Sunday, March 31, 2013

Write Club: What Not to Write

Hey y'all.  Some time ago I made some notes about what a writer shouldn't do when they write.  And now I found the paper again when I was organizing my bookshelves.  So why not share it?

There are certain things a writer shouldn't do.  Either the consequences can be on themselves, their readers, or both.  Writing and reading communication with the innermost parts of the authors' souls, and they show themselves in ways they didn't realize.  My english teacher said that what you write hides you from the world, and she says she can write something without someone knowing she is southern or a woman.  I disagree.  While no one who reads what you write will know what you look like without seeing your picture on the back cover, they will see your soul.  And which is deeper, your skin or your soul?

My english teacher's soul is not particularly southern, but I've noticed that women writers tend to make themselves obvious (to intuitives, anyway), and it is possible to guess the gender of a writer even if they don't mention it.  The more you understand the souls of people, the more you can intuit about a writer from their book.  Sometimes even unintuitive people can guess, especially if they are social and know how people act.

That being said, here's number one of what writers shouldn't do.

1. Don't emphasize your superior (or "superior") knowledge/vocabulary/ideology.

Arrogant people are nobody's favorite, especially when the arrogant person lifts themselves up at the expense of the reader.  They know when you're making fun of them, or contradicting their beliefs.  You're not fooling anyone when you write a children's story with "disguised" vegetarianism and yoga-type mysticism.  You're not impressing anyone when you spasmodically obfuscate facile lexeme.  It's very nice that you know how steamboats work, Mr. Twain, but that doesn't mean you need to have three pages worth of a kid pretending to be an audibly accurate steamboat as he goes along.  Seriously, that totally could have been cut out of Tom Sawyer.  I skip it every time.

Look, nobody likes to feel inferior.  This is the main reason why the top most annoying character on my last Top Ten Top Ten list is not a character that did the most horrible things to other characters, but the dog that broke the fourth wall and laughed directly at the player.  We don't want to feel bad for eating meat or not studying latin in college.  Showing yourself off makes everyone bored and annoyed.  Don't do it.  And if you feel you're saying the same thing over and over again but using increasingly complex words to cover your tracks, then you may need to rethink your chapter.

Oh wait, there's another thing I probably should have listed first that writers should never, ever do.

2.  Not write.

Let no one lie to you.  Writing is work.  It doesn't involve heavy lifting or dangerous machinery, but it involves a mind that has to be trained to obey and give inspiration when you want to go forward.  Now, there are times when the writer has to take a break, but if you get to the point where you go "should I write today?  Nah..." just about every day, then you need to force yourself to put out at least ten minutes of something, or else your "writing muscles" will get out of practice.  And you'll find yourself departing from a world you thought you loved so much.

3.  Don't make all characters alike.

This is something that earlier writers tend to do.  It's almost like a stage writers go through (much like the "I must use the fanciest words possible" stage) on their way to experience.  It's sad, though, because sometimes it happens even to experienced writers when they don't pay attention.

What I mean by "all the same" is when all of your characters begin thinking the same way.  In real life, people are diverse.  Some people like a life full of reverential ceremony, and others want to be wild and fun.  Some think people who don't like chocolate are evil, and others would rather eat a stalk of celery than a candy bar.  Even two people who believe in similar things, like say God, honor God in different ways.  Two people that are in the same political party have different opinions on specific issues.

One mild offender I've noticed is the Girl Genius online comics.  It's an interesting comic, but many of the characters are starting to think way too similarly.  They monologue to themselves a lot, discussing the things that are logical and illogical in their circumstances when not all people go over their circumstances that clearly.  This is fine for many of the mad scientists in the comic, but it's getting tired, especially since now many of the main characters are very tough and hard to kill, removing the story a little further from believability.

That, however, is the complex form of this problem.  The simpler form is what happens to the noobs: all of their good characters have similar characteristics to the author, and the only characters that disagree with the author's opinions are bad guys.  Your readers aren't fooled.  If all of your good guy characters believe that the death penalty is wrong, your readers will know that this is your opinion, and they'll be taken out of the story because they're thinking of you rather than your story.

4.  Don't adjust your character just to make them do something they wouldn't normally.

Pretty much every writer is guilty of this to some extent, if only in their beginning days.  But the fact of the matter is that every character is a person, each with his own personality that codes out the things he will do, the things he might do, the things he would hardly ever do, and the things you couldn't pay him a million dollars to do.  Sometimes, however, the story might require that he be put into a situation where he's doing something he doesn't want to.  It's really obvious and cheap when the writer simply takes the character and has him do something he won't just to make things simple to lead into the next chapter.

How then, do you get your character to do something he won't?
- Make him go through life experiences that change his attitude.
- Have other characters force him with a threat or kidnapping.
- Make him realize his morals are less strong (or more strong) than he thinks they are.
- Make him a hypocrite.
- Change your plot so that he doesn't have to do the thing he doesn't want.

Does it take more work to do any of these things?  Yes.  But there are corners that can't be cut, and readers whose suspension of disbelief only goes so far.  Avoid cheap moves whenever possible.  And if you have to risk interfering with suspension of disbelief, don't do it here.  Weird circumstances go over far better most of the time than inconsistent characters.

5. Avoid making everything turn out too good.

Don't get me wrong; I'm a cotton candy, puppies, marshmallows, and angel kittens sort of person.  I like happy endings.  However, when everything gets wrapped up nicely with a shiny bow and you're not writing a little kid's story, readers raise an eyebrow.  There needs to be a little pain in every victory, even if the pain is simply your character learning a lesson, or the loss of a character by death or moving away, or even perhaps a physical injury.  Or maybe the happy life they thought they had at the beginning wasn't really that great, and this justifies the happy ending.  Just make sure your plot doesn't erase everything that happened during the book and reduce everything to what it was at the very beginning.  Characters grow and change, and if they're the same as they were at first, then why did your story bother happening at all?

6. Don't reduce females to "the 21st century woman" or "21st century girl".

I don't care that much about fashion.  Celebrities mean nothing to me.  I couldn't give a flying rat crap about keeping up with trends.  I'm not out for revenge on anyone with a Y chromosome, nor am I obsessed with catching one of my very own.  Now, writers, why in the world would you think I'd want to read about someone like that?  I'm in college, modest, and my favorite book is The Gulag Archipelago.  Do you really think I want to listen to some chick discuss politics when it's pretty clear she doesn't read anything more difficult than the daily newspaper or think about things from any perspective other than her own?

Movies do this more often than books, but the point still stands.  I'm very bored with the current state of female characters who are more loud than they are intelligent.  Surprisingly, I give men half a pass on this one.  The reason for this is that when men write women, they may be slutty, but at least they have guns.  And females with guns is women's empowerment.  When men write women into action movies, they are creating fantasy women in the exact same sense that women write male heroes in romance novels.  Granted, it's equally stupid, but at least it's equal.  All we need is a movie with men from romance novels and women from action movies, and we might have an interesting story.  Or something to laugh at.

No, it's usually the female writers that give women the most trouble, for some reason.  They seem to think that feminist characters are interesting, when really they're just tiresome and female chauvinist.  Many of these women realize they have the "freedom" to act trashy, and yet somehow believe that they're still feminists even though acting trashy is giving men exactly what they want without the woman getting anything in return.  Think about it.  Women desire deep relationships.  Men want sex.  Sex is easier to have of the two, so the woman has to be morally stronger simply to get her side of the bargain.  Come on, women writers, I thought we were on the same side here.

What's worse is that children's ("children's") books do the same thing.  Dork Diaries was so terrible I just couldn't read it very long: the main character, Nikki, goes on about groupies, getting a cell phone, and calls people "skanks".  One, those are all things dorks and outsiders don't do.  Two, all of those things are so shallow and worthless that I don't want to know anything more about Nikki.  She's such a non-dork brat that it's an insult to my genuine nerdiness.  Not to mention it perpetuates the dumbest of female stereotypes.

Granted, in literature a wide variety of personality types are all acceptable -- if there is a variety.  Nowadays most of the Hollywood chicks are so dang similar looking I can't tell them apart.  In the future, I would like some females who aren't shallow, realize the consequences of their actions, and aren't afraid of not being exactly what the media wants them to be.  Please don't make your female protagonist a victim of her century, a zombie to the labels and pop philosophy of the day.

7. Avoid creating a story without life.

This is a more subjective territory.  What I basically mean is, don't write stuff that is going to make your readers feel dead on the inside.  James Brown believed that his audience wanted to see on stage not someone who echoes their sad lives, but someone who was having the time of their life.  I follow this philosophy.  Now, there's always a time and a place for a sad story, but how do you really want your readers to feel when they read your stuff?   Do you want them to hate and fear life?  Does it really help things or make the world at all better when you're writing the kind of thing that makes life seem shallow?

Tragedy has its place, but so does happiness.  Just remember that the power of life and death are in words, and even if you don't believe this, other people do.  Don't be that person that sways someone to depression. Even in sad stories, all it takes is a small theme to show that life is worth living.  After all, if it weren't, then death would be a good thing and your tragedy would be a failure.

8. Don't WRITE, just write.

I've noticed that a lot of amateur writers forget that they're using voice.  I've seen them give very exciting, interesting descriptions of what they're writing, but as soon as I go and pick up the story, I wonder what in the world they were so excited about.  Their stories are dry as dust, with boring description.  The irony here is that the writer in question wrote a beautiful, wonderful story description when they were explaining their plot, so obviously their talent exists.  It's just not reaching their story.

That's because when they are putting something down on paper or typing it on a screen, they're WRITING. They're not laying out something near and dear to their hearts, but rather putting down something with which they intend to impress everyone else and prove once and for all that they are the magnificent writers they think they are.  It's the exact same thing as when you see an actor trying way too hard in his role.  The authors feel that they have to be super formal and follow dignified patterns when writing, and so their stories suck, but when they are not WRITING and merely just describing things to you, they suddenly have the freedom to be interesting.

Thing is, descriptive narrative needs to be spoken as if by a narrator, with all the natural flows of someone talking or explaining.  It doesn't have to be informal, just natural.  It doesn't always help someone to tell them to write how they talk (some folk talk so informally it's hard to take their narrative seriously), but when you start feeling like you're an archaeologist laying out the details of an ancient tomb for future generations, you may want to ask yourself if what you're writing sounds cool when you read it out loud.

9.  Don't let the characters figure things out too quickly, and don't make them ponder too long.

The Sword of Shannara series sucks.  Seriously, don't read it.  It's extremely forgettable.  Now, it had a decent beginning, but the more I read into it, the more I realized that the characters in it spent about 80% of the book pondering over decisions rather than taking any decisive action.  They would go on and on in their own thoughts, judging the consequences of this decision and the consequences of that.  And it was super boring.

Now, there are meditative books out there, but even they realize that stuff has to happen every so often so that the meditative character has something to think about.  Most books aren't meditative, however, and fantasy books usually know better than to do this.  Make sure the meat of the story doesn't take place entirely in the protagonist's head, okay?  When you do that, it makes you look self-absorbed, because most of the time our main characters are based on ourselves in some form.

On the other hand of this is having characters move too quickly ahead.  Now in many stories, readers will be slightly ahead of your protagonist, and you may be tempted to simply have your protagonist get suddenly understand something so that your reader doesn't get annoyed with him.  However, drama comes from readers knowing something characters don't (as long as it isn't something insanely obvious, and even that isn't a concrete rule), and when your characters figure things out too quickly it drains the tension of the scene.

In other words, don't cause a problem and have the character figure it out in the next chapter, and then give them a new problem to solve which they figure out just as quickly.  Give them one problem, and as they're about to figure that out, problem number 2 comes along and messes it all up.  Remember that you're a lion tamer, and if the lions don't look ferocious, the circus-goers will want their money back.  So to speak.

That's what I had on my list for now.  I hope some of this helped you, or at the very least entertained you.

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