Posts Tagged ‘how to write’

One thing our visual design instructors instilled in us was the ability to be creative on demand. Design (graphic, information, way-finding, etc) is a business. You don’t have time to wait for the Muse to come in, she has to be on the clock. You might get a new client at 8am and have to present ideas for an identity overhaul by the scheduled lunch at noon. No, really, you’ve gotta do.

Sure, you’re going to get it wrong (that’s another post), but you have to present ideas. That means after the hour long meeting where you learn basically nothing you need to know and a lot about things that don’t matter at all (like the hair gel the AD – art director – just switched to) you spend an hour doing “research” (now that means googling, back then it was sitting in your chair, head in your hands, thinking “OMG, OMG, OMG, OMFG!” over and over), which leaves you two hours to do a hundred thumbnails, twenty sketches, and three or more comps (doing this on computer now means the hundred thumbnails – maybe – and then right to the comps). And don’t forget to include half an hour for paste up on presentation boards (or now, struggling with Powerpoint, merging with the sales materials being developed, and cursing BIll Gates’ name unto the seventh generation).

Think I’m being overly dramatic? Heh. You probably actually won’t get the assignment until 10 as the AD/Sales goes to get their second Starbucks. So, yeah, I gave you twice as much time than you really had. Now can you see why out of 24 or so fellow graduates, there’s less than 5 of us still doing this two decades down the road.

The best job related functions you can learn is 1) be quick, 2) be precise (spelling fluorescent “flourescent” on the presentation to the lighting company won’t keep the business, and your sales person doesn’t know the difference), and 3) get the work out (all this wraps up to being competent, it’s a rare job skill)

So, yeah, you can be creative when “cold.” This is why it’s important to be stocked with ideas and the creative pump primed by all the off-time research. Now, it’s always better to allow the subconscious to masticate on something for awhile. Yes, the end result will be better with that, and if you’re “inspired.” The trick is being able to get “inspired” at the drop of a hat. That’s a trick you learn by doing.

There are various group activities that can help you learn this trick. One is to have everybody in a group write the first line to a story. Then everybody trades and gets 30-45 minutes to spin out the full story. Now, more than likely you won’t get a full story written, but you should be able to get the frame of it out (the voice, the overall thrust, somewhere at about 500-1000 words). Then everybody shares what they got. This exercise works because you’re not invested in the story (it’s not “your” idea – well, it is, but you can fool yourself) and there’s a deadline, plus you need to share. You can see variations on the theme here (give everybody a character, a plot, a setting, etc, and have them write what they get in 30-45 minutes, pull a story from literature and write an extension/version/joke/etc based on it). Select any of the various “writing prompts” (Writer’s Digest, Writing Excuses, there’s several websites that have lists of them) and have at. After doing this several times you’ll get faster and better with it. You’ll also become more comfortable with being creative on the spot. It’s like calisthenics for the Muse.

This post? I have a list of blog entries for this concept (what I learned as a designer translates to writing). I looked back at that list about 20 minutes ago and this post is a result. I can be “cold” and still write/design. That’s what I learned.

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This one is going to piss off a few people. To start off you need to know that I hold a BFA in Graphic Design from the University of Akron Meyer’s School of Art. I have a lot of Art History floating around in my cerebellum, including a bunch that most people have never seen (History of Ephemera, anybody?). I can sling the wonderful magical words of art like a pro, because I am one. What I’m about to say launched a semester-long fight in art school. It took place in the sophomore level classes. That’s when the revelation took place as our instructors told us the dirty truth.

What we do isn’t art and we aren’t artists.

It may quack like a duck, and it may waddle, but it ain’t no duck. It’s a goose. What’s the difference between a duck and a goose? A goose can feed a family of four.

Yes, uproar, consternation, and a general “What you talking about Willis?” attitude pervaded the Graphic Design 200 classes. How dare they (the instructors, all working designers) say we aren’t artists? Well, Sparky, we ain’t. I’m not going to tell you what we actually are because you won’t like it, but we aren’t artists.

Now, the two year degree and the actual profession at the time were referred to us as “commercial artists.” What we created and sent to press (and even now when it’s bits on a disk or email) is called “art.” And we’re the ones people talk about when they say they “need an artist.”

Art isn’t what we do. We create communications. And there is a difference.

Right now there’s a subtext argument going through the ranks of SF/F/H about literature versus popular fiction. The whole Adam Roberts letter about the Hugos is an example. See, there’s those who feel we’re still artists and we’re making art. Art has “merit.” Art has “permanence.” When you’re creating Art it is to be expected that the great unwashed masses won’t get it, because that’s what Art is. Art needs to be appreciated. The struggle to produce Art needs to be recognized. Art works deep into the mind and massages out Truth and Meaning. Add in the mythos surrounding the long-suffering struggling artists and it makes those people struggling feel a little better about it.

And it’s a steaming pile that needs to be hauled out with a shovel.

You buy “Art” at auctions. I’m on the street peddling my wares. I go to the highest bidder (mostly), the one waving the cash in hand. And I’ll create something for them. I’ll create something that’s from them (and that’s what divides us from artists).

See, Art is individual expression. It can even be expanded to be the voice of a generation, but in the end, Art is a singular effort. If I’m creating a piece of “Art” that needs to mimic that it belongs to and comes form my client, it can’t be Art.

So how does this relate to writing? Well, it really comes down to what kind of writer you want to be. There’s the kind of writer that will do the things that College English professors will use as examples of literary form and function and that the National Book Award will recognize as a fine example of what people should be reading. Except the people tend to read all this trite piffle like Dan Brown, Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, Daniel Steele, Laura K. Hamilton, and all those low brow types. And they read it because the don’t know any better and can’t appreciate what true artistic merits all these other books that sell less than 5000 copies despite the rave reviews in literary magazine have by the truck load. Or do you want to be the writer that people actually read and enjoy, even if they only sell 5000 or so (I know quite a few books like that)? Do you want to be the writer than entertains and is accessible to the masses (which doesn’t mean you can’t do all those literary things, you just handle it in a different manner, one which usually doesn’t involve the “look at me I’m so clever” pee-pee dance)?

I’ll be the later, thanks.

Oh sure, my story will massage parts of you and might impart a little meaning. But with my massage you’ll get a Happy Ending(tm) (and, no, that’s not the literary term you think it is).

Art? I’m not creating Art. I’m making art. I’m drawing in chalk on the sidewalk. I’m putting out posters and pasting them up all over town. It’s my job and I approach it as work. And that’s the difference. It may look and feel like art, but it isn’t.

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One of the things I’ve gotten over since I started writing (I think this came in as either the second or third Big Writing Revelation(tm)) is saving ideas. At a certain point in the writer’s life, you realize that you’re creating crap, but that you have to go through that woodland crap to get to the glade of good words. And then like blue jays screaming through the woods come these gleaming moments of non-crap and you need to decide what to do. Now, this new stuff is good, having handled crap for long enough you know when ideas and words have that different feel to them. The new stuff fits into what you’re working on, but the rest of what that work is crap and you know it. Do you put these chunks of gleam into the crap making the gleam craptapulous or do you hoard your gleam until you get better and that gleam can shine with the other shinola you’d be producing then?

And the young writer, like a pack-rat dragon wondering when he’ll get his next hit of gold-plated meth, will think “I’ll hoard the gleaming things until the pile will shine forever.”

Resist this behavior. With all your might, resist. The only idea that shouldn’t be put into the story you’re writing is the idea that doesn’t fit. You can’t horde the good words, they don’t behave like that. And ideas, if hoarded, grow stale and die, losing their gleam. Then they begin to stink. The bright leaves flare and fade into the forest floor.

Here’s the secret though, just because you use it once doesn’t mean you can’t use it again. So throw that idea, or those words, into the big pile of crap that is the story. You might have to scoop them out later when you’re killing your darlings, or they might impart some shine to the rest of the load. They may even inspire you to polish up the rest of it. Who knows, it might make the story successful. Even if it does help your story get published, that still doesn’t mean you can’t use it later.

And if you stop the flow of gleaming ideas by hoarding them, then you get idea constipation. And the ex-lax for that condition isn’t any fun at all and ranks right up there with a unicorn enema. So roam through your woods plopping out the craptastic and the shinola with great glee and abandon. Soon you’ll see more shinola than crap. And eventually you’ll get to the editing point where you’ll be cutting the crap out instead of the gleaming parts to make the writing smooth.

Ideas work better when they can rub up against other ideas in a story. Keeping them herded off doesn’t help anybody.

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Let’s talk about the hero and the fatal flaw. No one is perfect, therefore the hero has to have at least one flaw to be overcome during the climax.

Hero + flaw = character arc = believable character.

But, how does the hero get to the point of needing to grow beyond their flaw? We need a catalyst to reach the next step in the equation.

Enter, the villain. For many stories there is no clear villain, therefore the hero falls flat, and the plot doesn’t advance, as if the whole idea is waiting for something—or someone—to push it forward.

Flawed hero + golden villain = growth opportunity

The Golden Villain
Your villain can be another person, the hero’s own self, a deity or other supernatural being, an animal, or the environment. In any plot structure, the villain’s job breaks into three primary functions.

1-Build plot tension by creating a clear need for the hero’s success
2-Further develop the hero by providing a basis for comparison, and inciting change
3- Be a focus for opposition and conflict in order to give the reader someone/something to root against; aka: inspire the need to annihilate (from 101 Dalmatians, starring Glenn Close)

Theoretically, the more diabolical your villain, the more the reader cheers for the hero. If only it were that easy. Your villain has to be believable for the equation to work effectively.

Evil for evil’s sake does not a good villain make
Most of us can’t conceive of perfect evil or perfect good as anything more than ideals.

Mother Nature is impersonal, not malicious. Luck, ingenuity, and willpower, if applied correctly, can conquer the elements and environment, as well as animals, not to mention hubris and mishap.

As for deities, you’d think lightning bolts would be more accurate or their aim more precise. Whatever the case, the deity can be impressed, placated, distracted, or otherwise outsmarted.

Check your cinema, check your literature, check your history. Because we can’t imagine anything or anyone being more perfect than ourselves, we accord them our same flaws.

There are no perfect heroes; there are no perfect villains. Each has limitations, each has vulnerability, each has flaws, because we have them.

In a villain, these factors allow the hero the possibility of winning.

Traits of the Golden Villain
Conviction. Charisma. Leadership. Decisive. Follow-through. Powerful. Desire. Ambition. Integrity. Tendency to think in absolutes. Never wishy-washy. Intelligent.

Wait. From the above, I could be talking about the hero. That’s right; your villain is a foil for your hero. (see https://genrebender.wordpress.com/2008/07/19/characters-dimensions-and-foils-long/)

In one respect or another, each of the above traits can be admirable or detestable. If amplified, twisted, or misplaced, any trait has horrific potential.

For example, intelligence is a good trait in a hero. Intelligence denotes the ability to reason, to logic, to plan, and to discard morality. This last ability—with or without conscience—is what frightens us. A beast can be scary; a beast that just might be smarter or more cunning than me—as well as stronger, faster, more relentless, and more ruthless—is terrifying.

In my opinion, the more intelligent the character, the higher the stakes and opportunity for bad behavior. Besides, it’s hard to be a mastermind if you can’t reason your way out of a wet paper sack.

Mining for Gold
To get to the root of your villain, you are going to have to dig. This process works equally for all characters, not just villain and hero. When considering the following points, answer the basic questions of who, what, when, where, why, how. Dig. Don’t shy away because the reader will know if you do.

What personality traits do you most admire? What traits do you most despise? Study both lists. Which ones are in your hero? Your villain? Any similarities?

BE CAREFUL. Neither your villain nor your hero can encompass all of what you listed. Yes, it will make them complicated, but you won’t be able to portray them all effectively. Pick a handful of major traits and explore them, then develop them into a memorable character. How?

Consider body language, behavior, speech patterns, quirks, and standard operating procedure (SOP). These behaviors, no matter how small, buff the edges, and add depth to your character.

Notice I say nothing of physical traits. Physical attractiveness or repellence is window dressing though it can serve motivation, goal, and plot. The question is, for your villain, which aspect will better instill fear, loathing, and abhorrence: the beauty that masks the viper, or the depraved disease-ridden leper?

2-The Prize and The Bane
What does the villain want? The villain must have goals and objectives, be that gaining a love object, power, money, knowledge, or a godhead. These wants can be simple or multi-layered. Drop the bomb: let the reader know precisely what the villain considers to be the gold nugget. Be specific.

What does the villain believe to be the bane of their existence? Be specific. Is this belief accurate? How does that figure into their plans? Their prize? What do they do to offset the bane?

3-Second Place is for losers.
As with your hero, your villain is driven to succeed in their ultimate purpose and intent. In my humble opinion, they can’t waver. What true villain would be happy with a consolation prize or a platitude?

Most golden villains deal in absolutes, but you still must quantify the scale of “winning.” To what ends will the villain go to achieve their desire? What line won’t they cross, if any? As long as the prize is won, can the competition live? Can there be compromise?

What will the hero have to do to thwart the villain? What will stop the villain in their tracks, and has the villain even considered this possibility, and/or made contingency plans?

4-Disgrace vs death
Delve deep on this point. Would the villain or hero prefer to die than not achieve their goal and live in disgrace? If not death, does disgrace need to be avenged?

Would the villain prefer the hero to die, or live in abject humiliation? Which of those would be the better goal, or does the villain even care? Perhaps disgrace first, followed immediately by death? At what point would the villain allow the hero to survive, and why?

5-Pearls in the past
The reader does need to understand the villain’s motivation, or at least that they have one. Nature can only go so far before we have to consider nurture.

The seeds of present and future actions, behaviors, and thought processes were sown in the past. Culture and/or heritage; socio-economic position; education; family and personal relationships—all have a place in shaping the character. Happy memories and tragic or emotionally scaring events also play a part. In a sense, your villain needs to have more of a past than your hero.

What event made a boy into the Jason of Friday the 13th infamy? Who was Count Dracula before his vampiric star rose? Why did a highly intelligent psychiatrist become Hannibal the Cannibal?

When considering the villain’s past, we can often come up with more than a few traits and flaws. However, if they see them at all, the villain can’t see those flaws as being impediments to their plans. Villains are just as self-deluding as the rest of us, so maybe they see those flaws as strengths.

Writing the Golden Villain
Readers seek a connection to your characters, and the characters are what will keep them reading even if, heaven forbid, your plot becomes predictable. If they don’t find that connection, your book is dismissed to the used book counter.

When writing your villain, you can take a direct approach and write in the villain’s POV, or you can have another character or plot device betray the villain’s motivations, goals, and objectives. This is a style choice on your part.

By writing in the villain’s POV, you can see if they come off as diabolical and nasty as you intended, or if they come off flat. In their POV, you can study their body language and behaviors, how they think, what they think, what they feel, why they feel. In their POV, you can make the villain real. This has value.

Even if you write in single POV, make an exercise of writing in the villain’s POV for a few important scenes. You don’t have to use them in the end product, but it can be instructive. It also takes extra time, but if you can’t find your villain’s voice, if you can’t make them multi-dimensional, this exercise might make a difference.

However you accomplish it, you have to know your character inside and out, what makes them tick. You have to understand them, the lengths they will or will not go. You have to understand the whys and the wherefores in order to relay villain’s dark glory to the reader. If you don’t get it, the reader won’t either.

Remember the villain’s job within your plot. The villain spurs the hero to overcome their flaw and to triumph over adversity. If the reader doesn’t understand the villain’s motivation, doesn’t see the logic behind it, and doesn’t understand the prize, your house of cards will crumble because the reader won’t understand the imperative for the hero’s success.

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Writing Spooky

Keep in mind when I write articles like these, I’m not offering advice, necessarily, I’m just communicating my own thoughts into the works of writing. Take it as advice if you like, but I’m just an ol’ hack, so you might be loster later than beforer…Anyway, let’s get to it.

Did you ever curl up with a scary book and find yourself peeking over your shoulder to make sure nothing’s lurking in the shadows? It’s one of the things that keeps me reading books, but it’s very, very rare. I’ve read horror from the best authors in the genre, but I rarely find a book that really creeps me out. 

Writing spooky fiction is more challenging, to me, than even writing action sequences. To get into a reader’s head and make them wary of the dark corners is tough, and sometimes we try to achieve it through overkill, by making the story overly gory. Keep in mind that often it’s the unseen that’s scariest; just telling someone you’re tearing off an arm and chewing the gristle with a blood spattered baby bib around your neck isn’t going to really scare anyone. It’ll gross them out, sure, but it won’t be spooky.

Movies have it easier.
Movies have an easier time of it, it seems, because of course they have the visual and auditory mediums to accentuate the story. Buy why does it seem so hard to get spooky fiction written down? In fiction, one would think, we’re not restricted by simple visual and auditory mediums. We’ve got the whole of the reader’s imagination to stimulate, right? One of the key ingredients is the same ingredient you’d use in any fiction piece: tension. The best horror sequences I’ve ever read didn’t benefit from grotesquery, but from the unknown, the behind-the-scenes mysteries that keep everyone on the edge of their seat, including the reader. 

Just compare The Legend of Sleepy Hollow the book to the various movie adaptations. In the book, you never actually see the Headless Horseman, you only hear of its legend. In the movie, generally, you’re going to get ol’ HH himself, galloping through the mist and chunkin punkins. Could a movie have been filmed without the HH? Sure, but that would have required a master stroke, and master strokes are rare birds and generally don’t make a lot of money.  

For example: The Shining. A creepy book as well as a creepy movie. But the movie was different from the book in many ways. Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance wasn’t really that good of a fit. Torrance was really just a regular-looking guy, a teacher-archetype from the New England states, who was slowly losing his mind and had a penchant for booze. Nicholson looked crazy from the get go, though, and in the film, it worked.

In the book, little Danny was hounded by the hedges, and in one particularly terrifying sequence, was running away from them, and every time he turned around they were a little closer, but he never actually saw them moving. The hedges played a pivotal role in the movie, as well, but in an entirely different way. They were more representations of the family’s isolation and fear. But in both applications it worked out very well. The movie business doesn’t benefit from the imagination of the audience as it does in fiction, so Kubrick adapted the story to fit what the audience could respond best to. 

Granted, there are times when one of those master stroke movies feeds the audience’s imagination, but with most movies, any thinking about what’s going on comes later. While the movie’s running, there’s too much sensory input to involve the imagination. Take the Blair Witch Project. What really made that movie a master stroke was the involvement of the audience’s imagination. The witch of the movie, the horrible horror out in the woods, was never actually seen at all. But the movie was no less scary for it. The movie incorporated tension and let you, the audience, imagine the horrors that lurked. Jaws was the same way; although you did get to see the shark, it didn’t come until later, and by that time you were already freaked out about it. 

But back to fiction…
So how do I, as a writer, get that level of tension in my own stories? Well, we’ve got to learn first to separate horror from humor. Sometimes horror can be funnier than we want it to be. It can be a nice break for the reader when you incorporate some humorous elements into the story, but why would we want to cut them any slack? We want them crapping their pants and sleeping with the light on. We don’t want them comfortably chuckling as they take off their glasses, put the book on the nightstand and turn out the light, going softly to sleep thinking cheerful, funny thoughts. 

For instance, refer back to the short sentence I wrote above, about chewing the arm gristle with a baby bib around your neck. That’s humor, not horror. It may not be very good humor, but you get the idea. For it to be horrible, the main thing we need is to be able to connect with the character whose arm is being chewed, be able to visualize the monster that’d doing the chewing, and forget about the bib altogether. Nothing funny. No humor. Immerse them in fear. Tangle their hair with rats nests and grind their nails to the quick with naked stone. Keep their hearts pounding with the tension that never abates, that only builds and grows. Write to the beat of a different drum, one that only sounds with regular, booming bass: Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Make them feel it. 

Sounds easy when you put it like that, doesn’t it? I know, me too. But here’s the point of this rambling article: I don’t think there’s much good horror being written right now. I ready Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, and it was pretty good, but in recent memory I can’t remember a book that really got me creeped out. It may be that the public doesn’t want it right now, or it could be that publishers are playing it safe and staying away from the really high-tension stuff. But I think the public does want it, and it may just be that it’s a genre worth exploiting.

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