writing, Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Eight Non-rules For Writing

Recently, I was browsing a website called Lithub (which I highly recommend to anyone fascinated by any and all things writing and literature related) and came across an article by Elizabeth Percer entitled “The First Rule of Novel Writing is Don’t Write a Novel.” I was intrigued. The gist of her article was that all these different lists of rules for writers miss one very important aspect of being a productive (and good) writer: that writing is an art form more than an industry. Writers are artists and need to work like artists, not accountants, or machinists.

In response to this realization, Ms. Percer came up with a list of nine non-rules for writing. I thought they were so refreshing and original, I decided I simply had to share the best of them with you (along with my own interpretation on occasion). I think you will find them as valuable as I have.

So, the seven non-rules of writing.

Don’t Write a Novel

Ms. Percer states that every time she sits down to write a novel, she gets next to nothing done. In fact, she feels she often loses some critical ground. Her point that often the pressure of trying to meet a preconceived goal can make it harder to create. Call it performance anxiety. Call it the contrariness of the subconscious mind.

For an example, the famed composer John Philip Sousa really, really, wanted to write lovesick ballads (which were kind of the pop music of his time) and he kept working at it. The thing was, the songs he produced weren’t very good ballads. But when his wife changed the time signature and tempo, they became very good marches. He was a talented composer of marches that kept trying to make them ballads.

In the same way, we writers shouldn’t sit down with a preconceived notion of writing a novel, a poem, or a multi-volume history of a fictional family. We should sit down with the idea of a particular story, or emotion, or even just a simple image and simple write the story. The story (or image, or emotion) will reveal which form it should take as it’s written.

Don’t worry about the form. Just write and the form will take care of itself.

Writing Doesn’t Always Look Like Writing

Ms. Percer states that about 80 percent of her writing looks nothing like writing. Personally, I’d put it closer to 90 percent. Writing looks like daydreaming, or reading, or gardening, or driving, or sitting in the back yard watching the birds at the bird feeder. It’s about trusting yourself and your creative spirit, not that nasty hyper-critical inner voice that tells you you aren’t working hard enough. It takes both the hard-driving professional, pounding out pages on the keyboard and the playful, curious child to make creativity work.

Books Do Not Respond to Timelines, Spreadsheets, or Graphs

Timelines, spreadsheets and graphs are very efficient tools the modern world has invented to help manage time and increase our efficiency. However, it is in the nature of art to become stubbornly distant when it is asked to punch a time clock. Sometimes, these time management tools can do more to get in the way than they help production.

Ms. Percer states that because she’d a writer and not a physicist, she doesn’t believe “writing always follows the laws of space and time.” Much more writing can be accomplished in short time periods enhanced by patience, thoughtfulness, and peace, than gets done in months of “writing time” defined by expectation, disappointment, self-loathing and a diet of coffee and Snickers bars.

Accept What Comes

This goes back to the first point. If you have your heart set on writing a bodice-ripper historical romance, but all you can really come up with is a brilliant haiku about garden peas, by all means relish writing the poem about garden peas. Maybe the world needs a book of haiku centered on garden vegetables. You may be just the perfect person to create that book.

Just like John Philip Sousa, don’t reject the very good work that occurs to you, just because you had other ideas. Sometimes the story needs to be told and doesn’t care what you want.

Procrastinate

Writers like us want to create brand new works and if we’re going to do that we need to accept that the way we work is not going to look a whole lot like the way your accountant cousin works. It’s a different kind of work. This makes a certain amount of logical sense. However, in practice this can be threatening because creativity thrives with the very behaviors that many others label as lazy, self-indulgent, or some other label that might be appropriate if we were cogs in the corporate machine like everyone else.

Creative work demands that occasionally we stop and allow the well to be refilled, the slate to be wiped clean. We need down time. The key is that only you, the artist, knows when and how much down time you might need. We all need to learn to trust ourselves and have confidence in our judgement and to know when we need down time and when we’re just avoiding the work. The ability to discern the difference involves trial and error, but will always come back to trusting our instincts.

Sometimes the best thing for our writing is binge-watching a couple of seasons of Game of Thrones. Sometimes, a little voice is telling you that the small town murder mystery you’ve been working on should concentrate a little less on the evidence of the crime and a lot more on the town’s internal politics and Game of Thrones is exactly the example you need. Sometimes, you just need to walk.

Get To Know the Demons on Your Block

Every writer’s block is different. However, most have a few things in common. Maybe you’re blocked because your standards are too high. Maybe your expectations are so extreme that your creative self doesn’t want to show up. Maybe we’re taking ourselves and our work too seriously. Maybe your creative self is fighting to get yourself to do something different. Maybe it’s telling us to forget about writing a best seller and just write the story we want to read.

Don’t Neglect The Rest of Your Life

At its core, great writing comes from an unrestrained approach to the things that make life worth living. If you are neglecting those things, guess what happens? You’ll have nothing to say. So you’ll eat too much Doritos, stay up too late watching reruns of ‘70’s sitcoms and wake up hating yourself in the morning.

In short, what Ms. Percer is saying is that we should stop working so much at writing and, instead, just write. It doesn’t have to be such a chore.

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writing, Writing advice

Generating Ideas, Part Two

Last week I shared a productive exercise I learned in a workshop at the South Coast Writers Conference. The workshop, instructed by Bruce Holland Rogers, was devoted to producing ideas and chock full of methods to do that. Some of them (like the one I told you about last week) I really liked and will probably use in the future. Others, not so much.

Today I’d like to share another method that I like, but not as much as last week’s. Mr. Holland Rogers called it “Arbitrary Beginning.”

In this method, we took the first sentence of an existing story, without the title or context, and attempted to finish the story. In the workshop example, we were given this first line: “Clara, neither the first nor the most loved, was the one that showed me I could withstand the pain.” (I apologize for not writing down the title of the story, or its author). Again, we were timed. Again, we were freewriting, taking the information and conflict we found in that first sentence and building upon that to create a story.

Like last week’s exercise, it is meant as a way to step around the critical self-editor that so often paralyzes us. As such, it is particularly useful when we find ourselves (as we all do at one time or another) fighting writer’s block.

Sometimes, what we need is an exercise to work around that critic.

Another, similar exercise is to read a book or short story by an author you admire, but have not read before. At some point a sizeable way into the work, pause at the end of a scene or chapter. Now, knowing the author and his/her style, ask yourself what will the next scene entail? If you were writing this work, this story, what would you have happen next? Write that scene. When you have finished, compare your scene with the one the author actually wrote. Were they similar? Did you take the story in an entirely different direction?

In a similar way, find a story that interests you. Read it half way through. Now put the story away and finish writing it, using your own imagination. How does your story compare to the original? Do note that yours will be a rough draft while the author’s is a polished, finished work, with several drafts behind it. The object is not to compare your writing with that of a professional author, but to use another author’s inspiration to jumpstart your own.

It is pretty much the basis for all the many forms of fan fiction, right?

Another exercise is what Bruce Holland Rogers calls “Collaborative Writing.” This is like the old game of “telephone” except that each person has more invested in the final product. For this exercise, you need a small group of willing participants. Your writer’s critique group is good for this.

Choose one writer at random. He or she writes the first paragraph (or few paragraphs) of a story, then hands it to the second writer, who writes the next paragraph, then hands it to the third writer. The story should make at least three rounds of the writing group (to keep anyone from getting too absurd during their part) and the object is to end up with a coherent, unified story. You may not be able to do it, but the object is to let your imagination feed off and be reinforced by each other.

But that’s the purpose of all of these exercises, isn’t it? They are designed to get our imaginations up and running when they don’t really want to. They are to help when our creative juices need a jump start.

So start.

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writing, Writing advice

Generating Ideas, Exercise One

I didn’t post last week, but not because I was lazy, or had nothing to say. (I almost never have nothing to say). I was busy attending and hosting the 22nd South Coast Writers Conference, in Gold Beach, Oregon. A good time was had by all.

And I have lots I will share with you over the next few weeks.

The most memorable workshop I attended was called “Writing from Zero” and presented by Bruce Holland Rogers, creator and host of www.shortshortshort.com and a specialist in flash fiction. As indicated by the title, the workshop concentrated on techniques and tools to generate ideas. (Something every writer at some point struggles with; the battle with the blank page is a universal one).

Today, I’d like to share one of the techniques we tried during the workshop that worked much better than I’d expected. It’s called “Arbitrary Subject.”

What you’ll need:

Ten random, unrelated nouns and noun phrases

Ten slips of paper

A timer

Your writing materials: notebook or paper

How it works:

In the workshop we generated the ten nouns by having the class suggest them, but you can generate them in any number of ways: the third noun on the hundredth page of ten books, the seventh noun on random pages of a dictionary, or you could use a computer application to generate the ten subjects. They can be as interesting or mundane as you wish. Some of the subjects we started with were: a neighbor, a ghost, and picture on exhibition.

Now you write the subjects on the slips of paper in order to randomly draw the subject you will write about.

Do not look at the subjects until it’s time to write. Part of the effectiveness of this exercise is the inability to over analyze what you are about to write about. You need to be surprised.

Now set the timer for two-and-a-half minutes. It helps if you have a timer that can quickly and easily be reset because you will need to reset it twice, for two-and-a-half minutes each time.

The object of this exercise is to write a complete story, with beginning, middle, and end, in seven-and-a-half minutes, based on the subject you randomly draw from the ten subjects you began with.

Draw a subject from the ten you began with. (In our case, it was “Picture on Exhibition.”) Start the timer and begin to write your story’s beginning. When the timer goes off, two-and-a-half minutes later, reset the timer and move to the middle of the story. When it goes off the second time, reset the timer and move to the end of the story. When the timer goes off the third time, stop writing.

We did this three times, with three different random subjects, over the course of thirty minutes. Somewhat to my surprise, it was fairly effective. Of the three stories I produced during the exercise, none were finished, polished stories, but that wasn’t the point. The point of the exercise was to get the creative process started. In that respect, the exercise was very successful.

Of the three stories I generated, one was a throwaway, but another had a solid kernel I think I can polish and revise into a good story. The third, was not as good, but still holds the promise of being something I can work into an acceptable story.

So in this thirty minute exercise, I generated one pretty good story and another moderate one. That’s a pretty good success rate, in my humble opinion.

For those who might be keeping track, the good idea was for “Picture on Exhibition,” and the moderate one for “Ghost.” I didn’t have much for “Neighbor.”

The object of this exercise is to combine the benefits of “free writing” with the motivational benefit of a deadline. By drawing a subject at random, the hope is to bypass our critical self-editor and tap directly into the creativity of our subconscious. Of course, for this to work well, you have to write continually (as much as possible) and continuously (as much as possible). Do not worry about grammar, spelling, or logic; just get the ideas on paper as quickly as they come to you. This is a first draft; grammar and spelling can be fixed in re-write.

The timer gives you the incentive to do it now. Something, personally, I truly need more.

Like I said earlier, I was mildly surprised at just how productive this exercise was. I will use it again in the future. You should give it a try.

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writing

“Story” Revisited

This week I’ve been having (or am going to be having) a conversation with a beginning writer about just what, exactly, a story is. He is ardent and trying very hard to grasp the “artistic” side of the whole gig. I get the impression his background is in engineering/math and he doesn’t really comprehend the stunned faces when he asked the rest of the writing group to explain poetry to him.

It’s not like the Pythagorean Theorem; it can’t really be adequately explained in a single sentence. Or paragraph. Or essay. Entire books (footnoted and everything) have been written about the subject; entire careers have been dedicated to the study of poetry.

And they still haven’t completely explained it.

“Story” is similar, except that it hasn’t been studied for nearly as long.

Okay. What is a “story?” A story is a form (usually prose, but not always) in which a narrative is told centered around a character and his/her mission to achieve a certain goal. The goal cannot be too easy, or the mission lacks interest or “drama.” The mission is often made more difficult by a series of obstacles the character must overcome along the way. These obstacles can be placed by an opposing character, the environment, or even be the main character’s own personal flaws. The harder the obstacles, the harder the mission, the greater the reward when the goal is reached.

Without the obstacles, the story descends into something more like a vignette.

For instance: a young woman steps onto the elevator in an office building, presses the button for the fifth floor. When the elevator arrives, she steps out and enters her office.

Realistic. A slice of life, done well. But it isn’t really much of a story, is it? There is no conflict. It’s meaningless.

So we ramp up the conflict a bit. We still have the young woman step onto the elevator and push the button for the fifth floor, but this time a man is already on the elevator and she can see that he’s headed for the seventh floor, two floors above her. As the elevator begins to move, she can feel his eyes on her, mentally undressing her. As the door opens on the fifth floor, she does everything in her power to keep from running into her office.

Now we have the beginnings of a story. There is conflict (can she get to her office without being attacked), a goal (the safety of her office) somewhat in question, and the goal achieved in the end.

Now there are some variations, tropes and rules pertaining to different genres of story. Realism is always a plus, but there limitations. Absolute realism is boring, mundane. “Story” is the illusion of reality; it is enhanced reality.

Consider a familiar horror trope: the young family moves into an old, historic house. Soon, they begin to see glowing red eyes in the mirrors and the faucets spill blood. In reality, you or I would be grabbing the family and staying in a motel—or the mission—until we could find a new house. But that wouldn’t be much of a story, would it? For the sake of story, we need to suspend our disbelief for a while. We need to believe that someone would walk into certain death and still manage to not only survive, but to defeat the bad guy. We need to believe that someone would open the attic door in that haunted house, something we’d never do in reality.

We like “story” because it allows us to have a taste of lives and decisions we would never dare to make in reality.

It is supercharged reality.

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writing

The Four Types of Modern Stories

The other day, I was doing some research into story structure because I was (and still am) thinking about writing a post about the subject. In the course of this research, I came across an article from 2010 in Writer’s Digest, written by Orson Scott Card entitled “The 4 Story Structures Dominating the Modern Novel.”

Now, Orson Scott Card is a fantastic writer, probably a better writer than I will ever be, but his analysis in this article was less about structure—at least as I understand it—than about story archetype. He talked less about beginnings, middles, and rising action than about the subject and theme of the works.

There was a theory bouncing around for a while that said all fiction stories were variations of two basic stories: Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstock. While I think this is a gross oversimplification, I felt this was the direction Mr. Card’s article had taken. Not that it was bad, or untrue, just misleading. I thought it should be titled: “The 4 Story Types Dominating the Modern Novel.” He does do a good job of identifying four “types” of fiction novels. Despite not being quite the structural analysis I was looking for, Mr. Card’s analysis of type was still interesting.

Four “types” of Fiction Novels:

The Milieu Story

In this type, the writer’s focus rests squarely on the world in which the action occurs. While every story has a milieu, in these novels the environment is the primary aspect, more important than character development, or even plot.

These stories usually begin when the character arrives in the particular world and ends when he/she leaves it.

For example: Gulliver’s Travels, The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia

The Idea Story

The purpose of this story type concentrates on discovering new information as seen through the eyes of characters driven to uncover the truth.

Mystery and detective fiction fit nicely into this category. And as in most mysteries, the novel begins with a crime and the question of who committed it and ends with the discovery of the criminal and his/her motive.

Much political fiction is also fiction of ideas. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is dedicated to asking the question “Does communism work?” and, in Orwell’s opinion, answering it.

The Character Story

These stories focus on transformation of a character’s role in the communities that matter most to her. These are most often what are considered “literary” fiction, though that is only a general guideline.

Think of Practical Magic, which chronicles two sisters’ struggles to define and accept their roles in the family and The Secret History, which looks at the workings of a group of college friends through the eyes of a naïve young man. The events of the story cause him to drastically reassess his opinion of everyone involved.

These stories usually begin when the character decides to change his role in the community and ends when the character either settles into the new one, or retreats into the old.

The Event Story

In the event story, something is wrong in the fabric of the universe. The world is in disarray and the main character is called upon to restore order. Almost all fantasy fiction and horror falls into this category, as does much science fiction. But the event story is not limited to genre fiction. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is also an event story. (A king has been murdered by his brother. Something’s rotten in Denmark.)

These stories usually begin when the character is made aware of the problem and ends when the character either restores the old order, or ushers in a new order.

Think Lord of the Rings, Dune, Stephen King’s It.

Personally, most of my work falls under the “story of ideas” category, probably because of my long love affair with mystery and horror fiction. Of course, almost no writing is exclusively one category over another. Often, it is merely a recognition of what the writer feels is most important. The story revolves around a murder investigation, but the author is more interested in the psychological stress on the detectives than the mystery itself has the trapping of a story of ideas, but is actually a character story. Tana French’s In the Woods is a good example.

So where does your writing fall? Have you even thought about it?

Let me know in the comments.

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writing, Writing advice

Head-hopping

One of the first rules we learn when we first try our hand at this strange gig called writing fiction, besides “Show, don’t Tell” and “Write What You Know,” is “Don’t Head-Hop” between your characters. There are no qualifiers, no “unlesses” no “untils,” just don’t do it.

So, first off, before we can make an intelligence, informed decision whether to be daring and rebellious and head-hop anyway, or be obedient students, we need to know exactly what head-hopping is. What if I’m doing it and didn’t know I was? Well, it’s about time you found out.

Head-hopping is the switching of the point-of-view between at least two characters without a scene or chapter break. Think of it as the narrator being a mischievous spirit that moves from head to head through the people at a dinner party. If it isn’t done right, the experience could be disorienting and even downright confusing to the audience.

Think, for example, of the use of pronouns in your own writing and how difficult it can be to be clear when describing the interactions of two male characters. It can be excruciatingly hard to be clear who a particular “he” refers to. I know I have re-written countless scenes because the pronoun usage was not clear to the reader. Imagine how absolutely clear the writing would have to be to overcome the confusion inherent in shifting point of view without giving the reader more signposts to indicate where you are going?

Nothing destroys the “willing suspension of disbelief” in a reader more than confusion. When a reader feels he has to stop and go back to reread a passage to figure out what is going on, you are one step from losing him/her completely.

Confusion destroys the suspension of disbelief like a sledge hammer destroys a teacup.

Like most rules in writing—and especially fiction writing—the reason most writers should avoid head-hopping is simple: most of us (myself included) are not good enough writers to do it successfully. For us, when we wish to switch to a different character’s view, it is best to use one of the conventional signals to the reader, primarily scene breaks or chapter breaks. These conventional pauses allow the reader to mentally reset and be ready for a new beginning with a new point of view.

Now, that’s not to say it cannot be done, only that the writer must be very, very good. If you want an example of a writer who head hops with virtuoso skills, read Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic. Not only doesn’t she use scene breaks; she doesn’t really use chapters, just three large “parts.” But the key point is that though the point of view often shifts between several characters over the course of the narrative, she executes the moves so seamlessly, it took me nearly a hundred pages to notice what she was doing.

Practical Magic is a great story, told well anyway. Well worth the read even if you don’t plan on studying Ms. Hoffman’s technique, but you should really watch how she handles point of view. It is truly remarkable.

But I am nowhere near as gifted a writer at this point as Alice Hoffman, so I think I will continue to avoid head-hopping until that changes.

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writing, Writing advice

Does Every Package Need A Bow?

I recently finished reading a novel by Tana French, her debut effort, In the Woods. It was good, different than the murder mysteries I’m used to reading. Part of the difference is that Ms. French is an Irish writer writing about an Irish murder investigation and I’m used to the American version. I couldn’t help but think to myself that, had this been an American novel, surely someone would have taken a shot at the police by now, or killed a witness, or something. Instead, this was strictly a study of the police officer’s personalities under the stress of an intense investigation. A study in psychology, if you will.

But that is not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the choices Ms. French made in describing one of the major issues in the novel, and how she decided to handle it at the novel’s end.

WARNING, if you want to read the novel, stop here because there are spoilers ahead.

Now that that’s out of the way, what interests me is the situation Ms. French created for her main character. Twenty years before the time of the story, three ten-year-old friends playing in a local forest disappear. Several days later, one boy is found, bloody, scratched up, but with no memory of what happened to him or the others. The other two are never found.

Flash forward to the present and the surviving boy has grown up to be a detective on the Murder Squad and is called to investigate the murder of a young girl in almost exactly the same place. No one, except his partner, knows who he really is, or his connection to the area. He does not tell them because he does not want to be taken off the case.

What follows is a brilliant study of the man’s psychology as he deals with the pressures of the new murder investigation and his inability to remember anything meaningful about the day his friends disappeared.

In the end, he can’t handle the stress and though a killer is found, his state allows a conspirator to escape justice.

Most important to me, Ms. French never establishes what happened to the detective’s childhood friends all those years ago. She never even really tries to explain it. As of the end of the novel, no one has still never seen the missing children, or found their bodies. It remains a mystery.

And that’s where she left it, a mystery.

When I first finished the novel, I objected to leaving this mystery intact. It was such a large part of the psychological landscape of the story, it felt like unfinished business, like she failed to end the story. It was a loose end.

As writers, readers, and consumers of storytelling, we—especially, I believe, in the U.S.—we have come to expect that all narrative paths in a story will be resolved by the end of the story. All the threads of the narrative must be tied into a neat little bow by the end. We’re used to the scene at the end where the detective gathers everyone and explains every single aspect of the case. The killer is arrested and everyone lives happily ever after.

Perhaps this idea comes as a kind of warping of Chekov’s Law: that anything in a narrative has to serve a function for the narrative. His famous statement was that if a shotgun hangs above the fireplace in Scene I, it had better be fired by the end of Act III. But, what Chekov was arguing wasn’t to tie up all loose ends; he was arguing against misleading the audience with false evidence. If the disappearance of the detective two childhood friends had exerted no influence on the story as it unfolded, then it would have broken Chekov’s Law. If it had no influence, the reader could rightfully ask: why mention it?

That was not the case here. The mysterious disappearance of the two children had a major influence on how the story progressed. I could argue that the story would not exist without those disappearances and how they affected the detective. It just was never solved.

But as I thought about Ms. French’s story more and more, I felt less and less that her decision to not solve the mystery of the missing children was a mistake, or cheating the reader. In fact, I have now come to the belief that leaving this mystery intact was a brilliant decision on Ms. French’s part.

Part of my reasoning lies in my dedication to realism. I like to write stories that mirror reality, as much as I possibly can. My reading tastes are similar. I want stories that strike me as real. Even if the story involves elves, goblins, and dragons the writing must be presented in such a way that I can accept it as real. (A six-year-old child, without some sort of magical help, is not going to defeat a knight in a swordfight. The knight would just knock the kid down and then stomp him to death).

In the light of realism, the mystery remaining unsolved rings perfectly true. Mysteries go unsolved all the time, big ones like Amelia Earhart and Jimmy Hoffa, as well as smaller ones few even here about. People disappear; crimes go unsolved; strange objects appear in the sky.

The fact that these children had never been found struck a sad note of realism.

Structurally, the mystery remaining heightened the effect it had on the detective. The pressure of not knowing, coupled with the stress of the new murder investigation was nearly too much for his personality to handle. The fact that at the end of the story the new murder had been solved, but the old mystery remained speaks to the fact that in reality there are usually no easy answers. Yes, it would have been neat to have them discover, once and for all, just what had happened that afternoon so long ago, but the reality is that after twenty years, if they were going to be found they probably already would have. The reality was that his demons were not going to be exorcised, not that easily.

That too is realism at work. And it makes his struggle all the more painful because we understand that it won’t be ended and packaged in a neat little bow.

So, in short, I think we writers need to resist the urge to wrap up all our subplots and themes by the end of the story in pretty little bows. It is not very realistic and, done wrong, can seem artificial and forced to the reader. It is perfectly okay to leave some mysteries mysteries.

Sometimes, the package is better without a bow.

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