Alone in My Head
Thursday, January 31, 2013
I once forgot to eat for 12 hours. Sometimes, people will have entire conversations with me. After I give them a series of monosyllabic answers, I inevitably look up and ask "wait...what did you just say?" I'm not crazy, I'm spacing out. And if you're going to write successfully, you're going to need to learn how to do it, too.
Alone in My Head
The world is never going to shut up for you. It doesn't matter if you crawl into a bunker and lock the door, the world is still going to find you. It's going to intrude no matter how carefully you plan your day and no matter how many rules you make for your household. Closing the door may be symbolic to you, but life is always going to intervene.
You have to master the art of spacing out. You have to be capable of sitting in the middle of Grand Central Station with a smartphone and write your novel, if that's what it takes. Because sometimes, that is what it's going to take. Sometimes, you're going to have to write while the kids are screaming, phones are ringing, the TV is going and someone's in the background asking a bunch of inane questions about the contents of the refrigerator. Life is like that. The writer has to learn how to leave this very busy, noisy world...and step into the one they're creating on the page.
You have to learn the technique of spacing out.
Turning Off the World
Spacing out isn't easy. You have to focus on the story in front of you and only that. There are going to be a lot of distractions in your ear, but you've got to focus on what's on the page. It is a skill that can be learned; it just takes concentration. Practice it by turning on some music or the television when you're writing. Start out at a low volume, and try to write. Focus on the words and tune out the noise until it's just that: dull noise in the background that doesn't mean anything. As you feel more comfortable, meaning more focused, increase the volume.
Keep practicing until you're able to shut out the world and live solely on the page. It's not going to work 100 percent of the time; there will be moments when a jarring noise or a loud shout will break your focus. But once you know how to let the noise fade into the background, you'll be able to work well anywhere.
However, I would caution you to set reminders so you don't forget to eat.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
If you're serious about being an author, you carefully comb your books for mistakes before you publish them. You agonize over word choices, think deeply about plots and get incredibly picky when it comes time to design and choose a cover design. You pay attention to all the little details when you're presenting your book. But don't think for even one moment that you can slack off in the way you present yourself. In fact, it's something you've got to think about constantly.
Being a Brand
Once you label yourself as an author and start presenting yourself on the Internet through a blog, social media profiles, forums or any other venue, you're no longer a person. Now, you're a brand. You've got to start acting like it.
Awhile back, I did a post reminding you that you're always an author, even when you're kicking back for some Twitter time. Whenever you're using your author name in any public way, whether on a forum post or even in an email to another author, you need to be thinking about how you're presenting yourself.
Presentation is Everything
Specifically, I'm talking about all the typos. The grammatical errors, and the lazy punctuation. If you can't send me an error-free query letter, why would I review you books? If I'm reading your post in the forum asking me to buy your book and you're totally ignoring all rules of period usage, I'm going to have a knee-jerk Grammar Warden response. I know it to be true, because I've heard myself say out loud, on more than one occasion, "if you can't capitalize your Is, I can't read your book."
And I'm really not all that choosy about what I read. I read books across all genres of all lengths based on all sorts of plots, so I'm pretty open-minded. But your average reader? They need a lot more wooing than I do, and they may write you off even more quickly than I.
Everything you put out there is ultimately associated with your books and your writing in general. So if all I see from you is sloppy Facebook updates and forum posts that ignore everything about capitalization and commas, what do I think about your books? That's right: I'm going to think they're sloppily-written, too. It might not be true. It probably isn't true.
The thing is, I'm not even going to try to find out. That's why you have to think about personal presentation, because I'm certainly not the only reader who feels this way. You are being judged, unpleasant as that may be. So present yourself well, and you will end up selling more books.
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Have you ever killed a character? Did you cry and sob at your keyboard while writing the scene? Have you ever written a break-up? Did you feel anger and pain and jealousy when the lost love interest turned up with a new love interest of their own? If you're not feeling all these things while you're writing, then I'm not feeling what you're writing. You feel me?
How Does That Make You Feel?
The best books are the ones that make us laugh and cry. The books that make you feel something are the ones that stick with you. They become special memories, personal stories. I'll never forget the emotional wreck I became while reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (don't judge me). There's a line toward the end of the book, where Professor McGonagall takes control of Hogwarts and tells the students they can stay and fight if they want to.
I burst into tears. In the middle of a silent room, there's me sobbing. I started to cry so hard, I had to close the book for a few minutes just to gather myself. I loved that book so much, I'm not even embarrassed to share that story. That's a good book. And I guarantee you, J. K. Rowling started to cry and slobber at some point while she was writing the first draft of that book -- stiff British upper lip notwithstanding.
Because, while I don't know the woman personally, I'm pretty sure she knows the secret of writing great emotional scenes. And here's what it is: you have to feel what the characters feel.
If you're a writer, it's necessary to go a little crazy sometimes. While you're writing, when you're in that special space, you have to become your characters. You're no longer Self Pubbed, hard-working indie author. You're now your main character, living in that world and breathing that air and going through everything the main character is experiencing.
And if you don't cry when something happens, or laugh at a scene that's meant to be amusing, you have to rewrite it. Get deeper into the character, try it again and see what happens. When your emotions are engaged, your writing is going to be a lot more realistic. That's the kind of stuff that's going to make me burst into tears at odd intervals in the middle of a silent room. And that's the kind of stuff you want.
Monday, January 28, 2013
People have a pretty high tolerance for fiction. It's okay to write about a psychotic killer who carves people up. Many fine stories have been based on this gruesome plot device. But it's not okay to fail to provide a motive for those killings. And the thing is, psychotic killers aren't the only characters who need a motive. All of them do.
If you follow me on Twitter, you may know that I spend a good portion of my day watching Investigation Discovery. I can get away with it by telling people it's research -- I write mystery novels. But when I'm by myself and an interesting case is unfolding, I might find myself doing some good-natured (not crazy) yelling at the television screen. Usually, I'm shouting just one word: why?
To me, that's the most important question in every story. Why is the main character in love with this guy? Why is that villain being so mean? Why is this all happening? It's easy to get caught up in writing vivid action scenes, steamy romance scenes and exciting dialogue...and forget all about including a motive.
Something is driving these characters, and readers want to know what it is. There are lots of different ways to expose motive. Maybe you do it right at the front with an exciting scene. A character who nearly drowns, for example, might spend the rest of the book being terrified of water. The beginning scene that shows that near-drowning explains this fear nicely. Just imagine how the book would read without it. Some writers might wait, and reveal the past drowning more toward the middle of the book.
It doesn't matter how you do it, only that you do. Every character has a motive, and you've got to know what it is so that I, the reader, can know what it is, too. Whether you choose to spell it out plainly or reveal it through a series of scenes, you've got to show the motive behind the characters.
Otherwise, I'm going to end up sitting on my couch, Kindle in hand, screaming why at your book. And I promise that, when my neighbors ask, I'll blame the whole thing on you.
Sunday, January 27, 2013
Saturday, January 26, 2013
It's not so much that I have insomnia. It's more about the fact that I can't find the time to sleep, but paradoxically I can find time to play Scrabble. This brings me to the recent revelation I experienced, one night around three in the morning: I'm really terrible at Scrabble.
It bothers me to the point of distraction...and that brings us full circle to my sort-of insomnia.
She Was a Scrabble Queen...
So I got this email inviting me to download a Scrabble app. I have a pretty high-grade app addiction, so I couldn't click the link fast enough to start the download. And besides, Scrabble? Of course I'll play Scrabble with you. I'm a writer. I rule at Scrabble. If being a professional wordsmith is good for anything, it ought to darn well be playing Scrabble.
It was with this very superior attitude that I loaded up the app and confidently entered into a game with the person who invited me. And because I am so superior, I wasn't even about to stop there. Why should I battle just one challenger, when words are my stock and trade? One opponent? Ha! You better bring more than a couple of guys to take me down.
So I went ahead and started up 5 different games. Yeah, that's right: my confidence was sky-high. Not only am I a marvel of app-juggling, I'm a pretty intense gamer when I have the time to focus on it. And I know words. So bring it on!
You can imagine what happened next. I began to lose. By a lot. I pit myself against multiple challengers, and I'm more than a little humiliated to admit to you today that I have won a single Scrabble game on my new app to date. Yes, just one game.
It bears mentioning that I downloaded it a week ago.Not only did I lose to the person who invited me to the game, I've lost to multiple random app-users who I like to pretend are J.K. Rowling, James Patterson and another half-dozen authors I admire...but it's much more like they are all in the seventh grade.
So naturally I have been making myself crazy playing Scrabble. Some of my games last for days, and turns may take up to 14 hours before I make a move. No, it's not because I'm studying the board for that long. I've had to set limits on myself, so now I only check the games when I'm caught up on my Tweets, my mail, my forums and the other stuff on my list. It might take 14 hours before I manage all of that in any given day, so that's why.
Of course, it doesn't help that when I do go to make a move, I check every single word in the dictionary and spend plenty of time mumbling to myself in frustration and dismay. The swearing takes up an excessive amount of time. It's unfortunate they can't be used as viable Scrabble words. Then I would rule at the game.
Of course, it doesn't help that when I do go to make a move, I check every single word in the dictionary and spend plenty of time mumbling to myself in frustration and dismay. The swearing takes up an excessive amount of time. It's unfortunate they can't be used as viable Scrabble words. Then I would rule at the game.
It's been a bit of a bizarre week, I'll admit. I had the mistaken idea that taking random Scrabble breaks throughout my day would prove to be a fun experience, a stress-relieving enterprise. Because I might work for 14 hours without taking a deep breath, this seemed like a perfectly reasonable course of action to pursue. Little did I know I would end up in a confidence-shattering competition with word masters who have gone into the hills of the Himalayas to study the most obscure words ever invented in language...or a pack of schoolchildren with stunningly vast vocabularies. I can't decide.
To put it a bit more simply, the Scrabble didn't help me relax, have fun or relieve any stress. It helped me miss more sleep, as I found myself lying in bed at the end of the day trying to find out if "qi" is an acceptable word (it is). If anything it's compounded my stress, as I have now fallen behind in my newly re-affirmed reviewing schedule. The tale I'm embroiled in now is a very intriguing blend of fantasy and mystery. I'll write a full review if I can stop staring at the Scrabble board long enough to finish it, and I'm making no promises. I'll out-word Bobstar if it's the last thing I ever do.
Because I'm a writer, darn it...and doesn't that mean I ought to be amazing at Scrabble? I'm going to go sleep on that question as 10-point letters dance by in my nightmares tauntingly. I leave you with this piece of advice: if you decide to play Scrabble online, hope that you'll end up playing against me.
Thursday, January 24, 2013
If you think it takes a lot of time trying to write a novel, try putting one together after it's been torn into fifteen to thirty different pieces. There's a lot more to being an author than turning out purple prose until your fingers bleed. You also need to pay attention to your writing logistics with every chapter and every book. Otherwise, you're going to get sucked into an undertow of time-wasting document-opening. I know, because for a long time I lived there.
Let's Talk About Documents
The few novels (and believe me, I'm using the term loosely here) that I ever wrote I completely screwed up. I gave each chapter a title, and wrote each one in a separate document. Naturally, I named those documents after the title of the chapter -- not by their numerical value. I'm sure you can imagine what sort of a nightmare this became any time I needed to access an element in the story, like if I wanted to re-read it in its actual order. I'm opening up documents, and getting frustrated....and wasting a ton of time I could've spent writing instead.
Don't let this happen to you. I had to learn writing logistics the hard way, but now that I have I've got a system that works. Use mine, or come up with your own, but make sure you get it worked out before you write. Then, you won't end up plowing through bizarrely-named documents at the center of a disorganized mess.
First, make a folder for each book -- I'm talking about a separate folder for each. The folder should be the name of the book, or a stand-in name if you haven't titled the work yet. I'll use the main character's name, or a certain word I've associated with the book, as a stand-in. If it's a series, make a folder for the entire series and put each associated book folder inside.
Write the entire manuscript in a single document. I like to name mine manuscript, that keeps things simple, but it makes more sense to name it after the title of the book. Always save a second copy of the manuscript elsewhere on your hard drive, and back it up on a flash drive as well.
Store all your resource materials for the book in the same folder. This might include your cast list, an outline, maps, notes, timelines, the blurb, whatever you've got. Give each one of these documents obvious names (like outline, map, notes, and so on) to make them easy to access. Back up a copy of the entire folder every time you make changes, so you don't run the risk of losing your work.
Find a simple, straightforward system for keeping your books stored on your hard drive. Writing logistics are pretty boring, but you need them to build a strong foundation for your craft...and to keep yourself from wasting a bunch of time you don't really have.
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Because I'm pretty good at distracting myself, I got caught up recently in re-formatting one of my really old books (long story). While erasing unnecessary line breaks, I couldn't help but notice one word appearing again and again...and again and again. It was everywhere, and it was being used the wrong way 50 percent of the time. That word stuck out at me, and I started thinking about how often I've been seeing it in recent months. That's when I realized that it may just be the most over-used descriptor in fiction. This was quickly followed by the revelation that I can never, ever use it again...and I don't think you should, either. Allow me to plead my argument against the word slightly.
Insert Your Adverb Here
She smiled slightly. "I didn't expect to see you here."
He nudged her arm slightly. "Did you see that?"
I felt the room shake, slightly, as the big truck roared past.
I'm getting slightly tired of all this.
The examples above are pretty good approximations of recent sentences I've read in fiction containing the word slightly. And honestly, they're all pretty poorly written because of that word. Slightly isn't just an over-used descriptor...it's also a bad one.
By definition, slight means small, or some derivative thereof -- when it's used as an adjective. As a verb, slight means to treat something or someone as if they are small. For example: "The movie star was slighted by the Academy Awards when she wasn't nominated."
When you add ly, slight becomes the adverb slightly...also known as the one-size-fits-all word for any writer in a describing jam. Add slightly to any sentence, suddenly it feels a little bit fancier. Why shrug when you can shrug slightly? Why chuckle when you can slightly chuckle? Why come up with a better word, when this one can be shoved anywhere?
Because it sounds fairly horrible, that's why. Let's take the prose and put it into a real world context. What does a slight smile look like? What does a slight laugh sound like? To what degree of pain does one feel a slight nibble or a slight kick, and what would I hear if you let out a slight sigh?
Slightly isn't a degree, and it's isn't at all a good word. My idea of slightly might be totally different from yours, and as an author you've got to be more specific than that so I know what you're actually trying to convey. Slightly is just too vague, and it's too easy.
Thankfully, you get to the use the entire rest of the English language to write your descriptive text. That gives you over a million different words to choose from, and I'm going to start you off with a dozen that are perfectly serviceable synonyms for slightly: gently, weakly, ineffectually, somewhat, hardly, imperceptibly, daintily, casually, lightly, marginally, scarcely and faintly. Now, go write!
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Every book revolves around a central plot or theme, or should attempt to do so. But don't just stop there. Add new layers to your book, and more dimensions, with sub-plots.
Stories within Stories
Stories within Stories
Also referred to as side stories, sub-plots add extra story to your book. This can help you in a lot of different ways. Let's count them:
- More pages: If you're falling short of your desired word count, adding sub-plots will give you extra pages of text.
- Character development: Sub-plots are a perfect way to develop your characters, and make them feel more real. If your characters are learning and growing because of your sub-plots, then you're writing them the right way.
- Complexity: Adding sub-plots adds more layers to the book, making it richer and more complex. More complex stories are often more rewarding stories, but there's a danger here as well. You don't want to muddy up your main plot too much, or make your story too convoluted. When it comes to sub-plots, a light touch is usually best.
Sub-plots can be very simple, taking place over just one scene, or become a long thread that weaves through the entire book. There are lots of good reasons to add sub-plots, but don't add them just to be adding stuff at random. Like every single word in your book, the sub-plots have to add something tangible. Make them relevant to the characters and to the overall plot.
Always be wary of over-writing. Include sub-plots only when they bring something important to the book. Otherwise, don't do it.
Monday, January 21, 2013
Many self-published authors, and even those who aren't, are largely responsible for their own marketing. Promoting one's own books takes up a lot of time, so much in fact that many say it takes up more time than actually writing. For every four hours the self-published author spends on marketing, they might spend just one on writing books. So when should you start promoting that very first book, or even your second? When is it time to shut down the Word program and fire up Twitter instead?
When should self-published authors start promoting their books? The answer to that one is pretty simple: immediately. Begin building your brand even before that first book is released. Start creating a buzz for your new book while you're still working on the first draft. And once you start promoting your books, you never stop promoting. After that first day of marketing, it becomes your every day job.
Welcome to the life of a self-published author. You become one the moment you make the decision to self-publish, and that means you've also made a decision to start marketing. Make a Twitter account, a Facebook page. Join some online forums for writers and readers. And start talking about your upcoming book. Build up your fan base and let them into your process. You should also have a blog even before your first book comes out, and start regularly working on posting new content and gaining new followers.
There's an easy answer to this one. If you're a self-published author, or you're going to be, it's never too early to start promoting. Finding the line between promoting and over-promoting...well, that's a whole different blog post. But the getting started part, that's easy. So, go!
Sunday, January 20, 2013
The title of the post pretty much describes the past week, though not necessarily in that order. I started out feeling strong and firm in my decisions last weekend. By Monday night, I was in a state of panic.
Last week, I mentioned that one of my big flaws is being indecisive. I don't mean to brag, but I actually have more flaws than most. I've got lots of them to talk about, and another one of the really ugly ones turned up last week to mess with me. After I decided which idea to pursue for my next book, I felt good about it.
Then, I started second guessing it. I started asking myself questions. I started thinking that maybe nobody wants to read about the particular subject matter that I've decided to write about. Should I write something else instead?
It was Monday night when I freaked out like this. The questions just started playing through my mind on a loop, until about twenty minutes went by and I got a grip on myself. Finally I decided that if no one likes this book, it's fine. I'm just going to write another one, anyway.
That made me feel better, and on Tuesday I sat myself down and got some serious work done. Now I'm pleased to say the book is fully outlined, the next book I'm going to write after that is fully outlined, and both books are in the first draft at least up to chapter 4. I didn't do all of that this past week, but we'll get into the backstory of that book in future posts.
So how's the next book coming along? Very well, thank you. I re-did the first draft of the first few chapters, did some more research and worked out more logistics, and now I feel I'm on much firmer ground. I'm pulling inspiration from all sorts of places to bring it together. I've been working on it for at least an hour every night, after I get done doing all the other stuff I have to get done.
Which brings me to another strong theme of my past week: forums...and free time.
Do Not Squander Time
Followers of the blog know that I've recently embarked on a mission to join writing forums. I kept up the momentum this week by continuing to read all of them, and I even joined Wattpad. It's a new discovery, this site. It's a bit like a more social-infused, free-for-all-publishing platform, little brother to Goodreads. Sort of. Anyway, feel free to go find me there to see an old short story I posted. It's sort of what you do on Wattpad, post stories I mean. See how I'm participating?
But I've got to be honest. A lot of it feels like a huge waste of time. The Amazon KDP forums are often stuffed with completely inane conversations, some of them incendiary. Many of the other forums I visit are chock-full of promotions, and questions I'm frankly shocked to see authors asking. I read a little of every thread, and sometimes I add something if I feel like I've got something to add, but it's taking a real toll on my time.
All this forum-trolling, in addition to working on the book, has left me with no free time. It's been a long week, and I've spent an embarrassingly little amount of time actually writing. I'm going to re-evaluate this forum business as the end of the month and see if it's made a noticeable difference from a marketing standpoint, or a self-growth standpoint, or from any angle at all.
Still, I feel strangely energized. It's exciting to be working on a brand-new project, at last pursuing an idea I originally had over a year ago. I couldn't work on it then because I was still caught up in the Deck of Lies, but with each new paragraph I'm getting deeper and deeper into this new world. It's thrilling stuff, exactly the sort of stuff that I think all authors thrive on.
Use the comments section to tell me about your week, or your current book project, or both!
Saturday, January 19, 2013
Friday, January 18, 2013
Few stories are as widely recognized and well-known as Romeo and Juliet. It's a story so famous, the two names have become synonymous with young love, and doomed love, and particularly love that is both young and doomed. Romeo and Juliet is one of the most tragic stories ever penned, and one of the most filmed stories to date.
Maybe that's because Romeo and Juliet was written to be performed, not read. It's one of Shakespeare's plays, one of his most notable, and it's assigned reading for just about everybody who gets to a certain level of high school.
It's about two young people on opposite sides of a long-standing family feud. Romeo is mooning over the loss of Rosaline, an attractive girl who has spurned him. In an attempt to cheer him, his friends Benvolio and Mercutio sneak into the grand ball being held at the Capulet house. Romeo is a Montague, mortal enemy of all Capulets.
At the ball, he forgets all about Rosaline. He discovers true love, real love, when he has a chance encounter with Juliet. The two meet and nearly kiss, boldly talking of doing so (it was bold back then, believe me), before each discovers the other's last name.
They can never be together. They cannot even talk to each other. The ball ends, and Juliet goes up to her room to sit and sigh in sadness. But Romeo comes back, finding that he is unable to stay away. The famous balcony scene then plays out, with each swearing their love and devotion to the other. They agree to be married.
Meanwhile, Juliet's cousin Tybalt has discovered that Romeo was at the Capulet ball. He challenges the latter to a duel, but Romeo will not fight him. He cannot fight him, for he plans to wed Juliet and that makes Tybalt a kinsman. Mercutio, however, is affronted by the scene which plays out and he accepts the duel. Mercutio is mortally wounded in the duel, and Romeo ends up lashing out at Tybalt.
Mercutio curses Romeo, and Tybalt, and both of their houses. Two men now lay dead in the streets of Verona. The Prince exiles Romeo, who goes to Juliet at once. He spends the night with her, and they make their marriage official before he goes into exile.
Juliet's father plans to marry her to Count Paris, threatening that she will no longer be his daughter if she does not relent. She goes to the friar for help. He decides to help her fake her own death with a drug that will put her into a deep coma for two days and 40 hours. He will also send a message to Romeo.
She follow instructions and take the drug the night before her wedding to Paris. When discovered in the morning, she is laid to rest in the family crypt.
The message never reaches Romeo. Instead, he gets a message from one of his own kinsman that Juliet is dead. Romeo buys poison and goes to the crypt. There, he kills Paris in a confrontation and drinks the poison. He dies, and Julie wakes. She sees her love dead on the ground, and stabs herself with his dagger.
But you've probably heard the story...and if not, you can find it in more film versions than I could possibly list. It's one of the most filmed books on film, and it's been adapted and twisted and modernized a hundred times over. It's been satirized, it's been spoofed, it's been copied in entirety. Only a few of these film versions, however, are at all worth mentioning.
One of the oldest film versions of Romeo and Juliet is still one of the best. It was made by George Cukor in 1936, and was nominated for four Oscars (which was a big deal back then, since they had fewer categories). This version stars Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer, two of the biggest stars of the day. The film nearly didn't get made. Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM at the time, thought Shakespeare was just too complicated for ordinary moviegoers to understand. But when Jack Warner, over at Warner Bros., announced that he would be releasing A Midsummer Night's Dream, Mayer changed his mind. He green-lit the project, and an adaptation was born.
Great detail was paid to costuming and set design for the flick. Researchers went to Verona to look at paintings and study design. Academics were even brought to the set to help advise filmmakers. But critics complained about the casting. Shearer and Howard were certainly not young, teenage lovers. John Barrymore, in his 50s at the time, played Mercutio as a young flirt, and he no longer looked the part. This version is Shakespeare rearranged, with several scenes playing out of order. Friar Laurence's role is reduced, and some other scenes are expanded. We also get to see Rosaline in this version; she never actually appears in the play.
Mayer's gut reaction was right. The film wasn't a critical success, and it was bashed for being too "arty." Filmgoers didn't turn out to see it...just as they hadn't gone to see A Midsummer Night's Dream, released the year before by Warner Bros.
Hollywood didn't make another Shakespearean adaptation for more than 10 years.
Franco Zeffrelli took the play on again in 1968, and he went in a totally opposite direction for his distinctive version. Unlike Cukor, Zeffrelli cast young, good-looking actors for the title roles, and made the most out of the brand-new Technicolor technology. He had better luck with his take on the film. It was the 60s, so he emphasized the elements of youth, of two young people who only wanted love...not their family's war, man. It was a message he hoped would resound with the 60s counter-culture.
He hired Leonard Whiting, 17, to play Romeo. Olivia Hussey, 15, was cast as Juliet. Both were studied stage actors, and gorgeous. This version of the story focuses on the young lovers and injects more energy into the dialogue. Romeo's duel with Paris is cut out, a decision that many filmmakers make when adapting the story. No one wants to turn Romeo into a bad guy.
A distinctive version of the story wouldn't be made again until 1996. Re-titled as Romeo + Juliet, this adaptation was directed by Baz Luhrmann. Claire Danes stars as Juliet, Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo. This version uses most of Shakespeare's original dialogue, pressed against the background of a more modern-looking Verona. The swords are guns, the fashion is interesting and the soundtrack is filled with lush, 90s-era pop hits. It's more mob-meets-Shakespeare than true Shakespeare, but it's a damned good version. The ending will absolutely make you cry, even when you know it.
But my personal favorite is probably the most wildly adapted version of the story you'll find: West Side Story. Written in the 1950s for the Broadway stage, it was adapted in 1961 as a musical film...and it's fabulous. Natalie Wood stars as Maria (Juliet) and Richard Beymer as Tony (Romeo). The story is moved from Italy to New York City, and centers on two rival street gangs, the Sharks and the Jets.
The Jets are a group of street toughs, greaser kids who are all white by race. The Sharks are made up of Puerto Rican immigrants who are fighting to eke out there turf in the big city. None of Shakespeare's dialogue is used, and a bunch of well-choreographed songs are added, but the flavor of the story and most of the plot is exactly the same. Maria is still a sweet, young girl, untouched by love until she sees Tony. It's absolutely the most relatable re-telling of the film, and relevant even today if you can look past the 1960s fashion.
How good is West Side Story? It was nominated for 11 Oscars and won 10 of them, including Best Picture. It's won more awards than any other musical ever made, and there have been a lot of them.
But maybe you should watch all of the notable film versions of the story, just in case. You're going to be asked to read the book, if you haven't already, so you might as well see it on the screen, too.
Thursday, January 17, 2013
I've recently been engaging myself with an effort to be more active in writing and reading forums, so I've been confronted with the topic of asking for help a lot lately. And I've got to say, a lot of writers are doing it way too often.
Ask, and Ye Shall Receive
Let me be clear. Asking for help actually takes some courage, and it can do you good to learn how to trust in the kindness of strangers.
But there's a line between asking fir help and being lazy...not to put too fine a point on it. Because, while there is some nobility in the asking, there is much, much more to be gained from finding the answers yourself. And maybe all this beseeching isn't from laziness st all. I'm hoping it's simply because too many people don't know how ti find the answers.
They're in luck, because I'm really good at finding them. And if you already know how to ask for help, you are well on your way to becoming a master as well. You just need to know where to ask the right questions.
To be clear, it's always going to be easier to ask than to look. You will get a lot more out of looking, however, so lets figure out how to to it.
First, don't ever go to Wikipedia to find out anything. You can go to other, more trusted, online encyclopedias to find general information. Wikipedia should be used only for resources. Just search for any topic, scroll to the bottom, and look for the links.
First, don't ever go to Wikipedia to find out anything. You can go to other, more trusted, online encyclopedias to find general information. Wikipedia should be used only for resources. Just search for any topic, scroll to the bottom, and look for the links.
Instead of asking questions on forums, ask search engines -- but don't go to the twelve hundred different bloggers who think they know the answer. University extension websites, the History Channel website, encyclopedias and websites ending in .gov can all be considered to be reputable sources. Online articles from trusted sources like the New York Times are also trustworthy.
But don't ever trust one source, no matter how good it is. Confirm your information in at least three places. Otherwise, it's not real.
Do your own research, and learn how to answer your own questions. There's a lot of reasons you've got to do this as an author. First, you can't necessarily trust people on forums -- they might be clueless, or making things up, or simply incorrect in their information. But more importantly, it's your job to find your own answers. That's half the fun of writing, and an important part of the process. Through research, you might uncover all sorts of interesting tidbits you end up including in the book. You might get inspired by brand-new ideas. And you might learn something, which is always a good thing.
But most of all, you're going to find a question one day that your forum friends can't answer. You will hit a brick wall. You will feel lost. That will happen. If you learn, right now, how to deal with it, you won't get knocked flat by it when it happens at the worst possible moment (and it will).
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
I know it seems silly. Best an easy word, with only four letters and a single syllable. But plenty of people end up using it the wrong way...a lot. It's irregular, and it can be easy to confuse with another word that's similar. Make sure you know how to use the word best properly, because using it the wrong way looks really, really bad.
Better Your Writing with Proper 'Bests'
Good. Better. Best. We were all forced to write it during primary school years; I had to draw corresponding pictures to go with. Special attention is called to the word best because it's irregular; there is no bestest. People only say this colloquially, it's not actually proper English.
The word best simply means most excellent, something that stands above and beyond whatever else it is being compared with. For example: This is the best blog I have ever seen, or Jade is the best blogger!
But like I said, it's irregular. Bested is actually a word, but it might not mean what you might think it means. To be bested is to be defeated. For example: "How'd the tournament go?" "We were bested by a superior team." It's just another way of saying that the best team won.
What best doesn't mean is favorite. When something is your favorite, it's the one you like the best. For example: "Party in the USA" is my favorite Miley Cyrus song. Yet often, you'll see it this way: "Party in the USA" is my best Miley Cyrus song. This is glaringly, offensively, incorrect.
It's okay to say something more declarative, such as: Party in the USA is the best Miley Cyrus song. See the change? The best is correct; my best doesn't exist in this instance. You can say I gave it my best effort or even I gave it my best. You can't say This is my best TV show (unless you are a TV writer, director or producer, but let's not get into all that).
The point is, favorite and best are not interchangeable. Best can only be used to mean that something stands above the rest; it is superior. To say something is your favorite is to say you like it better than anything else. When in doubt, as always, use your synonyms. When writing the word best, if you feel a little confused, switch it with the word superior. If the sentence still makes sense, you're good!
Always put your best writing forward by using words in their proper place.
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Have you ever told a lie? Had a drink before you were legally allowed to do it? Taken something that wasn't yours? Did it make you a completely evil person? Have you ever met a completely bad person?
So why would you write a character that way? If you're writing in black and white, you're not writing at your best. The world, and every person in it, is filled with shades of grey.
Good vs. Evil
Novels often pit a hero, a good guy, against a villain, a bad guy. This is the oldest literary plot device, the most basic foundation of many stories, and there's no reason you can't use it in your novels. Just remember not to get too literal about it. Rarely are people all bad, so inherently evil that they have no spark of human kindness or compassion, guilt or regret, anywhere inside them. Writing a villain that's totally evil is going to make that villain feel two-dimensional, a caricature rather than a character.
But you can get away with it. Villains are supposed to be bad, and writing a really bad one can make your story that much more thrilling. The argument can even be made that people who are nothing but evil have existed in the real world. Some have said this about people like Charles Manson and Adolph Hilter. But you aren't going to find a person in the real world who is all goodness, and you'd better not present me with a character who is.
We all have flaws, and we all want to read about characters who are flawed, too. Why is that? Because in your story, if the character who is all good defeats the character who is all evil, that's great. But it's not going to be relatable to me in any way, because I'm not all good and I know it. I make mistakes. I fall down. I say the wrong things. I eat that third piece of cake when no one's looking. What are the odds that I want to read about a character who never screws up, never falls down, never fails and does only good things?
You guessed it: zero. Readers root for heroes the hardest when they can see bits and pieces of themselves in those heroes. It's much easier to cheer for a guy who's a little bit shy and unsure of himself, a guy who gets tongue-tied in front of the pretty girl, rather than the guy who does everything right and knows just what to say every single time. It makes the hero's triumph much more satisfying when the hero overcomes not only the villain, but his or her own flaws and failings.
And sometimes, villains aren't really evil people. They might be at odds with the hero, sure, but in their version of the story, the villain is the hero. They're the main character of their own story, and they have their own motivations for doing all their "evil" deeds. What are those motivations? Everyone's done wrong things in their lives, told those little lies, cheated on that test, all that stuff. Make your villains three-dimensional and real. Make them human. And make them relatable, too.
All your characters should feel like real people, and real people don't come in shades of black and white...so don't write them that way.
Monday, January 14, 2013
Author Joann Pence gave me a list of books to potentially review, and I selected Dance With a Gunfighter right away. The title immediately brings to mind an incongruous image of a hardened bad guy...dancing to the sound of fiddles. I figured this couldn't possibly be what takes place -- the "dance" referred to has got to mean some sort of exciting Western shoot-out occurs. I was wrong about that, but this book didn't disappoint.
There are a lot of dances in this book. There is the very real, literal dance referenced by the title. It's a romantic little scene: young girl, sweet sixteen, at her first dance. She's a wallflower, and doesn't expect to get asked to dance. Something about her touches the hardest man in the room, a gunfighter by the name of Jess.
This is where the book gets confusing right away. The girl's name is Gabriella, but she's a tomboy so she goes by Gabe. The guy's name is Jess. It's two neutral names, and I have the focus of a squirrel so I spent the first 50 pages trying to figure out who was saying what to whom. My inner monologue is playing along the entire time, asking "did the girl or the guy just say that?" after every fourth sentence. But once you get that part of it down, there's still a whole lot of plot to get through.
Maybe too much. In some spots, this book tens to drag. The constant push-pull between the characters is true to the genre, and I get that, but it's way, way too much and way too drawn out. The inference is there that their love is passionate, but it takes months and years for the couple to get together in any sort of tangible way. He walks out on her, more than once, which is a bit self-defeating on the story's part. In romances, as a woman I'm supposed to fall a little bit in love with the hero of the story. I was never close to falling in love with Jess -- whose main physical attribute seemed to be a ragged blonde mustache -- and never really identified with Gabe.
This isn't a traditional romance story, though some of the basic formula is there. In this case, the couple faces way too many obstacles and challenges. Remember what I said about a lot of plot? Most of it is strictly designed to keep the main couple apart, sometimes in totally unbelievable ways that are just too contrived. At one point, the couple flees from a gang of bandits straight into the blistering desert. One of them is grievously wounded, and this is clearly just bad planning. Well of course they run straight into a mean band of Apaches, because that's likely, and instead of being murdered right away they're held captive for several months. This is all done on the promise than an exciting action/fight scene will soon occur, but this of course never manifests because this of course wasn't the point of that extremely long scene. The author really had to stretch to come up with new and bigger obstacles to throw between the couple.
Other types of dances do occur, and the promised gun scenes do manifest. There is a lot of action in the book, which you'd expect in an Old West setting, but there are mystery elements as well. The author shows her writing roots in the form of a few head-turning twists.
There's a lot the author got right. She researched her desert cuisine very well, and I was only able to find one tense error and a handful of run-on sentences -- and you know how I look for that sort of thing. Many of the scenes between the couple are sweet and touching. It's a story mainly about emotional pain, and how that affects us, and how it defeats and changes us. Weaving a love story into all that is no easy writing feat, so if some things don't feel so smooth I guess that's to be expected.
This is a good romance with plenty of heart and sweetness, some mystery and action sprinkled in along the way. If you're into that sort of thing, you'll definitely appreciate this finely-edited, well-written tale of revenge and romance.
Find Dance with a Gunfighter on Amazon!
Saturday, January 12, 2013
Being indecisive is one of my biggest flaws. I can be tenacious once I set my mind on something...but getting to that space can be a tough journey.
What Am I Writing?
For example, my newest book project. Like many writers, I get lots of ideas. They aren't necessarily any good, but I write them all down anyway. So when I finished the Deck of Lies, of course I pulled up my idea notes.
One of them struck me right away, a story that's really different for me because I settled on the idea of a male protagonist. I don't know, maybe I was feeling brave.
So for over a week I worked on two pages of this new novel, as yet unnamed. I thought about it and pictured it and made up all my cast lists and notes and all the crap I collect when I'm working on a book.
Then last night, I got to being indecisive again. I pulled up some old notes that I put together over a year ago, while I was still writing Justice. And I started working on a totally different novel. This one focuses on three protagonists who get sort of thrown together.
I'm determined to make this one stick...but like I said, being indecisive is something I do very well. So what is my next book about?
It's either a dramatic tale about class structure, friendship and societal oppression...or, it's a story about material value and money, and how it controls us.
Heady stuff, I know. It probably sounds like I'm about to go way out there with my next book, no matter which decision I make, but you can be sure you'll still find some mystery, romance and twists no matter what I end up writing next -- even if I scrap both projects and go back to my list of ideas.
In the meantime, I'm also working on a freelance article for a colleague's blog. She saw the post I wrote last week when I re-capped all the things I did in 2012. I wrote in the post that I lost 50 pounds over the year, and she was interested. So I'm writing an in-depth piece about my experience with that. The working title is "The Day I Realized I'm Fat." I took some pictures and wrote a really long first draft, and I'm really excited about the piece. I'll add links to the blog once it's published, for anyone who wants to read about what I learned and how I plan to stay thin.
It was harder to write than I expected, because I found myself being indecisive again. I didn't know how to approach it or where to start, so I finally made up my mind to just tell the story from beginning to end. This explains the title, because I start the article with the exact day I realized I was fat and had to lose weight.
Indie Author Month
I'm also happy to announce that I'll be participating in Indie Author Month at Aside From Writing, one of my favorite blogs, again this year. I'm doing a double feature that will highlight one of my books (maybe one of the two I'm being indecisive about) and an interview with me. Friend of the blog and author Melanie Cusick-Jones will be conducting the interview. I'm very excited about it, because I had a lot of fun doing the event last year. Some of my Writing 101 posts are featured at Aside From Writing, so add it to your readers! I'll post a bunch of links once Indie Author Month kicks off, so be on the lookout for that.
Until then, I'll be waffling between ideas and storylines...just being indecisive.
Friday, January 11, 2013
Mommie Dearest was the very first book of its kind, and since it was printed it's been highly debated, studied, quoted and called into question. Depending on where you stand in the argument, it's either the very first non-fiction Book on Film I've featured...or it's not.
No one knows for certain whether or not the events depicted in Mommie Dearest are true in entirety, embellished for dramatic effect, or fabricated in whole. One person who would know is dead, and has been since before the story was released. The other person swears it's true...but then she would, because she authored it.
Mommie Dearest was the very first tell-all book written by someone close to a celebrity, and relationships don't get closer than this. It was penned by Christina Crawford, daughter to the mega-star Joan Crawford. She was on Hollywood's A-list before it had an A-list, married into its most famous family, and ruled the screen for so long they were still making movies about her after she died. But after you read this book, you might want to add one more item to Joan's resume: abusive mother.
Published shortly after Joan's death in 1978, the book details the day-to-day life of Christina, eldest child to Joan. She, like her brothers and sisters, was adopted by the actress in the 1930s and 40s. At this time, Joan was in the bloom of her lucrative movie career. She was a star's star, and so well-to-do she managed to adopt several children despite being a single woman in a very conservative world.
One scene depicts a tense dinner between mother and daughter. Christina refuses to eat meat that is too undercooked. Joan rages and screams at her, and makes her sit at the table for many, many hours. Another shows Joan returning from a disappointing meeting with her movie studio, and hacking her own garden to pieces with a set of shears in the middle of the night.
The book talks as much about Joan as it does about Christina's own feelings. An extensive beauty routine is detailed, where Joan dips her face in steaming water, then alcohol, then a bowl of ice cubes. A parade of men dance through Joan and Christina's lives, but none can tolerate the volatile star. The book makes it clear that Joan suffers with OCD-like tendencies, going over-the-top in all manners of cleaning and household-running.
The most famous scene of all, undoubtedly, involves the way Christina keeps her closet. Joan finds a wire hanger in the closet in the middle of the night and shouts down the house, screaming "no more wire hangers!" at Christina and raging like a madwoman.
Needless to say, the brutal portrayal of this much-loved star was incredibly shocking to readers and Crawford fans. But even on its own merits (or lack thereof), the book has drawn criticism. Many reviewers find it poorly written and very poorly edited, though others enjoy the "easy to understand" and "simple" prose style.
The content of the book has also been called into question time and again. Many of Joan's close friends, and at least one ex-husband, came forward to speak out against the book after it was published. Two of Joan's children, a pair of twins who were the youngest, also said they did not witness any abuse in the household. Some critics say that Christina's own actions are proof that she embellished these tales of torture by turning her own words against her.
By her own admission, Christina Crawford continued to spend time with Joan well after she turned eighteen, got finished with her schooling and began her own acting career. At the reading of Joan's will, Christina and her brother Christopher did not inherit. The will stated that the reasons were "known to them." Some suggest that Joan learned Christina was writing her book, and this is why she cut her off. Others point to this and say this is the reason Christina wrote the book in the first place -- she wanted to spite Joan for disinheriting her. To this day, Christina Crawford stands by her words.
The book was a sensation, but never a long-lasting hit or a must-read. It did spawn a movie that has become a can't-miss flick, however, and it really is one you can't miss.
The film version of Mommie Dearest was made as soon as possible. A story like this is too good to resist, and it involved one of Hollywood's elite. No way was it going to be ignored. So Faye Dunaway was cast as Crawford. Two actresses you aren't likely to recognize played Christina, a child and adult version.
Like the book, it received a lot of mixed reviews. Dunaway's performance has been both acclaimed and highly criticized, and the film won a really jaw-dropping number of Razzie awards. She screeches and rages through the entirety of the movie, and the editing leaves very few coherent or sympathetic moments -- but then, Christina's book didn't give filmmakers much to work with in that regard.
Crawford is still an alcoholic on film, and remains verbally and physically abusive to Christina. In one memorable scene, she strangles the girl in the presence of a magazine reporter. Even after Christina has grown older and won herself a role on a soap opera, Joan remains a constant presence in her life. When Christina becomes ill and cannot perform on the show, Joan even filled in for her -- something which absolutely happened, by the way. But Christina is ultimately fired, and there's an inference that she blames Joan for this, too.
The film ends much as the book does, with Christina learning that she won't inherit any part of Joan Crawford's estate. The lawyer says something to the effect of "well you know Joan. She always had to have the last word."
Christina intones "we'll see" darkly and stares at the camera. It's a clear message: she's going to be the one with the last word this time. And the movie exists, so clearly it was a plan forthrightly followed. But taking an arguably badly written tell-all and turning it into a feature film depicting a Hollywood legend...this is tricky stuff. Some things were altered for the sake of simplicity, so you really have to read the book to find out what you've missed.
What Got Adapted?
In reality, Joan Crawford raised four children. She adopted five. Crawford originally adopted a little boy and named him Christopher, but his natural parent re-claimed him so she got herself another little boy and he became the Christopher Crawford who was Christina's oldest sibling. Joan also raised a pair of twin girls who were never referenced in the film, truly an oversight.
And, disappointingly, the wire hanger scene is changed around. Joan did go on a wire hanger rant in the book, but the night she raged at Christina over the bathroom floor with cleaning powder in her hand was a separate incident. On film, the two are shoved together into a long, traumatic rant. Faye Dunaway, by the way, is wearing cold cream on her face throughout the scene.
The scene where Joan squares off against the Board of Directors at Pepsi Cola did not appear in the book at all, as much of the book focuses on Christina, and Joan, and no one else.
The MGM scene is riddled with fiction. In the scene, Crawford is disrespected and practically kicked out of L.B. Mayer's office. This didn't happen. She actually asked to be let out of her contract, but didn't expect Mayer to agree. He did, and she was stuck.
The book doesn't skip so many of Christinia's teen years, and provides a great deal of detail about her innermost thoughts and feelings. Christina has been criticized by many, but she's also gained a lot of fans with her book. Many have praised her for coming forward with her tale.
And in either case, it's an intriguing story. Whether it's all true, part fiction or none of the above, Mommie Dearest is sad, a little bit funny, chilling and all about Joan Crawford. That definitely merits a read, and the film is truly an event. Watch it!
Thursday, January 10, 2013
It already sounds scary, right? Split infinitives -- they're a grammar no-no, but most people have no idea what the heck they are. Some writers wouldn't even know one if it fell right out of their own books. The truth is, most people write with split infinitives. Try to observe this outdated grammar rule, and I can just about guarantee that you'll make yourself crazy.
Splitting Infinitives, and Other Grammar Rules to Ignore
My favorite example of a split infinitive is to boldly go. It's a common phrase, thanks to Captain Kirk, and by strict rules of proper English it's totally wrong. An infinitive is an unmarked form of a verb -- and go is a verb. You split an infinitive when you put an adverb between the verb and its companion to.
Need some examples? Split infinitive look a little something like this:
To quickly walk
To forcefully push
To uncharacteristically yell
Any of these phrases might appear in a sentence that reads well, and sounds correct:
I didn't mean to quickly walk past the library.
You just have to forcefully push it open, that's all.
I wasn't ready for you to uncharacteristically yell at me like that.
Anything wrong with those sentences? Most people would think no, but technically they're all incorrect because they've all got split infinitives. To make them correct, you'd have to re-phrase them:
I didn't mean quickly to walk past the library.
I wasn't ready for you, uncharacteristically, to yell at me like that.
And if you were going to clean up Kirk's dialogue? He'd be saying boldly to go instead...and really, that just doesn't have the same ring to it at all.
Some professional editors despise split infinitives, and in very high-toned academic writing they might be frowned upon. But the fact of the matter is, most writers split their infinitives. Start looking, and you'll find them in everything from blogs to novels to movie scripts. Trying to write without split infinitives can actually make sentences more cumbersome and clumsy, which is exactly what you don't want.
You should always write the way people talk to make your books readable, and most people talk in split infinitives. So forget this grammar rule, and split away. In fiction writing, split infinitives are practically expected.
Wednesday, January 9, 2013
Every English teacher cautions against using run-on sentences. It's the writer's job to totally ignore them. A little extra prose is to be expected in novels, where description reigns and dialogue is meant to sing. But there's always a line that any author can cross. Are your sentences too long...and do you know how to tell?
Novels are supposed to be descriptive. You are supposed to literally paint a picture, only with keystrokes instead of brush strokes. It's not always easy to find the right words to use to describe events, places and people. It's even harder to put those words into the proper structure, and long sentences are a perfect example.
She looked out over a horizon painted in shades of red and gold, an endless sea of color in hues of danger, a warning that she was running out of time and the bandits were drawing closer and closer.
That sentence is pretty descriptive. It's also too darned long. Many authors struggle with finding a cutoff point, myself included, because they're trying to be descriptive. Basically, the sentence above describes a woman standing and looking at the sky. It only describes this one action, so it seems logical that the sentence should continue until the action is complete.
But it's not. Even if you're describing a single action, you have to break your sentences up into reasonable chunks. Look closely at your long sentences, and you'll find the cutoff points. You can find them in the example above, too:
She looked out over a horizon painted in shades of red and gold. It was an endless sea of color in hues of danger, a warning that she was running out of time. The bandits were drawing closer and closer.
Drop in a period, re-word a few things, and you can create cutoff points in all your too-long sentences. According to the strict rules of proper English, sentences are supposed to contain one subject and one predicate. The predicate is the action. By this rule, She looked is a proper sentence. In some cases, that can actually work as a whole sentence:
Missy pointed at the sky, screaming "look!"
But you couldn't write a whole book this way -- not a very pretty one, anyway. Many authors tend to write in compound sentences, which may contain multiple subjects and corresponding actions.
She looked where Missy was pointing, and felt a ripple of shock when she saw the clouds above their heads.
In the above, the subject is looking and feeling, and Missy is pointing -- all sorts of mess is going on. The sentence is a bit long, but not excessively so. It's pretty normal, as far as sentences in novels go. The first and last halves of the sentence could each be a single sentence:
She looked where Missy was pointing. She felt a ripple of shock when she saw the clouds above their heads.
But the very last part of the sentence, when she saw the clouds above their heads, cannot be a sentence on its own. If you wanted to break things up differently, you could use this fragment to begin the next sentence in the story:
When she saw the clouds above their heads, she knew nothing would ever be the same.
How Long is Too Long?
So, you know how to find cutoffs. How do you know when you need them? Just how long is too long when it comes to long sentences?
Seventeen words. No, that's a joke. There's no exact formula for sentence length, because everyone writes differently and some words feel a lot longer than others. A sentence is too long when it becomes clumsy. Every author writes with a natural rhythm of words. Some break this rhythm on purpose, jarring readers with a short sentence or an exclamation every now and then. Wow! Some slow it down by writing longer sentences, but once it starts feeling unnatural and becomes too much to digest it's just too long.
When is a sentence too long? When it's asking readers to absorb too much information at once:
She walked forward with murder on her mind, the leather strap wrapped around her right hand as if in preparation for the the dark deed ahead, her long skirts brushing the ground as she moved down the wall-worn path that was known to be used by the Evil Ones.
There's a ton of information in the above. I'm meeting a murdering female, I'm finding out about her weapon, I'm being given a setting and I'm even getting introduced to the bad guys. There's even some data on her wardrobe hidden in there somewhere. That's too much stuff happening in a single sentence. My mind can't absorb all of that at once. Now I have to go back and re-read, and now the flow of the story has been interrupted. If this keeps happening and my flow keeps getting interrupted, I might get frustrated and stop reading altogether.
Read your sentences. They're too long when you start to get bored with them, or get confused yourself and have to read them twice. If you're struggling with a sentence and you're the author, just think how the readers will feel.
Tuesday, January 8, 2013
It's one of the easiest pieces of advice in the world to tell an author to read great books. Want to learn how to be a better writer? Read great books! Read authors in your genre, read the bestsellers, read, read, read. I'm not going to tell you to do that. I want you to do something else. I want you to seek out bad writing. You need it. You just might not know it.
Bad Writing is Good
Have you ever come across a really old piece of your own writing? Exactly how long did you stare at it in bug-eyed horror before you quickly thrust it away from yourself and make an attempt to disassociate?
Mozart was a musical prodigy; he composed "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" at age 5. Bobby Fischer was a chess prodigy; he competed in the Game of the Century at age 13. As far as I've ever known, there are no writing prodigies. Nobody sits down at age 11 and writes an epic novel that becomes an instant hit -- not even the likes of Mark Twain. Many authors, even the most well-known, received many rejections before getting themselves into a position to be known to you. So chances are pretty good that your earliest writing is fairly horrible in some area or another. My early writing is weak on spelling, grammar, punctuation, plot, character creation, character development...you get the point.
I want you to make an effort to read your own bad writing, and read it more than once. Reading good writing will make you a better writer. Reading bad writing can help make you great. I've learned a whole lot more from reading indie books to review than I ever did catching the odd copy error in my collection of James Patterson. I started thinking about that recently, and wondering about it.
Spotting mistakes in other people's bad writing, and in your own old bad writing, puts you in the right frame of mind to find your own. It's not always easy to be objective when you're editing that book you just worked on for the last 6 months. The project is still new and fresh, and you've got all sorts of feelings wrapped up in it. It's much easier to be objective when you stumble across your own terrible writing from years and years ago, projects you've long since discarded and stopped loving. That's when you're grimacing at your mistakes, and groaning out loud at your poor structure. But you might also see some stuff you're still doing the wrong way. You might notice your own bad patterns. And you might go back to that new project that you're romanticizing, and see it with brand-new eyes.
And all of that is going to help make you a whole lot better. So, go. Look for bad writing, and look for errors. Then go back to your current projects, and keep all those mistakes in mind while you're getting swept up in the story. You need bad writing to make yours better. Keep reading -- but don't be so quick to put the bad stuff down next time.