Tag Archives: Fiction

How To Deal With Your Past, Published and Bad Writing

Sometimes I write trash.

How about you?  Does it ever happen that an essay, an article, a story, a chapter, even a whole novel turns out to be pure, unadulterated garbage?  No?  Well, You’re lucky.  Happens to me all the time.

What do you do when you find out you’re written something that is embarrassing?  How does that even happen?  We’re all fairly bright, rather well-read, in other words, not methane-breathers, right?

Realistically, we don’t put our work out there in the world if we think it’s bad, now do we?  So how does it happen?

Sadly—and perhaps gladly as well—it happens because we grow.  The work we published  as teenagers, or later in life didn’t seem that bad at the time, did it?Of course not.  We just outgrew it.

How about the things we wrote and, say, put up on a blog 6 or 7 months ago?  How bad could that be?  Sometimes we can judge, sometimes we can’t, but hindsight is golden, isn’t it?  Those old blog posts might have been a little clunky, but the spirit was good, and (see above) we aren’t idiots.  We just kind of outgrew what we wrote earlier. 

Image: tvtropes.org

In most cases when you write something and post it on the Internet, you’ve started it.  “…like a snowball rollin’ down the side of a snow-covered hill.  It’s growin’…” 

Chances are it’s out of your control then, even if you can go back and change what is on your blog, others have looked, read, perhaps even copied.  Once it gets out there, it’s hard to control.

A few days ago I wrote about John Fowles, and the struggle he had getting his first novel, “The Magus” to light of day.  He wrote the book twice, and made a big hit with it both times.  His problem?  He didn’t think it was ready after all, even after it had critical success.

What’s the point?  Well, perhaps it is time for us to make deals with ourselves.  Perhaps it is time to say, “unless I stop growing, my writing will get stronger every time.  I may always find faults with my older work, but seeing the difference between then and now only affirms that I am growing.”

I think it’s worth a shot.

Now, I wonder how stupid this is going to sound to me in six months?

Your thoughts?


How to Orgainize an Outlining Escape

Over the years I’ve learned that certain words, to certain writers, are little more than a nasty noise.  One of those words is “Outline”.  Yikes!  Did I just feel a shudder running through my keyboard?

A lot of writers I know would rather chew off their own leg than outline a novel, or even a chapter, but my experience is that a very brief outline really works.  If you know where your story is going, if you know where your characters need to be at the start and the end of a particular chapter, then all you really need to do is herd them around a bit. 

Knowing where your novel should start, what the character and plot development points are, and approximately when they should happen is not a crutch.  It is a valuable tool that will have you writing rather than scratching your head and staring out into space.  Knowing where you are going keeps you going.

Now, for those who have just been convinced, and those of you who are in the choir being preached at, here’s an idea about how to make your outline a reality.

Do it instead of something you hate to do. 

Image: israelnewsletter.com

For me, it’s waiting in line.  Waiting for a queue of people to move up for me is tedious and irritating.  When I can, I bring a book or play a game on my phone, but unless the game or book will inspire ideas for my novel, I’m just wasting time.

The solution?  Bring a notebook.  Come on, people, you’ve got nothing better to do in that line, right?  Jot down a few ideas.  Imagine where your lead character will be when the book starts, and make a note of it.  Think of when and how you will introduce your supporting characters, your villains, and the like.

The idea is to do a large, loose outline.  You’re not committing yourself to a final form for your novel, you’re just giving yourself a basic roadmap, and permission to create while standing around waiting.

I always take my notepad with me these days, and a lot of good has come from it.  Oh.  One more thing, I do NOT take a novel or anything else that can distract me from the outlining process.   I don’t particularly like it either, but…  to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, “…I hate outlining, but I love having outlined.”

Your thoughts?

Rewriting or revisioning?

Often in the morning, sitting at my computer, watching the clock, and frantically looking for a topic for the first post, I relent and grab a book from my pile of novels and writing texts.  Sometimes that even helps.

It helped today.

One of my all-time favorite novels is “The Magus” by John Fowles.  It is a wonderful book filled with complex characters and subplots.  It has been called ‘A major work of mounting tensions in which the human mind is the guinea-pig’

One of the features of this book is how long it took Fowles to write, and what he did with the novel after it was finished.

He began writing “The Magus” in the 1950s, originally calling the manuscript “The God Game“.  If you’ve read the book you will know that this title also fits well.  “The Magus” was his first “completed” novel, but his second to see publication. 

It took him 12 years to write and rewrite the novel.  I read it the year it was released, and as said above, loved the book.  But, here is where it gets really interesting.  While the book was published, was both commercially and critically a success, he did not feel it was finished.

Fowles continued to work on the novel and finally republished it in 1977.  I was startled by this, but hurried to purchase it nonetheless.  Once again I was enthralled by the story.  So seamless was Fowles rewrite that I was hard put to find the differences between the versions.  (Of course many years had passed between reading the first and revised versions.)

How does this touch you and me?  Even though the chances that one of my novels will reach the same level of recognition as Fowles’, what he did gives me hope about quality.  One of the fears I have—and it is one that has held me back—is that the work isn’t quite ready to see light of day… that just another run-through will clean up the red herrings, the dead herrings,  the last few typos or logical flaws.  Then I think that no amount of editing and re-reading will ever find all the mistakes in a basically flawed work, I put the manuscript away and work on a new project.

Does this sound familiar?  Surely not all of you will have fallen prey to this, but perhaps some of you?

What Fowles teaches us by the way he handled his wildly successful book is this, just because it’s been published, it doesn’t mean you can’t make it better.

Stephen King re-released his epic novel, “The Stand” (another novel very high on my list of greats).  Not being sure of the quality of our work is a good thing.  Paranoia about completion can serve you, but just so far.

The trick, I think, is to do the best you can, and let it go.  There may always be time for a fresher version.

Your thoughts?

How To Grow Yourself Through Reading

Is that title a bit misleading, do you think?

Of course we grow ourselves through reading, but perhaps there is something we can, as writers, do with more care, with more skill, and in fact to get the result that the Buddhists call, “Skillful Means“.  As a quick note:  Skillful means is simply getting two, or more, for every one you put in. 

I may have given this example before.  Two people work together in the same two-story office.  Both are required to go up and down the stairs the same number of times each day, but there is a difference between them.  One mumbles, stumbles and grumbles on the stairs during every trip.  At the end of the day this is one tired person.

The second person has a mantra that is spoken each time the stairs are used.  “I’m getting exercise”.  Not much as mantras go, but very powerful in result.  At the end of the day person two is full of energy and ready for whatever is next.  All in the mind?  OK, sure.  But I’ll bet you’ve seen examples of this very thing.

But what, you ask, has this got to do with reading? 

Image: dharmagallery.blogspot.com

Glad you asked.  Try this:

Make two lists of books.  List one would be the books you would take to the beach, or to read under a tree, or on a comfortable chair in your home—for enjoyment.  These would typically be books in the style you like to write.

The second list should be books that keep you current.  Non-fiction should be high on that list, but current novels out of your genre would also be good.  These books are the type that will keep you up to date with events, with science, with philosophy, and those things in life that go into making a good novel, but are perhaps not what you would choose for the top of your reading list.

Now.  The secret.  Trade off between the two stacks.  Yes, I know, it will make your fun reading stack grow, but it will also make your knowledge, understanding, and your ability to involve what you learn in your stories grow as well.

So, you ask, is this really all that necessary?  No.  It isn’t.  But the fact is, it is a program that will pay you big over time.

All I ask is that you think about it.  ))

Your thoughts?

Are You Ready for November?

It’s in the air.  Can you smell it?  November is rushing toward us, it’s cheeks puffed out, panting and with a wild gleam in its eyes.

And why?  Because on the first day of November a remarkable annual occurence begins.   Yep.  NaNoWriMo, AKA National Novel Writing Month.

It began in 1999 with just 21 people pledging to write (at least) the requisite 1667 words per day to complete a 175-page, 50,000 word novel.

I didn’t hear about this until 2002 when a friend from work suggested I also join this amazing thing she’d just heard of.  She talked me into it, and I jumped in with both feet.  Speaking of feet, my friend’s got cold, and she quit about two days in.  

Image: nanowrimo.org

Well that made me feel good in an ugly, off-hand way.  I was stronger than she was.  I pushed on.   Ah, but here the story turns south.  See, despite the best of intentions, after a solid week of good productivity, I missed a day.  Man, talk about bummed out.  I hadn’t kept my word (even if it was only to myself).  I got so depressed about missing one day (which could have been easily made up, mind you) that I missed another.  And that was that.  I did not make it to the end of the month, and I (clearly) did not make the 50k word goal.  Sigh.

Then 2003 came along and I thought, “what the what?  I’ll give it a try.”

And that, boys and girls, is the rest of the story.  Yes, I completed the challenge in ‘o3, and I’ve completed it every year since, and sometimes by as much as 110k words (there is no penalty for going over the goal).

This year will be my 8th time to take part, and I’m looking forward to it eagerly.  I’ve got my new novel, “Wizard’s Blood” very briefly outlined, and I’m anxious for the scheduled excuse to put some things aside in order to devote a minimum of 1667 words a day to a new project.

So, why am I telling you this?  Because I want YOU to come and join me on this journey.

Here are the basics:

There is no fee.

There is no prize (you are competing against yourself)

You do get to see how others are doing, and you get a daily graph of your own work.

At the end you upload your book to the NaNoWriMo site, they count the words, and then they delete the file.

For the last couple of years a POD publisher has promised a physical copy of your book for free.

By joining you get to be a part of something huge, something tremendous.  Last year over 165,000 people signed up and better than 30,000 made the 50k word goal by midnight November 30th.

I think you’ve got what it takes to do the same.

In case you forgot, the URL is www.NaNoWriMo.org

Now, go sign up!

Can Your Characters and Dialogue Really Be Real?

 Here is another topic to stir the soul and perhaps the mind.

Should our characters really speak like normal every-day people?  Should they really act like Joe down the street?  Or, do we need a way to give the illusion of such behavior without actually delivering mundane characters?

Oh, and sorry if you’re looking for a definitive answer here.  I wish I had one. 

Regular readers of UhW know that I often harken back to video for cues when building characters.  I do that because as much as I wish books were the primary guide to what is and what isn’t these days, I don’t believe they can even touch the power and the draw of movies and TV

That said, we cannot have our characters being as rude and unthinking as video characters.  Our readers will notice if we never say “goodbye” at the end of a phone message, but rather look meaningfully at the receiver—or the camera—and put the phone down.  Our readers will notice if we always open doors, but never—and I mean (almost) never… check it out for yourself—close doors behind ourselves.  Even the front door of a house. 

For video it is understood, even more widely than it is with literature, that every moment on-screen must move the story forward.  Saying goodbye or closing doors doesn’t really help that much, especially when you’ve got a limited number of minutes to get your story across.

But, with a novel or a story you have more time, more leeway.  The question is, how much of it should you use?

If you listen in on conversations in the grocery store or the food court at the nearest shopping mall, you’ll be dismayed at the flat inanities you hear thinly disguised as conversation.  OK, to be fair, a lot of what you hear is a kind of short-hand developed over the years between friends or family members, but our readers do not have the benefit of that set of understood rules.

This is not to say you can’t imply such a relation between characters.  In fact, I highly recommend it.  It’s just that you dialogue cannot be a long string of “ahs, ums, and other filler sounds.  Each sentence does need to move the story forward.  As does each action.

So, what’s the answer?  I dunno.  But I would guess it is up to the writer—up to us—to find a  way to disguise actions and dialogue which are clear and forward the action, as human, normal, and ordinary.

Why does this all have to be so hard?  Oh, right.  I know.  We decided to be writers.

Your thoughts?

If You Have a Guaranteed Audience – You Can Do Anything

If Stephen King wrote a syrupy novel about two kittens and a baby clown, people would buy it.  By the thousands.  Even though they might eventually be disappointed, they would buy it.  Why?  Because his established reputation could withstand that, or worse.

What’s that got to do with you and me, you ask?  Read on.

One of the most highly touted TV shows of this season is “The Event“.  It is breaking so many of the rules of good writing that one can but wonder.  Why are the producers doing this?  Because they have a need to generate interest through confusion.  Called the successor to “Lost“—a show that rambled, drifted rudderless, and eventually came to an unsatisfying ending—The Event has a lot to live down to.

This is not to say I’m not watching it.  At least for now.

So, I’m going to make two points here.   

One: writing “free-style”, without goal or target might, be fun, but it will have a good chance of petering out, lifeless, and unsatisfying.  Knowing where you are going with a story, at least in general, can make all the difference in the world.  This is why I suggest outlining your work.  Now, now, stop rolling your eyes.  I’m not talking about a 60-page outline for a 160 page novel.  I think that would steal the wind from your creative sail… I”m suggesting a one-pager.  An outline that sets the initial problem (yes, there needs to be a problem), the intermediary steps (roughly sketched), and where you want the story to end.  E.g., bad guy defeated, love interest saved, future looks bright—or at least safe for a sequel.

Two.  Keep the story moving forward.  What do the following words all have in common?

  • Prequel
  • Back story
  • Preface
  • Prologue
  • Flashback
  • reminiscence
  • Retelling of the past around a campfire
  • and on
  • and on
  • and on

I had recorded the second episode of “The Event” and watched it last night.  I think I may like the show, for despite the sad breakage of rules, there are some intriguing moments in the show.  That said, giving three minutes of real time, then showing a four-minute flashback of 5 days earlier which is interrupted by another flashback of 18 months earlier, and additional nested time hops,  one can easily get lost about what has happened, and when, and where.  It looks to me that the writers (this can only be done by a committee–I hope) have no idea where they’re going, and rather than structure the story logically, will continue to toss us around, rag-doll-like, in hopes of keeping us from guessing the major plot points (which I feel at this juncture are fairly obvious).

Like Stephen King, the network which “owns” “The Event” is big.  It can spend a lot of money on special effects, and even more on advertising.  We’re going to follow “The Event” for, perhaps, a full season.  But by then, either they will have had to switch to a more comprehensible story unfolding, or their viewers will be switching channels in droves.

So, boys and girls, what can we learn about our own writing from this?  If you would rather not appear to be a writer who has failed to think things through, who has to go  back time and again to explain unplanned plot bits, to keep shaving the table legs to make the story hold together…   Well, I’ll say it in a single sentence.

“Nothing should be in your novel that doesn’t take the story in the right direction: forward toward the end.”

Your thoughts?