Friday, April 26, 2013

86 Things I've Said On Twitter, the 9th and final part

It's been a great series, and I've gotten a lot of great feedback, new followers, new readers and encouragement. I hope these 86 things motivate you and help make your work as awesome as I know it can be.

Remember, you can read the whole series by clicking on the '86 things' tag at the bottom of this post.

It's been my pleasure to bring you this series. Let's #handleitup strong.


Erotica is not the same as I-write-explicit-sex-scenes-heavy-with-genital-action.

I can remember the first book I read that used the word 'penis' in a pretty casual reference. It was a book about teenagers at a summer camp, and from what I remember the book cover was yellow-beige and had a picture I think of someone in a boat, maybe fishing. I remember where I was when I read it - in the swivel chair in the den of the house we rented for summer vacations. I must have been I think ten or eleven. And I recall sounding out the word in my head as 'pen-ISS", and not "PEE-niss" at least until the concept burrowed into my brain that this nice female author just indirectly wrote about a handjob at a summer camp.

I can remember the first dirty story I ever read on the internet. It was a story about a woman who goes to an adult movie theater and is so turned on that she has sex with all the patrons, even when one of the patrons turns out to be her husband and another is her brother.

I can remember the first slash-fic I ever read. It was Buffyverse based, and I think Xander was getting sodomized by Angelus and then Spike would cuddle with him and then fellate him. It was violent, upsetting to me that my favorite TV characters were thought in that way and incredibly magnetizing to read (like a text crash crash) without ever being arousing.

My point in bringing those three moments up is that all three were not erotica. They were stories that contained words for sex organs or sex acts or sex violence, and they were stories that may have aroused people to some degree, but they weren't erotica. They were explicit sex stories, often involving no sense of practical flexibility or logistics (no, you can't bend over to touch your toes AND lay on your back with your legs spread simultaneously). Coupled (sex pun!) with the idea that they were more about taboo (BDSM, incest, underage sex, whatever) than sex-as-romantic/arousing-act, they didn't ring the erotic bell.

Note: I'm not saying that for some people those things can't be arousing. I'm sure they are. But they're not my cup of tea, and frankly, even if they're your cup of tea, I'm sure you would appreciate them being well-written.

Erotic fiction isn't just sentences with sex acts mentioned or with language about body parts. Medical textbooks have those things, and they're not erotica. When the 50 Shades phenomena struck, and "mommy porn" was brought to light, and people revisited the romance novel sex scenes about arousal and lust, there was a notion that erotica is the stuff that turns you on, but in a more mental picture-this-in-your-mind way, as though the words were foreplay for however you wanted to sate those feelings, rather than a text quickie that went straight to the pleasuring.

Erotica is built on the increase of arousal, and the progressive development of expectation. It's the chik-chik-chik of the rollercoaster climbing the big hill, more than it's the plunge downward while everyone screams.  Anyone can write sentences including words about body parts, it takes a skill to know how to express those same ideas without talking about them directly.

Developmental editing is something ANYONE can profit from. For serious. At any time in the writing process.

I love the developmental edit. I love the breakdown not only of the writing itself, but the deconstructive effort to understand the concepts behind those words, and show the writer that HOW they compose ideas is just as (or sometimes moreso) critical than WHAT the idea is.

The problem is that this is an intensive edit, that takes time and often leads to there being a lot of work the author can do that may seem external to the thing they intended to write, but is useful once they've written it. Granted, this edit is by nature more comprehensive and more detailed than an inspection of grammar, so an author who needs more help in getting their idea established, written effectively and edited efficiently is a prime candidate for a developmental edit.

It provides the most help (my opinion) to the author, so why not act on it sooner, take advantage of an editor's offer or expertise and start the critical relationship sooner rather than later? The end result is the same, you get a well-made manuscript that you can do a lot with, it's just that you took a different, slightly more active route to get there.

Yes, I can hear you say, if you're publishing traditionally, editing is handled after you submit your manuscript to whomever you're working with, but that doesn't exclude you from the pool of people who could use an editor to some degree BEFORE you submit. A developmental edit can be done on an outline, a partial draft or some notes, not only the completed draft.

And as an aside, don't expect the publisher's edit to be as deep as a developmental one.

Nope, I'm still pretty sure we don't need paragraph upon paragraph of you talking about the landscape and the property rights.

When you're writing, whatever the genre is, whatever the POV is, whatever the story is, you need to engage your reader so that they keep reading, so that they keep turning the pages and so that they keep liking your work.

There's also an expectation that what you're writing is important to the story, either as plot detail (helping the story by supplying components to it) or as establishing a context for future actions. But it's a delicate balance - should you stray too far afield, give so much detail that ultimately doesn't directly connect to story you're going to tell over the next 250+ pages, then all we as readers are doing is waiting for things to get interesting. And the longer we have to wait for things to get interesting, the more likely it is we put down the book and don't come back.

I know, there's this idea that you have to lay it all out for the reader, else "they won't get it", but that's as much an egoic trap for the author (look how great I am, look at all the pretty words I write) as it is a sign that you don't trust the reader to understand the story without you holding their hand.

If I'm telling you the story of ... a family buying a haunted house, then yes maybe I'm going to start off by talking about how the house got built or how it was always thought to be haunted, but I could just as easily start off by talking about the family and establishing them as characters. What I don't want to do is bore you, or move you away from the idea that there's a family and a haunted house. My talking to you about the construction permits or the town council meetings that approved the variances back thirty years ago may be tangentially related to how the house got to be the way it is when the family first sees it, but it isn't directly important to the story.

An editor helps here. They can prune the story for critical details, pulling out the weeds that choke the pretty flowers in your story-garden.

But getting to the story, getting to the meat of things, the interesting parts, the things that make your book and by extension your voice and your style stand out is what we're after when we're reading.

Not every love is either the greatest ever or the most unrequited. Sometimes characters are just awkward or sexy or dull or happy.

We talked before about world-weary protagonists, about how scarce and unbelievable they may be. This is the other side of that coin. Or at least, it often is. When a character, even a character who hasn't ever been in love, falls into love, yes they may think that at the time it's the greatest love ever, the brightest star in a night sky and the reason that the sun burns. Just like we as people do when we first encounter someone, well, I guess it depends on the someone and whether they actually aren't crazy or something, but I'm saying too much.

Love between characters can just be love. Just like we go on dates that aren't all whizz-bang and super-explosive with amazing highlights, or how we just sometimes spend our Tuesdays on the couch reading a book or watching TV. It doesn't HAVE to be some great huge universe-shaking concept. If Character A loves Character B, that's great, and it may very well be the at the heart of the book, but their interactions don't always have to be "I can't love the other person, else my family/tribe/species will shun me" or something equally melodramatic.

Here's what I've learned as a person: sometimes happy expresses itself as a feeling without a lot of fanfare. Sure it's great to go to be a big fancy dinner, where you have to tuck your shirt in, and it can be very romantic and you stare at your partner's radiant brown eyes and want very badly to hear about all the nuances of their day because their voice is a delight and you love them, but it can also be the kind when you just want to sit with them on a couch watching the world go by while you occasionally chat about what sort of nachos you prefer to eat.

Characters are people, they're just people you're in charge of.

Everything is a cliché to someone. Don't worry about it and just write whatever sentence/paragraph you were going to write.

I once ran a writing critique session where the majority of people were unpublished, hopeful authors and authoresses, and among the half-dozen people around the big table there also a sat a recent MFA graduate, who was eager to also be a writing. Now this MFA graduate had everything all figured out, knew the best authors to name-drop, was well up on their jargon and was apparently happy to have found a group of writers that critique work.

That is, until we actually got around to critiquing things. We'd be talking about the first person's piece, explaining what parts were unclear, explaining that we liked the dialogue or the action beat for whatever reason and we were on the whole supportive. Then it was the MFA graduate's turn. With a yawn, they pointed out in rather broad brushstrokes that some of the writing was cliché and because there were more than four clichés in the whole piece, they couldn't possibly be bothered to comment because there wasn't anything original to speak about.

I resisted the urge to strangle the smug out of this person, and wrote it off as just their being new and not knowing what else to say. The critique process continued, this time with a new person and a totally different piece, a poem, if I remember correctly.

And again came the yawn and the comment of "This is cliché, I don't know what else you want me to tell you."

So all night, everything the MFA graduate read was cliché. When we finally read her piece, it too was cliché and rather elementary in construction. Because most of us were tired of hearing the word cliché, we found different ways to express the idea: it was basic, it wasn't anything we hadn't seen before, it didn't "stick" with us. The MFA graduate naturally choked back tears and told me I had no business running a critique group and had even less business being anything anywhere near a writer, but whatever, she was odd.

The point of that story is that no matter what you write, someone somewhere is going to drop the cliché word. Because in their experience, in their expectation, whatever you've written is either too similar to something else, which they have feelings about, or because they expected you to deliver something and they didn't see it.

This is not your fault. How someone else chooses to receive and interpret your work is a choice made by them. All you can do is present your work in the best way possible. You've done the hard part, you wrote the thing. They get to decide how they are going to deal with it.

As per usual, it comes down to - tell the best story you can.

No, I don't know what happened to the MFA graduate. I don't know if they found a job in the industry or if they ever published anything. I'd like to imagine that it worked out for them, that they found a niche to eek out, but it's really sort of hard to tell when your main vehicle for writing is a story about a woman who lives across the street from a hunk who loves horses and wants to open a candle-making store along with his quirky friends, the ditzy blonde and her gay roommate.

If you're not writing for a younger audience or drawing comics, you generally want to avoid onomatopoeia.

I was a big fan of the old Batman TV show. It was campy, it was goofy, and I loved watching it late at night with my brother. Of big interest to us both was the onomatopoeia, the BANG, CRASH, KA-POW title cards that came up during the fight and the sometimes randomness of the sound choice with the action scene.

There's nothing wrong with using sound effect words. In small doses, with a strong voice, they can be quite potent. But like so many other writing options, overuse makes them diluted, weak and annoying. Not everything every time needs a sound conveyed with it. There are plenty of strong verbs and/or adjectives you can use to imply the sound without directly telling us the sound.

If you're creating a comic, then onomatopoeia is a great component, because you're more accurately marrying visual media with mental concepts, likewise in younger audience books, where you're illustrating a concept or something engaging and want to tag multiple senses.

But if we're talking text, yes, you want to engage all the senses, but you don't have to be so blunt about it.

Saying

the pirate's wooden leg banged up the stairs as he walked

can be just as potent as saying

The leg banged up the stairs as the pirate walked. Bang. Step. Bang. Step. 

There's a time and a place for the tools in your writing toolbox. As you write, as you get more comfortable finding the best way to tell the story, you'll see opportunities to use the tools effectively.

There's nothing stopping you from writing something one way, then in a later draft totally doing it another. Nothing is set in concrete.

You're in charge of your words. YOU, not me, not the publisher, not the people on some website where you talk about books, hope for a good review and fend off people who complain that your sentences are too long. 

When you're writing, you're the boss. You have total power and authority to dictate all elements of the universe your story exists in. Skies can be green, gravity can be fickle, goats can have three ears, whatever you want. 

This is why I tell people that writing is the act of making decisions.You have to choose what you want to put on paper. Yes, this can lead to paralysis, at least until the idea of what you want to say is clarifying, but again, it's clarified through decisions. 

And it's not like these decisions are permanent. They're words on a screen or a page. You can change that woman's name from Susanne to Anita to Bernice. You can make that dog a poodle, a mutt or a terrier. You can make the body dead in the kitchen, the cave, the hotel or the lobby. 

The only time you can't make that change is when you're off to publish, because it's unrealistic to run out to every store, pen in hand and start crossing things out. 

The danger here is paralysis again, the hyper-indecision to not settle on a name of a thing or a plot point or a whatever-element stops the story from being written.

Here's the trick: KEEP WRITING THE STORY. You can always go back and change it, but focus on the production, focus on the doing first, then you (slash you and your editor) can go back and make changes. 

Nothing is set in stone while you're still creating. That's an advantage, not a cause for panic.

SHOWING us things gives us options and lets us participate in the story. TELLING us things limits our options and satisfaction.

And now, the 86th point! Yay for making it this far! 

It's a common fight in writing, show versus tell. And there are a lot of ways to approach it, I've even discussed a few on this blog. Here's another angle to take on it. 

It's about permission. It's about cooperation. 

Imagine we're all sitting together, say in an art gallery. We've never been there before, so we've asked for a tour guide to take us through this exhibit.

Now this tour guide is good at their job, so as we're lead all around the gallery, we're walked up to the painting, and its history is explained, the title is mentioned and some highlights are given about how the painting came to be. This tour guide could stop talking at this point, and we'd have a very good time, but like I said, this tour guide is good at their job, so they ask us questions, they do more than lead us physically around the space, they lead us mentally as well. They ask, "How does this make you feel?" and "Can you see the use of light and shadow?" It turns the experience into a dialogue, a back-and-forth where the guide's expertise marries with our own experiences and we walk out of that gallery even more satisfied because we had a chance to think and feel, in addition to just observing things. 

Let's do this same situation again, except we'll take a not-so-good tour guide. Maybe they're nervous, maybe they had a bad burrito, maybe their significant other ate the last pickle. And this tour guide decides that leading us through the gallery isn't really what we came to the gallery for, because we're just new, we're tourists, unlike the guide who lives and breathes this art every day of the week. So maybe we get out of our seats and we walk the gallery floor, but what we're told is lensed through the guide's perspective. They talk to us about the shadow and the light and the color, not because they're curious about our input, but more because we need to be told what the point of the painting is. We're not consulted in this experience, we're talked at, often in a condescending manner, because of this guide's assumption that we're not going to get the point of all this art without their exact expertise and opinion. 

That good tour guide? Shows us art. Opens us up to experiencing it in our own way.
That not-good tour guide? Tells us about art. Draws the conclusions for us, limits our experience based on assumptions. 

Don't be the not-good tour guide through your work.

Again, I'm really glad so many people have enjoyed this series. I'm thankful for your comments, your plus-ones, your Likes and your retweets.

Have a great weekend, happy writing.