Category Archives: Other Writer’s Words

A Writing Contest Tease

It’s Friday, so I can do whatever I want here on the ol’ blog. So here’s what I’m going to do – plug the contest one more time. You’ve got until midnight tonight to throw 200 words together and toss them in my general direction. Click here for details about the contest, then check your watch, put pen to paper, and write like your life depends on it.

Just for fun, I thought I’d show you a tiny glimpse of what’s been sent so far. If you don’t see a sentence from your story here, that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. This is just a random tease to show you how diverse (and fun) the entries are so far.

“If he hadn’t been checking the time, the bullet wouldn’t have been deflected.”

He had become foreign to her, like a word viewed so many times it’s strangely unfamiliar or looks misspelled.

… the incense of anticipation rocked him, and he inhaled it like oxygen.

“I live here.  I can be as noisy as I damn well please.”

Three days ago the dead crawled out of their crypts, tombs, and plain pine boxes to wreak their revenge upon the living.

The fire cast mirthless shadows over the face of a stranger.

Somewhere along the way he forgot to put it back on again.

Only four minutes before the rest of his life was mapped out by a panel of his peers.

The black, craggy lava rock was sharp and deceptive in the fading daylight – a dangerous combination.

Pretty intriguing, don’t you think?

I’ll be expecting your entry by midnight.

Breaking the Rules

Just yesterday, an Internet friend asked me to read his short story and offer him a little editorial advice. Sometimes I get nervous when friends ask me to read their writing, but I’d shared enough of a conversation with him to expect he’d know his way around words. I was right. Even though it was a first draft, the observational story (non-fiction, but with the textures of a great fiction piece) had plenty of bite and surprising depth.

One of the things that struck me about his story was the manner in which he introduced dialogue for the various characters. He didn’t separate it from the rest of the first-person narrative with expected paragraphs and punctuation. Writing rules would tell you this was a mistake, something to fix in the second draft. But after reading through the story multiple times, I was convinced it needed to stay exactly as written and told him so. To write the dialogue using a more traditional format would have weakened the story, stripped it of both intimacy and menace.

Now I’m fully aware that the short story often plays by different rules than a typical novel, but the rationale behind what makes a “broken rule” work in his story and what makes them work in novels is very much the same.

Anyone who reads (and/or writes) science fiction or fantasy knows the importance of consistent and believable “laws” for their created worlds. Nothing pulls a reader out of a story faster than a character who suddenly discovers a new ability that goes against the rules of the imagined universe. Suspension of disbelief evaporates the moment Sir. Junket of Swarthy swings his sword in the Arthurian tale and laser beams fly out of it to kill the minotaur. (Unless, of course, the story has been developed in such a way that all three elements play nice with each other. Then it would be just fine.)

The same is true for the writing craft in general. Take Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for example. I’ll admit it took me a few pages to get used to McCarthy’s creative use of non-punctuation and sentence fragments. But the more I read, the more it made perfect sense for the story. The novel broke a ton of rules, but it did so with such consistency and believability and purpose, many thousands of readers (and those fine Pulitzer folks) didn’t mind one bit.

I’ve heard lots of writers complain about the “constricting nature of writing rules,” but more often than not, when I run into those broken rules in practice (head-hopping, sentence fragments, odd punctuation, etc.), they betray poor plotting or lazy writing rather than purpose. The best writing advice – to “just write” – is still and always the best approach to take when starting a new work. Don’t worry too much about the rules while writing the first draft. But once you start working on revisions, it’s critically important to carefully evaluate if what’s on the page draws the reader into the story or pulls them out of it. Can you really justify the head-hopping? Are the sentence fragments distracting or do they fit the rhythm and voice of the narrative?

Broken rules that truly serve the story are invisible to the reader.

One final note: If the novel you’re shopping has broken tons of writing rules, you might have a harder time selling it to an agent or publisher. Publishers are hesitant to take a chance on something that falls outside of familiar boundaries – especially if they have lots proposals for good books that fall within them.

But don’t stress too much about this. If what you’ve written is brilliant, you won’t go unnoticed.

Contest reminder: Look for this blog’s first writing contest to be announced on Friday. I’m not going to say any more about it until then. But between now and then, tell all your friends about noveldoctor.com. The greater the number of visitors to the blog this week, the bigger (and cooler) the contest prize.

The Mysterious Importance of Mystery

Not so many years ago, my younger son became a fascinated by videogames. Like his older brother before him, this fascination grew into a full-blown addiction for a time. But unlike his brother – who suffered through the challenges of finishing a level using the age-old technique known as “if at first you don’t succeed, stomp your feet, pout, growl, try out a new word to see if your parents notice, then try again” – my younger son was known to ask, “is there a cheat code for this?” Younger son has always been rather pragmatic; he likes order and when he comes across an obstacle, he prefers a simple, ordered solution to a complex puzzle.

On some occasions, (like when I was too busy doing Really Important Stuff to be a good parent and drop to the floor, pick up a controller and help solve the problem right then and there) I went in search of his requested code, handed it over, and returned to doing Really Important Stuff. Looking back, I now see this was a mistake (one more to add to the growing list that surely will be enumerated someday in the privacy of a therapist’s office).

Cheat codes provide a shortcut around the very purpose of a good videogame: discovery. And by handing these to my son, I cheated him out of the joy of that discovery. The other day I came across a link to an article in Wired Magazine written by J. J. Abrams. Here’s a brief excerpt:

True understanding (or skill or effort) has become bothersome—an unnecessary headache that impedes our ability to get on with our lives (and most likely skip to something else). Earning the endgame seems so yesterday, especially when we can know whatever we need to know whenever we need to know it.

- excerpt from “J. J. Abrams on the Magic of Mystery” (Wired Magazine, 17.05. Click here to read the complete article.)

The article makes some rather salient points about the damaging role the “spoiler” plays in our Internet-soaked, “I want it now” culture. Spoilers (like cheat codes) have the potential to steal the mystery from a story. People still might have flocked to see The Sixth Sense had they known the ending, but the experience would have been less.

Much less.

I was thinking about this in relation to novels. What is it that keeps a reader reading? A compelling story is important, of course. Twists and turns, tension and release, uncertainty and anticipation all urge readers to turn the page in search of “what’s next.” Generous readers will often forgive cardboard cutout characters if the the pace and action are interesting enough to warrant continued attention. But well-written characters compel the reader forward for anther reason – because we care about them. Whether good or evil, kind-hearted or hard-hearted, want to know them. We want to follow their stories to a satisfying pause. There is a tremendous opportunity for mystery-that-leads-to-discovery in well-written characters because they’re as much in the dark as we, the readers are – sometimes even moreso. It is the question of who they will become, and how they will act and react along the way, that compels us to keep reading.

A few months back I was editing a novel that had a well-structured plot and interesting enough characters, but it just didn’t grab me as a reader. As I turned the last page (okay, as I scrolled to the bottom of the screen – you caught me), all I could muster was a response that teetered on the edge of damning with faint praise, “Um…that was nice.” Something was missing.

Here’s a beautiful paradox: what was missing was “less.”

After some spirited discussion about the manuscript, the author agreed with my plan to trim back the internal dialogue and cut a few scenes that explained away too much of the story. If I might return to the videogame metaphor, I edited out the cheat codes. The result? Well, we’ll see when the book hits the shelves, but I am convinced it’s a better story simply because of those (relatively minor) edits. Readers will have to do a little more work, a little more intuitive sleuthing, perhaps, as they read – but because of this, the turning of the last page will be accompanied by a satisfied sigh instead of a shrug.

Chasing the Flame

Note: I am a writer as well as an editor. Sometimes I wear my writer’s hat when blogging. This is one of those times.

When the source of his fiction was autobiographical, Eddie could write with authority and authenticity. But when tried to imagine – to invent, to create – he simply could not succeed as well as when he remembered. This is a serious limitation for a fiction writer… But Eddie would make a living as a novelist, nonetheless. One can’t deny him his existence as a writer simply because he would never be, as Chesterton once wrote of Dickens, “a naked flame of mere genius, breaking out in a man without culture, without tradition, without help from historic religions and philosophies or from the great foreign schools.”  - A Widow for One Year, by John Irving

I spent four years trying to unearth my “naked flame of mere genius” while I struggled to write a speculative novel about a group of strangers who become trapped in a small mountain town when an impenetrable dome (not unlike the sort you might place over a slab of cheese) suddenly surrounds them. I reached as deep as I could to find all the relevant experiences I’d known that could place me inside the characters’ minds, but since I’d never been trapped under a giant cheese dome, I just made everything up. My characters came across as flannelgraph approximations of my writer’s intent and the story quickly crumbled around them. After about 40,000 words, I admitted defeat. I killed Sphere of Influence and spent the next year mourning the loss.

During that year, I read lots of great books. And, after a brief season of bitterness toward God for having given someone else the writerly genius I was supposed to receive, I reluctantly agreed to re-visit my childhood dream of becoming a published writer.*

I downscaled my plan: I would become a brilliant short story writer instead of a novelist (a plan that included frequent publication in The New Yorker, of course). I was much more intentional this time around. Before I wrote a single word, I sat down with Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and tried to reverse engineer the stories in order to discern what it was about Anderson’s writing that made his short story collection “literary.”

Then I started writing.

Three overwrought, underdeveloped short stories into my new career, I sighed a defeated sigh and began to prepare my heart for the end of all dreams that featured “becoming a writer” as a key plot element. I was frustrated and discouraged. I stared into the mirror searching for evidence that I might be wrong, that I might be a writer after all, but all I could see was that I was no Sherwood Anderson.

Epiphanies are funny things – they appear out of nowhere and look at you like they’ve been there all along. They offer a kind smile instead of the smirk they have every right to wear and wait patiently for you to notice the truth they carry.

This was mine: I was no Sherwood Anderson.

Duh. (This is the only allowable response to recognizing an epiphany. A hand-slap to the forehead is optional.)

To my surprise, admitting I wasn’t a literary genius didn’t destroy my dream of becoming a published writer, it saved my dream from extinction. In time, the epiphany led me to this truth: Either you have the flame of genius or you don’t. But even if you don’t (and most writers don’t), that doesn’t mean you can’t become a successful published author.

After my epiphany, I started writing again, but this time I wrote autobiographically.

The shift from “trying to be a brilliant storyteller” to “telling the stories I knew” was life-changing. I stopped chasing the blue flame and simply started to remember…

…I remembered the day I ran home from school without a care in the world, fully believing that the very next footfall would touch only air. I remembered the jeering taunt of a classmate that pulled me back to earth mere seconds before I defied the law of gravity. I remembered the sadness that fell over my 10-year-old body like a lead blanket and slowed me to a defeated walk…

And as I began to remember this and a thousand other real-life stories, I realized what my writing had been missing: me.

Immediately, I had a deeper connection with my characters. When they cried, I felt the pain in my gut. When they yelled in anger, my blood boiled. When I painted a character into a corner, it was the character himself who would shout directions on how to solve the plotting problem.

What a difference this made. Instead of chasing the wind, I started to feel it caress my skin. Instead of trying to impress with big words, I chose to express with words I already knew. I stopped trying to be Charles Dickens or Sherwood Anderson and started to figure out who Stephen Parolini was.

Though improbable, it is possible my continuing study of writing and my willingness to learn might someday fuel a dormant flame that reveals a hidden genius.

In the meantime, I’m just going to keep writing. Because no one can deny my existence as a writer.

Not even me.

*I actually realized this dream nearly 20 years ago, and between then and now I’ve published a half-dozen non-fiction books, dozens of curriculum titles and hundreds if not thousands of magazine articles. But I’ve revised the original dream. Now it’s to become a published novelist. I’m still working toward that goal.