Monday, October 23, 2017

What I'm Glad I Learned about Writing

1) No choice is a strong choice.

One of the more common factors in two-dimensional dialogue is when the character doesn’t have a lot of opinions. In most cases, making strong, active decisions about what the character thinks of things tends to be more interesting. It’s not just a cup of coffee, he gets only the best beans, and people who add cream are monsters!

Sometimes people want to be more realistic: He’s just ordering a cup of coffee to wake up.

Which is a valid, though restrictive, choice, but even if his opinion isn’t a big one doesn’t mean he isn’t experiencing subtle little judgments throughout the day. Everyone has at least fleeting opinions on most things in their life, and though he has “no problem” with Starbucks, if two coffee shops are standing right next to each other, equal distance away, he’s going to either choose Starbucks or intentionally not, and he’s going to have a reason, even if he can’t verbalize it. Likes the vibe of Ma and Pa shops, he shrugs.

When your character is doing a perfunctory daily activity with a person he doesn’t know, that interaction made him feel something. Is it a chore? Does he like talking to people? Is he made uncomfortable by strangers? If you decide it is so common that he’s removed from the situation (not mentally present in the room) that’s a reasonable choice too, but it is a strong one that needs to read in his character.

This applies to everything. An “absence of style” is a style, not the default, not the norm that will work for everyone. An absence of opinions is a distinctive personality trait. A non-existing prior relationship will highly alter the interaction. Humanity is created by complexity, and absence of something will not go unnoticed.

Most decent writing needs to make stronger choices in order to achieve that intangible mojo of great works, so if you’re going to defend passivity, do so with vigor and creativity. Your character is not just not something. He is REALLY not something.

2) Subjectivity is a real thing, and it’s a pain in your ass.

The word subjectivity is thrown out there as sort of an excuse to not listen to other people. “Writing’s subjective. Leave it as is.”

It’s actually more of a problem than most authors realize when we first start. Most people tend to assume their tastes are universal, and it can be an obstacle. At one point, I struggled with drastically conflicting opinions from a myriad of readers. When I tried to dig deeper for their perspective, my critique partners thought I was saying they were wrong and shut down or got angry when I asked questions like, “Do you mean…”

Because most people don’t think you’ve gotten other feedback, and if you had, those critique partners would agree, right?

The more you write, the more you’ll find that subjectivity is real. People simply don’t have the same tastes, goals, pet peeves, or life experiences and so your stories will affect them differently.

Unfortunately, this is a pain more than a blessing if you want to improve because the first step becomes defining what you think good writing is and realizing that there’s others who vehemently disagree. It’s hard to tell if you’ve taken a wrong step in the right direction or need to change your goal completely.

3) Have fun with form while worrying about subtext.

Contrary to popular opinion, I say it’s great to play around with form. Use big words, long sentences, passive-sentences, exclamation points, short and choppy, weird descriptions and anything that you want to convey a visual. Just be honest if it actually worked or not and make sure that you’re also experimenting with the opposite. Keep in mind what is supposed to happen in each scene and use your form as a diverse palate tool to achieve different effects. Sometimes short is better. Sometimes long. Use both, figure out when.

However, playing with style is more for fun and getting out of your box than actual improvement. Style falls strictly into the subjective realm, and so even if you do learn how to write non-invasively, it doesn’t actually mean you’re writing better. It takes a lot of skill to be sure, however if you have simple, ignorable words it doesn’t matter if there’s nothing behind them. Some people honestly prefer Shakespeare to Hemingway, yetlovers of both would claim it’s because of the unspoken humanity in their work.

Most mediocre writing (or even pretty good writing) struggles in its depth. Whether it’s the poor dialogue or narration, flat characters, uninteresting plot, unengaging description, I’d say the issue isn’t really the word choice, rather directly in the narrative: What is this actually saying?

A lot of times, the subtext in poor fiction is meta: The writer wants me to think…

This dialogue moves the plot forward, yet the characters lack chemistry. I have no idea what they’re feeling at the moment. There’s no sense of life other than to deliver the necessary information.

The narration clearly and concisely shows me images, but it’s spoon feeding me everything I need to know. All information is laid out clean and simply. “Unnecessary” details are left out, and it becomes a clinical summation of events.

If you want to write better, find questions about the world that you didn’t even think to ask. Answer them and use that information to imagine a fuller, more complex situation, which will integrate itself into the writing without you forcing it.

4) Experiment, take risks, and remember it’s darkest before dawn.

You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. You can’t find out what you’re missing if you refuse to change what you have.

You do not have to constantly be a good writer, especially if no one’s reading your work. When you first start, you’re often relearning how to talk. You no longer have things you depended on before (like body language). Meanwhile, you have gained some tools you’ve never had (like time to choose your words carefully.) It’s a totally different culture, fiction, with alternative expectations and norms. Just test things out. Make decisions and if they’re wrong, learn from them; you’ll be surprised to find out the vast world of options you have at your disposal. Most decisions work in the right context.

You will learn far more from messing up and making mistakes than you ever will from sticking to only what is said to work, and once you understand the choices at your disposal, you will best know when to use them.

5) Confidence comes from either self-awareness or delusion. Only one of those can be learned.

Writing is a lot more fun when you have confidence. Pretty much everything is, in fact. Getting to that point takes most people a long time, and some never get there. I believe, however, that you can actively work to be more confident and enjoy your writing more, even if you’re not that good at it. Which will, in turn, make you better at it.


I didn’t gain confidence because I realized I had my shit together. On the contrary; the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. I feel confident in my writing because I feel confident in my self-awareness. I know the kinds of mistakes I tend to make. I know what my strengths are. I know my weaknesses. And while I’ll still learn something new every day, for the most part, I’m never really taken back in shock by someone’s opinion.

That awareness means that I’m not nervous when I give people my writing. That when they tell me something isn’t up to their standards, I typically know what they mean, and if I don’t, I’m confident that it’s because I’m missing something—not that my ego is fighting it.

Because I’m aware of what that feels like when it is.

Delusional people are confident too, and there’s something to be said for it. Some of the most creative individuals are those with their heads up their asses.

Unfortunately, you can’t force yourself to be a delusional egomaniac. You can, however, figure out what your insecurities are, what your talents are, and have opinions about your work.

6) Your opinions matter. So do other people’s. Just not as much.

How can I say that?

Okay. Here’s the thing: Egomaniacs are a pain in the ass and can sabotage themselves right along with our teammates pretty consistently. Listening will enable you to improve yourself far faster than being stubborn, and most of the breakthroughs you’ll have will be something that people have been telling you all your life.

I know. I am that egomaniac.

I’m not worried about those types of people. I care about their success as much as anyone else’s—it’s in my personality, strangely enough. I truly do want to solve everyone’s problems and for everyone to be happy.

BUT! Egomaniacs usually do fine. They tend to get a reality check after some point, someone finally tearing them a new one. Or two. Or three. Or sixteen. Their hard-headedness made them impervious to the jackasses who try to tear others down (sometimes being those jackasses, of course.) If they do quit, the dream usually died in its sleep, abandoned to other interests. I rarely have a moment of seeing a I’m The Real Writer Here have a fall to Earth where he realizes he’s “a failure and will never succeed.”

That is far, far more likely to happen to those who are kind. Those who believe in solidarity. Those who care about the opinions of others. They are the ones who are likely to get beaten, chewed up, and spit out. That’s who I’m most concerned for.

It’s your book. We don’t need just another good one, we have plenty. We need the one that encompasses your unique perspective and tastes. You just need to figure out what that is.

Other people are invaluable to helping you get there. It’s pretty much impossible, and not really beneficial, to solve your complaints without having another brain to puzzle it out.

Despite that, you’re still trying to get to where you want to be. No one else gets to decide it for you. You might end up compromising, deciding ‘where you want’ to be is a published author, so you do something you’re not fond of to make your editor happy. That’s a valid choice, but it’s still yours. You always have control. (Unless you’ve signed a stupid contract. Always know what you’re signing.) You get to order your priorities, find solutions to problems, and even define if something actually is a problem in the first place.

Find critique partners and collaborators that respect your opinions. Trust your instincts. Be a respectful team player, utilize the information given to you, however, make sure to stand up for yourself and stay strong for the things you actually care about. Don’t ever shy away from speaking your mind because you don’t think you’re “worthy enough.”

Because you’ll just be giving more room to us assholes who unreasonably think we are.

7)  It’s supposed to be fun.

Criticism. Writing. Editing. These are very inspiring and enjoyable parts of life.

What world am I living in, you say?

Alright. So admittedly, it’s ridiculous to expect that it will be all sunshine and roses. Or even often sunshine and roses. In fact, sunshine and roses are pretty boring, so I’d be a little alarmed if an author described his process like that. Writing is painful and boring and frustrating. There’s a lot of anger and uncertainty involved. I write every day and a lot of times I’m itching to quit.

My point is though that it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re never having fun, there’s something wrong. You can fix it, you just got to think how.

It might be your attitude. It might be the way you go about things. It might be the people who you surround yourself with. Make little changes like where you work, the medium you work on, what you’re writing, who you’re discussing it with. Maybe you should outline. Maybe you should throw it out. Maybe you need to write on a different subject.

I can’t say why you’re not enjoying it, just that you shouldn’t give up and assume that’s the way it has to be.

8) Writing rules are amazing tools based on insight from our forefathers.

That doesn’t mean they’re always a good thing.

As I say, if I strictly adhered to writing rules I wouldn’t like my writing. If I strictly refused to follow them, I wouldn’t like my writing as much.

Writing rules are amazing problem solvers. As a foundation for a good book? Not so much. Not a single person in the world claims a masterpiece follows all the rules. It can’t, for one thing, some of them in existence specifically to contradict others.

It’s hard not to balk at writing rules when they are spewed with vitriol by frustrated authors. It’s hard to follow them even when they’re politely discussed restrictions. However, they are useful, and while I highly, highly recommend not thinking following the rules will automatically get you  where you want to be, they are still tools it’s self-sabotaging to ignore.

9) If you don’t care about something, that’s the time to pander to your audience.

I worked on a film produced, directed, written, and starred in by the same guy. It was low budget, an indie, and he got a volunteer camera guy who was learning about film from the local community college.

The director was not a man who took advice very well, and he did not care one iota about the camera angles. The cameraman attempted to give some opinions and the director refused to hear it.

One of the worst parts of the film is the long, distant shots. He would set up the camera and then refuse to move it throughout the entire location.

This is exactly the sort of area in which he should have paid more attention to.

One of the most infuriating critiques is when someone claims not to care about a big, problematic aspect and refuses to adhere to his audience’s expectations. I see this most commonly with writers who insist on having typos and other errors all throughout their books because, “If it’s good, it shouldn’t matter.”

Of course, it’s pretty infuriating to get it in reverse. A couple of times I’ve had someone say to me, “You need to change this one word,” and I didn’t agree, to which I was told, “It’s just one word!

Then let it go. If it changes it for the better, you can’t claim it doesn’t change it.

The point is, pick your battles. I’m not saying to obey every inane request you get, but if you hear that an audience typically really doesn’t respond well to something and you’re thinking, “They shouldn’t care about that!” it’s probably precisely the thing that will make you more trustworthy than your counterparts.

If you DO care, of course, and disagree, that’s a different matter.

10) Be aware of what other people are doing.

They say you can’t be a writer if you don’t read. I say that reading makes everything a thousand times easier, and you are a real disadvantage if you don’t. But do you need to? That’s for your own assessment.

Even if you decide that you don’t read, or that you don’t read certain things to avoid being too influenced by them, or even if you say, “I don’t care what anyone else is doing, I’m going to do what I want!” you should still have some sort of understanding about the conventions, otherwise your techniques might not achieve the same effect they do for you.

I personally believe the best way to learn the rules is by practicing breaking them. When it comes to “the rules” sometimes people just want you to be aware of what is the current standard when you’re thinking about the effectiveness of an alternative option.

So yeah, even if you’re going to write a book that is grammatically incorrect, play around with commas, and publish a book without a genre, you should still make sure you’re informed about what you’re being compared to.

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