Tag: advice (page 2 of 5)

From the Vault: Show (Don’t Tell) Your Work

This is a rough time of year for me. Doubly so this year. In lieu of the usual writerly advice, here’s a tidbit plucked from a NaNoWriMo of yesteryear. Please to enjoy.


Courtesy Terribleminds
Staring the month with a little advice.

So NaNoWriMo is beginning and a lot of you out there are taking freshly-sharpened pencils to blank pages. This next month is going to be full of inspiration, frustration, erasures, crossed-out words, broken tips and lots of caffeinated beverages.

I wish you the best of luck.

Related to last week’s post on showing instead of telling, I wanted to touch on something that came up in a recent edit. This will not apply to everything, mostly genre works or those rooted in history. And as with any writing advice, you may find it useful or you might not. But here it is.

You’ll want to show your audience the details in your work, without showing off how much you know.

If you’ve done a lot of world-building behind the scenes, chances are you’re practically busting at the seams to invite people into that new world. And in doing so, you want to show off all the neat stuff you have going on, from the retrograde rotation of the planet to the native people who are a cross between the Na’vi, red pandas and baby seals. That’s fine, but if you front-load your story with long passages on the world’s ecosystem and fauna, you’re committed the aforementioned cardinal sin: you are telling, not showing.

It’s similar with historical works. If you want to do it right, you’ve done a lot of research. You want to make sure that history buffs don’t tear your work to ribbons and ignore the thrust of your narrative because you made the sash worn by the second-in-command to the regional commandant the wrong color. If your audience might obsess over the details, it’s to your benefit to do the same, but not necessarily to the detriment of showing over telling.

Here, as with other expository writing, action and dialog will once again come to your rescue. It may take a little narrative positioning, but you can adjust your characters and their conversations in such a way as to convey the facts without taking away from the story. Don’t just describe the historically accurate landscape, do so through the eyes of character seeing it for the first time, or perhaps who has seen it one time too many. It’s one thing to put down the inner workings of your semi-magical difference engine on paper, it’s another to have a scruffy engineer explain things to a wet-behind-the-ears physics wizard while banging on the thing with a wrench. So on and so forth.

I hope other writers will find this sort of thing useful as NaNoWriMo begins. For them, and perhaps for you, this is the beginning of a grand adventure that may open the doors to a brand new way of conveying ideas and fleshing out dreams, and that’s wonderful.

For me, it’s Tuesday.

Boil Those Bones

Courtesy A Fridge Full of Food

Writers, from what I’ve experienced, tend to be pack rats by nature. We hold on to a lot of things, from old knick-knacks to old photos, and especially old manuscripts. I have yet to meet a fellow author who’s said “Yup, I destroyed all my old stories completely.” Even if they never see the light of day, for whatever reason, we keep the old things around. And time, let’s face it, is not always kind to old ideas.

However, an equally undeniable fact is that some ideas do hold up to the test of time. Flash Gordon remains a cult classic just as much for its simplistic presentation as for its high-octane camp. Fans continue to clamor for more Star Wars even though the first movie premiered over 35 years ago. It’s entirely possible that one of those old manuscripts holds a core element or key idea that can be planted in fresh, unwritten soil, to grow into something entirely new. Or, to go with a more carnivorous analogy, the meat may be rotten but the bones are intact. And the bones can use used as stock for something new and delicious.

But first, all of that old meat has to come off.

It can be difficult to strip an old story down to its bare elements, to delete thousands upon thousands of words that you might have spent hours or even days working on. But it has to be done. Hopefully, you are not the writer you were years ago. You’ve grown, learned, and gotten more used to your voice and your pace. You know what makes good characters, be they heroes or villains or some poor schmuck caught in the middle. Your descriptions are no longer than they have to be. You keep it simple. You grab the reader by the scruff. You kill your darlings.

Any meat of the old stories that doesn’t do the above can come off of the bones.

It’s messy work. It can take a while. And it’s one thing to kill a darling; it’s another to dismember it, to rend it to pieces that your dog might find questionable. But it has to be done. What else is that old manuscript going to do for you?

Be you starved for a new idea or wondering how you can make an old one work better, to create you must first destroy. Get the rotten meat off those bones, then boil them in the clean water of a fresh and cleared mind. Start a new outline. Drop in the bones (the plot points & ideas) and build something new around them. You might be surprised at the results.

That’s how I’d go about it, at least.

The Writer’s Box

Courtesy Bill Waterson

Think outside the box.

What a lovely little snippet of corpspeak. It’s crept into the common parlance as not only a means to go about solving problems and finding solutions to problems, but also to critique any thinking that’s considered too mainstream or commonplace for the issue at hand. Basically, being ‘inside the box’ is seen as a bad thing. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.

Writers can be fickle creatures, especially if they write fiction. Being full of ideas and imagination, they have a habit of becoming easily distracted. In fact, it may seem at times that a given writer is willing to do anything but write. “Oh, is that a new game? Have I seen this cat video before? There’s something else humiliating on television?” So on and so forth.

Sometimes, the best way to get a writer to write is to stuff ’em in a box.

The stores that are not yet written are not going to write themselves. Bringing them to completion requires time and discipline, and in order to hold onto both of those, sometimes one must become isolated, relatively speaking. The degree to which this isolation occurs is up to the individual, and can vary, but it really comes down to shutting out whatever you need to shut out. It can be as simple as shutting down the social networking and Youtube browsing for a bit, or you may need an entire setup away from anything even resembling a distraction.

It’s also a measure of respect for anyone the writer happens to live with. Saying your a writer is all well and good, but in addition to getting published, the proof is in the pudding: it’s easier for people to accept that you want to turn this weird-ass “hobby” into a career if they see you writing. If you’re not writing every day, you go from being a writer in the perceptions of others to that live-in wacko who mutters to themselves and smells funny. It seems to me from experience that folks do appreciate the effort made by the writer when they are writing, even if meals need to be poked towards them with a stick while they’re inside the box.

Obviously, a little isolation goes a long way. You can’t forget to emerge from your grotto to do things like eat. And eventually your energy is going to be tapped for the day and it’ll be time to set the work aside (unless you’re really on a tear, in which case by all means, go nuts). But every hour spent inside that box is another hour closer to your goals. It lets you hammer out the dents in your story, smooth over rough patches for your characters, untangles knots in your plot, and generally provides a great many more benefits than the cost incurred by being away from Twitter and Facebook for an hour or two. You will get more accomplished, and just as importantly, you will feel more accomplished.

Basically what I’m saying is that corpspeak is for suckers, and the box is your friend. Climb in, and get some shit done.

Your Worst Critic

Courtesy leadershipdynamics.wordpress.com

No matter what you try to do in life, regardless of your intent or how the end result turns out, chances are you’re going to have people who disagree with what you’re doing. Some will point out legitimate points of contention with your work, others will lash out when confronted with something they don’t understand or cannot appreciate. Some simply adopt contrary points of view, and others disparage due to their own bias and opinions. However, there is one critic you’ll never be able to truly avoid, and that’s the one that stares back at you in the mirror.

The problem with the critic that lives in your head is that it knows all of your secrets. It gives voice to all of the trepidation you already have concerning the endeavors before you. It turns the dials on all of your uncertainties up to 11. It can even blow the words of those around you out of proportion, slip a little paranoia and doubt into your perceptions, and alter your mood drastically based on the outlook that it is skewing to support its point of view. It’s a manifestation of our fears and our doubts, which is why it can seem so powerful.

Given that it’s inside our own heads, it also has no reason to coddle us. It gives the sort of criticism that slips right through the chinks in our armor and hits us where we live. It burns us with the sort of toxic, deprecating vitriol often reserved for the most caustic of exterior critics, the ones that question everything we do and loves to tell us how boring or stupid we are, all without saying a word. The critic that lives in our head is the one against whom we have the least defense.

It’s also the critic to whom we have the least reason to listen.

It can be difficult to shut that voice out, to ignore our doubts and our fears. Yet if we don’t, they can paralyze us. We can turn from what we want to accomplish towards something we see as easier, something less intense, something less likely to get us hurt when it’s rejected or panned. But that’s part of the reason fear exists: it makes us aware of danger, and in the end, it is meant to galvanize us to deal with what’s to come, not necessarily to turn us away from what must come next.

The criticism that comes from our own heads isn’t always constructive, just like the opinions of any other critic. And like any other critic, if there’s nothing of value in what’s being said, all you have to do is ignore it and push on past the belittling and the hate. You may be your own worst critic, but nothing says you have to listen.

From The Vault: This Is Gonna Suck

I’m on vacation! While I’m away, here’s a bit of writing advice from last year. I think it still applies, and part of me believe it always will.


Courtesy http://punology.tumblr.com/

Artists come in all shapes and sizes. Some paint, some create music, others bring out the statues held captive by blocks of stone and still others start with blank pages to create new worlds and memorable characters. But regardless of the art involved, all artists need to face an unfortunate and ugly truth.

Not everything an artist creates is going to be good. In fact, a lot of it will struggle to merely be mediocre.

It isn’t an easy thing to admit to oneself. I know of some people who perform and create without any real talent or passion, and the lack of commitment shows. Not only are such charlatans unwilling to practice or improve, they’re all but immune to criticism. To even intimate that they are performing at a less than exceptional level is tantamount to blasphemy in their minds. They’ll never, ever look at their work from a point of view outside of their own and realize the flaws in it, be they minute or monstrous. To be honest, I feel sorrier for them than I do the other extreme.

We are our own worst critics, and there are those who focus on their flaws and shortcomings entirely too much. All they see in their art is the mistakes they make. They don’t see the forest, or even necessarily the trees, just a tiny bit of bird crap on a single leaf; next thing you know they’re burning the forest down because “it’s all shit.” They may have talent and passion, and they might be aware of how practice would improve their art, but they lack the motivation because of how they see everything they create. It’s a difficult obstacle to overcome.

To be successful, I feel an artist should be somewhere in the middle. Hold on to what you do that’s good, and work your way past the rest. Know in your heart and your mind that you do good work, but don’t boast about it even when people tell you how good it is. Find the right balance between ego and humility.

And know that stuff you do may very well suck.

I’ve heard it said that every artist has 10,000 bad drawings in them; you just have to get past those. I’d venture to say most writers have at least ten times that many bad words they need to write before things start getting good. And even then, it might not get you anywhere. Remember that metaphor for getting a novel finished, the one where you put a bucket on your head and slam it against a brick wall until either you or the wall fall over? Some writers go through multiple buckets because they’re just that stubborn. I think I’m on my third.

The important thing is not to give up. Know some stuff you write will suck. Accept that, and write through it. Pull out the old Lucas-flavored line of “I’ll fix it in post.” Write the stuff that sucks, then peel away the sucky stuff until all that’s left is good stuff.

And if you can’t kick your ass into gear to do it, find someone else to do it for you.

I’ll kick your ass, friends, if you kick mine.

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