Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Springboards and pratfalls

A quick search of using the words "How to Write" returned 79,549 results.  I may have purchased and/or read about 10 of those titles.  There's certainly value in learning from the experience of others; to some extent, you can learn from their own successes and mistakes.  And since there are close to 80,000 volumes out there, to say nothing of the blog posts, online articles and free-radical quotations, there's bound to be something you can learn, no matter who you are.

And Tobin Elliott, I'm happy to say, will be adding to that list, when he launches his eBook "Tweet You Write."  I'm looking forward to picking up a copy - and not just because he was my Creative Writing teacher aeons ago.  I like the whole concept of his book.  He'd been tweeting <140 character writing tips over 2011 and 2012, 100 tips over a few months.  Now what he's doing is compiling those tweets, giving some background - why he tweeted the tip - and goes into greater detail and examples of what the tweets mean.  It's like some translations of Sun Tzu's Art of War:  you're given a Big Thought and explanation, you chew on it for a few days, and then you come back for the next Big Thought.  I keep trying to convince Tobin to go to POD and make a coffee table book, or at the very least, a bathroom reader.  I haven't convinced him yet.  I'll have to wait until either the end of this year or the start of next for a copy of the eBook, I guess.  (Tobin - I can't scrawl notes in the margins of my eReader!  Just so you know!)

But you know, you could spend a year's wages looking for advice on how to write, and you could spend fifty years reading it all.  And in that time, thinking about all the rules and suggestions and tips, how much writing could you actually do?  Aside from the time spent studying (and not writing), you'll be spending all your time worrying about colouring outside the lines (and not writing).

On top of that, with close to 80,000 how-to books on Amazon alone, how likely do you think it is you'll come across two completely unique books?  There's a lot of overlap between the ones I've read already.  And how likely do you think it'll be to come across two that are in complete opposition to one another?

Added to that, there are the countless blog posts, online articles and seminars - it gets to be a little overwhelming, and I pick up very little new information.  I think I've just about hit the saturation point, and now, all I want to do is write.

I don't know about anyone else, but what I learned about writing, I usually learned by accident, and what I learned in my younger days, that's what I live and write by.   

This is not a how-to blog.  I don't have the experience, expertise nor inclination to write a how-to thingamajig.  This is just a glimpse into some of the things I've learned, and where those lessons came from.

On Character:  I totally read that wrong.

I've already written about this, so I won't waste your time.  But the point here is, I was reading Stephen King's Art of Darkness, and I totally misread a line.  Whatever the line actually was, it had nothing to do with personalities or a colour wheel, but somehow, that's the idea that got stuck in my head.  Just as colours can compliment and contrast, so could personalities.  And personalities that are too similar to one another clash like pink and red; and therefore, if as I'm writing two allied characters just don't seem to be getting along, chances are, they're just too similar for comfort.  One of them needs to change.

Then my Uncle David, a painter by profession, told me "there is no such thing as colour," which, ahem, blue me away.  Basically, colour is perceived not in the eye, but in the brain.  Your eyes receive information about wavelengths reflected back at you; but the brain interprets those wavelengths as colours.  And the way the brain interprets colours is in contrast to other colours.  By itself, a shirt may be blue.  Contrast that against a royal blue shirt, and the first shirt now looks blue-green.  To show someone who is really an arrogant snob, I have to contrast him against a haughty snob and a braggart.

Just so, in order for your human brain to make sense of a fictional personality, you have to contrast that character against someone else; another character in the book, perhaps, or against yourself. So if you don't clearly distinguish one character from another, they all blend together, and you get a flavourless, monochromatic character-sludge.

Characters in want of braaaaaaains...ngyargh...

To me, this was an important, but a really obscure, lesson in how to write characters well.

On Plot:  "You have a wonderful voice but nothing to say."

Prof Garson, if you're reading this, thank you.  From the bottom of my broken heart, thank you.

See, in my university days, I'd been super inspired to write this short story, and I was so impressed with it I ran it over to my English professor to show her.  She patiently read the whole thing, even made comments in the margins, and over a morning coffee, she spoke those infamous words:  "You have a wonderful voice, and nothing to say."
"A bit shrill though..."

In nine words, Prof Garson managed to teach me everything I needed about writing, and about living in general.  She didn't just call me down out of my Ivory Tower:  she demolished the Tower and made me dust myself off.

I had no life experience (or at least, I didn't write any of it), and worse, it was all imagery and no point.  I had no story to tell.  Now, story comes first; voice comes last.

And secondly, I've realized why I don't like to read when I'm in the process of writing a book (which accounts for why I pretty much never read).  When I read, I absorb some of the narrative style; I accidentally replicate it.  What happens is that I get a very book-sounding book.  To help me stay focused on telling a story, rather than writing a book, I tend not to read - least of all a book from the same genre or time-period.  There is value in reading other people's books (Buy Canadian!  Buy from all my friends!), but I'm too much of a narrative chameleon to read during writing season.

On Pacing:  "Now that's how you end a chapter."

I remember the place, but not the time.  My mother and I were watching TV, and it was an episode of Flash Gordon, one of the really old Saturday morning serials.  At the bottom of the hour, our hero was trapped in some sporting arena with a ravening beast, doomed to die for the pleasure of Mongo and the Princess of Mars.  I don't know if that was what actually happened, of course, we're talking about something I watched twenty-five years ago.  Anyhow - at the bottom of the hour, we saw our hero in dire straits, and suddenly, there was a knife chord and the dreaded words...To be continued!  Then my mother got up to go do something, and she said in passing, "Now that's how you end a chapter." 

"What do you mean, 'stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion?'"
I'm not sure how old I was at the time; I was something between nine and twelve years old.  I'd spent pretty much all of my spare time writing stories on lined paper while sitting on the living room stairs.  Since I was seven, I'd known I wanted to be a writer, and since my mother seemed to know everything about everything, I took her words right to heart.  From then on, it didn't matter if the rest of the chapter was Grade A drek, but every chapter ended on an "Oh No" note, designed to intrigue the reader to at least carry on to the first page of the next chapter.

I've written like that ever since. Well, I mean, I try to get rid of the Grade A drek inside each chapter, of course, but you get the point.

On Writers' Craft:  I'll show you mine...

"What an intriguing proposition..."
If there was one thing I learned in Tobin's class, it was "Show, don't tell."

And if you don't know it by now, for shame!  In brief:  Tell = "he was so angry!"; Show = "He closed his eyes, shut his mouth and whined through his nostrils."

Occasionally, I get to critique the work of other writers.  If a section of the narrative feels slow and whiny, or melodramatic, or pointlessly poetic, guaranteed, it'll be because the author chose to tell instead of show.  This is Writers' Craft 101, and still, it's the downfall of many otherwise decent writers.

But really, the key to good narrative it doesn't get any simpler than that: show, don't tell.  Everything else is a matter of tuning your word choice to better focus the imagery you're trying to convey, and a matter of eliminating the static caused by poor grammar.

On Research and Believability:  Write what you know...or not.

I've written about this one too, but it boils down to when and how you do your research.

I attended some free seminar during my high school years.  My mother and I went to the Chapters in Ajax, and we listened to a guy who taught us how to write a book in 60 days or less (might have been 30 days or less, may have been 9 days, I dunno - it was a seminar on "how to write a book in a stupidly short time", whatever it was).  He gave his audience some tips on creative sprinting using word prompts.  He showed us how to design a story from the skeleton out (I still use this during most marathons), and most importantly:  he told us the most effective means of doing research.

In terms of research, he said that you should write the whole story first, making guesses or leaving blanks where you don't know stuff.  Then he suggested that, instead of reading umpteen tomes about submarines, go to the children's section and read a book about them.  With that kind of research, the accuracy and detail of your story will be just at the level you need to keep a reader satisfied.  Also, the fewer the details you put in, the less likely you'll make a silly mistake.  But heaven help you if you try to write a book about submarines if you don't know the difference between a propeller and a periscope.

Granted, this method doesn't work for everybody.  Some like to sit down and learn Wikipedia.  Some people don't research at all, but they can still make some pretty keen observations and get stuff right.  I prefer this method, because to me, Wikipedia is one great big maze of fascinating diversions, and left unsupervised among its corridors, I get lost and I never write anything.  Writing the story first, creating a list of questions I have to answer, and then hitting the digital library - that keeps me on track.

I believe that even the best, most well-researched author is bound to get caught with his or her scholarly pants down...unless you're James Michener, in which case the sheer volume of details will entrance your readers into a state of drowsy complacency and they never check your facts.

So many delicious facts!
If you do too much research, it hurts the eye; if you don't do enough research, someone will throw the book at you. The moral of the story is simple:  if no one notices whether you did your research or not, then you've done your job: the research is so well integrated into the story that you don't even notice it there.  But in the end, there will always be someone to throw the book at you, so don't sweat it too much.

Lately, I've really started to balk at the whole notion of "writing what you know."  Yes, it sure makes the writing easier, talking from your own experience, but dang - if I wrote what I knew, a) it would be boring, and b) it would still be wrong.

The beauty of writing any story - including and especially a historical, procedural or science fiction story - is that it forces you to go out and learn new stuff.  If you're only writing what you already know, you won't learn anything new, all the wonder and awe is sucked out of your narrative, and you don't grow - neither as a writer, nor as a thinker in general.

On Editing:  Infinite capacity for knowledge, limited capacity to apply it

When relearning French, I discovered that at first, you learn a lot. You go from "jzuh mah pell Pat" to a half-hour long conversation pretty quickly.  After a certain point, it's one new word a week, or one grammar correction, some advanced verb conjugation, or one nuanced pronunciation...It's extremely slow going.  And in fact, at that stage, a lot of FSL or ESL students get frustrated at this point, because the day-to-day improvements are now so small and gradual that students don't believe improvement is happening at all.  Looking back over the last five years, however, my French has vastly improved to the point where I could probably conduct business without any great trauma.

The same applies, I believe, to improving one's writers' craft.  After a while, you don't see a point to reading all the how-to books, and you don't feel like you're improving at all.  You read all 80,000 how-to books, and you still don't feel like you've learned a danged thing.  Take heart, dear writer - as long as you're applying what you already know, you'll continue to improve.

And the application of knowledge is key.  Sometimes, when looking over Tobin's work, I catch him on things that make him do a face-palm.  If I'm going to catch him making an error, chances are, the King of Show Don't Tell has told instead of shown.

For some people, it's usage of the passive voice (though they know better),  for others, it's head-hopping, or tense shift, stilted dialogue, whatever.  For me, I still get hung up on "character sludge."  The problem is not the lack of education of the author; the problem is, every author has a fatal flaw, and it hides in their blind spot. You need mental side-view mirrors, and you need a spotter.

On Growth:  Don't make the same mistakes again.  Make new ones!
I can't remember the time or the circumstances, but I do remember I was on the phone almost in tears about some colossal FUBAR at work, and how it had been all my fault.  My mother, as usual, managed to talk me back from the ledge (usually starting her crisis hotline speech with "awwww, poor you").  She asked me this and that, and I bared my soul, and then she said, "Well, just remember not to make the same mistakes twice.  Make new ones!"

And I do!  I never make the same FUBAR twice.  And now, I've excelled to the point where I can create such wonderful, convoluted and concurrent calamities that one calamity will actually disguise the other!  In terms of creating technical problems, I have mastered the secret ninja art of Sna-Fu.

In short:  so long as you're learning, then what's flawed in Book 1 won't be the same flaw as in Book 2.  You learn to fix one weakness, but in your dedicated efforts to fix one thing, something else breaks down.

So, regardless of everything I've learned so far, I've found that the most effective way of improving the narrative is by having a reader tell you where you've excelled and where you've messed up - not just in one or two projects, but in all new projects.  And that takes a lot of tough love.

First readers, beta readers, whatever you want to call them, are the best possible allies you can have.  They are your side-view mirrors.  What's a blind spot to you is no obstacle to them.  Cherish your beta readers.  Adore them.  Bribe them.  Feed them and tenderly braid their long flowing locks.  And for crying out loud, don't ever argue with them, or they'll run away and never talk to you again.  Mike Lorenson and Tobin Elliot both have acted as first readers for me, and they never pull punches.  Unfortunately, neither have flowing locks quite long enough for me to braid, but I have heard tell that they like food, so I'm okay.

All the time, I hear complaints like "I can't write this, I know I'm just going to mess it up," and "I'll never get it right, so screw it."  I say, "Good grief - if you can make that many mistakes, imagine how much you're going to learn!"  If your next story is just as bad, there's not a problem with your ability to write; there's a problem with your willingness to learn and to apply what you've learned.

Make the mistakes.  Find out why, where and how it went wrong.  Come up with a strategy to avoid that problem in the future.  When you write the next story, chances are you'll have avoided 75% of the mistakes you made last time, and the other 25% you can fix in draft two.

On Writing about "On Writing"

So, you can see that most of what I've learned about writing, I learned by not learning about writing.  My education has been 20% deliberate (reading how-to's, attending seminars, interviewing authors), and 80% incidental, having little to nothing to do with writing.

And worse:  everything I know about writing I've pretty much summarized right here and right now.  I can't write a how-to, 'cause I ain't gots 'nuff material. So I leave it to others to write the how-to's.

Like I said earlier, I'm really looking forward to seeing Tobin's book in the near future.  His course was undoubtedly the most formative in my writing career (he accounts for most of the 20% deliberate education).  And if I never take another writing course again, I'd be fine with that.  Tobin has spoiled me from ever taking another general Creative Writing class.

I look forward to his book, not just because it has some new material; I look forward to the refresher.  It's like Tobin's written down all his class notes for me, in an orderly and legible manner!

And I look forward to the refresher because nine times out of ten, if I've made a mistake, I should have known better.  If I faithfully put into practice everything I already knew, I'd improve by leaps and bounds.

Now go buy "Tweet You Write" as soon as it comes out.  That's the best writing advice I can give you.


  1. Man...I should've taken Tobin's class but I didn't know it existed, so I drove to Toronto to learn about poetry and play-writing for my creative writing class. I got screwed.

    I think I got a lot more out of books on writing just after I first decided to write seriously. I think writing a really crappy draft with no direction is awesome to get your feet wet, but after that, reading on the basic "rules" can add structure. I still buy and buy and buy books on writing and I usually find something. Usually, it's just a refresher of something I read written a different way in the past, but it feels new and it ends up helping.

    I think people need to stop relying on freakin' "ly" adverbs all the time because it pisses me off. That's a massive manifestation of the "telling versus showing" problem right there.

    You totally nailed the importance of beta readers. They make you feel dumb as hell for making such obvious mistakes, except when you beta for someone else and you catch their mistakes, it'll make you feel like some big-shot writer with the all-seeing eye. Being a beta is the cure to feeling dumb over your own beta's awesomeness. Reading books on writing combined with doing some beta reading is probably the best way to get "better", to develop that critical eye that'll catch some of the awful diarrhea that has to come out of every writer's head.

    (This comment just ran away on me and got a life of its own.)

  2. The part about making mistakes resonates with me: so far I've been avoiding attempting to write romance books for the Kindle market (a popular genre there) because I've never written romance before. To learn I should just try it.

  3. First and foremost, thanks for all the props here, girl!

    Second (acting as that beta reader...) Stephen King's Art of Darkness? Stephen King doesn't have a book called Art of Darkness. Are you talking about Douglas Winter's book, Stephen King: Art of Darkness? I'm confoozed.

    And, still beta reading, shame on you. In the On Growth section, you misspelled Elliott. Now I'll demand LOTS of food for beta reading! Muah ha ha ha ha!

    Seriously, though. Great blog, tons of good points and, though you may not think you have a "how to write" book in you, I guarantee you do. Seriously.

    M-E, any time you want to take my course, you let me know.