Monday, September 12, 2011

Introduction to Specific Writing Techniques

I have three sayings when it comes to approaching editing advice, all cliché: “If your car is running without gas, don’t stop to fill it up,” “everything in moderation,” and finally, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

These all essentially have the same meaning to me. Do what works when it works, change what doesn’t when it doesn’t. When reading any sort of how-to book or writing article, I find the advice as generally similar and without the benefit of context. Of course, it can’t take into account the variation of writers and styles, specific mistakes and personal priorities. It does, however, surprise me how I can sit and spend hours Stumbling across a good number of articles on writing advice and yet, I’ll only come across something novel or even specific once every blue moon.

The worst part is not that it’s repetitive. I like getting things I haven’t heard before, but I can’t blame any of us—partially because I too am a perpetrator of it—for repeating timeless truths. It’s the idea that other than the fabled Writer’s Block, the advice is pretty vague, “Improve your writing all around,” stuff.

In Stephen King’s On Writing, an fascinating book more about memoirs than writing tips, he spends about 1/3 of the 300 page text talking about his suggestions for a becoming author.

What were they?

Don’t use passive verbs and don’t use adverbs.

Write interesting characters.

Write good dialogue.

Schedule your writing time.

Sound familiar? They may not, depending on how much you actually sit down and try to get pissed off by Absolute Do’s—But I think that may be just me. If you’re reading this, however, I must assume that you came across it because you’re interested in this sort of topic, and so odds are that you’ve seen a few of these before. If you haven’t, don’t worry, you will.

Now was that advice as simple as “Write good characters?” or am I taking it out of context? Well, read it for yourself, but I felt the majority of the chapter was more spent on him showing examples of bad characters then specifically telling someone how to make a good one.

Which brings me back to the “vague” factor. Most writing advice is very similar to this. Number one on the list for how to get better at writing is “Write.” They will then proceed to tell you things like write in the morning because that is your best time, have a time or page count goal, some, like as in On Writing will tell you not to do something, like use adverbs or the word “said.” Others will tell you to always use the word “said,” and nothing else. They might even beg you to do it, saying, “Oh, please, don’t do this. Please.” That drives me up the wall.

If I’m complying with your advice, I’m not doing it as a favor to you. Shut up.

My problem is this: Where is all the advice for specific problems?

My stories don’t have interesting plots (a real thing I personally struggle with to varying extents). What do I do?

It didn’t come out the way I imagined it. How do I fix it?

I keep writing 10 pages of a story and never finish it. What is my problem?

The last one you actually will probably be able to find advice for. The other two, not so much.

There will be people who approach the topic, but they often do it in indirect ways, going off on tangents about what is bad versus what is right. There is this wonderful article, Why Story Structure Formulas Don’t Work in which a screenwriting professor at UCLA talks about how a woman had trouble with plots and attempted to use a formula, which, as the title suggests, didn’t work.

I read through all three parts of this story, and he kept promising to offer help, help that he didn’t really get to.

As I’m sitting there, trying to find exercises, ideas, or advice to help with my weaknesses, and I’m thinking, why can’t I find anything specific anymore? I realize that all mistakes are contextual within the work, and that they vary from piece to piece, but I think it’s more likely that people struggle with making good characters and interesting plots than how much they lean on a badly placed adverb.

(See what I did there?)

So over the course of the next few weeks I will be posting articles on how to work on specific aspects of writing, relaying techniques, exercises, and ideas that I’ve heard over the last 10 years I’ve been sucked into this business. Some of them I’ve tried, some I laugh at, others I use, and even some I’ve developed (I’ll try to warn you which one those are). They will orient around a concept based on Aristotle’s five principles of drama for a reader to pick and chose what he would like to get better on.


Because I’m using them for writing instead of the stage, I use atmosphere to describe Aristotle’s original “spectacle.” For that same reason, I’ve also removed the sixth principle, “song” because that is just a part of language in text form.

Each week I will list rules, techniques, exercises, and ideas, popular or not, related to getting better in each of these aspects.

On that note, please let me reiterate:

“If the car’s running without gas, don’t bother to fill it up.”

If you can write characters without understanding what his favorite color is, then don’t waste your time filling out 50 page character sheets.

“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

If you’re story’s good, it probably won’t be better without adverbs. If your description is terrible, then, yeah, maybe get rid of it.

And finally:

“Everything in moderation.”

Short sentences are great when most of them are long. Long sentences are fantastic when most are short. Style aspects only become negatives when they are used too much.

As a final note and most important note:

A lot of writing advice sounds like an absolute rule: “Never ever use ‘very.’” In fact, many people say, “Learn the rules then learn to break them.” My philosophy lies in these three clichés, indicating, “Learn the mistake then learn how to fix it.” With that in mind, please use my articles sparsely. Following every suggestion I am about to make will lead to a huge waste of time in which one could spend writing.