Getting Hung Up on Implements

When I was a young man, I wrote exclusively on an old 1950s-era manual typewriter that I stole from my Mom (in the sense that it was her typewriter from her working days, and I borrowed it one day and simply never gave it back). I loved pounding out stories on that thing. It was like a tank, a solid hunk of metal and you could feel the goddamn earth shake every time I typed on it.

At the same time, I started writing short stories in college-ruled notebooks, something I still do today, and I got superstitious about the pens I used. I would only use a certain kind of cheap blue disposable pen, so I bought them by the dozen and if one ran out of ink I stopped working until I could find a replacement.

In other words, I totally fetishized my implements. Until practicality imposed itself.

Any Way, Any Where

Basically, the Internet happened and I could no longer get away with submitting type-written manuscripts, and finding my exact kind of pen became a bit of a burden. So I weaned myself off the typewriter (I tried to do first drafts on it, keyboarding them in for revision, but this was too much work when I could simply do the first draft on a computer) and I got a little looser with my pen rules (though they still must be blue for no reason I can articulate).

Oddly, despite these early fetishes, I’ve never been hung up on office space or writing space, and ultimately I think that’s the healthiest thing: Don’t get hung up on where or how you write.

For some writers I know, these hang ups are delaying tactics. They spend months futzing with their writing nook, or playing with fonts, or trying out keyboards, all in the service of avoiding having to actually start their book and possibly fail at it. For others, it’s just a love of the idea of being a writer but not so much the effort involved.

But the perfect writing space, or a super-cool process involving expensive pens or expensive gadgets, shouldn’t be your focus. There’s nothing wrong with having a great working space where you’re comfy and free from distraction. There’s nothing wrong with liking a certain pen, or a certain keyboard, or a certain word processing software. But I’ve come to believe that the main goal should be productivity: Learn to write under any conditions, any where, in any way. Learn to be able to composed a short story using a stubby SAT pencil and some butcher paper while trapped in an elevator with fifteen other people. If you can do that, you’ll always produce great stuff, no matter what’s going on in your life. The more fragile and rigid your environment, implements, and process is, the more likely it gets broken on a regular basis. And every day you don’t write because you ran out of the right pens is a day you’ve lost.

Of course, none of this applies to whiskey. When the house runs dry of spirits nothing gets done, but that’s just science.

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Dumb Mechanics: The Stacked Paragraph

Writing a story (or even a work of non-fiction) involves a lot of moving parts—imagination, rational thought, language skills, literary sense, style, et al. Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees, though—sometimes you get so caught up in trying to capture voice or describe action that you forget to pay attention to some of the most basic, dumbest things that can make your writing suck.

Writing a story, for example, is as much about the placement of words on the page as it is the ideas that those words convey. This is one reason writer’s have experimented with the form of their sentences as much as they’ve experimented with the content.

Writing a story is therefore more than just a mental act. It’s a physical one, with a physical record that can affect how your reader interprets or reacts to a story. For example: Stacked paragraphs.

Writing a Story

Look at the first three paragraphs of this little essay; they all being with the same three words. This is a bit of an extreme example of Stacked Paragraphs; for me it usually manifests in a more subtle way—like starting every paragraph with He. “He looked. He stood up. He sighed.” That sort of thing. Very often I’ll pause in the middle of writing a story and realize I’ve started the last six paragraphs with the word He, forming a stack that jumps out at you once you see it on the page or screen.

This can be bad because it becomes a drone in the reader’s mind, a repeated rhythm and beat that—unless it’s on purpose for a specific reason—makes your writing seem dull. When the reader subconsciously anticipates how every paragraph begins, they start getting lazy about reading your work—and then they get bored.

Stacked paragraphs is a minor thing you can fix easily enough in revision—but to do so you first have to be aware of it. Keep your eyes open.

And when fixing it, resist the urge to drop all kinds of bizarre new ways saying He did something. Getting rid of stacked paragraphs with awkward constructions or oddball word replacements might liven up your writing, but it leads you into a whole new minefield.

And whatever you do, don’t think about all the dumb mechanics mistakes you’re making that you haven’t noticed yet. Believe me, that way lies madness.

Writing Means Being Challenged

I sold a piece of fiction recently. I used to think when someone bought a story I submitted that the purchase was the end of the interaction—an editor read my work, liked it and thought it would bring eyeballs to their platform, and offered to pay me for it. End of story. In fact, way back in the early, early days I published a short story (for no money) and got very bent out of shape when the editor proceeded to engage in what I considered excessive editing, coming back at me with questions and suggestions over and over again. Why in the world would you publish a story you obviously thought needed so much work?

Now I understand that selling a story is often just the beginning. Being published is a relationship, and that means you’re going to be challenged even though you’ve already cleared the hurdle and gotten your work ‛approved’ on some level. The lesson is simple: Be ready to be challenged.

Good to Great

Editors often see potential in a story even if they believe there are flaws. Sometimes those flaws are purely mechanical and it’s just a thorough copy-edit that’s needed, but sometimes even though they like a story (or even a full novel) they’ve got concerns about certain plot mechanics, certain character motivations, or other aspects of the tale. In other words, they see a good story that could be great with a reasonable amount of work.

As an author, you have to balance out a knee-jerk rejection of any further changes simply because you considered the story finished long ago with the fact that you’re the author and thus the ultimate judge of whether edits are improving the story or not. In other words, when you sell a piece of fiction you should expect to be challenged, you should expect the editor to push you—but you also have to decide when to plant your feet and decide their suggestions aren’t right.

It’s not an easy balance to strike, sometimes. But being prepared for the push back is half the battle. Knowing that selling a story or book doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done is half the battle.

I sold Writing Without Rules this year and submitted what I thought was an excellent manuscript. I got feedback from my agent and revised accordingly. I got feedback from my editor, which ranged from mechanics to conceptual suggestions, and I took or left those suggestions as I saw fit—but I still wasn’t finished, because I currently have copy-edits to review, and the copy editor is also challenging me throughout questioning assumptions I’ve made and highlighting what they see as flaws. Half the hard work, in other words, comes after you sell something. And you just have to be prepared to defend all of your decisions. In my experience, no one’s going to force you to make a change that you disagree with—but they will want your reasoning, and it had better be good.

None of this is why I drink. I drink because after you publish the book the reviews and feedback from readers comes in—and it’s too late to make any changes.

Dollar Words

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville contains more than 17,000 unique words. Reading that novel (which I highly recommend) means that you will almost certainly have a larger vocabulary when you’re done, although much of that new vocabulary might be 19th century whaling jargon, which may not make you a sought-after conversational partner. Or maybe it would. What do I know?

There’s a certain school of thought among writers that you should endeavor to include as many “dollar words” (sometimes called SAT words after the test where you often encounter unusual or arcane verbiage) as you can, or that you should seek out a lot of unusual synonyms so you can have a lot of variety in your writing. There’s an opposite school of thought that thinks you should always write in a clear, simple manner that conveys what you want to convey without making the reader resort to a thesaurus.

The real answer is more complex: Use dollar words if you can pull it off.

The Problem of Tags

A note, though, on dialog tags. Sometimes when you’re writing a story you notice that Writing “he said” “she said” over and over again seems repetitive, and you’ll be tempted to substitute other words. He exclaimed! She hissed! But there’s a definite diminishing return to this; while popping in a “hissed” or “shouted” once in a while makes sense, doing it too much makes your writing a bit purple and overheated. Simply put, most of your dialog tags should probably be “said.”

However! There are no rules. If Cormac McCarthy can write entire novels without punctuation because he hates us, you can of course write a novel where everyone hisses, exclaims, and declares things.

That’s the rub when it comes to writing. A genius can break every rule and we still read the book, because genius. So can you use every bizarre word you can find in your prose and still write (and sell) a successful novel? Of course. You just have to pull it off. And pulling it off involves having a plan—a reason why these oddball words are the better choice. Simply doing it to show off all those years you spent reading the dictionary for fun ain’t gonna cut it.

But if, upon finishing your book and showing it around, you’re not getting the response you want, one of the first things you can do is strip out the dollar words and go for a simpler approach. That, or add in some vampires. People love vampires.

Stop Fighting Yourself

One of the biggest mistakes writers make is trying to force themselves to write in ways that run counter to what they really want to be writing about, or which eschew their clears strengths in favor of what they think they’re supposed to be writing.

This comes in two basic forms, one macro and one micro. On the macro side you have moments when you convince yourself you should be writing something other than what your heart wants you to write. Maybe you love writing pulpy, action-packed sci-fi stories but you convince yourself that you need to be writing serious litchure that gets all profound and deep. On the micro side, you’re writing the book you want, but you’re forcing yourself to take an approach or to concentrate on aspects of the story that you think are important, but what you really want to do is just have characters talk to each other, luxuriating in their snappy repartee, or introduce a murder simply because you feel like it.

You know what I’m about to say: Stop fighting yourself.

If You’re Bored Your Book’s Boring

I recently had a writer contact me to ask for advice; they were excited about a book idea, but kept getting lost in the details of their universe instead of actually writing. Often this is because you’re trying to force yourself to write what you ‛should’ be writing, instead of what you actually want to write. Sure, you eventually have to get that plot worked out and on paper—but if your brain wants you to work on the details of your universe, give in and do so. There’s no wasted time when it comes to working on any aspect of your novel.

Is there a point where you’re spending too much time on the ancillary stuff? Maybe. Yes, if you’ve been working on a book for five years and have mountains of background info but no actual story you might be overdoing it, but when you find yourself in that situation it’s more likely that you’re fighting yourself in another way—maybe this isn’t the book you want to write in the first place?

I personally believe people find a way to do the things they want, if they have the discretion and freedom to do so. You attend the parties you want to attend and you find excuses for the ones you don’t. So if you’ve been trying to write a book for years but can’t get started; ask yourself if you’re just coming up with excuses because it’s not the story you really want to tell.

My tendency to endlessly discuss novels, of course, is why I don’t get invited to parties any more. That and the tendency to pass out in the bathroom. Don’t judge me; I’m a writer.

Avoiding Professionalism

There’s a human tendency to stratify just about every pursuit between amateurs and professionals. In some cases, of course, this is useful; it’s good to know the person you just hired to re-wire your house is a licensed, professional electrician and not someone who is fascinated by the way electricity causes fires, for example. And if someone offers to buy you some drinks, it’s helpful to know they’re not going to punk out after ten or eleven rounds.

This drive towards professionalism is sometimes harmful, though, and is sometimes used merely to create an exclusive strata so those on the right side of the velvet rope can feel smug. Creating jargon and secret information that only the initiated can parse is one way of doing this; jargon can be an incredibly useful shorthand for professionals, of course, conveying reams of information in a condensed form almost like the episode Darmok from Star Trek: The Next Generation where an alien civilization uses short phrases that convey entire scenarios with incredible depth of meaning.

But professionalism isn’t always useful. Sometimes it’s just flattering yourself. That’s how it is in writing.

Jargon for the Loss

Some young writers strive for the secret knowledge that professionalism can provide because it makes them feel like they’ve slipped past the velvet rope even if they haven’t written anything worth reading or published anything. And that’s the real danger here; being able to discuss The Hero’s Journey in depth, or explaining to anyone who will listen that the ‛climax’ isn’t the end of the story is great and all, but it doesn’t mean anything if you’re not actually writing.

In other words, don’t waste too much energy on being able to talk a good writing game. Instead, put that energy into the actual writing. No one’s gonna care if you call the denouement of your novel That Moment When It All You Know Kind of Gets Ironed Out and Everyone is Done Fighting—if your story is great. If your story is great, you can call the plot mechanics by any names you want, and literally no one will care.

Sure, knowing the jargon and concepts will help you discuss writing with your fellow novelists, but trust me when I say that this is overrated. Also overrated? Ending blog posts with a coherent restatement of your premise.

Describing Characters: The Bus Trick

When creating characters for your story, the most important thing is to have a sense of who they are as people. If you treat them like real people, they will jump off the page and be distinct to your reader, whereas dressing your characters up in gimmicks and crazy physical attributes in lieu of actual personality is a one-way trip to boring characters. A guy with a monkey sitting on his head is interesting for about a page-and-a-half. A guy who seems like he’s based on a real guy who happened to have a monkey sitting on his head is interesting for the entire story.

I have to start thinking more about these essays before I start writing.

Anyway, you still have to describe your characters, at least a little. At least upon first introducing them. And that’s difficult for some writers—what do you mention? If every character is described in the same way, that’s a problem, but you also want to avoid reducing them to the most obvious kinds of physical detail (skin color, eye color, etc). Here’s what I do: I imagine myself on a bus.

The Bus Trick

Most of my writing advice boils down to modeling everything on real life in some way, because I am a painfully lazy and literal person. The Bus Trick is simple: Think back to the last time you walked into a crowded public space filled with strangers. For me, a bus usually does the trick, but any venue where you met up with a few dozen total strangers will do.

Now, imagine the people who were there when you arrived. What did they look like? How would you describe them?

The details you come up with will be natural and telling, and can be re-purposed to describe your characters in natural and telling ways. Sure, you have to be aware of your own prejudices and assumptions here, but it’s still a great way to get authentic reactions, and a good way to ensure that you’re not describing your characters in the same way every time.

Just remember: When it comes to physically describing your characters, less is more. You will never do a better job than the imagination of your reader.

Avoiding the Agent Smith Problem in Your Novel

In baseball, some pitchers have blazing fastballs, others have to get by on trickery, and others have to paint corners and employ superhuman accuracy. Writers are kind of in the same boat—some writers have a laser focus on plot and are able to sketch out incredible stories without much effort. Others can paint a character onto the page that feels like a real person talking to you. You can teach yourself to be great at just about every aspect of writing (mainly through reading, stealing, and writing, all constantly) but we all have things we’re naturally good at.

Sometimes the hardest thing is to honestly assess your own natural abilities. One thing I see from time to time in the work of younger writers is a belief that they’re very good at characters when in fact what they’re really doing is making every single character in their story more or less a version of themselves.

Agent Smith, I Presume

In the Matrix film trilogy, Agent Smith is a piece of code in the virtual world who eventually becomes a virus and begins replicating, taking over other pieces of code until the entire population of The Matrix are versions of Agent Smith.

When you base every character on yourself, that’s what you end up with. Basing a character on yourself is an easy way to ensure a certain amount of verisimilitude (and I may have offered that as advice in the past, actually, if you’re struggling with coming up with believable reactions for your characters, but then I drink a lot so who knows). But if you do it for every character in your book you end up with a bland sameness to all of your characters. It’s not a good look.

So how do you avoid this? Step one is recognizing you have a problem. The Agent Smith Problem is often the result of not reading widely and not paying attention to the world around you. If you’re too much in your own head, you carry a lot of assumptions about the world unchallenged. In other words, you start to think that the way you do things and the way you see the world is universal. Having those assumptions challenged is the key to writing better characters, because it helps you see your own patterns of thought, speech, and gesture in the characters you’re writing.

Funny how many writing problems are solved simply by reading a bit more.

Of course, I no longer suffer from The Agent Smith Problem because I am so much older and wiser and know everything now. Yessir, it’s good to never have to worry about bad writing ever again. Yessir. Whiskey for lunch? Why not.

Break Up the Party to Move the Plot Along

Most writers hit at least one point in the first draft or outline of a novel where inspiration dries up in regards to plot. One moment you know exactly where your characters are headed. The next your characters are sitting around a room playing cards and checking their watches while you try to figure out what to do next. Whether you’re a Plotter or a Pantser, Plot Confusion is real.

There are a million ways of dealing with Plot Confusion, of course, from the brute force of writing your way through it to pulling a Crazy Ivan and introducing an insane twist to the old Leonard standby of having someone with a gun walk into the room. One trick I like to use sometimes is a little simpler and often offers surprising developments: I break up my characters.

Odd Pairings

As in real life, your fictional characters will have a tendency to clump up into expected and repeated groups. This is sometimes a function of plot; for me, though, it’s also due to a certain linear way of thinking that I struggle with. I dislike jumping around from place to place dealing with different groups of characters so have a tendency to simplify by keeping everyone together. Hey, normally it works for me.

When it doesn’t, though, forcing my characters to separate, especially into unexpected groupings, is often a jolt of energy. You find yourself having to mesh together two different speech patterns, plot roles, and other aspects. It also means that lazy patterns I’d fallen into while writing similar exchanges between the same couple of characters have to be jettisoned, and new patterns figured out.

It’s actually a lot of fun, and just as in real life putting two people together unexpectedly often reveals surprising things about both. Even brief scenes sometimes jumpstart the whole story.

The best part is that unlike real life, if my surprise character pairings turns unbearably awkward and dull, I can always go back to that guy with a gun and really spice things up. Sometimes it’s even fun to write an entire sequence where that guy murders all of my characters and I am, for one wonderful moment, a vengeful god. Like Galadriel, all shall love me and despair and then I save the file and start over.

Plain Language

When you’re a writer, you tend to fall into literary circles online and in social media. You link with other writers, or agents, or editors, or readers, and slowly your feeds fill up with writing-centric stuff. Which can be great, of course, because it makes you feel like you’re part of a larger whole, but which can also be suffocating because when all you’re reading are the thoughts of other writers, the whole world starts to seem like an unending literary conference.

It can also make you feel like you’re doing everything wrong. One example that comes to mind are the word lists that often get circulated—lists of alternate or unusual words or phrases that you can use to supposedly spice up your writing. Or lists of alternate dialogue tags to avoid a lot of “he said/she said” in your stories.

There’s nothing wrong with building your vocabulary or seeking some spice for your prose. Always referring to something with the same word can get repetitive and dull, so finding different ways to describe things can be a useful skill. But don’t get lost in the weeds: A little variety goes a long way, and too much variety leads you into the Purple.

Purple Prose

Think of it this way: If you had to tell someone their house was on fire, you would say “Hey, your house is on fire!” You wouldn’t say “Ho there! Your domicile is currently undergoing the exothermic chemical process of combustion!”

That’s the trick—variety is a worthwhile goal in your writing, but overdoing it is so, so easy. The easiest way to check yourself is to ask yourself in all seriousness if you’ve ever heard anyone speak the way your sentence reads. When you see a list of alternate words for the word “little,” for example, and decide that diminutive is a great alternate, ask yourself if the narrator or character would actually say that. Ask yourself if you yourself have ever used the word diminutive in conversation.

In other words, writing a story is not the same as writing a college essay. Readers actually take off points if your vocabulary is a bit too big.

Then again, it depends on what you’re writing. If SAT words fit your characters, by all means go to town. If your narrative style is purposefully purplish and convoluted, don’t let me stop you. This isn’t a rule, for god’s sake. It’s something to consider. Don’t use oddball words just because—but if there’s a reason, then all you have to do is sell it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go imbibe some distilled spirits.