Yes, that headline is an intentional nod to Marie Kondo and her method of tidying up, where you hold up each possession and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?”
I keep seeing some writers talk about how hard, or even painful, writing can be.
And sure, writing at a high level isn’t easy. It takes a lot of time, talent and sweat.
Yet I’m going to argue that conventional wisdom here is completely wrong. The entire process of writing and editing not only can be, but SHOULD BE, a joy. And if it’s not, you should switch things around to make it fun rather than torture.
Reason Number 1: A better product
Humans are designed, through millions of years of evolution, to seek out pleasure and avoid pain.
If your writing and editing process are inherently painful, your body and brain will rebel every time you sit down at the keyboard or pick up a pen.
That’s unhealthy and unsustainable. And it makes for a bad product, because you’ll rush through it as fast as you can, to get that pain over with.
I’m not arguing against speed here. Writing fast, and in the flow, is a beautiful thing that should be embraced.
Yet if the process itself is painful, you’re going to (a) avoid it, (b) catch writer’s block a helluva lot and (c) not produce what you’re capable of doing.
Reason Number 2: You have to make a mountain, then let things go
Marie Kondo’s key instruction when tidying up is to make a mountain–of your clothes, your books, your papers, whatever it is you’re cleaning up. Then you go through each item and decide whether it sparks joy. If it doesn’t, you give it away to Goodwill, recycle it or send it off to Never Never Land.
Writing anything important should begin the same way.
Never try to research and edit while your write a first draft. Make a mountain of your research, ideas and notes. Look at each item. Does it spark joy?
Put the ones that spark joy in a special file or folders.
Keep the marginal things in Give Away place, a scratch file. This is also a good way to let yourself edit ruthlessly, and avoid feeling terrible about possibly killing words that took you hours to research and write. You’re keeping them in a safe home. They’ll be fine, and you can recycle them for something else if needed.
Trash what you’ll never use. And surprisingly, doing all this tends to cut your mountain down to a hill that’s only 25 percent of your original pile.
When you’re only dealing with a tiny hill instead of a mountain, writing anything of length becomes insanely easier. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, you feel confident, and all the raw material’s you’re working with spark joy.
Writing anything of length takes discipline to get through the hard parts. Which will happen.
Joy is the fuel that gets you over those speed bumps. It’s hard to crank away at something kind of boring, like proofing a document, or doing layout, if you don’t have a reward waiting on the other side. If you only anticipate more drudgery and pain, why push through it?
Cutting down your mountain of raw material to a small hill that sparks joy also helps make these tough spots a lot smaller and more manageable.
Reason Number 3: You have to feel the emotion you want readers to feel
This is literally the advice we give, as speechwriters, because simply delivering lines without mangling them–in a speech, a play or a movie–isn’t enough.
You have to actually feel the raw emotions you want your audience to feel.
Because an audience doesn’t feel what you TELL them to feel. They mirror your emotions.
And I’ll argue that the best writing and speaking evoke the emotions of joy and wonder.
Sure, there are times in novel, screenplay or speech when you want the audience to feel sad or angry. But you can’t write anything of length that’s entirely angry or 100 percent sad. There has to be a mixture of emotions.
What do people want? They want joy, wonder and laughter. The other emotions, like anger, fear, sadness and horror, are powerful spices you can’t pour into a dish. They need to be used carefully and sparingly.
The best writing I do is full of joy and wonder because that’s what I feel while writing it. And yes, if you’re doing a story or speech about something sad, it’s a good sign that you tear up while writing it. If I don’t cry a little when writing something profoundly sad, then I’m doing another draft.
And if something buried in your mountain doesn’t spark joy–whether it’s a chapter in your epic novel about elves with lightsabers and the trolls who love them, a play where all the actors are hanging upside down the entire time or the process by which you edit and proof something–try something else.
Talk to other writers and editors on Twitter, by email or in person at conferences. They’re a friendly bunch. Ask what they’ve figured out to make some of the hardest and sometimes painful tasks into activities that are fun. Personally, I find the final spell-check and editing of a novel to be a long, hard slog, so I’ve turned it onto a game to see how many words I can kill, especially repetitive words or phrases. And now it’s a kick in the paints.
So please, embrace the pleasure of writing and editing. Feel the emotions you want the audience to feel. All of them.
Because writing and reading should do always, always spark joy and wonder.
No, I’m not a zombie, sparkling vampire or Jean Claude Van Damme-ish universal soldier.
I simply haven’t posted in forever, and have missed the readers of this silly blog, who’ve taught me a lot and are always, always witty and entertaining.
So: with a crazy busy session at work, my evil choice was (a) come home and write a blog post, (b) hang out with the wife and son, (c) do laundry, pay the bills and possibly sleep or (d) finish and edit a novel.
I chose everything but (a) and it was the right choice. And now I’m coming up for air.
To folks who are into these things I like to call “books,” here are a few things I learned finishing a new novel, which is the most fun you can legally have as a writer.
(1) Keep switching it up and taking risks
If you keep writing the same sort of story with the same sort of heroes (6-foot-4 and Hollywood handsome) and villains (posh British accent and disfigured somehow) in the same sort of scenarios (stolen MacGuffin could destroy the world!), then hey, it’ll get stale. Same thing with non-fiction, whether it’s newspaper and magazine pieces, speeches or whatever you’re into.
Mix it up. That’s how you grow and learn.
There are endless ways to structure and execute writing. You can steal from anywhere:
Stand-up comics are amazing at setups and payoffs, and can do them in the most ruthless shortage of words.
Poets make sure every line is a magical spell.
Narrative non-fiction is actually a secret treasure chest of great stories that totally work as fiction except they actually happened, and they use the same structural tools as narrative fiction, also known as fiction.
Playwrights spell their own names wrong, yet they’re the masters of dialogue.
Linked movies and serial shows show you how to plot mega-stories (22 movies by Marvel that all tie together!) and how great beginnings can go completely wrong (Season Eight of GAME OF THRONES).
Screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the evil secret to anything of length. And everything has SOME length.
Even if you write stark Nordic mysteries or spy thrillers, romance authors and horror writers show you how to do emotions right, and nothing matters without emotion.
(2) Writers are helpful souls–take the help, and offer help whenever you can
I only started this blog after romance authors found my silly ad to sell the Epic Black Car.
And I learned an amazing amount from them. Am still learning.
For a journalist-turned-speechwriter, writing thrillers for fun, romance is the last place I expected to look.
Look in those unexpected places.
Answer questions from folks starting out.
The other person who taught me an insane amount is my sister, Pam, who won a Nicholl Fellowship for screenwriting. You wouldn’t think screenwriting has anything to do with speechwriting or novels. But you’d be completely wrong. Screenwriters are the absolute best. They’re building skyscrapers that hold up to hurricanes. Meanwhile, other books on writing tell you to build a two-story house out of drywall, then you wonder why the thing falls down after the first rain.
Also: there are authors, writers and editors I met here from around the world, folks who are continually witty, talented and interesting. I want to give a shout out to two in particular — Alexandria and Joshua the Sharp — for their help this year. You two rock.
Keep on meeting people, on Twitter, the Gram, the Book of Face or whatever new thing Silicon Valley invented last week. You never know who’ll turn out to be amazing and will change your life, or whose life you might change. YOU NEVER KNOW.
(3) Take things apart to see how they work
If you read this silly blog (and hey, you’re doing that now), it’s clear just about every post involves taking something apart to see why it’s either (a) horrifically good or (b) beautifully bad.
That’s the interesting and fun part of stories, books, movies, music videos and speeches. How do they work and why?
What could you do to fix a flawed piece or improve something that’s already amazing?
Complaining about something is the easiest thing in the world. You can throw a Nicholas Spark novel across the room (go ahead, that’s kosher any day that ends in Y), walk out of a lame movie or end a show on Netflix after 5 minutes and say, “That sucks.”
Except there’s behind those words. Zero intellectual weight. Anybody can kvetch about something that stinks, or gush about artistic things that are seven separate flavors of awesomesauce.
It takes no talent to do those things.
Figuring out HOW things rock or stink–that’s the fun and difficult part.
Listen–whether you write for fun or to pay the rent, and whether it’s (a) screenplays about mafia members dumb enough to kill Keanu’s puppy or (b) novels featuring elves with lightsabers and the robot ninja pirates who love them, one thing is constant: editing is everything.
Editing and rewriting is where the magic happens.
Magic because the first draft of anything is a warm bucket of spit.
And magic because a great editor can polish your text until it’s a shiny diamond made of words.
HOWEVER: Despite my love for skilled, professional and fully human editors, I do believe in using whatever tool you can.
Is this sacrilege?
Will they kick me out of the writing temple?
No. It’s good manners to clean up your text. That lets your human editor focus on kicking butt instead of chasing down typos, split infinitives and dangling modifiers.
Here’s the problem: just about all the non-human editing tools stink worse than a corpse flower, you know, the one that only blooms every 10 years because smelling it once every decade is torture enough for any soul.
You won’t notice how badly these editing tools stink when you edit small projects.
Spend the entire month of December editing 74,000 words, though, and all of these flaws become insanely clear.
Problem No. 1: Spell-check has transmogrified into a Grammar Nazi that’s terrible at his job
So you want to hunt down typos, do you? Good luck.
Standard spell-check in Word doesn’t want to let you do that job. It wants you to swan dive into a lava pit full of demons with pitchforks labeled Punctuation, Usage and Grammar, all of which are typically blinder than the referees at an NFC championship game.
Come on, man. Let’s hunt down typos. Nobody likes them, nobody needs them and we all want to squash them like cockroaches hiding under your kitchen cabinets.
The workaround solution: Turn off grammar checking entirely in Word, and if you can, kill it with fire. Nuke it from orbit. Go with old-fashioned spelling only.
A better solution: Separate spell-check from grammar, usage and punctuation entirely. Don’t even give people the option of combining them all, seeing how that idea is an achy breaky bad mistakey.
Problem No. 2: Grammar checkers tend to be stubborn beasts
Grammarly is a decent spell-checker and far, far better than Word at pure grammar, which shouldn’t be shocking since the word “grammar” is in the tool’s name.
The trouble with Grammarly is I couldn’t find a way to tweak settings, so 80 percent of the errors it found were…missing Oxford commas.
Want to take a guess on how many missing Oxford commas you might find in a ginormous document that purposefully didn’t include a single one?
Yeah. It was a fiery train wreck.
I don’t believe in Oxford commas, though I’m agnostic about the matter and have no quarrel with my brothers and sisters who adore them. God be with you.
Wading through five bazillion false positives, though, got old in a hurry. And yes, I tried everything possible to find a way to toggle Oxford commas on or off.
There are other style choices that would be super useful to turn on or off. I simply couldn’t find a way to toggle them.
The workaround: I have no idea. Help me, Obi-Wan.
A better solution: Grammarly and similar tools need to give users more options, so we don’t waste crazy amounts of time catching errors that are actually style choices.
Problem No. 3: Online-only tools aren’t super useful for anything large
Autocrit is an app full of good ideas and features. It catches all kinds of things spellcheck and apps like Grammarly don’t even touch, like over-used words and phrases, which is beautiful. I like it, I love it, I want some more of it.
Here’s the deal-breaker: you have to paste your text into online apps like Autocrit, do your business, then paste your text back into Word (or whatever final shebang you use).
Most online apps like Autocrit have upper limits on how much text they can digest at a time. This can be an explicit limit or one that you find out when you cram enough words in there and watch it jam up.
I’ve subscribed to Autocrit a couple different times and had to stop using it for that reason. It chocked on the text, every time, and feeding it bits and pieces just wasn’t practical.
The workaround: It is possible to help apps like this handle big meals by predigesting your words and turning them into plain text. However: Even if these online-only tools cranked through 74k or more with ease, the trouble is you have to then paste it back into Word and REFORMAT THE WHOLE MSS AGAIN. No. Just no.
A better solution: Not sure. Unless online apps can fix the reformatting problem, there’s no way I’m going back to them for anything large and important.
How we can do better
I wound up only using things that worked within Word, to avoid the whole cut-and-paste then reformat-an-entire-novel dance. Because it takes more than one pass to edit things right.
What worked for me this time? (1) plain old spell-check in Word with grammar turned off, (2) Grammarly for actual grammar and punctuation and (3) SmartEditPro for the tougher stuff like over-used words and phrases. It’s similar to Autocrit but works inside Word.
I believe, deep in my soul, two things would make the life of writers far, far easier:
First, having every writing app and tool work inside your doc as a plug-in vs. a separate app or web page.
Second, focusing on doing one thing well. One thing, not three or five. Because that’s how writers tend to edit, in phases.
What do you think?
Tell me your editing horror stories. Whisper the names of apps I’ve never heard about and reveal the secret ways you’ve tweaked Grammarly to ignore missing Oxford commas and such. I would offer a reward for that.
Firing up Word is fine for writing anything short. For anything big–novels, screenplays and such–you need specialized tools.
Believe me. I’ve done it both ways, and trying to do something large and important on a word processor will drive you to drink.
Word processors don’t cut it
Writing a big project is like building a house. To keep on track and make sure the thing doesn’t fall down, you need (a) solid blueprints and (b) heavy equipment.
Short writing projects are like the little bits you can tackle in your garage, with the tools sitting around and the scrap wood in the far corner.
And sure, you can try to wrestle Word into doing heavy lifting by going wild with navigation options and headings. It’s sorta possible.
Yet no matter how hard you try to force Word into being able to handle a giant project, it’s like trying to excavate the foundation of your new house with a shovel instead of a bulldozer.
Even if you try to organize a single Word file that is organized enough to hold all three acts of a screenplay or all 100,000 words of your epic tale of when the elves rose up against the great tyrant, Santa the Claws, there’ll be all kinds of OTHER files hanging around.
A file about settings and another for characters. One for ideas and notes.
Another for loose text you cut out of a scene but might want to use elsewhere. You get the idea.
Switching between all those files is tough. Just getting a feel for things are is hard. How many words are all the chapters in Act 2 right now versus all of Act 1? Dunno. Get ready for a whole lot of highlighting and scrolling.
One tool to rule them all
I don’t care what you pick–Scrivener, yWriter, Manuskript, OneNote, Atomic Scribbler–as long as you test drive a bunch. For starving artists and writers out there, some of those choices are open source and free.
Try them all and pick one. You won’t go back.
There’s nothing like being able to see the whole project at a glance, then dive into different bits without digging around for which Word file or folder you put in all that stuff about pickpockets in Istanbul.
I just typed THE END on a novel written in Scrivener (yes! very excited about this one, and to beta readers, let’s chat). Am in the middle of transferring into Word for the final formatting and editing. Believe me, writing 80,000 words in Scrivener was a happy walk in the park compared to when I climbed that mountain using Word.
Haven’t used every single alternative, though I use OneNote at work and home and it’s both (a) pretty common and (b) pretty good.
A few lessons learned from my own silly mistakes
First, don’t get in a hurry to export your screenplay, Great American Novel or picture book about knitting hats for cats from Scrivener into Word.
You don’t want to export the whole thing right off because there’s an excellent, excellent chance you’ll have to import it all back in, which is a massive pain. Because once you look at it all in Word, you’ll spot six zillion structural things to fix that are a sweaty endeavor in a word processor and far, far easier in something like Scrivener.
And yes, I’ve made this mistake. As in last week.
Heavy equipment, right? If you’ve got a choice between hundreds of hours with a shovel versus two hours with a bulldozer, pick the dozer.
The second thing is don’t ever export the entire project.
Seriously. Do it in pieces.
Sure, every program out there has some kind of magical option on the menu tree that saves your entire creation as a .docx, PDF or whatever. Resist temptation.
Put the first few scenes of your screenplay or novel into Word for that final editing and polishing. Meanwhile, keep on doing heavier work on the later stuff of Act 2 and 3.
Only export scenes or chapters into that Word file when they’re truly, truly ready.
The third thing is that paragraphs that seem short and sweet in something like Scrivener–especially if you have a big screen–turn ginormous when you pop them into Word on double-spaced pages.
Finally, get religious about making backups. OneNote, Scrivener and similar programs work their magic in mysterious ways, especially in how they save all those separate bits. It’s complicated. I believe quantum particles and gravitational waves are involved.
The way these beasts save their files is nothing like a Word doc, where you can see that solitary file and copy the thing to a thumbdrive or email it to yourself. OneNote in particular is tricky with saving. I’m still not sure where, exactly, it’s saving things half the time. Be careful out there.
But those are little tips and tricks. There are no giant tradeoffs, like a choice between a moped and a pickup truck. The switch to heavy writing equipment is always worth it. The only real question is what type and brand of literary bulldozer you should drive.
P.S. What heavy writing equipment do you use today–and what other ones have you dated or divorced?
Yes, I watch movies with subtitles, even if they’re in black-and-white, with people smoking French cigarettes while speaking French and watching things happen to other people in some scrappy, destitute part of Paris or, for variety, a tiny farming village in Normandy.
We are talking about a different sort of foreign film with subtitles.
Bonus No. 1: This film is 3 minutes long instead of three hours.
Bonus No. 2: There is hardly any talking, or any need to read the subtitles at all.
Bonus No. 3: Most importantly, this little film can teach us all great big lessons about storytelling and structure.
Also, unless you have no soul, it will make drops of water drip from your eyes and scurry down your cheeks.
Here. Watch the clip in high definition. Or low def, it that’s your thing. Whatever floats your boat.
Okay. All done?
Let’s take it apart and see what makes it tick.
This little film has strong bones. The structure is a roller coaster: things are bad (son is running away), things get even worse (son nearly dies, is paralyzed), then in the climax, things get resolved and the world is forever changed, at least for this family.
The father is not sympathetic at first, right? My first thought was bad casting. No. Good storytelling. The main narrative question is, “Will they get together?” This is a love story, which doesn’t have to be a rom-com with a high-powered professional woman who eventually gets together with a chubby, unemployed virgin who owns the Largest Comic Book Collection Known to Man, because for some reason, that’s what half the rom-coms are these days.
The other half of rom-coms star Matthew McConaughey.
Back to this little film: if they’re getting together in the end, they must be split apart in the beginning.
Another narrative question is, “How do these people suffer, change and grow?”
The father moves from stern, humorless taskmaster to loving and dedicated. He’s the hero of this little film, because it’s his actions that matter most. The normal thing would be for him to let the doctors do their work, right? But it’s his turn to rebel. He carries his son out of the hospital, out of the wheelchair and back into the world. Rehab isn’t going to be nurses and machines and doctors. It’s going to be father and son, learning to walk again.
And all that suffering and sacrifice pays off. The son also transforms. In the beginning, he’s rebellious and aloof. In the end, he’s loyal and connected to his family.
The mother is a flat character. She suffers, but she doesn’t change. That’s OK. Having two characters go through all this in three minutes is plenty.
Real stories beat Michael Bay explosions
This tiny film, which is a flipping COMMERCIAL, moved me far more than bazillion-dollar CGI blockbusters involving dinosaurs, vampires or robots that transform themselves into Chevies.
You can take those $294 million budgets full of special effects and a scripts credited to five different writers. (Pro-tip: the more screenwriters you throw in the kitchen, the crazier the thing that comes out of the oven.)
Give me a story with strong bones and a tiny budget.
Give me people I actually care about, because I don’t give a hoot about Shia LaBeuf and Megan Fox fighting robots or whether the awkward teenage girl gets together with the Sparkly British Vampire vs some kid who used to be a Power Ranger.
By request, today we’re taking on page one of a classic of lit-RAH-sure: THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Sidenote: There are 5,832 various editions and such, so you’re page one may end on a different sentence and such. I tried to stop at the end of a paragraph, though as this is an older book, back when paragraphs lasted longer than most CBS sitcoms, this is kinda hard.
THE GREAT GATSBY
In my younger and more vulnerable years, (missing a comma here) my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
He didn’t say any more, (this feels like odd, unplanned repetition of the “any one” in the previous graf, so strike “any”) but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. (Listen, we’re on the third graf already, and I’m not inclined to reserve all judgment, seeing how you’re coming off like a veteran bore.) The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I wasbecame privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought — frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon.; for the intimate revelations(“intimate relations” twice in this sentence, so close together, doesn’t work at all)of young men, or at leastThe terms in which they express them, (comma deleted) are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, (here we get repetition with a purpose for once and it does work) a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth. (This is an awkward mouthful)
THOUGHTS: This is 100 percent interior monologue, which isn’t required by law to be boring. Though it sure leans that way.
Maybe it sets the mood.
However: If you’re basing a tragic hero’s entire motivation for making a ton of money to become a rich snob to impress a girl he loved and lost, and you’re hell-bent on starting page one with interior monologue about backstory, MAKE IT ABOUT THE GIRL.
Not the narrator. Not the narrator’s dad.
Not boring people who tell the narrator secrets while he pretends to sleep.
Make it all about the girl and Gatsby.
A huge part of the novel is throwing fancy parties to impress each other, right? I’m going off my memory from doing my own term papers on this thing. Never saw the movies. And when I do a first page, I try NOT to cheat by reading plot summaries and such, even if I’ve read the book.
Put a gun to my head and I’d delete this first page and start with the real inciting incident, which should be Gatsby and the narrator meeting the girl at a party way back when, so you can echo that later.
Or make it about about a small betrayal, from college or back during the war, to foreshadow the bigger betrayals and tragedies to come.
VERDICT: Doesn’t make me want to read more, which I wouldn’t unless the English 101 prof gave me no choice.
Sorry, F. Scott F.–can’t lie and say I liked this. Nuke the first page and go with a better hook.
Here’s the deal: I’ve been crazy busy with Other Things, and did not post to this silly blog much lately. And I missed it.
Missed dissecting the first pages of novels, the full three minutes of insane music videos and the reasons why the Series of Tubes will always, always be awash in videos of cats.
Missed talking smack with writers, editors and creative types scattered on every continent.
Missed the whole damn thing.
It’s good to be back here. Am writing a post every day for the month of August (so far, so good) and it’s made writing other things, for work and fun, much easier and faster. A happy snowball.
So: thanks for reading, thanks for commenting or tweeting at me–and thanks to many of you for teaching me a lot.
P.S. Just shout if you have suggestions for posts, such as which novels, music videos or movies (a) desperately deserve to get bled on with a red pen, (b) need to be taken apart to see why they work so well or (c) are so godawfully bad they circle back to good. I may open this thing up for guest posts, even. YOU NEVER KNOW.
So my genius sister, Pam, won a Nicholl Award and does this series on the YouTube, which is worth watching no matter what you write: screenplays, regular plays, novels, newspaper stories or speeches.
First, because we need to tear down the artificial walls between different disciplines of writing.
Second, because screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the secret to any sort of writing.
And third, because she’s insanely good at cutting through the nonsense and getting at what really matters, which isn’t comma splices and the proper use of gerunds.
Plus she’s funny. Thanks for doing these, sis. Hugs. 🙂
Bonus story of Pam & Guy: As a kid, I didn’t talk except to whisper to Pam, one year older, and she’d act as my interpreter and diplomat. When hungry, I’d stand in front of the fridge until Pam showed up to open it, then I’d point at food and she’d get it. Totally relied on her. And little three-year-old me must have planned for the worst, an apocalyptic world without Pam, because I remember finding petrified carrots under my pillow, stashed away in case of emergency.
While we are all busy BLOGGING, instead of writing what we’re supposed to, I want to steal a concept from Hollywood (thanks, sis!) that all writers can use: Screen Time.
This works for any bit of writing, whether it’s an oped in a paper of news, a 30-minute keynote speech about saving the three-toed sloths of Costa Rica or an epic doorstop of a novel clocking in at 984 pages entitled ELVES WITH LIGHTSABERS RIDING DRAGONS AND THE VAMPIRE WITCHES WHO LOVE THEM. (Note: Don’t speak of this, because it tempts me, and I may write the first chapter of that book, then email it around until we actually hold in our evil little hands 984 pages that eviscerates Game of Thrones, Twilight, the Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings.)
So, back to the point: Screen Time is an essential test for any piece of writing.
I could put a gun to your head and ask, “What’s this novel / screenplay / letter to the editor really about?” and you might answer, “a time-traveling World War II nurse and the men in kilts who love her / waiting for some dude who never shows up / why the federal government is building secret tunnels underneath Wal-Marts in Texas to stage an invasion in cahoots with ISIS cells hiding in Mexico.”
And you might INTEND that to be the point of what you wrote.
The Screen Time Test will say if you’re a lying liar or not.
Movies are the easiest, so let’s go with AVENGERS: JAMES SPADER IS A SHINY ROBOT WHO HATES HUMANS. You take the heroes, sidekicks, villains, minions and nameless civilians in the film and add up the the number of minutes (or seconds) they actually show up on film. If you’re feeling insanely generous, add up minutes where other characters talk about them, too, though we may call you Cheaty McCheatypants. Continue reading “Put your writing to the Screen Time Test”→
My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. (Fiction Law #1: Don’t open with the weather or your mom.) I was wearing my favorite shirt – sleeveless, white eyelet lace; (Fiction Law #2: Don’t open with what you’re wearing, because nobody cares.) I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. (Here we go, our first bit of conflict or story: a farewell.) My carry-on item was a parka. (This relates to how much it rains in Forks, and I guess you could argue it’s a bit of foreshadowing, but my God, no story on earth turns on whether a teenage girl is taking a parka as carry-on luggage versus stuffing the damned thing into her Samsonite.)
In the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington State, a small town named Forks exists under a near-constant cover of clouds. (This reads like was cut-and-pasted from Wikipedia, with a surplus of Things in Caps, and it is all Rather Boring.) It rains on this inconsequential town more than any other place in the United States of America. It was from this town and its gloomy, omnipresent shade that my mother escaped with me when I was only a few months old. (Conflict! A tiny bit of it, finally.) It was in this town that I’d been compelled to spend a month every summer until I was fourteen. That
Okay, I’m surprised that George R.R.R.R.R.R.R. Martin wins this contest, though for some reason they skipped over Stephen the King, who may be a literary god, but who also can turn a grocery list into 1,034 pages featuring an evil clown.
Also, J.R.R. Tolkien gets credit for writing some kind of 60-page prologue to LORD OF THE RINGS that was like some sophomore history sociology major’s paper on hobbits and elves. It put the B in Boring and made me throw the book across the room, which was hard to do since I was on a beach in Maui, drinking margaritas and in the Best Mood Ever.
Also-also: J.R.R. Tolkien gets double-credit for starting the whole stupid trend of fantasy and sci-fi authors, male and female, renouncing first names in favor of initials for some reason. The trend will continue and hipster authors writing about elves with lightsabers riding dragons will, within ten years, pick pen names like “GRRRRR the Grizzly Bear” and “Sw33tn3ss M00nb3&m the Z0mbi3k1ll3r” and “Darth Elvis Skywalker III.” Bonus points if you indie-publish a book with any of those pen-names.
Want to become a better writer? Learn from bad writing: how to spot it, how to fix it and how to prevent the disease from happening in the first place.
Note: All writers, including myself, tend to go overboard at times. As a reformed journalist who now writes speeches, blog posts and novels, I will happily say that I’ve committed every possible writing sin at one time or another–and no, this is not meant to make anyone recycle their Underwood and switch to pottery.
So as a public service, here are the Six Horsemen of the Writepocalypse:
1) The Ivory Tower of Pretentious Poppycock
This comes from never learning that out in the real world, nobody wants to read blog posts, novels or screenplays written in the same dense style of term papers about dialectical materialism.
How to spot it: There is never a short, simple sentence, not when long, insanely complicated ones will do. Pretentious Poppycock will have sentences flavored with giant German words that are too intellectually sophisticated to be translated into English, though schadenfreude has appeared in low-brow venues such as Newsweek often enough to lose all its previous cachet.
Writers of Pretentious Poppycock are actually offended if the masses (a) buy, (b) read or (c) dare to enjoy their work, because that means (d) it is not dense and sophisticated enough and (e) they have therefore failed via mainstream success and must (f) become an elusive recluse working on a new, six-volume masterpiece that will take 26 years to complete.
2) The Gonzo Kool-Aid Acid Trip
There are subspecies of gonzo, entirely dependent upon which substance the writer employs to destroy his liver: gallons of whiskey, blunts the size of telephone poles or some kind of toxic toad sweat they picked up in Brazil.
The whiskey types tend to go hyper-macho. Their sentences are shorter than Hemingway, because Hemingway was a wussbag nancypants who only watched bullfights. Get in there. Kill a bull, with your bare hands.
This trap is a particular danger for newspaper reporters who decide to write novels.
Another form of gonzo writing happily bounces around through time, since chronological order is for squares — or goes ironic hipster with a 500-page book, written all in haiku, about a retired accountant who makes sculptures out of lint from the dryer.
While the style of writing is completely different than the Ivory Tower of Pretentious Poppycock, gonzos are also typically unhappy if too many of the masses buy, understand or like their work, because that means they sold out and not enough fans took up their suggestion to “steal this book,” though the money does allow them to pay steady rent and purchase a higher class of bourbon and psychedelics.
However, a taste of success will also remove the last remains of internal censors from a gonzo of any stripe.
3) The Purple Prose of Cairo
This is gonzo writing without the drugs, Loony Tunes Lit-rah-Ture, performance art with ink. It’s passages chock full of modifiers or throwing words around the canvas of Word like Jackson Pollack chucking paint on the floor.
Tell me if you’d pay money to read more of this:
Ethel. Ethel. Ethel. Next to barber. Next to barber bury. Next to barber bury china. Next to barber bury china glass. Next to barber china and glass. Next to barber and china.
Whether you’re a reader, English Lit professor or a mom wondering if your teenager is alright upstairs, this sort of text is makes you buy something else at Barnes and Noble, scribble a big fat F with a red marker or google “therapist” on your iPhone.
It’s bad, right? Incoherent, and I didn’t make this up or pick a bad section of something that gets better. The whole poem is like this. But no, this is Gertrude Stein, so it is magical and amazing and you’re just too low-brow and uneducated to understand how brilliant that bit of word wizardry truly is.
4) Dear Diary
Everything is in the first person: blog posts, poetry, newspaper stories, memoirs, novels, screenplays.
It all goes through the filter of me-me-me.
The Series of Tubes has enabled this to reach epic, world-wide proportions. In the bad old days, being a writer meant slaving away at a newspaper, writing novels that didn’t sell until you died and became famous or writing in an actual diary that you locked up and hide in the sock drawer so your brother Steven, the snoopy creep, couldn’t read it and tell his idiot friends at school.
Now every writer is required by law to have a blog, be on Twitter and live on Facebook, so it’s quote possible to spend 20 percent of your day writing a masterpiece and 80 percent of your time at the keyboard documenting every tragedy, insult and triumph.
Dear Diary can be mundane, giving you daily updates about the type of sandwich they’re eating (PB & J today, then some laundry!). It can be full of humblebrag name-dropping nonsense. Or it can be one giant Pity Party.
If Dear Diary writes a screenplay or novel, the hero is a barely disguised doppleganger, except younger, taller, better looking and richer.
You also find this in bad mysteries about often written in the first person. Here’s a great first line from a 2013 entry to the Bulwer-Lytton contest for truly wretched first lines: “This was a very easy mystery for me to solve, so I never considered putting it in a story until I was telling some friends about it, and I realized the average person, such as yourself, has trouble figuring it out, although it is really laughably simple.” — Thor F. Carden, Madison, TN
The most epic Dear Diary moment in fiction I can remember is an entire chapter of a Clive Cussler novel where his hero, Dirk Pitt, has a classic car race with a car collector and Dirk-Pitt clone named … Clive Cussler.
5) The Never-Ending Lecture
This style of writing has an agenda and woe unto those who ignore it. It beats you over the head with a literary sledgehammer, damning you for not understanding how right the writer is, and how wrong the world is for not seeing it the first 593 times they explained it.
Lectures don’t even attempt to be subtle. Every bit of prose and dialogue is on the nose and characters are made of the thinnest cardboard.
Combined with the Ivory Tower, the Never-Ending Lecture may spend 235,000 words on the history of natural gas industry in Paraguay and the lessons to be learned about America’s telecom monopolies.
Matched up the Purple Prose of Cairo, a Lecture may give birth to THE FOUNTAINHEAD and another novel, ATLAS SHRUGGED, that contains a speech that goes on for sixty pages. Yes, not six pages, sixty. (Note: Was that too easy? Yes, yes it was.)
6) The Grammar Nazi
This is the polar opposite, and mortal enemy, of both Gonzo and Loony Tunes Lit-rah-ture.
Each sentence is absolutely fine in terms of usage. There are no dangling modifiers or split infinitives — and nothing ever, ever ends in a preposition.
Text written in the Grammar Nazi style devotes all of its energies into being technically correct, but at the price of having no soul, no life, no heart. And you are bored out of your gourd, even if YOU HAVE NO GOURD AT ALL.
How to fix and prevent this nonsense
Despite the incredible variety in this list — and you could probably come up with six more types — there’s a common thread to all bad writing.
That thread is this: the writer treats the audience with indifference, if not arrogance and contempt. It’s all about doing things their specific way. Readers who want to enjoy or understand their work, and complain about it being difficult, dense, narcissistic or weird — well, clearly all those readers are the problem, not the writer.
You can avoid all six of these bad kinds of writing by remembering the First Rule of Rhetoric, which is three simple words: “Know your audience.”
The audience isn’t you. Never is and never will be.
The audience isn’t even your mom, who might be the only person willing to read the thing, and even then, mom tends to lie and say yes, she loved it, where’s the rest?
If you want to write for you and you alone, do it in a diary and lock it up in that sock drawer.
Writing should be read, understood and enjoyed other people. Period.
That doesn’t mean good writing is shallow, low-brow and always happy.
Paul Krugman, Malcolm Gladwell and every issue of The Economist prove you can write intelligently about deep subjects without resorting to any of these types of bad writing.
People want actual substance, some real meat on those writing bones. They want to laugh and cry, to learn new things.
They want to think and ponder, and sometimes have so much fun that they read it again and again.
It’s that simple.
Bad writing puts barriers between readers and all of those things.
When your ego puts up any of those walls–and it happens to every writer–go back and tear them down.
Now, this classic book is so ingrained in our culture that movies can get all deep and interesting simply by alluding to a metaphor–which is like a simile, only different–that refers to this doorstop of a book.
Like this: “Maybe I’m Ahab and he’s my white whale” uttered by Bruce Willis in DIE HARD 17: THE HAIR DYES HARDEST could change that movie from just another 120-minute shootout in a nursing home into a penetrating examination of the purpose or life, or lack thereof.
Does that make editing the first page of this thing any harder?
Not really. Bring it, Melville.
by Herman Melville
Call me Ishmael. (People have been riffing off it for so many years that those three words are invincible. Can’t touch this.) Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. (This second line is also good. It makes the narrator a smidge unreliable, which is always interesting, and gives him a motive that everybody can relate to: being poor and wanting to see the world.)It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.(On your third swing of the bat, Herman the Meville, you whiff. Nobody cares about other peoples’ spleens and such. Kiss those words goodbye.) Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul;, whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. (Whenever I read a ginormous sentence with five zillion semi-colons and commas, I reach for the red pen and turn it into a nice, short sentence with one comma.) This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. (Another semi-colon, but this is the last one that gets to live.) There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs–commerce surrounds it with her surf. (Hate this sentence. It’s like our friend was talking to us about an interesting story, then started reciting beat poetry. Rewrite follows.) The city of Manhattoes is belted with docks and ships, like an Indian isle is encircled by coral reefs. Right and left, the streets take you waterward.
The fact this book is a classic doesn’t mean page one is perfect.
Herman the Melville is wordy on this page and he only gets wordier later on in this book, where he stops the action entirely to devote entire chapters to lectures about whale tails and such.
There’s a lot of fluff to kill, and I was pretty gentle with the word slaying. You could kill more.
Compared to most first pages, though, he does a good job of setting things up. Ishmael wants to see the world and that means sailing, because he’s not rich. So we’re in for an adventure.
How could we improve this? More foreshadowing. Maybe he mentions a friend who’s a sailor, the one who told him stories that got him interested in a life at sea, and this friend just served on a whaling ship that limped into port after getting attacked by a big whale. A ghostly white one. But his friend was drinking a lot of rum and tends to make up stories…
Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. So come closer and listen to what I’ve learned from experience: Editors are a writer’s best friend.
Not when they’re patting you on the back, because anybody can butter you up.
They’re your best friend when they take a red pen and blast through your complicated writing pets, when they check your wildest instincts and find order out of the natural chaos that comes from banging on the keyboard to create anything of length and importance.
So it’s wrong to say that every writer needs an editor.
You need more than one, if you want to get serious about any sort of real writing.
It’s like building a house. As a writer, you’re trying to do it all: draft the blueprints like an architect, pour the foundation, frame it, plumb it, siding, drywall, flooring, cabinets, painting–the whole thing.
Every step is important. And getting the right editors is like hiring great subcontractors.
My bias is to think of structure first, because if the blueprints are bad, it doesn’t matter how pretty the carpentry is, and how great the writing is line by line.
This is why every professional architect hires an engineer to do the math and make sure the foundation is strong enough to hold up the house, that the roof won’t blow off and your beams are big enough to handle the load.
So you need different editors for different things. The best possible professional editor for the structure, the blueprints. Then beta readers to look over the whole thing another time, looking for medium-size problems. A line editor to smooth things out and make it all pretty, and finally a proof-reader to take a microscope to the entire thing and make it as flawless as possible.
That sounds like a lot, and most pro editors can wear different hats. But I’m going to argue for dividing it up, because when you’ve been staring at the same thing for weeks, or months, you stop seeing things. A fresh pair of eyes is always smart.
Even though I’ve always had editors, starting way back in college when I was putting out newspapers, there’s a natural inclination for writers to screw this up, to see using editors as some kind of sign of weakness. The thinking goes like this: “Hey, I have (1) a master’s degree in creative writing or (2) have been cashing checks as a journalist for years or (3) am far too talented to need the crutch of a professional editor, which is for wannabes who can’t write their way out of a paper sack if you handed them a sharpened pencil.”
I’d did editing wrong by having friends and family beta read, or asking fellow writers who yes, wrote for money, but cashed checks for doing something completely different.
And it was a waste of time.
Here’s how I learned my lesson, and no, I am not making this up: On a whim, I posted a silly ad to sell my beater Hyundai and romance authors somehow found my little blog that started from that. Pro editor Theresa Stevens got there somehow and I started talking to her, and on a whim did her standard thing to edit the first 75 pages of a novel, the synopsis and query letter. Didn’t think anything of it and expected line edits, fixing dangling modifiers and such.
But she rocked.
I learned more, in the months of editing that entire novel, than I could’ve learned in ten years on my own. It’s like the difference between a pro baseball player trying to become a better hitter by spending six hours a day in batting practice, alone, versus one hour a day in hard practice with a world-class batting coach. I’d pick the batting coach, every time.
As somebody who used to lone-wolf it, let me say this: I was wrong.
And so on this Friendly Friday, I want to plant a big smooch on editors of the world, and encourage writers of all backgrounds and specialties to see editors in a different light. That having an editor isn’t a sign of weakness, but of strength. That it says you’re crazy serious about what you do and not afraid of working with the best of the best rather than a cheerleading squad of yes-men who think your 947-word epic about elves with lightsabers riding dragons is the best thing ever.
That it’s not about you, and doing whatever you want, but about making the finest product you can give to readers.
Whether you write novellas about fierce mermaids, magazine stories for Cosmo (insert your own joke here) or speeches about the Austrian school of economics for the IMF — whatever sort of writer you are, two things matter most.
Not correct grammar and spelling. Those things are assumed.
Not pretty paragraphs and sentences that sing. That’s word gravy, while we’re talking about the main course.
What matters most: making your readers curious, then surprising them.
This is often more interesting than the question of who did it.THE BUTLER ALWAYS DOES IT, so tell us why instead.
How do you CHOOSE between two goods or two evils?
Debates about the present are value choices.
Choosing between good and evil is simple and cartoonish. That’s why its for kids. Truly tough choices are between two good or two evils. Does believing in true justice mean setting a killer free? That sort of stuff. These things are deep. They’ll exercise your head.
What WILL happen? (thriller)
Can we stop these evil cats from taking over the earth BEFORE a giant comet destroys it?
What might happen if you brought dinosaurs back to life?
Will 5.93 gazillion pounds of TNT make a dead whale disappear from a beach — or will something else happen instead?
WHO will get together — or split up? (romance)
Will Matthew McConaughy get together with Kate Hudson already or do we have to suffer through all 120 minutes of this stinker?
What specific drugs were involved when Hollywood executives decided that Sarah Jessica Parker was some kind of sex symbol? (I’m cheating here and inserting a mystery question about the past into a romance setup, and I should be punished by the Storytelling Gods but, to be completely honest, and to use more commas, which is usually against my religion, I JUST DON’T CARE)
What should you do about the FUTURE?
Debates about the future involve costs versus benefits.
As a promising high school athlete, should you let your studies suffer to chase the dream of playing in Major League Baseball, when there’s a greater chance of being hit by a logging truck than being drafted?
Should we try to go back to the gold standard, to make Ron Paul all happy as he shuffles off into retirement, or does destroying the global economy kinda put a damper on that whole idea?
Next year, should you sell all your possessions to build a zombie-proof bunker in Montana for a zombpocalypse that will never come but is fun to think about — or should you focus on that whole “driving to work and paying the bills” thing?
Ways to surprise your audience
It’s unfair to have things happen for no reason, like Anne Hathaway getting smooshed by a truck in ONE DAY.
Also cheating: letting people off the hook via deus ex machina, which is fancy Latin for “the sidekick shows up at the last minute to shoot the bad guy, right before the hero dies” (every action movie known to man) or “it was all a dream!” (an entire season of DALLAS) or “let’s bring in something we never told you about, then run away” (every sci-fi movie you’ve ever seen on cable).
Surprises shatter expectations and stereotypes. Did you expect the scientist handling the landing of Curiosity on Mars to be a young man rocking a mohawk? No. You expected a stereotypical nerdy McNerd, and bam, that little surprise turned Mohawk NASA man into a national phenom.
A good surprise must reveal something:
a secret you hinted at before
how a person has changed after suffering and sacrificing
a subtle setup that they may have noticed, but will remember (PRESUMED INNOCENT does this better than Anything in the History of Stories)
how society has changed after suffering and sacrificing
a shocking decision (the hero gets what he wants but rejects it, an unhappy ending to a Hollywood movie OR a happy ending to a French existentialist movie, a romantic comedy that doesn’t feature an put-together and ambitious heroine with a loser man she fixes up)
Proofing for boo-boos is easy. Line editing is tougher.
Structural editing is the toughest.
So let’s play around with a little flash fiction from Joey’s contest and see what we can do, first with a standard edit job, then with a different kind of big-picture spitballing.
Original flash fiction entry by Mayumi – 196 words
Stone stairs and the blood of Landstanders foolish enough to raise arms against him disappear beneath Fin’s boots, as every step takes him closer to the top of this tall, windowed tower, and to the girl trapped within.
“Wavewalker!” a guard warns, but he’s silenced by metal tines already streaked red; it’s the same for his partner beside. And up Fin runs, never stopping. His muscles ache, his lungs burn, but the door is just ahead, and suddenly he’s crying her name as his spear splinters the heavy wood:
He’s barely broken through when she rushes up, arms thrown around him. And though her eyes are wide and frightened, her voice drifts to him with such gentle love, like the dreamy sway of the coral among which they used to swim. “You came.”
Time is short – more Landstanders are surely already racing to reclaim their princess prize – but still he cups her face, so sea-pale and soft, and kisses her, for fear it will be the last thing he ever does.
He draws back at the taste of tears.
“There’s no way out,” she whispers.
The spear creaks in his fist. “There’s always a way.”
# # #
Of all the entries, this one had the most action, which is probably why I liked it. Other stories mostly hinted at action to come, or actions in the past.
Edits: switched to past tense instead of present, fixed various things.
Edited version – 178 words
Blood on the stone stairs disappeared beneath Fin’s boots, every step taking him closer to the top of the tower and the girl trapped within.
A guard’s shout was cut off by a blade already streaked with red. And up Fin ran, never stopping. His muscles ached, his lungs burned, but the door was just ahead, and he cried her name as he spear splintered the heavy wood.
He’d barely broken through when she rushed to throw her arms around him. Though her eyes are wide and frightened, her voice drifted to him with such gentle love, like the dreamy sway of the coral among which they used to swim.
“You came,” she said.
Time was short – more soldiers were surely racing to reclaim their princess prize – but he cupped her face, so sea-pale and soft, and kissed her despite the fear it would be the last thing he ever did.
Fin drew back at the taste of her tears.
“There’s no way out,” she whispered.
The spear creaked in his fist.
“There is always a way.”
# # #
So, a typical editing job. Nothing fancy.
I’m more interested in the guts of a piece — short story or stump speech, HBO series or Hollywood blockbuster. What’s the structure, the setups and payoffs? How do things change?
So here’s another flash fiction entry. No line editing here. Let’s look at the bones and spitball some options.
# # #
I’ll never forgot that old, mossy stone porch. Johnny and I used to lie there after the dances, enjoying the smooth coldness of the stone against our sweaty skin, and talk about what we would do with a building like this if it were our home.
“First off,” he would say, “I’d kick all these damned people out!”
He used to love to make me laugh. I thought I couldn’t live without him. We were both 17, and it seemed like the perfect life lay before us. Everything in the world was perfect, if only for a moment.
That, was of course, before the booze took hold of him.
It’s hard to believe, only a few short years later, here I stand looking at that porch, with its glorious white columns, standing tall and proud, with the fadings of Johnny’s fists on my face. Oh how life changes so cruelly.
He will wake up soon, in the E.R., and wonder how he got there. He will yell and call out my name. The nurses will not know that “Jenny” means Jessica, because they will not know that in his drunken confusion he often mistakes his mistress for his wife.
How can we pump up the story without adding Michael Bay explosions, robots fighting and Megan Fox randomly running around in short-shorts?
Most of this piece is either remembering the past or predicting the future. So my first crazy idea is to make it all present tense, because there’s instantly more tension if it’s all happening now.
Let’s strip away the pretty words and look at the bones. Boil it all the way down. Right now, the original gets down to something like, “Wife plans revenge on cheaty McCheater.”
How can we change the structure to something happening now, and make it so memorable that it gets down to a sentence that makes your jaw drop. So, let’s spitball here. (Note: theese are not the words, but story / structure / outline.)
# # #
Jessica loves Johnny SOOOO much that she wants to marry him. They’re on a picnic at this amazing stone tower. It’s romantic, and yeah, she actually bought him a gold band and might ask him tonight, if it feels right. It’s a modern world. She wants to be married, and to him. And he seems super polite and nervous today, like he maybe is thinking the same thing. Her entire life could change tonight. It’s beautiful and perfect.
She’s decided to ask him. Why not? But he beats her to the punch. “Jessica, can we talk about us?”
She says, sort of quietly, “I’d like us to be forever.” But he’s starts talking about some new job, in some other city, and some girl named Jenny who he sort of slept with.
So when he stands up to awkwardly hug her goodbye, she sort of pushes him off the tower.
# # #
Now that can boil down to “You would not BELIEVE what happened last night” headline: Woman pushes cheating lover to his doom — on night she hoped to get engaged
Every writer gets the notion — from college, from movies, from the Series of Tubes — that they should be in a critique group.
This notion is seven separate types of wrong.
It’s time for critique groups to go the way of the rotary phone — to make way for something better, faster and stronger.
Peoples of the interwebs: critique groups are obsolete
A critique group is useful for certain things:
(a) university professors who want students to break into groups and leave him alone for the next 45 minutes,
(b) writers who really, really like to read their work aloud,
(c) literary snobs who like to say silly pretentious things about the work of others, and
(d) happy writers who like to socialize with fellow writers and talk smack about the craft while drinking bourbon.
Sidenote: Yes, your particular critique group is wonderful, and you couldn’t live without it. No worries. I’m not driving to your house with the Anti-Critique Group Secret Police to disband it or anything. Also, your critique group’s amazing bylaws and secret handshakes mitigate all the typical disadvantages of plain old boring critique groups that are not nearly as awesome.
Reason No. 1: Critique groups take far too much time
During college, sure, you’ve got time to sit in a group, read chapters aloud and debate what Susie really meant by having the protagonist drink a bottle of ketchup in Chapter 2.
Once you graduate from college, get a job, get married, buy a house and have little pookies, THERE IS NO TIME for this type of nonsense. Do I have three hours to drive to somebody’s house, listen to chapters read aloud, then talk about what I remember of those words and drive home? No. I have ten flipping minutes to write silly blog posts.
People who write for monies, full time, do not gather around a table to read their text aloud while fellow writers and editors listen carefully and ponder the words. It does not happen.
Reason No. 2: Editing as a group is dangerous and slow
Anything written by a committee will stink up the joint, right? Writing is a solitary act.
Editing is, too. You write a thing, then you give it to an editor.
Typically, there are different levels of editing: at a newspaper, you ship your text to the city editor, who gives it the first whack and focuses on the big picture. Later, the draft goes to the copy desk for a different type of editing, more of a polish and proofing.
Also, editing is best done on a keyboard, or with a red pen. Not out loud in a social group, where peer pressure and weird dynamics can screw up a draft in two seconds flat.
Reason No. 3: Critique groups can’t handle most things we write today
Short stories and novels. That’s what critique groups are really built to handle.
And they do a bad job on novels. Why? Because reading a novel in tiny chunks every week will (a) take forever and (b) turn the focus onto pretty words rather than structure and story. You need to see the entire airplane before you can say, with authority, whether it’ll fly or not. Peeking at tiny pieces of it all year doesn’t work.
Traditional critique groups are bullocks when it comes to editing blog posts, speeches, opeds, screenplays, newspaper stories, magazine features, obituaries and haikus. That’s right, haikus. YOU CAN’T HANDLE THEM.
Reason No. 4: Because I say so
I could put some bullets beneath here, if you want to make it official. Here you go:
Let’s invent something new
Now, there is a place for some kind of thing that’s LIKE a critique group, except better, faster and stronger.
Everybody needs an editor. And the more important a thing is, the more you should hire a professional editor who actually does this stuff for a living. But for a whole bunch of things that we write — including silly blog posts — hiring a pro would be a waste of money and time.
So let’s invent a new Writing Monster that’s better, faster and stronger.
The Writing Monster should be flexible, able to handle the editing of any kind of writing, whether it’s a little blog post, a speech, a short story or a screenplay.
It should also expose people to new ideas and new ways of looking at writing, and inspire us to rip the pages out of stupid pretentious books.
And it should expose us to different types of writers and editors, not just fellow writers who have the same exact skills and writerly prejudices.
The Writer Monster Thing should use this thing we call the Series of Tubes and travel at the speed of light rather than the Speed of Steve’s Subaru as you carpool to Jane’s house for the critique group and hope that she didn’t make that bean salad again.
The Writing Monster should be strong and resilient, living in the cloud and forging connections with writers and editors anywhere, like the Borg’s hive mind collective.
BTW: Resistance is futile.
The Writing Monster will NOT die because Steve moved to Idaho or Jane discovered that she hates Tyler’s novel and, to be honest, his stinking guts.
Also, the Writing Monster will focus more on short, important things like concepts, pitches and structure. Things that take up less than a page. (Kristen the Lamb is onto something with her Concept Critique Group idea.)
The alternative is spending every week for the next year dissecting Steve’s 125,000-word epic about vampire elves with lightsabers riding dinosaurs and Jane’s memoir about growing up on a potato farm in Idaho.
The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally – (add spaces here to match dash format in 2nd graf) he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now – but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill didwere not so loyal to their city as not to(if we can replace 10 words with one word, those 10 words are deader than Charlie Sheen’s acting career) read The New York Times, which ran According to a long,and very unflattering story in the Times, on how Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation’s capital. His old neighbors had some difficultytrouble reconciling the quotes about him in the Times (“arrogant,” “high-handed,” “ethically compromised”) with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle (maybe bicycle geeks know or care, but humans do not get into bike vs. commuter bike, and I’m entirely unclear whether Walter was a U.S. Senator or a staffer or a lobbyist, and how he made the transition from bigshot in Congress or whatever to 3M employee on a bicycle, or whether he started as a nothing at 3M on a bike and went to D.C. or is now pedaling to work after screwing up big enough to be in the Times yet not go to federal prison) up Summit Avenue in February snow;. (let’s use a period, because semi-colons at the end of endless sentences are for professors and pretentious chowderheads)It seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coal industry and mistreating country people. Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.
Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill – the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen fell on hard times three decades earlier. They paid nothing for their Victorian and then killed themselves for ten years renovating it. (contradicts last sentence of the first graf, since buying a beater house and working crazy hard to fix it says there’s something very right about the Berglunds)Early on,Some very determined person torched their garage and twice broke into their car before they got the garage rebuilt. Sunburned bikers descended on the vacant lot across the alley to guzzledrink Schlitz and grill knockwurst and rev engines at small hours until Patty went outside in (Drunken bikers would be afraid of some housewife? Um, no.)
(end of page 1)
Notes from the Red Pen of Doom
Yes, I know that critics went gaga over this book, and they loved THE CORRECTIONS, too.
I hate this first page. It rubs me wrong, and makes me feel like I’m about to read a 895-page doorstop of a book, something my sadistic Contemporary English Literature professor assigned me to read as punishment for my literary sins.
Here’s the deal: Franzen writes about families in the suburbs. Basically, the same topic that every sitcom has tackled for the last 50 years. Instead of making it funny, he makes it deep and depressing.
Is what Franzen writes – when he closes his eyes and composes after receiving inspiration directly from a muse that circles his head and descends, like a butterfly, or a silken bat, to kiss his unshaven cheeks with the kiss of creative genius – is it fun to read? No.
Don’t care about Walter and Patty as characters. I’d rather read about that biker gang guzzling Schlitz and grilling knockwurst while the talk smack and plan crimes that go epically wrong.
As with all literature – as Camryn Rhys or Elisa Logan would say, LIT-rah-SURE – the beginning is deep and mundane and depressing. It only gets worse from there. While the writing may be beautiful and amazing (though it is not beautiful or amazing on this first page yet) that’s not going to make me want to read more of the story. If I want to be depressed, I’d watch daytime TV.
The first page is all over the place. Also, he adores adjectives and adverbs, while I believe, deep in my dark heart, that all those modifiers simply mean Franzen should’ve picked stronger nouns and verbs in the first place.
It pains me that Franzen is half-Swedish and spent time in Germany as a student, because I am Swedish and lived in Germany as a child. But we are nothing alike, and I care nothing for this first page.
Which is too bad. Franzen has talent to burn. I bet if he wrote about the biker gang instead, it would be seven separate flavors of awesomesauce, and the Coen brothers would make a movie out of it.
Verdict: From this first page, you’d have to hand me stacks of purple euros to convince me that reading FREEDOM would be a good use of my limited time on this planet.
Howard Roark laughed. (I approve of this. It asks a narrative question – who is this guy, and why did he laugh? – and I like short sentences anyway.)
He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him.A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water.(Whoah, whoah, hold up. So far, it was all tight and Hemingway-esque. “The pants fit him. They felt good.” Now you suddenly switch to purple prose, with granite bursting in flight? I didn’t know that granite rocks flew, or exploded when they did decide to take wing. No.)The water seemed immovable, the stone flowing. The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion. The stone glowed, wet with sunrays. (More purple prose. Hate it. Though I do smile at all the double-entendre action. Let’s try again.)
The lake below was only a thin steel ring that cut the rocks in half. The rocks went on into the depth, unchanged. They began and ended in the sky. So that the world seemed suspended in space, an island floating on nothing, anchored to the feet of the man on the cliff.(What? I think Ayn Rand was smoking a bowl here.)
His body leaned back against the sky. It was a body of long straight lines and angles, each curve broken into planes.(Things are either curved, straight or angled. That pretty much covers it. Maybe the only other people in this book are Flat Stanley and the Blob.) He stood, rigid, his hands hanging at his sides, palms out. He felt his shoulder blades drawn tight together, the curve of his neck, and the weight of the blood in his hands. He felt the wind behind him, in the hollow of his spine. The wind waved his hair against the sky. His hair was neither blond nor red, but the exact color of ripe orange rind. (No man would ever describe his hair as “ripe orange rind.” He’d say, “I’m a red-head” or “I’m blond” or “I don’t know.”)
He laughed at the thing which had happened to him that morning (Oh, right. So funny!) and at the things which now lay ahead. (Yes — also hilarious. I laugh at that all the time. Maybe let’s use different ways to hint at backstory and do foreshadowing.)
He knew that the days ahead would be difficult. There were questions to be faced and a plan of action to be prepared. He knew that he should think about it. He knew also that he would not think, because everything was clear to him already, because the plan had been set long ago, and because he wanted to laugh. (Enough with the laughing about things that may or may not have happened, and difficult plans, and thinking about not thinking. We can go to this well once or twice, but not every sentence.)
He tried to consider it. But he forgot. (Or maybe we can jump into that well and stay there forever.) He was looking at the granite.
He did not laugh (Oh, we’re NOT laughing now?) as his eyes stopped in awareness of the earth around him. His face was like a law of nature— (You have got to be kidding me.)
End of Page 1
Notes from The Red Pen of Doom
I believe the readers of today – like me – don’t want (a) tons of purple prose, (b) paragraph after paragraph of character description or (c) 3.4 metric tons of purple prose that’s all character description and internal dialogue.
But there are bigger fish to fry here, both in the literary sense of Is This A Good Page One? and in the story sense.
Ayn Rand is a deity among conservatives, because her novels underpin what she calls the “philosophy” of objectivism, which says it’s quite unselfish to be selfish. This is obviously counter-intuitive and quite appealing in a juvenile kind of way, because hey, it’s now my moral duty to do whatever I want. The best way to take care of others is to only care about yourself. The surest path to aid the poor is to cut taxes for the rich. And so forth.
This philosophy intrudes upon the story. Roark, the hero of this novel, roughly has his way with Dominique, the heroine, when they first meet. She later describes it as rape. Dominique makes Sylvia Plath look mentally stable. To show her undying love for Roark, she marries … some rich man. Then she tries to destroy Roark, divorces that rich man to marry another rich dude, keeps on trying to destroy Roark, then finally divorces that other rich schmuck to marry Roark in the end, but only after Roark TRIES TO BLOW UP A BUILDING that he designed.
If you said “This is a book that makes a hero out of a selfish architect who’s a strong-willed, good-looking rapist and terrorist,” you’d kinda sorta be accurate. And yes, I read the entire book. Twice. I WROTE A PAPER ON IT.
So the first page does foreshadow a lot of things. Ayn Rand has “a frozen explosion of granite” in the second graf. She has a whole bunch of imagery and descriptions of Roark’s perfect body.
HOWEVER: If I hadn’t already read this book, I’d see this first page and think it was some kind of historical romance, with Roark’s kilt and dirk sitting over on that rock, his trusty horse waiting for him after he took a swim and rode off to rescue his favorite maiden, a red-haired beauty held captive by the twisted and disfigured Baron of Whateverthehell.
Otherwise, I don’t hate her writing per se. I merely despise it.
Usually, I can fix a line or a paragraph. Big chunks of this first page simply need to die. The best thing is to cut them out.
Does that whack about half of this first page? Yes.
Would that make it better? Yes.
There’s a weird mix of styles going on here. You get short, clipped sentences, tight and hard, with zero fatty modifiers. But then Ayn the Rand switches to long stretches of not only purple prose, but outright wackiness I expect from college sophomores writing flash fiction at three in the morning on the deadline day after hitting the bong FAR TOO HARD.
There’s a reason 12 publishers rejected this novel before it found a home. Hate the first page. Hate the hero, and the heroine who tries to destroy Roark because she loves him so much. Hate the story. Hate the “philosophy.” It’s a tough call, whether THE FOUNTAINHEAD or OUTLANDER are more deserving of being thrown across the room. But I’m going with THE FOUNTAINHEAD.
It’s two in the morning. Everybody sane is asleep.
But a secret society of British editors was busy sneaking onto my blog, reading my love letter to all who wield the Red Pen of Doom to pay the mortgage.
I know this because a man in a black hood crept inside my secret lair, entered the bigger turret and whispered in my ear, “Me and my mates are dead chuffed.”
He wore a pendant around his neck that looked a lot like a sharp red pen, dripping blood. Also, he smelled like good tea.
I dig the British, and the Australians, so it’s a happy accident that a bunch of Brits and Aussies and New Zealanders read this blog.
The brilliant and beautiful British editors must have told their friends in Canada, who were also up early for some reason, and hitting my silly blog at an ungodly hour despite the fact that I know Canada is only five hours behind Eastern Standard Time, being up north with the sun either shining all but two hours in the summer and that same daystar hiding out for all but two hours in the dead of dark, dark winter.
I don’t care what you’re writing: whether it’s spy thrillers, speeches, newspaper stories or romances about men in kilts, the only thing that matters to the reader is the journey you take them on.
How far – and how fast – is that ride? Where does it start and where does it end?
The roller coaster you take readers on is far, far more important than how pretty you’ve painted things with words.
Oh, there are people who write so beautifully that they can make a trip to Safeway sound more interesting than the latest Michael Bay explosion of robots and cleavage. And yes, there are people who are bestsellers despite the wordsmithing skills of a middling sixth-grader whose main hobby is eating paste.
Those bestsellers are millionaires because story – structure, really — beats pretty words.
Ronald Reagan wasn’t considered the Great Communicator because of his verbal skills. Go back and listen to his Berlin Wall speech, considered a great one. He’s got all sorts of verbal tics and delivery problems. He wasn’t that smooth of a speaker. Reagan’s genius was in being a great storyteller.
The same thing is true of great reporters. It’s not the quality of the prose that makes us hand out Pulitzers and buy Bob Woodward’s books. What he’s truly good at is getting people to give him juicy things to write about, so he can tell a great story, with twists and turns and shockers.
Bad writing is all bad in the same way.
People want a thrilling ride? The Michael Bay School of Storytelling says OK, let’s blow their minds with the most intense story ever. Except when everything is dialed up to 11, the audience goes numb.
Here’s the script for every TRANSFORMER movie ever made. Act 1: Robots fighting! People running! Explosions! Act 2: Robots fighting! People running! Explosions! Act 3: Robots fighting! People running! Explosions!
You see the same problems with bad action movies starring Chuck Norris, Stallone and Schwarzenegger. If it’s exciting to watch the hero take on five bad guys on top of a roof, then it must be twice as awesome to have him dismember 10 thugs with a chainsaw in Act 2 and three times as cool to torch 20 thugs with a flamethrower in Act 3. Except it’s not.
It’s not much different with the typical Boring and Pretentious Literary Novel, which starts out wallowing in misery and angst in Act 1, moves on to more misery and angst in Act 2 and ends with, just for variety, an extra dose of misery and angst for Act 3.
Technically, the insanely rich hero does go on a journey. He goes to the country club. He goes to dinner. He goes to a polo game where he sneaks a rendezvous with his mistress, who he secretly despises.
The other kind of Boring and Pretentious Literary Novel features a noble poor person, who suffers even more than the rich schmuck, and yes, he also technically goes on a journey, though going from one cardboard box in a bad section of Skid Row three blocks down to a rattier cardboard box WITH HOLES IN IT in an even sketchier part of Skid Row isn’t much of a trip for the audience.
A story like this isn’t a thrilling roller coaster. It’s a slow slog on the Train of Misery.
This is why tragedies work. Inherently, they are a fast and exciting ride, because you start at the very top, with a king or president or otherwise Important Person Who Has It All.
Then, because they can’t resist temptation, or otherwise succumb to hubris and stupidity, they plummet from the top to the bottom. Not that they don’t fight back. They try. They pull out of the slide a couple times, and you think they might make it until their inner demons get the best of them.
That is exciting. You’re letting the audience peek into a different, secret world – the Land of the Rich and Famous – and bringing one of the exalted few down to earth. Who doesn’t want to watch that, or read that?
Reporters make a living doing this. Greek playwrights were doing it 2.94 bazillion years ago. Novelists and screenwriters are still doing tragedies, and will be doing them until the sun turns into a red giant and fries the earth.
The reverse story, Underdog, is so simple and well-known that I won’t make a silly chart for it, because I have faith in you.
I believe, deep in my soul, that you have seen ROCKY once or twice, and watched THE KARATE KID many times, because that movie still rocks to this day despite the lame remake starring Will Smith’s kid, which didn’t involve karate at all, because IT WAS IN CHINA and was about kung fu, not karate. Though I do love Jackie Chan.
Unlike the Bad Action Movie, the hero in an Underdog plot doesn’t start out as some insanely skilled and handsome muffin of stud who, if armed with a folding toothbrush, can take on 43 bad guys. Driving tanks.
Rocky starts out as a washed up boxer, a loser. Ralph Macchio starts out as a skinny kid who gets his butt kicked by local bullies 25 hours a day.
Rocky and Ralph go on real journeys, from rock bottom to the top. Ralph goes from getting beat up by the bullies to beating the leader of the bullies in an honorable way, and having his foe shake his hand. He gains their respect. He suffers and sacrifices in order to change and grow. Also, Mr. Miyagi is the Man.
ROCKY has a more interesting plot, and the script won a freaking Oscar because of it. I kid you not: Sylvester Stallone, Mr. B Movie, started out by winning an Oscar for screenwriting. That is the only thing in the world he has in common with Matt Damon.
The end of Rocky isn’t your typical action movie, which features the hero (a) impaling the Villain of the Week, (b) throwing the Villain of the Week into a bottomless pit or (c) watching the Villain of the Week get impaled after he falls down the bottomless pit.
Rocky ends without a victory at all. He doesn’t beat Apollo Creed, despite all his sweat and blood.
He battles Apollo to basically a draw, and for him, that’s a huge moral victory. He has grown. He has changed. And when he gets the girl, it’s not perfunctory movie nonsense, the typical, “Oh yeah, it’s the end, so the hero needs to kiss the girl after he says some clever one-liner.” You care about this schlub getting the girl, even if you didn’t care one bit for TANGO AND CASH.
Sidenote: I did enjoy DEMOLITION MAN, mostly because Sandra Bullock was awesomesauce, Wesley Snipes was believably insane and they made it so after the apocalypse or whatever, every restaurant was Taco Bell.
To whoever wrote that script, I salute you.
The lesson here: no matter what you write, figure out the ending, and that determines the beginning.
If you have a down ending, you need an up beginning. Otherwise, you’re not taking the audience on any kind of ride.
If you have an up ending, you better have a down beginning. The lower, the better.
ROCKY and THE KARATE KID are minor examples.
Let’s go big. The billion-dollar stories follow this formula: STAR WARS, the Harry Potter movies and THE LORD OF THE RINGS are the three biggest stories on this planet, spanning many movies, countless spin-off books and enough merchandise to sink the continent of Australia.
George Lucas and J.K. Rowling have more money than God — end of debate.
All three of those stories start down. Way down. The evil emperor is gaining power. Harry Potter is an orphan because Voldemort killed his parents, and now he’s coming for Harry the Potter — and meanwhile, this big glowing eye on top of a volcano controls all sorts of trolls and scary dudes in hoods who ride black horses of the apocalypse. Our only hope is a tiny man with hairy bare feet and a magic ring whose mighty magic power seems to only turn him invisible and really grumpy.
Sidenote: while in Maui, I read the preface to the introduction to the liner notes for LORD OF THE RINGS, and around page 83, after the index of Elvish words and an anthropological study of Hobbit culture, I was still waiting for the actual story to begin. I did not throw the book across the room, because there were no men in kilts in it that I could detect, but I did lay it down gently and look hard for a hollowed-out pineapple full of alcohols.
Now, I’m not saying all stories are either comedies (up ending) or tragedies (down ending). That’s simplifying things way too much.
For example, dramas and sitcoms are the most common things on TV, right? And they are completely the opposite of what you expect, when you drill down into the story structure of dramas and sitcoms.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: dramas are not tragedies. Dramas end up.
LAW AND ORDER is probably the most famous drama, since at least five cable channels play nothing other than reruns of LAW AND ORDER, LAW AND ORDER: CSI, LAW AND ORDER: LA, LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT, LAW AND ORDER: SOME FIELD IN NEBRASKA and, best of all, LAW AND ORDER: BRITAIN, which I threw in here at the end as a sneaky segue allowing me to play The Best Video On the Planet.
Yes, dramas are about horrible things like murder and rape and war.
Except what they’re really about are heroic people who swim in the muck and chaos caused by idiots and greed. Dramas really say, “Despite how bad things are, there are people who’ll try to make things right.”
That doesn’t mean they succeed every time. About one out of twenty times, LAW AND ORDER lets the bad guy get away with it, and yes, it seems like one out of three times, but if you’re reading this, you’re a writer, and bad at math, and you’re not going to go back and watch all 4,398 episodes to do a tally. So I could make stuff up all day.
Comedies don’t always have down endings, per se – but they are NOT happy.
Comedies are about how absurd, hopeless and screwed up things are.
Specifically, comedies target an institution.
Sitcoms usually go after marriage and family life, usually middle-class suburban families.
M*A*S*H was an indictment of war.
ANIMAL HOUSE lampooned frats and college life.
Comedies have mixed endings. It’s OK for the hero to get what he’s after – but only in an absurd way. His best efforts to achieve his goal always backfire. Things don’t happen like they should. It’s screwball.
The other kind of mixed ending is ironic. The hero gets what he wants, but decides he doesn’t truly want it. He finds the king’s treasure after slaying the dragon and decides he doesn’t want all that money, that he’d rather go back home and be a simple farmer. That sort of thing. ROCKY is a bit of an ironic ending. He doesn’t win the fight. He wins other things: self-respect, a future, a girlfriend. Then in the sequels it gets all conventional and boring, though Mister T, for a brief moment in time, before he sold out and joined the A-Team, was a scary, scary man.
Bonus material for story nerds and intellectual types
There is another type of ending, Random Nonsense, which is more common in indie films with subtitles. Think black and white. Think French existentialism.
Here’s an example: the hero is a downtrodden detective, investigating a killer far smarter than he will ever be. His only son hates him, his boss wants to fire him and wife just left him, though he starts up a flirtatious thing with a girl who works at his local café. Just as he starts catching some breaks – he’s walking the café girl home from their first date when he spots the killer running from an alley, the scene of his latest crime – he’s hit by a drunk driver. The End.
Random Nonsense has a message, too, just like tragedies are about hubris, dramas are about the human spirit overcoming adversity and comedies are about how absurd life is. Random Nonsense is trying to make a point about existentialism and chaos, that we don’t really control events. Things just happen.
This may make for deep conversations in your Philosophy 301 class, and you may feel all intellectual talking about what the movie really meant at 3 a.m. at Denny’s while you eat sides of fries and drink bottomless cups of coffee while smoking cigarettes bummed from your roommate, the sociology major. Sociology!
But it makes for a terrible story. There’s no roller coaster. That’s why the audience for these kinds of stories fits on a postage stamp.
(The title makes sense, since the story turns on an actual notebook.)
by Nicholas Sparks
Chapter One: Miracles
Who am I? And how,I wonder, will this story end?
The sun has come up and I am sitting by a window that is foggy with the breath of a life gone by. (Melodramatic and clunky.) I’m a sight this morning: two shirts, heavy pants, a scarf wrapped twice around my neck and tucked into a thick sweater knitted by my daughter thirty birthdays ago. The thermostat in my room is set as high as it will go, and a smaller space heater sits directly behind me, clicking and groaning and spewing hot air like a fairytale dragon — and still my body shivers with a cold that will never go away, a cold that has been eighty years in the making. Eighty years. , I think sometimes, and dDespite my own acceptance of my age, it still amazes me that I haven’t been warm since George Bush was president. I wonder if this iIs this how it is for everyone my age?
My life? It isn’t easy to explain. It has Not been the rip-roaring spectacular I fancied it would be, but neither have I burrowed around with the gophers. I suppose it has most resembled a blue-chip stock:
(end of page 1)
Notes from the Red Pen of Doom
The biggest problem isn’t the line editing, though it’s clunky. While clearly first-person P.O.V., he keeps inserting needless attributions like “I wonder” and “I think.” Here’s the monster problem: 90 percent of page one is spent telling the reader — repeatedly — that the first-person narrator is (a) 80 years old and (b) seriously obsessed with talking about how cold it is.
Space on page one is precious. It’s for raising narrative questions that won’t be answered for 400 pages. Compelling questions.
Life or death. Together or alone. Freedom or slavery.
I can imagine a story where being 80 years old and cold is the problem. Maybe a doctor is headed to a remote Alaskan village when his snowmobile breaks down. He’s the only doctor within 200 miles, the only hope for a mother who’s in the middle of a labor gone wrong. Now you’ve got public stakes and private stakes. If he doesn’t strap on snowshoes and get past hungry wolves and polar bears, he’ll die, and the mom in labor might die, and her baby might die — and they’ll be no doctor out in the bush for a lot of people.
So: a cold old man becoming warm can matter a lot in a story.
Not in this story. On this page one, it’s boring.
Having an 80-year-old hero can make this hard. Go back to the first line: “And, I wonder, how will this story end?” Not a lot of suspense there. It’s hard having high stakes when the protag is already looking back on his life, as if it’s already over.
This is why most novels and movies feature younger protags. The more you have to lose, the higher the stakes.
It’s why you have movies like INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, not INDIANA JONES AND THE CONTENTIOUS BINGO GAME.
You certainly can have great stories with older heroes. They just have to DO something.
Anthony Hopkins did a great job with Hannibal Lecter, an active and charming killer. Old, yes, but he didn’t act like Sparks’ old man. There is no book called HANNIBAL LECTER AND THE SPACE HEATER.
So, back to THE NOTEBOOK: the beginning should set up the ending. Does the climax hinge on whether our 80-year-old hero puts on another ugly Christmas sweater and finally stops kvetching about being cold? No.
It’s about whether or not he’s alone or together. Whether his wife remembers him or not.
So the first line is on track. Almost. Not “Who am I?” but “Who are you?” And that question should come out of the mouth of the wife.
Or, if Sparks wanted some misdirection, have that question come from somebody else. But since the end is about togetherness, about love and romance and faithfulness, the first chapter should be full of loneliness. Not cold. Not sweaters and scarves and space heaters.
Talk about how friends move, how coworkers get different jobs, kids grow up and stop calling. Spend the first page on loneliness, if you want the ending to be about togetherness.
Had I not read the back cover, and didn’t know the climax of this story, reading page one would not motivate me to read more.
If the narrator complains a lot, and doesn’t think his own life is exciting, why the hell would I keep reading about him? I will now praise the One Known as the Spork: the ending of this book, as a plot, isn’t bad. Page one doesn’t do it justice.
Verdict: Take out the Nine and shoot it full of holes, then burn whatever’s left and start over with a fresh sheet of paper.
I don’t care who you are — you need an editor. And you always will.
In fact, the more successful you are as a writer, the more editing you’ll need.
The time crunch.
You’ll never have as much time as you did when you were struggling to break in.
A journalism student can get away with writing and polishing a major story for weeks or months.
Once you get a job as a reporter at The Willapa Valley Shopper, the first step on your path to The New York Times, you’ve got to crank out two stories a day, every day.
I used to write three or four stories before 10 a.m. every deadline day at papers of news. You get used to it. But it’s a shock at first. The time crunch is real. Which leads to problem No. 2.
The sophomore slump
Think about famous debut novelists who had a tremendous first book, and when you hopped inside your automobile and raced to Borders — back when Borders existed, and sold these things we called “books” — to buy their second novel on release day, it made you weep like a Charlie Sheen who’s run fresh out of tequila and tiger blood because that second book sucked like Electrolux.
Why does this happen?
Because debut novelists spend years polishing that first novel until it shines like a diamond made of words.
And when a debut novelist finally makes it, and has a three-book contract with Random House to crank out a book a year, it’s a struggle. They aren’t used to writing that good that fast.
You only need editing three times: when you start out, when you’re middling and when you’re a busy pro
Some people who write for a living — and didn’t spend time at newspapers or magazines getting edited every day — sometimes think success means they’re infallible. Their words are perfect, becausee otherwise why wouldn’t they be famous? Or they are richer than God and simply don’t care.
And even great writers sometimes just write long. They’re in a rush. They have to crank out the product and move on to the next thing.
Stephen King, who I adore, writes beautiful little short stories and novellas while cranking out novels that clock in at 800 or 1,000 pages.
I could close my eyes, reach onto my bookshelf in my secret lair and grab five King novels that weigh more than most second-graders. Some of these novels are fine being that long. Others are overloaded semis with a sleek sports car of a novel lurking inside and waiting to burst out.
Even literary snobs now admit that King’s novels — even the giant ones — are good. But you could chop 400 or 500 pages from any of his monstrously overlong novels and make them even better.
Think about J.K. Rowling, and how with every paycheck and movie deal, the next book in the Harry Potter series doubled in size, until Boeing had to invent a new freight version of the 747 just to deliver the last novel so we could find out why Hermione winds up with What’s-His-Face, the redheaded doofus sidekick, instead of Harry, her true love.
Get the right editor
Most people get the wrong kind of editor.
You don’t need an editor for nancypants nonsense like dangling modifiers and misplaced commas. That’s a proof-reader, not an editor. Any semi-literate fool can proof-read a document. Microsoft Word can take a whack at that.
The editor you need is (a) a professional who (b) edits or writes for a living in (c) the specific type of writing you want to do FOR MONIES.
Any old professional will NOT do
A roomful of reporters and editors at a newspaper is a good example. They all write and edit for a living, and 99 percent of them want to write the Great American Novel — but 99 percent of the time, they fail.
Because it’s not their specialty.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Writing short non-fiction newspaper stories is far, far different than writing 400-page novels. The structure reporters use for news stories — the inverted pyramid — is exactly backwards for fiction.
Now, there are exceptions. Opinion page editors and columnists could make the transition to speechwriters, and vice-versa. The structures and techniques for persuasion on the page are quite similar to the ones used in speech and rhetoric.
But if you want to make a switch, the fact that you already write for monies doesn’t guarantee anything.
It’s like professional sports. The fact that you play shooting guard for the Bulls doesn’t mean can play left field for the White Sox.
That’s exactly what Michael Jordan tried to do. This is the greatest basketball player of all time. He’d won enough NBA championships. He’d climbed every basketball mountain. He was one of the best athletes on the planet.
So when he decided to try playing major league baseball, it wasn’t a silly dream.
And he did it right. He didn’t try to muscle his way onto the White Sox starting lineup by having lunch with the owner. He trained with baseball coaches and played for the minor league Birmingham Barons, batting .202 with 3 home runs, 51 runs-batted-in and 30 stolen bases.
Batting .202 isn’t good enough. Jordan went back to basketball.
When you try to cross-over, you’ve got to be just as careful and serious and hard-working as if you’re trying to break in for the first time.
Your editor needs to do it for monies
If you really want to pay the mortgage writing full time, you’ve got to go all in with an editor who wields their Red Pen of Doom for monies, too.
Not your husband or wife or best friend. Not a coworker or a buddy who writes something sort of close to what you’re doing, even if they do it full time.
It’s an achy breaky big mistakey to use a non-pro as your editor. Friends and family may be great readers of books but horrible at editing. Either way, you’ll take what they say far too personally.
Dreams will be crushed. Friendships will fray. Marriages will sour. DO NOT DO THIS.
Even if you’re friends with somebody who writes or edits for a living, and they say sure, they’ll edit you as a favor, that might be OK for one small piece. A short story. Your first shot at a stump speech. But not anything of length. And not as a habit. When you start cashing checks for what you write, stop being a freeloader. Set your friend free.
Better yet, don’t lean on the friend too much in the first place. Because they’re your friend. They won’t tell you if you truly stink up the joint.
Your editor must be in your specific field
It’d be silly to use a professional writer or editor in a different field.
They won’t know the conventions and quirks of another type of writing. They’ll make you feel confident that your text is perfect when it has some formatting flaw or deadly structural boo-boo that neither one of you spotted, because your buddy writes screenplays and you’re doing a novel about elves with lightsabers who ride dragons.
Find an editor who does exactly what you want to do, whether that’s writing novels, newspaper stories, magazine features, non-fiction books or speechwriting for the politicians.
Now, the natural response to this is, “Professional editors cost money, and I am a poor, starving writer with six kids who lives in a cardboard shack and feeds my family Top Ramen, raw, like popcorn, because we can’t afford a pot to boil the stuff in, so there’s no way I can pay some fancy editor to bleed on my words, words that I carefully put on this paper towel in my own blood because Bic pens and Underwood typewriters and Toshiba laptops are out of my budget, unless I spend my every weekend robbing the local 7-Eleven, which for some reason hates AP style and won’t go with Seven-11.”
To this I say: suck it up.
Professional editors don’t cost THAT much. Scrape together $100 or $200 and have a pro look at the first chunk of whatever you’re writing. Believe me, they don’t need to read all 400 pages to know what your strengths and weaknesses are. Though it’s a lie that you can figure that out after five pages. It only takes one page, to be honest.
If you were trying to cut hair for a living, it’d cost you more than a couple hundred bucks to get a license. A writing conference plus three days in a hotel can run you $1k, and that’s if you NEVER EAT ANYTHING and completely abstain from bourbon. So suck it up and find somebody good to look at your first bit, long before you write the entire shebang.
Because a great editor is priceless.
Plug: Theresa the Stevens, who reads this silly blog and makes witty comments, is a professional editor and former literary agent who also edits for publishers.
Theresa the Stevens is also kind, because she does a special deal where she wields her wicked pen on the first 75 pages of a novel PLUS the synopsis PLUS the query letter.
Think about how long it takes a human being to write and rewrite and rewrite a novel and synopsis and query letter. Hundreds of hours. Bazillions. Think about paying yourself minimum wage for those hours.
Then close your eyes and imagine there’s a glowing mystical being who, for the price of the complete first and second seasons of The Jersey Shore on DVD, could save yourself hundreds of more hours of pain while making you (a) seem incredibly brilliant and (b) have ten times the shot of not only getting the thing published, but making decent money at it.
Is that worth a couple hundred bucks?
Cowboy up. If you really want to write for a living, and not toy with it as a hobby, find yourself the best professional editor possible. And pay them in something other than thank you’s and cups of coffee.