Month: August 2011

Persona Non-Fiction

Truth is stranger than fiction. And it’s harder to write about. When you don’t have the unreal at your disposal, the box of parlor tricks is reduced to a goodie bag, if that. While you may have the framework of the real on your side, the legwork of writing effervescent prose is up to you.

You move from being the powerful architect to being the interior decorator. Unless you’ve taken Christopher Lowell’s Interior WOW! for Writers™ seminar, it’s not the smoothest transition. Even if it’s not a transition, you probably weren’t good at non-fiction writing anyway.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

All fiction, all the time—that’s what Writing All Wrong should be about. Seems like you couldn’t handle writing something that isn’t purely in the fictional realm. Not everyone writes just for fun, you know. You highlight only the recreational side of writing, and I think you fail to give non-fiction writing its due because you’re not serious, and you cannot seriously dispense advice for those of us who write for a purpose.

—Sofia DiBenedetto, Kenilworth, Ill.

Sofia, I’m sorry that you write poorly. It’s fairly evident, given your double-fail combo of seriously repeating “serious” and your clumsy handling of three clauses within one sentence. I’d like to say I understand how you feel, but I don’t.

I think you’re more the fictional exclusivist than I am the non-fiction non-inclusivist. Besides, non-fiction and fiction writing are just two sides of the same coin. Only one side of that coin is  real, and the other side isn’t. Stop me if I’m going too fast for you. I’m not sure how good you are at math, even if it’s non-fictional.

Even when there’s a story in place, you’re not spared the work (or the privilege, for the masochists) of telling that story. Just as you can fall flat in telling a fictional tale, you can enliven something that really happened in this non-fictional world. Cadence, description, poignancy, clarity, and tone are found in the toolkits of both fiction and non-fiction writers. It’s a shame when they’re not used, regardless of content.

Take the following excerpt:

“He knew the theater as well as he knew his own residence, having free reign over its corridors and backstages by virtue of ‘owning’ its stage on occasion. No one would have thought much of him boring an inconspicuous peephole in one of the doors upstairs. He couldn’t afford barging in uninvited and unexpected, since most playgoers settled in with their social circle long before the show. But for a man of his profession, slinking around in the back would just be part of his doing, non-intrusive and to a degree, expected. As for expectation, it was critical to his plot. He knew well how the play would unfold, when certain actors would be onstage, and which line would provide the ‘perfect moment.’”

And here I go again, Sofia. Perfect example of how to write good, purposeless, un-serious stories, right? Right. I don’t believe in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth either. Pure fiction.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com), followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong), and featured on page 4D of the Investor’s Business Daily (a completely non-fictional publication, I think). 

Fanfics: Kill Them All

Derivative storytelling — now there’s a concept that needs to be sent back into the Age of Never Existed. In our “originality crisis,” we find the weak-minded yearning for creation but ignoring the need to make something new.

Is there merit in a new take on a classic story? Mayhaps. But is there room in this world for amateur tales expanding the Twilight universe? Or banal background narratives that explain the unexplored trainer-monster relationships in Pokémon? Or adding another layer of awkward teen romance to the Harry Potter series with fan-created awkward teen romances?

I shouldn’t have to answer this question.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

What’s your take on fanfiction? Do you think its [sic] a good idea for writing practice and coming into your own as a writer?

—Kymberlee Lane, Chandler, Ariz.

My take on fanfiction? I usually take it to the garbage, the shredder, or the fireplace. On rare occasions, I take it to the Black & Decker® FireShedder™ Deluxe. It’s a beauty. With just the push of a button, it vivisects sub-subpar writing, reduces the excrement to confetti-like crinkles, and sets the whole thing ablaze. If I had a nickel for every fanfic it handled, then I’d have a lot of nickels.

Outside of feeding a B&D®FS™D, there are only three ways to utilize fanfiction.

1) Don’t.

2) Write meta-fanfiction or fictional fanfiction.

A salvageable option, better suited for theory, in my opinion. If you’re not familiar with meta-narratives, you’ll be forgiven this once, spared from taking a chainsaw to your mouth.

With meta-fictional fanfiction, we add a layer of fictive narrative that makes an uncreative process twice as creative. Take the aforementioned awkward teen romances within the Harry Potter series. We already know they suck, and by extension, we already know that their half-breed, ill-formed fanfiction offspring will continue in the lineage of suck.

But what if you fanfic leech off of a fictitious fiction, like The Sordid Portent of Cornbread Field, Galaxtar Ballactica, or Moonlight: The Werewolf-Zombie Diaries? That fictitious fiction doesn’t exist and doesn’t have to suck. When you write about the bovine romances in Cornbread Field or the secret Pylon invasions in Galaxtar Ballactica, then you’ve removed the hereditary curse that plagues your typical fanfic.

Then again, if it’s not well-written, nothing can save you there.

3) Write literal fanfiction:

“Hunter oscillated gently in the summer heat, his lazy blades doing little to beat back the stifling air. He observed the lovers from his bird’s-eye-view of the spacious bed, teasing them with whatever breeze he could muster. A jealous gesture, to be sure, as he longed for a lover of his own.

He wanted to whirr in annoyance, as that garnered attention every now and then. A yank of his cord, a switch in his speed, sometimes a delicate caress. Perhaps he could hum continually, demanding immediate attention. Maybe his owner, after venting his frustration at the aberration, would understand Hunter’s cry for company, balancing on a step stool to embrace him tenderly, wrapping his arms around his forlorn blades and dated light fixtures.”

(You get the idea. And it’s not even that good an idea.)

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com), followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong), and chronicled in Brannon Chadman’s new fanfic “Writing All Wrong’s Adventure in Hogwarts.”  

Technical Fiction for Dummies

I’m not sure if there’s a such thing as “Driving Improvement School.” If there were, I’d be recommending it to every driver I know, since I’m the only one who knows how to drive on the roads here, there, and everywhere. But with driving improvement, there’s a presupposition in place: you have to know how to drive.

Same thing with writing improvement school—oh, wait, people opt for this when they don’t know how to write at all. If you’re looking to improve writing, you’d better know how to write first, whichever way you go about it.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

I recently retired from a career in technical writing, but I’d like to try writing fiction for a change, just for the sake of doing it. How would you recommend making the transition from the technical background to fiction writing (or something similar)? I feel as if my writing experience would be helpful, and I’d like to make it work for me.

—Arthur Reeves, Roswell, Ga.

Throughout my infanthood and childhood, I often wondered how I would come to the craft of creative writing from a technical writing background. Ok, that never happened. I’ll admit though, there’s a fair bit of cognitive downshifting and upshifting needed for such a change. But just as flooring the gas pedal and shifting from first gear straight to seventh gear would wreck your transmission (I think), I wouldn’t recommend too drastic a change right away.

Here’s your solution: Write some technical documents and manuals through the lens of magical realism. Use a familiar form to bridge to the unfamiliar.

How about The Human Cookbook: Creative Recipes for a Cannibalist Kitchen? Set in an era of postmodern post-tolerance, you’d have an influential guide to making comfort food classics like “Oven-Roasted Tibilalus Anterior” (served with a piquant au jus) and “Chianti Braised Latissiumus Dorsi.”

Or you could go for something with broader appeal: 100 Great Theoretical Science Fair Projects for Kids (and their Parents!). In the bizarro future, I will have bizzaro wanted my kids to try out live-action cross-species genetic mutation (transmogrifying a pet hamster into a pet flying Nile monitor), and homemade hydrogen bombs (involving a microwave, a trashcan, non-dairy powdered creamer, Wonder® Enriched Uranium, and [REDACTED]).

Then again, if you’ve spent your career writing documentation, you could draw up a manual for the RainbowTronics™ Unicorn Sentinel 5000 20xV6. There will come a time when the unicorn will no longer be the hunter, but the hunted. When we deploy Sentinels to mow down these unicorns, we’ll need a practical guide on hand for Sentinel operators. It’d range from basic use (changing the viewscreen from the visible spectrum to the unicornvisible spectrum for hidden forest tracking) to advanced operations (alternating the frequency of the anti-ROYGBIV phasers, preventing the target unicorn[s] from adapting to the phaser fire). Since the impact of a unicorn’s horn registers over 9,000 pounds of force per square inch (at ramming speed), a primer on defensive protocol would be paramount. You could round it out with sections on maintenance and modular additions, especially for those bicorn encounters. Dangerous creatures, those bicorns.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com), followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong), and reassembled using the steps on pages 56-57 in Hodge Kvorak’s “Miss Assembly’s Guide to Blog Assembly.” 

Observitude

Poor writers observe nothing. Good writers observe something. Better writers observe many things. The best writers observe the right things. The worst writers observe everything.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

So my English teacher said that I need to learn to observe all my surroundings in order to become a better writer. She said that “good observations make great writing.” Is that true in your experience? And if so, how can I be a better writer through observation?

—Glenn Hamilton, St. Paul, Minn.

If I were you, I’d find a new English teacher. If I were this teacher’s boss, I’d fire her. If I were this English teacher, I’d hang myself.

That advice is travesty, unless you believe that more cup holders make a nicer car or that more milk makes your cereal better. And if you do, see the solution for “If I were this English teacher” above.

Keen observation, while a critical component of writing, does not better writing make. If I notice that a character’s home features “paisley wallpaper, adorned with elements of aqueous blue and alizerin crimsons, with a little smudge of blotchy yellow bulging at most a quarter inch in the top right corner of the wall, eight-and-three-quarters of an inch from the sepulcher-white crown molding, crisping lightly around the edges, with its little cracks creeping like random spiderwebs and crap,” then I’m going to 1) wonder what’s up with the wallpaper fetish, and 2) use this book’s pages as new wallpaper for the author’s house, right before I burn it to the ground.

Observation. All about light brushstrokes. Dishes “in disarray.” “Waxed” torso. “Insufficient” lightbulb. Holding a “stubby” cigarette “in his talons.” Hedgehogs, like “little forests of needles.” A glass of water “sweating profuse.” “Tangled” beard. “Grimy” sunglasses. An “old” book, “pages yellowed, spine creased.” “Stank” breath. Let the reader’s mind do some work. It’s lazy anyway, and it could use the exercise.

I’m fine with noticing the “splintered chocolate chip cookie” on the table. But when an author goes 3-D X-Ray vision in his observation, demanding me to notice the “forlorn cookie, dotted with six-and-a-half semi-sweet chocolate chips, split into three parts, wholly distinct: one shaped like the island of Corsica, a chocolate chip standing where you’d normally find Mount Pinatubo; the others identical, separate only by occupation of chocolate chips, one fiercely outnumbering the other, all equally lonely, keeping company with scarce crumbs,” then I protest. So should you. Mount Pinatubo is nowhere near Corsica.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com), followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong), and referenced in your English teacher’s pink slip. 

Shaping into Shape

If you woke up one day and discovered that you could write well, then I’d say you woke up and discovered how good of a liar you were. Or you’re legitimately delusional, currently seeking treatment. I’ll wish you the best.

One-punch KOs, levitation, invisibility, showering, being a boss: these things don’t come naturally. They take practice. They don’t just happen. Neither does writing. You’re not good at it, even if you woke up thinking you were. You don’t get good at it by going back to bed and waking up again thinking you’re good at it.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

I don’t mean to brag, but—

(Yes, you do. But do go on.)

since I’ve spent the last few years sculpting my body, I know the value of exercise and routine when it comes to achieving a goal.

(This blog isn’t called “Bodybuilding All Wrong,” but I’ll keep the idea for reference.)

I’d really like to improve my writing. What kind of “exercises” can you recommend to practice getting in “writing shape?”

—Blane Renner, Gainesville, Fla.

Change your name to “Blade Runner.” Start with that.

I’m with you on sculpting a perfect body, having done so myself. Once I reached that rarefied pinnacle of peak fitness, toning my once pathetic body into a paragon of godlike perfection, I focused on writing instead. My body has reached the limit of flawlessness, but the mind has no such limit.

As far as writing exercises go, they’re similar to how you’d exercise in the real world outside of the word processor and/or internet. You don’t throw a 98-pound weakling right to the bench press, nor do you subject a beast (like me) to concentration curls using a 100-pound dumbbell. Maybe a 10-pound dumbbell, if we’re talking about mortals here.

Unfortunately, writing isn’t a muscle. Raw exercise won’t cut it. It’s a skill that takes refinement and practice.

Exercises for wimps:

(If you haven’t written a [good] novel or a good anything, then start here, wimp.)

1) Character sketches.

Invent a person, draft a rough idea of who he/she/it is with quick strokes of introspection. Create them by the masses, kill off those who don’t inspire you. Unless they’re a transcendent creation, they deserve to die anyway.

2) Dialogue.

Generate a happening through dialogue. Keep that narrator in the box for now, practice the creation of substance from the eavesdropper’s perspective. There’s a reason hearsay’s banned from a court of law: it’s that good.

3) Creation from drafts.

Do most stories plop onto the paper in their fullest form? No. Jot some fragments down, sprinkle in a pinch of coherence. See if you can construct a complete work from the sporadic emanations of your creative faculties. The imagination doesn’t do the legwork in fleshing out an unassembled spate of dissimilar ideas. That’s where writing comes in.

Exercises for mortals:

1) Freewriting

An intentionally torturous ordeal, meant to shape the mind before the craft. Simple in theory, difficult in execution. Write (by hand) for twenty minutes straight. Without stopping. Not even to pee. You can soil your shorts if you have to. Freewriting builds the ability to keep a train of thought going long enough to pen down what you’re thinking. I dare you to try it offhand. Without thinking, you’ll reflexively stop, pause, determine what to write, then continue writing. That is why you fail. Your mind should be quicker than the pen. If it isn’t, you either write too fast or think too slow.

2) Constructing a recollection.

This doesn’t call for an eidetic memory, but it helps. Think of this as a retrospective diary, only less sissy. Using recreational acid, experimental prescription drugs for treating Alzheimer’s, or wild mushrooms in a forbidden forest, probe the recesses of your memory. If those memories aren’t yours, well, that’s fresh material to work with. Keep at it. You may need to meditate for two hours, possibly up to forty-two. Write what you remember, but do so with the intent of your reader experiencing the memory as you do. Writing from observation takes no skill. Your memory is the closest bridge you have between the real and the mind-constructed. Unless you’re copping out and only going to write what you’ve experienced firsthand, then this skill must be developed.

3) Forced constraint.

You’d find it difficult if you had to work without using both arms, or if you didn’t work with both parts of your brain. If you opt for imposing a constraint on your writing, you’ll find how much you’ll labor in this art, in contrast to how straightforward it looks if you don’t work with limits. Pick which suits your fancy: no word surpassing any amount of consonants, paragraphing within a word limit, taking out words that modify, or anything you think of that unnaturally stilts your writing.*

*Like not using the letter E. 

Exercises for beasts (like me):

1) Dictionary dash

This may be my least favorite exercise, but I can’t think of anything that will whip you into shape faster and build your pathetic vocabulary. It’s like mixing creatine and recombinant bovine growth hormone into your muscle milk before a rigorous workout. Effective. Check out your local library’s copy of the Oxford English Dictionary (Twentyleventh Edition, revision 3-and-a-half.5), then begin a narrative while using one of the OED’s entries per sentence. It may take close to a dozen passes to yield a decent work. After you’ve gotten comfortable with the dictionary dash, begin using entries out of order. Going through the OED from A to Z: far too easy for a beast (like me).

2) Practice novels

Sketches, scenes, mere parts of the whole are the province of wimps and mortals. Whipping out entire novels by the novelful will test your ability to build an idea and bring it to fruition. The NaNoWriMo ruse will only gauge this ability once a year, and only through the flighty, exuberant whims of wannabe weevils. And taking a month to churn out a novel? Unacceptable. That’s a luxury you’ll refuse to afford. Should only take a week at most. Enough of these practice runs and you’ll be nearing the apex of optimal writing shape.

3) Ultramarathon freewriting

Freewriting will soon fail to test your strength once you’ve reached the beast echelon. Ultramarathon freewriting will be your solution. While twenty minutes would be an admirable goal for the mortal, we aim for sheer endurance at this level. Typing’s allowable, only because you’ll be shooting for pain. Don’t be dismayed if you average in the two-to-three hour range, as you’ve handily eclipsed the standard milestones. Breaking the five-hour mark takes incredible discipline, but by then you’d have developed a thought train more continuous than an entire high school system. It takes tremendous effort to break each new barrier in running a mile (three minutes, two minutes, one minute, half-minute), so will it be in shattering the six-, ten-, twenty-, and forty-hour marks. Press on.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com), followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong), and incorporated into the “P90x for Poets” regimen.