Obligatory Post of Writing Advice You Didn't Ask For
A few weeks ago I wrote about some basic truths I’d learned in pursuit of losing weight and getting healthy. It went over pretty well, so I’ve been pondering what else I’m woefully under qualified to write about that I can take a swing at anyway. Then it hit me! How not to be a premature ejacu- what? I already made that joke back in an FAQ? Damn. Okay, I guess we’ll go with the backup plan then: Things I’ve learned about writing.
Now to be clear, a lot of the things I’m going to talk about are things I make a point of watching out for. This doesn’t make them bad, per se, in fact I can personally name an example of each where a talented writer made the very thing work. I’m just saying that they require the right tone and skill to execute well, and that if you’re set on using them then you should make sure you have a good reason why it’s essential to the story. With that in mind:
1. The Dangers of First Person: Here is the one I’ll lose the most of you on. I know you can list authors who use first person when they write and do it well. So can I. But I can also tell you that when I read debut novels that are in first person, it’s with a sense of apprehension. I’m not throwing stones at others here, my first attempt at a novel was not No More Ramen, it was a modern magic action fiction book. It was first person, and it was terrible. Not because of the perspective I chose, but because of why I chose it. I wanted to write from the protagonist’s perspective, I wanted the reader to know every feeling he had and sentiment that affected him. So basically, I picked it because it was easy. Just make the other characters overt, they’re not important anyway. That’s the challenge of first person, you lose the ability to know what the other characters are feeling, so unless you are extremely talented at conveying emotions in their mannerisms or you just consider them ancillary to the protagonist its difficult. I was, and I’ve seen a lot of writer who still are, the latter. Other characters matter, and when you don’t care about them you fall on the default of two-dimensional clichés.
The other issue with first person is that it invests you in the well-being of the character in a way a writer can’t afford to be. You have to fuck with your characters, they can’t always come out ahead or they get very boring very quickly. But when you are writing the word “I” over and over it becomes too easy to get into their head, to feel like they are you, and who among us doesn’t always fantasize about coming out on top?
In case you think this is something I just dismiss outright, let me correct you. Over the last two months I’ve been tooling around with another story about a female super villain. I wrote it in first person because it’s meant to be a set of memoires. Got about ten thousand words in and then had to face the truth that it just wasn’t working. Some stories can be conveyed that way, some writers can make it work, on this occasion I and it were not such cases. Again, not saying it’s a bad strategy, just ask yourself if there is a concrete reason why it should be done that way, and be sure to keep detached from your character. Otherwise you will almost certainly commit the second infraction I have to keep my eye out for.
2. Beware of Mary Sue: For those of you who don’t know, and I didn’t until a friend made an ancillary comment, a Mary Sue is a character that is so perfect, so awesome, and so infallible that they have almost no relatability. If you’re old enough and sci-fi enough to know the reference, I’ve been told Wesley Crusher is an excellent example. Basically it’s when you write a character that is always the best, everyone of appropriate sexual orientation is attracted, always right (at least in the end) and just generally way too perfect. It is also SUPER EASY to do by accident. Protagonists are awesome, that’s what they do, that’s why we give two shits about them. So of course you have to make your guy/girl be cool. And smart too. And well, of course they’re good looking, they’re a main character. And this and that and that and before you notice you’ve made character that isn’t worth reading about because we all know they’ll come out ahead in every situation and we hate them for it. Before you ask, in that first awful swing at writing I took my main guy was an absolute Mary Sue, and it took me reading it a year later before I was removed enough to see it.
One of the most common things people bring up is why Nick’s power doesn’t do more. Luck, as an abstract concept, could be insanely powerful in the right context. I agree with them, and that’s why I make sure Nick’s ability is very limited. Why? Because he is already genius level smart, cunning, strong, and with a myriad of talents and skills. If he had a strong power he would be so over-the-top strong that no one could come close to him. With a shitty one, though, he is interesting, because all those human gifts make it where he can hang with people who have far greater raw power than him, but only because he puts in a shitload of effort. When he was conceived his power was much more useful, but as I added more to the human side of him I realized I had to shrink the Super side, or it would be out of balance.
If you are an aspiring writer and worry that you might be crafting a Mary Sue right now, there are great checklists you can find by Googling that term. I’d link them, but linking is a pain in the ass on this system and I’m using a shitty airport’s internet. You can find them if you want though. I believe in you.
3. Words, Words, Words: There is a great quote by Stephen King that I keep on a post-it by my desk: “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.” Now, I’ve heard a lot of people say that they believe this means he thinks writers should avoid using large words. Maybe he did, I can’t profess to understand what someone meant with what they said, but that’s not the meaning I took from it. For me it meant that you should write with words you know, because that’s how you keep an honest and relatable tone in your work. Don’t spend hours trying to fancy it up with words you found by searching synonyms, write like you speak and it will come across well.
A great example of this is C.S. Lewis. No, not the Narnia books, though those were legit. I’m talking about things like Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters. I’m not ashamed to say that I have a rather extensive vocabulary, and even I needed a dictionary when I read The Screwtape Letters. I mean the wording was so complex I couldn’t figure some out even with context clues. Even in things he wrote for himself, like A Grief Observed, he used terms that made my brain go achy. It’s not because he was trying to sound intelligent. It’s because the man was an Oxford professor and was smart as all fuck. He was writing in his natural tone, and the books were still enjoyable because of that. If it had been someone trying to replicate that style without the inherent linguistic knowledge I can almost promise you the whole thing would have been a shitwreck. The point of this is that you can use your own words in a way that still conveys fun and novel sentiments. If you don’t believe me, go pick up a Neil Gaiman book. He’s never used a word I didn’t already know, yet his language is so fucking beautiful that it makes me ashamed to call myself an aspiring author.
4. To Self-Publish or Not To Self-Publish: Given the format I work in, you can imagine this comes up a bit in conversation. Why do it this way? Why not work in quiet and push for the traditional ink and paper option? For some people, that works, and I’m not here to disparage a system that has worked for hundreds of years. The best answer I can truthfully give is that writing for yourself is like masturbation: You have a one person audience and you have a firm grip (heh heh) on what pleases them. When you put your stuff out to the world, things are different. They don’t know you, they don’t care about your feelings, all they want to know if you can get them where they are trying to go. And make no mistake about this, to make your work freely available is to open yourself to criticism you’re not ready for. It will hurt. I’ve been lucky in that the vast majority of everything you guys have posted have been incredibly supportive, a sentiment I cannot convey enough gratitude for, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been much less kind sentiments expressed. So, with all the risk, what is the upside to doing a site like this one?
Because the truth is you need to get people telling you that you suck. Some of them will be shitbags, but some of them will be telling you things you need to hear. The long running joke on my site is that you could make a drinking game from my typos. What you may not realize is that I triple edit every single chapter before it goes up. At first it was frustrating, then it was discouraging, but in the end it made me realize that copy-editing is a part of this process that I cannot do well. That’s why I got a professional editor to go through Super Powereds: Year 1 before I ever considered putting it on the Kindle (by the by, she was fantastic and very professional, if any of you happen to be in the market shoot me an e-mail and I’ll give you her contact info). It wasn’t a fun process, but it made me recognize something I needed to work on and I’m a better writer for it. That’s what putting your writing out there gets you: feedback to grown better. Even if you don’t go this route, I recommend you find a class or a group of people to workshop with. Masturbation is easy, pleasing new sexual partners is awkward, ego-bruising, and often incredibly rewarding.
5. Finding your own style: I’m to reference back to that first awful book again, because it’s a great example and I learned a lot from it. From the premise you might think it was like the rest of the stuff I write, just with a different setting. It was not. It was serious, high-action, and with lots of violence and attempted plot twists. Why? Because I really liked the Dresden Files at the time (still do, fantastic series) and that was what I wanted to write like. The thing I learned when looking back was that I am definitely not that kind of writer. It’s a great style, and if you’re one who can do it well then kudos to you. That’s not me, and it was a hard pill to swallow. Swallow it I did though, and once I got past it I stopped trying to write like other people and started writing like me.
When I was younger I wanted to write things that were super deep and really got you thinking. Turns out my natural style is dick jokes and beer pong, which I’m fine with. Once you stop caring so much about writing things that fit in a specific dynamic you can focus on writing things that are good, at least to you. Mine might not be on a level that will get me on a best-seller list, but at least when I go back and read things from a few years back I don’t cringe. Truthfully, I’ve found that’s the best hallmark of a work you can be proud of. Even if you’ve grown and see places you could have done it better, it’s still a great feeling to go back over a piece of work and see a sentiment and story you find enjoyable and relatable.
6. Fucking Write: If you want to be a writer, then write. I don’t give two fucks and a popsicle about what. I don’t care if you’re years away from showing it to anyone else. Put the goddamned pen to the paper or hands to the keys and drum some shit out. There is no better teacher than experience, no better education than doing. Write, go back, reread, edit, and write. Set yourself deadlines, and punish yourself if you don’t meet them. Write, write, write, write, write, write. If it seems like I’m really driving this one, it’s for good reason.
Everyone has the world’s greatest novel while it’s in their head. It will be bold, it will be daring, it will be funny, and it will revolutionize the industry. It might really be all those things, but the world will never know until you actually create it. I majored in English in college, so I hung out with a lot of aspiring “writers.” If it seems douche for a guy on an internet site to use quotation marks when talking about others in his desired field, hear me out. I don’t have a high standard for calling someone a writer, but it does require that you actually fucking write, which shockingly few of them did. Talking about it is easy, so easy in fact that it’s all a lot of people ever do. “One day when things slow down, when I have time, when I flesh out the plot, when I find the right setting…blah blah blah.” I get it too, don’t think for one second I’m immune to this. My NaNoWriMo project this year was built around the fact that I pussy-out so frequently when writing climaxes that I had a backlog of nearly done works. I can start a story at the drop of the hat, hell I could post four novels I’ve kicked off that went nowhere. Seeing them through is my biggest challenge. It’s so easy not to write, but if it’s what you want to do then you have to do it.
I’ll say this to close out the subject: Joining DN and doing this site has been the best thing for my writing ethic. Having ancillary deadlines is something I can blow off, but knowing there are people out there waiting for Tuesday and Thursday to read what I’ve done gives me a kick in the ass I can’t shrug off easily. That’s what it took for me to get my shit together. What it takes for you only you know. But I recommend you find it, because I’ve had a lot of good feelings in life, but doing the final save on a work you can be proud of is one I’ve never found a duplicate for.