Category Archives: Writing

Plan or Peregrinate

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

From this source: http://www.tolkienestate.com/en/writing/letters/letter-163-to-wh-auden.html

If you read that (and I suggest you do, but just skim the droll languages part in the middle) you’ll find that that is all Tolkien wrote for years before he: drew a map (Thror’s Map) and then wrote the story The Hobbit.

It would appear that Tolkien both wandered while writing, and also plotted out a plot. He did both, over time, weaving an expansive experience of events, landscapes and peoples.

I point this out as many people might believe works like LOTR were planned, designed, architected. It turns out they weren’t (or it wasn’t, and I expect many others were not either).

The idea here is that one must do both, plan and rove, outline and wander. To think that you could write an entire cogent, cohesive story without any form of deliberation is hubris indeed; bumbling along until the end when voila — masterpiece. But in opposition, to adhere to a strict structure A, A.1, A.1.i, A.1.i.a… Ugh! What a bore. Where’s the novelty in that? Where’s the exploration, the discovery?

So you need both.

One way to go about getting both would be to wander, yes, through the telling of your story, discovering the plot, as it were, but to do so in an extended timeline. Write a chapter or three, and then let them sit, marinate, develop in your mind. That way when you come back, a time later, you will have evaluated what you’ve already written, but also dreamed of intrigue or complications, new characters or destinations, and wondered how you were now going to weave these into your story… So you have to then revise what you’ve written early on, to integrate your new plot twists which now allows your mind to develop a larger more expansive storyscape.

I wrote a piece here about Write is War. Writing is strategy and tactics. You have to have both to win. I think Tolkien waged his writing war well. In the end, if you write something that sells, I think you too will have learned that you have to plan AND peregrinate (meander).


Other comments from that letter above I found intriguing…

“I wrote the Trilogy as a personal satisfaction, driven to it by the scarcity of literature of the sort that I wanted to read”

“…find ‘interpretations’ quite amusing; even those that I might make myself, which are mostly post scriptum: I had very little particular, conscious, intellectual, intention in mind at any point*”

“In any case if you want to write a tale of this sort you must consult your roots, and a man of the North-west of the Old World will set his heart and the action of his tale in an imaginary world of that air, and that situation : with the Shoreless Sea of his innumerable ancestors to the West, and the endless lands (out of which enemies mostly come) to the East.”

“Anyway I myself saw the value of Hobbits, in putting earth under the feet of ‘romance’, and in providing subjects for ‘ennoblement’ and heroes more praiseworthy than the professionals”

“So the essential Quest started at once.”

“But I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me. Tom Bombadil I knew already; but I had never been to Bree. Strider sitting in the comer at the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo.”

 

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You’re writing for me

As a fiction writer, you are not writing for yourself. You can write for yourself, but don’t expect anyone else to read it. Just twiddle away, write your hundreds of words a day, living in that artificial world you’ve constructed and enjoy it. But don’t expect ME to enjoy it.

You see, if you’re writing for an audience, then you have to realize you’re writing for an audience — right-up-front.

Sure you’ll go on your own private journey while you pen your story. The climbing of the icy mountain, the scuba diving off the coast of Ecuador, the rickshaw trip through the back roads of Cambodia, or Fantastica or wherever.

But while you journey and write, remember that it’s me you’re trying to engage. By “me” I mean us, we, your potential readers. Every word you write, phrase you turn, paragraph you ponder, must be done so imagining someone else reading it.

Not you reading it.

Someone, anyone, everyone else reading it. That has to be your constant, back of your mind Buddha, the little fellow who sits there and reminds you, “Hey, I don’t know what that ‘eponymous’ word means! Maybe there’s a simpler, clearer word…”

And it’s not just phasing or your lexicon that matters. It’s the big stuff. Like how fast is your story going? Do you really need all that extra description? Don’t you think that having him fail four times in a row is a bit much? Wouldn’t just twice be enough, with a clever word slipped into infer additional efforts?

Writing’s hard. Writing well is nearly impossible. But if you try it, remember, it’s not you you’re writing for. You’re expressing these wonderful visions so that WE can experience them.

 


Reasons to read and keep reading

Reasons to begin reading a book

  1. Recommended — by a friend, or associate, or another author (not a relative).
  2. Author has established credentials.
  3. Referenced in the bibliography of another book.
  4. Fits your preferred genres.
  5. Other, that is, random selection, serendipity, cover, tag line, subject matter.

Reasons to keep reading a book

  1. Recommended.
  2. Author’s credentials.
  3. First page lured me in.
  4. First 1000 words engaged me.
  5. First 3000 words gave me a feeling of the story arc.

Of these reasons to keep reading, the first two are IN SPITE of the last three. By that I mean, even if the first page sucks, or the first 1000 words were flat and dull, if the book was recommended, or is by an establish name, you would feel compelled to keep reading beyond your tolerance for schlock.

In my mind, no one is going to recommend my books. I won’t have an established name. So, I’d better damn well make sure I kick the reader’s ass in the first 300, 1000, 3000 words.

Thoughts?


Writers commune

If I told you that the world was about to to end, and that it was due to a mad man having taken over a fusion reactor, and that he had pointed the beam of energy at the center of the Earth and he was about to switch it on and you — YES YOU — had to communicate to your friends, your family, your town your country, THE WORLD, that this was about to happen, in-the-fewest-words-possible, describe what was to happen… Could you?

See? Exactly! That’s the point. Novelists. Writers. Need to communicate to their readers IN-THE-FEWEST-WORDS-POSSIBLE, the intent of their story ——- at all times.

That means that writers must commune. They must communicate PRECISELY. They must get to their point, with the fewest words possible.

Because, you know, the world is ending and you don’t want to mince words, or waste them, or time, or effort. HELL! The world is ENDING! So get on with it already!

So, remember, when you’re writing, you MUST say what you want to say, what you want your characters to say, with the fewest words possible. WHAT?

GET TO THE POINT — quickly!

Like now.

And you know that humans are wont to hem and haw and couch their problems in a way that makes them palatable to their audience. BUT DON’T!

JUST BLOODY SAY IT – and this is the key – PRECISELY.

I’m done. Later!


We’ve seen it all

Through narrative, lead us with nuance and innuendo for we can already see the land, the room, the crowds, the forest. We are programmed to visualize stories. We’ve all seen so many movies and shows that every possible setting you, as an author, could imagine has already been witnessed. So nudge us with your words — we’ll fill in the rest.

~~~

She’s tall. He’s not. She can fight. He can run. She’s stubborn, fierce, dark-skinned and gorgeous. He’s none of these. He possesses skills and patience. The child standing between them, peering down into the valley and its smoking fields and piles of debris, holds onto their hands. Their journey, directed by the child, has brought them to this edge, this next decision.

“Will we find it here?” the man asks, gesturing at the destruction below, his right hand wrapped in protective tape.

“No,” the girl replies. Her tire-tread sandals flap loudly when she walks, and the rags she wears smell of stale urine. She seeks and identifies the pool and its attached mound of rocks, both features large enough to be seen from their vantage point.

“Then why risk poking through the trash and the bodies of missock, and infected krek?” The woman’s irritability could be excused; last night’s disturbance allowed her little sleep.

“Tana, Vink, come.” The girl tugs their hands and walks down the broken roadway, her slapping steps muffled by the tangled jungle to either side. “We must help. I must help.”

~~~

Can you see it? Have you visualized the woman, the man, the child? The village below? the child’s garb, the man’s bandaged hand? The pool and destroyed whatever near it? The broken road and the jungle?

In less than 200 words we’ve been thrust into a story with hardly any description. Yet we can see it, feel it, smell it almost.

Perhaps prior to the last few generations, prior to 1960 let’s say, stories needed much more evocative description. We needed to be told what this scene looked like — in detail. Readers had never seen a tall Amazonian huntress, or a burning jungle village, or a child in sandals and rags, or even a man’s hand  wrapped in bandage (tape?). Of course some had. And no doubt many could have read the above and deduced much.

But today? Every reader will have visually experienced all of the above through movie and television. This is a given. So I say, let’s use this common awareness and prior visualization to our benefit. Let’s leverage, in our narrative, the fact that everyone who might read our stories has already seen a craggy mountain, a rushing muddy river, a barren desert, a darkened bat filled cave, a closet full of toys, a thundercloud, an exploding starship. Sure some of these things will have special attributes, and those should not be assumed to exist, must be told and described. But in general I think we can skip much of what used to be required to tell a story and jump straight into the conflict, the intrigue and mystery.

 

 

 


Writing is War

How do you fight a war? (Wait, don’t answer that. Or rather, I’ll answer it for you.)

You fight a war strategically and tactically.

Strategy = planning, organizing, outlining, envisioning, setting broad goals, marking progress.

Tactics = details in execution.

In order to write well you must do both. You must strategize and engage tactically. You must plan, but you must also pen coherent sentences. You must formulate a plot and characters. But you must also evoke emotion in your dialog, you must describe explicitly, fluidly.

To write well you must wage war against yourself. You are the enemy. You will find excuses to ignore the plan, shortcut the outline, forego the partitioning of plot and story line.

And it is you who will tell and not show. Write flowery poetic prose, or terse, boring narrative. It is you who will fail to imagine your characters ticks and faults, their prior failures, their future aspirations. The fault will be yours when you alliterate, exaggerate, bloviate, proselytize. And it will be you who ignores the tactical lessons of writing. You will write passively. You will generalize. You will fail to engender conflict and struggle.

Sure, the generals of war can claim their efforts gave meaning, perspective and context for the battles. But it is the infantry, the sergeants, the gunnery grunts and medics and soldiers who end up winning the war. Without their devotion, their perseverance, the war, your book will be lost – a casualty of faulting fighting, er, I mean writing.

A case in point: Does the reader know that your story has a sweeping outline, a broad global expanse of issues and topics of the day — when they begin to read?

No.

The first feature of your story, your novel, your readers will stumble into, like a machine gun nest spitting out deadly wasps of lead, is your writing. Your words etched into pressed cellulose or inked across a glowing screen; these will be your reader’s introduction to your story. Fumble your breach, step on a mine, disturb the brush in which you hide and your reader will SHOOT YOU DOWN!

So, plan your war. Layout your characters and the venue onto which you will expose them. But first and foremost, write your words well.

 


On passive vs active

It was going to be one helluva day. He was sitting on a bench in the early morning before class. She was standing next to the trashcan, unwrapping an energy-bar. The sky was blue, like a three year-old would paint it; the sun was just climbing over the university buildings. It was then he saw the black motorcycle jump the curb and start to ride over the grass towards he and the girl. The rider was wearing a black leather touring suit and wore a tinted glass helmet. There was nothing he could do he reflected later. He was caught up with the audacity of the spectacle. So was she; the girl who was now chewing on her breakfast. She was just standing there. And then she wasn’t. No, she was now laying there, a dark red spot spreading from the hole in her chest; her cream-colored was sweater soaking up the blood that was ebbing from that fatal wound.

~~~

This is how I might have written this scene last summer, or anytime in the last 30 years, were I to put my mind to writing such a passage.

Let’s count the passive verbs… Sixteen. So, why does this matter? Here’s the thing, writing that came so easy to me. I simply pictured the events and wrote it without thinking about the actual writing. (Although I must confess, now that I’m getting a smidgen better at NOT writing passive narrative, I had to intentionally try and write passive for much of that scene.)

Writing passively is a natural tendency for new writers. Or rather: New writers tend to write passively. Or perhaps, unrefined writers write in a passive mode primarily due to the fact that they (we) witness the world in a passive fashion.

The sky was blue. Yes. Yes the sky was most certainly blue. He looked up and witnessed the sky and saw that — yes — it was blue.

This problem of passive writing exposes the “reporter” in all of us. If you reread that passage above you may find that it reads like a police blotter. Like a reporter stood by and dictated notes into a tiny recorder held protectively to his mouth. You can almost see the guy on the bench, called to the witness stand and hear him recite those exact words, first person: “There was nothing I could do. I was caught up with the audacity…”

I’m pointing all this out as I’m examining my own tendency to “report the news.” Is there a mindset, an alternative view of events, scenarios, people and places that shifts our reporting approach to writing? And can I adopt this approach — permanently?

I’ve become ultra-sensitive to passive writing. Every time I read the word “was” I react. Sixteen times the passive voice reared its dull head in the passage above. Sixteen times better phrases, wording and verbs could have been used to evoke more emotion, more impact in what must have been quite traumatic.

It was going to be one helluva day.
-or-
The events of the day would haunt him forever.

He was sitting on a bench in the early morning before class. She was standing next to the trashcan, unwrapping an energy-bar.
-or-
Sitting on a bench early that morning before class, he noticed her standing next to the trashcan, unwrapping an energy-bar.

The sky was blue, like a three year-old would paint it; the sun was just climbing over the university buildings.
-or-
The sky ached pure blue, like the color a three year-old would paint.  The sun’s probing rays peeked over the university buildings; the girl’s hair shown golden in the light.

~~~

Focusing on the action rather than focusing on the actors may be part of the trick here.

“You see a bucket, full of water, sitting on the edge of a stone water well, the young boy next to it is distracted by a spider crawling up the windlass rope.”

What will happen? Should we focus on the boy? On the bucket? The spider, or the well? Or should we focus on what any of these four things may end up doing? The actions any of them may take; the events that will unfold?

Will the boy /spill/ the water? Will the bucket /tip/ /tilt/ /tumble/ or /spill/ into the well? Will the spider /swing/ to start her web, or /jump/ to land on the boy? Will the well /yawn/ wide to /welcome/ the boy into its inky black depths?

We focus so much on the things around us that when we start writing we end up paying them the most attention. But it’s not the things that are enticing, or alluring, or interesting. It’s what these things *do*.  Shifting our minds to consider events, actions, or activities — first and foremost — may be one of the keys to learning how to write well.

~~~

With this in mind let’s review the top passage a bit more.

There’s this guy sitting there ogling this girl. Now, as an author we want to introduce a motorcycle and its rider. How should we think of this? Do we think about the guy noticing the bike? The bike and its condition or state of being? Or do we think of the bike jumping the curb, startling the guy, careening over the grass, charging toward he and the girl?

It was then he saw the black motorcycle jump the curb and start to ride over the grass towards he and the girl.
-or-
An engine’s throaty exhaust startled him from his day dream. He looked up and saw a black motorcycle jump the curb and charge across the grass toward he and the girl.

Now what happens? Do we focus on the girl’s existence, and then her position on the ground, the hole in her chest, her sweater? Or do we think about her reaction, the muffled shot of the silenced pistol, her collapse, the seeping wound, the sweater soaking up the spreading blood?

She was just standing there. And then she wasn’t. She was now laying there, a dark red spot spreading from the hole in her chest; her cream-colored sweater was soaking up the blood that was ebbing from that fatal wound.
-or-
The girl stood frozen in place, a look of shock and confusion tainting her beauty. A tiny black hole appeared in her chest like the attack of a hornet. Her knees buckled and she twisted to collapse face up staring empty-eyed at the deep blue above her. Dark blood seeped from the wound onto her cream-colored sweater staining it burgundy, a Cabernet spilled in manic laughter.