Saturday, May 25, 2013

Steps to Starting a Writing Career

Step 1) Get a portfolio:

One of the best ways to get a foot in the door is when one randomly pops open for you and you take it. A common, circular problem for the potential writer is the issue of 1. Not knowing where to start, and 2. Not being ready yet when you do know.

Opportunities will show up in random, unexpected bursts. Often times, there are a lot of ways to start right in front of us, but we can’t or don’t take them because they demand things that are “above our level.”

Things like fellowships, contests, places that actually take submissions will suddenly appear and you won’t be able to do anything about it because it’s due tomorrow and none of your stories have actually been finished.

For this very reason, it’s best to start gathering material immediately. Unlike publishing aspects, writing is a step that only requires you and your effort. While trying to get further along in your career, accumulating a mass amount of work to deal with, and a varied mass at that, will allow you to spend two years on your novel and still take opportunities as they suddenly jump out at you.

I suggest writing a few shorter things first: short stories, short films, one-acts, etc. Get a few of those out because they are quicker to finish instead of working on the priority projects first. Once you have three short pieces of fiction, not only do you get to practice on editing them, but now you can make an effort to get published with them at your leisure. And, because short stories are easier to get printed (in literary journals), and are more likely to be what people are looking for for applications and contests, they are more likely to be needed.

There are, of course, some people who believe they are only one type of writer (“I am a novelist. I don’t do short fiction.”) And on that point, are only willing to work on what they consider the important projects. This is a valid right that all authors have—to write what they want to write. But as I suggested to my friend who only wrote “full length screenplays,” it’s important to ask why a person is limiting himself and how it behooves them. Snobbery helps maintain reputation, but it also traps options.

Step 2) Peer stalk.

Now that you’ve gotten the material together and are working on making it the best it can be, the issue comes to finding places that will take it.

For the most part, the obvious ones will probably not be taking any unsolicited submissions. Universal Studies will send a script back unread saying, “Don’t sue me. I didn’t touch it.” Getting an email address from HarperCollins is like getting a cat to take a bath. The Pantages Theatre will just laugh at you. The New Yorker will… well, is actually a good bet. They have a pretty obvious means of submission there. They’ll still reject the hell out of you, but at least they’re decent enough to send a response in return.

And, as for anyone who has ever remotely had an interested in getting published knows, “Googling it” will only lead you to a bunch of self-publishing sites who take joy in reminding you how unlikely it is you will ever be published normally.

So what to do? How does someone get a name for any of these great literary journals, these grants, these contests, these fellowships, and these agents?

The easiest way, for a person who absolutely has no clue, is to peer stalk.

Peer stalking is the process in which we find someone who is at a similar level to our own career—maybe a little higher if our career is nothing—and follow in their footsteps.

You find someone who is interested in writing. You look them up. You talk to them. You find out that they’ve been published in blank, blank, and blank. You got three names. They won this award. You got another. They tell you they’re applying to these contests, you got some more. Write them all down and chase after them. Know what you’ll find there? More names with more things they’ve done.

You get one person whose been published in a literary journal, you’ve suddenly opened up a cornucopia of options. That journal will, most likely, have biographies of all their authors, many of whom will have several other places they’ve been published listed. And what’s great about it is because they are on a similar level as you (not much resume credit and a whole lot of obscurity), you have a good chance of getting accepted by these same places.

But how do you find that first person? The trick is simply knowing where to look; they’re all around you. Your writing teacher, for starters, especially if you’re in college. Or an author in an anthology in your local book store. Did that not work? Well how about me then? Writers of writing blogs may often just be letting off some hot air, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they could give you some sort of lead. Find their names, look them up.

And once you’ve got one start, you’ll very likely to have thousands more.

(Or, for those of you interested in more traditional ways, for five dollars a month, will give you names of literary journals perfect for your needs, and the current Writer’s Market has a great list of now seeking agents and publishing companies.)

Step 3) Look at it from the other side.

During the arduous process of getting your material together, it’s time to start walking in other people’s shoes. And I don’t mean hypothetically thinking about what it would be like, I mean being in that position.

Nothing clarifies what will get you a rejection like when you have to reject people.

Being in a position of power allows the author to objectively understand how we judge each other. Sure, each individual is different (while I believe good writing comes from nurturing, many people believe in fatalism, so I’m more likely to give someone a chance then they might be giving me), but no one’s so unique that their perception isn’t indicative of others.

Any sort of judge will do. Looking at photographs, drama, films, or whatever will still give you a good idea of how we choose our favorites out of thousands of options, and, more importantly, how irrational the process can really be. Being in a position where you have to discuss quality with other judges, or even just listen to them argue about it is a real clarifier why rejection doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

Step 4) Get it where you want it to be.

A mistake I made while submitting is the idea that someone else will edit it. Thinking that errors will be caught by a second set of eyes, my concern with proofing wasn’t what it should be. Sure I cared. Sure I tried. But after the third read, I sent a story in believing that it would be liked or it wouldn’t, and if it was liked, they could fix any tiny errors I hadn’t caught.

And that’s how I got back my first printed story with a typo in it.

Yeah, if you’re doing novels, you’re less likely to believe that someone might just take a glance at it, go, “This is good,” and shove it into a cover. However, my opinion is still the same:

Send it out so that if it were to be published “as is,” you wouldn’t be horrified.

The idea of having a professional editor is a safety net. It’s great that it’s there, and it’s not as if I’m asking you to take it down. But acting like you don’t have it to fall onto will make it less likely you’ll fall at all. Make the book what you want it to be before you send it out. When they want to do more edits, not only will they not be able to focus on the stupid superficial stuff, but you will understand the work better and be more apt to make decisions and argue your points. Submitting with the idea that it could be published as it is now written will be more likely to make you accepted and less likely to make your heart drop when you open up the first page of your glossy new book.

Step 5) Just go for it.

There are two excuses I hear a lot from people not following their dreams 1) I’m not ready yet. 2) I’m too old.

But the fact of the matter is you will be too young until you are too old. End of story. Do it anyway.

In slight contradiction to the last step, it is important to go after querying even if you don’t feel ready. Mostly because it is likely you’ll never feel ready. It is highly unlikely you’ll get a black mark for being an idiot your first time around, as long as you’re not a jerk. While it is important to get things right, it is just as important as to actively take the next step and not use perfectionism as an excuse to not face rejection.

Give yourself a deadline, make arbitrary rules that will let you know when you’re “done,” because you probably won’t feel it on your own. And if you’re doing something with an actual deadline, even better. Submit on that date it no matter how unhappy you are with it. Again, it is so unlikely you’ll be blacklisted for doing something badly you don’t have to worry about it. And when you get rejected, it won’t hurt as much because you knew it wasn’t your best work, but you’ll still get the experience of the process, and might just even find out that you really were worrying too much.

And if you’re still having questions of whether you should be improving it or sending it out, just ask yourself what you are inclined to do. If you are the sort of person who has been perfecting it through several drafts and submitted nothing, then it’s time to commit. If you are the sort of person who prints off the first draft and sticks it in an envelope, then you can take a little bit to improve it.

A career in writing requires doing. And unlike many of the other arts, the isolation of it allows the “doing” to be done on your own time. Don’t worry about how to start, just start. Waiting around for the opportunity to comes just means you won’t be ready for it when it does. Have the material, have it well made, and blow off that inner voice that says, “You’re not ready yet. What do you think you’re doing, you hack?”

Saturday, May 18, 2013

How to Improve Writing When Improvement is Subjective

It always surprises me whenever I talk about seeking improvement and someone says, “That’s not what you should be doing,” or, “Don’t you think it’s just about self-expression?”

They’re usually actors, or people inexperienced with the concept of isolated art. The problem for authors is writing gives absolutely zero feedback from anyone but yourself. And when you do finally go out and get an external review, it’s never very thorough, mostly because it can’t be. It’s about whatever the reader thinks is important, and, unlike while making acting choices, the author can’t gauge a reaction to the things the audience doesn’t realize they’re noticing. At best, the writer can have a group of people reading the story out loud, so he can watch their facial expressions. But finding one soul willing to read your work is hard, let alone three or more.

The truth is improvement is important to creators. Whatever that means. It might be the actual storytelling part, or just our pitching that we need to come to better terms with. We want to come up with better ideas or better express those ideas. We want to be somewhere we aren’t and receiving results we aren’t. In order to do that, we need to change positively. But there’s a problem.

Art is subjective.

Any choice can be a good one, depending on the right context. Any mistake can be magical. The difference between style and inexperience is a thin line. The rules are made to be broken. A story’s quality has little to do with universal laws as much as current situations.

So, here’s what happens: an author is told something's wrong with his story. He, however, claims there’s nothing wrong with it; it’s an artistic choice. Stories are subjective, and what one person considers good writing another might not. The editor then wants to say, “Okay, subjectively, what’s good about your story?” But instead, the critic (who for some reason is not a jackass in this scenario) attempts to explain it better, all the time hating the author.

Or worse, the situation is the author is sitting there judging his own work, and thinks, “Is this good or bad? I can’t tell anymore,” then shrugs, “Someone might like it.”

The question becomes about knowing when it is subjective and when it is pretty much just common. While we want to work with only universal laws, only having to go to the trouble of changing something when it will always be bad, it becomes quickly apparent that only fixing things that are absolute means we can’t fix anything at all. Because everything is subjective.

So, we have two choices. One, we give ourselves over to “self-expression,” write what we write without any conscientious thought as to why or how it will be received, and consider it a success if it proved a catharsis for us.

Or two, we start defining what quality means to us personally and come up with standards accordingly.

What that means is we remove all the “coulds” and “maybes,” and release our right to wing it and hope it makes us happy in favor of making actual informed choices.

In order to do the latter, we start by asking ourselves some questions:

1) How will I know when this book is “good”?
2) What do I believe is a likely reaction?
3) Who is my audience?

For the first one, sitting down and deciding how you will know when you’re successful will clarify the actions to take. You say to yourself, “This will be a great book when people fall in love with the characters,” and then, upon being unsure if you should cut a scene or not, you can decide if that scene helps, ruins, or does nothing for that goal.

You get to decide your objectives are whatever you want them to be, and you get to have as many as you want. The important thing is to be honest, specific, and prioritize. Pretending you don’t want something you do (“I want to make money”) won’t behoove your decision making skills. While you don’t have to tell anyone what you want, you should be able to admit it for yourself.

If you have more than one goal, remember that eventually you’ll have to sacrifice one over the other eventually, and knowing which one will make several similar sacrifices support each other rather than void each other out.

(NOTE: Since I believe in hindsight editing, i.e. writing the story and then analyzing it, I will say the question of likeliness is for the second draft—trying to think about audiences' reactions while writing will drive you insane and limit your options.)

In many circumstances, thinking, "It could be funny" is an issue of what you believe conflicting with what you want to believe. You want people to think the joke is funny so you bank on a difference sense of humor or that you are just too close to be amused. And the annoying part is, you might be right; your audience may love something you don't. But sometimes, just by being honest with yourself and saying, “I really don’t think that most people will be amused by this,” tells you to fix it or cut it. Which, strangely enough, is a relief because many times the decision is the hard part.

Next, you can get feedback from other people (allegedly) and when they confirm your fears, you have an answer. Or, in the scenario they brought up something new that you are unsure of, you are still able to gauge the commonality of the opinion by profiling (taking what you know about the person and using that understand his own personal tastes) or by getting more than one person’s advice and seeing if they agree. Preferably they will all mention it on their own, but if not, then the issue becomes asking a question in a way that doesn’t have an answer in it. But that’s a different article for another time.

At the end of it, when it becomes extremely difficult to know how other people will react, think about your audience. While I am not one advocating that you need to market to a specific demographic—I believe it lends to dumbing down your work—I do think that having an idea of the person you’re writing for will help make decisions.

While many people argue against writing for yourself, I recommend it. I think zeroing in on one specific individual, especially one you know very well, benefits cohesion. Rather than “making love to the world,” or even a group, you target a fan that you want to get, which is usually yourself.

No matter how much we want to be special and unique, each of us is part of a marketable group. Your personal tastes are what can create an original perspective and story. Trying to ignore what you specifically want because it might not be what everyone wants is either self-loathing or pretty narcissistic. When considering how many people start writing in order to touch people like someone touched them, it would make sense to think of yourself as the fan you want to get.

Writing the book you want to read, telling the story you want to hear, aiming to create the book that you want to exist gives a clear and crisp goal for the author to aim for. Instead of thinking, “I want a good book,” and being happy if it turns out as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight or Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged makes it really hard to know when a scene is too intellectual or too scary or too glittery. Succumbing to subjectivity, claiming that what just happened is a style, that someone somewhere might think a joke is funny, that the unexplained mess you made might be considered genius makes the editing process a hell of a lot harder. Depending on hope in order to preserve possibilities will not do nearly as good as depending on your personal taste in order to preserve your vision.

It’s true that art is subjective. This is the author’s problem. While acknowledging its subjectivity is helpful, surrendering to it doesn’t help anyone.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Dealing with Deliberate Demoralization

I went to college to be taught by some of the worst humans in the history of academia. They were bad men, mainly because their goals were not even based around apathy or laziness, but actually actively trying to demoralize and dishearten all of their students they felt any amount of threat from.

This included “bad” actors, vocal students, anyone who ever consider himself a director, ugly people, playwrights, and those who expressed interest in musical theatre. They took ownership of certain things—“You can’t be a director! I am a director!”—and didn’t want to be bothered with the actual teaching aspect.

The only people they were supportive of—I’m sorry, I mean, “supportive” of—were those they could get things from. Because they wanted to make the shows they wanted to make, they needed actors, and the ones who could pass as remotely talented were favored and complimented, while the rest of the peons had to be told, “You’re never going to be an actor because you’re not white.”

Okay, I, being white, was not told this. In fact, being one intimidating bitch of a woman, I was not told anything.

While in the theatre department, my demoralization came by the same tact of a middle school gaggle of girls. I had never before experienced the whole mean-girl problem until I was in college amongst a group of 50 year old men. The students and I decided they, for whatever reason, were scared of me, which is why they never thought they could get away with the whole, “You’re a character actor, so you’re not going to get a part until you’re sixty,” thing. They just waited until I left the room before using my projects as an example of what not to do.

It’s been about a year and a half now since I graduated, and until recently I thought I would never get over the depression and anger I felt towards them. It was all consuming. I never believed them when I heard word of their claims that my self-produced play was, “just bad.” The really unfortunate thing was I never even thought for an instant it meant anything about my abilities or if I was likely to do it. I knew, from experience, that they said the same things about many other students, of whose projects would range from terrible to some of my favorites. I knew they were mad because they didn’t like students producing work—my recognition of which being what allowed me to manipulate my way into getting anything done. I knew they were bitter, opinionless reputation junkies, and that my play, whatever the quality of it was, wasn’t “just bad.” I didn’t believe their insults. But they still affected me.

It wasn’t until a few days ago in which I realized just how much the hurt has finally died down.

During my time at school I knew other students were experiencing the same things as me. Many of them much worse, actually, because jerks attack those who won’t react, who will just stand there and take it. But part of that, “standing there and taking it” made it appear at times that the victim didn’t even realize what was going on. Not only did they not say anything when someone passive-aggressively trashed them, but they took it to heart—they believed them—and even went to the extent of defending them.

One of the biggest problems of the department was that the students bought into their cruelty. It was the first time some were exposed to an adult who would actively be trying to hurt them, so they didn’t know how to recognize it. Others would find such relief that they weren’t the ones being attacked, they would try to use the moment to get into the teacher’s good graces (“Well, I for one love how you spring an audition on the freshman the week after school starts. I learned so much.”) There were few who would go so far as to prolong the suffering of others to keep the heat off of them.

Though the atmosphere breed treacherous and a dog-eat-dog mentality, the students themselves were not that malicious. Sure, they would stab you in the back the moment they thought they could get away with it, but usually that was to keep themselves afloat. The worst part, for me, was to see when these students, usually the kind, albeit gullible ones, would look up to these men who deliberately told them, “You’re never going to succeed,” and believe it.

As for those of us who knew to take it with a grain of salt, I think we faired better, yet the lack of motivation was still there.

The other day I got on Facebook and was talking to a current student about his senior project. He asked if I wanted to hear his horror story of dealing with the department. I said, “Hell yes.”

As he began to describe their passive-aggression, their refusal to answer their emails, their rejection of every play he wanted to do, their personal attacks, and all their lies, all I could think was, “Wow. Déjà vu.”

It was exactly what happened to me, what happened to my friends, my boyfriend, and many people who came before me.

Again, I felt I had been lucky because my experiences happened over the course of four years. While most students had no interest in producing projects there, I had been proposing and being rejected since freshman year. I had already learned that their basic principle was, “If I can say no, I will,” and that you don’t give them the option. I knew you walked in there and said, “Here’s what’s happening,” and though they would try to talk you out of it, they would never actually say no.

They would hate you for it, but, for most of us, that didn’t seem to change how they treated you.

As I said, they never personally insulted me. I was too stupid at the time to realize that all they wanted was yes-men, so I would never hold by my tongue when I disagreed with them. Knowing that I’d argue on neutral subjects, they didn’t want to deal with me on personal issues. They never told me anything negative directly to my face.

Before I had that talk with the student, I had already known that the men who demoralized me were doing the same thing to everyone. I watched them do it. I watched as they would tell six individuals in a row the exact same insults. The students were lucky if they were tailored to something personal.

Because I was a obvious outcaste, as explained to me by my teacher in one laughable session, because I did not fit in within the cultish hierarchy the department had developed, people with problems would often come to me. They couldn’t tell their friends. In the same way that old Soviets could never be sure their neighbors weren’t informants, the students couldn’t trust one another not to betray them when it behooved them.

My bonding with my fellow classmates came out of our mutual bitching.

So I heard things, probably more than the others, about how repetitive the tactics of our professors were.

Yet I never truly understood just how meaningless their demoralization was until I was fully parted from the situation, giving a fresh look on a world I was no longer a part of.

Deliberate demotivation has nothing to do with talent.

While it contains some sort of truth, or maybe just a personal fear, when someone tells another that she can’t be what she wants, it isn’t a form of advice. Quality of work is very much about perception, and often times we’re not confident in ourselves enough to be able to say, “That’s bunk!” Especially when the judge of the piece or our capabilities is someone we respect. The teachers never out and out lied, their reasons behind our certain failure always being something that an outside student wouldn’t be able to disagree with.

Most forms of demoralization came from physical appearance or past actions. Whether it be you’re too fat, too brown, too short, too blonde, too pale, too goofy looking, the teachers could always find something wrong with you. They would say, “Well, you quit all the other shows, so you can’t be counted on to produce your own.” Or, “You didn’t get any help because you haven’t helped anyone else!” To an outsider, especially one who would like evidence as to why he’s more likely to succeed than his fellow students, this seems legitimate. Meaning that while discussing Student C’s downfall, Student B will believe it is truly Student C’s fault, whether it is or not. This means that when Student B is subjected to the same ridicule, the knowledge that Student C went through the same thing would seem like a confirmation not a negation of the “advice.”

Simply because many of the students were new to theatre and, for that matter, new to not being told exactly how to think, judgment of art became easily influenced by those they respected. As it is in the real world, quite frankly. The problem arose that there were those who would reject their instinctive feelings after being told they were wrong, and they would believe that not only did their own projects suck (which, granted, some did), but so did their friends. This meant that even those who were inclined to see the merit in their own work wouldn’t be able to recognize the teacher’s pattern of demoralization. They would perceive it as truth.

As I look back on college, I realize I did learn a lot. I came to terms with dealing with the worst kinds of jerks I could possibly encounter. Which, in all honesty, is probably what best prepared me for the real world.

I can’t say that knowing the people who say awful things are doing it to say awful things would prevent the depression and hurt; I knew that they were wrong when I first experienced it. But I can say that, for those who are still insecure about their talent, no one who says you can’t do it is trying to help you. They aren’t being unique to you, they are doing the same thing to everyone else who crosses their path. They are miserable and they want you to fail, because it might explain why they are too.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Five Reasons Bad Writing Happens

When I was a freshman in high school, I started taking acting very seriously. I had been doing it for six years by that point, but now I really wanted to get good at it. Or at least, be perceived as good at it. So, in the way that I am, I turned to my logical self, asking how to act out those really hard, casual, daily lines that aren’t supposed to be punctuated with extreme bouts of emotion.

I remember distinctly coming up with this flawless line of logic: If my character is just talking, and then I just talk, clearly I will talk like I’m just talking.

I’m glad I remember thinking this, because now, years later, as I teach children the art, I often know exactly why they believe the answer of who they’re talking to could be, “the audience,” and yet still be surprised they’re not being convincing.

If you are onstage in front of an audience and you see yourself as onstage in front of an audience you’re going to talk like you’re onstage in front of an audience. If you are onstage picturing the room you are in, picturing the person you are talking to, picturing the feelings your character has, you’re going to be compelling.

Bad writing happens for a reason. Sometimes it has to do with how the author perceives something. Sometimes it has to do with how the reader perceives something. Sometimes it is “just not how it works,” and others it is “not what we expect.”

In a place where everything can be good, yet not everything is, the question of bad writing becomes not about what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it.

1. Defending from rejection.

I talk about us learning what we’re supposed to do “in polite society,” and how the demands of the art world require retraining to do the exact opposite. Primarily, we are constantly told that no one cares about our opinions. No one likes our political Facebook posts, I don’t want to hear you go on about abortion, don’t mention politics, religion or money at the dinner table, etc.

In conversation, having someone stronghold you will all his half-baked ideas is boring, mostly because you’re sitting around waiting to talk yourself.

However, in the art world, I’m not planning on talking to you. You’re a book. If I were to start responding and telling you my story, I think the issues would not be with what the book was saying.

Have you ever listened to someone talk for a long period of time without expressing anything personal? What they think about, are worried about, their opinions, their hopes, their dreams? They just go on and on, divulging some step-by-step drivel?

It’s the same rule of thumb for storytelling. People like people. We want things to get personal. And while it’s better for us to hear the development of a character than an author, there should be underlying hints and opinions.

A man who perceives a chair as the bane of his existence will be listened too much more raptly than a man who describes a chair in a page long list of details.

The less risks we take, the less we reveal about ourselves and what we think, the less chance there is for rejection. I have compared writing to deciding where to eat in which the reader is sitting there, hoping to have a suggestion on what he should think about with the entire intention of accepting or rejecting it. Which is why his friends, knowing he’s sitting there planning to judge him, clamp shut. No one’s going to say something just to be shot down.

Stories need to take risks and have unique perspectives. Bad stories are those that depend on what works, the author avoiding talking about anything special to themselves. In order to enjoy something, we need to feel impressed, a connection, and we won’t when being told, “There was a kitchen with a stove and a table.”

2. Your guess is as good as mine.

The difference between being convincing and being creative is a pretty thin line. Why is it okay to have a vampire who lives for a thousand years but not have someone survive a fourteen-story fall?

Part of that has to do with how deliberate a choice seems, but a major issue is when the author comes up with an idea the reader feels not only could he come up with, but probably would, and maybe even has.

It’s the job of the author to impress people, no matter what her reason for writing is. Whether she wants respect, money, or to help others, her goals will not be achieved if no one feels an impact from the work. Even if she just wanted to have fun while writing, if she’s not impressed by herself, she will not be happy.

So part of the issue is the idea that you have to deserve it to be a successful author, and in order to deserve it, you have to be better than me. But if you’re coming up with things that I could come up with, then clearly I deserve it more than you do, and I’m not going to listen to you or read what you write. What’s the point when I can just fantasize.

The “your guess is as good as mine” problem comes from the same kin as, “write what you know,” or rather, “know what you write.”

The issue is this: I don’t know something. Say, what it’s like to live in a prison. So, while writing, I start to take my best guess as to how it would be. Unfortunately, when I pull off the top of my head what it would be like, I’m very likely to come up with something that my reader would make up. Low and behold, it sounds made up to them.

Of course, many authors don’t want to admit this. We like to think of ourselves as innately divined to being a writer, we want to be the people who automatically think differently, who can pull out of our ass something fabulous without a lot of thought, to be, in all essence, the genius who would not come up with something anyone could.

The reality is, however, though some people feel consistently weird, everyone is normal to some extent.

We all have to be more normal than we think—it allows us to have conversations. And we all have to be weirder than we think—it allows us to have arguments. The fact of the matter is that everyone will have typical thoughts and that doing so won’t mean they aren’t geniuses. By acknowledging it, we can change it to something more interesting.

I ask you for a tool, you’re probably going to say hammer. I ask you for a vegetable, you’re probably going to say carrot. But knowing the trick, being aware of what “everyone else would say,” allows you to come up with something more creative. Conscientious thought is the only kind of thought that can control how “common” you are, because the subconscious just wants to be normal.

3. How we speak.

This one is a pain in the butt because it has two contradictory parts; problems from writing like we write, and problems from writing like we talk.

First, the issue is that when we write, we automatically do it differently than how we talk. A prime example is that, while orally explaining something, a speaker feels inclined to get out all the information as quickly as possible, so his sentences are shorter, more succinct and to the point. While writing, however, people can take their time. Often, when they do so, it sounds like they’re doing so. In “bad” fiction, I will see the problem as being overly explanatory, in which the writer is using extra words, like prepositions, conjunctions and nondescript clarifiers (“like that”), making the story have a tone of “It’s really important you understand this,” and not, “It was a dark and spooky night.” So, while I might say orally, “My grandmother once caught a chipmunk. Still has the bite mark to this day,” textually, I might explain, “My grandmother was born in 1901. She liked to work in the yard every day. When she was doing this, one day, she saw a chipmunk across the yard. Sweeping up her rake, she smacked him in the head and ran over to him and grabbed him because he was stunned. He woke up and bit her and she still has the mark to this day.” The second sounds like it’s being written.

Secondly, because we write so much slower than we speak, we are more prone to repetitive word choice. While talking we are more likely to remember what we said in the last sentence and not only not feel compelled to explain what we’re referencing. In typing, we often type a sentence, stop, think about it, forget exactly what we wrote, and reuse it again.

Now, on that same note, while writing differently than we talk makes it sound strange, writing the same as we talk isn’t always better.

For instance, we are allowed to use repetitive words while speaking because it is off the top of the head. Even though we often pretend a book is supposed to be someone speaking without a lot of editorial thought, because everyone recognizes that really isn’t the case, it becomes inappropriate to leave “realistic” speaking errors. It looks more like the author didn’t read through it again.

Not only is text expected to be more contrived than speaking—the ideas have to be linear, easy to follow, the right word used in every sentence, the moments of stalling and sputtering “uhs” weird and often inappropriate—but it wants to be longer. While too long and too explanatory of a sentence is unappealing, sentence fragments and short, singular point sentences are jarring.

Often times, the definition of bad writing is based on expectation, so when the expectation of a story needs to sort of be how we talk yet contextually unique onto itself, the issue becomes about learning what the expectations are and if we’re meeting the wrong ones.

4. Mismanaging priorities.

A couple of years ago I had a director who would focus on all the tiny, little, noncreative details, ignoring all the big picture concepts. He wouldn’t block, but instead get in arguments with the crew about how long they could take to announce something (that really didn’t require more than a, “Hey guys, just so you know…”). As the actors and I watched him, we would find ourselves very confused as to why he prioritized the things he did, ignoring the things we thought he should be talking about.

Sometimes you’ll catch yourself getting stuck. Your brain will have told you, “It has to be that way!” and you’ll be inclined to believe it until, one day, you’re thinking about it, and all of the sudden you say, “Why does it have to be that way? What is wrong with me?”

Fixating on something, requiring it to be a specific way and sacrificing other things in order to make it that way, is a common trend for people to get into, that we don’t even realize is happening.

In the art world, we always have to sacrifice something. Whether it be quality over fun, believability over likeability, or this concept for that concept, choices come up and, unfortunately have to be made. And no matter what anyone says, that choice really is up to you. It’s important for an author to pick his priorities without fear of what anyone else thinks they should be; it’s the only way for him to achieve his vision.

What happens is less of a problem of how he prioritized his options, but when those priorities consistently shift, or #2 had to sacrifice #3 and then #1 sacrificed #2.

Take the typical academic example:

We have a teacher whose priorities go

1) Amount of Effort.
2) Quality.
3) Child’s Vision.

Because the point of prioritizing is telling yourself, when the demand of sacrifice arises, which one you will pick over the other, what happens is that the teacher will sacrifice the child’s vision—“No you can’t have a fart joke”—for the sake of quality, but then, when a problem arises and she realizes, “Oh, we need to film a whole new scene for this to make sense,” she’ll go, “We don’t need it.”

So now the child didn’t get to do what he wanted because she was afraid it would ruin the movie, and yet not care that the movie was bad as long as it didn’t mean extra work. She now has sacrificed two goals for the price of one.

Now, as I said, you should be honest about what you find important. That being said, if “amount of effort” is above “success,” than you have to consider that putting in no effort is achieving your goals just as much, if not more so, than being a successful writer. It means that you have to be happy with doing nothing and not getting anything in return. If that isn’t how your priorities actually are and success is more important to you than the amount of effort put in, then you sacrifice having fun and doing what you want in favor of getting the vision you want.

The important thing is to be honest and to not allow “reality” to shift around your motivations. Recognize why your priorities are the way they are, that easiness and laziness have a good grasp on people’s motivations, and that deciding what you want will inevitably prevent those, “Why do I care about this so much?” moments.

5. Looking like you’re doing what you’re doing.

At times, I feel like some of my discussion mates want to believe they are nothing but pure in their motivation, tactics, and ideas. They want to think that, “I’m writing this for an unselfish reason,” that, “It is nothing more than a form of self-expression,” and that, “All my thoughts are fully formed, well thought out, and proven through practice and experimentation.”

I hate the word selfish because it has such a stigma on it. There are no positive phrases that say, “I am doing this for myself, which is reasonable.”

In motivation, however, we’re always selfish. That doesn’t mean we’re always sacrificing others, bulldozing our way to the top, destroying happiness for the sake of our own. It does mean, however, that we are hoping something good will happen to us whenever we do anything.

For example, writers write for fun. Sure, it’s not always so; often times is a tear-inducing frustration fest. But we write because we get joy out of it, and that is, by the base of the word, selfish.

Even if we claim to be writing to help other people. Even in the most purest sense, helping others gives us a good feeling. Then, while taking it to the next step, the question becomes why write for altruism? While the pen is powerful, volunteering is less risky. You put the same amount of time fundraising as into writing, you’re more likely to come out with something that actually has an affect.

As I say, the people who actually write are the ones with thousands of reasons to do so. Those with only one goal, even fun or charity, will not be able to keep motivating themselves when that aim runs dry. You will stop having fun, you will hate the world, you will fear that this book is “too bad” to help anyone. Writing for one objective means that you would have to consistently be inspired by that same objective everyday, which just won’t happen.

A novel is fiction. It’s being made up off the top of your head. It shouldn’t sound like it’s being made up off the top of your head. You writing to save the world? A book that screams, “I’m writing to save the world!” will be met with only a little less chagrin as “I’m writing to make money!” Self-expression? How about, self-expression of a few base thoughts and a bunch of filler and stalling as we try to develop it? How about, trying to understand life through writing just as much as trying to explain it?

In a perfect world, the author wouldn’t need to keep up appearances. We would realize that all of us are insecure and still respect those with the lack of confidence. We’d constantly expose the truth through unbridled honesty, would not have to wear suits to interviews, and good self-published books would sell well.

Unfortunately, we live in a world with a lot of decisions to be made and little capacity for chancing them all. We need to judge a book by its cover because otherwise we’d have to read the whole thing to know if we should read the whole thing. As I said before, we demand authors to be impressive, and being impressive requires us to not look like we’re doing what we’re doing.

6. Lack of variation.

As one last bonus piece of advice, the mother of them all, the number one reason why something is “bad” has more to do with how many times it’s been used before than what’s actually being done.

Variation, even when that sometimes means varying the amount of variation, is the key to a great book.

The trick is, when finding a method that works, find another method that works instead of reusing the old.

Do you only use said? Do you never use said? Do all your sentences start with a pronoun? Do all your character descriptions involve just the clothes, hair, and eye color? While things work great once, it doesn’t mean they’ll work over and over again.

Vary it. Do something different, find something new, take a risk on something you’re not sure will work.

When it comes to “bad” writing, there really is no such thing. That being said, because humans are so prone to defining it, ignoring that we have certain expectations of authors, that we believe they have to be holier than the average peon, and that it is the author’s job to be impressive will only make your unjudgeable piece apathetically unjudged.