Monthly Archives: January 2009

Do You Want to Be a Great Writer?

I have sufficient hubris, as an author with no published tomes, to present writing tips here on my blog. My credentials are extensive but rather eclectic and unconventional. Like many that presume to teach I’m often better at theory than the execution thereof, but at heart I feel that I have had the best teachers that literature has to offer.

While it is essential to work at good writing, to learn the craft, to hone your skills, there are times when you just have to ignore all those writing tips out there in self-help books and blogs like my own. My tips are reflective of my taste in literature and what I consider to be good writing. Other people are writing from their own view, whether it is ‘accepted wisdom’ or personal taste. Sometimes people lose objectivity and can’t tell the difference between the two. Some people even forget the soaring flights of breathtaking prose that attracted them to writing in the first place.

If you want to write just like everybody else then follow all the tips. Trim the fat. Grab up your thesaurus. Make sure you get rid of all those weak and floppy adverbs and all those ellipses before someone sees them and marks you as inferior. Tips are useful. Do read and consider them, but when it comes learning how to be a writer there is really only resource that I can recommend with certainty and that is from the writers you adore. Read what you like, read more of it, branch out and read some classics, and then read them all over again; this time analyzing the language and how it is used. Some writers will seem to adhere to all those writing tips you have read, but many more of them (greats) will be breaking rules all over the place.

Of course it takes experience to know when to break the rules so the other best writing tip I can offer you is: write.

My Love of Language

My optometrist is an erudite man with diverse interests. Two years ago, the previous time I had reason to call on his services, we discussed in detail the history of the American West, Wyatt Earp, and the mythos of the gunfighter. He was delighted with my knowledge on the topics. Today we covered the movie Defiance, World War II, the Holocaust, philosophy, and I had the occasion to thrill him with the use of the words ‘penultimate’ and ‘ultimate’ in reference to the last and second to last of the letters on the eye chart. He simply enjoyed the use of language.

It caused me to pause and think. I have had many reactions to my casual usage of what most people refer to as ‘long’ words. The majority infer that I’m an egghead. Others are amused and tease me, but I’ve always assumed that was a way of covering up discomfort. It seems to me that most people are intimidated by the use of words outside their vocabulary because they are afraid that the user of such words will assume them to be stupid by their lack of familiarity. As point of fact I do not consider the use of an extensive vocabulary to be an indicator of much, except maybe a love of words. I happen to love words. When I read I absorb them, which has often led to seriously amusing mangling of pronunciation thus making me feel foolish or lacking in education when speaking to those who are easily able to correct me.

Why do I absorb words and then have the audacity to use them? Our educational system excludes the study of vocabulary once you hit college except as a form of jargon for the different fields. I confess to autodidactism in the learning of language. Use unusual words, however, and in conversation you can be dismissed as a swat, bore, or worse stuck up. I actually don’t sit down to read up on new words to use, and in reality my vocabulary is no where near the level of a scholars, but it is the love of language that causes my brain to be attracted to good words like sunflowers follow the sun. They don’t have to be long. Formative years in England added a fillip of Britishisms that often bear explaining to my Yank compatriots. I’m equally as likely to resurrect an archaic word as grab hold of a new one and make them fadge together. You can google ‘fadge’ to get my drift.

While I have been writing this piece I have been eyeballing my Twitter feed. There was a quote retweeted (ah, jargon how I love thee) that opined that Twitter helped people to write better because the 140 character limit forced people to be more concise and clear. Ah, if only that were true – it’s equally likely to teach them to abbreviate. And who the heck says that brevity is the true yardstick of good writing? Soon a novel need only be a haiku. A love of words is not to be despised. The diversity of the English language, its veritable smorgasbord of linguistic delights, is what makes it such an incredibly powerful tool for art, wit, and communication.

Clarity is almost always to be sought, but that doesn’t mean complexity is to be eschewed in the same breath. Nor is complexity and vocabulary to be mistaken for erudition. I have cast aside, as a waste of time, tomes of merciless labyrinths of grammar and word that overwhelm meaning with the sheer serpentine convolutions of an author hiding their dearth of original thought behind a wall of cornstalks.

In conclusion, I believe that good writing and good vocabulary go hand in hand. Embrace the diversity of your language, and don’t be afraid to grab the dictionary or to try out that cool new word you read the other day. It’s just like experimenting with spices when you’re expanding your culinary repertoire, and I’ll continue to delight my optometrist at every opportunity.

Grammar and Spelling: Pernicious Beasts

Grammar is one of the most difficult of concepts for the average writer to master. Even the most fluent of authors, one whose words soar like Condors over the Andes, may fervently need the aid of one, two, three editors. This is because, unlike mathematics, grammar is an art and not a science. While many grammarians and pedants will scrawl many words of rebuke to all the miscreants who abuse grammar daily the fact is that even grammarians have much they cannot agree on.

Consequently the world has been blessed with the spell check and the grammar check in software programs such as Microsoft Word. I’m the first to tell you that I’m a big fan. I’m one of those writers, of which there are many, who has come slow to understanding the uses of grammar. I have read several books on the topic and taken many college courses that have dealt with it on some level or other, but like the concept of God, much of it I have to take on faith and go with my gut, or rely on my Word program.

Lo, and Behold, I am here to tell you not to rely on your Word program. It is no substitute for true knowledge or the sharp red slash of an editor’s pen. I have a tendency towards being far too slap dash. I’m always in a hurry. I gulp down food with the same avidity with which I dash out my lines of deathless prose. Many is the time I have happily submitted my words to the light of electronic publication, hit the post button, satisfied by a clean bill of health from my grammar and spell check only to read again later and have my self-satisfied smile torn from my smug lips.

The most common error of a writer relying on the tools built into their writing software program is reliance on the spell check. Spell check cannot read your mind or know your intentions so it’s quite common for it not to catch homonyms. There are a number of classes of homonyms from words that sound the same but are spelled differently to ones that are spelled the same and have different definitions, to ones that are similar in sound but not identical and so forth. Many homonyms can render a sentence not only nonsense but often create a humorous effect that you simply don’t need such as substituting the word ‘waste’ for ‘waist’ in an erotic passage.

Coming back around to grammar the computer is even less of an authority. It can only be an aid, not a substitute for knowledge. Many is the times that my Word document will suggest that I change something when, in fact, I was correct but a little more complex than the software is programmed for. Unless I know grammar rules I cannot choose the right option: change or ignore. At other times the software generated suggestion is not the correct one, but my grammar is still wrong. What do I do? And then it is simply true that as a creative writer I might want to break the rules. For it to be art and not accident I need to know the rule first – and then disregard it as an artistic choice.

In conclusion I’m here to urge you that if you love words and desire to be a writer of any competence that you take to heart the study of words, their meanings and corrects spelling, and in addition attempt to tackle the mysterious art of grammar. You will never be perfect, not even the most erudite and astute among us is, but these are the tools of your craft. If you were a painter you would not eschew the easel, brush, and palette without at least first having excellent knowledge in their use. And then once you have competently crafted your piece submit it to the scrutiny of others because, unlike in painting, spell errors, typos, and bad grammar are pernicious beasts that like to skulk and hide to trip up self-satisfied writers.

My Love/Hate Affair with Research

I came up against the great Research problem yesterday. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing fantasy, historical fiction, westerns, or like now science fiction, eventually I always come up against that wall where I know something but not enough, or even that I know nothing at all. That means taking the time, and I rarely have enough of that nowadays, to do a little digging. But even if I groan with frustration at my lack of complete and instant knowledge of everything and anything, in the end I always cave in and do the leg work.

In order to create believable fictional worlds (that are not entirely self-indulgent) it is essential to get the facts right – or at least plausible.

I was having a discussion with a friend just the other day about terrible movies (I was loathing Sweeny Todd because of the Stephen Sodenhiem score, amongst other things) and he started mocking The Lady in the Water. One of his major beefs with the movie was the scene where Paul Giametti spends ten minutes underwater swimming around without needing to breathe. Now this scene really really pisses him off. He was quite vocal, maybe even for ten minutes about how ludicrous this is. Now you need to remember or be aware (if you haven’t seen the movie) that the premise of The Lady in the Water is fantasy. She’s some otherworld creature that’s been stranded and there are monsters trying to get her.

None of this bothers my friend – and it shouldn’t. What bothers him is the character of an ordinary human guy swimming around and around not needing to breathe with nary a sound byte of explanation. It broke the believability and took him out of the magic. Ok, potential magic, because we are talking about The Lady in the Water here which has far more flaws than a few logical discrepancies. It broke the rhythm and ripped dear viewer out of the illusion the movie makers were trying to create. By comparison it all became silly. That is what you really don’t want to do when you writing fiction.

They say “write what you know” and that’s a bit misunderstood at times. Obviously you can’t just write what you know experientially in this life or we wouldn’t have Jules Verne or J.R.R. Tolkien. Verne never went to the moon and Tolkien probably never met an elf, but in either case these writers went to great lengths to create something believable for their readers. Verne may seem dated now but to his Victorian readers his science seemed magical but perhaps plausible in a world that was rapidly changing faster than it ever had before, and with that he was able to draw them along into imagining the fantasy, strongly enough that people still enjoy reading Verne today. Tolkien went even further. It wasn’t just the magic of his words and the consistency of his vision, but the amount of erudition he added to it, from his creation of new languages as a master of linguistics to his knowledge of the folklore of Europe. In the background of his own stories were copious amounts of back-story crafted from his imagination wedded to existing traditions.

Yesterday, for my latest vision, a science fiction story set not to far in the future that asks what happens if we were plunged into a nuclear winter for twenty or so years, had me spending two hours reading about the Coldstream Guards so that I could create a believable character who is a Lt. Colonel in the Coldstream in this grim London landscape that I and my fellow collaborative writers are working on. If I just fudged it, using my limited knowledge of the British military, at least one of my fellow writers (British of course!) would find my stories to be unbelievable. Lord knows how many potential readers I would put off and alienate. I might never use more than ten percent of what I have read about the Coldstream Guards, but the important thing is that I know what my character would or would not do, what rank is reasonable, whether it was likely that Coldstream Guards would have survived as a regiment, etc.

There is no single story I can think of that I have ever written where I haven’t had to dip into at least a smidgeon of research. Even for contemporary stories I need to research law, forensics, the cultures of other ethnic groups from my own, or how to site a good well. My most casual story will include me look up medical facts, how a hospital runs, or even how long it takes for a person to die of thirst.

It is all in the details.

Collaborative Fiction: Playing Nice with Others

In collaborative fiction writing, as in life, not everyone is going to be the right ‘mix’ for your project. That doesn’t mean that they’re not a good writer or that they are a bad person. It just means that their personal style or their vision of the story is not working with the rest of the team. There are some simple things to do to try to get everyone working on the same page.

First of all: listen. It’s essential to give everyone a chance to express their ideas and creative vision. If you’re one of the project leaders (we call them Members of the Board at Pan) and this was your idea for a story you might be tempted to come down hard and insist that it’s your way or the highway, but if you do you’re also likely to be writing your story all alone. Sometimes even the most difficult writer will come up with ideas that improve on the original concept. If you’re not open and you don’t listen it will never happen. The case, much of the time, is that people are way off base. Say you want to write a hard core survivalist story and they start coming up with some more fantastic ideas like mega-warriors with super-powers that are hyped up versions of Mad Max on steroids. Hear what they have to say, see if there are any parts of it you can use, and then be firm but supportive. The fact is that what got them excited about your story might not be exactly what you had in mind.

The goal is to bring them closer to the concept without stifling their creativity. So in a realistic survivalist story a band of Mad Max types might fit, but tempered down to earth – would that work? Consider the idea before you just out and out dismiss it. With some working it might fit in – or not. But be sure you have listened first and not just playacted at listening. Keep a respectful attitude and a gentle demeanor in your written communications. In writing people can’t see your facial expressions or hand gestures. Your respect needs to be OBVIOUS from your word choices and sentence structure. Unfortunate word choices can alienate. Always reread your communications before hitting the send button and NEVER respond in the heat of the moment if things are getting a little hot under the collar.

It’s the case in all collaborations where someone with a very differing view of the story is going to decide to walk. That’s ok; it happens. When it does you still have to be respectful, and it’s ok to let them go. As long as you’ve done your job of listening, trying to work with their ideas, etc., as a team leader you hopefully avoided any negative conflict and commentary that can spoil the fun of a good collaborative role play writing project. This story might not be the right one for them but, who knows, another time you might find it fun to work together. Try not to burn bridges!

All the above advice can apply to the writer that is having trouble fitting into a story that initially interested them. You might need to be flexible if the story is not exactly what you imagined when you applied to join in, but remember it’s ok if not every story is a good fit for you. Just approach every new story as a potential team member. It’s not just the vision that you see in your head of the character. It’s the sum of the parts, not just the individual parts.

The Bitter Sky

Just a quick update on my nuclear winter science fiction collaborative fiction project at Pan Historia: I got the novel underway with title and right now the first new writers are joining up and putting in their ideas for the overall background scenario. I named the piece “The Bitter Sky” and it’s inspired by a line of a Shakespeare sonnet that reads “thou bitter sky” about winter. The graphics are still pretty spare but I stopped being quite as interested in window dressing as I once was and prefer to have the bones of a collaborative story well structured and strong before going for the rest. In this case I consider the bones to be the believable future scenario where two types of survivors clash over limited resources in a world devoid of sun, poisoned by ash and radiation.

I set the story in the United Kingdom because a) the initial cause of the natural disaster was the eruption of a mega volcano in the United States that would have destroyed most of the northern American continent and b) I used to live there and c) it would probably have avoided a nuclear strike in the crazy fallout from the volcano’s eruption. We have a very good writer from England on the new team and he’s been able to give us all invaluable suggestions that make the setting authentic to British culture and how it might have devolved in twenty years of nuclear winter. My memories of Britain are fading, sad to say, so I definitely need the tips and reminders.

So far the writers the story is attracting are some of the very best Pan Historia has to offer, particularly in the scifi genre, and I’m very excited to be working with writers both familiar to me (from 666 West End Avenue, FLESH, and Turnskin) as well as writers I have not had the challenge and honor of working with before. I’m equally excited to be working on an original science fiction story once more. The last time I wrote scifi at Pan Historia was for the much mourned novel Forever is Too Long (I think I got that write) which was created by a wonderful published author who occasionally frequents Pan Historia. It was set on a huge seed ship that had been drifting in space too long and some of the crew are awoken from stasis and cultures are developing within this massive labyrinth. It was very challenging for me, in particular, because I took a character that came out of the head of another writer, a scientist, and I had to make him both convincing and mine.

I might consider posting my fiction from The Bitter Sky on my writing blog once we get going, but for now it’s still in the planning stages.

Nuclear Winter Science Fiction Novel Idea

Driving to New York City on Saturday afternoon I was inspired to start a new scifi story at my community site Pan Historia. The afternoon had grown prematurely dark from clouds that seemed heavy with snow. The forecast had been vague, anything from 1-12 inches depending on where you were, but the sky looked ready to deliver Armageddon. The afternoon light, as we approached the early evening of winter, became sullen and bruised with menace. I have a tendency towards motion sickness when I travel by car, if I’m not the driver, and so I looked out the window at the winter landscape of Connecticut and then New York State.

I imagined that this light would be similar to the light caused by a layer of ash in the sky – nuclear winter – and from there my mind started running over a future scenario where it the Earth suffered from such a nuclear winter for at least a whole generation. Could people survive? How did they survive? I could easily imagine that a small population could manage by using generators and other power sources to grow food in bunkers or underground facilities with artificial lights, but I also tried to imagine if there could be survivors on the surface. Would they live by scavenging, cannibalism, or what?

There was a section of woods on the journey where the trees had largely died and they were strewn around like dominoes tumbled. This is what nuclear winter would do to the woods over time as the trees died and then rotted. The idea caught hold so thoroughly that I spent a couple hours thinking about it. I imagined the Morlock type scavengers gathering wood to burn, as well as the survivors from the bunkers. There would be conflicts. When I returned home to Vermont and was able to again login into Pan Historia I started doing a little research on the science. My technological survivors would, of course, also have to be scavengers as well as act defensively against the dangers of the twilight world I envisioned. Most of the theories of nuclear winter did not suggest the length of time I imagined, at least not for nuclear bomb fallout, so I looked into mega volcanoes, and I could postulate a situation where that might keep up for some time, particularly if there were also nuclear detonations and perhaps fires burning for years, such as would happen at dumps and oil fields, adding to the dust filled atmosphere.

Those survivors that lived outside would be like sick animals, our Morlock types, scrounging for scraps of food. They would suffer from UV poisoning from what light did come because of the damage to the ozone, and of course water would be contaminated. They would be short-lived and reduced to brutal lives. The clash between the two groups could provide a great deal of drama for long-term collaborative story-telling which is my specialty and the specialty of the writers at Pan Historia.

For those of you new to the concept of Pan Historia but interested in collaborative writing, getting in at the beginning of one of our role play collaborative novels is a great way to get started. More experienced members of the community would be more than happy to mentor you, and you wouldn’t have to feel like you were intruding on an established storyline. I’ll be creating my new ‘novel’ just as soon as I have fixed on a good title for it. There has been good interest in the concept so I hope to see a broad range of writers bringing their ideas to the world we create.