Two Things That Have Made My Fiction Writing Easier

Writing fiction can be difficult, especially stories you wish to get published someday. The reason being there aren’t really any blueprints or rules to follow except for perhaps use an active voice and show, don’t tell. Yet, in all the millions of books published, you can find exceptions to even these principles.

So, your left with a vague idea of what to do and what not to do but at the same time trying to tell a story that you care about in your own way but also, keeping in mind what might be pleasurable for the reader. This juggling act often leads to mistakes and the balls coming bouncing off your forehead and your there rubbing your head where the mark from the ball reddens, thinking what went wrong.

I’m been there and still am there in many ways. One reason for such complication is because writing subjective. What works for one publication may not work for another. Plus you only have one shot to get it right with that story you send. If a month later you figure out something that improves the story you can’t resend it and hope it gets picked up.

A little too late for that. Go find some other place.

So, this process of rejection-editing-rewriting-rejection-editing-rewriting-rejection can seem never ending.

What to do when the sane individual would gracefully bow out and move to something less humiliating.

Simply put, you just have to stick with it. The awful non helpful advice. Just keep going. Something you might find on an inspirational poster of a cat climbing a ladder that seems to be going nowhere. Hang in there is another cliche you can throw at it. But these cliches have a kernel of truth to them.

It’s a process. A saying that’s famous in the sports world for they understand that developing skill requires time and effort.

And writing, like sports, is a skill.

By keeping with it, by dissecting your writing, by holding yourself up to a higher standards you come to formulate certain rules for yourself which gives your writing structure, makes it simpler, clearer, cleaner.

Here is where I’m at and there are two things I’ve come to understand which makes the process of writing simpler.

1) This is sort of cheating because it’s two things in one but that’s also a good thing about writing fiction, you can almost do as you please. But anyways, the first part is that conflict is key. That’s all there is to a good story. A character wants something but something is in the way of that want, which creates conflict, and the character must figure out a way to get to his want. This simplifies the act of writing. Gives it structure. If your scenes and interactions are lacking conflict then that is a clear issue. Something tangible to fix because no one cares about a story where nothing happens and the character gets whatever they wish.

What’s even better is when the conflict is created by another character. When the desire of one character is obstructed by another. This has been a great help. Essentially you just have two characters with the same goal but only one can get it and you let them interact and conflict arises. Here is where dialogue comes into play. The second revelation of sorts. Dialogue gives rise to compelling stories and characters because in order to have dialogue, characters must interact.

I have spent a lot of time running around inside the head of characters and writing monologue after monologue but it all read so fake, so bland. It wasn’t until I really looked at the books I enjoyed, stories I connected with did I realize that most of it is dialogue. It’s not about the brooding 20 year old sitting at home thinking but rather that 20 year old interacting with his parents, coworker, lover, strangers etc which gets the story rolling.

2) This one I’ll make quick and easy. If you stick with the process, you’ll discover your weaknesses and limitations. What a wonderful discovery. For me, my weakness is description, in particular, the use of senses in describing a scene. This is a severe weakness because without good description you can’t transport a reader into the story.

However, by knowing this about myself, I can then not allow the fear or self doubt to stop me from even starting. I know I can get the story on paper and worry about sense description in my edits. My limitation doesn’t have to be an obstacle. It can be something I focus on later while I let the conflict and dialogue and characters flow for now.

Well, that’s all I’ve got so far. I’ve learned other things or perhaps it’s better to say I’ve read other things about becoming a better writer. But what I’ve mentioned above is what has come to me through experience. Things I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

Stephen King Writing Tip: Build Your Toolbox

I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.

What Stephen King means when he talks about constructing your own toolbox, is that writing like any other job has much to do with problem-solving. An organized worker has his tools, screwdrivers, hammers, wrenches, batteries, tape measurer, different nuts and bolts and so on, in their toolbox so that when they need to fix something, all they require to do is pick up that toolbox and approach the problem. At which point they can assess the issue and see what tools would resolve it quickly. Certain problems require a screwdriver with a flat head, another might require a Phillips head or something may just need hammering, another might require loosening the bolts with a wrench or measuring the exact diameters and so it’s the simple process of finding what tool fits right.

In this manner, a writer also requires his own toolbox. So, instead of helplessly and blindly attacking a problem that arises in your writing, you can find the proper tool and aim it at fixing your problem.

The next question is then, what tools does a writer require?

The commonest of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary.

The way this tool works is that when you are reading markdown passages that you really enjoy reading. This is a good practice because right away you will notice how it’s not the vocabulary that is important but rather how the words are used. James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway are both praised for their prose. Additionally, as you read, write down any word that you aren’t familiar with it. You don’t have to make a conscious effort to learn it and use it in your own writing but knowing that you have it in your toolbox, it can naturally come of use if you ever need it. Otherwise, it can just take up space like those random bolts that are never used but it’s better to have them there just in case.

After vocabulary comes grammar.

Vocabulary used in speech or writing organizes itself in seven parts of speech. Communication composed of these parts of speech must be organized by rules of grammar upon which we agree. When these rules break down, confusion and misunderstanding result. Bad grammar produces bad sentences. My favorite example from Strunk and White is this one: “as a mother of five, with another one on the way, my ironing board is always up.”

Grammar can be a complicated subject and also a boring one, however, it is essential to understand the basics because as Stephen King said “bad grammar produces bad sentences.” The last thing a writer wants is to write bad sentences. But at the same time getting bogged down by all the grammatical do’s and don’ts can be difficult. Which is why at the very least you have to understand how nouns and verbs work and interact with each other. Additionally, before you adopt the idea of “breaking the rules”, understand what the rules are and what you’re breaking.

Simple sentences are another way to ease the headache of grammar. So, if the sentence or paragraph starts to become overwhelming, just remember to simplify, return to your nouns and verbs.

The third tool comes in two parts: The verb and the adverb

Verbs themselves can be split into two.

With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense.

If you re-read the passages that you love you’ll quickly see how almost all of them are written in the active tense. What’s compelling to read is a character attempting things rather than constantly reacting. What goes with passive is timid and that’s how the writing ends up if you use passive tense.

This is why compiling writings that you enjoy is so important. You need something to compare your writing with when an issue arises. This way, we can spot the differences between our own writing and someone else’s and use their structure to resolve our problem.

Think of other prose as how-to videos, things to learn from and apply to your own writing. Speaking of which, the other part of this tool is adverbs.

The adverb is not your friend.

Often times the overuse of adverbs robs the writing of its emotions. We end up telling more and showing less which is reason alone to be sparse with your adverbs.

The last aspect your toolbox should have is an understanding of how paragraphs are written. However, this is just the base of a toolbox, your foundation, after this you can add whatever it is that you find useful or informative that can help you be a better writer.

The ideal expository graf contains a topic sentence followed by others which explain or amplify the first.

This pattern of a topic sentence followed by explanation and description of this topic sentence forces the writer to organize their thoughts, according to Stephen King.

However, that’s just one way of writing paragraphs. Once more, the more you read, the more examples you come across different ways of formulating what you’re trying to say.

The more fiction you read and write, the more you’ll find your paragraphs forming on their own. And that’s what you want.

Often, the flow of the story narrates the form of the paragraphs. Stephen King believes that it’s this natural flow that you should stick with.

My main takeaway from this exercise is simple: writing is a skill and it needs work. You’re not going to come out the gates writing perfect sentences, possessing the exact vocabulary you need to vocalize what you want, in proper grammar and creating beautiful flowing paragraphs and stories. Rather, all of this takes dedication and discipline.

To deconstruct writing to its rawest form and build something that is your own. That’s the goal and with the understanding of the basics, we can get close to this. The toolbox itself is a tool in improving as a writer.

Writing/Life Advice: Don’t Get Overwhelmed

This is a reminder to myself as much as it is to others. I’m currently working on my first novel and by currently I mean it’s been several years where I’ve gone back and forth between different stories, characters, scenarios trying to find the perfect one as if something like that exists. Often times I’ve found myself planning more than writing. It’s a form of procrastination or pleasure-seeking where you feel accomplished because you planned something that you’ll soon do. Like a false start at a 100m sprint, I find myself restarting over and over again and I believe the main reason for this is that I focus on the big picture too much. I’m constantly thinking about 20, 50, 100, 200 pages from now when I should be focused on this blank piece of paper in front of me. This habit of wanting to get to the end can be overwhelming because it takes you out of the present. It gives you unnecessary doubt or stress because the present may not be going well. So, that doubt can take over and cause you to abandon the project altogether, as I have in the past.

Here is where Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird comes in. In her memoir, she recites a piece of advice she came across in her journey to become a better writer. This advice hit home for me and perhaps it will for you as well.

E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.

Lamott likens this to her idea of the “one-inch picture frame” which is the idea of just focusing on this one sentence, get that right, get this one paragraph right, this “one small scene, one memory, one exchange” correct.

Often times our anxiety kicks in when we focus too much on the future. The reason for this is because everyone’s future is uncertain to some extent. Self-doubt creeps in with uncertainty and this becomes a recipe for a false start.

So, in order to avoid this, we just have to remember the one-inch picture frame or take comfort in the light your headlights are casting and enjoy the ride.

 

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Tell Your Truth Through Writing

I am one of those people who is constantly daydreaming. It’s almost an ailment because I am always thinking of different “what if” scenarios. I’m sure I am not alone in this. In fact, I’m positive that as a species, the ability to wonder and to allow our minds to create possibilities is one of the ways we have evolved to this point in history. I say this because one of the things a writer attempts to do is to put into words these “what if” scenarios and different possibilities.

And that is where the problem arises. If only it was as simple as copying what is in our heads and pasting it on a sheet of paper. Not to mention the greater issue which is that these words feel lifeless, these scenarios that excite our minds are rarely ever as exciting on paper perhaps because the act of writing requires one to flesh out the idea, to fill in the gaps which are bypassed by our consciousness and through this tedious act of unpacking a scene, we are left with something that is dull, bland, without wonder because our original aim was sensational pleasure rather than an attempt to say something that is truthful.

To say what is truthful to you takes courage because you open yourself up to the scrutiny of others. Yet, it must be done. One of the pleasures of writing is to discover who you are through your writing. By not aiming for the truth, you deprive yourself of this pleasure.

As Anne Lamott says in Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:

Good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.

The natural question that arises from this is how do we go about doing this? How do we tell the truth? Where to start?

For Lamott, the process starts at our childhood.

Start with your childhood, I tell them. Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can.

This task can seem overwhelming because there isn’t a clear direction, nothing to focus on. So, you must create your own boundaries so you can zoom in to a specific time period of your childhood and get a truthful picture.

So you might start by writing down every single thing you can remember from your first few years in school. Start with kindergarten. Try to get the words and memories down as they occur to you. Don’t worry if what you write is no good, because no one is going to see it. Move on to first grade, to second, to third. Who were your teachers, your classmates? What did you wear? Who and what were you jealous of? Now branch out a little. Did your family take vacations during those years? Get these down on paper. Do you remember how much more presentable everybody else’s family looked? Do you remember how when you’d be floating around in an inner tube on a river, your own family would have lost the little cap that screws over the airflow valve, so every time you got in and out of the inner tube, you’d scratch new welts in your thighs? And how other families never lost the caps?

Write down everything you can remember about every birthday or Christmas or Seder or Easter or whatever, every relative who was there. Write down all the stuff you swore you’d never tell another soul.

This exercise is useful because it makes you unpack your own life, your own thoughts, opinions, beliefs and most importantly, your own truth. It is not so much about the event that is being described rather it is the perspective of the individual describing the events that make the writing unique.

So, you must sit down with a piece of paper in front of you or a laptop screen or even a typewriter and write as honestly as possible. You must do this every day, around the same time, creating a routine which allows you to be open and vulnerable but more importantly, truthful.

Vladimir Nabokov & Storytelling Techniques

Perhaps the worst offense man can do is to rob a child of their innocence purely for their own unbridled desires and pleasures. This happens to be the story of the novel, Lolita. The text speaks volume for Vladimir Nabokov’s writing ability for he took such a horrific subject matter and at points, managed to ingrain beauty and lyricism into it. Still, one can never truly justify the actions of Humbert, no matter how much he pleads his case as we read the story from his point of view.

Reading the novel, I could not help but be inspired by Nabokov’s masterful writing. Hence, I made a list of a few things I learned about the craft of storytelling as I read this book. Of course, there are many more lessons than what I have listed especially when it comes to sentence construction or paragraph construction but I’m mainly focusing on the storytelling aspect of Nabakov’s work.

On The Use Of A Foreward: Nabakov uses the foreward to essentially tell the reader how the story will end for we know the fate of Humbert right away. What this does is that it neatly packages the story, for now, we have a semblance of what kind of story is being told. Also, by prepping us for the coming unreliable narrator, Nabokov, as the true narrator, can then have a bit more creative freedom for we are not going to be told an unbiased story but rather, the story will be a criminals memoir.

Additionally, by mentioning the possible mental health issues Humbert may have had, Nabakov also attempts to create some sympathy for his character because once the story begins and we start to read about his pedophilic activities, creating sympathy becomes almost impossible.

On Conflict: At the core of it, conflict is what drives a story. In Lolita, Nabakov constantly presents various different conflicts for Humbert to deal with. The overarching conflict being his desire for a child to satisfy his needs. In doing so, Humbert creates a narrative in his own mind in which he almost blames these children, “nymphets”, as he calls them, for seducing him. Although he is clearly wrong in his reasoning, this is an example of how the character would try to justify his actions in order to overcome a conflict.

Additional examples being simple conflicts such as running low on money or Lolita being attracted to other boys or nosy neighbors. Additionally, a series of conflicts may take place in a single scene such as when Humbert meets Lolita’s husband. In that scene, there is an overarching conflict, whether or not to kill the husband, and then smaller conflicts such as trying to get Lolita to come back with him or whether or not he should express his love to her again.

What I took away from this is that a character must always be trying to resolve something. He or she doesn’t have to succeed in solving the conflict but there must be something they are trying to fix or overcome or avoid in order to bring stability and order back into their lives. Stability and order which has been interrupted by the conflict.

On Expectations: Nabakov also plays on the reader’s expectations to build suspense and to keep the story interesting. This is aided by the fact that we, as the reader, are inside of Humbert’s head and so, whatever Humbert expects to happen, we also tend to think will happen. Nabakov is then able to use this to subvert our expectations and take the story in a different direction. An example of this is Lolita’s mother’s death. We know Humbert did something bad for him to be in prison, as stated in the foreward, and we also know that the mother presents an obstacle for Humbert. Hence, Humbert plans to kill her. It almost seems like a foregone conclusion that Humbert will go to prison for killing the mother and yet, that does not happen, in fact, the story takes a completely different turn as the mother is accidentally killed in a car accident.

Furthermore, such a technique is even used at a smaller scale such as when Humbert is meant to initially live with a family with young children and so, he begins to dream about things to come, only for his expectations to be crushed when a random fire causes him to move into a different home. Now, with his lowered expectations, he enters this new home, where he finds Lolita. Once more, the expectations for things to come are raised.

Another way of manipulating expectations is to give the character what he expected but in a manner that was unexpected. A case for this can be seen in Humbert’s plan to be alone with Lolita when they, including the mother, go to the beach. However, the plan doesn’t even get a chance to start because Lolita brings a friend with her. But, the very next chapter, Humbert almost on accident finds himself alone with Lolita in their home and is able to fulfill his desires as he had wished previously. So, the end goal is realized but through different means.

Constantly, Nabakov plays with Humbert’s expectations and our own, raising them, cutting them short, turning them around, giving hope and so on. It is a simple technique and yet powerful because if the character is taken by surprise and then so is the reader, hence, the story remains interesting.

Too Much Detail/Unpacking: The only issue with the novel was the level of detail concerning things other than Humbert or Lolita or other characters. I am fond of Nabakov’s writing, like many people are, however, it was a chore at points reading several pages in a row that merely described the setting or where they were going in such detail that it was tiresome to keep up with the long sentences.

However, it is the same level of detail and care which makes this book so incredible. So, when that detailed, unpacking style is aimed at the characters and what is happening to them and what is going on in their minds, you get to see these figures that almost seem real, living, breathing humans. But when aimed at objects and things, it can really slow the pace of the novel down. This is a personal preference. I am interested in the characters more so than the world.

Neil Gaiman & Generating Story Ideas

An ongoing difficulty associated with writing fiction is generating new ideas that can be used for storytelling. Often we look of inspiration in our own life, whether it be looking in the past, what we have been through, or seeking stories in our present, what we are going through. But such methods can be finite and also involves things that are too personal, which one may not wish to share or simply, perhaps you have not experienced something that is worth writing about. Additionally, we take inspiration from writers we admire. But such inspiration comes with its own issues of authenticity for we come to sound like other writers or write a story that borders on plagiarism even if that was not our intent. 

This is where Neil Gaiman comes in. Specifically, his Masterclass lectures. In those lectures, Neil Gaiman gives four techniques that can be used to generate new ideas and all four have one thing in common, approaching a familiar story with a new perspective.

One of the techniques involves changing the point of view of a story. By choosing a different character through which we, as the reader, see the story, it changes the story itself. Also, by imagining an old, familiar story through the eyes of a different character, you can open your mind to new possibilities.

Neil Gaiman cites the novel ‘Foe’ by J.M. Coetzee as an example of this technique. In that novel, Robinson Crusoe’s tale is told from the point of view of Susan Barton.

Another technique is to modernize the theme. This technique also involves changing your perspective. By interjecting modern themes into older stories you are able to form new ideas.

Neil Gaiman uses Margaret Atwood’s novella ‘The Penelopiad’ as an example of this technique. In that novella, Margaret Atwood interjected the modernized female point of view and told Homer’s Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective.

Switching of the story element is another technique that can allow for new ideas. Here you take an old classic story and simply have it take place in a different environment. By changing this one element you can get the idea of a new story.

‘Cinder’ by Marissa Meyer is used as an example by Neil Gaiman. Cinder is the story of Cinderella but unlike the classic fairytale, this one takes place in Beijing and with Cinderella being a cyborg.

Lastly, one can simply make the story their own. In this technique, you take a story that you are familiar with and then apply your own experiences and what you know to that story.

Neil Gaiman uses ‘The Godfather’ as an example of this technique. The author of the novel, Mario Puzo, was an Italian immigrant in post-war America and so, he combined his personal experience with the elements from ‘Henry IV’ by Shakespeare to create his own masterpiece.

These are all simple exercises that work one core value of fiction writing: imagination. You are essentially thinking “what if…”. What if we saw the Wizarding world through the eyes of Ron Weasley, instead of Harry Potter? What if the Odyssey took place in space? What if The Body had elements of my own experiences? What if our current understanding of trauma was applied to an older story?

Adopting a new perspective and view what you have already known in a different light can be all one needs as a writer to generate new ideas and hopefully tell good stories which can be used by others.

Writing Advice From William Faulkner

In an interview with The Paris Review, William Faulkner was asked how much of his writing was based on personal experience. The following was his response:

I can’t say. I never counted up. Because “how much” is not important. A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination—any two of which, at times any one of which—can supply the lack of the others. With me, a story usually begins with a single idea or memory or mental picture. The writing of the story is simply a matter of working up to that moment, to explain why it happened or what it caused to follow. A writer is trying to create believable people in credible moving situations in the most moving way he can. Obviously he must use as one of his tools the environment which he knows.

I often think of this piece of advice from William Faulkner when I am struggling to finish a scene or transition into a new scene. Just remembering that either experience, observation and/or imagination is all one needs, gets me through those instances when self-doubt begins to seep into my mind. The scenes that seemed impossible to finish look like obstacles rather than dead ends when you sit for a few moments and think back to something you have observed in real life that could be applied here. Similarly, the practice of imagination, the “what if” allows one to create several different scenarios, allowing the writing to pick the one that fits the best. Experience meanwhile is like an intuition, almost a certain mindlessness state where you just know what should come next because you have either read enough or written enough to know. This experience can help with the flow of the story because you just know that what you have written isn’t quite right and there is something missing.

I think the most valuable aspect of Faulkner’s advice is that all three things, experience, observation, and imagination, are in your control. There is nothing external about it and neither does it depend on some genetic ability. One gains experience through writing and reading. Observation through the practice of an inquiring mind, trying to really capture your daily life and what you have noticed. Imagination is something that is grown through reading and experiencing life and keeping a sense of wonderment. All three are nurtured by you and all three can help you get through the troublesome parts of writing.

For me, the simplest advice works best. Whether it be Stephen King’s advice of read a lot and write a lot, or what Haruki Murakami considered to be the three essential aspects a writer needs or Ernest Hemingway’s belief of what to write about, it is all simple and to the point. Just as Faulkner’s experience, observation, and imagination.