Well, everybody’s doing it, it seems. No, not that, that’s dirty. I’m talking about this whole “Ten Rules For Writing Fiction” thing. This article got writers thinking about it, and some others – most notably the Magic Talking Beardhead – have taken it upon themselves to write up their own. Which leaves me feeling compelled to put up my own.
See this bandwagon? I’m jumping on.
Well, why the hell not? I pretend to know what I’m doing half of the time, might as well go all the way. There’s no point in putting your hand up a girl’s shirt if you’re not going to try & unfasten her bra too. Wait, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, writing rules. Like all rules, they’re made to be broken, or even ignored. But, by and large, especially when it comes to The Project, here’s the few semi-strict guidelines I find myself following.
The only way to write is to start, and once you start you need to finish.
If something feels boring or dry for you to write, it’ll be boring or dry to read.
Don’t be afraid to hurt your characters. It creates drama and helps them grow. They’ll thank you when they’re done cursing you out.
Kill your characters only when absolutely necessary. Much more conflict is generated by mercy than by murder.
Keep descriptions to a minimum. Painting with words is fine in poetry, not so much in prose. Set the scene and move on.
Time is precious for both you and your reader. Don’t waste it.
Your theme might grow from your characters or your characters from the theme, but either way, your story needs to be about something other than itself.
A little subtlety goes a long way. Let conversations and narratives build towards greater things later in the tale.
Have resources on which to fall back if you get stuck. Story & Character Bibles, friends, beloved novels, a bottle of whiskey, whatever.
Don’t stop writing ’til the writing’s done. Or you pass out. Even then, when you come to, start writing again.
There you have it. Now you can have at it, if you so desire. That’s what the comments section is for, after all. Well, that, and helping me pretend people are interested in what I write.
The old saying “the proof is in the pudding” is actually a shortened version of the original axiom, telling us that “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” As this isn’t a blog about food but rather about storytelling in various forms – the creation of something from nothing as all storytelling is, and thus a form of alchemy when applying my broad interpretation – the parallel of that old saying is that the proof of the story is in the reception. There’s a reason that the ‘acid test’ for storytelling in a written form is called ‘proofreading’ after all.
You may be wondering, if you’re some sort of author, how much proofreading you should do or have done, and how often it should happen. Let’s take a look at two extremes just to see where they have merit.
Proofreading During Writing: The Abby Method
Abby Scuito’s a consummate multi-tasker. At any given time in her lab, any number of tests are running simultaneously to help Gibbs and the rest of the NCIS team track down the criminal of the week. All of her work, from bitching out her spectrometer to teasing Gibbs about the time it takes to run fingerprint analysis, contributes towards the overall solution of the case.
Proofreading is an integral part of the writing process, and an author should have no problems getting bits and pieces of their work out to proofreaders as they write. The author can do a little proofreading themselves, making editorial and content changes in previously completed sections of their work, but the best way to ensure that the writing’s on the right track is to have other people read it. Authors are artists and it’s entirely possible for one to be too close to a work to see a glaring flaw. Better to polish out the rough spots early on as the work is progressing than going back later to try and fix things up, right?
Proofreading After Writing: The Drill Sgt.Method
Wrong, that fine gentleman would say. He’s all about focus. Gunny Hartmann will teach you by the numbers, one after another, to make sure you put on your warwriting face when you sit down to write.
Going back to proofread while writing is detrimental to writing your draft. How can you continue to move forward if you’re constantly looking back? Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, does it? The best way to write a complete draft of your work is actually to complete it, then worry about getting the proofreading done. Hopefully you’ll have done yourself a favor and put down your plot points and other notes on paper to help guide your writing so you can spare yourself precious time and brainpower that should be spent writing new material instead of going back and rewriting old stuff. Write the draft first, start to finish, and then go back over it to smooth out the rough patches.
Something Completely Different
In actuality, most writers will end up doing a bit of both of the above. The temptation can be very great to have someone look over your work and tell you if it stinks or not. However, most of these opinions will be colored by individual taste, and a lot of the impetus for you distributing your work to other people can be chalked up to self-confidence. There are two things to keep in mind when making the decision to forge ahead or go back in the name of proofreading, neither of which deal directly with either extreme of the process.
Firstly, if you managed to get started at all, that’s a huge step. There are a lot of creative people in the world who never find the courage, time or true inspiration to embark upon a project. Keep that in mind, and remember that whether you decide to keep writing or to stop and get some feedback, it’s part of a process you’ve had the chutzpah to begin.
Secondly, you need to do your proofreading sooner or later. You don’t want to go to an agent or editor with a manuscript that’s a mess. It isn’t their job to clean up the little bits and rough patches in your story – it’s yours. You can do it on your own or you can call in reinforcements, but either way, do it before you even think of approaching a professional “knife-person.”
So ends my general thoughts on proofreading. As far as The Project is concerned, I have some minor doubts about what I’ve written so far, but I know how I can be and I feel that if I go back now to proof or edit what has already been put down, I might not stop, to the point of going back into the Plot Bible to rewrite things there. Since I don’t want that to happen, as it’d be nice to finish another novel manuscript in my lifetime, for now my choice will be to forge ahead.
As the process of putting together the Character Bible for The Project winds down, I find myself sorting characters into ‘major’ and ‘minor’ categories. One of the characters that’s been shuffled into the latter area is one that I thought would be considered more important than he really is. He’s one of the antagonists, and the story isn’t so much about him as what’s partially motivating him, so he’s more minor than major. I would like, if I can, to avoid making him or any of my other characters too one-dimensional, but at the same time I want to try and keep my villians’ motivations relatively simple.
Not every evil plot needs to be a Xanatos Gambit. Yes, they’re interesting and awesome when you can pull them off, but sometimes you can tangle yourself up in your own web so much that you drive your plot forward without taking any time to explain exactly who the bag guys are and what they really want. I hate to beat a dead bloated horse that used to run well, but take a look at Star Wars.
In the first three films, there’s something of an overarching scheme to bring down the Republic and raise up the Empire in its place. This could have been handled any number of ways, but Lucas goes about it in the most convoluted canon-destroying way possible. Nowhere in the original films did he mention Force-balancing prophecies, the Jedi being in control of the clone army or the Sith. Now, expanded universe material that exists between the time of the first films and the prequels talks about some of this stuff, but not everybody in the film audience took the time to read all of that stuff. In the course of the films themselves, the motivations of the bad guys go from malevolently straightforward to frustratingly complex.
Consider this scene from the original Star Wars. Remember when we first met Darth Vader?
“Commander, tear this ship apart until you’ve found those plans. And bring me the passengers. I want them ALIVE!“
In one line, we learn so much about the imposing armored dark warrior. He’s driven to find the plans, he doesn’t care what collateral damage is involved in the search, but he also wants the passengers alive, probably for interrogation. It’s equal parts exposition and character establishment, a lesson well-learned and being taught by the manly magic talking beardface. Hey, he was at Sundance, he knows good stories, dammit.
Anyway, in contrast, so much time in the prequels is devoted to empty, dry, dull expository conversation that tells us nothing of value about the speakers. Palpatine is the only villain approaching something resembling true malevolence, while Darth Maul (or as Confused Matthew calls him, Darth Timefiller) and Count Dracula Dooku are little more than soulless dance partners for the Jedi lightsaber throwho-down.
The point I’m trying to reach is that you don’t have to make every villain or antagonist a brilliant chess-playing mastermind. Sure, a Magnificent Bastard character is going to draw in readers and add color to the story, but there’s only so much of it a single story can take. Most of the time, it’s probably best for your villains to have straightforward motivations so you don’t end up getting hoisted by your own evil petard when a reader calls you out for something that’s poorly explained.
And for the love of Vader, don’t try any of that “Our motivations are far too inscrutable for puny mortal minds to comprehend” bullshit. It didn’t work in the Matrix, it didn’t work in Mass Effect. I don’t think it’ll ever work, and I for one am never going to try. Good isn’t as dumb as you might think, no matter how much I love that Spaceballs quote.
I’m sitting here waging a pitched battle against a sore throat, aching muscles and a tract that occasionally lets me know it’s not terribly happy at the moment either. I had to sortie out to gather reinforcements – chicken noodle soup, orange juice and toaster strudel. What? It was on sale. Seriously.
Anyway, this sojourn to the shop had me wondering what happens when a writer gets sick of writing. You can plow through thousands upon thousands of words only to start feeling groggy in the brain. You try to sleep it off, but when the morning comes you’re just as sick of the work as you were the night before. So what do you do?
One of the things I like to do could be considered ‘comfort writing.’
It’s not dissimilar to all the things that one can do when you run out of steam. I guess the Farraday counts. What it boils down to is that while writing is a job, and occasionally an arduous and thankless one, it’s also a form of art, and art should never feel more like a punishment than it does a joy.
I’m probably thinking more of writing fiction than I am non-fiction, as journalists and reporters write every day for the sake of informing rather than entertaining. However, many of the journalists I have met are vivacious people who still enjoy a good turn of phrase and often craft their articles to have a broader appeal than simply being informative. If you can’t take joy in what you do, it’s time to do something else. Life is too short to waste being miserable for extended periods of time.
Anyway, it was just a thought I had. Feel free to dismiss the preceding as the addled ramblings of a guy hopped up on Progresso, Minute Maid and DayQuil.
Some time ago I posted about dry spells in writing. I would like to take you, if I may, into another metaphor for the things that can happen to a writer that don’t really fall into the category of ‘writer’s block’. A writer or other artist may have no shortage of work or ideas, but when the time comes to sit down and produce, nothing happens. The ideas are in the brainpan, jumping around and screaming to get out, but the gates just won’t open.
This is the sort of thing that happens when you run out of steam.
In the aftermath of a project’s completion, the end of a workweek or the conclusion of some sort of trip or activity, there can be a dearth of energy that works counter to any plans or ideas one might have. “After I finish this project/get home from work Friday/go see so-and-so, I’ll be sure to sit down and bang out a thousand words!” It’s an optimistic statement, filling the endpoint of the timeline with hope and promise. Then, when you reach the end of that timeline and clear your decks for action… nothing happens. The engine grinds to a halt. Something has gone wrong, somewhere, and despite one’s deep desire to move forward, there’s no motion whatsoever.
So what happens next?
Rekindle the Fires: Go Back To Your Sources
A lot of artists take notes or make sketches. Rarely does a work spring fully-formed from the mind of the creator, shining with goddess-like beauty and clad in armor that is both practical and beautifully revealing. More often than not they need to be stitched together and zapped into life by some Frankensteinian alchemical process. This means you had raw material to work with before you began refining it into a coherent, singular idea.
If that idea is having trouble taking shape, go back to your source. Look over your notes, and make revisions if you want. Do more sketches. Jot down peripheral ideas. Something you thought of in passing during the early stages of the project might blossom into the sort of idea that gets your engine running again. That minor character you wanted to write out of your story, or a color that you didn’t think would work in the final product? Take those in a new direction.
Fix The Pipes: Edit Existing Constructs
If you’ve run out of steam partway through a project, you’ve already established some things with which you’re relatively pleased. But can they be better? Can you improve upon what you’ve already done to make what you’re going to do possible? Go back to the beginning and critically observe the work.
In addition to helping put you back on track, you might catch something you otherwise might have missed. You might get a new idea that channels through to the unfinished portions, again taking the work in a new and interesting direction. And you might just shore up a part of the work that was a bit wobbly. Either way, it’s a better use of your time than staring at the work and drumming your fingers on the desk waiting for that nubile junior goddess to chisel her way out of your skull.
Change The Water: Dabble In Other Projects
This might be the procrastinator in me talking, but I think it’s a bit rare for an artist to only have a single item on their plate. I have a few irons in the fire and I suspect some of the people I consider artists are in a similar situation. So, if you’re finding yourself in a logjam with one project and there’s no pending deadline, work on something else. Brew up more creative energy that can then be redirected to the ‘problem child’.
It could be something as simple as character notes for another work or even a game, a new story idea that you begin to develop, fresh sketches of something you’ve seen in your mind’s eye, or one of those pedantic “advice”-filled blog posts that ramble on for a bit before coming to a final focal point.
The bottom line is, you’re not chained to any one work. Art is about creative freedom, by and large. You should exercise your right to think and create without a net, try something new and maybe build up enough momentum to plow through the difficulty you’re experiencing.
Or maybe you’ll get lucky and that goddess will burst from your cranium to end up in your lap.
Wait, am I the only one who thinks that wouldn’t be a bad thing? Sure, your head will hurt like hell while she’s getting out, but once she is, you have a goddess in your lap.