WriterWoes #11: Miss Teacher…?

I recently taught a Danish creative writing class, and it forced me to outline some of the many pitfalls of writing to a very varied audience in terms of age and writing experience. While this is not exactly a woe of writing, I will nonetheless share the material of the class on here in the vague belief that somebody may benefit from it – by happy mistake or otherwise.

Everything is based on my own experiences, which is the only way I believe that writing (and every other creative art) can be taught – Jedi-Padawan style!

*Curtain parts, lesson starts*

“Opening scene”:
Why do we write?

We have something to say – to ourselves and to others.

When we choose a genre, we work with different elements and rules, but every genre tell the same story – the story about you, and I, and us.

“Act I”:
Active & Passive

Always, always write active sentences.

This is the most basic rule that makes for good writing. I knew about it for long, but I never implemented it into my routine until recently – that was a mistake, I tell you.

Active sentences stay on eye-level with the reader. That is to say, they engage with the reader by offering more clarity and more emotional impact/investment than their passive counterparts. Therefore: always use them.

How to spot the difference?

If you can add “by” to the sentence, it’s passive.

Passive: “She was killed by the falling tree.”
Active: “The falling tree killed her.”

 “Act II”:
Saidisms & Purple Prose

Saidisms:

This is best explained with an illustration:

Unavngivet

Don’t dumb down your reader by explaining every single nuance of your characters’ dialogue. No one likes to be spoon-fed a book. Rather, write the dialogue well enough that you won’t need to clarify it. Then in the rare cases when you do choose to clarify, it will have a much stronger effect on the reader.

Writing is all about effect – about affecting your reader…

 

As an extension of saidisms, also be aware of excessive use of adverbs.

Purple Prose:

Purple prose… is not necessarily a bad thing, but it should be approached with caution. Jane Austen and Edgar Allan Poe and F. Scott. Fitzgerald, for example, are masters of this and their novels are literary classics that should be on every bibliophile’s shelf. Purple prose is, however, something that can quickly become an unintended crutch to lean on.

So, what is purple prose?

Purple prose = flowery, ornate, extravagant writing

Why can it become a crutch?

Because it may take the reader’s focus off the plot – indeed, it may even take your focus off your plot – and you will lose your reader along the way if your novel is pretty packaging without proper content.

“Act III”:
Microtension & Macrotension

Here it goes, simplified to the extreme:

Macrotension = plot, plot, plot and plot

Microtension = line-by-line-by-line basis

Microtension is what captures and holds the reader in the moment. It’s what makes them turn to a new page. Unfortunately, it’s often overlooked by the writer in favor of macrotension, of the important and exciting bits of your novel that you’ve been just dahhyying to write…….

Well, don’t.

Don’t do that, please.

Microtension is so, so important if you don’t want to lose your reader.

Here’s a couple of examples on how to implement microtension:

Character-based: a sudden change or contradiction in the protagonist’s emotions

Setting-based: the protagonist is in conflict – add a thunderstorm, kettle boiling over, knock on door etc.

Grammar-based: carefully consider the arrangement of your paragraphs. Think about the (sometimes) poor timing of subtitled TV-shows where you end up reading the joke before you hear it spoken aloud. Does the joke not lose impact/tension/effect because of this? This is the same with paragraphs. Move your protagonist’s realization of unrequited love to a new paragraph; don’t let it lose impact by bundling it together with the mundane tasks of checking emails and making breakfast.

Consider the paragraph work below, and tell me which one have the most impact?

She was afraid of what she had done. A proper person would stand up and face the consequences, but Juliette had never been a proper kind of person.
And so Juliette ran.
Consequences be damned.
When she finally stopped running, she was too far away from home to make it back in time for the funeral, which was really just as well, wasn’t it?

She was afraid of what she had done. A proper person would stand up and face the consequences, but Juliette had never been a proper kind of person. And so Juliette ran.
Consequences be damned. When she finally stopped running, she was too far away from home to make it back in time for the funeral, which was really just as well, wasn’t it?

I admit that these two examples are both extremes, but they serve the purpose of explaining, do they not?

If you remind yourself to consciously work with microtension, you will not only have a better text for a final draft, but you will also have less overall editing to do.

“Curtain Call”:
“Thought verbs” 

This… is not a favorite technique of mine, though I do find myself intrigued by the idea and the lesson that lies therein.

What are thought verbs?

Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires etc.

What’s the problem with them?

Crutches and spoon-feeding, again.

Just like saidisms and purple prose, these so-called thought verbs run the risk of “saying too much”, and you thus run the risk of losing your reader along the way. Again, put your trust in the reader. They understand more than what you think they do.

*Curtain closes, lesson ends*

WriterWoes #9 – The Do’s of Dialogue

This is less of a woe, and more of an advice to whoever cares enough to listen to a self-taught writer who may or may not know what the heck she’s doing. Anyhow, I had saved this post for a different page, but, alas, I decided to post it here – so, here we go, my two cents on the matter of dialogue:

  1. Identify and toss the extras

    How often do you hear yourself talk in lengthy complex sentences?
    How often do you toss in five adjectives in one sentence, maybe more?
    Not often, right?
    While poetical writing is beautiful and poignant in its own right, it can be difficult to make work in dialogue, particularly in modern times (a.k.a. the age of text messaging).
    Of course, every style and voice is different, but where it pertains to dialogue only, I very much believe that less is more – to quote Stephen King: “the road to hell is paved with adjectives.”
    But, but, but, there are always exceptions: if you’re writing a historical piece, for example, you should always engage in dialogue that fits the period.

  2. Mind the punctuation

    When you identify and toss the extras, the punctuation becomes important. Why? Because while we don’t naturally talk in complex sentences, we do tend to talk in ellipses, dashes and italics. Do not, however, rely on ellipses, dashes and italics in your dialogue. If used too often, they lose the punch-thwack effect you want them to have. Bottom line: trust the reader to understand what your characters are saying and instead use the punctuation to tell the reader how your characters feel. If you will, have a look at the example below and consider the effect of punctuation on the mood of the sentence rather than the clarification:

    “… Can meet? What do— can? I’m set to leave for Wallace’s property— land— the man’s whatever in a matter of days. You said that you would help me; now you ask me to finish the document all on my own with guards lurking outside my door both day and night, breathing through the damned keyhole, until the two of us can meet again— can meet—what do you mean by can?”

  3. Delay the underpainting

    One way to secure an easy, readable flow in your dialogue is to delay the underpainting and focus solely on the tennis-match dialogue itself. When applied to writing, the so-called underpainting equals the meaty bits of text in between your dialogue – that is, your character’s actions, the tinkering of plot, scenic descriptions, and whatever else. It can be advantageous to save this for later so that it won’t interfere with the natural flow of dialogue as it transfers from your mind to your fingers and, lastly, to the paper before you.

  4. Read it aloud

    In a way, dialogue is much like poetry in that it ought to be read aloud. After all, dialogue happens out loud in real life and not inside your head (of course, that’s debatable, but let’s not debate that just now). Reading dialogue aloud gives us the absolute best idea whether something sounds natural or unnatural. It shows us the hitches, or the lack thereof, in the flow. Remember that in the matter of dialogue, our ears work far better than our eyes.

Easy is as easy does!

Basically, if you do not speak it, you should steer clear of writing it, so always keep that rule of thumb in mind. Otherwise, write your dialogue however you want to. The best writing ultimately comes from the gut – in it’s original, first-draft form, of course.

WriterWoes #8 – On writing fanfiction…

I recently read an article by Cara Diaconoff, in The Writer’s Chronicle, in which Diaconoff speaks for the inclusion of fanfiction into professional creative writing workshops.

As you’ve probably guessed… that’s what this post will be about…

So, now, let your eyes feast upon Diaconoff’s words as cited below!

“Taking fanfiction seriously leads to a productive interrogation of the concepts of originality, influence and intertextuality (…) Fanfiction writers are, in a sense, super-readers. To write successful fanfiction requires not only the traditional creative writing skills of crafting compelling characters and effectively deploying point of view and voice, but also a high degree of critical and rhetorical sophistication.”

“[Fanfiction writers must have] a complex sense of how texts operate in the world – a deep understanding of how literary and cinematic works construct, teach and manipulate their audiences.”  

(p. 66-67, 2016, The Writer’s Chronicle 49 (1))

So, yes, Diaconoff’s support of fanfiction prompted me to address this matter myself.

Or, that is to say, the matter has been on my mind for years, but Diaconoff’s article prompted me to add my own two cents, here, on my blog.

Now, be justly warned, my two cents are strongly biased!

I grew up in the online fanfiction/fandom community as both an avid consumer and contributor.

You can say, I suppose, that while I always had an interest in writing, fanfiction was where my interest in English writing truly began to flourish. It became my outlet where I could develop my English writing skills and understanding beyond that of my formal schooling. Indeed, as a self-taught writer of my foreign language, the fanfiction community was my primary English teacher aside from what kinda-sparse schooling that I had.

I’ve been a part of that world for about ten years now.

I know everything that there is to know – quiz me, if you want – and I am overjoyed to see that fanfiction is, at last, gaining the recognition that it deserves by professionals and academics.

Now – yes – I am fully aware that the Fifty Shades trilogy is based on Twilight fanfiction.

And – yes – I have read both.

It is my personal opinion that while the Fifty Shades series has done extremely well commercially – possibly thanks to the fanfiction community back when the series was self-published and not yet backed by major publishing houses and media outlets – it is not necessarily the best indicator of what you may find, out there, in the vast world of fanfiction. Not in regards to the erotica element – don’t get me wrong; nothing is “wrong” with that – but in regards to quality, style and voice.

With no professional editors at hand (beta-readers notwithstanding), there is admittedly a lot of Subpar Fanfiction on the internet…

… but there is also a lot of Good Fanfiction ready for reading.

Good Fanfiction has quality, style and a voice of its own. Most importantly, it requires literary intelligence and a deep understanding of intertextuality. As Diaconoff says in her article, it is not an easy task to take something made by someone else and make it your own, but that is exactly what Good Fanfiction does.

I myself started out writing Subpar Fanfiction.

Then I progressed to Good Fanfiction with the help of a supportive community (some of which have now become dear longtime friends to me). This, of course, also included a lot of “learning-by-doing” and “trial-and-error” cases, but, embarrassing as those were, they also made me the writer that I am today, ten years down the line.

So, tell me, please, is that not enough reason to start accrediting fanfiction for what it does – for the fledgling writers that it nurtures – rather than for what it, as some people argue, doesn’t do?

Besides, imitation is the best form of flattery – and, really, when is anything ever fully original in this day and age?

 

WriterWoes #7 – The creative process!

This post is actually inspired from a comment that I made on another post that got me thinking about my structural process when I write stories – and when I unleash my creativity in general, I suppose.

Despite my love for speculative fiction and the world building that this entails, be it large or small, my writing process is not geared towards years of planning and outlining prior to putting my pen to paper.

My creative process, be it painting or writing, is more… visceral, I suppose.

When I paint, I stray away from motifs and settle on abstract, impressionistic scenes.

Likewise, when I write, I get most of my inspiration while I write.

I build my world while I write it.

I do my research while I write.

I rarely ever do much before I start writing.

This means that there’ll be lots of pauses in my writing, where I head off to do extensive research or to expand on my world and characters, but the point still stands that I will have written at least five to ten chapters before I stop to do this.

I also prefer to plan my outline while I write, meaning that, well, my outlines get all sorts of messy, but then I color-code the different branches of the outline, making some of the text bold, some of the text larger, and— you get me?

Suddenly, somehow, there’s now an outline based on aesthetics – on visuals alone!

It makes sense, I guess, having been a painter for as long as I’ve been a writer.

The creative process is different for everyone, but I do think that it’s important to sit down and consider what your creative process is. If anything, simply because it will become far easier to nurture and cultivate your inspiration and motivation that way…

… and who doesn’t want that, amirite?

WriterWoes #6 – Flash Fiction: a fear of formats?

So, this is a problem – or maybe something less severe than a problem, but still a problem – that I’ve come across lately, both here on my own blog, but also elsewhere. Whereas story formats like the novel and the short story are as old as time, there are the newer formats which have become popular due to the rise of digitalization, the information age, and any other spiffy term that indicates the 2000s. These are the “easily digestible” formats; the ones that offer instant gratification, because for some reason, a lot of millennials know nothing of patience.

Also, I’m twenty-six years old, mind you, which makes me a millennial, and yet I am old enough to know the patience of dial-up internet.

So, what am I saying here?

Well, I’m really trying to put words to the fickleness of the newer story formats that I myself engage in.

When is it a six-word story, and when is it a writing prompt?

What makes it a drabble, and what makes it a vignette?

Can a fifty-word story be 51, or must it be 50 characters?

Also, Twitterature, people – huh?

What about fanfiction and fandoms; what part have they played in this, if any?

Working with the flash fiction format, here, on my own blog, I’ve found that when it comes to flash fiction, there are so few rules set in place, and so little guidance to find.

What’s more; do we follow the rules, or do we follow the customs?

With the flash fiction format, new and flourishing, it is indeed hard to get a good grasp on the format…

… but is that also not what makes it interesting?

Playing with flash fiction (and, really, playing with any kind of newer format within any kind of creative art) is like playing with your mother’s lipstick as a five-year-old. You don’t know what you’re doing, and you feel as if you’re not supposed to be doing it, but there’s nothing stoppin’ you— aaaaah, is that glitter lipstick?!

And, so, yes, what are your thoughts on this, readers of mine, old as new?

I’d love to hear some inputs; for all that I know, I’m simply inexperienced and could do with a wise word or two from an Exalted One – does anybody volunteer?

WriterWoes #5 – Editing: masochism with words?

Editing.

Editing…

I spent eight months writing my last novel. Being part magical realism and part everything else, I developed my alternate contemporary world, did cultural research, did historical research, did climate research— hell, I even started doing Japanese language courses for research!

Then, eight months later, I now sit with my product in hand, feeling satisfied with what I’ve made…

Until the editing begins— holy clusterfuck of all that is green on God’s round earth!

Thus begins Edit Numero Uno.

And, mind you, I’m the type that also edit while I write, so at this point, the novel had technically been through profound editing – or so I thought.

Edit Numero Uno takes a couple of weeks with a focus on editing the flow – fair enough.

Edit Numero Dos involves printing the entire thing and editing in hand, focusing on the grammar – also fair enough.

Edit Numero Tres… was not supposed to happen. When I print my novels to edit them in hand, I consider that the last edit simply because it involves grammatical editing – the tiny bits, you know?

And yet, here I am, doing Edit Numero Tres, back to editing the flow, and it makes me wonder about the double-edged sword that is editing. It’s a lot like putting on makeup; you slap on a perfectly subtle layer of makeup, but then, there is that bit of eyeliner that is a little crooked, and what if you just pulled it further out, like that, and added some depth, and- oh fuck, no, no, raccoon eyes alert, abort mission! Likewise, imagine that you’re cooking a sauce, and wow, this is delicious, but it just needs a pinch of salt, and maybe a bit of rosemary, and yes, that’s— oh no, too much, no, no, I take it back, please!

…. You catch my drift here?

Just when you think you’re done editing, you realize that you’re not. Simultaneously, as you realize this, you also realize that you have a new problem to handle; one edit is fine, a second is also fine— but at the third, you begin to grow worried. You begin to wonder when enough is enough.

Am I polishing my work to its finest shine, or am I rubbing a hole in the silver?

I don’t believe that there is an answer to this (and if there is, then surely the answer is a much individual one), and so that’s not what I want to achieve with this post/rant. What I want to achieve, apparently, is to highlight the masochism that’s forever inherent in editing and writing by comparing it to beauty products and whisky sauce (rosemary works wonders for whisky sauce, didja know?)

Now, please, be gone and allow me to sit and bleed out my brain on my computer’s keyboard, and let’s perhaps add a little splatter on the screen for good measure, no?

WriterWoes #4: What’s in a talent?

This will be a long one, I warn you.

I almost didn’t want to delve into this question.

Why, you ask?

Well, delving into this question means delving into a debate that is as old as time – the debate as to whether talent trumps hard work or vice versa – and I feel that there is next to nothing new to say about it, so why should people want to hear my two cents in the matter?

But, but, but—then I remembered an interview with Neil Gaiman. He always proves a great inspiration to me, and he is often on my mind while I write my own pieces. In this particular interview, a member of the audience bemoans how she wants to be a director, but she has been told multiple times that there are too many artists in the world, and that she should pursue something more noteworthy than directing. Gaiman responds as such: “saying that there are enough artists is like saying we have enough scientists, we have enough designers, we have enough politicians (…) but nobody gets to be you except you. Nobody has your point of view – except you.”

Now, when I first heard this interview some odd years ago, his answer resonated strongly with me, and I find that it still does to this date.

Why am I paraphrasing this interview now?

Well, even if the talent/work debate is as old as time and has been discussed by far more established and adept authors than yours truly, my two cents in the matter still remains of value… because nobody has my point of view except for me!

And, so, what is my point of view?

In the 7th or 8th grade, I had a teacher that I, to this date, still remain in contact with. In Denmark, you have what we call “class-teachers”, meaning a teacher that follows you consistently from 1st till 9th grade. In my case, that was my Danish/English teacher by the name of Lene (and my math teacher, but that’s kinda irrelevant for this conversation; sorry, Jes!). I consider Lene the very reason that I decided to pursue a life in writing. Never before have I received the same interest and support as I did from her, not even as I got older and the opportunities for mentoring began to properly present themselves to me.

My point of view in this debate has, in all probability, sprung from hers. I remember quite clearly how she one day stood up from behind her desk and told us, the many hopeful youngsters sitting before her, that 50 percent talent/passion and 50 percent hard work would take you far in whatever endeavor you should choose to pursue in life.

I’m aware that this might be seen as a halfassed answer to a much difficult debate, but that’s not the way I see it. The way I see it, you cannot succeed in any craft unless you make the effort to cultivate and actualize your talent/passion.

Like good and evil, and like black and white, one cannot exist without the other.

Without talent and passion, there will be no effort.

Without effort, there will be no beautiful, breathing, actualized talent.

That is my point of view, and it is a point of view that is not liable to change any time soon, but rather live on to a seventeenth- twentieth- thirtieth- XXXX anniversary.

Phew…

So, I think I’ll let that be the end. Yes?

WriterWoes #3 – What’s in a genre?

In all of the years that I’ve been writing, I’ve never focused on practicing a specific genre to heighten my odds of publication by becoming an expert in one genre or another. As a result, at the end of each and every novel, after a year or less of writing and thorough editing, I end up with a piece of work that I cannot define as romance or horror, but rather as romance/horror/magicalrealism/action/poetry/music/blerghblerghblerghbiiiiiip...

… and I wouldn’t have it any other way, honestly.

Literary agents and publishers alike say that you should stray away from cross-genre works because they are hard to sell within an industry that relies on labels to keep their audience alert and absorbed, but then I ask, in turn, what makes a cross-genre piece, and what makes an idea that has come to fruition as unfiltered as it can possibly be without modifications to make it marketable for the industry?

Does genre, I ask, come before inspiration?

Should genre dictate what ideas that are worth pursuing more so than others?

Does the cleanliness of genre really matter outside of the publishing industry?

When we, the audience, sit with a book in hand, reading in front of the fireplace on an early morning, does it really matter whether the book stays clean in genre or not?

WriterWoes #2 – What’s in a language?

As a Danish writer in my mid-twenties who, in my young age, was ambitious enough to pursue my love for writing in my foreign language, I have not as much come to regret this choice as I rejoice in the challenge of it. Not only does writing in my foreign language make publication and a career in writing infinitely harder by limiting my publication and networking efforts to the online community alone, but in doing so, it creates a schism between myself and the physical world that I live in. This is emphasized, you may say, by the fact that I live in Denmark with an American roommate, effectively marking the threshold of my home as ‘English’ and the world on the opposite side of that threshold as ‘Danish’.

I suppose that I am really discussing bilingualism here, rather than straight-up writing.

A giant whorl of constant linguistic activity whirs in the background of my every thought and my every action. I have two brains, I like to say, and sometimes the two brains overlap, blurring the lines between the two and confusing me to the point where I forget what language I’m speaking mid-sentence – this quite literally so.

It’s not a bad thing, not by far, but it can be a much confusing thing, indeed.

They say that your true language is the language in which you dream, but, by that line of logic, if you are unable to read in your dreams, how can you be aware of the language that you speak within that selfsame dream?

Does your language create you, or do you create your language?

WriterWoes #1 – What’s in a name?

At first, for me, it was the young adult genre. Then, suddenly, it was the celebrities on TV and in the glossy tabloids you find at gas stations all over the country. Then, somehow, it has now become my next-door-neighbors and their questionable, mange-ridden cat.

With the rising popularity of names like Katniss, Four, Renesmee, Blue, North, Saint and Facebook (yeah, that one, amirite?), I’d like to profess my love for all of the Bills, Toms, Marys and Sarahs out there. But hold on just a minute before you let my words offend you, because, you see, while I do understand the appeal of exotic names for your characters and the thereby implied uniqueness of one’s character – hell, I’ve done it before myself – I have to say that I no longer understand why the name of a character has come to matter almost more than the traits of a character. I suppose that this is not always the case, but it certainly is a case from where I’m standing. Characters must be relatable. Perhaps this is why unique names have become so popular both in fiction and in real life – two worlds that mirror one another. Regardless, I would feel much more gratified, much more wholesome, if I wasn’t bombarded with Cease Everlights and Wyrth Starstrobes every time I opened a random book in the shop down the street. But, before I get ahead of myself, I suppose that this topic truly ties into a much larger debate. In a world that preaches uniqueness and individuality, and this rightly so, must there not be a limit?

When does uniqueness, like any other thing of great mass and appeal, become standard?

When does unique become the new normal – or does it ever?