Writing Tips: Getting Started

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Faith, 12, has asked me for writing tips, so here we go. The nooze can wait.

I was writing stories when I was 12. I was even writing “books,” longhand in one of those black-and-white composition notebooks. I was, of course, fully convinced that these efforts of mine were good enough to be published; but in the meantime, I read them to my friends.

Which is a way of getting started as a writer!

No one wants to hear this–I certainly didn’t–but it takes a certain amount of life experience to write about life. Maybe that’s why children experimenting with story-telling are so apt to venture into science fiction or fantasy: instead of knowing things, they’re free to make things up.

Ah! But your time isn’t wasted. I started telling stories when I was in third grade, nine years old. I had two friends who liked inventing stories, and we would sit together in their cellar and entertain each other with the stories we made up–mostly about monsters.

Writing itself can be tricky. Getting your point across the way you want it, saying what you really mean to say, so that someone else will understand it–these take years of practice. There’s no substitute for practice. In fact, let me emphasize it: THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR PRACTICE.

I couldn’t do at 15 or 16 the things I can do as a writer now. I couldn’t do at 12 what I could do at 16.

So don’t be discouraged if you can’t get stuff published when you’re 12 (although when I was 12, there was no such thing as self-publishing). The time is not being lost; it’s being invested. What you need to be doing is telling stories–whatever kind of stories you enjoy telling. Tell them to your friends. If your friends like your stories and want to hear more, you are very much on the right track.

And keep at it. Just keep at it. I didn’t get anything published professionally until I was almost 40 years old. You’re bound to do better than that.

Writing ‘Behold!’–in the Heat

The Glass Bridge (Bell Mountain, #7) by Lee Duigon

Oy vay, it’s hot today! But if I want to keep on writing Behold!, I’ve got to take the heat. What I wouldn’t give, though, to be out on that boat with Gurun, with cold water splashing my face.

Unexpectedly, it seems the wine of Durmurot will have a role in moving my plot forward. My wife has developed a taste for the golden wine of Durmurot, but you can’t get it around here. Heck, we can’t even get American-grown parsley, these days.

We had a couple of cooler days last week, and that left us unprepared to face the return of the perishingly hot weather. I’ve just been out there finishing up a chapter, and I’m knackered. Time for an enormous glass of iced tea.

Elijah Holsten’s sister, Faith, 12 years old, has asked me for some writing tips. In the spirit of today’s weather, Tip No. 1 is simple: Just keep at it. If your work that day isn’t all it could be, you can always smarten it up later. That’s why my first draft is always written longhand, on a legal pad. Keep the story moving. Stylistic niceties I add when I move on to the typed draft I’ll submit to my editor.

Thank God for air conditioning!

A Lame Excuse for a Literary Lapse

michael_gothard_archive | Ivanhoe: screencaps

Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe will last forever as a literary classic. Even so, there’s one little clinker in it that makes you wonder if Scott was quite sane at the time.

To show the futility of any dream of ousting the Normans and putting a Saxon noble on the throne of England, Scott gives us a lout named Athelstane as the last remaining repository of that hope. Although descended from Saxon royalty, Athelstane’s main interest in life is eating. You could put him in a stall with a feed-bag, and he’d be happy.

Toward the end of the story, Athelstane gets killed in a battle. The larders of England breathe a collective sigh of relief. The reader promptly forgets there was ever such a character as Athelstane–

Until, in Chapter XLII, Sir Walter Scott brings him back to life.

Now, this was not like Conan Doyle being forced by public outrage to bring back Sherlock Holmes after drowning him in the Reichenbach Falls. Why bring back Athelstane, a clod? Let’s let Sir Walter himself answer that question, in his own footnotes to Ivanhoe.

“59. The resuscitation of Athelstane has been much criticised, as too violent a breach of probability, even for a work of such fantastic character. It was a ‘tour-de-force,’ to which the author was compelled to have recourse, by the vehement entreaties of his friend and printer, who was inconsolable on the Saxon being conveyed to the tomb.”

That’s his excuse–an inconsolable printer? Well, it’s feeble enough to be true. What a soft-hearted fellow Sir Walter must have been! The return of Athelstane was unnecessary, unwanted, and preposterous; and you wonder how a literary giant could have taken such a fall. It’s like Hamlet’s pants splitting with an audible riiiip! in the middle of “To be or not to be.”

Note to aspiring authors: Don’t think you’ll ever get away with a honker like this.

Writing Tips: Don’t Be Too ‘Writery’

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Y’know how some movies are annoying because they’re so actory? By “actory” I mean that they seem to have been made only to give actors an opportunity to show off for each other, with no consideration for any wider audience.

Some of you, naturally, will someday want to try your hand at writing fiction. If you do, please to try not to be too “writery.” Like you might be imagining some reader shaking his head in awe and admiration and muttering, “Wow, this guy’s better than Hemingway!”

What makes prose too writery? Well, tell me what’s wrong with this picture:

My [bleep] personal life was like a goose without a gee, a slapstick tragedy. The hairs on my legs stood up and laughed at me. I live face-down in that ignored Gomorrah that calls itself Fashoda, New Jersey, along with all the rest of the acrophobic midgets and the songs that voices never share…

Imagine half a dozen pages of this, and you’ll get the picture.

For almost every purpose imaginable in literature, plain English will suffice. If you’re William Shakespeare, of course you can go beyond that. Way beyond it! If you’re Ross Macdonald you can tiptoe right up to the edge without falling off. But most of us are better off just saying what you mean.

I say it’s an achievement when the reader of your book loses the awareness of reading a book. Something to shoot for, eh? Or, to paraphrase Sun Tzu, “The supreme art of writing is to write without writing.”

‘How to Ruin a Fantasy’ (2014)

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Just as merely destroying the dining room can ruin a do-it-yourself magic trick, there are just as simple ways to ruin a fantasy.

How to Ruin a Fantasy

Among many effective methods is the trick of repeatedly dragging the fantasy story back into the drearier aspects of what we generally think of as the “real world.” In the very worst example of that that I ever saw, the Elf turns to the Dwarf and says, “We must learn to respect a diversity of lifestyles.” I happen to know the author who wrote that. He’s a good guy. Otherwise he’d have to be put to sleep or something.

Having the characters in your fancy talk like modern teens’ text messages is guaranteed to ruin your fantasy. You’d be better off writing it in Rongo-Rongo script. Then at least we could maintain the untestable possibility that it might be good.

‘Writing Tip: You’re Not in a Nudist Colony’ (2016)

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Probably a scene that you do need to describe in some detail

Come to think of it, I’ve never read a story set in a nudist colony.  But the point here, for budding writers, is to avoid burdening your readers with details that they don’t need–like what all the characters are wearing.

Writing Tip: You’re Not in a Nudist Colony

The trickiest part of writing fiction is description. If you don’t have enough, the scene never takes shape in the reader’s mind. If you provide too much, the reader will get bored and impatient.

J.R.R. Tolkien was great at telling you just enough to make the scene he was describing come alive. No one ever did a better job of harnessing the reader’s own imagination. That’s why illustrations of The Lord of the Rings don’t work for me–they never match what I’ve already imagined.

A Few More Writing Tips

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Spring is coming, and I want to be ready to start writing another book as soon as God gives me something to start with. To that end, I’ve just read The Throne and am now reading The Silver Trumpet, which I wrote last year–the tenth book of my Bell Mountain series. Whatever comes next, I left some matters in Trumpet which will need to be addressed.

By now I’ve had thirteen novels published, including my four horror novels from long ago, and I’ve picked up some tricks of the trade, learning them the old-fashioned way, by experience. I know some of you out there want to try your hands at writing novels, so here are a couple of tips.

*If whatever you happen to be writing seems tiresome to you, it will be tiresome to the reader, too. Trust me on that. If your fictional characters are getting all caught up in details, the reader will abandon them. Don’t devote a lot of space to things that aren’t interesting.

*Remember the rule of Chekhov’s Gun. The great playwright said that if there’s a gun hanging on the wall, sooner or later in the play, one of the characters will have to use it. Otherwise there’s no reason for it being there. (I learned about that, believe it or not, from studying chess: don’t line up your Rooks and Queen unless you mean to use them.)

*Don’t tell the reader a lot of things he doesn’t need to know. If a character walks into the story to say “Here are the gum boots that you ordered, madam,” then leaves and is seen and heard no more, you needn’t tell the reader anything about his kindergarten days. He’s done his job and you’re finished with him.

*I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating–don’t insult the reader by editorializing about the characters. If a character is a villain, you needn’t call him a villain. If he says and does villainous things, the reader won’t need you to tell him that this character’s a villain. I call this “the Lovable Sheepdog Rule,” after a wretched novel in which a certain sheepdog never appeared without the adjective “lovable.” This did not make the sheepdog lovable to me, the reader. It made me want to call the dog-catcher.

If you observe these rules in your own writing, you’ll run much less risk of creating something boring. Readers who are not part of a captive audience–say, a class of high school kids–have a very low boredom threshold. And a writer does well to remember that.

Writing Tip: You’re Not in a Nudist Colony

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One of the things I was asked about during yesterday’s “webinar” (on-line seminar) was certain pitfalls to avoid when writing fiction.

One of the pitfalls we discussed was to avoid burdening the reader with information that he doesn’t need. In most cases, that will include whatever clothing the character in a scene happens to be wearing.

There are times when you will want to describe that clothing: like, when it sheds some light on the character’s character, or when it has a bearing on the plot. Examples: 98-pound Willie Weasel wears a “Death Before Dishonor” biker’s T-shirt, even though he doesn’t have a motorcycle and faints if he nicks himself shaving. That such a man wears such a T-shirt tells you something about his character. Or, Cadence Cabong habitually wears really pointy high heels, which leads to her falling off the ladder she must climb.

In most cases, though, you don’t have to tell the reader what everybody’s wearing in a given scene. The reader’s own imagination will clothe them while you get on with the story. Unless you tell him otherwise, the reader will not assume your characters are all members of a nudist colony.

Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House, The Lottery, and other famous works) once advised aspiring writers not to bother describing to their readers the wrist watch that each character was wearing. If you do that, she warned, the reader will begin to suspect that the writer is “queer for wrist watches.”

It takes skill and experience to decide correctly how much detail to give the reader at any juncture of the story. Don’t look for a lot of complicated ways to describe exactly how a character changes a light bulb. “She changed the light bulb” will suffice. You’d be amazed by how much detail you can leave out because the reader will supply it out of his own imagination.

Just don’t leave out too much.

Writing Tips: Avoid Clunky Prose

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I’m currently reading, for review, a fantasy novel which is chock-full of exciting and creative situations and ideas. But it’s turning into rough sledding because the author’s prose style has a hard time carrying the story.

Cardinal rule: Don’t let your writing get between your reader and the story.

Sentences must be crafted to flow smoothly. They ought to have a certain meter or rhythm–without, of course, being too obvious about it. In fact, your prose should be as unobtrusive as possible–unless you’re Ngaio Marsh or P.G. Wodehouse, and half the fun of reading you is the unexpected tricks you play with words.

A good rule of thumb is to read your work aloud, to yourself. If it’s hard to do this, there’s something wrong with your prose. You don’t want a start-and-stop, herky-jerky prose.

For fantasy writers only: if, like so many of us, you place your story in a medieval setting, for Pete’s sake, don’t start slinging around rubbish like “methinks” or “I wot not what he sayeth” or “I prithee.” I really hate “I prithee.” You must also make and keep a vow never to resort to current American slang.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, plain English is the way to go. It always does the job.

Forsooth, I wot not what serveth yon medieval jargon, and I prithee, let me suffer it no more!

How to Write a Really Rotten Novel

In my years of reading, I have learned to recognize many techniques whose employment guarantees a truly impoverished work of fiction. In case you’re interested in writing one, I’m going to share them with you.

1. Make your main character an avatar of all your fantasies about yourself–unbelievably smart, strong, sexy, cool, etc. This works especially well if you are a pencil-necked geek or a big squishy puffball and you write yourself up as Bonzo the Barbarian or Mr. Cool the super-spy, or the drop-dead gorgeous female pirate captain, whatever.

2. All the other characters are only there to be put in the shade by your protagonist. If your hero is a male, all the women in the book must throw themselves at him. All the other men are constantly shown up by him. Please don’t bother to give these ancillary characters any depth or personality.

3. Make sure the villains in your story are impotent pygmies who can never get the better of your hero. Don’t be afraid to rely on extremely improbable coincidences to make your hero come out on top.

4. Above all, stock your story with absurd situations that make no sense at all. Two memorable examples will illustrate what I mean.

In one of the few truly awful mysteries I’ve read, the protagonist, a 55-year-old homicide detective, spends most of the hottest night of the year toiling over a particularly gruesome and disgusting murder scene. Then he goes home to his 17-year-old girlfriend and they go at it like rabbits for the next six hours.

In a horror novel, the heroine, a 40-plus-year-old, chain-smoking, desk-bound social worker clobbers the living daylights out of three hulking goons who try to murder her. To this day I don’t know how she did it. I hope the author, the editor, and the publisher donated their brains to science for careful study.

We have all encountered most of these in published novels, some of them best-sellers. There are, of course, many more; I don’t have space to discuss them all today. That these techniques are so widely used to produce so many awful novels is a deep mystery of the universe. If you’re interested, I can always list some others. But for the time being, these should surely be enough to get you started in producing fiction that will have your readers pleading for mercy–if it doesn’t make you rich and famous.