Month: February 2012

Brainstorming: Bad for the Craft

The genesis of ideas. It needs work. If you’ve found yourself infected with the virus of inspiration, then treat it, don’t diagram it, cube it, whatever. Parlor tricks, the whole lot of them. Take brainstorming, for example. You don’t need it. Brainstorming is an outlet unto itself, a fool’s errand, and a dying pit for the writer who has too many kitschy ideas, not enough product.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Can you share some good brainstorming strategies for writers?

—Brianne McClellan, Fredericksburg, Va.

Brainstorming is for—cue Jabba the Hutt bellowing—weak-minded fools. Well, that could be the post right there, but I don’t believe in taking away without giving back. Writing All Wrong strives for environmental and critical sustainability.

Instead of brainstorming (which is a mindless, scattershot exercise in haphazardness, a poor way to tend the swirl of ideas, taking them from a mental state of uninterpretable incoherence to a written, physical state of uninterpretable incoherence), try these on for size:

1. Barnstorming

Buy a vintage aircraft and put on a show. Well, to translate the idiom, get the idea down and preserve its integrity. Like a relic aircraft, your idea takes maintenance. Don’t plop it on the paper. And once it’s there, don’t toy with squiggly lines and vapid maneuvers. Construct a repertoire, give your idea some moves, solid things you’ll be able to do with it when it comes time to write.

2. Brainbuilding

“Storms” do not imply creation, unless you consider a razing tornado creating modern, deconstructionist art out of an impoverished trailer park. Brainstorming “creates” things, but it creates randomness. Sure, jot down the brain dumps, but make sure those things harden at one point. As often as you can, make that idea flexible and coherent. Don’t settle for a word here or a word there—give your thoughts some muscle right out of the gate.

3. Creative Cartography

“But, but, but, that’s mind mapping! And that’s part of brainstorming, ha!” No, you’ve only confirmed yourself a dunce without much mind to map. Can you make a country, a world, of mind mapping? Not one I’d want to live in. Creative cartography lays out the surface of ideas, placing down roads, villages, peoples, capitals, and empty space. Don’t like hierarchy? Good. Go linear, make boundaries, lay something out that you can tie together. Borders change. Empires overwhelm others. Rivers dry up. Change the landscape of your story how you will, but there’s got to be a landscape to change.

4. Sketchbooking

You would think I hate sketches. I hate them when they suck, and when people make them public. It’s as much a stunt as swallowing a Goldfish™. But good sketchbooking is effective. Write a name atop a page. Give the character a soul. Words. Likes. Dislikes. Pencil in a place name. Give it a blurb. A GDP. Why you would vacation there. Where they hide the bodies. Write a premise. Throw in the people involved. The angles of approach. Why this matters.

5. JUST WRITE, DANGGIT.

If you have more “brainstorms” then written pieces, then you are doing this all wrong. Start doing it right. Write.

 Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong). He is a founding member of Brainstorm Preparedness Watch.

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Building Sentence Structure with Style

Hitting a wall with a hammer. With a bowling ball. With a dead seagull. With the codpiece of Beelzebub. Switching back between them, alternating thuds with trinkets and tokens, skulls and bones.

Yeah, we’re pulling out a variety of eclectic items to do the hitting and thudding, but have we done anything worthwhile? Let’s shift this to inferior writing: No matter how you dress it up, no matter what trickery you employ, if your writing style comes across as drones of drumming thuds, then you need to rethink your place in the universe.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Hey Writing All Wrong,

I was happy to see that you’re accepting some writing samples again. (Editor’s note: No, we’re not.)

Since you obviously hate fantasy writing, I present a more modern opening. It doesn’t take place in a castle, so don’t be too hard on it:

“Barron entered the dimly-lit hallway. His fingers ran over chipped paint. He walked over the shattered glass. The light blinked vaguely through the narrow corridor. He tiptoed further. Blood pooled more thickly around each step.”

“He pulled out a forgotten flashlight. The shattered (Ok, we’re done.)

—Cranston Holloway, Kansas City, Mo.

Cranston, you mistake me for a hater. I don’t hate fantasy writing (ok, maybe I do). I hate bad writing. Genre fiction has become a sinkhole for those of poor talent, bad form, and no sense of how the writing craft works. But nevermind that. I’ll be pulling another item from the inbox to rail on this soon enough.

Good writers, good readers, good people will read between the lines and under the words. Whether you’re aiming for an economic style or a direct approach, you’re not a stylist if your style is dull, redundant, and tiresome.

If your prose reads like you filled in some cheeky “Novelist’s Mad Libs,” then it’ll show, and it’s going to show your book to flight out the window. (Noun) – (verb) – (place). (Noun) – (verb) – (thing). (Noun) – (verb) – (thing or place, take your pick). (Noun) – (verb) – (adverb, ah) – (something boring). (Kill) – (me) – (now).

Don’t write like you’re hitting a wall with a variety of syncopated thuds. It’s not art. It’s lame. Change it up.

If I wanted to throw this writing sample into a better trashbin before taking it out to the dump, I’d recommend tying a few things together. How about using rare and unheard of things like “compound-complex” sentences? If we’re looking at a basic remix:

“Barron entered the dimly-lit hallway. His fingers ran over chipped paint while he walked over the shattered glass. The light blinked vaguely through the narrow corridor. Blood pooled more thickly around each step he tiptoed further. He pulled out a forgotten flashlight to peer into the shattered (ok, I’m done again)

Even without coffee, that edit just flows better.

“But I don’t want it to floooow, I want it to, uh, not flow!” Then what, idiot? Want it to stall? Read it again. It still plods along with a pace foreboding. By contrast, let’s hand it to Fake Henry James:

“Barron, having entered the hallway dimly-lit, one which beckoned his fingers to run over chipped paint during the walk upon shattered glass; this, a corridor with light blinking vaguely illuminating the blood pooling around each tiptoe of a step taken further, pulled out a forgotten flashlight to peer into the shattered (sorry, we’ve gotta pull this plug)

Have you ever caught yourself thudding along before snapping into proper writing? If not, there’s still time.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong). If you want to hire Fake Henry James, please enquire within.

Inventing Words: Stop That!

“People everywhere, just wanna be free, wanna read your story, don’t wanna have to figure out your crazy idiosyncratic terminology.” — The Rascals.

The cup of judgment is not yet full on the misguided purity of storytelling. We’re not “Storytelling All Wrong” today. But for pure storytelling that chokes on its own chunks with too much of these noodling neologisms and invented wordspew? Cup of judgment: OVERFULL.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

I heard you do some unsolicited reviews, so I wanted you to read as [sic] sample of what I’m working on.

“The rolled curtains of darkness covered the Arkhurt and the shields of the guarding Morghoth, defenders of the plain. The righteous field magick, the am’nepath, could only hold the evil back so long . . .

“Blisstrix cast aside her mitirith in disgust. The ritual jewelry of King L’andrøth was a stinging reminder of the maiden’s hollow servitude, a hidden curse of the Arkh-fathers . . . ”

—”Mage” Blackstone, Falls Church, Va.

I had to put “Mage” in quotes because there’s no way your name is Mage.

I had to withhold generous portions of this sample because, again, there’s no way your name is Mage.

I had to check my sources on where I said I do these unsolicited reviews because, once again, there’s no way your name is Mage.

Let’s break this down:

1) I asked Mrs. Writing All Wrong whether or not you “roll” curtains over anything. (“Nope.”) Gotta chalk off a point for clumsy mixed metaphors.

2) What’s with this invented vocab, this battery of fake words we have going on?

[I’m gonna park right here, folks. This needs attention.]

Fantasy/SF/cyberplank/wannabe writers: Please stop the unnecessary thuds of invented words and made up inner-narrative terms. You are not a genius, nor are you crafty for “inventing” a world of imaginary words. If you want to codify the mind goo of excessive D&D play and occupying a rent-free basement with your thoughts, then write Urukhukturian Culture and Vocabulary for Beginners, or what have you.

I don’t care if you explain what a jallidot is, or how the séances of Yrthbayne progress to the luminary cycles. If you take a detour to explain that a nuurgodd is a “special type of axe dipped in royal jelly,” let’s agree to call it an “axe” instead. Readers with even mediocre brain function will soon peer right through the vapid vapors of glitter and excess, finding a weak story and limpid writing as a whole.

Am I against even the slightest whiff of neologism? No. But this imaginary vocabulary exuberance affects the weak-minded to a fatal degree. Instead of focusing on trifles like theme, tropes, pacing, cadence, connotation, narrative, and plot, the weak writer latches onto the giddiness of his own rubified brain dumps, pinning them to a flimsy story and a weak, sputtering tale.

If you get too excited about the technobabble, the psuedo-linguistics, the mythical tongues of invented ages, then write a curriculum or a primer. Don’t shame the writing trade with your attempt at a story.

 Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong). He’s the Phthanath of the Realm of Stythrandorn.

Forsaking Flash Fiction

Flash fiction.

It’s the writing world’s distorted way of saying “You can be good at something without really trying.”

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Dear Writing All Wrong,

What’s the best approach to writing flash fiction?

—Gemma Rosedale, Glastonbury, CT.

(Note: Flash fiction is a short tale, often a complete story confined to 50-100 words.)

The best approach? Don’t approach it.

*cue a chorus of boos from writers who don’t want to lose what little relevance they have*

What? Whaaaat? People, writers, this is something you don’t want to hear. But you need to hear it. Flash fiction, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. I like writing. So should you. It can be good practice, a quick sharpening of the penning knives, cleavers, sabers.

But flash fiction has become useless, deceptive, vapid, shallow, and counterproductive. *cue more boos, closing of blog* Still here? Good. You need this. Here’s why:

1. Flash fiction makes it too easy.

Many (all) will argue: “But it’s supposed to be easy! That way, everyone can do it! You’re such a jerk.” And that’s the point: if everyone is “special,” then no one is. Setting the entry bar that much lower only fools “writers” into thinking the craft is much easier than it is. And any writer worth his salt licks will attest that it’s not easy.

2. Flash fiction is too much effort for a low yield.

Unless you’re writing (and selling) a flash fiction collection (which you aren’t), then it’s worth your lasting effort to write poetry, haiku, or spend more time on a short story. Or a long story. Or an idea. One that will lead to poetry, short stories, long stories.

3: Flash fiction devalues art, overvalues community.

Because everyone wants something read by someone. When I read clusters of flash fiction, I hear only cries of “I am relevant too! I’m throwing my dusty, frayed hat in the ring! Hey everyone, look at how compact and clever I can be! Look how original I am! This is where I’m making my name, because this is easy! I CAN WRITE TOO!”

4: Flash fiction is eating a “thrown bone.”

Famous bloggers, for their coliseum amusement, throw out bones of “flash fiction contests.” Huddled masses want in. They gnaw that bone, and they’re happy. They present their crusty, dimly glinting wares, praying for the passing blessing of a glance from the Emperor Writer of the Blog. Some may be graced with a comment. This is the highest praise. The next mass of masses find themselves strung on the same drug. The cycle continues perpetual.

5: Flash fiction overtrains for a under-needed skill.

So you can encapsulate a fiction in under a hundred words? That’s great! Now let’s move on to something beefier. The big boy weights are over here. No, you want to keep doing isolation curls with five-pound jogging dumbbells? Why? Because you like them? Well, yes, they can be part of the writer’s workout, but—oh, ok, have it your way then. You get really good at those then. I’ll be working on a cinquain.

6: Flash fiction isn’t a gateway drug; it’s a gated community. And it’s lousy.

Because flash fiction stresses the encapsulated form, you’ve a complete work that doesn’t provide the satisfaction of development. Your goal is squishing juicy things into a box and being all proud of that. “Yes! I smushed it good! I like this smushing writing! I want MOAR SMUSH NAO!”

7: Flash fiction will never make you lick your wounds.

February is FlaFiWriMo. And everybody wins. Except writing. You’ll never walk away from FlaFiWriMo feeling like you need to improve, need to step up your game. Nope. With NaNoWriMo? It pummels the weak, grinds them to powder, sizzling their puny innards over the skillet of spite until golden brown. That’s worthy of your time. FlaFiWriMo’s winners are losers.

8: Flash fiction feeds and sustains the lazy.

Ah, the argument of “If it’s short enough, people will read it.” Cool story, bro. If you want an audience of a five-second attention span, then you’re—hey, are Tropical Fruit Skittles® making a comeback? I love those things!

9: Flash fiction too often discourages variety of form, diversity of writing.

I’m a man of simplicity. When I buy a bag of Variety Chex Mix®, I demand variety. Writers should demand this from themselves. If you’re an accomplished writer, you’re likely not noodling in flash fiction and nothing but flash fiction. Don’t be that one bag of “Rye Crisps Only” Chex Mix®. If you’re flashing fiction, diversify that Chex Mix® portfolio. Don’t flood it down with penny stocks and ignore the long-term bonds, cash, and illicit drugs.

10: Flash fiction keeps the poor writers poor.

Because it does.

Are you a defender of flash fiction merits or a defeater of its heresies? Do tell.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong). He writes flash fiction about flashbulbs.