Month: March 2012

Don’t Fall for a Point of View Gimmick

Point of view.

Joy, another gimmick turned to rubbish by fakes, rakes, and automobiles.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Hi—

should i write a story from the viewpoint of a dog?

i like the new perspective and i want to explore

this.

—lacy alaine renard, decatur, alabama

I’m at a crossroads of a loss. Do we deconstruct this godawful attempt at an e.e. cummings impression, or strike at the heart of an already hackneyed approach? May I use your email for next week’s diatribe? Thanks.

To shoot down your simple inquiry: don’t. I can count on one calculator the number of stories written from a dog’s point of view. I can count on one hand the number of those that are good. And only after that hand’s gripped a detonating M-80.

Might as well flush the toilet and funnel through the many drain pipes that such gimmickry leads to.

Viewpoint of a three-toed sloth:

“The hunter trekked through this lonely tangle of forest, chasing after—wait, I cannot see him now. Maybe he’ll come back. Look. There sprouts more algae upon my back. I have spent six hours moving my arm to reach the algae I noticed yesterday.”

Viewpoint of a goldfish:

“He paced rapidly, kicking a shoe about with a cuss or two following. Hates his job. Why does he hate it? I’m not sure. He’s kicking that shoe now, cussing for some reason. He says he hates his job. That’s sad. I feel sad. Now I see him kicking his shoe, but he stopped. He hates his job? Since when?”

Viewpoint of a fly on the wall:

“Hard to tell why she pulled him in here. The lights were dimmed. Pregnant? But how? My compound eyes would have welled right now, but I don’t cry over these things. I’ll be dead next month, so I couldn’t tell you what’s to become of her child.”

Viewpoint of a giant squid:

“The camera floated down to cut a wedge of light through the debris, plankton, effluent of those in the higher waters. They don’t love me, these sick voyeurs. I’d cast a tentacle of spite, but then they’d—WHALE!—

Unless you’re going all-out, keep it simple when it comes to point of view. Keep it safe. Keep it sound. Keep people reading.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong).

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Ten Ways to Move from “Wannabe Writer” to “Writer”

Quit wasting your life as a “wannabe” writer. Be the “is-be” writer.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

I’ve always wondered what it would take for me to move from “wannabe” writer to an aspiring—[DELETED]

—Lawrence Axelrod, Des Moines, Iowa.

Well, I scarce made it through that one without a volcanic rage eruption.

Let’s take it through the logical gauntlet. Am I paying any mind or insurance to an “aspiring” doctor? Good Lord, no. How about an accounting “wannabe?” Again, if you “wannabees” wannabe earning my coin, then you need to shed that tag and move into legitimacy.

Your motives, dreams, purpose, aspirations—they’re nothing until you make something of putting pen to paper, pure and purer. Here are a few gracious helpful nice things to keep in mind as you pursue the craft.

1. Shut up about what you’re going to write. Just do it.™

If I had a nickel for everyone I hear who writes more about what they plan to write, then I’d have a lot of nickels. 

2. Success is in doing, not dreaming.

I read a novel the other day, written by an “hopeful” novelist. Wait, no, that never happened. Come to think, I read nothing of the hopeful, the dreamers, the wannabes. I read those who “did it.”

3. “Having good ideas” is like spinning your wheels, only less effective.

Good to know you have some good ideas, chief. Mind paying me to do something with them? You don’t have good ideas unless you have them on paper. And even then, you’re still not writing about them. Turn the Post-It note into something of substance, or get lost. (P. S. – You can still pay me for them. Don’t toss them yet.)

4. “One of these days” = NEVER 

When you say you’re going to write about it/get around to it/write a novel “one of these days,” then you won’t.

5. In writing, you’re either doing or failing. There is no in-between.

Your writing might fill a molded paper bag in a rusted dumpster within a dystopian landfill, but at least you did something. May have sucked at doing it, yes, but that puts you a cut above the empty shelves containing the Collected Works of Brannon Pug-Ugly, Aspiring Novelist

6. Quit knocking lesser writers (unless you plan on taking them down with something better).

That’s self-explanatory. If you can write better, don’t say you can. Take two sheets of paper. Wad the first, stuff it in your mouth so you’ll stop talking. With the next, start writing.

7. Quit puffing and promoting other writers.

Because it’s an open tell. Getting the thrill of another writer’s acknowledgment of your over-the-top, effusive praise won’t do a thing for your craft. That’s not how they started, but that’s how you’ll never get started.

8. Writing thoughts > thinking thoughts.

You’re a relevant person. You’ve got a Twitter. Maybe even a blog. Cool. You probably think. And sometimes you might think about writing. That’s not cutting it. Enough of “thinking about writing.” Write one of those thoughts down and step out of the crib. Repeat. Make it a habit. That’s where “writers” begin.

9. Change the approach to “It would make a good story.”

How? Cut out the “it would” and stick with “make a good story.” Even if you don’t have the ability to write it. Maybe you should beef up and unlock that ability.

10. Stop kidding yourself. 

You’re not a writer if you are not writing. Quit deceiving yourself. You’re tagging yourself with a designation that does not belong to you. Yes, you might think, talk, speak, joke, sound, carry yourself about, and communicate like a writer, but you’re not. Unless you write.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong).

Your Main Character Needs…

Stories revolve around your heroes, your protagonists, and the protagonists revolve around your stories. Just as you have the storytelling essentials (plot, crisis, jokes, exsanguination), you need the building blocks for the people who populate the story.

People make stories, tell them all the time. They have a formula. But why does that lead to so many stilted characters? People forgetting that they have to put in as much work into people as they do the narrative? Laziness? Income disparity?

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

I need some help. And please don’t laugh. It’s historical fiction, set in Victorian England. There’s a great story here, with something I’ve worked on regarding the “death mask makers.” I just don’t know how to make a protagonist fit in there!

—Ellen Friend, Oakland, Calif.

Ellen, you’ve a dilemma most kind. Better to have no character than a bad one. Can’t help with specifics. I’m not Writing All Clearly. But if you’re going to fit a standout character in there, here’s what she/he/it will need.

1. Imperfections 

Sorry, “being too perfect” doesn’t count. Mind you, the first thing we think of is “character flaws.” And even that’s off base. You can find a captivating tale in the one whose failures are in his abilities (“failures at shark training”), rather than the cookie-cutter failure of morals (“the sharks don’t trust his wandering heart”).

2. Uniqueness

Think of someone you know, someone who doesn’t mind you being around. Try to divine how they got to be the way they are now. Raised by aliens. Took bully-karate in the fifth-grade. Learned to drive on an Abrams tank. Worked with other hard-working ‘Mericans at a factory that built factories. How did it shape this alien-reared, bully-chopping, tank-driving, factory-building friend of yours? You get the idea.

3. Unexplained quirks

“Waiting yet again, he worked at plucking what he thought to be unworthy hairs from his goatee.”

“She stirred her coffee with a fork she’d pulled from the drawer.”

You all do weird stuff, and I never bother to ask you why. That’s what makes you characteristic. And also, weird.

4. Changes

There’s an innate satisfaction to the character who changes, be it for the better, worse, or worser. One wins the lottery, distorts into a psychotic miser, blows his brains out with a discounted Glöck. A tentative quarterback loses an arm during a violent scrimmage of blade football, regathers his courage, overcomes stigma, and adjusts to a bionic limb to rally his team to victory. Basic, but stories are about moving from point A to point B. You can do the same with a character too. It doesn’t work if you’re writing about one who traces his wrinkles with sorrow and regret as he raises children and chickens on a farm, who in turn raise children of chickens and children on a farm.

5. Consistency

Because people are consistent, creatures of routine. Even the spontaneous ones. They’ll consistently do something stupid.

6. Something special

Why did you pick this person for your story? Could I have substituted your brooding, secretive killer for a fat man who rides killing luck to satiate his lust for pilfering one’s refrigerator? What about your independent, strong-willed prairie woman? They’re practically assembly line items by now. Why not someone who’s dependent, with a will broken by too many long winters? Your hardboiled detective? Five cents a dozen. Warp in a straight-laced, tidy-mouthed, teetotaling moralist of perversion, ridding the underworld of “sin and debauchery.” See how that manages. If you’re putting someone in where a story’s to be told, make them worth telling the story about.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong). He stirs coffee with a butter knife.

8 Things to Keep OUT of Your Opening Sentence

In our on-demand culture, we need the best, and we needed it right now yesterday. There’s no time to afford mediocrity developing into greatness. If a TV show isn’t piquing my interesting within five minutes, then I’m switching on “Downton Abbey Zombieland.” If YouTube drivel doesn’t make me “lol” within thirty seconds, then I’m going to chew gum instead. And if the first sentence of a story doesn’t suffice, then your writing isn’t worth my time (or anyone’s else).

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Hi W.A.W.-

What ingredients do you need for the perfect opening sentence?

—Carter Bellamy, Fort Wayne, Ind.

Don’t call me W.A.W. That’s actually Waxing All Wrong, an unaffiliated blog that has everything to do with waxing, and nothing to do with writing.

This is an inexhaustible topic. You’ll find dozens of ways on how to “do it right,” but none on what *not* to do. Since I’m not Writing All Right, you can look for the “Opening Sentence Ingredients” elsewhere. Here’s a blacklist for things you don’t want in an opening sentence.

1. Banal Brevity

(waits for you to look up “banal” – ok, good)

Don’t shoot for the pithy one-worder or the half-sentence. Why can Dickens get away with an opening sentence of “LONDON,” and you can’t? You’re no Dickens. You are not clever if you think “less is more” and fart down something like “Smokehouses,” or “The falling of the rain,” or “Nothing beside remains.” The discriminating reader will see right though your fraudulence.

2. Truths Self-Evident

There’s a way to state the obvious with mastery, and unless you do just that, don’t do that. 

“Yet another day passed where I’d had enough with my boss.” — How insightful. No one thinks that.

“I loathe Mondays.” — Really? Thought everyone liked those.

“The sun arced ‘round the ridge, just as it always had, just as it ever will.” — Nuh uh.

3. Dialogue

Of all tactics, this one might be the most well-known. Doesn’t stop amateurs from disregarding the rule. Unless one of your characters says something that will stop both the revolutions of planet Earth and the bowels of one who binged on Taco Bell at 2 AM, then don’t use dialogue for your first line. Heck, even if it’s a great line, use it later.

4. Mundaneness 

The opening sentence need not be something you can slip into anywhere else in the story unnoticed. “Some character did some thing and yeah.” You’re setting a tone with style, not with slumber. You are allowed to jazz this up. There’s a profoundness in the placing of that opening line. Ignore it at your peril. If you’re going to write boring sentences, write them in the middle of the book, where the flames of spite will eat them at the last.

5. Backstory

“Whaaa? But how are you supposed to introduce the events of the story?” Let the events themselves introduce the story. I do not care that “High King Regurgitus was born on the Nocturnalpictus of Seventhember, thus granting him legendary power, all of which sets in motion our story.” Start too far back, and you won’t have anything at all. Need proof? Star Wars hit the scene halfway into its story, right on the money. What? It’s a movie? Yeah, well, whatever…

6. An answered question

It was where the dead buried the dead who buried their dead.” Cool, that’s great: another dumb zombie/vamp/undead novel that I really don’t need to know more about. Come on, if you’re going to propose something like that, leave room for wonder, not blunder.

7. Character description

He pressed a firm handed to his barrel chest, peering through penetrating hazel eyes into a lake that reflected an empty soul within a chiseled frame.” Pardon me while I reverse my dinner in hopes of purifying this sentence. This is one of the weakest of weaksauces. It doesn’t even have the consistency of sauce. This isn’t so much clever or cheating. Unless the description plays a key part in the story (and even then, that’s borderline emesis), don’t start off that way. You know, just don’t start off that way, period.

8. Introduction

Our story begins in—” 

“Here is the tale of—” 

“Lemme tell ya about a story about—” 

You’ve seen these lazy attempts before. At least I have. I failed them when they were written back in Creative Writing for Kindergarteners. These don’t even qualify as weaksauce, vacuous as they are. May God forgive your talentless soul should such opening sentences issue from your pen.

What else do you try to avoid in your opening sentence?

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong). He was both the Best of TIME® and the Worst of TIME® in the same TIME®.