All writers have a process that allows them to create. However, the art of "Writing" is often mistaken for that "Process." Hopefully this blog explains the difference, and inspires people to develop their crafts, become writers, or just keep on writing.
Monday, June 29, 2020
I will be taking off Friday, so I leave you with this fine piece of writing that has lasted through the ages. Read it, soak in its meaning, and look toward the day when your writing might move the world.
* * *
IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton, William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn, Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton, John Hancock, Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton, Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross, Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean, William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris, Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark, Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry, Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery, Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott, Matthew Thornton
Friday, June 26, 2020
* * *
I have been sick the past week, so this gave me a great opportunity to do some editing. More importantly, it was a chance to look at some of my writing not as a writer, but as an editor. During the past week on the couch, I edited a 118,000-word manuscript, and it ended up at about 98,000 words. Characters were eliminated, a couple of scenes were consolidated, but most of the 20,000 words I eliminated had more to do with stage management.
The other day I was listening to the author Ravina Thakkar (The Adventure of A Lifetime) talk about her experiences with an editor. She offered a great insight that I think we can all learn from. She said, "I wrote a five-page description of a classroom, and then realized everyone already knew what a classroom looked like." This is a very concise way of pointing out that even the best writing might not be necessary. She didn't say her description was bad. Indeed, it might've been incredible. The question was what did it bring to the narrative? If it didn't contribute much, or give the reader something to work with, then it is worth taking up space?
I did a separate post about using description properly and for effect. This post is about how we stage-manage the characters, and what is and isn't necessary with their actions and mannerisms. These can also be very concise, very detailed, and often very unnecessary. And since there are more actions in a story than descriptions, there are more opportunities to tighten up our writing.
Let's take an example from the manuscript I edited from the comfort of my couch:
"Richie went into his bar, walked to the back room, opened his office door, moved to his desk and sat down."
This is the stripped-down version of a simple sentence -- descriptions taken out to get to the point. On the positive side, this does walk us through the entire route Richie takes in going to his office at the bar. It tells us the bar is his, that the office is in the back room, and he has a desk there. We walk his route, we arrive with him at his desk. There is nothing wrong with this sentence.
However, there is very little right with this sentence.
First, the structure. It's a chain of four- and five-word subject-verb-prepositional-phrase statements that reads without any interest. It has a monotonous pace. If we mix up the wording just a little at the beginning, the pacing becomes more interesting. "Richie entered his bar and went directly to the back room..." Now the pacing has changed, and it does not have the drum beat of a boring sentence. That doesn't save us any words, but it makes for a better sentence.
As far as word count goes, Richie takes twenty-one words to get to his office, but how many are necessary? When he enters his office, is it necessary to use two phrases to say he goes to his desk and sits down? Can't he just go sit at his desk? Do we need to talk about him opening the door? If it is important to the plot that the door is closed or open, then yes. Otherwise, most people understand how an office door works and it can be left out. If we know where his office is, do we need to mention that he goes through the back room to get there? Maybe we can strip it down to taking Richie from A to B:
"Richie went to his bar and settled into his office."
That sentence is half the length and moves the reader along with the same effect. This kind of stage management usually clutters our first drafts, but is easy to filter out once we look at it again and decide how much is really necessary.
On a final note, that sentence can actually say a lot more if the writer draws attention to it. Look at what happens when our example is preceded by some verbal stage-setting:
"The routine never changed. Richie went into his bar, walked to the back room, opened his office door, moved to his desk and sat down."
By pointing out the monotony, the boring sentence structure now helps describe the scene.
This is all part of the joy of editing, but as our writing improves, we start catching these things as we write them.
Monday, June 22, 2020
- Start with the main character
- Know when to use passive voice (rarely) and when to be active (mostly)
- Dialogue needs to sound better out loud than on the page
- Avoid redundancy
- Wishy-washy words like “seemed,” “kind of,” “except,” and “almost” weaken the storytelling
- If something isn’t important to the story, don’t spend time with it
- Appeal to emotions; let the reader fill in the physical details
- Loose ends equal sloppy writing
-- Emphasis added for rules violated by that first sentence.
Let’s see how that sentence violates the rules, starting with rule 1. We can quickly see that in that opening sentence, the main character is not the storm, and it is not London. Having read the chapter, it is an injustice to start with a storm that is nothing more than filler to create a mood that is abandoned. Elmore Leonard’s first rule was “Never open a book with weather.” Nothing is more common or mundane to the human experience, so unless the weather is so freakishly out of place that the main character notices it, just cut it out.
For those who are not as familiar with rule 2, the passive voice stands out when the verb is “was” or some variant. Instead of saying “It was a dark and stormy night,” (passive), talk about the rain slashing through the streets, the wind howling, and so forth. The verb needs to grab the reader, not repeat the obvious. The sentence does use some good active verbs, but starting so passively is not how an author should introduce the story to the reader.
Redundancy. Think about a dark and stormy night. How many nights aren’t dark? Nights are dark, so why even talk about the darkness? Unless this was an unusually bright night, don’t mention it (this is also an appeal to the rule about not discussing things that aren’t important.)
Wishy-washy words take away from the author’s voice. If I describe a wall as being blue, except where it was red, I am waffling in my narrative. My descriptive voice should be solid, which means describing that same wall as a patchwork of blue and red, or blue broken with red blocks – whatever unifies the narrative and holds the discussion. In that regard, I would never say it rained, except when it didn’t.
Speaking about the rain, why is the rain even important? It might establish a mood in the beginning, but the rain is mentioned exactly once in the rest of the chapter. The first sentence offers a huge description of the London weather, but proceeds to discuss London more than the weather throughout the balance of the chapter. Again – if something isn’t important; if it doesn’t offer a challenge or contribution to the character or the plot, why is it even worth discussing?
Now, these are in fact just my rules. Everyone needs to develop their own rules and their own style, and they may not agree with mine. However, what makes a rule good is that a writer can justify exactly why that rule fits their style and how it contributes to their storytelling. As your skills develop, these rules will come naturally, until you reach the point that you can mail me your rules and show how they work better than mine. At that point, you are a writer in your own right.
Friday, June 19, 2020
Then the hate mail started.
-- First, many authors in the 19th century were paid by the word, so they piled them on. They went after those extra words like shrimp at a salad bar, grabbing as many as they could. In this regard, excess was merely excess.
-- More importantly, the actual wordsmiths of the era used every word to heighten the mood, not just paint a picture. Merely creating a scene with long, drawn-out or extravagant sentences full of description but devoid of function in the story is considered purple prose, a notable taboo in writing. If each word contributes to a greater theme, it's valuable literary nourishment for the reader. If it just builds up the sentence then fades away, it is little more than empty calories.
Consider this famous opening sentence:
"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."This sentence is evocative of a number of things, mostly a stormy London night. However, it uses a lot of extra words to basically say what was covered in the first seven words. Every word after the semicolon just reinforces what we already know, without contributing to some larger theme. And considering this is the opening of a novel, it is particularly weak because the only part of the story we know is location - London. A lot of words, very little sustenance.
If you write horror, make sure that every descriptive word contributes to that creepy mood that should envelop your story. For romance, love should be like an intoxicant filling the scenes. Gritty thrillers should have tension in every sentence possible. If your words satisfy that demand, use as many as you want. If not, why use them at all?
Monday, June 15, 2020
As a writer, this is horrible.
This is not uncommon - I've noticed it in my fellow writers. They love writing, and they have favorite times of the year, but very few find enjoyment in merging the two. Some (such as myself) find that the best time to write is when they can't participate in the other activities they like. This creates a natural contradiction in that we have things that we like that we can't do together, so we have to place one over the other, like choosing which child is better or which niece we love the most (I'm not revealing that answer ever.)
Often, when we do this, our writing suffers, because it becomes that task we do rather than that private joy we indulge in. Think of how you might have loved schoolwork but when you had to sit in class and see the beautiful weather outside, a part of you just couldn't concentrate. That doesn't end once you grow up.
I only know two solutions for this problem. The first is to enjoy the season, but once you have reveled in the heat or cold, come inside and pour those fresh emotions on the page. Before you've even settled down and changed back to your indoor clothes, start scribbling something down that expresses the joys you've just experienced. When you start reliving your most positive experiences through your most favorite habits and hobbies, they feed into each other. You get excited about going outside so you do it, but after a while you start getting excited about the thoughts and ideas you can write about once you return.
The other idea is to force yourself to do both, with the least-interesting one coming first. This is the "if you don't eat your meat, you can't have any pudding" way of getting it done, but trust me, it's only for a little bit. Before too long, you do both of then gladly, as you have overcome the resistance of one or the other.
And of course, if none of this works for you, start a blog with a bunch of loyal readers. That worked well for me.
Friday, June 12, 2020
Now that we’ve established what the writer needs to bring to the table, we also need to discuss what they need to know about the world and what they need to offer about the world. This is a little more complex, but they all contribute to a genuinely compelling story that readers will appreciate even if they don’t normally read that genre.
Let’s take a look at the original Star Trek series – travel back to the 1960s before all those terms they made up were part of the English lexicon. This was a world only truly known to Gene Roddenberry: a place where people of all races and colors were equals on the Enterprise, where different species served the same captain, and all the animosities of the Cold War world had dissolved into the harmony of the Federation. That’s a lot of world to offer, but how much did Roddenberry the storyteller know versus the amount he told?
The magic of Roddenberry’s storytelling was offering the parts of the world that explained the themes and environments he felt were most important. His idea of a unified Earth was critical to providing a different and positive view of the future, but the show did not labor on just how Earth reached that point. Roddenberry knew all the steps, but all the viewers needed to know is that humanity had finally reached global peace and was now exploring space without the hostility so prevalent in the real world. Was the Federation’s electoral system important? The shift in the global economy? Honestly, the viewer never cared as long as the story was compelling.
One of the biggest mistakes writers make is losing the balance between how much world they create versus how much they offer. For plenty of creative types, the idea of making a whole world around a fictitious world is an adventure in itself, and well worth taking on. J. R. R. Tolkien created the Land of Middle Earth replete with so much history even he couldn’t keep track of it, but it was definitely his passion. However, that passion comes with an overwhelming urge to offer every detail as part of the storytelling. At that point, the problems start.
As complex and beautiful as the newly-created world might be, a writer’s objective is still to tell a story and not explain a world. The job is to move a character along the path of adventure, building the tension as the risks grow, the challenges become more difficult, and the objective finally comes into reach. With all that storytelling, a discussion of the king’s succession or the courting habits of elves might get in the way of the actual adventure. (Okay, the king thing was kind of important in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but that’s another story.)
In the end, it’s all about balance, and it’s something we should always keep in mind. We need to know how much is necessary to tell the story, how much more will give the reader a world they can connect to, and how much the writer just needs to know in order to guide the characters along.
And if a few zombies walk in, I’d appreciate it.
Monday, June 8, 2020
Imagine for a moment that you wake up to see the dead chasing your neighbors around. Whether you believe such a thing could happen is no longer an issue. Even if you believe it was impossible, it's happening, and you have to address the more immediate issue of the flesh-eating zombies shambling through your neighborhood. If you stand on the porch and say, "You zombies can't exist. You defy every principle of biology, physics..." you will quickly be eaten and your story is over. Instead, you save the confusion for later, grab a baseball bat, jump into your car, and drive somewhere safe - but where is that? And so the adventure begins.
This is the Survivor Perspective, a great structure for thrillers. The main character is placed into immediate danger and does not know why, and has to seek safety by whatever means necessary. Is it a plausible threat? We do no know, but it's definitely a real threat whether or not we believe it's possible. Do we know what brought the dead to life? No time for that - we have to run clear of the immediate threats.
Think about the classic movie, Night of the Living Dead. Do we know what brought the dead back to feast on the living? There are sci-fi hints on the radio, but the main characters are more worried about the new adversaries. Do we ever learn about what created them? Nope. We do learn that if someone dies, they don't stay dead for long, but our characters spend their time trying to assess a situation that is very real but makes no sense and comes with very little information.
When we write the Survivor Perspective, we offer the reader a chance to wonder about what is really happening, but give them very little time to experiment on just how to prove everything. The character reels from moment to moment, the reader shares the confusion, and maybe we learn as the adventure continues. However, the immediate source of suspense and tension is not finding out what happened, but surviving a situation that completely alters the main character's version of reality.
The next post will be zombie-free, but will offer more on the destruction of reality as a source of character tension. (Okay, there might be a few zombies...)
Friday, June 5, 2020
Just don't use too much.
Rather, the secret to flavoring our fiction with reality is to distill the elements of reality that resonate the most with the reader, and pouring in those flavors. As an economist, I could pour thousands of words into the ins and outs of a country in recession, but people don't want to hear that (trust me). Rather, what counts is showing the effects - that unsettling tension at a bar as people nurse their beer and talk about how they're looking for work or had to grab a job at half the pay just to keep up with the bills. For sale signs throughout the neighborhood, mixed with garage sales and moving vans. People paying for a handful of groceries with change dug out from the couch. That's a recession people can relate to.
Now, if I wanted to do the pandemic story, well, this is far more touchy of a subject. After all, everyone feels the impact of current events right now, and everyone has a story. Is it even possible to offer a new spin that won't sound like a rehashing of what we've all been going through these past few terrible months? That's the catch about this special flavor - finding something original that will stand out and give the reader a touch of insight. Telling people about a terrible disease is easy; showing them how it impacts everyone's world is far more difficult, but also far more rewarding.
I will also offer this much as a note: we need to think very hard about how much background we want to offer while telling our story. Look at our murder hornet example. There could be several reasons they emerged: Evolution had one too many, some horrible experiment gone awry, possibly some Godzilla scenario - there are endless possibilities. The question really is this: Does it matter to the story? If I wake up in the morning to see a murder hornet has landed on my arm, am I thinking about its origin story? My concern is very immediate - survival, the main component of a thriller. This is called Survivor Perspective, and is very common and effective in thrillers and post-apocalyptic genre. What happened is often unknown and not important, because the characters' concerns are far more immediate (more about this Monday).
In short, when writing fiction, be careful how much reality you include. All you need to do is check the news to realize that if today's reality was a fiction story, you wouldn't believe it.