“No digressions allowed!” is one of many pieces of writing advice I’ve read from the horizontal climbers, which is no doubt good advice if you want to write thrillers to formula. However, many books I admire are full of digressions and asides. In fact, such digressions sometimes make those books stand above the crowd. It’s one of those things that made me realize the best teachers are often books themselves.
The thing is, if you’re reading a “how to write” book written by someone who makes more money selling advice than their fiction, you’ll end up making the same mistakes they do. Yes, I get the irony of my own advice, since I have yet to sell a damned thing—but my advice isn’t to listen to me, it’s to listen to the good writing that sings inside you as you read. Anyway…
This post may become a series on revelations of craft that struck me in the gob like the shmuck I was before I knew any better. This week: how I learned to put a fresh spin on an old hat (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?) and how originality arises naturally from having an interesting character who doesn’t see the word the same way as everyone else. Basically: the whole point of literature. I mean hell, if you’re not doing that you might as well program your ebook compiler to replace all your words with fart noises, because that’s the only way you’ll entertain anyone.
So what kind of idiot was I before I figured out that writing a scene meant writing something new? It started with a wedding, and how much I hate them. My first novel required a wedding scene and I dreading writing it. In my head flashed all the weddings I’d seen in the movies: the costumes I’d have to describe, the happy faces, the spoken vows. The picture in my head was a wreck of smashed together cliches, and I had no idea I didn’t have to write it that way.
Ever come across a word and think, “Why would anyone use that?” Ok, most people probably don’t care, but I sometimes find a word so ungainly, so inappropriate to its meaning, or so ill-used that it makes me wonder if the people who came up with it ever hear themselves talk. I’m talking about the musical quality words have, something every poet pays attention to and almost everyone else ignores.
Yet it’s something even the oblivious respond to. Some words, some phrases, are better remembered than others. This is why poetry was the most effective way to pass on knowledge before the written word. Besides rhythm, poetry has flow – created by putting words in the best order for ease of speaking or emphasis. It’s why one of the most useful editing techniques is to read your work out loud.
But this article isn’t about sentence flow, it’s about the visceral chewiness of words. Some words jive with what they mean and others kind of suck. Take the word coruscate for example:
Or read what you want to write. It seems obvious, right? But like any advice distilled into a pithy phrase and passed around until it loses meaning, there’s more to it. The horizontal champions will tell you it’s about market research – figuring out what “works” so you can make readers happy with the same product. Writers with more artistic aspirations take this advice to mean distilling the essence of the greats. I don’t dispute either, but I’m here to tell you something different: it’s about distilling your own essence.
Here’s where I’m tempted to use another scene from The Holy Mountain, the one where a dude poops in a jar and the alchemy apparatus turns it into a turd of solid gold, but I’ll refrain. Moving on…
Mastering any skill is a long process filled with learning, practice, and failure. Without learning, all practice will do is ingrain bad habits. If don’t practice, everything you learn will fall right out of your head. And if you never risk failure, you’re hobbling your learning. You need all three, otherwise you plateau.
The slow climb to mastery mountain usually starts with a gentle slope. As you rise in skill, you’ll meet many hikers along the way. At this point, everyone’s a dabbler. There are no real stakes involved. This part of the climb tends to be fun, unless some jerk is hiding in the bushes throwing stones at other people. At this stage, harsh criticism is neither welcome nor helpful – we’ll come to that later.
If you keep at it, you’ll reach the competency plateau. The work is still fun and comfortable. Your skill may even make you money at this stage, because it’s finally good enough that people will pay for it. You’ll have much congenial company here, but don’t fool yourself: most people resting on their laurels aren’t going anywhere. There are three types of people who climb no further:
1. Dabblers are the people who’ve tried something for long enough to figure out they didn’t like it enough to continue. They’re often distracted by far more attractive mountains on the horizon, so they climb down and make the slow ascent up some other track. However, all mountains look blue on the horizon. If you turn from them as they turn to muddy grey, you’re turning away from reality to chase a dream. If you want to turn a dream into reality, you need to grasp the jagged rocks ahead and start climbing.
2. Hobbyists are perfectly happy staying on the plateau because they’re doing it as an escape from their real jobs. Hobbyists are generally chill, so it’s best to leave them to do their own thing. Again, harsh criticism is often not welcome here. Hobbies are great, so don’t come down on someone for not taking something seriously because they’re just having fun.
3. Hacks either keep to themselves, turning out a decent living with competent work, or are pernicious “gurus” who offer to teach you how to climb the mountain ahead, even though they’ve never conquered it themselves. Beware the latter, because he is either a dunce who doesn’t know how awful he is, or is out to scam you. Though, if you only want to learn how to be a competent hack yourself, he has much to teach you. He’s this guy:
Setting a scene in a story, no matter the medium, benefits from attention to detail. The best video games have taken this art to new levels. It has to, if the player is allowed to poke around in every corner of the scene. In fact, the setting often forms the core of the story. Building an environment around a culture or set of characters gets lumped in to “world-building” among writers, but it’s something all writers do, when they select the objects a character owns or the kind of house they live in.
Environment design is a nebulous discipline in game design and animation, ranging from laying out virtual buildings to lighting scenes and placing clutter. Creating a game environment with a strong story is the secret to “immersion.”
My experience with prompts comes from the Flash Fiction Thunderdome on Something Awful. A few years ago, myself and the other two Thunderdome founders looked at the story writing contests and flash fiction threads, all of which petered out due to lack of interest, and figured out to make a contest that didn’t suck. Part of it had to do with the prompts. Other contests had weakass prompts like, “the story must have a character named so-and-so and include a mattress.” How the hell is that supposed to inspire anyone? At best, someone comes up with a story, 100% on their own, and awkwardly tries to wedge in the stupid requirements to fit the contest. That shit is idiotic, and yet it pervades writing contests all over the web.
If you want to prompt someone to write a story rather than a weak scenario, then get to the heart of storytelling: motivation and conflict. Behind motivation and conflict are two questions: how and why. What, who, and where don’t matter as much. Even how isn’t as important as why. I’ve found the best prompts set a scenario and ask the writer to fill in the blanks about how and why it came to be.