sedai.

What did you just hear in your head when you read “Aes Sedai?”

Unless you went to the glossary at the back of one of the books like I did, you probably heard something along the lines of “aze seday.” The author’s intention, however, is that it should be pronounced: EYEZ seh-DEYE.

The sound of an author’s made-up words only scratch the surface. Other details, visual, auditory, and tactile, are filled in by the reader naturally and readily. This is a good thing, because these added details give the reader a stake in the story and makes them more invested. Sometimes, the things they imagine are even greater than what the author envisioned.

Be Intentional

When describing a character or setting or some action, pick the details that are important and put them on the page. Pick just enough to get the point across. Everything else is for the reader to fill in on their own.

Here’s an example from the very beginning of Spin City:

The stench of stale beer and old cigar smoke rolled over me as I ducked into the bar. Broken lights and motionless ceiling fans made shadows that pooled at the feet of empty tables. A mechanical server stood behind a counter, its single optic directed towards me like an accusation. A perfect place to meet a client that wanted discretion. Also not a bad place to get drunk alone.

It’s obviously a dive bar. Do you see it clearly? I’ve provided the smell of smoke and beer, and I’ve set the lighting. I also included a “mechanical server,” whatever that is. It sounds like some kind of robot, and it helps tell the reader that we’re probably in the future. Everything else about the bar, the reader makes up in their mind.

What sort of things did you add to the description? Did you imagine the floor feeling a little bit sticky under foot as the main character walked deeper into the establishment? Were there pictures on the walls? Was there a jukebox?

I don’t know exactly what you see in your head when you read that paragraph, but I trust that you see enough of it that we can enjoy it together.

Parting Thoughts

Yesterday, I talked about sensitivity readers, and I think tonight’s topic dovetails with it in an interesting way.

With characters, if you don’t mention the race and gender, the reader is usually going to assume white and male. It does not seem to matter if the either the writer or the reader are white males. That seems to be the default given to any character that is not described otherwise.

The default can be shifted during the course of the story, but it all still comes back to writing with intention.

Let’s close with an example of dramatic storytelling where the story teller, in this case Matthew McConaughey’s character in A Time to Kill, uses everything I’ve just been talking about to create a powerful scene.

10/17/19

Sensitivity Readers

Tonight we’re going to talk about what sensitivity readers are and why we need them. When I was talking about my topics this month with the rest of my writing community, I discovered that people are… well… sensitive… about the topic of sensitivity readers. We’ll touch on that as well.

What are Sensitivity Readers?

In short, they are people representative of the culture, ability, gender, or disadvantaged social category you have tried to capture in your story. A sensitivity reader will read your work and offer critique from the perspective of their intersectionality.

If you are a cis white male (like me) and you’re only writing about other cis white males, you don’t need a sensitivity reader. On the other hand, if you’re a cis white male writing about someone that is blind, or gay, or black, or all of the above, a sensitivity reader will help keep you from relying on stereotypes to describe your characters. Sensitivity readers will keep you from accidentally writing something deeply hurtful.

Though the term “sensitivity reader” may be relatively new, the concept is not. Back in the day, they just called it fact checking. It was not uncommon for publishers to hire what were effectively sensitivity readers to give the story a degree of verisimilitude.

Being Offensive

None of this is about policing writers or trying to bleach their work with a politically correct rinse.

If you’re intention is to be offensive or write offensive characters, that is your prerogative. Having a character be intentionally racist or bigoted can be very effective.

Just note that there’s a difference between offending people and hurting them.

A sensitivity reader is there to help keep you from doing something unintentional. Writers use spell check or grammar checks to make sure they get the diction correct. Using a sensitivity reader is like that, only it keeps you from cutting a stranger’s heart with your razor sharp words.

Appropriation

You are an individual. I don’t know who you are or if you already know what appropriation feels like, so bear with me while I try to explain this for everyone else.

As an individual, you have your own personal stories. Some may be exciting, others dull, but it’s your history and your life. Take a moment to look back over the splendor of your life and your favorite memories.

Now imagine you have a talented stalker that’s been recording your life and posting it online for others to read. That’s bad enough, but imagine how much worse it is when they get the details wrong. You went to Disneyland this summer, but they say you went on a tour of Alcatraz. You have a few really close friends, but they say you’re a struggling loner. They document your life online, getting all of these details wrong, and people read these lies and believe them.

What is your recourse? You can post your own version of your history, but you’re fighting the weight of first impressions. And for some reason, this weird stalker has a wider reach and more people listening to them than you have listening to you.

Cultural appropriation is a bit like that.

This is also something a sensitivity reader will help you avoid. Also, this is different than offending someone. Cultural appropriation does actual harm, because it chips away at the actual truth of an entire people, wiping away their history with misconceptions and false assumptions.

Resources

So how do you find a sensitivity reader?

I used to be able to point at Writing the Other, but they took down their searchable database. I think I heard that someone abused it, which absolutely sucks.

You should still visit the site and make use of the resources, and if you get a chance to talk to K. Tempest Bradford, she is extremely helpful and eager to talk on this subject.

One thing Tempest will emphasize, which is very important, is that you should pay your sensitivity readers. They are subjecting themselves to real, potential pain by reading your work. They should receive hazard pay. The service they are doing for you is valuable, and so is their time, so pay them appropriately.

I have not found it particularly difficult to find sensitivity readers. Ask in your writing communities. When you go to writing conventions, ask your peers.

There are online and in-person classes on Writing the Other, and they usually have resources for helping you find a sensitivity reader.

Parting Thoughts

Obviously, you can skip everything I’ve just said and just do your own thing.

However, if you’ve spent a bunch of time doing research, and even more time drafting and revising and trying to make your story as polished as it can possibly be, why wouldn’t you take the extra step to make it even better?

Your mission tonight, should you decide to accept it, is simply to visit the Writing the Other website and check it out. Look at the classes and resources.

10/16/19

Time Management

It is the 16th day of Blogtober, and the first day of the last half. Last night’s post proved short, and tonight’s will probably be even shorter. That’s a good thing, because I’m behind on Synthetic Dreams and I want all the time I can grab to gain some ground.

Tonight’s topic was going to be “Overcoming Distancing Language.” But it turns out, I haven’t actually learned that lesson well enough to articulate it. I learned something, and my experience with Spin City improved me as a writer. However, when I went to describe distancing language and find examples in early drafts of Spin City, it proved challenging.

So let’s talk about time management instead, which is more broadly useful.

Prioritize

The first step in time management is prioritization. Managing your time is like creating a budget, only the resource you’re managing is chronological rather than financial.

I can already hear one of you shouting “TIME IS MONEY” and you’re not wrong. But money you can save. If you do absolutely nothing, it’s possible for money to remain stagnant, or even accrue. In regards to time management, if you do nothing, the time is lost.

When you’re creating a budget, you list all the items you need to buy or pay for, listing it in order of importance and cost. With time management, you list the activities and projects you want to accomplish in order of importance, slotting some items into immovable slots.

For example, you may not want to budget for sleep because there’s just so much you want to do. However, you must budget for it because you’ll die without it, and it has to happen during a particular set of hours. So don’t forget sleep. A “real job” might also fit into this category.

List the important things first and be honest with yourself.

Pad for Your Humanity

When you’re building yourself a schedule, remember that you are a human being and not a robot. You are a complicated creature with needs you may or may not be able to articulate. There may be times when you need to stare at a screen for an hour and a half playing solitaire, and that’s all you’re going to be able to accomplish during that time.

Also, being human, you’re going to make mistakes, so pad your time out to allow for that. Sometimes mistakes mean unfortunate setbacks, and those setbacks and cost minutes, hours, or days. Make allowances in your budget for those kinds of unexpected occurrences and they won’t break your time budget.

You may think that you’re capable of writing 30,000 words in 3 weeks because you’ve done it before. You’re human. Give yourself 4 weeks. If you finish early, you can use the extra time to do something fun. You’ll thank yourself when you hit a plot wall that stops you in your tracks.

Write It Down

Something happens in your brain when you write down your schedule. Endorphins are released each time you tick off an item. By writing down your schedule and not just keeping it in your mind, you create a sense of accountability.

Also, having your schedule written down makes it easier to check and know during times of stress.

Digital Tools

If you don’t want to write your schedule down using pen and paper, you can use a calendar program like Outlook or Google Calendar to document your schedule. The added benefit of using a tool like this is that you can put alarms and reminders on the most important items.

Do as Little or as Much as You Need

When building your schedule, go as granular or as abstract as you need to. Some people need to get down to the minute level. Other people feel confined and trapped by that kind of micromanagement, and just need to put down the things they want to accomplish in the day.

As for me, I’m a little bit lazy, so I tend to make my schedules a little bit more abstract.

Here is my basic schedule for this month:

Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday:

  • Regular job
  • Write blog post
  • Spend at least an hour on WIP

Wednesday

  • Work from home
  • Go to Starbucks in the afternoon
  • Write blog post
  • Spend at least 2 hours on WIP
  • Maybe clean litter box

Saturday

  • Write blog post
  • Spend at least 4 hours on WIP
  • Clean litter box

Sunday

  • Go to Starbucks
  • Write blog post
  • Spend at least 6 hours on WIP
  • Do laundry

That’s fairly loose, but it’s also full. My time crunch this month is not as critical. Next month, instead of assigning time, I will assign myself daily word count minimums.

When I was in two bands as well as a couple of committees, it made my writing schedule even more difficult to manage.

Parting Thoughts

The difference between a goal and a dream is planning. If there something you want to accomplish that doesn’t have a clear end in sight, start it by assigning it time in your schedule. Give it some priority so that all the encroaching minutia doesn’t crowd it out.

Sometimes, wanting to finish a project, like a book, requires cutting other parts out of your life. It’s what I had to do with band. It might be what you have to do with online gaming, or social media, or some other distraction that keeps wiggling its way onto your clock.

Your missing, should you decide to accept it, is to write down your own weekly schedule. Get as detailed as you’re comfortable with. Then see how well you can stick to it.

10/15/19

Overcoming Passive Voice

We’re halfway through Blogtober and some of these entries are getting a little dry. Tonight and tomorrow should be a bit better because I’m going to get personal. I’m going to talk about some major weaknesses in my writing that I’ve struggled to overcome.

Have I already Talked About This?

Coming into tonight’s topic, I had this nagging feeling I’m repeating myself. Sure enough, there’s quite a few posts where I mention passive voice.

Last year, I talked about The Repossessed Ghost and how the early draft dripped with cowardly passive voice.

In another post last year regarding self-care, I dropped a mention about passive voice. As a writing sin, I needed to learn to forgive myself.

On Melissa’s birthday in 2016, I wrote extensively about passive voice and again, how it made The Repossessed Ghost weaker. Tonight we’re going to revisit some of the points raised in this early post.

In this post in 2015 and in this post in 2014, I mention passive voice… again in reference to The Repossessed Ghost, my writing style, and how every writer needs an editor.

Suffice it to say, passive voice has been on my mind for the last 5 years. I still notice it in my work and correct for it as quickly as I can. I still hear it in other people’s work, which saps away some of my enjoyment.

Why Do I Write in Passive Voice?

The reason most writers fall into passive voice is a lack of confidence. For some reason, it feels safe.

For me, it’s a little bit lazy, too. When you’re only using linking verbs to glue your sentence together, you don’t have to think quite as hard.

If you use passive voice, I don’t think you are a lazy person, and I don’t think you necessarily lack confidence. Like so many other aspects of writing which gets labeled a mistake or problem, passive voice is just another tool in the toolbox. Passive voice gets overused or used incorrectly, like picking up a hammer to drive in a screw.

What the Hell even IS Passive Voice?!?

Passive voice is when a sentence is constructed to put the emphasis on the action or the object, rather than the subject. Here are some examples:

The screen was where Chris stared.

The driveway was where Melissa parked the car.

The corpse was on the couch.

Two of these examples are laughably bad. Chris stared at the screen, and Melissa parked the car in the driveway. Chris and Melissa deserve more emphasis than the screen or the driveway.

The third example isn’t as bad, because the emphasis is where it belongs: on the corpse. Who cares about the furniture when there’s a rotting body in the house? “The couch contained the corpse” is not better, unless you’re writing macabre comedy. If I needed to change the original sentence, I’d leave the emphasis on the corpse and choose a better verb.

Parting Thoughts

Tonight’s writing tip, like all of the rest this month, is about helping the writer improve their craft by being intentional with their words. One of the hardest parts of writing is accurately conveying your vision in words. When we first start writing, we approach the craft with clumsy sketches that fail to capture the imagination. As we grow, we learn to paint our stories with a more deft hand. Our perspective on the craft improves, and with it, the degree of nuance we can incorporate on the page.

Overcoming unintentional passive voice is an important first step for many writers. I spent years writing with passive voice, unaware how much greater my stories could be if I proceeded with more confidence, choosing stronger verbs, and placing the emphasis in each sentence where it belongs.

Your challenge tonight, should you decide to play along, is find something you’ve already written and read it closely. Look for places where you use the word “was” or “is” and identify the subject, action, and object. Is the emphasis where it belongs? Is the sentence as strong as it can be? Try rewriting the sentence and see how it feels.

10/14/19

Writing through Multiple Points of View

I keep telling myself before writing these posts that it’s going to be short and sweet. Then I proceed to write 1000 to 1500 words on a subject I didn’t think I’d be able to stretch beyond a couple of paragraphs.

Tonight, on this 14th day of Blogtober, will be different! I rarely write stories containing multiple viewpoint characters, so how much could I have to say on the subject?

Multiple POVs Increase Word Count

While talking to a pro about calculating projected word count for a story, they gave me some formula that involved the number of plot threads, locations, and POV characters. I don’t remember the details of the formula, but for every POV character added, you wind up adding an extra 10%, or 10,000 words. Something along those lines.

It makes sense, because each POV requires additional space in order to provide a unique voice and perspective. Building a personality for the reader to inhabit takes time, and that translates into inflated word count.

Multiple POVs Add Perspective

When you take the time to build out another set of eyes to view the story, you wind up creating additional context for the narrative. In one of the recent prompts, I recommended you write a piece of flash fiction first told from the perspective of a baker, then the same piece of flash from the perspective of Batman. With multiple POVs, you don’t have to choose which one you like best.

Changing Perspectives Slow the Story Down

Slowing the story down isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something you should be aware of when you change gears. The reader is fully engaged in the character one moment. The next, the reader is hearing a different voice, probably in a different location. It takes time to reorient.

If you shift POVs very often, the experience can be exhausting or confusing for the reader. Some writers attempt to change perspectives mid-chapter or even mid-scene. If you can pull it off, more power to you. I can’t recommend it, though. In my opinion, rapid or sudden shifts break immersion.

The Benefits of a Single POV

The primary benefit of a single POV for me is consistency in the voice. I find writing with a single character’s perspective easier, simply because I don’t have to relearn how to “speak” like the other characters again.

Additionally, a single POV can lead to a greater depth of reader immersion. It makes logical sense. If you write a 300 page story, using a different character and voice on each page, you only have a single page per character, so you don’t have time to go deeper. Writer that same 300 page story from the perspective of one character, and you can luxuriate in their thoughts.

You can go deeper with a single character, but it is not guaranteed. You have to be willing to explore and flesh them out, which presents its own unique challenges.

What About Third-Person Omniscient?

Third-person omni is not as fashionable as it once was. John Scalzi still utilizes third-person omni. The Dragon Never Sleeps by Glenn Cook is either third-person omni, or a distance third-person limited. One can find these stories, but that style is more common when looking at stories that came out during the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s.

Third-person omni has more in common with first person than third, in that the story is being delivered by one voice, the voice of the narrator. The narrator may or may not be a character within the world, but that doesn’t matter. They provide a consistent voice and perspective, sometimes at odds with what’s going on in the story. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a good example of this.

Parting Thoughts

My current work-in-progress, Synthetic Dreams, is a tight third-person limited, told using two POVs. It’s the first novel I’ve attempted using multiple POVs, and I think it works for this story. The differences between my characters are wide, which allows me to explore the unique and interesting aspects of the world in a natural and satisfying way.

Some stories work better with a single POV, and some stories are allowed to breathe by using multiple POVs. It’s up to you. Some experimentation may be in order.

So that’s the obvious prompt tonight. Experiment with different POVs. Write a few hundred words using a style you’re less accustomed to using and see how it feels.

Oh! Here’s another mission, should you choose to accept it. Find a book written using multiple POVs, and pay close attention to their transitions. Does it flow from one character to the other seamlessly, or is it jarring? Are there mini cliffhangers present when we end time with one character, preparing to move on to another?

10/13/19

Dispelling Story Idea Myths

I want to be brief today, because I’m a little bit behind on some of my other writing goals and I want to make sure I have time to catch up. Today we’re going to talk about story ideas. Half of this essay will be applicable to writers, and half will offer some insight to everyone else.

Writers Already Have Ideas

Let’s address the non-writers first.

Sometimes when I first meet someone and let them know I’m a writer, they say something along the lines of, “Oh, you know what you should write? I have this idea…” Sometimes my well-meaning coworkers do the same.

For anyone that’s ever offered me something like this, let me first say thanks. I appreciate the thought and the intention. But I also have to say that I can’t use your idea, for a few reasons.

First, it’s yours. The idea formed in your head, and you have the vision of it. YOU should write it! Anyone can write. Pick up a pen or keyboard and just start. You might enjoy the process.

You might also learn through experience my next point, which is: there’s more to writing than transforming an idea into prose. The idea is the smallest part of the writing process. It’s the cheapest. When you get into characterization, descriptions, pacing, themes, show versus tell, emotional impact… honestly, a writer sometimes has to just forget the idea for a little while, just to have room in their brain to handle everything else that goes into a story.

Also, the idea you present to a writer might not be in their wheelhouse. If I message one of my romance writer friends a few thoughts on a whiz-bang action thriller set in the stars, with a focus on faster-than-light travel… you get the idea. The romance writer is going to smile and nod, then promptly forget my suggestion because they’ve got plenty of ideas they’re already excited about.

Writer’s Block isn’t a Lack of Ideas

I’m not going to get too much into writer’s block right now because I’m planning on talking about it on the 23rd of this month.

Writer’s block isn’t about not having ideas. The writer already has ideas. Lots of them. Writing prompts and ideas are everywhere. Read the news, people watch, go for a walk, visit a museum… ideas, or the seeds of ideas, or literally all around you right now.

If a writer is struggling to produce, it’s not because they don’t have anything to write about. It’s because there’s something else interfering with the writing process. They have the idea already. They’re just struggling to develop the idea on the page.

Story Ideas are not Precious

If it isn’t obvious from what I’ve already said, I’ll make it clear: story ideas are cheap, plentiful, and common, and not something to be hoarded like a dragon squatting over a treasure pile.

There are writers that are known for being Big Idea writers, like Asimov and Bradbury, but I believe the ideas aren’t the reason we remember them. Their ability to develop the ideas and present them on the page is the what made them great writers.

I have seen and spoken with writers that talk about their story ideas like they’re prospectors protecting their claim. They get a gleam in their eye, smile a coy smile, and talk about how they don’t want to share their ideas because someone might steal it.

Maybe you’re like that. Maybe you don’t want to share your ideas for other reasons. So be it! I just want to be clear that the idea itself is not as precious as you are. There may not be any new story ideas left. We might all be rehashing the same material over and over. And yet, we enjoy still enjoy stories, sometimes returning over and over again to the same idea.

The experience of a story is not made unique by the idea itself. It is made precious, special, accessible, and enjoyable by the writer. They develop the idea. They put themselves into it with their words and their voice. And we connect to the writer, sharing in the meal they’ve served up, the same meal we may have consumed over and over again, but never quite prepared the same way.

Parting Thoughts

I have a lot of story ideas. I get new ideas all the time, and I’m excited to develop them. However, life is precious and short. I will not live long enough to see all of my ideas put to paper.

Today’s exercise is designed to help convince you that you’re more precious than the story idea. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find a friend and write some flash fiction together. The prompt is that your character has just left a coffee shop and they’ve found a problem with their vehicle. You and your partner are to keep the idea under 250 words. Exchange stories with your partner and see a singular, simple idea can yield such different results.

10/12/19

Descriptions – Pacing and Characterization

It is Saturday, Blogtober 12th, and it’s time to get into the most delicious, horrifying, exhilarating, startling, freeing, thrilling, edifying aspect of writing: descriptions.

Adjectives are Delicious

Two years ago, I wrote an essay about adjectives, their role in a story, and how marketers learned how adjectives don’t have to make sense to be effective. It’s a damn fine post, and I don’t want to repeat myself too much today.

One of the things I will repeat is that adjectives work as magnifiers. When you tack more than one onto an object, the descriptions are multiplicative rather than additive. You can have a zombie, which is scary, or you can have a slavering, oozing, shambling, undead corpse, gnashing its gray-green teeth as it raises its desiccated, malformed hands in the direction of your brain-case. (Hi Ned!)

Adjectives and other descriptors like that are wonderful, but you pay for them with slower pacing. Sticking with the magnifying analogy, a telescope lets you see distant details, bringing objects into clearer focus. However, you wouldn’t want to run a marathon with a pair of telescopes strapped to your face.

Descriptions Reveal Character

When the writer paints a picture with their words, the reader is shown three different entities: the subject being described, the character doing the describing, and the writer themselves.

The subject of the description is the most obvious. When describing a warrior, the scars lining their face inform the reader that this is an individual that’s seen hard combat. The callouses on the farmer’s hands, the lines under the librarian’s eyes, the bruise flowering on the barista’s forearm… these are all details that raise or answer questions. We want the reader asking questions, because that’s how they stay engaged.

We also want to make sure the details we’re including are pertinent to the story. The barista might be wearing a green apron and new running shoes, but if the character isn’t running or spilling things on themselves, we don’t need to bother the reader with that information. They’ll fill in those details on their own. The bruise on their forearm is unique. Is this person in an abusive relationship? Do they run the streets as a vigilante when they’re not brewing coffee? What the hell happened to them? It’s an interesting detail, but if it doesn’t answer a question about the world or a character, and if we’re not going to answer the questions raised by its presence, it isn’t serving the story.

That brings us to the character doing the describing. If we’re moving through the story in first person or a tight third person, the details described tell us information about the point-of-view character. If our perspective character is a cop or a nurse, they will notice the bruise on the barista’s arm for a reason. If our main character sells shoes, they might notice the type of sneakers the server is wearing. In this case, it doesn’t matter if the barista goes running in a scene later. It doesn’t matter if the server shows up again in the story at all. The detail we included while describing the barista tells us something about the main character, which is that they notice people’s feet. If you’re doing your job right, that detail will be important later on.

The third entity revealed in the descriptions is the writer. This is not necessarily useful or even accurate information, but it’s interesting. For example, you might guess from this post that I’m writing from a Starbucks. Details of my environment are bleeding through into my examples.

As a writer, you have absolute control over who you’re describing in your stories, and who is doing the describing. You don’t have as much control over how much of yourself is revealed. If it’s true that there are no new stories, that we’re all just revisiting the same ideas over and over, then authorial voice is the most unique part of your story, and your voice will reveal something about you.

Parting Thoughts

So what’s the point of talking about all of this? Intention. Knowing what descriptors do to your story allows the writer to intentionally evoke different reactions while crafting their story. They can increase or decrease the pace by removing or adding more details. They can highlight aspects of a character being described by being precise in which descriptions they include. The writer can get deeper into the main character’s head and voice by choosing which aspects the main character reveals.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to write a piece of flash fiction. Write it in either first person or third person from the perspective of a pastry chef. After you’ve done that, rewrite the same story, but instead of a culinary artist, your main character is Batman.

10/11/19

How to Write Humor

Melissa and I went out for dinner last night. As we’re enjoying our meal, I told her about my blog posts the last couple of nights, and how they’re part of a limited three-part series. How to Write a Fight Scene and How to Write Dialog were the first two parts.

“What’s the third part?” Melissa asked.

“How to Write Humor.”

“You write humor?”

Comedy, By Way of Change of Status

My introduction is an example of humor through change of a character’s status. In this case, Melissa and I started at roughly equal status, a couple enjoying a meal together. By way of stating I’m writing essays on various aspects of writing, including humor, I’m elevating my status slightly, implying that I’m worthy to write on these subjects.

Melissa’s question at the end drags my status back down. It cuts me off at the knees, and through some alchemy which is completely spoiled by me explaining the joke, we made humor.

This isn’t my favorite approach to comedy, simply because someone has to be the butt of the joke for it to work. It’s punch comedy, and depending on who the victim is, it can punch down.

Howard Taylor did a presentation on this kind of comedy on Writing Excuses Retreat 2018. That’s how I learned about this kind of comedy. Not through Howard making fun of me. It was through his teaching. Howard’s never made of me. He hasn’t. Really.

Comedy, By Way of Absurdity

I like absurdity more than status changes, but it’s harder to pull off. For absurdity to work, the reader’s frame of mind needs to be properly coaxed into the right place so that the absurdity will amuse rather than annoy.

Absurdity is a young man getting into his car on a hot summer day, starting the ignition, and pulling onto the road. He reaches for the A/C controls, flips it to max, and an icy gale funnels out the vents, freezing him into a solid block of ice, still clinging to the steering wheel.

Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett were masters at absurdist comedy. The world building and the tone made for fertile soil for their type of zany to flourish.

Comedy, By Way of Vulgarity

This is tropical storm Melissa.

Melissa is tea-bagging the East Coast. The thrust of this storm is obvious. Melissa is coming in hard and fast, and we have to hope it pulls out before it does too much damage.

That’s comedy by way of vulgarity.

Anything with the power to offend us, such as the profane, also has the power to make us laugh. Poop jokes, fart jokes, jokes about sex… there isn’t much distance between upsetting us and tickling our funny bone.

Ha ha. I said “bone.”

Comedy, By Way of Word Play

Puns and limericks fall into the category of humor via word play. Puns used to be held in much higher regard than they are today. When a good pun lands, it can still make me smile, but they’re not my favorite. I’m not going to punish you all by making you read any lame ones here.

Comedy, By Way of Upsetting Expectations

A man named Joe goes into a bar in New York, situated at the top of a sky scraper. After he gets his drink, another man in a suit sitting next to a window calls out to him.

“Hey buddy, do you know about the wind currents up here?”

“What’s that?” Joe asks.

“As the wind whips between the buildings, it creates a powerful updraft. You can step out right now and the wind is so strong, you won’t even fall.”

“No way!”

“I’ll show you!”

The man in the suit opens the window, steps out, and sure enough, floats in the air.

“I’ve got to try this!” Joe says. He puts down his glass, steps out the window, and promptly plummets to his death.

The man in the suit floats back in the window, picks up Joe’s glass, and takes a drink.

The bartender says, “You know what? You’re a real dick when you’re drunk, Superman.”

Jokes work when they mess with your expectations. There is a surprise at the end, and the surprise has to make sense with everything that came before it. The whole story has to hold together otherwise it has no power to amuse or entertain at all.

This is the kind of humor I like to include in my stories. I like clever twists that change the perspective on everything that came before.

Parting Thoughts

It’s easy to get humor wrong. There are a lot of moving parts to comedy, including timing, delivery, word choice… I’ve only scratched the surface with some high level details, and I’m in too big a hurry tonight to provide more humorous examples.

Jokes are hard. Making something genuinely funny takes a lot of practice and hard work. While some people have a naturally quick wit and good instincts on how to lay out a joke, most of us have to really work at it in order to get the comedy to land.

Your assignment tonight: watch a stand-up comedian. Pay attention to how they deliver the jokes. They usually use all of the things I’ve touched on. Status changes, absurdity, word play… it’s all present in a comedian’s routine. Pay special attention to the way they use planting and payoff in order to subvert and mess with expectations.

10/10/19

How to Write Dialog

Well hey there, partner! It sure is nice to see ya! Hope yer ready to talk about dialog, ‘cuz I’m about to git right into it!

Ahem.

Today is the 10th day of Blogtober. We’re about a third of the way through the month and we’re showing no signs of slowing. I hope you’ve enjoyed these posts as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them! The experience has challenged me to unpack what I know about writing, or what I think I know, and the act of expressing these tips in essay form has served to reinforce guiding principles.

Dearest reader, I must confess that as the cold hand of winter draws ever closer, as the sun’s dominion over the heavens grows weaker, and the bitter, ever-changing Moon reigns through the lengthening darkness of night, some of these posts grow more vexing to write. And so it is my dearest hope that you will bear with me as I make my way through these words, for this treatise on dialog, I fear, will be the most challenging yet.

Voice

The key to good dialog is voice. Different people speak differently, their dialects divided by region, upbringing, age, affluence, and physical factors. A well-educated character might be more inclined to speak with longer words, eschewing the monosyllabic for complex diction and phrases meant to make them sound haughty or superior. A fella that didn’t maybe quite finish school, on the other hand, maybe might talk with smaller words that ain’t quite so clean.

Once your character has a strong voice within your mind, writing their dialog is easy. The characters will tell you what they want to say, and it’s your job as a writer to capture it as truthfully as you can. Truth in this case refers to staying true to the character, and not necessarily the content of your character’s speech.

In a medium that allows you to physically hear the different voices, such as movies or audiobooks, a different voice can be conveyed by altering the pitch and placement of the sound. On the page, you have two main tools available to capture the distinctness of each voice: the description and the content.

The description is the prose surrounding the text, and is the lesser of these two tools. It is you as a writer telling the reader what the character sounds like. This is where you can describe slurred words, a crisp British accent, the sing-song soft consonants of a Selas, the rumbling basso, the breathy rasp, the hoarse shout… you get the idea. You don’t have to (and you shouldn’t) do a lot of descriptions of the voice, and you should be wary of repeating yourself unless it’s for a purpose. That’s why this part of describing voice isn’t as important or as powerful as the words of the character themselves.

Since I started writing this post, I’ve demonstrated a few times how I can change my voice just by changing the content. I didn’t need to use dialog tags or any sort of description to the change the voice. I just did it, and you (more than likely) heard it.

The content of a character’s speech includes the verbs, nouns, adjectives, all of which shape the rhythm and delivery of the speech. Some people speak in language which isn’t as pristine, dropping punctuation, adding or removing articles in whatever way they see fit. This is the means by which you will be able to express your characters’ differing voices. If you do it right, you won’t even need to use dialog attributions.

Natural Speech

I usually think I do a decent job at writing dialog. Sometimes my critique group disabuses me of the notion, but then I forget their criticisms and I go back to feeling like I’m Quentin Tarantino.

For the sake of argument, let’s pretend I’m not as great at dialog as I think I am. How would I improve? What can I do to make my dialog feel more natural?

The first thing I’d tell myself is go do some people watching. Sit in a coffee shop, and let people’s conversations wash over me. The idea isn’t to spy or eavesdrop. I’m not interested in the specifics of what they’re talking about. I’m only interested in the way they talk. The modulations of the voices in the conversation. It’s like a dance, rising and falling and swooping.

People ask questions they already know the answer to. People reuse phrases they’re comfortable with. People fill the empty air with banality to make themselves and the people they’re with feel more comfortable. They approach important subjects then veer away, like carrion swooping over an uncertain carcass.

If I were giving myself advice, I’d tell myself to listen to the different approaches men and women take when talking about a subject. I don’t mean to stereotype or reinforce the binary, but in American society, the most common male approach to conversation is more direct, with a focus on fixing any perceived problems. The most common female approach is to share and empathize.

It’s important to remember that when writing dialog, the writer should try to emulate natural speech without actually being natural speech. When humans talk to each other in real life, they repeat themselves. They have a lot of “uhms” and “ahs” and other weird mouth noises dropped in to provide space for them to collect their thoughts.

Also, movie characters are usually way wittier than real people. Fictional characters quip like stand-up comedians. You can do this in your stories, and it will be entertaining, but it may not be realistic. Decide what kind of tone you’re going for before making all of your characters comedy geniuses.

Parting Thoughts

I have heard it said that dialog is one of those parts of writing that people either understand intuitively, or they don’t understand at all. I don’t fully agree with this sentiment. While there are some people that seem to have a natural talent for writing how people speak, anyone can write good dialog with enough practice.

Your exercise tonight: imagine two characters locked in some place and forced to talk. All of the details are up to you. Maybe it’s two strangers trapped in an elevator. Maybe it’s two friends in a car on a road trip. All of the detals are up to you. The caveat to this exercise is that you can only use dialog to convey the message and characterization.