Friday, January 24, 2014

A Hissy Fit about Writing Advice

I was across the table from a man with patchy blue hair, a ring in his nose, and a Hello Kitty backpack. He handed me my manuscript and shrugged with dismay, “I just haven’t seen it done that way before.”

You don’t expect it to come from the people it does; those literary buffs who love Beckett and Gertrude Stein, the ones who praise The Death of a Salesman’s flagrant breaking of rules to write about a low-class civilian, the people actively trying to be weird in their everyday life, the writers who turned to world-building because they didn’t fit in with reality. Among these people is where I’ve found the greatest eagerness to say, “You’re not doing it how it should be done.”

Which makes sense. Projection is the author’s irritating enemy. No one can spot weirdness for weirdness’s sake like the person whose made a living out of it.

That all being said, I am sick of the literary philosophy that authors are children who need to be told “No,” instead of being encouraged to take risks.

Yesterday I read an article about a subject I hadn’t come across before, “Physical Telling: Action Speaks Louder than Body Parts!” I was excited because usually I get to read blogs going on and on about “read a lot.” Someone had finally thought of a different solution to amping up variation in a story.

Nope. It was just about limiting it again—another version of “Show, don’t tell.”

I’m a little ticked, mostly because I was looking forward to a new idea, which I didn’t get. But partially because the author of the blog is developing her own pet peeve rather than pointing out a solution to a typical problem.

Which brings me to my first issue:

She doesn’t talk about the problem.

Answers to nonexistent evils are a waste of time. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Having variation is important to me, and lacking variation is a problem, but when people get stuck on one nuance (don’t use adverbs, don’t use said, don’t describe emotions), they don’t see others, or even the big picture for that matter. This is why when someone gives you the riot act for not abiding by the rules, they rarely discuss anything more than the rules, not going into contextual advice or their own opinions in their own words.

The author of the blog says, “Once you learn to spot them, they pop off the page like a zit on a beauty queen.

That’s true for everything. If I pour out a bag of buttons and tell you to count the red ones, the red ones are going to pop out. If I tell you to count black, the black will pop out. Not only that, but after you are done, you are less likely to remember what other colors were in the pile than if I had asked you to count all of them.

If I tell you to look for something, that’s what you’re going to see. That’s how looking works.

Right now, she’s looking for red, and that’s as far as her mind goes. The only real issue she’s talking about here is that talking about body parts (His eyes narrowed, his stomach clenched, etc.) is overdone. I agree that’s a problem. I agree there are books if explained how the male love-interest makes the female’s stomach flip one more time, the book’s going into the toilet. But, in the honored tradition of writing advice, instead of expressing the truth (it’s wrong because it’s overdone), she states it with the tactic of the elementary school teacher. Don’t do it because I said not to. We tell kids not to talk to strangers because it’s easier to make an all-encompassing rule than to explain to them the variance in context—when it’s okay to talk to this stranger and when this one should send you running.

Tell me the circumstance, not the rule. Discuss the problem and, by all means, give me a solution to it. But recognize the magnitude and the consistency of the solution; treating it like it’s absolutely true and extremely important supersedes the actual truth of it.

She’s ignoring the effect of the decision.

When I hear people limiting others, they act like their advice is going to wildly alter the book, but then don’t believe that leaving it as is might have an effect too.

“If you delete this word, your writing will be so much improved.”

“Yeah, but if I change it, it will be way different than what I was going for.”

“It’s just one word!”

Her examples establish well the difference between describing body parts and actions, but not to her benefit.

For example:

Dolores insisted that Alaska and I share the bed, and she slept on the pull-out while the Colonel was out in his tent. I worried he would get cold, but frankly I wasn’t about to give up my bed with Alaska. We had separate blankets, and there were never fewer than three layers between us, but the possibilities kept me up half the night.

This is a love story that she claims is a good example for not going into detail about how his “heart was racing and his breath was rapid,” but I would say this doesn’t convince me. For one thing, before I read her explanation, my thought process went like this: “Alaska is a love-interest. No. She’s a dog. No, she’s a little girl. No. She’s a love-interest.”

Now, of course part of the problem is I don’t know the story. I think when I heard the third character was a boy, I believed that ‘I’ was a woman, because I had a hard time in that split second picturing a man giving a bed up to another man.

I am not criticizing the author of the story here; I’m positive these are not thoughts I’d have reading the story. But as an example of an emotional connection between reader and character, as something with atmosphere created by action, it’s not a good one.  There is no sexy, sensuality. I doubt the story was supposed to be that way. Yet, I would argue that talking about his skin tingling, the way his body ached to touch her, would give more of a mood.

If the story is ‘improved’ by talking in action instead of emotion, then it is also changed. If we think of it as change and not just “harder is better, showing is better, shorter is better—because I said so,” then it makes sense why one choice would be a good decision in one context, the other would be best in another. This paragraph works, but not as a replacement for what the protagonist is feeling.

Her example isn’t an example of what she suggesting.

Not only is the excerpt not a moment of high emotional intensity (at least not out of context), it’s not even showing. It’s just another form of telling. The information delivered, especially the part that confirmed that Alaska probably isn’t a dog, were all internalized thoughts.

We know Dolores is on the pullout, they’re sleeping on a bed and that they had separate blankets. Those are the only two concrete images in the paragraph. The Colonel being in his tent might be another, but I call that being “off screen” (not something the reader pictures). The rest was more important, and more interesting, but they were feelings, not feelings conveyed by action. “I wasn’t about to give up my bed with Alaska,” is the most romantic thing in the scene. It’s a thought, not an image, and so is “the possibilities.” What does a possibility look like? It looks like nothing—which is the point. The reason he internalizes “the possibilities” rather than showing us “I”s actions is Alaska can’t be an idiot and she’s not supposed to know. You give the audience something in action, you need to find reasons why the other characters don’t understand too.

I once had “show, don’t tell,” described to me as “telling it in real time.” I like that a lot, because it tends to be consistent. This paragraph is abstract, partially because it’s not told in real time. First it discusses what had happened. (Like the Colonel being off-screen, I didn’t picture Dolores’s insisting, or when they started to share the bed, I pictured them as already sharing the bed, and the narrator is informing me as to why.) Then it speeds through “half the night.”

This not a problem for me in the context of the excerpt, but as an example it is completely against her point. She calls him a master for not falling back on the “easy” terms, but, from my perception, he just didn’t do what she personally had a problem with. And so the issue of the pet peeve; she’s looking for “emotional descriptions” so hard that she’s not looking at what’s actually going on. This is a huge problem for the author because you can’t fix everyone’s issues, and they will get stuck on them. While I’m not criticizing the writing, there was nothing spectacular about this specific example, nothing that made me go, “Wow, I want to write like that.” The only thing “impressive” is “he didn’t fall back on the obvious reaction Miles would be having sleeping next to the girl he loves and can’t have.” No, you’re right. He didn’t. But what did he do?

It’s like when my friend bragged about her new boyfriend being great because he didn’t scream at her when she was late. Yes, that’s a good thing, but his lack of doing it doesn’t mean that he’s great. He might be, but you’re going to have to talk about the beneficial things if you want to convince me.

She doesn’t talk about what the ramifications are.

You should write something that only shows. You should write something with zero clich├ęs. I’m serious. Write something that abides fully by these common rules (I would recommend a short story for your sanity’s sake), and then give it to someone to critique. You will suddenly be aware of just how much balking people can do at anything.

Let’s take her second sample into consideration.

“Yeah, well. If you’re staying here in hopes of making out with Alaska, I sure wish you wouldn’t. If you unmoor her from the rock that is Jake, God have mercy on us all. That would be some drama, indeed. And as a rule, I like to avoid drama.”

“It’s not because I want to make out with her.”

“Hold on.” He grabbed a pencil and scrawled excitedly at the paper as if he’d just made a mathematical breakthrough and then looked back up at me. “I just did some calculations, and I’ve been able to determine that you’re full of shit.”

Alright, I can see how this is action. I can also see why the last line is more interesting than “He narrowed his eyes.”

But it’s still not a good example for her point. Why do I think so?

Let’s just start with the fact that “grabbing a piece of paper” doesn’t say he’s suspicious as much as when he says, “You’re full of shit.” This is not an action that delivers information, but sets up an interesting way to say it. Telling people things through dialogue is great, but I would say that depending on dialogue to explain their actions isn’t indicative of an informative action.

But more importantly, we don’t need to be told he doesn’t believe her. The audience assumes he wouldn’t. The last line in this scene adds something because it’s funny. If it was just, “He narrowed his eyes,” the point of the sentence would have been only to tell me he doesn’t believe him, which I would have already assumed.

Not that any of that bothers me. I wouldn’t even take issue to, “He didn’t believe me.” Because as long as you don’t leave me in the void world for too long, and give me enough details along the way, I can put two-and-two together, using this wonderful thing called my imagination. Sure, the more details the better, but that doesn’t mean it’s always the best option. I don’t need to be told what not believing looks like, and (while still remembering that variation is important) I don’t care. Depending on me to constantly fill in the blanks is stupid, but never letting me is equally as ineffective.

Showing has a higher propensity to be confusing. It really works when showing something the audience would assume. It’s far less annoying than to be told something you’d already figured out. The problem is when the author wants to deliver new or unexpected information.

Let’s say that “He” does believe Miles claim, “I don’t want to make out with her.” How do we convey that? Can’t talk about his facial expression (despite that being Miles’s first clue), so what would he do? Am I limited to using no body parts or can I say, “He put his fist on his mouth and hummed?” Can I talk about where he’s looking? Does “action” mean that as long as he interacts with something, it counts? “The floor creaked as he shifted in silence”? She’s not clear enough about applying her advice, mostly because her argument is “it’s overdone.” Well, what’s over done? If you had told me the problem, I’d be better equipped to understanding when I’m talking body parts versus action.

But let’s pretend for a moment that I’m not an idiot (as much fun as it is) and I use her advice as intended—with a grain of salt and am really trying to get to the heart of what she’s saying. I want to tell the audience that he believes Miles without outright saying he believes him. Even if I do use facial expressions, I still need to contradict the audience’s assumption (the bane of the author’s existence), which means I have to be very thorough, very specific, or they’ll hear what they want to hear/feel like they missed something.

When I wrote a scene that delivered information primarily by action with few internal thoughts or explanations, the reactions I kept getting was, “I’m confused.” When I asked them to go into detail, they’d say, “Well, are you saying that he likes her?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.”

Any time I gave new information, introducing a fictional object, a character’s mood or feelings towards another character, or an element of the world that was the first time they were hearing it, I found my audience knew exactly what it was, but felt they didn’t. They could never pinpoint what they didn’t understand, and I finally figured out that the potential to have misinterpreted it will stop a lot of readers short.

For one thing, no one knows where their assumptions came from, and when you contradict them through showing, they might think it’s because you misled them from something said earlier, or worse, you’re not doing a good job at showing them what they’re supposed to be seeing. This means that when you show them something well, (he believes him) but they don’t think that’s what you’re showing them (they think he doesn’t believe him), they might accuse you of showing them something poorly (that’s not how you would act if you don’t believe someone!)

But the problem is few people, when giving feedback, will be that straightforward. Someone says to you, “What are you trying to say here? Why don’t you just say that?” It often sound like they’re telling you to tell. Which they might be. Or it might be that they’re just impatient and want the answer right now, or it might be that they’re really lost as to what’s going on, or that they feel like they’re missing important information that isn’t important at all, or they simply didn’t understand the information you were trying to convey. Each of which have different solutions, sometimes it being ignore them. When you spend a lot of effort showing something, people will complain about not having any confirmation. Sometimes the author should listen to them, sometimes he shouldn’t, and it’s very hard to tell the difference. Which is why it is important to mention the ramifications of “showing.” Knowing what will happen when you succeeded at what you’re trying to do will help you not freak out when you know have to face the costs of that choice.

Every piece of advice has a consequence, and when someone doesn’t mention that consequence, it makes me suspicious as the whether or not they’ve tried it at all.


There’s a reason not everyone is doing it the way everyone advises. Not just because it’s harder—though that’s a part of it. Showing doesn’t work all the time, the harder way isn’t necessarily the more effective way, and context is important. If you’re arguing for variation, doing a 180 isn’t the best way to achieve it. Not all authors write the same, not all of them want to write the same, and what bothers you doesn’t necessarily bother other people. Focus on the results of the action, not the action itself and your arguments wouldn’t be so contingent on having a friendly audience. Don’t tell me to do something when you don’t fully understand what it is you’re asking me to do.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Improving Dialogue: The Abstract Space

In many drawing classes the focus of the lessons are about learning to draw what you actually see, not what your brain tells you you’re seeing. One way that teachers approach this is to have you draw the space around an object, not the object itself.

When I go about improving a section of dialogue or even a character himself, I will often take a deviation on this lesson. I don’t try to change the character or his actual line, but instead focus on the space around him.

I look at what is not being said.

This works in two parts.

Allowing characters to not verbalize every thought makes them more believable, smarter, and more interesting. What a character chooses not to say explains just as much about him as what he actual does vocalize.

Secondly, the other characters’ reactions give an indication to the audience as to how they are supposed to interpret things.

Let’s take sarcasm as an example.

The problem with sarcasm is that it can often be construed as bad dialogue. They are both insincere, often oddly phrased, and make characters appear dumb (when taken seriously). A big issue for writers—even screenwriters and playwrights who will eventually have an actor—is we are suddenly stripped of all tone and body language. In dialogue the author now has to imply moods with less options than normal speech. Sometimes he can get away with outright announcing it—“she said grimly”—But this can be jarring to the reader if he wasn’t already headed in that direction.

So it’s the opening of a book. You have a group of characters marching on a large troll cave. One of them is a woman. The reader knows nothing about the author, the characters, or the story, with no inclination on how good it’s going to be, or who these people are. The conversation goes like this:

The captain huffed under his plate mail, marching up the hill with heavy clinks. He glanced back at his unit over his shoulder. “When we get there, I want no rash decisions. You will stay put until Argon can scout out the place. Do you understand?”

Some of the men groaned. Kalla threw up her arms. “I can’t spend all day doing this! I have a nail appointment to keep!”

The author has three separate assumptions to deal with here in order to make Kalla sarcastic and not shallow. (Of course, he may want shallow, but in this case, we’re saying he doesn’t.) One is that he’s not a good author. Every time a reader picks up a book, she makes a guess about the quality of that book, and that guess dictates her opinion on every one of his creative choices.

(There is a fine line between creativity and being wrong. And usually that line is what the readers want to think.)

If the reader assumes that the author is a good one, she will take Kalla’s lack of severity and interest in inane things as deliberate. It is informing her about the world, the characters and the mood, rather than an error in emotion, or worse, a statement on how stupid the author perceives women to be. If the reader believes the author is going to be bad (or hopes), then she will be more inclined to not commit to interpreting it, (Why bother figuring out what a writer means when he didn’t mean anything?) thus stripping herself of all possible information being delivered, and being bored.

Next, because this character is female, the author will have to deal with two strange assumptions; how the reader sees women, and how the reader thinks the author perceives women.

If the reader reads mostly fantasy novels in which the women are far and few and underdeveloped, she is inclined to assume that this character is the same until proven otherwise. How she takes this line of dialogue comes from what she thinks the author was trying to do. Also, if she is the sort of person to assume that women don’t make jokes (and there are people like that out there), she is more likely to take the sarcasm seriously, thinking the character is just an idiot.

Writing is often all about dealing with assumptions—contradicting them, using them, ignoring them. The author can never predict every conjecture a reader will have, and often times he needs to accept that one beta-reader’s weird notion is not something to worry himself over.

But let’s say that the author is afraid of this line of dialogue making the character sound like a stupid, superficial girl when it is meant to be a joke. What to do?

The usual impulse is to explain it:

“I can’t spend all day doing this! I have a nail appointment to keep!” she said sarcastically.

There is no way a reader can misinterpret it now. But I wouldn’t recommend this approach. I don’t have a problem with adverbs, but I believe that nothing ruins a sarcastic comment like explaining it.

Next option we have what most people call, “Show, don’t tell,” but I call, “Prove it.”

Prove to your audience it’s sarcasm. In life, how do you tell someone is being sarcastic? How do you picture your character speaking that isn’t conveyed in the words?

Sometimes you have to make changes to the image in your mind when doing this. I am inclined to make my characters more dramatic when trying to “prove” something, making their subtle nuances larger, more descriptive. This works for me because I want my characters to be overly dramatic, silly, and sarcastic. When trying for subtly and drama, it can be more difficult. But, here’s an example:

Kalla threw up her arms with a deliberate groan. “I can’t spend all day doing this! I have a nail appointment to keep!”

To me, awareness is a key component to a character’s tone. A huff that Kalla chooses to give is different than one she happened to give. My people tend to be ridiculous by their choice, fully aware of their own exaggeration. If I did want to make her serious, I might say:

Kalla looked at him levelly, her jaw set. “I can’t spend all day doing this, sir. I have a nail appointment to keep.”

Now, she is more subtle, not aware her jaw is setting, and all the explanation points are removed. I added a “sir” to make her more stern. Now, instead of loose and wild, she is tense. By indicating how she is moving adds back in body language that the author so sorely misses.

But she could still be considered sarcastic if I so chose. While describing her facial expressions and tones will tell us how she talks, feels, and who she is, how we have the other characters respond tells the audience how they should interpret things.

This is unfortunate, actually, because it becomes hard for characters to misinterpret anything. We trust that, in fiction, the reaction given is the reaction intended. This is the major difference between “real” conversation and fictional—readers expect characters to always have some layer of psychic connection. Characters deal with less doubt and misunderstanding than we do in real life. They are, if there, deliberate and large-scale.

This means that how ever the “captain” takes her words is probably how the audience will take it, unless the author makes it very evident that he is wrong.

That all being said, it can be used to his advantage.

Kalla looked at him levelly, her jaw set. “I can’t spend all day doing this, sir. I have a nail appointment to keep.”

He snorted. “I’ll bet. If we get this over with in a timely fashion, I’ll join you. But we don’t need to be careless. The fight will be quick, so we can take some time to not be stupid.”

He doesn’t believe her, the audience thinks it’s not true. He makes a joke, the audience is inclined to think she was making a joke.

By playing around in the abstract, the author can leave dialogue intact if so desired. Characters can say exactly the same things in a myriad of tones as long as the author doesn’t just focus on what is actually being said.

Besides, it’s more important to consider what the character isn’t saying.

There are three useful questions to knowing how to fix a line of dialogue:

What did she want to happen after she said it?

What did she think was going to happen?

And why did you, the author, have her say it at all?

Determining a characters motivation for speaking indicates how it should be said. A lot of times authors will write dialogue like the characters think, not like the characters speak; they voice every single thought in their head, not worrying about looking stupid or callous or superficial. Most people can figure things out on their own if they take their time, so conversations are less likely to have a lot of questions. People are often competing, so they aren’t inclined to reveal any weaknesses (like ignorance). And many of us are self-rejecting, so aren’t going to voice what is actually important to us, thinking that it’s wrong to want what we want.

(These are, of course, cultural and personality based censorships, which is interesting to deal with when trying to create a variety of both.)

Instead of having a character speak everything that comes to her mind, consider why she’s speaking, what she hopes will happen, and what she expects to happen. She has too many thoughts to say them all, and she probably wouldn’t want to anyway.

“When we get there, I want no rash decisions. You will stay put until Argon can scout out the place. Do you understand?”

Kalla’s thoughts:

Oh, my God that’s going to take forever.
Argon is so slow.
Why? It’s one stupid troll.
I was planning to be home before dark, and now that’s not going to happen.
If I complain, it’ll just confirm that I am too much of a woman to be here.

She knows that she can’t insult her captain, she doesn’t want to piss off Argon, so she doesn’t say the first three. She won’t want to admit that she feels this is wasting her time. She hopes that he’ll say, “Fine. Let me just take a look then,” but she doesn’t expects him to. Not only that, but then make a commentary on her femininity.

The importance of this dialogue to me as the author would be to illustrate the daily routine of it all—they’re not really scared, just impatient. It also tells us a little bit about Kalla. She is insecure about being a woman and uses humor as a defense mechanism. She is also impatient, and willing to chance her reputation to get what she wants.

Note, this is all being implied to the audience, rather than explained. When “showing” like this, it means that there’s a lot of room for misinterpretation, making it important to bring up these traits several times before the readers will consciously get it.

So, say I don’t like the way I phrased it. By knowing what she wants to happen, by what she expects to happen, how her feelings and mood influence her word choices, I understand better how I can make her dialogue more realistic or interesting. In essence, how to make it what I want it to be.

I say to myself: Kalla is feeling impatient and hostile, but cares what people think of her. She tries not to show her negativity, does not mention she has other plans, and makes a joke about her womanhood.

She says:

“How long is this going to take?” (Re: Will we be back before nightfall?) “I have a nail appointment to keep.” (Re: I know you’ll think I’m asking because I have other plans. And because I’m a woman you think it must be something womanly.”

Now we know that the captain’s reaction should be about what he hopes to happen, what he expects to happen, what kind of person he is, and, if possible, some external plot/situation/thematic information:

“Cram it. We can’t get comfortable. You start putting your guard down you get killed. No mission is a routine.”

The captain expected this kind of response. He used it as a segue into a previously constructed argument versus being taken by surprise and then having to come up with a reason (which usually means questioning himself more). “When you’re in charge, you can be as slapdash as you want. But right now you listen to me.”

In this case, he is unplayful, ignoring her joke altogether. The scene is more hostile than earlier, both of them bigger jerks.


The abstract space determines a lot about the object in question. What the character chooses to say, how she chooses to say it, what she chooses not to say, how aware she is of her own actions, and how other people perceive her gives us opportunity to play around with all kinds of moods, worrying less and less about how well the dialogue is coming out, and more about what we are telling the audience.

Friday, January 10, 2014

What I Learned from the Worst Story I’ve Ever Read

The hypothetical question:

You read a short story. It’s really bad. No argument. The phrasing of it was amateur, the concept obvious, the tone a deliberate but poor choice, the characters unlikable and underdeveloped, and the ending really, really random.

There is no doubt it's terrible.

BUT THEN…

You find everyone in your book club/classroom loved it.

Why did that happen?

True story: In a college creative writing class we were assigned a whole mess of short stories every day. Most of them were as you would expect (impoverished people looking at grass in a new light), but one stood out to me, so horribly painful I couldn't believe it.

I went to class. There, to my surprise, I found that not only did people disagree with it being “that bad,” but it was their favorite story of all the works we'd read. They were in love.

I couldn’t get my mind around it.

Now, when asking this hypothetical, there are two answers I get: One, “I am better read than them,” or two, “They’re not telling the truth.”

In essence.

At the time, I was primarily of the second mindset. Remember that I went to a school that could have easily been a cult if the teachers weren’t so lazy. Some of the issues I was going through at the time were about my opinion being so different than many of my fellow students. We would see a play, and I’d think, “That was stupid,” but my peers would say, “It was just above my head.”

I started to have a bit of a personal crisis, trying to understand the difference between a script being bullshit and too genius to figure out, why Beckett was beyond reproach, but the student copying Beckett was a no-talent idiot.

I had my own ideas, of course, but it seemed to me that the professors didn’t have a lot of consistency in “good” plays and “bad” ones. Two works did the exact same thing, and if the writer was famous or friend, it was genius. If the writer was not, it was bad.

And, this is also the school in which we had to read an essay full of scientific jargon an unfamiliar processes, in which, when the teacher asked, “Is this a convincing essay?” a student replied, “I trust him.”

The only thing you know about him is a three sentence bio-blurb he wrote above the essay.

I did feel, and still do, that the students “liked” what they thought they should, that their love of something was more often about thinking what they were supposed to.

I didn’t trust them when they said something was great.

But that couldn’t be the whole truth. For one thing, the teacher in this case didn’t press his opinions on us. For another, it was not the type of cerebral gibberish that made readers look good. As for sheep mentality, someone had to start it.

Plus, I know that people can get terrible reviews from one group, and yet see success in another. I know that when someone thinks your book is terrible, someone else might love it. I knew that the way I felt about this story was honest, too much for people to really just be lying about it, or even want to lie about it. There had to be something else there.

I am not better read. I read. I read what I like to read, rarely branching out. I’ve been burned by academia too many times for me to trust them when they have a “good” book. And while I read, it is not prioritized, and I tend to stall and stall and stall, then blitz through a story in about a day. I get through one book every two months probably.

When in a classroom full of diligent English majors, I would say they’re better read than me.

Secondly, I find that “being more experienced,” is not a way to judge the universal quality of a book. It’s not that the story that appeals to the better-read soul is objectively better than the one that appeals to the non-reader, but that writing is a comparative art form, meaning how much we enjoy it is about what it’s being compared to. If the world was to only write long sentences, then the author who wrote short sentences is an original genius. Also, we correlate superiority in books to superiority in readers, which means that being “better” read tends to be about reading the “right” things. One of the reasons so many people are embarrassed to like Young Adult books is because society looks down on teenagers.

If I want to look like I have the same mentality of a teenager, then I say I like Young Adult, if I want to look like I have the mentality of a house wife, I say I like romance. If I want to look like someone who lives with my mother playing WoW, I say, I like sci-fi. If I want to look like a strong and capable macho man, I say I like thrillers. If I want to look like a literary expert, I read Hemmingway. If someone who has read every Young Adult book under the sun likes your story, but the person who’s studied each name-dropped genius doesn’t, then the book isn’t “good.” Coming from the impression that many of the Kerouac lovers are about appearances, it can feel to me like it’s more of a propitiation of a desired world rather than the world we actually live in. In essence, it is possible to me that “good” books are defined more by people wanting them to be good then actually liking them, and that rings untrue to me.

The correlation of who likes the book, and how it makes me look to like a book will affect my willingness to read a book, and, unfortunately, how I judge the writing. Being better read should indicate a better understanding as to what’s “easy,” what’s being done more often, etc. But I would argue that this isn’t necessarily what designates a universally “good” book. In my opinion, something that is objectively well-made (which I also think is impossible) would appeal to everyone regardless of experience, and yet, not only do non-readers love things readers can’t, readers love things that non-readers hate.

This answer of being better read exasperates the problem for me. My question is why do people love things that others hate? If we’re not just lying, if it’s not just about comparison. The idea that they “just don’t know any better” isn’t clarifying.

I spent many years thinking about this story, and over time I was more and more certain about it being “bad.” I found out more about the author—he, unexpectedly, came and talked to us at that same class. A PhD candidate for creative writing, he’d said, “I want to be a novelist, but I haven’t come up with an idea that I want to stick with several years.”

He had written the story for a class assignment to make the longest possible sentence, in which he just did a list of things the couple had bought at the store. (This is the non-sequitur ending I was talking about.)

I have a hard time dealing with people whose only projects are academically assigned. It is a form of snobbery on my part, but it is also a symptom of other issues—lacking drive, bravery, or a mind of your own, for starters. For me, it really said something that this man had only written a few class assignments over the years, all short stories.

Lastly, he was an editor on the first issue of the journal printed in, so it wasn’t as though someone else had read it and liked it.

Does any of this actually matter to me? Well, no. Not if I had liked the story, it wouldn’t have. But I started seeking irrefutable arguments why I was right and why they were wrong. Things like experience level, motivation for writing it, and general dedication were less arguable things for me to point out then I didn’t like it, then “It’s a bad thing to have no variation in your word choice, not a style.”

But over the years, I’ve softened, lost my belief in objective truth and quality, and started to become more about subjectivity and how to handle it.

When taking this story in that light, when taking the opinions of many people’s views on writing, when trying to find something that made sense to me, I came to a conclusion:

Every reader prioritizes things differently.

Here’s what you should know:

The Story:

Supernatural.
Silly, ridiculous, but told in a nonchalant way.
Is published in a nice looking book, giving out in an academic setting.
Is published by the guy himself.

Me:
Likes supernatural.
Theatre major.
Has read a lot of amateur fiction.
Does not trust experts explicitly. Or anyone, for that matter.

My Fellow Students:
Likes contemporary fiction.
English/creative writing majors.
Has read a lot of academic stories.
Has faith in authority figures.

These things, our backgrounds, our interests, our personalities, all affect what we care about.

I was someone who read a lot of speculative fiction. At times, only read it. I like fantasy, sometimes sci-fi, and did not give two craps about reality. The only reason I didn’t read Fifty Shades of Gray was because I have no interest in modern day America. Even contemporary stories with magic are pushing it.

I, of course, don’t have in-depth information as to what my fellow students liked, but I had a good idea as to what kind of stuff they read. Most of them knew Harry Potter and Twilight, but those were exceptions, not rules. People from my generation have basic understanding of the supernatural without being interested in it, so it’s not as though they didn’t know what zombies were like. But, all that being said, they were more interested in writing and talking about—what I call—realistic books than supernatural ones.

But, the thing was, I had read a lot more about zombies and that sort of supernatural crap by amateurs, which meant that the shock value was missing to me. That I was reading a short story about zombies wasn’t surprising, that it was told in such a nonchalant and causal way wasn’t original. That same sort of tone is typical. People take horrible events and they talk about them like they’re doing the dishes all the time. So, that didn’t surprise me either.

What I think my fellow students like was that, as English majors, they were handed gritty, descriptive pieces about poverty. When suddenly something so silly and weird—for them—came up in that same setting, it was a fresh breath of air.

As a theatre major, I was being giving works in which women gave birth to cheese graters. Weirdness did not shock me. It, in fact, annoy me. I had seen so many people trying to be weird, trying to write “about nothing,” spewing gibberish, claiming every sneeze and typo was intentional, and just doing random things for the sake of being random, I started to consider weird writing as hack writing. English majors tend to read works that try too hard to be cerebral. Theatre majors try too hard to be freaks. Know what happens when you’re constantly exposed to freakishness? Weird becomes typical.

It is true that our reading experiences attributed to our like and dislike of the work. Were either of us wrong? I say no. No one can read everything, and most people (yours truly) will seek out similar work over and over again. Maybe what some of those English majors needed was to be told you don’t have to be intellectual and dramatic all of the time. Veronica Roth, author of Divergent, was a creative writing major, and she often blogs about how belittled she felt, how much she had to hide what she truly wanted to write: science fiction.

I believe the sudden difference was enough for them. I too believe that some of them exaggerated their like for it, going with the trend in the room, I believe that many entered lacking the skepticism I had. (He’s published, so it must be good.)

I don’t think the story is good, I don’t think the world would be a worse place without it, but I have realized two things: It gave me a lot to think about, and it doesn’t matter. If anything, it should be a relief. The way I felt was honest; I know that. I doubt that I am unique enough that others wouldn’t agree with me. But now that I understand why, maybe, it was a good story to them, it has let me off the hook a little.

I don’t have to write with objective standards. I don’t need to write for the audience that likes the worst story in the world. I just need to write for the one who agrees with me about what is the best.

Friday, January 3, 2014

To Notice How You Write

It’s everyone’s favorite time: Grammar time!

If you’ve ever heard me complain before, and most people have, then you know how much it bothers me when people focus on grammar issues and technicalities in constructive criticisms. It might be surprising then when I suggest the benefits of taking apart your sentences.

Here’s what you do:

Step One: Take a writing sample of your work. I recommend one or two pages. Or, if this is just about fun, a paragraph. It is more enlightening the more you do, but it is also very time consuming. Note if this sample is something you’ve edited before.

Step Two: Put the sample into a new document. Enter each sentence on a line by itself. For example:


Zombies broke into Kara and Charles’ house.
They smashed down the door and carried out the television, the VCR, the stereo system.
They flung clothing across the yard.
A zombie ripped apart Kara’s favorite bra.
Another wore Charles’ corduroy pants.
“My pants,” said Charles.
He frowned and looked at his pants.
There were dirt stains near the ankles.
“Listen, maybe if you honk the horn longer.
Press on it for a long time.”
He reached across the seat and held down the horn.
Kara’s father didn’t like Charles.
He called him effeminate.
Charles was a computer programmer.
He programmed pop-up advertisements for the Internet.
He had programmed more than one thousand.
Whenever Kara was on the Internet and an advertisement popped up, Charles told her which ones were his.
“I made that one,” he said.
“I made that one and that one and that one and that one.”


(This writing sample was graciously stolen off the internet. I’m not taking credit for this one.)

Step Three: Notice the variation of length. Are your sentences all different sizes? Are they very similar sizes? You may have judgments already as to if this a good or bad thing, but it isn’t important to evaluate yet. Just take notice.

Step Four: Find the parts of speech.

This is the hard part, especially if you’re not sure what the parts of speech are. Don’t worry; it’s actually easier than it looks, partially because this exercise isn't science.

PARTS OF SPEECH (On a Need-to-Know basis):

Noun-Place or thing: Desk, dog, person, girl, Russia, etc.

Pronoun-Person: He, she, they, it, Steve, Sandra, etc.
(For this project, I separate “pronouns” from “nouns.” Not necessarily accurately, but it is more useful this way.)

Verb-It’s what you do! Walk, run, scream, feel, was, is, be, etc.

Adverb-A description of a verb. It’s how you do what you do! Quickly, sharply, happily.

Adjective-A description of a noun: Blue, big, ugly, cold.

Preposition-Anything you can do to a cloud: Around, about, in, to, out, back, above, for. (Yes. I'm sure for is one.)

Conjunction-A word that connects words or phrases: but, and, yet, while, when, before, etc.
(When in doubt, it’s probably a conjunction.)

Get a highlighter (use the highlighter/font color tool) and coordinate one color with each part of speech.

Noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, adjective, preposition, conjunction.

(I would make pronouns and nouns a similar color.)

Start with the nouns and go through your sample, highlighting all in that color. Don’t be precious. If you don’t know what it is, guess. Feel free to skip more complicated ones. It only needs to be general. Include “a” and “the” as the noun if you want the whole sentence colored, otherwise ignore them.

Zombies broke into Kara and Charles’ house.
They smashed down the door and carried out the television, the VCR, the stereo system.
They flung clothing across the yard.
A zombie ripped apart Kara’s favorite bra.

Step Three: Notice difficulty.

How hard was this for you to do? If it was fairly easy, then it means you are a clear, accessible, and simple writer. If it was harder, it means that you are creative and poetic. (Or it is a creative/simple section.) Question the desired result. Do you want to be simple and accessible, or creative and poetic? You can aim for a good balance, (in fact, I recommend it), but, are you as complex or clear as you thought you were?

If it was incredibly easy, you may consider if you are being too simple (you may not be making interesting choices.) If it was incredibly hard then it might indicate that your story is incredibly hard to read.

Step Four: Notice patterns.

Now it could be argued, and would be by me, that this particular zombie author in question was going for this style. This sort of Carver-esque simple writing is fairly popular right now. If you notice, he never uses adverbs and always uses the word “said.” All of this is undesirable to me, and this style of writing makes me cringe pretty badly. I do not like it. That being said, this is subjective, and this lack of variation might be just what you’re going for.

Just remember: Don’t lie to yourself.

If you are extra simple and unvaried, extra varied and complex, you will have a hard go of it. Both extremes are stylistic choices people will reject. You have to convince them. Many times writers will call something their style when it is just what they happened to have done. This project tells you how much variation you have in your writing; it’s up to you to decide how much you want.

In the case of the zombie story, you’ll notice some similarities:

Most sentences begin with a pronoun or noun. It has a distinctive pattern throughout: Noun, verb, prepositional phrase, noun. Add in an adjective here and there, an extra noun or conjunction, and that’s pretty much it. The noun, verb, prep style sentence is the default style. It is the most common form of stringing words together. It is easy to understand. It doesn’t look that hard to do, and, often is what people starting out will lean on.

I am not an advocate against adverbs or only using said. That being said, this will tell you if you’re doing a lot of them. Every sentence requires (rather "requires") a noun and a verb, so you should see a lot of red and orange. If you look at it and you catch a lot more of other colors, question the amount of variation you have. The visualization makes it easy to feel out what “too much” is.

One thing about prepositional phrases: While they can be wonderful, when an author has too many it can sound condescending (describing something obvious like paint on the wall), or be exactly why the sentence is confusing. When I had to delete 60,000 words from a manuscript, I got rid of a lot of prepositional phrases. They’re powerful. Use them wisely.

Step Five: Notice repetition.

Read through all your nouns. Read through all your verbs. Adverbs, adjectives, all of it, one at a time. By sitting there and looking at each by themselves, you’re more inclined to notice which words you tend to over use. In the case of McZombie above, he uses primarily the same words each time—again on purpose.

This will lead you to understand what types of words you are choosing. What you do with the knowledge is up to you.

Step Six: Notice interest.

How interesting are your choices? How active are the verbs? How much power is in the nouns?

Your nouns should indicate the desired atmosphere, setting, and tone. If you have daily, typical words, it should be a daily, typical scene. If you have emotional and dark words, it should be an emotional dark scene. This is a good way to test tension and to look for “buzz” words (Words that feel like they would have an emotional response more than they actually do).

Consider this: Zombies, Kara, Charles, house. They, door, television, VCR, stereo system. Clothing, yard. Zombie, Kara’s, bra. Another, Charles, pants. Pants, Charles. He, pants. Dirt stains, ankles. You, horn. It, time. He, seat, horn. Kara’s, father, Charles. He, him. Charles, computer programmer. He, pop-up advertisements, Internet. He, one thousand. Kara, Internet, advertisement, Charles, her, ones, his. One, he. I, one, one, one, one.

Versus: Question. Mind, slings, arrows, fortune, arms, sea, sleep, we, heart-ache, shocks, flesh, heir,  consummation.

Both give a clear mood. The zombie author was—and I think he did this well, though it was a poor choice—going for a casual tone to contrast with the horrible events. The second writer set a scene without even considering verbs, adjectives, or adverbs. Their negativity, darkness, and maybe even depression is obvious.

This is Hamlet, by the way, as I’m sure many have guessed.

“Quality” of the word choice here depends on the goal result. By doing this exercise, it becomes more obvious if the desired atmosphere was successful. It is rare for the nouns not to imply a tone, but it is common for them to imply an undesired one. If there is an inconstancy, look for words with the connotation of the mood. (Cat, feline, animal, furball, are all different views on the same creature, each useful in different situations.)

Do the words, on their own, generally have the impact and tone desired?

Step Seven: Notice fragments.

Sentence fragments can be great. They express real speech, they add comic timing; I use them, and I recommend being open to them.

That being said, sentence fragments without a purpose are just mistakes.

As I claimed, all sentences are expected to have a noun and a verb. A sentence fragment will be missing one or the other.

Step Seven: Take apart your heroes.

Here is an example of Raymond Carver’s work, the bastard who is most quoted as starting this whole “simple” nonsense:
                                  
This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.
His wife had died.
So he was visiting the dead wife’s relatives in Connecticut.
He called my wife from his in-law’s.
Arrangements were made.
He would come by train, a five-hour trip, and my wife would meet him at the station.
She hadn’t seen him since she worked for him one summer in Seattle ten years ago.
But she and the blind man had kept in touch.

And the zombie paragraph again:

Zombies broke into Kara and Charles’ house.
They smashed down the door and carried out the television, the VCR, the stereo system.
They flung clothing across the yard.
A zombie ripped apart Kara’s favorite bra.
Another wore Charles’ corduroy pants.
My pants,” said Charles.
He frowned and looked at his pants.
There were dirt stains near the ankles.
Listen, maybe if you honk the horn longer.
Press on it for a long time.”

(Notice that I skipped over some of the harder words. I’ve also guessed on some, broke the rules on others. If you’re a stickler, you can look up parts of speech. It would make you more knowledgeable. But, for the sake of this exercise, it doesn’t matter so much. Unless you’re using these words a lot.)

These stories are not the same. Both are simple, both lack adverbs, both repeat nouns over and over and over again, but Carver’s has more diversity. There are some fairly long sentences and fairly short sentences, the long ones not just a list. (One of the points of the zombie story was to write a very long sentence, which he does later on by, of course, a list.)

Carver is simple, but there is a good deal of variation. There is also a great deal of rule breaking, being that many of the sentences weren’t technically proper sentences.  Carver’s was much more difficult for me to parse out, whereas McZombie’s wasn’t.

Now, considering how much I claim that the importance of variation is subjective and up to the individual (and McZombie might not suck to other McZombie types), the benefit of taking apart the “greats” is that you will identify what people you love are actually doing and how you diverge from them (in terms of word-choice.) If you take apart writing that you think is horrible, it may identify why you think it’s horrible, therefore illuminating what you care about.

Understand how people who you think write well actually write. You are, by no means, limited to that, but by taking apart Carver, we come to a clearer understanding why he might be successful and McZombie needs his brains eaten.