Monday, September 12, 2011

Introduction to Specific Writing Techniques

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

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

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

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

What were they?

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

Write interesting characters.

Write good dialogue.

Schedule your writing time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(See what I did there?)

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


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

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

On that note, please let me reiterate:

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

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

“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

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

And finally:

“Everything in moderation.”

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

As a final note and most important note:

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

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Seeing Scams

After my boyfriend graduated college, he entered into the “real world,” where he found, low and behold, he was overwhelmed.

An aspiring actor, he went into it head first, looking for acting jobs and normal jobs alike, not sure how to start off in either category, but following different paths. There he found something that has disheartened him ever since: Scams.

Scams are a bit thing in the art world. People pray on the willowy hopes of the young and naïve, attempting to dig money out of their already broke hands by suggesting they have a path.

The problem with the art world is that there’s no clear cut way to get in. We have ideas about getting agents, winning an important contest, knowing someone, etc., but even all those goals don’t have crisp starting points. In order to get an agent you need to be published, but in order to be published you need an agent, how do you not only figure out how to submit to a contest, but find out about it at all, and so on and so forth.

Scammers recognize this needy confusion and they pray on it. Thousands of potential artists find themselves out of money without anything to show for it.

The question becomes how do you separate scams from opportunities?

The good news is that once you know the basic rules, most scams are pretty obvious. A good number of con men are lazy, and they tend to get business despite being not so clever. The number one rule of thumb in detecting scams is that the artist SHOULD NOT PAY BEFORE WORK IS DONE.

If the agent asks for some sort of fee, as in “reading fee” or “monthly fee,” it is very much most likely a scam. Many actors hand over thousands of dollars to their “agent” to find that he is gone the next week.

A seemingly common belief, one that I have never understood, is that the author has to pay to get his book published. This is not the case. The book is the product that the author is paid for. The publisher takes the “prototype” (i.e. the manuscript) and produces it, markets it, and ships it. He then proceeds to divide up the profit accordingly. The book is the big idea. It is the design, the concept, the invention. The publishers make money off of it and then pays the creator.

Real agents, publishers, and galleries will be paid by royalties, i.e. the money that is made off of the work. If it doesn’t make any money then they don’t get paid, otherwise, a good number of them would just accept everyone because they’re making money either way.

Technically, the author never pays these people at all. They get a share of the income.

There are, of course, little exceptions to these rules.

Self-publishing is not a scam. It is, very obviously, self-publishing. Like I stated above, the publisher’s job is to produce, market, and ship. When deciding to use a self-publishing site, the author is “hiring” a factory to mass create the script in question. He then is own publisher and does the rest of the labor.


He RECEIVES the product. In self-publishing, he is having his book created, which means, when all is said and done after he forks over the 2,000 dollars he should have about 200 books sent to him. There are scams that claim to be self-publishing and they’re actually not. If you do not receive tangible merchandise, then you should not be paying them.

Take iUniverse, for example.

They advertise on the internet with Google’s 1984 help of knowing their victims. They claim to be a self-publishing site that also helps with the other production aspects. It is, however, a complete scam.

Number one: It’s print-on-demand.

Print-on-demand, just for clarification, is when a publisher only actually creates the books when someone orders them. This is cheaper and less risk for the publisher, but also makes marketing harder. A lot of people buy books on impulse because they see it in a store and it has a nice cover, which means that unless someone is specifically looking for your book or a good read and happens across the website, it’s less likely to sell.

With iUniverse, they’re asking payment for their “services.” Not only that, but then they are proceeding to ask for royalties, meaning they’re getting paid before and after the sale.

This specific publishing company is a mixture of a vanity press and self-publishing with the worst sides of both. A vanity press is a publisher that accepts a lot of books and does not take quality into account. These, of course, are hard to sell, not only because they’re not well edited or that no one is trying to sell them, but also because they tend to be more expensive than an average book to make up for the cost of the failures. Stores like Barnes and Nobles won’t even look at them.

Ebooks are becoming more and more popular today. I am not entirely sure of that process, especially when it comes to independent works. But, I still say the rule of thumb applies: Don’t spend money unless you’re getting something concrete back.

When looking at self-publishing options, remember that the price should be less than the price of a similar product in a store. A fifteen dollar hardcover made by Haper Lee has to pay off the author, the printer, the editor, the cover designer, the agent, the publisher, and a large group of people. You’re only paying off the printer. You should be able to sell your book for regular price and make a profit. If you’d have to sell it for more to break even, then you’re being ripped off.

And, of course, paying someone to edit your work is also legitimate. You are hiring them for a specific one time service.

The best way to protect yourself from scams is to view the art world as a business. You have the product, they have the means of production or advertising. Are they hiring you or are you hiring them? Interviewers do not charge the people they’re interviewing for a job, no matter how much a pain in the ass it is. View your art as merchandise and that should clear up exactly what you should be paying for.