Archives for category: The Craft of Writing

One of my oldest and strangest memories is of being about three years old and running around the house with my stick horse bellowing the theme song from Zorro at the top of my lungs. I have no idea how or when I encountered Zorro at three years old–I have to guess that I was exposed to it more than once since I had the theme song memorized–but I do remember that I wanted more than anything else to be like him. I wanted a horse and a mask and a very thin sword and a black uniform, and I wanted to ride around on my horse and right wrongs with perfectly choreographed fight scenes that always ended neatly with the last letter of the alphabet. I’m fairly sure that three year-old me would be very disappointed that all I got when I grew was a closet full of black clothes (without the cape, which was the best part), but there is very little about three year-old me that I can relate to anymore. I grew up. I forgot the song. The horse and cape went into my bedroom closet and then into the attic and eventually disappeared.

I now know that my love of Zorro was only one of many pieces of myself that went underground as I grew up. Riding on his heels went masculine energy, extroversion, the confidence to follow my own moral compass toward justice (or to prance around the house) without asking anyone else’s permission, the tendency to yell at the top of my lungs. Somewhere along the way, I got the message that these parts of myself were unacceptable, so I buried them and pretended that they didn’t exist. Everyone does this.

Jungians call the things we bury “the shadow.” In his book A Little Book on the Human Shadow, Robert Bly uses the metaphor of an invisible bag: “We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourself to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.” This sounds like a terribly neat process–how hard is it to pull something out of a bag?–but it takes great courage to be defiant enough to say, “No,” to the societal pressures that convinced us to mutilate our personalities in the first place, and in the meantime we have to live and work with other people who carry around their own invisible bags. We play chicken with each other, daring each other to be vulnerable and show off what’s in our bag and the punishing each other when we do. We move between contexts that have different attitudes about the things in our bags, putting on masks and taking them off again as deftly as Clark Kent becoming Superman.

And, sometimes, when we are forced to confront something that’s in our bags that we aren’t ready to deal with, we take it out and hand it to someone else. Jungians call this “projection.” Bly says, “When one ‘projects,’ one is really giving away an energy or power that rightfully belongs to one’s own treasury.”

Perhaps, projection is nowhere more obvious than in stories in which a hero represents everything that is acceptable (except for some small but potentially fatal weakness to convince us the hero is human) and the villain acts on the aspects of the self that the hero has to reject. Theoretically, this energy should empower the villain and diminish the hero, and for awhile it does as the villain uses the hero’s refusal to accept their own ruthlessness against them to break the rules and gain an advantage, but this advantage comes at a price. The villain loses everything but the projection in the end, becoming invisible except in the ways they dance the dance the hero made for them, justifying their inevitable death with the “fact” that it isn’t a person that’s dying but chaos or insanity or lust.

But the death of the villain is only ever a temporary ending because the shadow doesn’t die when the villain dies. It just jumps like a tick on a dead deer onto someone else, and the cycle begins all over again. And the shadow will continue to bounce from face to face to face, confronting the hero over and over again until the hero is forced to finally reach into the bag and confront their own inner darkness, to descend to the underworld like Inanna.

This process of avoiding the dark can go on indefinitely, which is how we end up with franchises that go on for fifty years without resolution, but, eventually, in order to have real closure, the hero must be forced to confront the shadow and take a long, hard look in the mirror and answer the caterpillar’s question, “Who are you?”

 

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Submissions are closed on Paper Tape‘s next issue “Hauntings,” and this is the best reading period we’ve ever had. And it isn’t because we got more submissions than ever before. No, I’m thrilled because we didn’t get a single bad story. Seriously. I’m not being precious. Every single story that landed in my inbox (spam aside) had something at its core that needed to be said, and that is extraordinary.

That’s not to say that everything will be accepted. Some stories had nothing to do with hauntings, really, and others just came at a bad time or covered territory that someone else covered better. Things like this can’t be helped, and I wish that every rejection happened for those reasons because the solution to the problem then would just be to send the stories out to more editors.

Unfortunately, though, many of the stories that won’t be appearing in “Hauntings” were rejected because they had craft problems, and, worse, I saw many of the same mistakes repeated over and over again.

So, I did what every good blogger does when there’s a problem: I made a list.

Verbs are action words, not descriptors. If you’re writing about a wedding, and you say that the bride lurched down the aisle, I’m going to immediately assume that she’s a zombie. If she isn’t a zombie, I’m going to be disappointed. Disappointment is a limited resource, and all of my disappointment is currently being used on dead Starks, so please don’t disappoint me with something as piddly as a verb. I know that the memo has gotten out that adverbs and adjectives are bad. The answer is not to make the verbs more colorful. (Which is why the only acceptable dialog verbs are “said” and “asked.”) Verbs are the invisible carriers of being. If you want to be more colorful, look to your nouns, or, better yet, your characters, settings, and plot.

If I can see it out my window, you probably don’t need to describe it to me. Just call it a sunflower and be done with it. There are exceptions to all of these rules, but the exceptions are especially important here. (Especially for poets who build their whole craft inside these exceptions, as anyone who has read Mark Doty knows.) Sometimes description is important. There is a chapter in Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino in which waves are described in excruciating detail, but it works because the chapter is about seeing the ordinary through the eyes of an extraordinary character, not describing waves. Description is like a verb. It allows someone or something to do something, but instead of enabling characters and plot objects the way verbs do (like rocks falling on the heads of zombie brides lurching down the aisle), description helps the reader. It might help the reader to imagine a place they’ve never been before, and it might help the reader to see something common in a new way, and it might help the reader understand how the mind of a stranger works, but description should not exist for its own sake.

Unless it’s important that your character is fidgety, don’t describe all their gestures. It’s easy to point at extreme examples like the repeated lip biting in 50 Shades of Grey, but most problematic body-talk moments are isolated occurrences, the hand tucking hair behind a character’s ear. Most of the time, I think that the problem here is that the writer is trying to show with body language what a non-POV character is thinking, and the instinct that guides the decision is good. It implies that the writer knows that people know so much more than is actually said. The problem is that writing isn’t a visual medium. If you try to show with words the subtle movements and affectations of body language, the cute wave ends up reading like frantic flailing, which is a pretty bizarre way to say, “Hello.” In this case, it’s better to tell than to show.

Don’t summarize when the story needs a scene and visa versa. When someone tells you, “Show, don’t tell,” what they probably mean is that you’ve summarized when you should have scened. If you don’t know the difference between summaries and scenes, Purdue’s Online Writing Lab covers it well here . There are a few short stories sitting in my inbox that I hope will become excellent novels someday.

Avoid long strings of dialog. You know when a string of dialog is going on too long when you can’t bring yourself to write “said” one more time or when you squint at the text and it looks like a poem. Dropping “said” is one way to get around it, but it’s also a way to make the reader confused. It would be better to find a way to interrupt the dialog. (Veronica Roth does this particularly well in Divergent, if you’re looking for a model.) Just don’t break up dialog with body language.

Stories about important issues still need to be told well. One of the most difficult decisions I have to make as an editor is rejecting a story that is about something important and is badly told. The instinct to write stories instead of articles about Important Things ™ is good. Stories are like a candy coating. They can make the truth easier to swallow, but stories aren’t like medicine. When the candy coating tastes bad, no one is going to eat it. 

If a plot element is important enough that you need to explain it to me in an e-mail, make sure it shows up in the story. Maybe it’s just me, but I think this one is a no-brainer. If I say that something in your work is unclear, please don’t explain it to me. Revise your work. 

You may have noticed by now that many of the problems in this list happen when people take good advice and follow it at the wrong time or in the wrong way or not at all. So, before you follow anyone’s advice, make sure you know why that advice is important. For you. Today. With this story. Because when you die and the writing gods weigh your collected works against a feather, they aren’t going to care that you listened when Stephen King told you to kill your darlings, but they might care if any of us understood what you were trying to say. 

Research is one of my favorite things about writing a novel. Though I will never turn down the chance to tear through a library like Hermione, the research that gets me really excited is the stuff you can’t get out of a book. If I was smart like my friend Maya, I would use writing a novel as an excuse to research things I’m already passionate about. Instead, I studied just enough ethnography in grad school to justify chasing characters down rabbit holes in the name of understanding and find myself doing things like joining a hackerspace and going to a startup launch party and trying (and failing epically) to learn how to program and wandering around questionable parts of San Francisco in an attempt to understand an extremely intelligent character in my thesis novel who gambles on an obviously terrible startup idea.

A few months ago, I wrote a scene that starts with Professor Julius, one of the characters in my novel SIREN, working in a vegetable garden. It wasn’t an important scene, but he was an important character–the protagonist’s mentor–and his choice to keep a garden piqued my curiosity. SIREN takes place at a boarding school that houses and feeds students and faculty alike, but Professor Julius wasn’t just gardening to unwind. He was gardening to feed himself, and I couldn’t figure out why. I knew that the food at the school wasn’t bad. The novel begins with a character sneaking into the kitchen for a loaf of the school cook’s homemade bread, so why would Professor Julius go through the trouble?

I decided to investigate.

Sunflower Starts

These sunflowers might look innocent, but they are secretly plotting to take over the world.

Gardening should be in my blood. Some of my earliest memories are of digging potatoes with my grandfather and stealing peas from my parents’ vegetable garden, but apparently some things aren’t genetic. I have tried to keep a garden in four states and three different climates, and almost everything I’ve tried to grow has shriveled and died. And that was when I started with plants that had already gotten past the delicate seedling stage and were already hardened by life at Home Depot.

potted plants

Survivors

Logic (by which I mean baseball) would say that I’d struck out, and I was beginning to think that Herbology was a class at Hogwarts because keeping a garden growing is just magic in a floppy hat. But writing Professor Julius’s kale patch and inheriting a seemingly empty planter box* gave me just enough of an excuse to start collecting seed packets again.

I had no reason to believe that this time would be any different than my previous attempts to grow things, but luck has been on my side so far this year. Before I had a chance to do what I usually do (dirt + seeds + crossed fingers = ?), I stumbled on Garden Betty, who has been blogging through the process of going from seed to vegetable. Simple things like knowing when seedlings need heat and when they need light has made all the difference. It’s been a little less than a month now, and a tray of seedlings is occupying my desk, Lemon Queen sunflowers are threatening to take over the kitchen, and a row of radishes is putting up their first leaves in the planter box outside. I’m no gardening expert, but I can list a dozen things I’ve done wrong now, and when I run into trouble I’m starting to learn what questions to ask.

seedlings

This was my desk…

When I started gardening, I thought (optimistically) that I was going to learn about self-reliance and experience the satisfaction of biting into a tomato I grew from a seed. If my luck continues to hold, maybe I will. In the meantime, I no longer wonder why Professor Julius keeps a garden.

And that has made all the difference.

All of my basil plants are named Pesto.

All of my basil plants are named Pesto.

 

*The planter box was actually planted with strawberries. Thank goodness for Twitter:

Photo Credit: Careful by Wes Peck

I’ve always had the good fortune of knowing people with big personalities, but when I first started writing fiction seriously I refused to allow myself to be inspired by anyone I knew. I was afraid that if I allowed real people to inform my characters they would recognize themselves immediately and object to the way I portrayed them.

From what I hear, it’s a fairly common fear. Even Agatha Christie limited herself to only being inspired by people she’d never spoken to. But I took it even further. No one I’d even scene was allowed to influence a story. When I was working on my thesis novel, it took serious courage to put a programmer who wears a pirate hat in the story after I passed a group of geeky students in pirate hats on the sidewalk.

It’s difficult enough to find enough material to fill a novel when you allow yourself to be inspired by anything, and I quickly found that taking such an extreme stance was unsustainable. Since a good character–one that feels like a person instead of a puppet or a role–is one that we recognize, cutting out personal experience in character building practically condemned me to writing cardboard characters. Getting past that fear is still one of my growing edges, but one of the ways I’ve learned to work around it is to begin the character building process with archetypes rather than real people.

Archetype comes from the Greek for “primitive” and “model,” like the wooden mannequins artists use as models. They are specific enough to give you a rough idea of a character’s role and vague enough to have lots of room for an interesting personality to develop. I find that they make a particularly satisfying place holder in a rough draft.

Building a Catalog of Archetypes

I started working with archetypes when I encountered the Hero’s Journey in Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey.

The hero’s journey is a simplified version of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and contains eight archetypes:

  • Hero
  • Shadow
  • Mentor
  • Herald
  • Threshold guardian
  • Shapeshifter
  • Allies

If you’ve never worked with archetypes before, the Hero’s Journey is a great place to start, but I quickly found it limiting. Not every protagonist is a hero or even a heroine, and I was uncomfortable with the idea that characters exist in relation to the hero. That might be true from the hero’s perspective, true, but good characters are protagonists in their own stories, and I didn’t find room for that in this model.

From there, I moved on to looking for patterns in fairy tales and mythology. When I started looking at characters through this lens, I started to see archetypes everywhere. Jane Eyre is Cinderella in disguise. So many monster in the house movies are just retellings of Hansel and Gretel. The myth of the goddess Inanna is the original model for Girl Underground stories.

The problem with looking for archetypes in stories, especially when looking at modern examples, is that it’s sometimes difficult to see the primitive model under a well-developed character. This is particularly a danger when many writers are inspired by the same model and a single version of an archetype threatens to overwhelm the rough model underneath. (How many mentors look like Gandalf?) Additionally, it is sometimes also difficult to separate a character archetype from an archetypal plot. Who is Cinderalla? She’s the abused girl who ends up a princess, right? But that’s what happened to her. Who is she? She could be anybody. I wanted a model that would help me develop a character’s personality.

For the past few years the best work I’ve done with archetypes has come from studying the Tarot. When most people think of Tarot, they think of someone like T.S. Eliot’s Madame Sosostris telling the future in “The Waste Land,” but scholars have been examining the connections between Tarot and mind for many years. The idea of using a stack of cards to tell the future makes me uncomfortable, but the images in the Tarot draw on the same pool of archetypes that are found in myths, fairy tales, and modern stories, but unlike most stories, a traditional Tarot deck has 78 cards, and once you get 78 of anything you’re almost forced to go past the obvious. Instead of one archetype for a powerful man, there are eight. Instead of one strong woman, there are nine. That kind of diversity encourages me to think more deeply than descriptors like “power hungry.” Is he power hungry like the magician or interested justice like the Emperor? Is she strong because she’s a survivor or because she’s wise?

And best of all the cards have yet to be offended by the way I wrote them in a story.

I have a love/hate relationship with writing advice. I’m an editor. Even though I promise myself every time that THIS post will be the last, I write a lot of writing advice for this blog, and I have a habit when I’m editing my own work of reminding myself of old advice from mentors. But there are times when I’ve really struggled with writing advice, like this essay about “thought” verbs by Chuck Palahniuk.

It’s a fantastic essay, filled with good advice. If you haven’t read it, and you aren’t doing what he advises already, reading this essay and following his advice will probably make you a better writer. When I read it, though, I was about 5000 words into the first draft of my current novel. (Its working title is SIREN.)  At the time, I was pretty sure that it was going to be a novella about a woman who spends thirty days alone on a raft.

Then I read this part of the “thinking” verbs essay:

One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone. Writing, you may be alone. Reading, your audience may be alone. But your character should spend very, very little time alone. Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering. [Here he gives an example of what it looks like when a worried character isn’t allowed to be alone.] A character alone must lapse into fantasy or memory, but even then you can’t use “thought” verbs or any of their abstract relatives.

If I had been thinking, I would have remembered Krapp’s Last Tape (video) and Big Two-Hearted River and the monologues in Hamlet. I would have realized that I was probably attempting something difficult, but there are plenty of examples of characters in literature spending lots of time alone without bringing the play or story to its knees. (Now that I have thought about it, my guess is that the intent of the essay was probably to help beginning writers avoid situations where they’d be tempted to hand the reader information instead of allowing them to piece things together for themselves.) At the time, though, I wasn’t thinking, and I was fairly convinced that my book had just been given a death sentence.

Fortunately, I’m married to a guy who shares my love of Beckett, and he could see immediately that I was being absurd and helped me talk it out. My novel survived, and so did the sections where my characters spend a lot of time alone.

It’s tempting at this point to wrap this whole experience up with a moral. (And if I did, I would choose Laura Simm’s “Don’t take your baby to Target.”) But in this case, being exposed to what I perceived as such a major challenge to my work forced me to think more deeply about what it means to be alone.

I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than a few seconds on 4chan, but ever since I saw Chris Poole’s keynote at SXSW in 2011, I’ve admired what he’s had to say about identity. Recently, I stumbled on this video (video) of his talk at the Web 2.0 Summit in 2011. In the talk, he says that we all have prismatic identities, that we are different in different social contexts. Google and Facebook try to reflect this by allowing you to pick and choose who you share updates with, but he says that it isn’t who you share with that matters but who you share as.

4chan allows users to use anonymity and handles to reflect different facets of their identity, but in real life these identities are often much more fluid. You might see a member of your family act as a husband, a son, a father, and an expert in 16th century Polish philosophers in less than a minute. That’s a really complicated picture, but odds are that person would show different sides at a nightclub or a high school reunion or an academic conference.

Carrying the prism metaphor forward, one would assume that moving between social contexts would be like rotating a crystal. Each context reveals only a few facets of the identity, but when we are alone, freed from social context, we are able to be our true selves and express all of these facets at once.

When I began writing SIREN, I operated from the assumption that when my characters were alone they would reveal their true selves, but when I actually look at what I’ve written, I notice that this isn’t what happens at all.

In the first scene of SIREN, one of the main characters, Azor, speaks to no one, sees no one, and yet he acts like someone moving between social contexts. When he thinks about his family, he puts on the selfish, impatient identity that he has with his family and becomes irritable when he tries a door and finds it locked. When he remembers the school chef, he shows a much more patient and empathic side, and brings breakfast to a friend who is still sleeping in the dorms. In a thousand words, Azor shows very different and sometimes contradictory facets of his identity. I’m less than halfway through the novel, but so far all of my characters act like this. Instead of removing the influence of social context entirely and creating a unified character, being alone only allows them to move freely between these contexts in their minds.

In The Four Loves, CS Lewis says that one of the tragedies of the death of a friend is that you not only lose that friend but you lose the qualities in mutual friends that the lost friend brought out. It makes me wonder if the many facets of identity are not just expressed differently in different social contexts but also created by them. If that’s true, the prospect is a bit scary since, as Chris Poole said at the Web 2.0 Summit,  we now have more choices in the toothbrush aisle than we do in social spaces on the web.

For me this raises several questions: What parts of our identities are we missing by spending so much time socializing in a place with only a few contexts? What are the psycho-social consequences of social spaces that bring out only the facets of ourselves that are brought out at home and at work and at the club? What are the consequences of all of this in character creation? Would a character with only one or two social contexts have a flatter identity than one with many interests, communities, and roles?

In any case, I think Chuck Palahniuk is right in that characters should never be alone. The only thing is, I’m not sure fully imagined characters ever really are alone.