Saturday, March 30, 2013

5 Common Hold Ups for Writers

It’s hard to finish anything. Most people don’t. Whether it be cleaning to writing to video games, most of us, if we don’t have some external motivation, abandon things when they get hard.

Of course, the levels of “not doing it” vary from an outright no, to a maybe to an honest yes that just never evolves passed the agreement stage. Some people start, some people might even finish, and yet few take the work as far as their original plans.

And even if you, my devoted reader, are far past the stage of “just thinking about it,” have written some crap, hell, have written a whole bunch of crap, you’ll still find those days in which continuing on seems just too hard to be worth it.

Here are a couple of reasons.

-Procrastination

Procrastinating is an innate personality trait that everyone is born with. What I like about it, however, is it is proof positive that you can change and improve yourself to be the person who you want to be, and not just by the expensive Michael Jackson route. See, in order to obtain success, you don’t necessarily need plastic surgery and medication, you can just do it by sheer will power.

Of course, most people don’t learn to be reliable by choice as much as necessity. Yet, for those of us who didn’t have parents and teachers whip out their rulers and beat the tar out of us the fiftieth time the homework failed to show up (or even give me an appropriate F), we have are on our own when it comes to fixing ourselves.

There are three lies to tell yourself if you want to be a writer: It needs to be done. It needs to be done now. And it will succeed once it is done right.

Any excuse that contradicts those three lies is not helpful. Any thoughts that don’t support those lies aren’t helpful. They’re just demoralizing. And if you are one of those people who thinks that lying to yourself isn’t the best way to go, fine. Tell yourself the truth. It doesn’t need to be done. Ever. And it will probably will fail even if there is a lot of work in it, especially because there is no right way. Okay. There. Feel honest? Good. Go write your damn book anyway.

Procrastination can work, but not when you don’t have a deadline.

-A Belief in Fate

The logic goes like this:

America appreciates innate genius far over learned genius. In fact, we don’t even believe that learned genius is a thing. When we meet our math wizards, our godlike painters, and our Hollywood screenwriters who just seem to have their shit together more than we ever could, we decide it’s because they were meant to do it.

I’m not going to say that there is some uncanny shenanigans going on when it comes to ridiculous success. Luck has to be involved, and probably the personality helped the talents align with the times that just skyrocketed them to the level of genius.

And, of course, there’s always a benefit to thinking that you are meant to do this which allows for rejection to come in its many forms and promptly be ignored as a rite of passage. Plus, it helps a little bit to overcome the statistical unlikeliness of actually getting published, not to mention not having anyone actually read your book.

Yet, there’s still a couple of glaring problems with the fatalist mentality.

First and foremost, one of the number one reasons a person tosses a book he’s writing is because it did not turn out how he expected. He realizes, with a sudden horror, that he is much worse of a writer than he thinks he is. I’ve had this conversation with a good number of people who talk about their story not being good enough, and one man who actually told me that he writes something that is similar to a Stephen King story, then promptly feels ashamed.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say this again. What the hell happened to the concept of practicing? I realize that improving writing style is such a gradual change that it can seem like it doesn’t even exist, but I have to say, from someone whose been doing this for ten years, improvement happens. Improvement happens, eventually you’ll actually write something you like, and you’ll start to have a much clearly understanding of writing in general.

I won’t get too much into the argument about certain people “getting ahead start,” because the rant is too long, but I will say that genius isn’t something easily recognized. Few geniuses define themselves as such, and not until after they’ve been told by others. You may be right about your level of suckage, or you may just be being too hard on yourself. But, in either case, it doesn’t mean that you won’t get better or that you won’t be successful. Realize that everyone has some sort of talent going in, some are just more obvious than others. Just because yours is subtle doesn’t mean it’s useless.

-“Morals”

This one is I think the most important on the list. I put morals in quotes because the problem stems more from mislabeling opinions than it does standing up for them.

What I am about to say can be simplified down to “pick your battles.”

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be yourself or do what you want to do despite it probably not being the most business savvy. There’s nothing wrong with defending unpopular opinions or using your book as a formal demonstration one what is wrong with the world.

The problem arises when it’s not really what’s going on.

If an author tries to behave as if the world is the way it should be, he’s shooting himself in the foot. Especially when he doesn’t actually care about the agenda he’s taking on.

To simplify matters, I’ll give a ridiculous exaggeration of a mild but actual thought: Typos. So, in reality, a book shouldn’t be judged for its typos; it doesn’t indicate the brilliance of the concept or the voice or the in depth character work. (Okay, it does kind of because if you haven’t read it enough to catch that you used form instead of from, it probably doesn’t mean you haven’t put enough thought into it notice that you killed off the same character twice. Allegedly.) But, your book still deserves a chance and should not be judged for little things like that. And, there’s those hilarious stories of people like Hemmingway’s editor sending him his manuscript back and asking for him to insert his punctuation. Then, in a stroke of genius, he sent back a page of comas and periods saying something along the lines of, “Here. That should be enough.” And it worked! Because it’s freaking Hemmingway.

So people think, “I shouldn’t have to fix my typos. They should consider the meat of the work, not the shallow appearance,” and they use that to legitimize not putting in proper comas.

Now for those of you who are thinking this is all ridiculous, I will put it in slightly more legitimate context. If a person was to write a blog about their personal experience with having a child with autism, does a simple and honest mistake like misspelling, say, mispell, ruin all the passion, meaning, and perhaps even talented writing of the author? It shouldn’t. If we respected them (and that’s what it all comes down to) we should hear what they say and not fixate on one simple mistake.

In a perfect world, an agent would look past typos and see the actual merit of the work (which still might not be enough to get them to care). It just doesn’t mean they will.

So the thought, “I shouldn’t have to fix my typos,” becomes, “I shouldn’t allow my story to be rejected for my typos.”

As an author, you’ll have to sacrifice your opinions at some point in time. Though we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, make art oriented around sales, write only about the thin and beautiful, or make a change simply to pander to a bureaucrat, if you want to be successful, you’re going to have to work with people.

It’s not to say to sacrifice things you actually care about just to make money, it’s just to say prioritize and compartmentalize, and really think about how much you care.

Sometimes it’s best to organize morality into different files, and think simply, “This movie is not about feminism, so I’m not going to demand that a woman does a voice over, despite it being utterly ridiculous that she can’t. But, for my next film, which is totally about feminism, I will.”

Sometimes it’s best to recognize that though you believe something, it’s really just an opinion, not an agenda. So you think, “Republicans suck!” but instead of rejecting the agent that took you just because he also published Bush’s autobiography, you take the opportunity because (in this hypothetical scenario) that doesn’t affect you.

And sometimes it’s simply best to realize that it’s a moral you simply do not care about; you’re just being lazy or stubborn.

Refusing to sacrifice any morals and opinions for the sake of success not only is a huge obstacle in the publishing world, but hinders personal editing as well. Willingness to deal with reality instead of trying to create a new reality allows for the author to make active and concrete decisions as well as define quality in a more useful way. Morality can be a number one obstacle despite that sometimes we don’t care all that much.

-Indecision

“Good” comes in many forms, and with that knowledge, it becomes hard for people to discard options. Picking a direction and committing to it, however, is the first and often easiest way to fix bad scenes and turn them into great scenes.

Go to a Redbox and rent one of their independent films. One about vampires would be most appropriate. Watch it and make mental note of the things wrong with it. I have a very good bet that one of the biggest issues is that they won’t decide if it’s satirical or sincere.

People say to me often, “It’s a metaphor if you want it to be.” They claim, “It’s about whatever you want it to be about.” They indicate that they don’t care if people are laughing or pissing their pants in fear, nor do they mind if the reaction couldn’t be further from what they expected. The number one goal of the casual writer is for people to think that they’re good. They don’t care how.

There are three problems with this. One, it reads like that’s what’s happening. The story seems like the creators couldn’t decide what they wanted, so they didn’t bother. This does not look kindly on their perspective experience levels. Two, it doesn’t go to extremes in either direction and seems muddled. The audience doesn’t laugh, but isn’t scared either. Trying to compromise between the two achieve nothing. Great scenes have great emotion, and great emotion requires commitment. And three, it makes it really hard for the author to write.

Indecision, or simply dealing in the unknown, is the number one cause of writer’s block. Not knowing or not being able to decide what happens next prevents the author from continuing on.

By simple act of committed decision making not only breaks free of said writer’s block, but the quality of writing improves in leaps and bounds. A person is more likely to take risks, be extreme, and even be more inspired when he knows what he’s going for and has decided that it’s the direction he’s committed to. People who are still waiting around to have it all, however, get nowhere.

-The inevitable tainting of the concept

This obstacle is unfortunate because the problem is truly devastating, and pretty damn common. As in, having the concept come out immaculately is about as likely as having your child come out immaculately.

We have an idea in our heads, but the idea is incomplete, vague, and poorly formed. Upon trying to put it down on paper, it changes, alters, and isn’t the same. Sometimes it’s better, and the story is being made more complete with greater details. Sometimes, however, many times, it’s just disappointing.

In the same way that once we wake up from a dream we can never return to that euphoria no matter how much we try to remember it, inspiration escapes almost immediately after its conception.

This is a huge issue especially for beginning writers. We have all these big hopes and dreams for this fantastic story that we’re imaging, and yet, the moment we finally get it on page, it just comes out… stupid.

The only way to contend with this is to trudge on. By means of practice, trial and error, and really just experience, the author can slowly start to grow into being able to mark down ideas without tainting them. It takes a lot of work and patience, but slowly, over time, it starts to happen. We get better as we write, and we begin to come up with exactly what it was that drew us to the idea in the first place and what will ruin it.

In order to finish a story, an author has to be willing to deal with his own issues. There are a lot of reasons not to write a book, some a lot harder to solve than even those labeled here. The only way to bypass these issues, however, is simply by doing, finishing, and doing again. By refusing to worry about things that don’t matter and aren’t necessarily true, an author is able to succeed in ways that the average man couldn’t even begin to know how. All he has to do is get over some annoying obstacles.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Before You Start Killing People



Murder and death fills up fiction, fluffing out and dramatizing the world for the sake of interest and compassion. Most novels contain at least one form of death, especially in modern times, and no fantasy or action sequence is complete without mortal terror. Strangely enough, it is not something reality experiences to a similar magnitude. People who had to deal with death in high levels are often disturbed, distracted, and deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. They are uncommon and situational. We can expect a Vietnam vet to have more experience than a ranch vet. Though most people know at least one person who has died, many times they weren’t close, or as close as they should have been. Someone who has seen death numerous times that is not in a situation that would lend to it is startling and unnerving. Meeting a true orphan is a strange experience, especially if the parents’ deaths were unrelated. For the majority of our lives we don’t have to deal with grief, and usually not without warning.

The main issue with fiction is that it can’t be judged by its comparison to reality. Sure, the best stories are reflections of the truth, but there are many circumstances in which readers do not want or will appreciate how “it really is.” Not only do we not always know what reality is (say the size of the statue of liberty), but most occasions we don’t even want it. I much rather read a book about a couple who are truly fated for each other than one about two people dating because they both happened to be the tallest people on campus.

Killing off characters is a powerful tool that authors utilize in order to craft tension and achieve a higher level of realism. But, like any commonly used tool, the knowledge of its motivation can lead to immediate backfire.

First and foremost, it is the job of the author to conceal his objectives from the audience. We want the readers to be thinking, “Oh, please don’t die, Harry!” not “Oh, please don’t make Harry die, Rowling!” Being immersed in the book means that reader isn’t thinking about what the writer is doing. This reasons that, even when it’s positive, if he is considering the writer, the author didn’t do her job. This is why the goal of the creator should never be to “be good,” because, if successful, it just means the reader will leave thinking, “Wow, Rowling is a good author,” instead of “Harry Potter is awesome!” In essence, the book should be so convincing, the reader should forget that it isn’t real until he chooses to remember, i.e. is asked to do an analysis.

“Killing characters” has become a label for its motivation. In a similar way to how pushing a child away from a moving car is a label for “I am being heroic,” death is a label for, “the author is trying to make me feel bad.” The subject is especially hard because it is in humanity’s nature to question it. It is one of those subjects that people innately say, “Why?”

Asking why often does, but shouldn’t, leads to metareading, or the process of looking at fiction as a book and not as a reality. We think, “Why did this character have to die?” and we answer it in terms of why the author made him die. Since the universe will never answer us when we ask it, we don’t really look at death in terms of being motivated. In that everything in a novel should have a purpose, this difference of life and fiction leads to a conflict of concept. Knowing that there is an author and he has power over life and death makes us demand the answer from him, because, despite the fictional god existing, we know he really wasn’t the one who made it happen.

Metareading, in most circumstances, can be avoided. When readers ask why, they often can turn to the motivation of the character. “Why did John punch Mike in the face?” Because he insulted his girl. Though the author’s motivation is still there—“Why did John punch Mike in the face?” So that he could be kicked out of the military which would lead him to the desperation of taking the deal with the devil—the reader thinks first and foremost from the character’s or narrator’s perspective.

This is not so easy when it comes to death. We can explain why the antagonist would shoot the protagonist, but we can’t explain why that would actually kill him. The characters motivation can only control their actions, but the author chooses the ramifications. Normally, like in the above example, the motivation will explain an obvious ramification, but, because it is so typical for characters to escape from death, and death is so uncommon to us in reality, dying seems to be more the choice then the inevitable result.

What all this comes down to is the complicated aspect of fictional murder. Or, rather, the question of whether or not we should.

 Because death is so powerful, people turn to it for an easy way out. They have a character who can just deliver information, then murder her so that they don’t have to figure out what to do with her. Because the situations are supposed to be so horrible, they bring in “useless” people to prove it. The red shirts come down with the Captain so someone can die.

It is important to remember, that as we question death and that as it is an abused choice, death will quickly bring the reader right out of the story.

There are some tips to avoid it.

First and foremost, whenever the author gets something out of a situation, he must punish himself for it. This rule of thumb exceeds just the concept of death, but benefits most decisions to be made.

Things death can do for the author:
-Quickly get a big reaction from the audience.
-Get rid of a character.
-Motivate another character.
-Prove the situation is dangerous.
-Make a permanent resolution to any problem.

If the motivation for murder is any of these things, which most times it is, this does not imply bad writing, the author just needs to make sure it’s not looking like he’s doing what he’s doing. The best way to do this is to make the death harder on the author.

Ways that death hurts the author:
-Dealing with grief.
-Dealing with a long death.
-The character dying before he has achieved his full use.
-Losing a character that is likable or long standing (with exceptions.)
-Dealing with the body and/or legalities.

In essence, it becomes about making this quick death have more of a resonance. Part of the issue is when the author wants the death to end abruptly and not deal with it for a long time. This makes sense because, well, that’s what we want in real life. It is, however, not the way things work, and doing so just belittles the death process, which just contradicts the reason why the author had it happen in the first place.

A writer wants to manipulate feelings; that’s what he does. I tell you a false story to make you have emotions for people that don’t really exist. Manipulation and persuasion is a special talent that takes charm and skill, a process that most people want to skip. One of the methods is by choosing obvious events that should make readers feel a certain way. We’re supposed to care when someone dies, about children, about old people, about bullying, about the earth, about our health, and a whole bunch of other things that society dictates. It’s common to see these things in stories and to be very unimpressed by them.

When the writer wants a reaction for killing someone off, he has to be unpredictable. Part of the reason why death doesn’t have the desired affect is because people tend to treat it in the same way.

If you want a death to have an effect on the audience, it needs to be meaningful. Firstly, you will have to deal with the grieving characters. Having them suck it up and stand strong just because they’re in the face of adversity reads as a cop out, not as an indication of their strength.

If the character isn’t someone they care about, then prolong the death. Injure her, allow them to get away, and then, after they’ve had to struggle with this lump for a good duration of time, she can die. Killing her off right after she’s done whatever it was for her to do just makes her seem like a writer’s connivance, not a person. And, even after the death, forcing the characters to deal with the problem long after it happened makes it seem more like a story point than just an emotional ploy. Because they have to drag the body with them to bury it, or keep getting called in to the police station to deal with a trial, or even seek out the family to let them know what happened, the motivation can be a driving force for the character, lead them to new places, and make it feel like death means something.

Characters should have a purpose outside of dying. Putting in a whole bunch of people just so they can be slaughtered makes the audience shut down and care about none of them. Because it is hard to deal with a lot of characters at once (a lesson I learned when writing children’s shows), it is rare for a story to have a lot of people involved. In Stephan King’s On Writing, he discusses coming to a huge writing block because of the number of people he had to deal with in The Stand. A problem he, ironically, solved with death. This means that nine times out of ten a story with a lot of characters only did that so they get to up the death rate. Because readers will recognize that, they will predict the killing of everyone but the last two or three. That prediction will lead them to stop caring about the character to protect themselves, so they won’t feel as bad when the character dies.

Choosing wisely who goes and who lives is the only way to revamp our assumptions about fictional death. Because the readers have so many expectations about it, some irrational, killing people with meaning becomes a complex game of balance. We know the protagonist won’t die, but killing him won’t make us happy either. Murdering unimportant characters isn’t a good foil for the protagonist’s abilities; it doesn’t illustrate how great he is to have survived, it just makes it all the more unbelievable. Either be heavy handed on frugal on death, and don’t make different choices about the importance of the character. If a lot of people die, some should be main characters and some should be red shirts. If you don’t want your lead group hit, then you need to hit the “peons” less.  Watching the protagonist fly through battle undamaged, yet see hundreds of extras go down in one strike only reminds the audience that it is fiction, not that it is really a dangerous situation.

Because death is the ultimate solution, it can often be an unsatisfactory option. Getting rid of characters through other manners proves much more creative than just killing them off in a new way. Having someone desert, get lost, turn traitor, argue about which direction take, and allowing it to end positively for them, or the punishment to be something outside of death can be must more refreshing.

Death actually indicates laziness. It is final and permanent. While most endings can be questionable, death solves all problems. The author does not have to be clever or meaningful. Death just naturally is. But, because the audience knows this, it feels like a cop out. This says that ending a story with the protagonist’s or friend’s demise will only lead the reader to be, not only disappointed by the death, but disappointed by the writer’s cleverness.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Importance of Being Patient


I will admit that it annoys me that this annoys me. Being upset with other people’s inexperience is irrational because it is sensible and innocent enough.

However.

Recently I read a post on Facebook where someone asked a friend of mine if she could get her play into the theatre my buddy was working at. Of course the answer is no. I don’t care if you have the full support of a board member, trying to get a nonprofit theatre to agree on anything is impossible, especially when asking for them to take a chance on an unpublished and college aged playwright. Though age is not an actual direct indicator of talent (having read the first work of sixty year olds, I can attest to that), there is a stigma on it, meaning that, especially when dealing with people who are in the midst of their midlife crisis, age is a mark against judgment.

But my dear friend, bless her heart, answers the question the best she can—by making up something that sounds right. Yes, there are some places that are willing to allow plays to come in for half the ticket sales, but it’s not all that common, and it usually requires some charisma to negotiate it. For various reasons, it’s not something that many people want to do. They are now blocked out of the space, still have to pay for electricity and air conditioning, (which, considering the volume of lights and area actually is a decent chunk of change) and still have their name attached to whatever is being produced. Add that with the ego of most artists, and very few people want to deal with it.

She also adds, however, that the seasons are chosen a year in advance, which makes sense for advertisement reasons. And is typically par the course. When, however, my friend tells the inspiring playwright that, the response is, “ok wow I have to wait a whole year?”

I don’t want to be irritated. Her feelings are understandable, her naivety is not malicious, and, quite frankly, the indigence is something I probably read into it. Lastly, although I don’t remember it, I’m sure I once upon a time I have had a similar reaction to something of the like. It doesn’t mean that people should be angry with me, or her, for that matter.

HOWEVER.

The number one way that artists hurt themselves is by a sense of entitlement. It isn’t all bad; feeling humble and selfless is not the way to have a successful career in anything remotely competitive. Believing in your own specialness and destiny allows for us to overcome overwhelming odds. On the flip side though, it is important to recognize that “God” helps people who help themselves. Whether it’s destiny or fate or religion or genetics that we use to define “gift,” believing that nothing can happen without hard work and diligence will counteract the stagnancy that will come with believing in innate talent.

That being said, I am not advocating humility. Forced humility is rarely beneficial, neither is, for that matter, humility itself. Being purely selfish and humble doesn’t lend to success. I am advocating patience and sacrifice. Desire for immediate satisfaction is the number one reason that people don’t chase their dreams.

I’ve seen people pick up a pencil, be dismayed at what comes out and quit. They want to be innately talented.

I’ve seen people get one bad critique and throw away a script. They want the good to be immediately recognized.

I’ve seen people get told by one bitter teacher that they won’t succeed and they believe it. They want to know that they’re not wasting their time.

But becoming a writer takes time; it takes time to finish a book, to get better, to get an agent, to get a publisher, to be published, and no matter how abnormal a path we choose to take, it isn’t likely that it will be much quicker.

I do support trying to make it happen as quickly as possible, and not just surrendering yourself to the fact that it will probably take forever; that will make it take even longer. But when an opportunity arises, it is important to take it no matter how small or far away it seems to be.

I guess what bothers me about her saying this has more to do with her motivation; e.g. I’m not sure what it is. What did she expect to happen when she said, “I have to wait a year!?”

“Oh, well if that doesn’t work for you, we can probably make it sooner.”

 It was probably a reaction of surprise, in reality, just a response for response’s sake. But this gut perception of motivation is one of those things that authors have to contend with all the time. The reader reacts based on what she thinks the writer is trying to do without even a conscious realization of it. My gut said she was trying to talk her way out of the norm by behaving it was not the norm. So I unconsciously perceived it as manipulative, and that put me on edge.

A writing career takes years and years of work. If you are lucky, you may pull a Stephanie Meyer and get something written in three months, published in two years, and be on the best sellers within the month, but then you’d still have to a) write it in three months, b) query it within a year, and c) wait. A year’s worth of time to see something come of your work is a comparatively small amount of time.

For someone still in academia, it seems long. Because the educational system makes “next year” feel like a totally different world, it seems that it’s eternity. On the other hand, here is my prediction for what will happen if she were to, a) get it made in a year or b) not get it made in a year (based on my own personal experience):

She manages to maneuver her play into a spot, she waits for twelve months without doing another project and then, low and behold, finds herself into a show when, amazingly enough, she is still in a dead moment of her career.

Or she either doesn’t submit or the submission isn’t accepted, she waits for twelve months without doing another project and then, low and behold, is still doing nothing.

Dry spells happen. Working in those dry spells, writing and submitting will lead to a sudden burst of events later on. One October, I made myself a month of short story writing and submitting. For the next year I would find myself with a new publication every month. Sure, some of the prints were less than read, but it was better than a whole lot of nothing.

Being successful means taking unappealing jobs. Whether it be journals no one reads, short films that no one sees, commissions with regulations, or any of the thousands of undesirable options, it’s important that, with some exceptions, to take work as it comes and treat it seriously no matter how little or unimportant it is. Of course, sacrificing morals, or, to a small extent, even image, can be a mistake, but defining the difference between being stubborn, snobby, or lazy with being savvy and self-assertive will open many more doors than shutting down every time something outside of what you want to be doing opens up. Writing is a competitive field and that requires going above and beyond passed just what gives us immediate satisfaction.

Her reaction didn’t indicate that she wasn’t going to do it. But by the fact that she chose to talk about it on Facebook and not ask her in person, was surprised by the time frame, didn’t ask for, say, a meeting or a way to submit, but rather asked her friend to do all the leg work for her, and then allowed the conversation to end as abruptly as it started, indicated a lack of commitment. As authors, it’s okay to not know how the system works—waiting around until you do know what to do will just mean you’re waiting around all your life—but remembering to have a certain amount of decorum, professionalism, and obvious passion is the first step to compensating for naivety, i.e. don’t post plugs on Facebook.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Thing about Passive Voice


The war in writing could be considered a World War. A Civil World War, in fact, in which not only are there thousands of countries and people fighting their own little battles under the guise of one larger picture, but it’s really just one culture fighting itself.

One of those miniature wars battled for the benefit of “literature” is the idea of the passive sentence. A subject most commonly parroted, advice most commonly ignored, nothing is so frustrating as the obsession with the passive sentences.

The passive voice, for those of you who haven’t been burdened by this advice, is described as, “a noun or noun phrase that would be the object of the sentence appears as the subject of the sentence.” What that means is that the noun does not perform an action, it has something done to it. “I sat in a chair,” (active voice) versus, “The chair was sat in by me.” What did I do? I sat. What did the chair do? Nothing; it stood there and took it.

Now the subject of passive voice is interesting for various reasons. I find there are several occasions in which passive sentences lend to “bad” writing:

1) Passive voice is more common in writing than speaking.
2) Passive voice has less tension.
3) It tends to be over used.
4) It tends to be “pretentious.”
5) Passive voice tends to be a crutch/default.

But there are also many places for passive writing:

1) Passive voice has less tension.
2) Passive voice puts the object in the front of the sentence, thereby changing the imagery.
3) It has a voice of authority.
4) It is clear.
5) It allows for variation.
6) It allows for mystery (to keep the doer of the action hidden.) Ex. The door was opened versus John opened the door.

Now the people who say never use passive sentences, or “only use passive sentences for a good reason,” are giving sound advice, just not in an empathetic way. One issue is the idea that we assume other people are over doing it (which is understandable when you’re trying to give blanket advice to a group), but then treat it in the same manner one would treat discrimination.

A school says that women are bad at math. And they feel as a society it should not encourage that, so it puts into place all of these rules and regulations to help women be inspired to get involved. Except, later on, as the separation shrinks and even begins to topple over on the woman’s side, the school still fixates on the problem to the point that the male students are being demoralized and discouraged now instead.

Like feminism, racism, and any other equality issue, the benefit has to do with getting variation. In order to establish deviation, we must encourage the underdog, or, sometimes, discourage the top dog. Passive sentences are like the white male. They can be extremely useful, and, in fact, a specific individual/sentence can be the best for the job, and refusing to use him/it there is simply hurting the big picture. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to overuse them, to depend on them, and to ignore other equally useful options. It’s about doing what’s best for the vision, and often the greatest results are the ones without homogenization.

Why I obsess about this saying, however, has to do less with the effect on the stories and more to do with the motivation for stating the advice at all. Often it’s just repeated advice, something that sounds brilliant without a lot of thought. The term “passive voice” isn’t self-explanatory. It must be defined before we get what it is. This means that no single person who has studied writing and then come across the conclusion that “this is what is wrong with writing,” would happen to label it as a “passive sentence.” Essentially every person who ever says anything about a passive sentence has heard it before. You know, when they push this on you, they’re not talking from practical experience, they’re talking from academic theory.

Which doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem. Except there’s a set group of rules that people keep prioritizing over others which, like the passive voice, are not as important as some of the more complex ones. But these repeated phrases are easily doable and recognizable, where as the more beneficial ones require thought and decision making.

The most beneficial piece of advice to me was “Don’t let the readers know that you’re doing what you’re doing,” meaning simply, you want them to think that your antagonist is evil, not you’re trying to make your antagonist evil. But what is easier to point out? The word “was”? Or whether or not you’re being obvious about why you wrote something a certain way?

When I see “don’t use passive voice,” on a list, it reads to me like the writer is just repeating advice she’s heard and not telling me what she thinks. It indicates a lack of thought, a lack of consideration, and, quite frankly, is probably something she doesn’t listen to herself.

It is not a technique that only should be used once in a blue moon if there is only an apocalyptic worth of reason for it. It is definitely something that, once paid attention to, can help a writer improve his voice in bounds, but I perceive it as an important part of the writing world, because, let’s face it, there’s only a few ways to say one thing.

Here’s a key tip to knowing when to use a passive voice:

Passive moments like passive voice. Active moments like active voice.

Very simply, a love scene in a garden might be chalk full of “was” and inaction, but a fight in a bar might best be left to strong verbs.

Passive sentences slow down pacing and put the audience at a distance. They are best used when the author wants to do just that. When he doesn’t, however, taking them out can improve tension and hostility.

If, as I said above, the author fears his story is too condescending or pretentious, removing passive sentences can fix that. If he fears, however, his tone is too casual and laid back, adding passive sentences can make it sound more professional. It’s important to be careful with this last one, however, in that passive sentences have an equal chance of sounding more like “I’m trying to be professional,” than, “I am professional.”

The most common reason, however, in that we want to use passive sentences is simply to put the indirect object of the sentence in the front of the sentence. Why? Two reasons. For one, the first noun tends to be the focal point. When we say, “The body was carried from the room,” we picture the body. When we say, “Jeff and Jim carried the body from the room,” we picture Jeff and Jim. Most times our use of it has nothing to do with a choice of pretension or tension, but really just as the easiest way to convey the image that we want. Or, secondly, we want to have a sentence formula that varies from the one that precedes it. So as to break free from repetitive sentences, instead of, “Jeff and Jim carried the body from the room. They heaved at the weight. The men dropped it as they made it to the table,” we say, “The body was carried from the room. John and Jim heaved under the weight. It was dropped as they reached the table.”

So, it would make sense why a fix of, “Jeff and Jim” being first isn’t desirable. That all being said, there’s a relatively easy fix that does not require a passive sentence or maneuvering of the structure. Instead of saying, “The body was carried from the room,” have the body do something. “The body jiggled as Jeff and Jim carried it from the room,” makes it active and still keeps it as the first words in the sentence.

The best way to look at any overuse of passive sentences is in hindsight. Writing something, reading it, and then deciding something is wrong with it, allows for the writer to take a logical look at a gut reaction. Trying to predict a mistake is hard, time consuming, and tends to mess with a writing process. If the author has already decided that he doesn’t like a sentence, the number one reason may be because it is in a passive voice, and then he can make an appropriate change without the bias that having the evils of it hammered into your head can cause.

It’s important to take any writing advice with a grain of salt. We can definitely fixate on these little rules and waste our energy worrying about them. That isn’t to say they aren’t true and helpful, it’s just to say they aren’t as true and helpful as people like to pretend they are. If we were only to use active sentences every step of the way, the writing would be redundant and we’d be limiting ourselves from a very powerful tool. Yes, sometimes writing passively is easier than thinking of an active verb, but is also, amazingly enough, sometimes better.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Tips for Catching Typos


I recommend for anyone who wants to delve into the publishing world to find a way to be some sort of judge. Whether it be for contests, for business, for simple contrived experimentation, it helps the author to start analyzing others before he can analyze himself. Seeing that other side of the “table,” as we put it, allows artists to start understanding objectively how outsiders will perceive their work with actual experience and not just imagination.

It doesn’t need to be limited to their kind of work to be beneficial; writers can understand how people judge things by various, seemingly unrelated situations, whether it be a young author’s contest, a speech and debate meet, or even viewing acting auditions. Though intellectually putting yourself in other people’s shoes is a crucial part to being a good author, actually doing so will reveal a hell of a lot more truth.

One of the things that, having been in the skeptical judge’s shoes more often than the fearful artist’s, I’ve found is that fixing obvious mistakes is the most important thing an author can do. We like to believe that agents and judges are good people who will look beyond the spelling error, the clear slip of the fingers, and any easily altered mistake and see the book for the content. We believe it should be more about the ideas than the silly textual messes.

Yet that no matter how good you want to be, you, the agent, is still reading anywhere from a hundred to a thousand different manuscripts in hopes to pick out the best one. And not only does the subjectivity of fiction come into play, but genius is a lot like sarcasm; you’re not necessarily going to recognize it when you see it.

A typo in a script is a quick identifier for several issues. One, the author didn’t spend much time on it (otherwise he would have caught it). Two, it ruins immersion in the story, reminding the reader (or agent) that this is a book someone wrote and is making up. Three, the author, for whatever reason, isn’t invested in getting to work with the agent.

Of course, these may not actually be the case. Catching typos is a nasty business that even the greatest experts still struggle with it. So, even when you do want to be published more than anything, spend hours and drafts scanning it for basic errors, you’ll still find, after having sent out twenty copies, a misspelled word right on the front page.

But in any case, whether or not it was a simple mistake or a lazy oversight, it will still affect their judgment of the work to an unfairly high extent. Many talented agents will not bother to look at something hard to read when they have a huge pile to still go through.

How do we defy this problem? It isn’t easy. But there are a few ways to make it easier.

-Learn mistakes you keep making

The best thing to do is to start paying attention for your own personal mistakes that you see yourself making over and over again.

Of course, they are usually the more obvious ones—there versus their, your versus you’re. My own personal ones are whenever I want to say “actual” I write, “actually,” or “ever,” I write “every.”

But taking conscious noticed to it, you’ll start to develop an ear which every time you write, “actual,” you will stop yourself and look to see if it’s right.
Most typos have some sort of subconscious legitimacy to them, meaning they’d make sense why you’d write it that way. Noticing how your brain works will help you pay enough attention to correct it.

-Use “finder”

This would be a lot of work, so I recommend it for the final draft stage, just before it’s actually going to be sent out. After having done the above and starting to notice your most common mistakes, use the finder tool in Word (ctrl+F), type in one of your more typical errors (say, here versus hear) and read the sentences as you go to make sure you used the right choice.

Non-words will be picked up by spell check, so really what we’re left with is using actual words wrong. This makes finder a useful way to compensate for what the program doesn't know to look for, combining human brain power with computer power.

For short works, this is great because it won’t take all that long. For novels, it takes a lot more effort and very much more time consuming, but, if you're like me, sometimes it is necessary because in a full, uninterrupted read, I get caught up in the story and still miss mistakes.

-Read backwards

If you want to talk about time consuming, this next tip has it in the bag. Reading sentences backwards is not only going to take more time than just reading it forward, but it is also boring as hell.

It does, however, give the author new perspective on the sentence, and doesn’t allow the brain to insert what “should” go there, which is the number one reason why we tend not to notice typos.

This one is a last resort, and something that I personally can't commit to, no matter how much I've wanted. But, if you’re desperate, this might be the way to go.

-Make someone else do it

In all honesty, this is the best way to catch a typo. The fresh eyes will notice peculiarities without inserting the appropriate fix. An outsider’s feedback is by far the easiest and most efficient way to catch any basic errors.

The problem is that it’s not all that easy to find.

Getting feedback is the most advocated form of editing, and is also the most difficult to accomplish. Having someone take the time and put in the effort in your project is the main reason why there aren’t more amateur movies on the internet. Sure, there are a lot, but take a look at how many amateur books have been published and there is a huge difference. The more people involved, the less likely it's going to happen.

Getting outsider’s help without money is one of the hardest parts of creating. That’s why publishing is everyone’s biggest concern. Also why self-publishing is so popular. It often feels easier to just do it yourself.

Basically, if you can find someone who is really to read something you wrote, abuse that until they fake their own deaths.

-Fix it every time you see it (no matter how much of a pain it is)

You’ve finished the first draft. Time to print it out, to visualize the accomplishment, to make better edits. As you’re printing, you glance a sentence on the page, and there’s a big glaring problem on it. But you think, hey, I’m going to read it so I’ll catch it the next time around.

Except you might not.

Trying to exterminate all mistakes one by one seems a little like trying to get rid of a cockroach infestation by stomping on one as he happens to run by. But, though typos do tend to reproduce (new ones appearing with every change made), and tend to be hidden in crevasses and shadows, one of the least boring ways to start the purge is by just catching them as you see them.

But in order for it to be affective, diligence is important. That means that even when not in the actual editing process, while not near a pen or the commuter, take the effort to at least note it.

-Every time you fix a typo, read it again.

This is time extensive and not fool-proof. Not only do you risk starting to memorize your work each time you reread it, (which really makes it impossible to catch mistakes) but just because you’ve looked at it a thousand times without changes doesn’t mean you’re going to catch everything. Especially when the typo is due to the author’s unawareness that she’s using the wrong word (say, when I used the word physic instead of physique. What the hell is a physic?)

But, though putting in the effort to reread the same thing takes a lot of will power, like a cockroach, where you see one typo, there are more. That means that if you find a mistake in the third draft, you read a fourth.

Of course, you can take this to extremes. This advice should be taken with a grain of salt, especially when it becomes an excuse not to query the book out. In reality, you will find typos all the way out maybe even when you get your first copy of your newly published book.

A more moderate view of this is to make sure to reread just the changed sentence. I tend not to do this, and that's where my mistakes end up. I wrote a new typo while fixing the old one. In a big picture sense, consider doing another draft every time a chunk of change has been made, make sure to do another look over. This makes sense for various reasons, not having to just do with typos.