Month: July 2011

Saying Everything, Saying Nothing.

No matter how strong the tale, it’s only as strong as its writing. A basic tenet, but almost everyone forgets this. Emphasis on everyone. Most misguided stories don’t turn out to be poor tales at heart, but then again, you’d never know. Miring through the poor framing, the stilted narration, the repetitive structuring: it’s too much effort. When it comes to reading one’s writing, you shouldn’t have to pry a gem out of coal and mud.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Hi Writing All Wrong,

I’ve been working on a story about what I call an “isolated” hero. He’s been betrayed, so he basically feels like he’s redeeming himself by redeeming others. Anyway, I’ve let a few people read it. Some like it, but some don’t, so I want to get an objective, unbiased opinion. Here’s a selection of what I’ve written so far:

“Angelo. He was alone. Alone in the midst of other lonely people. He sharpened his blade with a leftover shard found on the dusty floor. His steel-blue eyes glared from the trusty weapon, reflecting confidence. He took a deep breath, sharpening away. Angelo sighed, kicking up dust. He’d waited long enough, and he’d have to wait longer still. He couldn’t bear the burden of his vengeance much longer.”

I’d like to get your opinion on it. Thank you.

—Dan Reed, Depoe Bay, Ore.

If you’re looking for objective, unbiased opinion, then you’re looking in the wrong place. The only thing that will provide that is a text analysis program, and even they have their biases. They’ve been notorious finicky when it comes to postmodern chick-lit, and they’re not as friendly toward hypertextual SF(surprise). Besides, that’s not what you need. You need help.

Let’s start with the first flaw: Angelo. Not inspiring. Not for this kind of story. Solution: call him Tangelo. I’ll help you out by referring to this protagonist as Tangelo from henceforth. You should do the same.

The next flaw: isolation. I can understand the beating in of the character’s loneliness, but unless you’re writing to the sub-preschool audience, it’s not necessary. “He was alone” is the weakest way to convey your idea. Reinforcing it by adding “(a)lone in the midst of other lonely people” contradicts with confusion. This isn’t stylistic panache; this is painful.

The flaw after next: anti-specific vagueness. I’ll be the first to admit that not everything needs a description in pinpoint. If you evade the IRS by jumping into the “river,” I can live with that. If you threw a “rock” at a wild jackalopotamus, then you needn’t describe further. But I’m going to call you out on “leftover shard.” Leftover from what? A battle? A previous weapon A prison meal? Is he even in a prison? And what kind of shard is this? Rock? Shale? Glass? Flint? Adamantium? It’s good practice to let the imaginative mind of the reader fill in the blanks, but it’s a malicious ruse when I have to draw those blanks myself.

Another major flaw: sentence structure. I don’t have the patience to point out everything else that’s wrong here, like the clichéd use of “taking a deep breath,” with the dovetail into hapless redundancy of “deep breath” and “sighed.” Stepping back, the paragraph becomes predictable with this pattern of “subject-verb,” “subject-verb,” and “subject-verb.” He sharpened. Eyes glared. He took a breath. He sighed. He waited. He’d have to wait. He couldn’t bear. Just kill me, please. Do it now.

The flawiest flaw: emptiness. Read this again. We’ve seen a hodgepodge of empty descriptions stitched together in a meaningless blur. Even outside the context, there’s nothing pulling me into Tangelo’s plight, nothing emphasizing what this soulless character feels, and nothing convincing me that any of this is worthwhile. We’ve got loneliness, vengeance, despair, and confidence all crammed in, making everything look like a poor series of ill-thought afterthoughts.

Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com), followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong), and used as an effective C-C-C-Combo Breaker.

Block Writer’s Block

Writing is just like driving.  It takes practice, you need a license, no one else is good at it (except you, of course), and you’ll eventually have to find ways to bypass roadblocks.

Unlike writing, roadblocks in the driving experience are inevitable. Daytime construction. Collisions. Road closures. Entitled pedestrians. People who forget how to drive in the rain/snow/sun.

In the driving world, yanking the emergency brake in the middle of the highway and forgetting where you’re going would be insensible and unexplainable. That’s not a legitimate roadblock. That’s not even rational. I wouldn’t know what to call that.

But do you know what we call that in the writing world? Writer’s block.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

I’m sure you’ve gotten this question before, but I’m hoping you’ll take the time to answer this for me. How do you overcome writer’s block?

—Ellen London, Hebron, Ill. 

There’s no such thing as writer’s block. Unless you’ve got legitimate issues with the frontal lobe of your cerebrum (rare) or have a telepath psionically impeding your creative abilities (also rare), then there’s no excuse. And if you do have brain issues, consult a specialist. And if you do have a telepath doing that psionic impediment deal, politely ask them to stop, or get a special kind of helmet for that.

Writer’s block is what you get when you stop thinking, stop writing, and forget how to cope with inaction. Perhaps it’s not finding the right words, losing a thread in a story, or losing interest in the endeavor. Regardless, it’s avoidable. Here are some parlor tricks that should help you skirt this inevitable roadblock that’s neither inevitable nor a roadblock.

1: Read a book.

Sure, you’re thinking “That’s not a solution!” It is a solution. To create, one must study creation.

2: Re-read what you’ve written.

Look at writer’s block as a way of backtracking and getting a feel for where you’ve come so far. Lost anything before in your real life? Retrace your steps. Same applies to writing. You find the way forward by moving backward.

3: Edit what you’ve already written.

The force of Nature could no further go, it said, “You need to go back and fix this mess.” (If you get the reference, maybe you shouldn’t be reading this blog.) There’s nothing like a natural inhibitor to continued creation when you’ve probably done it wrong for the past fifty pages or so. Inspiration has its checks, but you’re responsible for the balances.

4: Work on a new scene (part, section, whatever).

Your story should have more than one thread or at least a strand or two hanging around. Those ideas, sub-plots, and novelties you’d wanted to get to later on in the narrative? Might want to work on them at this point, as they’ll fire up the creative faculties. Consider it a detour, but don’t derail your work with these. You’ve not been given license to fool around for the sake of impetus.

5: Work on a side project.

What? Abandon the main endeavor? You bet. You’d be surprised how many ancillary works you can add to your portfolio in your detours. If you’re a writer worthy of writing, you’ll write something. If you have to re-focus that energy into something completely different, then do it. Anything’s better than slamming one’s forehead on a blank template.

6: Write a new story.

Why not? You’ve probably had another story on the back-burner or side-burner anyway. Get that one off the ground, mire yourself within, hit another impasse, and come on back to the work you left behind. Finish the task. Complete the cycle. Put aside the Ranger. Become who you were born to be.

7: Read bad writing.

Nothing motivates hidden greatness more than exposure to unhidden lameness. When you can’t bring yourself to write, remember that many other writers somehow managed to do it. Not only did they manage to write, they managed to write poorly. Not only did they write poorly, they managed success with their poor writing. There are thousands of authors making a decent living by writing worse than you write right now. The difference? They’re writing, and you’re not. Also, they’re making more than you right now. Get to work.

8: Start over.

If you can’t bring yourself to finish it, just give it the ol’ Command+A (Control+A, if you’re still using Windows in the Age of Enlightenment), then hit that Delete key. Don’t look back. Put your failure in the past. Start something you plan to see to its completion next time.

9: Stop writing altogether.

Yes, this may be the cosmos telling you that this isn’t your thing. Why insist on persisting if writing just wasn’t what you were put on Earth for? It’s not writer’s block. It’s a guard, pleading with you to turn away from a path not meant for you. Not everyone was meant to golf like Tiger Woods, play basketball like Michael Jordan, or breathe underwater like Aquaman. There’s a reason Tiger doesn’t shoot hoops, Jordan doesn’t golf (professionally), and Aquaman doesn’t fly. They were good at what they do from the outset. They never failed. They never encountered obstacles that kept them from success. If you’re not immediately successful with this writing ordeal, it may be time to hang it up. Your destiny will thank you.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com), followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong), and paired with a ’59 Mouton-Rothschild. 

The Mail Never Fails

I’ve debated the longer-form answer format, and in this round, it lost out to bullet style answering. It’s about time I clear out my question backlog anyway. Inquiring minds want answers. Good thing I’ve got those on hand.

[Insert common writing mistake here]

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Is it possible to really use too many adverbs? 

—Greg Simpson, Albany, N.Y. 

Absolutely positively yes. For every adverb, there’s a remarkably stronger verb or adjective. Use those instead. Seriously.

I’ve got a great story in the works; it’s a mystery with a twist ending. Should I make it a short story, a novella, or a novel?

—JoAnn Hendersen, Kirkland, Wash. 

Doesn’t a mystery end with a twist anyway? Go write it as a mystery novel where the twist is that it’s actually a short story. Let me know how that works out.

Hi, I hope you can answer my question. I’m thinking of entering the chick-lit genre, but I need to know whether a first-person or third-person narrative is the most appropriate. Thanks!

—Ruth Hambrick, Columbia, S.C. 

Appropriateness is irrelevant. Aesthetics are everything.

First person: “I was lonely.” Pedestrian.

Third person: “Cinthya was lonely.” Bland.

Use the fourth-person instead: “One could be lonely.” Ambiguous, intriguing, effective.

You seem in the know when it comes to literary trends. In this age of communication, do you think there’d be a market for text-message based epistolary novels?

—Robbie Bryant, Redding, CA.

y not? r u 4 rl? not that i h8 on new forms of lit, but rly? cant c this gettin off the grnd. u can try 2 rite 1, sure, but its not going ne where, not even in todays age of communication. can u imagin readin this thing? i dont thin [SEND]

Shucks. Reached my character limit.

I’ve read that Shakespear [sic] knew or used about 3,000 [definitely sic] words in his writing. since he’s pretty much the best there is, even though there’s no one better, how many words on average should a writer know?

—Casey Cruz, Edgewood, N.M.

On average, a writer needs to know about one million, three hundred fifty-six thousand, seven hundred eighty-one words, give or take. You can get by with an even million, but the more words you know, the better. Some writers knew upwards of a billion words, like William Shakespeare. When it comes to vocabulary, you need to know where you stand. The best way to figure out your vocabulary is to write out all of the words you know.

Here’s a handy chart to go by:

50-100 words: I don’t know if you’re trolling or just being stupid.

100-250 words: (see above)

500-1000 words: Finish preschool first before considering a career in writing.

1000-10,000 words: Below average, just like everyone one.

10,000-30,000 words: You might be qualified to write a letter to the editor of a small town newspaper. I’m talking small, population in the dozens.

30,000-75,000 words: Good work in maximizing the use of “your,” “you’re,” and “ur.”

75,000-500,000 words: If you break the 75,000-word barrier, then you could be mistaken for a literate human being.

500,000-1,000,000 words: You are capable of constructing a Flesch-Kincaid sentence with a reading level of 10.

1,000,000-1,500,000 words: Congratulations! As long as you have a decent idea, you can probably write a story (even if it’s a crappy one).

1,500,000-5,000,000 words: Most good writers find themselves well within this range.

5,000,000-500,000,000 words: Most of the best writers stop here, only because they have better things to write.

500,000,000-1,000,000,000 (that’s one billion): John Milton. Ain’t no one touchin’ him.

1,000,000,000+: William Shakespeare, because he’s the boss. And he could so take on John Milton in a fight.

1,967,677,323.98: Dictionary bot? DISQUALIFIED.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com), followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong), and entered as a racehorse, since it doesn’t exceed the 15-character limit.


In the Beginning

So it begins.

The story’s there in the mind, nowhere on the paper. There’s a great tale somewhere within your grand idea, but getting into it remains the dilemma. The beginning is your builder of momentum. Get the right push, and the narrative carries itself. Start by languishing in the mud, forgo your impetus, and we have a story that’s fighting the doldrums when it should be developing.

Describe your setting, too pedestrian. Set the stage, whisk us away. Talk about your character, invite us to ignore them. Have us tag along with that character’s goings-on, we’re in. Tell us, and we won’t listen. Show us, and we might glance. Take us, and we’ll go. Anything less, and there’s nothing but a journey not taken.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

how do i begin my story. do I start by descirbing [sic] the scenety [sic] or should I tell a little bit more about my character? Its pioneer romance with a feel-good feel and i dont kow [sic] whether or not i should start with the pioneer setting or whether or not I should start with my pioneer heroin [sic, I think]. 

—Gabey Meeks, Hagerstown, Md.

Well.

The short answers: 1) I don’t think you should begin this story. At all. 2) If you’re faced with a choice of “descirbing scenety” and telling more about a character, I’d go with what makes actual sense. 3) Maybe you can tell me more about this “feel-good feel.” 4) Be careful with that pioneer heroin. I’m assuming it’s a touch more potent.

The long answers: Depends entirely on where you’re taking this story. You could start with a standard intro, bringing the protagonist’s struggle to the forefront right away:

“Across the dusty thoroughfare, she could hear the doctor cursing about his missing needles and syringes. She hoped the apothecary wouldn’t also notice anything missing from his reserves. Her desperation led to constant fear.”

You could also lunge into your character, as you tried to suggest:

“Martha sobbed, tears tracing through dusty cheeks. She winced after tightening the bandana on her arm, battered from self-infliction and addiction. The remnant strands of her pale hair fell prey to gusts of sand and wind.”

Perhaps the setting then? Not going to offer much in that vein, other than mentioning that you’ll see this often. Narrative absorption is predicated on some mode of mental/spatial transportation, hence the prevalence of setting first, then story. It sets the mood, the tone, with the place making space.

But for a pioneer heroin romance with a feel-good feel? I recommend beginning another story altogether.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com), followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong), and begun with the letter W.