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Craft

Since the beginning of my obsession with writing, I have sought the secrets of the great writers, those rare people who managed to give me real nightmares, who haunted me so effectively. I never cease to be awed when I find myself genuinely disturbed by a book. (This is unfortunately a rarer experience as I get older. Horror is like drugs, or hot chillies: the more you consume, the more you’ll ultimately need to get you to the same place.) How was it, I always asked myself, scrutinizing paragraph after paragraph, that this person could evoke such a primal reaction in me, an emotion so powerful it can save your life or kill you – with nothing more than words on paper?

The most recent idea I’ve come across, and one I’ve used time and again to my delight, like a child with a new toy, I learned from one of my favourite books on the subject: Sol Stein’s Stein On Writing. Among countless useful lessons in the book is this gem (not a quote): Your goal is not to describe emotions, it is to evoke them in the reader.

Duh, right? It’s a deceptively simple thought, and it seems completely self-evident – and it should be, too, since every aspiring writer has heard the phrase ‘show, don’t tell’ more times than they can count.

And yet it is so easy to make the mistake. I made it, many times, and though I try hard to catch myself before my work gets out, I still make it now and then. You can find examples of this error in just about any amateur work. The tell tale signs are descriptions of madly beating hearts, characters turning pale and getting dry mouths, cold sweats and the all time favourite goose bumps.

Of course, your character may well experience all of these things, and maybe for the benefit of sympathy or characterization it could be worth detailing whichever symptoms may be present… But the writer would do well to remember that describing fear does not create fear. Telling you that the main character is terrified does not, by extension, make you terrified – and that goes for all the emotions, by the way. I can’t make you feel happiness by describing the main character grinning and dancing in the sun, either. If emotions were that easy to manipulate there’d be no need for psychiatrists.

So what is a struggling author to do?

The simple answer is: whatever works. Think about the books that terrified you when you read them. Find the specific scenes. I think you’ll find that in almost every case the thing you found so scary had nothing to do with the emotions that the characters involved felt, but a number of other things.

Here’s a fun game: next time you write a scene or a short story you wish to terrify someone with, forbid yourself to describe the symptoms of fear in your characters. No screaming, no clammy hands, no shaking knees. Go one further – make it so your main character doesn’t even have a reason (from his/her point of view, at least) to be afraid at all.

The reason this works so well is that now as a writer you can’t cheat emotions by describing them – by telling. Now you have to try to create the emotions in the reader, and in doing so you will realise that all those other things are not only not necessary, they can even get in the way of the desired effect.

Recall one of my most beloved scenes in horror: The final showdown in Silence of the Lambs. Jodie Foster is in Buffalo Bill’s pitch black basement, her gun out and ready, searching for him. We see most of it through Bill’s night vision goggles as he darts in and out, a pale hand occasionally reaching out and stopping just short of touching her.

She is surely terrified, but she isn’t cowering in the corner, shaking, and that isn’t the point of the scene anyway – it isn’t what makes us cringe on the edge of our seats. What gets to us is what she can’t see – that he’s right there with her, close and dangerous.

Another example can be found in Coraline, a famously creepy story and one of my favourites. Coraline herself is rarely scared and in fact is quite brave, yet we as the readers have spiders running up and down our necks throughout. Coraline doesn’t bat an eye at half of the insanely creepy shit in the beginning that raises warning flags in the reader, and because she is so sympathetic we fear for her and put ourselves in her shoes. Coraline is brave; we are not.

The beauty of this idea is that it applies to every emotion, not just fear. If you describe character A in love with character B, you are not making the reader feel love for character B, you are making them sympathise with character A. If it was love you wanted to inspire, you should have made B a lovable character. If you want to make the reader laugh, describe a funny situation, and remember that the characters involved do not have to be rolling around in fits for the scene to work, and in fact some of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read were not funny at all to the people involved.

So, next time you sit down to write, ask not how to describe emotions in the characters, but how to create them in the readers.

 

Tell the truth. I read this advice from so many authors, and I never understood it. I mean, the truth about what, exactly – isn’t fiction essentially a lie? For a long time, I thought it was meant the same way as write what you know, which I also had difficulty understanding. What if you wrote fantasy? I was sure it was very important and potentially useful advice, but I couldn’t get a handle on what it meant, and therefore had no idea how to apply it to my writing.

In fact, truth can actually damage your writing, as I discovered on several occasions. The heart of the problem is that fiction isn’t meant to be realistic. I mean, it is, but it isn’t. Dialogue is the clearest example I can think of. When you speak in real life, your sentences are full of ums and ahs and interjections and tangents. Not so in a good book – unless the author is using it for a particular character to make them seem nervous or uncertain. If you read a book with ‘realistic’ dialogue, you would get irritated.

Characters pose another issue. The world is full of people who would not make good characters in a story. Not everyone is willing to take action to change themselves or get the things they want. The real world is, I hate to say it, full of boring, timid, or otherwise unheroic people. It would be realistic to include one or two such characters in your book, but honestly, why the hell would anyone want to read about that?

In light of these unfortunate facts, for a long time I set truth in fiction aside as something to be treated warily. The writers I admired were obviously referring to some other definition of truth that I had yet to discover.

At last, my friends, I know. I get it. And it’s all thanks to a single quote from our good friend Ernest Hemingway, and lots of deep thought. I can tell you what writers mean when they say ‘tell the truth’ and I’m happy to report that it isn’t the airy fairy directive I once thought it was. I used to put that advice in the same category I put things like: ‘Let the muse take over,’ and ‘Sit back and let your characters tell the story.’ Romantic ideas, but not useful to someone like me, who needs nuts and bolts and concrete examples. No, as it turns out, truth is something you can actually use to write better.

So here’s the Hemingway quote: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” Straight forward enough, but still useless. Go ahead, try it, write a true sentence. Oranges are orange. I love bacon. Doesn’t give you a riveting story, does it? So what’s the deal, Ernest? Why so vague?

Here’s what I worked out. When he says one true sentence, what he means is think of a meaningful statement about life, something important to you, that you truly believe. Keep in mind that part of the uniqueness of your story will come from this – the fact that it’s the truth as you see it, not as you think others see it.

Here are some of my own True Sentences:

  • Some stones are better left unturned.
  • If you don’t overcome fear, the consequences are ultimately worse.
  • The war between good and evil is often internal

So think of one of your own, and write it down. Something you believe is true about life, an important statement you would want to pass on to your children, perhaps.

Now delete it.

Why do we delete the true sentence? Because to write it would be telling, and we are writers, so we must show. Now your whole story, whatever it may be, is about this sentence. Sure you’ve got action, love, death, etc. happening, but ultimately the point of your story is to explain to the reader your sentence. You are demonstrating why your truth is true.

So why bother? Why can’t you just write an awesome nuts space cowboy epic with heads exploding and monsters and other awesome stuff without any underlying deep truth? Well, you can, and it might even sell, but it will seem meaningless and shallow. That’s cool too, I mean look at Matthew Reilly and Clive Cussler. Those guys are the Michael Bays of the book world. They provide action and adventure, badass heroes, and lots of explosions. Nothing wrong with that for some light reading.

But make no mistake: it is what it is, and nothing more. And what it is, is a sequence of crazy and meaningless events. That’s it. The characters move from one plot point to the other, and a bunch of insane stuff happens, and it’s entertaining on a basic level, and then you finish the book and forget it within a day. It leaves no imprint on you, and you don’t think of the characters, events or anything else about it ever again. In my opinion? Better off watching Transformers. At least that has cool special effects.

It’s not just for the reader, though. Having a true sentence helps you as the writer because it gives you direction when you are lost. If you are floundering in a sea of plot lines and characters and don’t know what to do next, now you can ask yourself a simple question: What event or action will help me get across my true sentence without actually saying it? There’s no guarantee you’ll write a good story, of course, but even if you write a bad one, at least it will mean something. At least it will be true.

Go ahead and mess around with cool scenes and crazy characters; make your stories as zany and hilarious as you want…

Just make sure you tell the truth.

They tell you to write every day, no matter what. They tell you to revise endlessly, to omit needless words and to trim your work down; correct your grammar, close your plot holes. What they are actually telling you is that much of what you write will be total trash.

It’s just mathematics. A certain (large) percentage of what you create is junk. No one sits down and just churns out reams of gold plated words. If anything, the greater quantity of words you produce on a daily basis, the percentage of bad writing rises until, like someone in a Mills and Boon Romance Factory, you’re frantically slamming out a novel per week which consists of one hundred percent shit.

Here’s the thing: up to a point, it’s not only okay to write badly, it’s necessary, and next time you sit down to write you’d do well to remember that. If, that is, you are in the habit of editing more than once or twice. If not, then you’re better off writing no more than one or two hundred words a day and making sure they’re exactly the right ones in the right places, but minimal editing is generally a bad idea; there are some things you just don’t see in first draft.

Even the top writers at the top of their game occasionally drop something so bad it makes their own fans shake their heads in wonderment. What the hell was he thinking? I’ll tell you what – he’s reading the same book you are and shaking his head for the same reasons. He’s muttering to himself: ‘Damn, what the hell was I thinking?’

For example: ‘I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit.’ That’s a hell of a percentage. Whoever said that has to write ninety two books before they have a decent one, or revise the same book ninety two times. Who said that, you wonder, Stephanie Meyer? Nope, Hemingway.

So accept that you will write badly, and often, if you’re a beginner. In fact, I have a suspicion that I may be writing badly this very moment. That’s alright though, because I plan to edit this a few times. But the point of the post is to explain why this truth is a blessing in disguise, and that you should stop beating yourself up about it and in fact acknowledge it as a necessary part of the process.

Here are all the ways writing badly has helped me.

Lately I’ve been making a lot of false starts. I don’t like false starts. Once I’ve begun, that should be it, goddammit. There is nothing more irritating than writing five thousand words of what will probably be a seven thousand word short story and then realising that it sucks so bad you have to start again. But it happens to me all the time, and it will continue to happen. As much as I dislike it, however, I need to do it. Why? Because false starts help.

To toot my own horn, one of my recent stories, Fear, went down extremely well with my beta readers. One said it was the best thing I’d ever written, and another said it was the scariest (same thing). I was happy with it too, especially since it took me three and a half false starts before I got going. The first one, I wrote four thousand words before I deleted everything. The half is because the fourth time I did that, I just changed the title (it was originally called Pool. I know, right? Three rewrites and the very first word still sucks.)

But here’s the kicker: important things happened during those rewrites. In the first one, one of the characters tells some freaky stories in detail to the protagonist. The existence of those stories was necessary, but the thousand words detailing them was not. In the end, I allude to the stories only in a couple of vague sentences, and the effect was much stronger. In the second rewrite, I found myself overly describing both characters: who they were, what they looked like, etc. In the final draft, I don’t spend that much time on their daily lives, thoughts or appearances. But I needed that failed draft, because I had to know those things. Each time I got a better picture of what was going on, what I needed to say and what I could leave out, and when I finally got going, a lot of it was fixed in my mind.

There are many things that require a restart: you’re writing from the wrong point of view, you’ve started in the wrong place or time, your characters are badly thought out, etc. The trick about writing badly is a simple but difficult rule: know when to fold ‘em, folks. Sometimes I write a story which I think is great, and after I’ve sent it to everyone I know I start to get a sour feeling in my stomach, and a week later, even if no one’s said a word, I know it was bad. Other times, I think it’s awful initially, and everyone raves about it. If you can catch the rotten things before they escape into the world, you’re doing well.

Extensive editing is one way to do this, but it doesn’t always work. I do find, though, that I’m more likely to be so disgusted by something I’ve done during the editing phase that I won’t let it see the light of day, and that’s probably for the good. Once I wrote a six thousand word short story, spent a week thinking about it, and then deleted the whole thing without so much as a second glance. To return to the poker analogy, it’s like learning not to cling to your flush draw when all the signs are telling you to fold and cut your losses. And like I said, even the pros get it wrong now and again – didn’t Stephen King throw the first fifty pages of his breakout novel Carrie in the bin?

The best way I’ve found to make the decision to cut your losses is to get out of it with something good. Look hard at the bad things you write, and ask yourself ‘what did I do right?’ Then when you start the rewrite, you’ll be able to home in on that one thing and bring it to the foreground.

You must accept your propensity to spill offal onto a page. This will eliminate the fear of daily writing. When I used to be more erratic, I would excuse myself from writing on a given day because I was tired, or sick, or at a loss for ideas, knowing that whatever I created would probably be sub-par. Once I accepted that sub-par was going to happen and I could always improve it later, I was able to write day in, day out, just like the pros. The fear of failure was gone, and ultimately, I’ve had a lot of good days at the keyboard which I thought were going to be terrible.

Failure in general, while unpleasant, is a learning curve, just as natural as a child skinning his knees learning to ride a bike. It stings like hell, but if you don’t fall you won’t get anywhere. The real crime is not learning.

Finally, we have my favourite mining analogy. If you mine for gold, you must excavate large quantities of worthless mud. It would be nice if you could just reach down and pick it up off the ground, but the good stuff is buried way down there, and if you have to dig through an acre of putrefied faeces, you will, because it’s worth it. In writing, sometimes you’ll do a scene or have an idea or even make just a sentence, and it will be excellent and at the core of what you wanted – and you will realise that you couldn’t have got there if you hadn’t first written a bunch of other bullshit.

So next time you start something and find you have to delete it over and over, or you’re hesitant to start your daily one thousand, just remember that it is okay for you to do a bad day’s work. Try to catch it before it gets out though, because you should also remember that the same guy who wrote The Old Man and the Sea also wrote The Green Hills of Africa, and the same guy who wrote The Shining also wrote Maximum Overdrive.

I never liked editing. Of all the parts of the writing process, as much as I love the craft, editing always struck me as more of an irritating necessity. For me, it’s all about the first draft, baby. The excitement of watching it all happen in real time, making decisions and immersing yourself in the really good scenes, typing at a hundred words a minute with your heart racing. Rare moments, sure, but it’s the first draft where these golden experiences happen. The way I’ve been looking at it until now, once the first draft is done, your story has been born, lived and died. Editing is nothing but prodding a corpse, conducting the autopsy, dissecting the guts until you’re sick with it, and you just want to sew it up, bury it and try to remember it fondly.

Part of the problem is I never learned any right way to go about it. Like pretty much every other aspect of writing, there are as many different ways to edit as there are people doing it. The general consensus is that you should edit, and extensively, but that’s about as specific as it gets. Stephen King recommends at least four edits: one for surface things like spelling and grammar, one for deeper things like structure and character motivation, one in which you deal with the problems your secondary readers and editors have pointed out, and a polish. I believe Kurt Vonnegut used to pin pages to the bottom of his walls, and move them a length up each time he went over them, until they reached the ceiling. Some other guy (can’t remember who) would rewrite each page of the first draft until he had it exactly the way he wanted it before going on to the next.

I could give you plenty more examples, and it’s a pattern I’m noticing a lot in this business. The writers can all agree that the cat exists, and that the cat needs to be skinned. Beyond that, it’s a shrug of the shoulders. ‘I dunno what the others do, but I do it this way and it works.’

So in the end there’s nothing to do but pick a method and give it your best shot.

I’m writing this post now because I’ve recently changed the way I edit and think about editing, and it has improved my writing far more than I expected. Better yet, I didn’t even mind doing it that much. Hell, at times I even found I was liking it. So now I’m developing my own brand new system. Maybe it’ll give you an idea, maybe not. It’s working for me better than what I did before, anyway.

First I wait. This is also one of the agreed upon rules of writing – you must wait until you can read the story with some objectivity. For me, it works out to around one week per ten thousand words. The longer the work, the more invested I am in it and therefore the more distance I need. So if I write a hundred thousand word novel, I’ll start the second draft after ten weeks.

Here’s where I differ from a lot of other folks, because I don’t look at different aspects of the novel or story separately, like King for example. Instead, being a simple man, I just start reading. I read the way I’d read any other novel, and wait to notice something. It usually doesn’t take long, though. Man, if editing has taught me anything it’s that no matter how carefully you write that first draft, it’s gonna be rough. You could spend an hour on a paragraph, and it’ll still suck when you read it over, and for apparently obvious reasons. Goddamn writing. What a bunch of bullshit. But whatever, I’ll be reading and I’ll notice something. A clunky phrase, a spelling mistake, a word repeated six times in a paragraph for no reason, a character doing something they would never do. There are a million different ways you can screw up, believe me. I’ve written perfect, tight stories that make total sense in the first draft, only to read back over and find plot holes so huge they implode under their own gravity and become wormholes of total despair.

And then I fix it. These days, most problems can be fixed, but it wasn’t always the case. I’ve written solid hundred and twenty thousand word novels which had so much wrong with them that they were beyond hope. Like when your kid breaks a leg. Technically you could fix him up, but it’s just easier to bury him in the back garden and adopt a new one.

Ha, okay that was dark, even for me.

Some problems are hard to fix, and you have to delete and rewrite huge chunks of text. Other things require nothing more than a sentence here or a word there. But whatever it is, I fix it up as best I can and move on, and in this way I work through the story. It’s usually slow going the first time round, but I manage about five to ten pages a day.

When I get to the end, I go back to the beginning and start again. It’s a bit smoother each time. I think of it like tending a garden: at first, it’s messy. The grass is chest high and full of weeds, there are thorns and bushes and trees all over the place half buried in dead leaves, etc. You have to spend the whole first day hacking stuff with a machete just to move around. Each time you work through, though, there’s a bit less to do, the problems smaller and more nit picking than serious issues. If you go over it enough times, you’re left with a beautiful garden.

If you’re a perfectionist, you’ll keep going, and then you run the risk of over editing. Every superfluous word gets cut out, every sentence and paragraph rewritten until you forgot what it was about in the first place. You’re cutting individual blades of grass to uniform size, lining up your roses in straight lines and killing every insect you find. Beware of this obsessive compulsive behaviour or you’ll end up with a concrete slab. Very clean, clear and neat, but no longer interesting.

Readers prefer something too raw, emotional and messy to something too restrained and bare bones. Ideally, though, you won’t be in either extreme but somewhere between the two.

I go over, start to finish, until I can read the whole thing through at about the same speed I read other books. If it takes me an hour to read through ten pages for my second draft, I can usually get through forty or fifty in that time by my fourth. At that stage I can read entire chapters and only stop once or twice to tweak something, which is how I know it’s time to stop.

And that’s all it is. Probably I’ll post on the subject again a year from now overturning everything I think I learned – such is the nature of writing. Just as you’re getting comfortable with how you do everything, you learn something and realise you’ve been doing it wrong all along. Fool, I’ll say, You can’t stop at four drafts, you need at least ten! Or maybe it’ll be, Idiot! You have to read everything out loud as you go!

But until then, this is my method, and it is an improvement on the last method, and in the end that’s all you or I can do – be a bit better than you were yesterday.

Wait, then read until you find a problem, then fix the problem.

Seems kinda obvious in retrospect. Oh well.

Horror

 

I still remember the first time a book scared me. There haven’t been many such instances since – at least not of the same intensity – and I can recall all of them, but that first one was special.

The book was IT, and I was about fifteen years old. I’d read a couple by Stephen King before, and various other horrors, and so far my experience had been that horror in literature was more of a thematic thing: any book that had some gore/zombie/vampires etc. and a dark, sinister setting, was horror. Then I read the scene that made me rethink that approach, as well as adult diapers. If you’ve read it, it was the part when Ben Hanscom sees IT for the first time. It’s a windy day. The clown is standing across the canal and as he approaches, the balloons he holds are blowing against the wind. That’s it. Ben runs away and escapes. No gore, no monsters, nothing but an eerie sighting.

Man, when I read that scene, my heart beat faster, my mouth went dry, and I didn’t sleep that night more than a couple hours. I’d never had such a powerful reaction from a book before, and never had the emotion involved been fear. I was freaked. For weeks after finishing I kept my eye out for errant balloons and winking faces in photographs. To this day I have to look into street drains and gutters as I pass them, and every time I don’t see Pennywise grinning back at me I feel a little relieved.

I’ve felt that way because of movies before, of course, but I’ve always thought that films have an unfair advantage in that particular area. Humans evolved to detect danger via their eyes and ears primarily, and as long as there’s a good director and a good soundtrack, scares are more likely to have an emotional impact. That said, I would argue that, while it’s much harder to do right, books ultimately have a greater potential to scare adults. Once you get jaded to the tricks and shock scares of the movies (which modern releases have been overusing a ridiculous amount), you find yourself rarely feeling anything more than pleasantly entertained. You might think hey, that was a good horror, but you won’t be actually scared. Fiction, on the other hand, has the potential to be a more immersive experience. The best movie I ever watched could not make me care about the characters and story as much the best book I ever read, and I’m convinced this immersion is the key to good horror.

I’m going to use King as another example, although there are other authors (Dan Simmons and Peter Straub come to mind) who do this effectively as well. They lull you into a false sense of security. Hello, welcome to my world, they say, and before you know it you’re involved in the lives of a bunch of people and you forget you’re reading at all. But still, nothing too farfetched happens. You learn about their problems and their dreams and maybe a hint of something sinister here and there…

And then you see a clown grinning at you with balloons blowing the wrong way.

Surprise, the unknown, and death are the three main sources of fear in human beings that I know of. The hard part is balancing it all out in just the right amounts. I’ve found that what separates the good authors from the rest of us is what they leave out as much as what they put in. Mystery is very important in horror, because of the unknown element, and it’s totally okay to leave some things unexplained. Death should be an ever present thought in the readers mind, as well – if you get into the habit of Hollywood endings, it’ll leech fear from the rest of the book.

But all this is speculation about how it’s done, a topic that endlessly fascinates me. I’m still working all that out, and I guess I’ll get back to it in another post. The thing that got me thinking about all this in the first place has more to do with the why of it.

Over the course of my life, the following exchange has been pretty standard.

‘So what do you do?’

‘Well, I work at a bottle store right now but mostly I’m trying to be a writer.’

‘Oh, what kind? Like a journalist?’

‘Not like that, more fiction, you know, an author.’

‘Really? That’s so cool! So what kind of stuff do you write?’

‘Horror, mostly.’

‘Oh.’ At this point they usually recoil slightly, and do a subtle glance around to make sure there’s someone close by. They offer an encouraging smile. ‘I could never, you know, do horror, personally.’

‘Really, why not?’

‘I just get so scared!’

Well, yeah, that’s the point. I don’t really know what to say after that, though, because it actually seems really reasonable for someone to not want to feel fear. I mean, the whole point of fear is a chemical scream that tells you to STOP DOING WHAT YOU’RE DOING RIGHT NOW AND RUN! So if an author really did their job right, the reader would slam the book closed and then sprint down the street, screaming.

Man, what I would give to be able to do that to a reader. Ha.

Anyway, I don’t know exactly what attracts me so much to horror. I have noticed that when I meet people who are into horror, they’re really into it. Kinda like spicy food, or coffee. People don’t tend to do either of those moderately, either. They’re addictive. (And yes, since you ask, I do happen to be insanely addicted to both of those substances. Sometimes I actually pour a bunch of chilli flakes into my morning coffee to give it that extra kick).

That’s it, of course. That feeling of fear is addictive: the adrenaline rush serves to lure you rather than deter you as it was meant, like those masochists among us who learned to anticipate the endorphins that follow pain so much they now enjoy pain, and the marathon runners who chase the ‘runner’s high’ mile after mile. And always, always remembering the last really good kick they got, the last rush.

Yeah, horror’s a drug alright. All the zombies, gore and sex is just a bonus.

Why Read?

 

Reading, at first glance, is not something that should be natural for us. Human beings are hunter gatherers originally, social animals, explorers. We like to do things, to talk and love and play, even running for our lives or fighting gives us an adrenaline rush, something a lot of sports enthusiasts still enjoy. So what compels us, now, to sit for hours on end staring at page after page of tiny symbols on white paper?

Well, the same reason we do anything, really: emotion. Books – good ones at least – make us feel emotions, and that is absolutely the core of their appeal. The bad book is not one that is badly written, or one with an unrealistic premise, or irritating characters, though it may include one or all of these things. No, the bad book is the one which fails to make us feel.

The idea for this post came to me the other day during a conversation with a friend in which I expressed my intense annoyance for all the ‘bad writers’ out there who churn out terrible books and make millions of dollars. Why should these people, I said, who haven’t put in any real effort or time in bettering themselves or learning to write well, be successful, while hundreds of other, better authors remain unknown? But my friend only shook his head. ‘They can’t be bad writers,’ he said. ‘They’re famous.’

Which got me thinking. If they’re famous, millions of people are paying money to read book after book, and as my friend pointed out, they can’t really be bad if that’s the case. I mean, I think they’re bad because, technically speaking, they are. They have shitty cardboard characters, terrible prose, bland style, whatever. But readers don’t read for your style or your characters or plotlines. They read because they want to feel something, and whatever criticisms I have for these writers, they must be making their readers feel or they wouldn’t sell books. It’s that simple.

This was kind of a revelation for me, because until then I’d always been assured that if you were skilful enough as an author and had a decent story, you were guaranteed to become successful to a degree. Now I see the truth: it is entirely possible to write a coherent story with realistic characters and a tight, clear style, and still end up with something shit. I’ve written some, and I’ve read books like this, books I finished with a growing sense of frustration as I turned the pages, wanting to know what was going to happen next even though nothing about it interested me. This is so fucking boring, I would think to myself at the conclusion of each chapter. I can’t wait until I finish all five hundred pages of this shit so I can throw the damn thing away and forget about it.

And that, my friends, is the antithesis to the ‘famous bad writer’. It’s the ‘really good but incredibly boring writer’. He is the guy who has a top of the line tennis racket and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game and rules, but can’t actually play for shit. The point is, the ‘bad writers’ are still achieving the writer’s most important goal. They are creating emotions in the reader, and doing it consistently enough to make people plough through their awful writing.

So of course, the next logical question is, how the hell do I do that? Obviously, I haven’t cracked this particular nut yet or I’d already be a professional writer myself, but I have a few theories.

I mentioned earlier that human’s aren’t natural readers ‘at first glance’. I say this because in actual fact, people were telling each other stories as soon as they could communicate. Long before the first written symbols appeared, there were cave drawings, and I suspect that before these you had a bunch of hairy cavepeople sitting around a campfire and telling each other about this guy they once saw got eaten by a lion, only it was a lion ten times bigger than normal with a roar like a volcano erupting.

The goal back then, as now, was to get the biggest reaction out of the audience, and I bet they achieved that just as well as modern storytellers, only without the advantage of the written word. In a way, the storyteller had an easier job back then, because he wasn’t concerned with paragraphs, grammar, style, etc. What he did concern himself with were what I think are the most important things, the things which play the biggest part in creating emotion within the reader: characters, story, and suspense.

My reasoning goes like this: You need characters, because a reader cannot feel emotion about a story which does not include other people. You need realistic, interesting characters because the reader must connect the character to a person they know in real life, perhaps even themselves. If you identify a character, you immediately care what happens to them, because you feel like you know them. And if you care what happens to them, then when the storyteller warns of impending doom you feel a bit scared on behalf of them, and when the teller allows them love and happiness, you too feel some of this.

You need story, of course – but it can’t be boring. Bad things must happen, conflict, problems, evil. Whether your characters overcome the conflict or succumb is really irrelevant – as long as the reader feels a strong emotion as a result. The key thing as that the story deeply affects the lives of the characters in some way and causes them to react. It has to be negative, too, because positivity is boring. No one ever reads a story that begins ‘happily ever after’ unless it goes downhill from there. The story must also be subject to the characters, because readers want to see that the people in books have a certain control over their destiny. If you read a book governed by the author entirely, you become bored because it seems like no matter what the characters want, they can’t change anything. Fate becomes predetermined, and the reader starts thinking poisonous thoughts like ‘oh, I bet the girl dies so the author can send the protagonist on a revenge mission,’ or ‘Obviously that unassuming and innocent guy is the murderer, he’s the one I’ve been led to believe is the least suspect!’. One of the better tricks I heard was apparently used by the writers of South Park. They said that instead of thinking of story as something that follows the principle ‘and then this, and then this, and then this,’ they instead thought along the lines of ‘But this, therefore that, but this, therefore that…’ Using the former, you could tell any story you want, and no event need connect to any other nor affect anything else. In the latter, it is impossible to write a story without a logical progression, and without each event both following from what has come before and affecting what will come after.

Finally, I argue for suspense, although that sort of qualifies as an emotion all by itself. I think there are many popular novels out there whose sole powering emotion is suspense, even at the expense of the elements character and story. Neil Gaiman once said that a writer should prize four words above all else: ‘And Then What Happened?’ But it ain’t that simple, either. Here’s a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s rules on writing: ‘Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I would agree with everything he says here except for one sentence: ‘To heck with suspense.’ Sure, it’s good for the reader to have total understanding about what’s going on, where and why, but there’s no reason any of that should get in the way of suspense. Most of us know exactly what’s going on in our lives, where and why, but that doesn’t mean shit when it comes to telling our future. Same with books. Knowing isn’t knowing. If anything it can add to the suspense, because with a greater knowledge about what’s going on there are a whole host of potential dangers and hopes for your characters, which you inevitably dwell on.

So. Characters, story, suspense. The catalysts for emotion. It’s just a hypothesis, so let me test it out with you. Here is a story:

Bill was a brave boy, but sometimes he was also very scared. Bill found a monster under his bed, and the monster said: ‘Give me your dinner every night or I’ll eat your parents.’

Bill hated the monster, but every night he went to bed with a growling belly and tears on his face.

He tried to tell his parents, but they laughed and said: ‘Don’t be silly, Bill, there is no monster under your bed.’ They sent him to sleep that night without any dinner.

But Bill was brave, and he would not let the monster eat his parents. So that night, he made a dinner of his own. It sat on a silver platter under cloth, and it was made of pins and nails and knives. He slid it under the bed and the monster ate it all in one gulp like it always did.

Bill lay on his bed and heard the monster choke and cry, and when he looked over the side of the bed as he’d always been too afraid to do, he saw blood soaking into the carpet.

Later that night, Bill’s father came to tuck him in, and said: ‘Did you learn your lesson, Bill?’

‘Yes, Daddy,’ said Bill. That night he went to bed with a growling belly, and a smile on his face.

 

Okay, so the story is 222 words long and written fast, but I think I did okay. Basically, it was the shortest story I could make while satisfying all the criteria I set for myself. In every single sentence I either develop character or the story, and in some sentences (4th and 5th) I do both in different clauses. The suspense comes in by the first sentence, specifically when I state that Bill is not only brave but also scared, thus raising a question – and as we all know, questions are the essence of suspense.

But how did it turn out? If it were a fatter, 3000 word story I could have added in a lot of extra stuff and it wouldn’t read like a children’s book, but that’s beside the point. The point is, did it do anything for you? If it did, I might be on to something. If not, well I was gonna go back to the drawing board anyway.

So, to answer the question in the title of this post… we read because reading makes us feel. In the end, writing is like sex. You can enjoy yourself all you want, but if you do it right the other person will get the most out of it. You have to make them feel something. Of course, if you usually try to make your readers feel terror and revulsion like me, it’s probably not the best analogy.

Anyways, I liked my story, was it good for you too?

It took me ages to understand the importance of structure. When I was a teenager, I wrote a series of fantasy novels called Felix Bones (coolest protagonist name ever, right?), and the main reason they sucked was the utter lack of structure. Allow me to explain.

            So get this: these badboys, four books in total, amounted to one hundred and eighty thousand words, and there was not a paragraph to be found. Each chapter consisted of walls of text thousands of words long, and the sentences were long too, and rarely varying in length. I told the story from third person focussing around the protagonist’s point of view and in chronological order. The chapters were all roughly the same length and weren’t divided into scenes or events. Instead, I would write until I got the feeling the chapter had gone on long enough and then I’d look for an opportune moment for a character to say something dramatic or the next action scene to be over, and then I’d end the chapter.

Why is this bad? Imagine a three hour movie done in a continuous shot from the same angle and focussed on one actor. You miss a lot of stuff, it’s boring, and it’s tiring.

Okay, so Jack Kerouac wrote an entire novel on a single piece of paper in a continuous stream of consciousness. It’s a good novel, but I still wouldn’t recommend the structure. It worked for him because of what the novel actually was, the story of a lost kid on a rambling trek across America with no destination in mind. Remember that: the structure worked because it matched the story. Do not write like Jack Kerouac. That structure will not match your story.

Here’s the thing. The posts I put on here in regards to writing are pretty much descriptions of tools. They are my explanations of how the tools work and how I understand they should be used or not used. In the end, though, they are tools – not commandments or templates or even guidelines. I can’t write a list of character types and say: ‘These are some really good characters to use in a story’, and I’m also not going to say: ‘Your books should always be written with Beginning Middle and End and have logical chapter breaks.’ That is one way structure can be used, it is not the only way.

Point in Case: Isaac Asimov. Ever read that guy’s books? His chapters are all over the place, and I don’t think any of them even play out in chronological order. Some of the initial chapters happen after the last ones, and they jump all over the place, touching on this and then that and then something else. Point is, he used structure for a purpose. His chapters were short because he wanted to show the reader lots of different things, some in the future and some in the past, some on Earth and some on Mars, and ooh look a squirrel! The effect is of a story coming together in bits and pieces, confusing at first and then becoming clearer, and all the while interesting because you know each chapter is about something new.

Structure is a tool, and it should be adapted for your story.

But how do you know what kind of structure to use? Should you follow five different characters and conclude all their arcs at the end? Or jump from villain to hero throughout the book to get two clear persepectives? Or should you have long in depth development and break it up with news reports and diary entries? The best answer I can give you is, it depends.

Structure has power, people, understand this. It can change a novel into a different novel. It doesn’t matter what colour wallpaper you put in your house, it’s the framework that decides whether you’re living in a mansion or a shack. Here’s a fun game: take your favourite novel and ruin it by changing the structure.

Fight Club told in alternating chapters, with each one being first person of Jack, Tyler, Marla, Bob, and the 7-11 guy. And each chapter is longer, with more in depth aspects of their lives. Now you can’t use Jack’s signature bleak tone the whole time, and you have to add details and character arcs that change the path of the story. It would be very hard to maintain any of the mystery and confusion that Jack feels. Probably you’d kill it, because the story is Jack and Tyler. If you give equal page space to other things, you’re neglecting what it’s really about. On the flip side, take Game of Thrones and change the structure so that every chapter concerns the same protagonist. I bet the new version would be unrecognizable.

Before you decide what structure you want to use, ask yourself what your story is. Do you have an original protagonist with an interesting personal philosophy/outlook? Longer chapters in first person would be my choice, advancing the action through his eyes. Are you worried about long sections where not much action takes place? I’d suggest shorter chapters, each with a different focus or point of view. Too many characters? Maybe you can use structure to focus on the most important ones. The others still affect the course of the book, but they do it ‘off screen’, and don’t steal page space.

If you’re still getting the hang of it all, though, you should do what I do: keep it as simple as you damn well can.

The first decent book I wrote had the following structure. Beginning, Middle, End. Each section was divided into about twenty chapters, give or take, and each was divided into three parts. Example: Beginning was: ‘Kid finds book that opens other universes, explores one with his friends, discovers a monster.’ I wrote seven dot points for the first section of Beginning, each outlining a specific event or scene that had to happen concerning the notes. Each dot point became a chapter. Before I started, I had the basic direction for Beginning, Middle and End, but only the sections for Beginning, and only the chapters for the first section. That way, I had a solid direction to head in, but enough freedom of movement that I could change if the book called for it.

I don’t plan on using the same structure for all my novels, but that one was an eye opener. If I was struggling in any chapter, I could just go to my notes and find the reason I was writing that chapter in the first place. Even though I had no idea how the book was going to end until I was about halfway through ‘End’, I always knew how each chapter was going to end, and that was enough to keep me writing day in and out until it was done.

Don’t be deceived: a simple story structure does not necessarily make a simple story. You can use the same three act structure to shape everything: novels, character arcs, subplots, whatever, and come out with something wildly different each time. The simplest structure, the one I used for Book of Worlds, follows the same principle as the rules of grammar: it’s a foundation. You can break rules of grammar, bend them however you want and flip them upside down, but you better not fuck around if you don’t know what you’re doing. You have to be certain it’s gonna work out.

Stephen King once said that Grammar is the pole you grab when you’re drowning. Something stable you can fall back on. Simple structure, for me, is the same. When I’m lost in some complex (to me at least) story twist or plotline, I can always sit back and breathe and repeat the three magic words: Beginning, Middle, End.

You keep your experimental continuous narratives and non chronological chapters to yourself, okay? I’m just fine over here in the corner with my three words.

Characters

 

I want to put a disclaimer in front of this post. Characters are not my strong point. They’re okay, but in my novels especially they tend to be a little bland, a little bit cardboard, sometimes even two dimensional. I come out with the occasional real person, but it’s rare. So keep in mind this is written by someone who’s still learning.

I wrote a novel a couple of years ago, and it was decent, but the general consensus was that the characters were plain. I edited it, and they were still plain. At the time, I thought the problem was I was planning too much. I thought that maybe, instead of having the story set out before I began, I should just sit down every day and improvise. That way, when I wasn’t sure what was supposed to come next, I’d be forced to turn to my characters and their motivations to determine the next step in the story.

It worked okay, at least in the short story format, but what I learned in the end was not what I expected. The thing was, I found a pattern: whenever I focused on character in a story, I did a little bit better.

This might seem obvious to most, but you have to understand the way I’d viewed the whole thing until then. See, I’d always thought that as a writer, my ability to create characters was directly related to the people I met in real life and my mastery of dialogue. I’ve never felt any difficulty with dialogue, so the obvious conclusion was that it was something in my own thought process that was making characters difficult.

I started to research what the pros said about characters, and found surprisingly little technical advice on the subject. Treat your characters like real people. Remember that even a minor side character has a life of his own and can change the course of the story. They should lead the plot, not the other way around. Give them mannerisms, give them appearances, give them habits and ways of speaking.

It seemed to me that if I could just internalize the one overruling directive: Every Character is a Real Person, then I would be okay. I would be able to write a story and the characters would just ‘come alive on the page’ and ‘be masters of their own fates’, things I’ve heard authors talk about before.

A couple of novels since then, my ideas have changed somewhat. Yeah, all that stuff is true, but it isn’t that easy. Just thinking about characters in a certain way will not make you write good characters. You know what will? Trying really hard.

Bear with me, because this point was hard for me to really get. Even though you may, over the course of your novel, be thinking of each and every one of your characters and their motivations and their desires and feelings etc. You may still actually write a bunch of shitty characters.

There are lots of reasons for this, but I’ve only figured out a few of them, and I know there are plenty more. Consistency is one. In one book, I created a scrawny, nerdy kid who loved reading and shied away from conflict. Then, in the interest of development, I had him attack a monster who was endangering his friend. Now, if this kid was real, would he really be driven to such righteous violence? Maybe, but probably unlikely. My intentions were good, I wanted him to develop over the course of the book from a scared kid to a brave one. But I did it wrong, and the result was an inconsistency in his character.

Another one: I tried too hard to subvert a stereotype. I mean, people are real, right? So if I show you a musclebound guy who is easily given to violence, maybe I should change things up a little by making him really smart or making him super shy or awkward. The problem is, many stereotypes exist for a reason – certain traits go with certain traits. If you are a confident person in general, you’re unlikely to be super shy, and if you’re intelligent and rational, it’s unlikely that you’ll be given to fits of rage or animalistic impulses. The point being, it’s fine to give characters dimension by giving them traits that are unexpected – but they still have to make sense in regards to the character as a whole. Take the muscle bound thug. How can I make him interesting and real without breaking his stereotype beyond the point of plausibility? Maybe I could give him a simple set of rules that he follows, like a code of ethics that he clings to against all reason. Maybe I’ll make him interested in some specific thing, which interests him to the point of obsession, like guns or cars. He’s still dumb, still a thug, but a little bit more interesting. Now he’s Billy, the shaven headed lackey with two brain cells (Stereotype), but who has a strict code of ethics including such rules as ‘don’t hurt dogs or babies, but women and children fine, never betray, let the enemy have the first hit’, and can’t do his two times table but knows the mechanics of a .45 berretta (Added details).

What gave me the idea for this was thinking about the people I know in my own life. All most all of them suit particular stereotypes. I can think of ‘the scientist’ and ‘the partygirl’ etcetera. Yet all of them are also completely unique and individual in many ways. It’s just that the unique traits still manage to make sense with regards to the governing stereotype.

Anyway, I mention these lessons to point something out that may be obvious to many, but which to me was a revelation: learning to write characters is not a matter of seeing them in a certain way – that is only the necessary first step. The second step is you make a mistake and learn what you did wrong, and then try again, with a new character. No matter how you view people, no matter how much you give your characters permission to ‘take a life of their own’ on the page, in the end it comes down to the same learning curve: Write, Mistake, Analyse. Write, Mistake, Analyse.

Yep, that’s right, folks. Turns out that learning to write characters is actually the exact same as learning to write literally everything else. You just have to practice.

I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised.

First Million

‘Everyone has to write a million words of crap before they can start producing good fiction.’ – Raymond Chandler

‘Write one story a week, for a year. It may be difficult to write one good story… But I challenge you to write fifty two bad ones.’

Ray Bradbury (Paraphrased)

So most people interested in writing have probably heard both of these quotes, as well as the much quoted Malcolm Gladwell directive: practice something for ten thousand hours and you’ll be really good at it. No shit.

I write first drafts at a pace of about one thousand words per hour, which means that I’d have to hit one thousand hours to follow Raymond Chandler, and Ten million words to follow Gladwell. But here’s the catch: it only works if you do it carefully. Anyone can churn out a million words if they don’t give a damn – the trick is doing it and trying to get every word just right along the way.

On the internet, there are plenty of budding writers, and a lot of them are prolific as shit, if you take their word for it. Some claim to slam five thousand words or more in a day, and I can believe that, though whether they do it every day or not I’m not so sure. Some can press out a fifty thousand word novel every month or two. So here’s my question: do these guys actually improve significantly? If they keep it up, will they get pro enough to make it?

Nope. Because giving someone a word goal of X million and saying they’ll be good at the end is like telling a carpenter if he just saws enough planks of wood and nails them together he’ll be a master at the end of it. My point being, it’s not the whole story. There is truth to it, though, because I bet every master carpenter actually has sawed and nailed together a whole bunch of wood. The thing is, they did a whole lot of other stuff, too.

Look, here are two guys. Guy A writes a thousand words a day for exactly one hour. Guy B averages between two and four thousand a day. Guy A spends two to three hours a day reading, plus a little extra time editing what he’s written in the past. In fact, he edits quite heavily, spending as much as or much more time rewriting than he did drafting. Guy B doesn’t read, or rewrite at all, and when he’s done, he just ships it out, without listening to anyone else’s opinion. Guy A thinks hard about his ideas and often ponders and refines plot points in his mind in his spare time. Guy B just gets the words down.

Now fast forward ten years. Guy A has written approximately three million words, and Guy B has more like ten million, the proverbial ten thousand hours of practice. Now: who’s gonna be better?

My own experience has been closer to Guy A than B, but I’ve had plenty of B periods, believe me, and you know what? I loved them. Slamming a first draft novel and then forgetting about it in my early teen years was great fun. There’s something freeing about knowing that what you’re doing is going to be trash no matter what – you’re just out to please yourself and you can say whatever you want. But you still have to try. You have to focus, and make yourself better with each successive effort, or it’s wasted practice. Luckily, the desire to improve in any possible way was always there for me, and I gave my trash to anyone who’d read it and drank in their criticisms hungrily – the harsher the better.

I can’t vouch for the ten thousand hour rule. After all, how do I know what to count? Should I count hours I’ve spent reading? Or rewriting? If so, I should be pro already, right? Should I only count hours spent writing in which I was completely focused, and not the hours I did just for the hell of it, without caring what I was doing and just having fun?

I can vouch for the million word rule, though. When I was fifteen I read the Raymond Chandler quote from above, and decided to gun for it. I tallied up everything I’d done since I was ten (something like three hundred thousand words), and counted everything thereafter. In 2012, after thirteen novels and a few short stories, I reached one million words, and I can definitely say that they were pretty much all garbage. I started this website then, and started pumping out short stories, and to my amazement, some of them weren’t that bad. After years of dreaming about publication, the very first story I wrote after that million words got published twice. I kept going and got more success – I measured my ratio at about ten rejections for every acceptance. So I feel I can say this with confidence: If you try hard to improve, edit at least a little, and listen closely to what people say about your work, and read a ton (I average about six to eight books a month), and write a million words… You will become competent. Not necessarily good, but competent.

Competent does not pay the bills. Competent means that when people read your work, they say ‘hey man, that’s pretty good!’ and go about their day. If that’s all you want, congratulations! You only have a few years of diligent practice to achieve it. If, like me, you want to be a professional writer who can actually make a living from the craft, then you should get to competence, and then prepare to start working.

I’m currently sitting at one and a half million words, and gunning for ten. I have no idea what I’ll do if I’m not any good by the end of that ten million. Probably just despair, and up my caffeine and alcohol consumption to lethal levels. Will I stop writing, though?

Shit no, I love this job.

 

 

 

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