Category Archives: Writing

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.


Learning to write: hour 637

In my 10,000 hour long task of learning to write I find myself struggling with the craft. And in that struggle, accept, I think, that because I struggle I’m getting better.

Last summer I wrote a novel. 1000-3000 words a day for 70 days. POW! Done. Of course what followed was dozens of hours of editing and rewrites. But the original process was fantastic. Really — I had a great time writing it. I was in the groove and enjoying the story as in unfolded.

Unfortunately, and it’s no surprise, the writing sucked. The story turned out excellent: novel, sweeping, fresh, emotional, moving. But the writing lacked the 10,000 hours of mastery that I’m now attempting to rectify.

And what I find is that the verve and energy I had while writing that book, now that I’m focusing on craft (and its myriad wrinkly impacts on the practice) the process has slowed to a desert-crawl-in-the-sun pace.

But, that’s okay I tell myself. I WANT to learn the craft. So, for now, I’m accepting that the momentum of writing will eventually catch up once I learn more of the ropes. I’m hoping this at least. Because for now, the story gets clogged up and hard to decipher when the writing itself unfolds so slowly (good, but slow).


Publishing narrative = cattle auction

There are a few sites out there where authors of narrative fiction (among other media types) can submit their work for evaluation:

https://www.authors.me/
https://www.submittable.com/

are two that I’m familiar with.

The problem with these sites, and the problem is systemic within the industry, is that the process of connecting authors with publishers is upside down. It’s inverted, inside out.

It’s easiest to picture the situation through analogy: enter the cattle ranch.

Imagine if every cattle rancher had to, one-at-a-time, schlep their cattle in a truck to every buyer of beef, haggle with that buyer, and if the cattle were not up to the desired grade or the price was not agreeable, the rancher would move onto the next buyer.

And the next. And the next. Talk about inefficient!

Instead, (and this is one of the ways it’s done), ranchers take their cattle to an auction. At these auctions buyers from all around congregate to bid on cattle. Numerous ranchers present their herds and buyers make bids.

Cattle, i.e. narrative content, from many ranches (authors), arrives at the auction (some new service yet to be created or identified), and buyers (publishers) peruse the offerings and purchase what suits them.

That’s the way it should work for submitting narrative fiction or artful media. Content should enter an auction to which publishers have subscribed. If a publisher only wants adult mystery, then there will be an auction for that genre. When new content is created by authors and artists they can submit their work to the service which holds it until the auction. Or, if the creator chooses, have their work enter the always-on-auction where content is collected and metadata about it then channels said media to publishers who have voiced interest in the media’s genre.

As it stands, this process is so backwards and contradictory, quality authors get ignored unless they schlep their content from publisher to publisher. And publishers miss out on authors who have great content but who ignore or simply skip the publisher out of ignorance or lack of time or awareness.

http://www.AuthorsAuction.com needs to get built. Who’s with me?


Now vs Then

Flashbacks in narrative may be a necessary device to retain the attention of a reader.

~~~

Harold crept to the edge on hands and knees, slabs of shale cracking and shifting beneath him. He had to look, he had to know. The closer he got the more he could see; the base of the cliff, strewn with boulders and scree, came within view; the corner of a pink jacket, the sole of a boot — the new ones she’d bought just last month. “Oh god! Oh my god, Mary, no, no…”

They’d decided that this Thanksgiving, rather than gorge themselves as Westerners did, the holiday becoming a celebration of gluttony rather than a ritual of thanks, they would travel somewhere. Travel and hike a few of the peaks they’d hiked years ago during their courtship.

Atop the cliff Harold lay on his belly, his arms spread wide while sobs wracked his body. He’d warned her not to stray too close. He could tell that what looked flat and inviting, like a table perched upon a mountaintop, was probably unstable. “Step away, please, Mary. Yes, the view is incredible.”

That morning, with daypacks and a thermos of steaming coffee, they’d set off from the trailhead, up through the pines and fir, and within an hour had hit the switchbacks. Mary kept count, “Fourteen, Fifteen…” as we zigzagged our way up the trail that rose a thousand feet in a mile.

Harold edged a little closer, just a inch, or two. She couldn’t have survived such a fall.

He thought back on their thirty years together. They’d had no children, and Ricky, their poodle, had died the year before. I could follow her. I will follow her.

He stood then, carefully, Why be careful? He gazed out over the hazy blue mountains, rolling like waves. The sky a piercing blue with a pair of clouds, puffs atop the highest peaks, looked down on him. He stared at the body of his wife; he could see her fully now, her pink jacket, her grey braid, khaki pockets stuffed with energy bars. He leaned into the wind blowing in his face and urged himself over.

As he fell, as gravity grabbed ahold of him and his mind whirled in the fall, he forgot all about why he was falling; the terror reached up and seized him by the throat. In the last half second before his bone crushing impact, his eyes focused on Mary’s twisted body. In the last quarter second he remembered why he had jumped. And just before his own body crumpled into the jagged rocks Mary lifted her head and smiled.

~~~

In this piece we time travel back multiple times to enrich the current events of the story.

The human mind, in and of itself, time travels. We think about now, what we’re doing, what we need to do, and what we did. What happened yesterday, last year. What may happen tomorrow or next week. We skip around in time within our minds.

A story that is purely linear in temporal treatment may feel dull to us. A story told 1,2,3… does not enjoin our own tendency to jump around in time. A story that, like the above, dances on the face of the clock, on the calendar, keeps our minds — the time focused creatures that we are — engaged.