False Starting Advice

Sometimes, the worst advice to give a new writer is that there are rules to writing and the new writer must master these. Especially before attempting to break any of them. Not all writers are created equally. And, even seasoned authors have uneven talents. A newbie may find that they have mastered the ability to intrigue a reader through intimate details of the setting. At a small local writer’s retreat I listened to a first-timer read her piece describing a person’s possessions laid across a dresser. It drew me closer to the character who owned these item. I would have disagreed with any one that spouted the standard advice, “Don’t start a story with the description of a place.”

Another bit of advice that can be ignored, “Don’t include more than the briefest backstory at the beginning.” The flawed rationale for this rule is based on the idea that backstory stops forward momentum. There is no guarantee that a exciting first page will encourage me to to continue when the dribble of backstory keeps on interrupting the flow of the action. So, bring on the backstory at the very beginning and there’s no momentum to halt. 

At a point in the past century, novels often started with the protagonist’s childhood or the family’s background. The reader would then know the main characters before the action started. So sometimes, this is an excellent tactic to create empathy for the main character. But, at other times it causes a book to drag. Each author must decide what works for their writing. Notice there is a similar construction to both of these rules. They start with don’t and only forbid an action rather than encouraging one.

Writing conventions change over time. If I follow a current one when beginning a lengthy novel, it may be passé by the time I finally get the piece published. It doesn’t hurt to know current grammar and usage rules. But even these do not have to be followed to a tee. Writers should use them as needed for clarity. Trying to keep track of additional fleeting trends and unnecessary rules while writing will only stifle creativity and productivity.

I recall a well-meaning reviewer striking out every single “that,” even ones that were necessary and also insisting on removing all passive tense verbs despite the lack of a better way to restate the sentence. In each case the bad advice was based on unnecessary rules. A few days later, I overheard one writer gripe to another about people currently not knowing how to write correctly. She referred to poor grammar and over-use of filler words. The second writer replied, “That may be a problem, but the lack of good content is far worse. You can always fix grammar and tighten up the language. You can’t fix the lack of content.”

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The Monstrous Part of Writing

The introduction of writing into the state educational achievement tests resulted in a plethora of writing models. One teacher supported the “Six Plus One Trait” writing model with a kind of fanaticism. Others plugged a device called the “freeze frame” after the cinematographic technique. This consisted of a few sentences of  lush description, which should make an essay more appealing. We encouraged students to focus on writing a dramatic scene for one particular brief period of time. Only writing consists of more than a lot of beautiful phrases strung together.

Other well-meaning educators championed the “Hero’s Journey” model to add excitement and entertainment to the everyday accounts of teenagers trying to score well on these tests. So, some students assumed writing a good narrative essay would be easier if they could just make up information. I let them try until they stumbled over the difficulties of creating their own plots. I expected many students to depend on these modules and formulas to make writing easier.

However, I was perplexed when attending my first group of adult writers and discovered that a large portion of their discussion dealt with building stories on similar frameworks. There were sets of questions to be answered to create stories, then, came guidelines for writing to the beats. Soon, I realized  that some authors write books clinging to specific formulas so that they can produce enough to keep up with an audience who want a steady diet of a specific genre. They want to build a loyal readership through constant feeding. Readers who prefer easily consumable literature have always been around. It is the books that they consume that go out of print quickly.

Obviously, some people have been writing memorable books for centuries. Still, new trends keep occurring. Do old ones get boring due to duplication? Imitation may be the greatest form of praise, but it may not be the greatest form of writing. Ideas that work well for some authors may fall flat for another. That is the problem with the passion for the “latest thing.” Writers need to consider whether or not the current popular topic, technique or style is going to work for them. They should not be searching for one idea to use and then abandoned, but ideas that can be used interchangeably over time—creating stories by piecing them together.

Recycling ideas in any creative endeavor is similar to the creation of Frankenstein’s monster—parts of old theories and notions are stitched together in new ways. Sometimes the result is ugly enough to be frightening, but that is no reason to give up. This constant revamping of writing models might not be necessary if we would learn to add fresh ideas to the old one while they are still living, rather than killing them off with the death knell of “a writer should never….”

So my dilemma remains. Should I lean on formulas as a structure to build my written work, with the goal of making it acceptable? Or should I launch out into the unknown, gathering bits and pieces of what I have lived, what I have read and what I have imagined. The second seems more nebulous. It requires that I run finished work through the gauntlet of all those rules that writer’s are warned not to break. But, in the end I know there are no sure formulas and no sure rules. Perhaps that is the most monstrous part of writing.

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Did You Really Mean What You Said?

Dialogue in writing differs from real conversations. Fictional characters rarely ramble on for pages, circumventing what they really want to say with phrases that sound good but have hard to pinpoint meanings. Most of the uh’s, um’s and pauses in conversation are stripped from the dialog. Readers expect a pause to be important. When a character is silent while searching for words, he may be hiding the truth. If an author writes “He stopped and rubbed his chin,” then the readers should pay attention. Perhaps, the character is fabricating a story, and the next few words out of his mouth will be an obvious lie.

If the author doesn’t condense the content of dialog, zealous editors may remove repeated phrases and filler words. This attempt to make the dialog more concise also removes some of the personality from the speakers. Real people have their pet words and favorite phrases. These are not considered a problem in other media. Think about catch phrases repeated so often in particular TV shows that the memory of the character’s voice still rings in our ears. It’s much harder to recall repeated catch phrases used by characters in books because there are not that many. Instead most authors offer up a single memorable quote by the main character.

Of course, the voices of characters in books do not ring in our ears. We’ve never heard them and can only imagine their sound. The timbre and tone of their voice exists in descriptive words and dialog tags, which have become increasingly unpopular. Some writers are dispensing with those completely. Eliminating dialog tags is not a current trend. The oldest example I’ve encountered is the narrative poem called Song of Songs–better known by the title which indicates the attributed author, Song of Solomon. Because it is not easy to read a piece that switches between unidentified people, translators normally include the name of each speaker before their verses.

If well written dialog is not like real dialog, what standards can a writer use to gauge its quality? Sections of conversation often carry the same expectation as scenes in a story. What characters say reveals their traits and motives. Of course, everything characters say cannot be taken at face value. Hints can be provided to show a lack of truthfulness, such as a hesitant voice, a shifting gaze, or another person calling them an outright liar. It is much harder to depict deceitfulness in a character who never says anything.

Dialog also relates conflicts and these conflicts may be the impetus that moves the story forward. People in the story do not have to constantly carry on arguments. A few well-placed frowns, irritated sighs, eye rolls, or sarcastic words can work just as well to reveal tension. This tenseness will not remain constant through a conversation. It may build up, or if the conflict is already evident, it may diffuse the anger. The main idea is to show change.

It would seem if one character receives complements from the others in dialog, that character is the likable one. But, that’s not what really happens. We know why we lavish praise on others in real life–to get them to like us, or to convince them to give us what we want. Don’t veer from the purpose of real conversations even though these are not replicated exactly the same in fiction. The dialog is more concise in books than in real life, but the motives behind the words are often the same.

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Adventures in Forbidden POVs

Currently I am reading a novella by Virginia Woolf called To the Lighthouse. It intrigues me because it broaches the problem of flat female characters found in many early twentieth century novels. Woolf reveals what’s going on in their heads. They’re not always thinking about what man will make a good catch. This novelette is also written in a form of stream-of-consciousness, which means the author head hops between characters within the same scene. At least, Woolf gives us the benefit of using punctuation and paragraphs in her writing unlike some of James Joyce’s work.

When someone says never to head hop, the person repeating this often retold nugget of wisdom is obviously not talking about famous authors. Rather this the kind of advice is aimed at current authors who wish to become famous, or people who want to get their first book published. Despite the confusion that can occur with head hopping, it shouldn’t be forbidden. It can be done in a manner that supports the quintessential part of the story. Virginia Woolf has shown me that it can work.

Recently, I noticed the encouragement to write in what is called deep POV. Every time a person speaks their thoughts appear prior to the verbal conversation instead of a dialogue tag. Sometimes that interrupts the conversations, making them tedious to read. It takes some skill to pull it off. If authors push deep POV farther and let the reader know both people’s thoughts before they speak, that is essentially head hopping. Eventually the advice not to use deep POV may start circulating, too.

There is another technique called authorial intrusion, in which the author inserts his or her own ideas as if talking to the reader. There is also the literary form of an aside that is used in theater, in which the character addresses the reader in the manner the character Jane Eyre addresses the reader in Charlotte Brontë’s novel. Of course, both of these techniques break the fourth wall and may be labeled as “never to be used.” But, they have been successfully used by authors as varied as C.S. Lewis, Oscar Wilde and Franz Kafka. The authorial intrusion often provides a thoughtful insight concerning a complex point.

Everyone knows about the first person and third person point of view. So what happened to the second person narrative, which is written from the “you” viewpoint? Although we frequently use this construction in conversation, it almost sounds insulting in writing. Imagine reading the following:

You creep towards the front of the school, clutching your backpack in your hand. You scan the entry way for any sign of Derrick. You sidle around the side of the building to the gym doors just to be safe. In your gut you know you are a coward and wonder how long you can keep avoiding him.

We tend to take the second person “you” personally. In which case reading about a fearful character from that viewpoint might not click. However, it has been done in poetry, short fiction, and novel form. The most notable novel is Bright Lights, Big City by the American Jay McInerney which appeared in 1984. The main character (referred to as you) is tired of the New York City rat race and attempts to escape his life in the fast lane. This book was popular in the ‘80s, so a lot of people identified with that same dilemma and were not insulted by the second person POV.

People are often unwilling to take risks when writing, but I am glad that at least a few authors have risked their writing careers. I welcome more creative attempts at using forbidden techniques.

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Distorted POVs

It amuses me when people ask which point of view is best. But, I probably chuckled more when a new writer asked if it was okay to describe what a character was thinking when writing in the third-person POV. 

 “Can’t thoughts only be included in first-person?” 

 “Of course not. It’s okay to include thoughts in the third-person. Simply put the thought in italics, and you don’t even need to say your character was thinking.”

Only, it’s not that simple. The convention of using italics for internal thought does not always come across to readers. I found some some of them getting confused as to whether a person was thinking or speaking. If the thought occurred in the middle of a conversation, readers even wondered whose head they were in. So, I started attaching a tag with a thinking verb, such as “he thought,” “she mused,” or “the old lady wondered.” This confusion can occur even if the author doesn’t head-hop but stays with one person’s viewpoint for an entire scene or chapter. 

If characters viewed through the third-person POV lens couldn’t reveal their thoughts, I’d hate to see the other option—a book in which all the characters were written from the first-person POV. Then, I recalled that I had seen one recently. Not everyone told their story using “I,” but at least eight of them did. I can’t tell you the total number of characters who did this because I stopped reading well before the end of the book. 

However, this wasn’t the first time I encountered a book like this. William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying has 15 different accounts by first-person narrators. I recall being intrigued rather than confused when reading it in American Lit class. Each narrator has their own chapter/section of this story to tell about the dead woman who they  transported to her final resting place. Even this kind of convoluted POV can work well if the author understands the intricacies of multiple first-person accounts.

The omniscient third-person point of view can describe all pertinent events as if viewed by one all-knowing being from a distant point or can express the thoughts of different characters. In some instances, this POV may tell you what an entire group of people is thinking, such as the voice of an entire town in Emily Rose. That novel is also by William Faulkner who liked to play around with point-of-view. 

Using the omniscient view requires the skills to create tension in your story so that the reader cannot easily guess what will happen. However, no author knows everything that is going on with every character in the story, because that is too overwhelming. In the distant third person POV, the author only indicates what is occurring that can be observed from the outside of the characters. Dialog can give insight into a people’s mental states. Still, this view puts the reader in charge of interpreting facial expressions and actions to determine if the characters really mean what they are saying.

I have no preference for first or third person. I even enjoy reading novels written in the stream-of-conscious style—similar to what is known as “head-hopping.” The few stories in the rare second-person POV intrigue me. The more complex POVs are harder for authors to master. But if they can, it is usually an excellent novel.

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Elusive Elaboration

My friend bubbled over with excitement about her new concept for a river adventure story. She had all the characters, the settings and the basic ideas in her mind. However, as she began writing out scenes, some of the escapades shrank into a few paragraphs. This was just too monumental of a plot for her to relegate it to a short story. But, where was she going to get enough ideas to fill up a minimum fifty thousand word manuscript?

I tend to look around at other authors and refuse to write anything that resembles their work. All of this comes from a desire to be different, no matter how well certain types of genres sell, such as murder mysteries, tales of suspense and romance stories. When studying creativity, I encountered the research of Robert J. Sternberg who identified this trait as doing things contrary to the crowd. This idea resonated with me, so I continued to read his studies. One of his theories was that creative people use the idea of buying low and selling high, a technique for buying stock that has been around for awhile but is not particularly valuable at the time and waiting until it is in demand. In literature, this means reading old work, books that often seem outdated because of the archaic language. Then, reworking those old ideas and techniques into something new for a novel, which the modern reader may not have yet encountered.

My friend with the river adventure could have borrowed incidents from Huckleberry Finn’s travels on the Mississippi, even though the major plot is still well known. The escaped slave would have to be replaced with some other likable fugitive from the modern period. She could have adapted bits of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to embellish her book without many people recognizing the similarities to his account of traveling up the Congo to find an aging rogue. There are more obscure books to choose from as well as nonfiction accounts of life on a river by authors such as Peter Lourie and John Hildebrand. Even as a contrarian writer and nonconformist I find no problem with this as long as she put her own unique spin on these events.

When I have an inspiration for a story, it seems to glow in the distance, beckoning me like a rising sun. But, as I think of all the possibilities to reach the end I enter a maze where the walls shift without warning, blocking any logical way to the end that I originally envisioned. My problem is not expanding an idea by looking at different viewpoints but collecting all the scattered ideas into one cohesive viewpoint. Still, I catalog all these rabbit trails in case I end up finding that there’s not much to the paths that I’ve chosen to take for the story.

Elaboration is the hardest part of creativity. Awesome ideas in our heads become fairly simple as we record them. I have seen lists of ideas for adding excitement, mystery, or suspense to plots so often that I don’t bother to read them any more because I’ve heard them before. Other previously heard advice also comes back to haunt me—good ideas are a dime a dozen. They seem cheap because they are easy to generate. Building something out of them is the real work.

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In My Head

As a child I made up stories in my head, mostly about people’s pets. The majority of them were entirely descriptions such as fur color, number of spots, eye color and size. When I bemoaned the fact that these just weren’t real stories, an older person (probably all of twenty four) told me that my pets needed to run into some problems, and then figure out how to get out of them. My next story about a pony, who jumped the fence when frightened by a huge dog, then ran away and became lost, was better. The terrified pony never did figure out how to get back home. So, the story ended with “and he never returned.” Perhaps learning to survive in the wild could have been a decent ending. But, I just didn’t know enough about how horses did that.

However, my story writing improved with advice. So, we can ditch the idea that writing novels is a skill that cannot be taught. This is countered by the fact that not all people seek to be creative when writing fiction. Instead, some people assume whoever is making money has figured out the one best way to do it right. So, they follow the style of famous authors and do not attempt to create their own individual one. When studying creativity, I encountered the idea from more than one researcher that creative people go against the crowd. It is their nature not to conform to what most of society is doing.

Writers can learn about the aesthetics of style by studying the work of other writers and still make their own choices. Instead of parroting proscriptive lists of things that one should never do as a writer, I try to seek out authors who have done those forbidden things and still produced beautiful work. I recall the anti-hook at the beginning of War with the Newts by Karel Čapek. This rambling paragraph-long first sentence came out of the mouth of a tipsy steamer captain. Hardly an invitation to jump in and read. Yet, it intrigued me and so did meeting a new set of characters with each of the lengthy chapters. They were more than chapters; they were stories in the continuing saga of the large sea dwelling salamanders as they began to compete with man to rule the earth. 

Writers who want to be creative tend to experiment. They seek advice from writers that they admire. These other writers realize the differences between individual styles and don’t attempt to force everyone into their type of writing. There’s this lovely proverb about “nothing new under the sun,” which lets us off the hook from creating something completely original. My writing is based on my experiences and imagination blended with what I’ve learned from others. It needs to reflect the part of me that makes me feel different and a bit out of place when around other people.

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The Real Adventure

My parents sometimes claimed that I spent my entire childhood with my nose in a book. But, I didn’t learn how to read until I was five. Before that time I chose books with intriguing pictures in them so that I could make up the stories in my head. Essentially, I withdrew from the world into books every time my family moved to a new location, which was almost every other year.  As I grew older I found my hours spent reading were only as good as the materials I read. I recall perusing our set of World Book encyclopedias and checking out library books as often as I could. 

However, the real reading adventure occurred when we moved to another state. What kids thought was cool in one place, was no longer cool in the next location. We leased the house of an education professor, and I found his personal library on the enclosed porch. The limerick book was amusing for a while. Gulliver’s Travels was a bit of a challenge. I understood most of that book but did not discern the politics it portrayed. 

Soon I learned to expect more from reading and to enjoy a well written factual book as much as fiction. There are only so many fiction plots, which means I now demanded more creativity from them. I discovered that many of my favorite authors suffered the same fate as I, either being confined by illness in their youth, or moving to distant places so that books became their companions. 

Later I heard the theory that creativity involved taking ideas that were no longer in fashion, and modifying them until they become something new, which made perfect sense to me. The more that I read, the more that I searched for that kind of novelty. My idea of a quality book has changed over time. Realism became more attractive than the exciting, yet predictable adventures that I read as a young adolescent. 

In college, I dabbled with writing poems and fables. However, the best story turned out to be very similar to my brief infatuation with a promising music student who would never become a great musician despite his ability. In my late twenties I started writing a novel based on my own experience in art school and faltered for lack of a cohesive plot. My life simply did not have the exciting people and events that I thought interesting books required. When my children were young, I started writing short stories. I soon discovered that plots ripped straight from my own life were still the best.

Now, I hear people extol the popularity of mysteries, suspense and thrillers or whatever one calls an action packed book where the hero tracks down a murderous villain while dodging dangers. There are parts of these stories that I like, but the tendency to repeat the same plots has made them not as desirable for reading. 

So, decades after I started writing in college, I realized the wonderful, imaginary things I wanted to put in the stories didn’t work as well as real life situations that took on a new perspective of the world. Character-driven stories are time consuming and not easy to write, or easy to end as the major villain to conquer is the character’s own weaknesses. Sometimes writing itself becomes a sacrifice, but still provides enough joy for me not to give up on it.

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The Curse of Perfection

Unfortunately, I can always make my novels better. Even though I think ideas through before I write , the quality of my writing is not consistent. Neither is my ability to read what I’ve written in the past. That depends on my level of dyslexia/dysgraphia. Current, I’m editing a 100,000 word novel that I started 10 years ago, as task I attempted right after I wrote it. But, I kept changing tiny things that didn’t matter and shifting the order of events.

Finally, I decided to put the manuscript away for a while. Now, I find chapters that I have to scrap and start over again while, other parts didn’t require any more than a spelling and grammar check. Those sections were written very slowly. Revising as I go is essential. However, I am still envious when I observe other authors creating fiction within well-delineated genres within a few months. They seem to complete the book quickly. Then they revise everything at the end or send it off to a reliable editor. I know that they’re following basic guidelines for the plots (with a few minimal subplots) as their goal is to put out as many decently written words as quickly as possible.

Other authors experiment with their writing and revise as they go along. That is the curse under which I write. With more complex plots, I have to reread the beginning each time to recall what I have already created. Even though I tend to review and edit the prior chapter(s) before moving on, sometimes information in the first part of the books must change because of a shift in the original plot. I have two options. I can note a place to rewrite a prior chapter later, or I can just do it at that time. I usually bite the bullet and do it at that time. 

When is the story ready to be released to the public? Usually, it requires another reader to tell me I’ve reached this point. I must invite others to read my precious work to see if they are able to follow the plot and characters, and let me know if it strikes them as anything worth reading. I fondly recall the time I created a 1,000 word short story in about an hour for a critique group challenge. The group liked it so, I proofed the story once, sent it to a contest, and it won. I had never made $100 in one hour before, and this has never occurred since.

I am not alone in believing that my writing is never perfect enough. Famous authors such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Fyodor Dostoevsky often published their novels in serial form, and then spent months editing the entire manuscripts later before republishing them as novels. Most good writers understand that there are diminishing returns to self-editing after a certain point, so nothing helps me as much as a deadline in which I have to get the work finished.

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Asking for Ideas

Writing a well-crafted novel is hard labor, like going through a struggle harder than childbirth. Some authors want to seek out a short-cut, a sure thing, or a fully fleshed-out plot that has been used successfully in the past. However enticing this short-cut seems, when people write stories based on another person’s plot, they soon find that the tedious part is writing out the individual scenes. 

As an unknown author who does not receive the support of professional editors and writers, creating an excellent book is difficult and time consuming. But, if the idea is my own I have an investment in my work. This personal idea provides motivation to continue working. If the book is based on someone else’s idea of a good plot, I might simply give up when writing becomes too difficult. After all, how can I fix the problems with someone else’s concepts? 

There is a tremendous amount of work involved in moving a finished piece to the next level, so it is ready for publishing. Often writers are tempted to dispose of their first effort after an extended time of struggling to write it. Advice to new authors often repeats the idea that the first novel is going to be bad. Should I finish writing it anyway? Yes. This bit of folk wisdom has been disproved many times–by people such as Mary Shelley, Ralph Ellison, Harper Lee, and J.R.R, Tolkien whose first novels have remained popular for decades. (The authors in this illustrious list did have some experience writing before completing their first book.)

Of course, all authors are not created equal. Some learn more rapidly and some work at the craft for years before they offer their work to the public. The truth is that writing is learned by doing it. This means the second novel will almost certainly be better than the first. Some authors, like Jane Austen, published their second novel first, and then returned to edit their first attempt based on insights they gained from that experience. So, the first novel may be the right place to use my best ideas.

I can study other’s novels and research the latest tools for writing. However, the type of computer, word processors, editing software, and internet sites used to glean information are not the most important part. I could write an excellent article using a pen on a notepad. (Of course, that would take longer as my handwriting is illegible and my spelling leaves something to be desired.) The thought processes that go into my writing––creating characters, choosing the viewpoints, setting up the action arcs, the pacing for the plot, and the types of elaboration––carry far more weight than the tools I use. When people say that a person must write to improve their writing, they are telling the truth.

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