Tag Archive for writing advice

Watch This: Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling

I watch a fair bit of pro-wrestling. Partially because I’m a fan and partially because it’s an extraordinarily complex sequential narrative with decades of continuity, and I like figuring out what I can learn from it as a writer.

If you’ve got twenty minutes to spare, Max Landis does a phenomenal job of explaining the appeal of wrestling – and why it’s narratives are so complex – by parodying two decades of the career of pro-wrestler HHH. I’m not the greatest fan of Landis – Chronicle bored the pants of me – but he gets this one thousand percent right. Wrestling fans should watch it for the parody elements. Non-wrestling fans should watch it ’cause it says something powerful about character, evolution, and story.

Jim Butcher on Scenes and Sequels

So I’ve been doing this writing thing for a while now. Eighteen years, more or less, once you factor in the time spent working on poetry, scripts, gaming stuff, an unfinished thesis, and stories as a collective whole.

I still go out and learn to do stuff.

And I still read stuff where I am thoroughly fucking schooled and have the way I think about writing turned on its head.

Case in point: this one-two combination from 2006 or so where Jim Butcher talks about Scenes (which is stuff I know) and Sequels to Scenes (which blew my writer-brain in no uncertain terms).

The sequel stuff feels like someone just sat down and wrote a short essay that basically says, “hey, you, short story writer, this is why you struggle with novels.”

Go forth and read it.

 

Your Audience: Building versus Earning

2013 was a hell of a year. I did a lot of stuff. A lot of that stuff was huge: I ran GenreCon; I produced eight or nine full-day workshops over the course of the year; I went to so many cons that I could spend 2014 sleeping and still not pay back my sleep debt; I went to motherfucking Vienna and rode the Wiener Riesenrad, which is one of the few tourist attractions anywhere in the world that holds some appeal to me (largely thanks to its prominence in The Third Man and Before Sunrise).

I discovered that riding the Wiener Riesenrad is a fucking terrible idea if you’re afraid of heights.

One of the smartest things I heard last year came via Chuck Wendig, who did an interview at the Get Read online conference where he talked about author platform and maintaining a career as a writer. I meant to post about it back then, when I first heard it, but it was in the immediate aftermath of coming back from the UK and jet lag was kicking my ass.

Fortunately, Chuck revisited it in his most recent post about resolutions:

I WILL EARN MY AUDIENCE

You don’t build an audience like it’s a fucking chair. And you don’t beat your potential audience about the head and neck with that goddamn chair, either. You earn them by being the best version of you. You earn them by being passionate and awesome and not-an-asshole. You don’t earn them by bickering. You don’t earn them through intrusive marketing missives. You don’t earn them through blathering yelly-screamy auto-DMs or through giant Hulk fists made of quivering spam. You earn them by being a person. A person who happens to have many amazing stories to share.

Writing Resolutions: 2014 and Beyond, Chuck Wendig, Terribleminds.com

I just printed it out and tacked it above my writing computer, to serve as a reminder of the theme I’m adoption for 2014.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Why King’s “On Writing” Can be Dangerous to New Writers

So my boss caught up on the Novella Dairy yesterday and commented on the fact that I was crapping on Stephen King in my post asking for feedback about the future of the project.

“I crapped on Stephen King?” I said. “I don’t remember doing that.”

“Sure you do,” she said. “You basically quote him and then talk about all the ways he’s wrong. You’re all It’s all very well for Stephen King to write about sitting in the chair until he hits 2K a day, but some of us have day jobs…

I’ll admit, at this point, that my record of this conversation probably isn’t 100% accurate, but it captures the gist. It refers back to an ongoing conversation we’ve had at work, where I’ve brought up the fact that I think On Writing has the potential to be a dangerous resource for some new writers and it bothers me that it’s so…omnipresent, I guess, as a source of advice.

So I figured I’d take a moment to unpack the reasons I used King as an example, particularly when it comes to the particular passage I quoted in yesterday’s post.

First Up: Stephen King Gets A Lot Right

Lest we get off on the wrong foot here, I’m going to state right at the outset that On Writing is actually a pretty useful book. It gets a lot of information right and it offers a pretty solid foundation for people who are getting into writing for the first time.

Better yet, his metaphor of the writer’s toolbox? Fucking brilliant. Simple, effective, well-explained. All the things that it needs to be. That it’s immediately followed by a point of contention for me (King and I disagree on the merits of plain style and not reaching for new language) is kinda beside the point, ’cause I don’t necessarily consider work with the language you’ve got bad advice in isolation.

Basically, while I think it has the potential to be problematic, I’m not really leveling the criticism at Stephen King’s advice so much as writing advice in general. On Writing is serving as a stand-in for a whole lot of conventional wisdom when it comes to writing, mostly because that conventional wisdom is presented very clearly in King’s book.

The overall gist of the advice? Write regularly? Submit your work to magazines. Embrace persistence, especially in the face of rejection. Build up your tools as a writer and make sure you’ve got them down.

It’s good stuff. I endorse it in principle, based on seeing it work for hundreds of writing students over the years. Advice goes, it’s useful.

Right up until it’s not.

No Writing Advice Survives Contact with the Enemy

The best writing advice is like a little explosion in your head. You read it, you put two-and-two together, and you suddenly realise why it’s taken you so damn long to realise how they come together to make four. You sit there thinking, wow, that’s so damn easy, how did I miss it.

The worst writing advice sits in your head like a stone, weighting you down and keeping you from moving forward. You sit there, looking it over, and thinking, wow, holy hell, why am I not doing this? It’s so damn obvious.

The weird part is that the good writing advice and the bad writing advice can be exactly the same; you’ve just heard it a different point in your career, or it works really well for you but not the next writer down the queue. I keep writing this in various places, but writing advice is not one size fits all.

The advice that helps you out isn’t even consistent year-to-year in your writing career. The things you need to hear when you’re starting out are rarely the same things that’ll help you five years in.

I Don’t Believe in Monolithic Entities

Church. State. Grand narratives about life and existence. They’ve all collapsed in the face of modern world, embracing a kind of pluralism that’s only just starting to seep into writing advice.

Stephen King’s career is a kind of monolith in some respects. It’s too successful, too big to ignore, and it’s built on the strengths of a very particular kind of writer. The career advice outlined in On Writing reflects that in a lot of ways; it’s the kind of big, monolithic conventional wisdom that is all too common in writing.

The simple core of Kings guide – write a lot, submit a lot, keep repeating and don’t give up – syncs directly with my own experience with regards to what works when you’re starting out. The details of getting there, though, that isn’t the same at all. I had very different experiences as a formative writer. I work in very different ways. Approaching the process of writing 2,500 words a day the same way King does will frustrate me at the best of times and depress me at the worst.

I know, because I tried just a few months ago. I set a daily word count throughout January and February. I set my routine and went for it, forcing myself to sit there until I hit my word count.

It worked for a short stretch, but by halfway through the month real life intervened. I’d aim for two thousand words and get to fifteen hundred. Staying at the computer wasn’t a choice, ’cause I either had to head off to work or I had to get some sleep before heading to work the following morning.

I am, after all, thirty-six. My brain doesn’t work well on five hours sleep anymore.

Victory Conditions and Sacrifice

Here is my least-favourite sentence in the how to write section of On Writing, when he talks about your daily practice and target word count:

As with physical exercise, it would be best to set this low at first, to avoid disappointment. I suggest a thousand words a day, and because I’m feeling magnanimous, I’ll also suggest that you can take one day a week off, at least to begin with. (King, On Writing)

I mean, really? Magnanimous? I’m resisting the urge to be snotty here, especially since it comes with the implication that one day you’ll level-up as a writer and be above such things.

Writers are fond of setting victory conditions. I do it myself – the novella dairy is predicated on the 1k a day goal – but the problem with setting a victory condition like you will write 2,500 or 1,000 words a day is the counter-point that not reaching that word-count means that you’ve failed. Nothing wrong with that if you’re strong enough to shake things off and get back on the horse, but that isn’t always a given. Some days you don’t have the energy to give yourself that kind of pep talk.

The rhetoric offered to aspiring writers is all about sacrifice and martyrdom. If you can do anything but write, don’t write. If you want to make it, you’ll plant yourself in front of the computer and work until you hit your word count. If you want to be a writer, you’ll sacrifice and sacrifice…and if you aren’t able to sacrifice, you obviously didn’t want it enough.

Some days I wonder if that’s a bad thing.

How many writers have we lost because planting themselves in a chair and writing two thousands words in a single sitting was impossible? How many have we lost to the belief that you need to block out hours to give to writing? Or even a single consecutive hour, where you lock the door away?

I know why the advice is offered and I understand its place, but presenting it as a monolithic given is a mistake. The process of writing is individual and idiosyncratic; writers themselves, imminently adaptable. Some days it’s okay to chill the fuck out. Sometimes you can admit that maybe, somewhere along the line, you’d like to be a writer and have a goddamn weekend to yourself.

But beginners never hear that. You can put out the argument that perhaps they haven’t earned it yet – they need to hear the monolithic lectures about sacrifice and forcing yourself to write because otherwise they’ll never figure out their process or get to the end of the story. It’s like beginners need to be bullied into doing things, ’cause otherwise they’ll surely fail.

Lets be Honest: Writing is Hard

It’s not hard like brick-laying is hard or running a conference is hard, but it’s got its own difficulties.

It’s hard when you start writing because you suck and, as Ira Glass mentions in his brilliant video about creative success, you know that you suck. There’s good odds that you’ve embraced the creative side of yourself because you’ve got exceptional taste, and it’s frustrating to enter into that period where your skills aren’t yet in synch with your ambition.

It’s hard when you’ve had some success as a writer because you’re invested in your career. You know you can achieve and you want to achieve more, only now you’ve got to make sure that every new thing is better than the work that came before it and you’ll occasionally be visited by the spectre of you’re done, it’s all been a mistake, and you’ll never be published again.

I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that it’s even hard for guys like Stephen King, who have an audience with huge expectations and a million demands on their time. Things that are, technically, work, without actually being writing.

You know what all that misses?

Being a writer is fucking awesome.

Make no mistake, it’s a career path that’s got its ups and downs. There are days when I wish that I’d chosen something else to do with my life. Overall, though? Best fucking job in the world, whether I’m getting paid for it or not.

It just got a lot better, for me, when I stopped forcing myself to be the square peg squeezing into a round hole.

Here’s What You Need to Remember About On Writing

It’s a how-to-write book that reflects the way Stephen King set about building a writing career. The advice offered within worked really well for Stephen King, both in the general and the specific sense. It’s worked well for a whole bunch of other writers too.

But it doesn’t work for everyone. It presuppose a pace that you want to finish things, and in turn that’s predicated upon some very specific career goals. It assumes you want to be a novelist. It assumes you want to be writing full time. It assumes all sorts of things that may not be true for your particular path into writing, but unless you realise that, it’s easy to buy in ’cause you haven’t actually considered what you really want.

And, yeah, I got a personal beef.

There was a period of my life where sitting at the computer until I’d written 2,500 words a day nearly killed me. I was unemployed and desperate and really struggling to stay positive, and every time I failed to hit that goal it was like a mallet thumping against my already fragile self-confidence.

It never occurred to me that I was doing the wrong thing. That Stephen King’s approach probably wasn’t for me. That my attention span, short and fragmentary as it is, is better served by walking away and coming back a few minutes later. And it wasn’t like I was new to writing. I’d been doing this for years, had a whole bunch of stories published. I worked under the illusion that I knew what I was doing, even though I didn’t.

Here’s the important bit.

Writing is one of those places where we don’t really examine our habits and processes. We fall into habits. We believe the things that are repeated, loudly and repetitively, rather than figuring out what works best for us. When I’m talking about the kind of advice offered in On Writing in something approaching a negative light, it’s usually because it’s a stand in for a whole bunch of conventional writing wisdom that I find enormously frustrating.

It would be easier if we could transform that baseline into something more sensible. Figure out how you write. Figure out how you finish your projects. Figure out what your career is going to look like.  

The problem, of course, is that stuff is all easier to see in hindsight. When you’re eager and just starting out, wanting to run as fast as you can even though you haven’t figured out how, the kind of advice your offered is all about getting you to the next phase of your career: finishing things, sending them off, getting paid for your work.

To go back to the Ira Glass video I mentioned above, the only way you can get your work up to the level of your ambition is producing a body of work. That’s more or less the gist of King’s book as well, although it doesn’t explain it quite so explicitly and its approach to doing so is prescriptive  That’s part of its charm and appeal; writing is presented like a magic trick you can master, after which its all book contracts and puppies.

You need to read the first half, the biography, and read for the subtext to learn that sometimes it’s not. That there are things that derail even Stephen King (although, mad respect, it appears that it took a life-threatening  injury to keep him from writing). So read On Writing. Try its approach on for size. And if it doesn’t work – keep bloody looking for models. There are so many ways people approach this writing gig that there’s bound to be some advice that works best for you. Right now, I’m deep into the twenty-minute writing groove. It may change, it may not, but I’m going to test it and keep testing it to see how it’s working.

The smartest thing you can do is figure out what your approach looks like and keep making sure it’s right for you, your life, and your goals.

EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT PLOT IN 1,069 WORDS OR LESS

Crank up the organ grinder and gather around the popcorn, ’cause we’re almost at the end of the dancing monkey series. For our second-last entry, John Farrell asked:

I have awful problems constructing a plot. How do you do that?

Apparently you folks don’t want to go with the easy questions, huh? This is not a topic where I’m known to be *concise*, so I’m going to set myself a word-budget on this one and send you off into the wide world with some reading homework, ’cause really, plot is big.

Here we go:

EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT PLOT IN 1,069 WORDS OR LESS

1. PROTAGONIST, ANTAGONIST – FIGHT!

Most plots hang off a pretty simple dynamic designed drive a story forward. It goes something like this: your protagonist wants something really badly; your antagonist denies your protagonist the thing they really want; delicious, awesome conflict ensues. Take Lord of the Rings as an example – Frodo wants to live a nice, ordinary life in the shire; Sauron will destroy the world if he does that; therefore there is a whole lot of walking and fighting and stuff.

2. CHARACTERS HAVE LAYERS

If you’re reading this you’re probably an SF nerd, which means you read that last example and thought “now, wait, at the start of the story Frodo wants to go off and have adventures like his uncle?” Which is true, for what it’s worth; have yourself a reader cookie.

This is the tricky thing about a well-written character – they tell themselves they want something at the beginning the story, then discover they *really* want something else as a result of the god-awful trauma the narrative puts him through. Really smart writers seed all sorts of clues about “real” want early in the narrative too – for all Frodo’s rhetoric about wanting to be like Bilbo, it takes him *months* to get off his arse and actually go adventuring once the adventuring is required.

In many stories the thing the character *thinks* they want is actually the direct opposite of the thing they *actually* want. Frodo wants adventure, but truly craves peace and quiet in the shire; Luke Skywalker wants to become an imperial fighter pilot, but actually becomes a sword-wielding Jedi; characters in rom-coms think they hate each other, but secretly they’re destined to be all true-love-forever.

3. THE CLIMAX IS A CHOICE

Forget the action – the climax of any plot is when a character makes a choice, and the most powerful climaxes are generally the person making that choice is the protagonist and the choice is profoundly tied to the stories themes. More importantly, those choices are going to change the damn world forever, either metaphorically or literally.

Once again, Star Wars is a great example of this – the entire story builds to the moment that Luke chooses to turn off his damn computer and trust the force. Better yet, it’s accompanied by a particularly likeable secondary character choosing to come back and be a hero instead of a scruffy nerf-herding mercenary, saving Luke from certain death.

It’s that moment that gives the big Death Star explosion sequence that follows its real power and create the very real sense that the Galaxy is Never Going to Be The Same Again. Without them, you’ve essentially just got some special effects. Or, you know, the Prequel Trilogy.

4. YES, BUT WE WERE SPEAKING OF CONSTRUCTING PLOT, NOT CHARACTERS AND CONFLICT

Here’s the dirty secret: characters and conflict are you plot. In the classic three-act structure that’s so beloved of films, theatre, novels, television, and, well, me, getting the conflict and the character’s right pretty much fills in the major tent-poles that keep your plot upright.

For instance, that moment I’m talking about where what your protagonist thinks they want morphs into *what your protagonist really wants? In long-form narrative that’s essentially the middle of your story and represents what we call a mid-point reversal.

That moral choice climax? That’s the thing that takes place late in your third chapter, and once you’ve reached it your job is to get the damn hell out of your story asap ’cause there’s nothing less to be said.

That period where the character says they want something, but subconsciously resist it? That’s your first act, and it ends at the point where dark riders show up in the shire   Uncle Owen and Aunt Bereu are killed by storm-troopers  shit hits the fan and the protagonist can no longer ignore the antagonist and their forces.

Essentially, the classic plot structure is just a convenient pattern of events that can be arranged in such a way as they stretch out the resolution of conflict for as long as possible.

If you want a really detailed discussion of plot structure and you’re in Brisbane, I recommend signing up for one of the QWC’s Toolkit for Writers courses in October since they’ll cover this sort of thing. If you prefer something more book-based, try tracking down copies of things like Robert Ray’s The Weekend Novelist (preferably in its yellow-covered 1st edition, trust me) or Robert McKee’s Story, or even, god help you, Christopher Vogler’s The Writers’ Journey. Or, you know, hit the internet which is full of advice about this sort of thing. All of these will introduce you to the big default three-act structure, and while there are others, the three-acter is a good starting point due to its familiarity.

Really, though, you can get away with an awful lot if you get the conflict, reversal, climax pattern right, even without knowing the bits that go on in-between.

5. SHORT STORIES WILL MESS WITH YOUR MOJO

Short stories are tricky beasts, ’cause they look at the overall plot structure and throw out the bits at the beginning and the bits at the end and spend an awful lot of time *suggesting* the missing bits of the plot have actually taken place. Short Stories are, usually, all second-and-third act.

My advice for short stories: make sure you nail the moral choice part of the climax. Trust me when I tell you it will bring your editors joy, if only ’cause they can identify something that actually looks like an ending.

6. PLOT DOESN’T MEAN SPIT

My final advice about plot is this: stop stressing about it. Lots of writers get hung-up on plotting because they think it’s the most important thing about writing, and in reality it’s one of a handful of skills that make fiction work.

In fact, when you break plot down to its constituent parts, it’s actually kinda…dull. Which is why people telling you about a story is rarely as interesting as actually reading the damn story, where the conflict and the character and the voice are all working in unison. I’m actually a terrible plotter, but I can get by as a writer ’cause I’ve got a bunch of other skills that can be used to patch-up the unsightly holes in my skill-set.

Great Writing Advice Learned from Pro-Wrestling, Part Two

The second thing that can’t be learned about writing by listening to Al Snow rant: People don’t have a physical relationship with pro-wrestling.

This is fricking brilliant, and it’s something every SF writer should memorize immediately.

If you look at most forms of athletic competition there’s usually a correlation between the most popular sports and the sports we play as kids. Every Australian male kicks a football around, for example, and gets forced to play cricket as part of their school curriculum. We’re forced to run, at the very least, at school sports days. Depending on your school, you may be forced to swim.

When we watch people competing at a professional level, we have muscle memory and experience that tells us how hard these things are and allows us to appreciate the achievements of professional athletes. We know just how good they are, because we know our own limits.

Professional wrestling doesn’t have that. How many of us can legitimately claim to have been Irish whipped into the ring ropes, or jumped from the top rope to plant an elbow on a downed opponent. Even the less flashy moves are unknown to us, since most schoolyard fights don’t start with a collar-and-elbow tie-up (it’s interesting to note that in Japan, where Judo is arguably a national sport, pro-wrestling is a lot more realistic and considerably stiffer because people understand the skill required for the various throws in the same way we understand the difficulty of bowling a cricket ball).

So without that physical association, pro-wrestling goes for the emotion. It tells stories from the heart, using familiar emotions to invest people in the characters and make the fans want to see one guy win and one guy lose. I don’t know the physical actions involved, but I understand winning. I understand wanting to get into it with someone I disagree with, or someone who insults me. I understand wanting to be the best, and the desire to get revenge on someone who screwed me or ruined a moment of triumph.

Those emotions give context to the in-ring action, and that context gives it the meaning it lacks because I don’t have the physical relationship.

All of this can be used by spec-fic writers. We frequently display worlds that our readers don’t have any physical relationship with, presenting them with impossible experiences that we need to make comprehensible. And the way we do this is to look for the familiar – little actions, big emotions, a place for the reader to connect – so there’s a sliver of truth amid the fantasy we’re presenting.

I was never good at sports. At all. I dislike watching most sports as a result, ’cause my physical realionship to cricket or football or anything else is largely filled with bad memories and inadequacy.

But story, I totally get story. I get the connection between action and emotion.

And in this respect, Al Snow, professional wrestler, is a source of truly brilliant writing advice.