About Writers

Twenty-Three Rules for Writers

The muse babbles, as she usually does. Crouched on my kitchen table, she scrapes a long crumpled feather smooth, then clacks the stony hinge of her beak.

I retrieve a pair of mismatched tumblers from the drainboard and crack open a bottle of J.T.S. Brown. Straight up, no ice. She never takes ice. I wait, sipping, while she slurps, her black tongue lapping in noisy swipes. Once, I would’ve waited with pen clicked, notebook ready. Now I just wait, knowing better.

These late night sessions used to be more frequent. It seemed I could almost conjure her appearance by act of will. But they were never what I thought they ought to be. Like a lot of writers, I always imagined the muse dictating stories in my ear, using me as a vehicle for her divine inspiration. Only my muse isn’t like that. I have to be the one who, between drinks, coaxes her back to the table and gets her talking again. But nothing she says ever really makes sense. Her stories are tangled skeins; her language is an obscure bramble. Half the time, it’s pure gibbering. I’m never entirely sure that she isn’t just yanking my chain.

And that’s the problem with divine beings. To her, you are the illusion, you are the dream. It’s no certainty that she’s even noticed you.

So I don’t hope for stories or sense anymore. I don’t take notes. I don’t toil long into the night after she leaves, burning with vision. Maybe, days later, I’ll remember some phrase, some notion which seems to have no point of origin, no history. Maybe she didn’t even say it, but it had to come from somewhere. I only know it might be important because I can’t quite put it out of my mind.

So I thought I’d share a few here, in this pleasant purgatory. Frangible axioms of dubious origin. Inscrutable proverbs. I collect them, doncha know. I figure they might prove useful one day, when I’m beating my head against some stubborn hedge of verbiage, or trying to thread an impossible prosodic needle.

Apply at your own risk.

Twenty-Three Rules for Writing:

1. Holes. It needs more holes.
2. Time is an exquisite, aching mirage.
3. Celebrate evanescent things.
4. It is, just maybe, possible.
5. Hew doggedly to the wrong path.
6. Make mouths in the wall so it can speak more light.
7. All desire is holy—and indecent.
8. Jump off the cliff.
9. Admit nothing.
10. Crack the door open; don’t go in.
11. Only details.
12. Defend the indefensible.
13. Sneak out the back door; re-enter through the skylight, shattering.
14. You don’t have to give them anything.
15. You have to give them everything.
16. Words will waste you, pal.
17. Gather tiny miracles.
18. It’s already broken. You can’t make it any more broken.
19. Add clutter.
20. Vamp for a while.
21. Sing into the handsome demon’s mouth.
22. Dream in the face of oblivion.
23. End it here. End it now.

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Uncategorized, writing technique

Me and Hemingway

The other day, this blog post appeared in my Facebook feed with the title:  “This Surprising Reading Level Analysis Will Change the Way You Write.”

Once you get past the clickbait title, it’s a pretty good post. The reading level analysis the post is talking about is called the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, a method developed in the 1970s for evaluating the difficulty of a text. Basically, it analyses a text for complexity and assigns it a reading level.

Just for kicks, I fed a brief, randomly-selected chapter from my newest book, Whisper Blue into the analyzer over at ReadabilityScore.com and clicked analyze. My score?  A whopping 4.1. Fourth grade reading level. Ha! Shows what an erudite elitist I am! The analysis of Text Quality said I had:

—5 sentences with 30 or more syllables
—20 with 20 or more syllables
—3 words with 4 or more syllables, and
—no words exceeding 12 letters.

And this, really, is ALL that Flesch-Kincaid analyzes. Long sentences and long words get you a higher grade level score; short words and short sentences get you grammar school scores. A reductive metric if ever I saw one, but Flesch-Kincaid was never meant to be more than a very rough guide. There’s really no judgment involved. It’s simply a crude measure of complexity. And you know who else wrote at a fourth grade level? Ernest Hemingway. How about Cormac McCarthy? Fifth grade. Likewise Jane Austen. Tolstoy? Fitzgerald? Stephen King? Yup. They all, apparently, wrote for middle schoolers.

Obviously, these sorts of grades tell us a lot more about the test then they do about the texts. And the whole thing points out some of the difficulties involved in using any kind of standardized approach to evaluating creative work. For example, the analyzer at Readabilityscore.com also includes a tally of three of the best known No-Nos all writers should avoid: use of the passive voice, adverbs, and clichés. My score was 7 passives, 1 cliché, and a whopping 68 adverbs!

Yoiks! I suck! Only, I don’t really. In the first place, a large amount of the text I selected is dialogue. And normal human speech is riddled with adverbs and passive constructions, not to mention clichés. And in the second place, most of these adverbs weren’t bad adverbs, and most of the passive constructions weren’t even passive.

Example—the site flagged the following phrases as passive:

“maybe I shouldn’t be encouraging him.”

“Everything was going to be all right.”

“One minute I was dismissing the whole thing as mumbo jumbo, the next I was withdrawing a hundred dollars from the ATM, just in case.”

These aren’t passive. Apparently, when the search algorithm sees a construction like “was going” or “was dismissing” or “be encouraging,” it mistakes auxiliary verb constructions (such as continuing action) for a passive constructions.

As far as my copious use of adverbs, here are a few examples (the underlined words were flagged as adverbs):

There you go.”

“That’s probably exactly what happened.”

“That old fake had us jumping around like a couple of citified rubes, but it was all just a show!”

“You are not going anywhere three nights from now!”

Adverbs are not evil. Yes, it’s awful when writers overuse those dreaded -ly constructions, especially in dialogue tags. But adverbs expressing place (there) or time (now) really don’t get my critical dander up. I suppose probably is modifying exactly, (adverbs can modify other adverbs) but then why didn’t they flag exactly, which is an adverb of manner? And I’m not at all sure which verb, adjective or adverb just is supposed to be modifying in the third example.

Needless to say, this isn’t very useful as a writing tool, but there are a lot of sites like readability-score.com out there. Usually they let you try it out for free—paste some text and have them identify the alleged problems. Then, after you’ve used your share of free samples, you can sign up and pay for membership. I’m not sure what readability-score.com charges for membership, but even as a free service, it seems slightly overpriced. And it isn’t simply that it misidentifies the passive voice—I’ve seen human editors do the same.

0The problem is more one of attitude. Grammar and syntax have rules, but there are endless subtleties. Even if the website correctly spotted adverbs and passive constructions, the suggestion that adverbs are always wrong, or that the passive voice is always a weak choice, is simplistic at best. You should be aware of what your are doing, at all times,, and make good choices but following boilerplate suggestions for improving your prose is only going to produce boilerplate prose.  Good writing is clear, evocative, and surprising—and no algorithm is going to make that happen for you.

(By the way, If you’d like to check it out for yourself, my paranormal thriller about voodoo and cyber-ghosts and the mass hysteria of the crowds is available at Amazon, Kobo, and other places. I think you’ll like it. No matter what your reading level is.)

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What a Day for a Dream Sequence

So what’s so bad about dream sequences anyway? That’s what I wanna know.

No. Wait. I already know. That most abhorred of all plot devices is abhorred for good reasons: they’re trite and obvious; they take us out of the story; they’re a cheap shortcut. Hack writers who can’t figure out how to advance their narrative or fix their gaping plotholes use dream sequences.

Weak stuff. And for a lot of writing teachers, editors and agents, they are simply a “don’t do.” As in never.

But Tolstoy used them. As did Emily Bronte, George Orwell, James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, JK Rowling. And they are, of course, even more common in television and movies, even by writers like Joss Whedon and Vince Gilligan, neither of whom can be called a hack.

Let us acknowledge a few obvious caveats: no one likes it when a whole story arc turns out to have been only a dream in the end (The Wizard of Oz not withstanding.) And those sloppy deus ex machina dreams where Janie Average is told she’s destined to wield the Sword of Destiny? Yeah, those are usually bad. But for the record, I love a good dream sequence (note the word good, please). Especially a dream that doesn’t immediately reveal itself as such, but only gradually bends the world, with everything becoming odder and odder, until reality finally cracks apart and the dream is revealed. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. (There’s a fantastic example of this device in Crime and Punishment, actually. Very chilling, and nicely indicative of the fact that Raskolnikov’s mental world is coming apart as guilt permeates his soul.)

And yes, I know I am not supposed to like these scenes, because they are NEVER strictly necessary to the narrative of the story. And what are writing gurus always maundering on about? Make every scene count! No unnecessary scenes! If you don’t need it, cut it! Most often, dream sequences are atmospheric set pieces that don’t move the plot at all. Since nothing is really happening, it can’t possibly be necessary, right? Dream over, hit the reset button. Continue with the real story, please. As a student of good writing and an admirer of disciplined storytelling, I ought to hate them.

But I still like them.

I could argue that a properly executed dream sequence can provide a fascinating platform for characters to interact in an entirely new, entirely other, context. They allow a deep dive into the subconscious motivations of the dreamer, unfettered by the constraints of the rational world.

Those things are true, and that’s great, but what I like about a really spectacular dream sequence is much simpler:  it’s fun. The chaos of dreams is a selective chaos with an uncanny logic of its own. It’s a tiny moment of world building, a way to reframe reality—temporarily, but with lasting impact. And since they are inherently risky, it’s also a chance to watch a good writer walk the high wire. In expert hands, a dream sequence can invert the narrative in a way few other devices can.

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Dreams don’t get much better than Laura Petrie sliding down a mountain of walnuts.

I know some folks are going to say they don’t like it when the writer messes with the reader. Play fair with your reader or they’ll never trust you, blah blah blah. But so what? I’m not looking for trust. Good writers mess with us all the time, and we eat it up. What is fiction if not messing with the reader?

All of this assumes, of course, that the thing works. As with so so much else in writing, if it doesn’t work, all bets are off. Which brings us to the first rule of good writing: get it right or go home (also know as the “don’t suck” rule.)  And if you’re going to use a much-maligned device like a dream sequence, that rule applies all the more, because you’ve got two strikes against you before you even step into the box.

And if you’re in writing class, and the instructor says: “No dream sequences! Ever!”—nod politely, smile, maybe even give an airy little laugh. And dream away.

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writing technique

Cold Open

It is, with the possible exception of “show, don’t tell” the most commonly heard piece of advice for writers: You need a strong opening. Your first sentence is your first chance to grab your reader. If they open that door, they will enter your story and start looking around. The first paragraph is your foyer, the first page the front room.

Close that door behind them. They’re inside now.

Usually, this advice is followed up with a laundry list of “red flag” things you should never do:

• Don’t begin with waking up.
• Don’t begin with a weather report.
• Don’t begin with a character description.
• Don’t open with a character talking.
• Don’t open with a character thinking.
• You shouldn’t start with dialogue (looks old fashioned) but you should make sure there is dialogue on the very first page because otherwise your book looks boring.
• You shouldn’t start with any kind of description because readers need human emotion to connect with, not just a bunch of pretty pictures.

Googling “bad ways to start a story” brings up countless pages, and if you try to follow all of them it can be baffling. Everyone agrees it’s good to start with action, but why should anyone care what happens if they don’t know who anyone is yet? Everyone agrees, you SHOULDN’T start with backstory, but how can readers get involved with people and a situation they know nothing about? You shouldn’t begin with anything anyone has ever seen before because that’s boring and cliched, but you shouldn’t begin with anything too strange or readers will just get confused, and above all: NO PROLOGUES!

Because agents hate prologues.

I’m sure you will have noticed by now that many fine books have been written that utterly ignore these rules. Let’s skip the obvious classics (“Call Me Ishmael.” “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams etc…”)  and focus on more contemporary examples. Everything is Illuminated (Jonathan Safran Foer) begins with the protagonist telling us his name. Underworld (Don Delillo) doesn’t have any dialogue until page four, and even then it’s only the random chatter of non-characters. The Book Thief (Markus Zusak) begins with a prologue (did I mention how agents feel about prologues?) made up mostly of incomplete sentences and cryptic observations by a narrator we know nothing about. The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver) begins with pages of description as dense and as thick as the jungles of the Belgian Congo. Lovely? Intriguing? Sure. But who are these people we’re supposed to connect to? Where is the story we’re supposed to get involved with?

If these books hadn’t been written by well-known, prize-winning authors, would they have even gotten published? Or would the literary agents and editors of the world have tossed them aside mid-sentence, overwhelmed by all the red flags waving at them from page one?

Dunno. I’ll tell you, though, it would be a tough go. Literary agents tend to read with one finger on the eject button, looking for a reason to stop. One complicated sentence, one ambiguous moment, and they could very well decide your precious novel just isn’t worth the effort.

What they want, what you need, is a cold open. Anyone who watches television knows what this is. It’s that part of a show before the opening credits, before the theme music, where they jump directly into the story, give us a teaser of what is to come. (With comedies, the cold open often has nothing to do with the story of the week, but with dramas it usually does.) The cold open hasn’t always been around. Back in the olden days, shows just started with the theme music, exactly the same every time, but somewhere around 1965, television producers started getting innovative— Star Trek, The Man From Uncle, Mission Impossible—these were all early examples of television dramas that made use of the dramatic cold open. The idea, of course, was to rope the audience in before the show had even started—get the viewer involved so they wouldn’t switch away to see what else was on.

In all fairness, in the early days of television, shows didn’t really need a cold open. There just weren’t that many channels, not that many shows to choose from. If someone tuned in I Love Lucy or Gunsmoke, they probably did so as a matter of choice. They didn’t need to be roped in. Not that there wasn’t always competition between shows and networks, but the stakes were certainly lower. You had three, maybe four, options for any given time-slot. There weren’t 300 choices to scroll through at the press of a thumb.

And that, dear readers, is a pretty good analog to the situation we writers find ourselves in today. There are thousands of choices facing the book buyer these days. And unless we are a Barbara Kingsolver or a Markus Zusak with a ready and waiting audience, we are all competing to catch the attention of a dwindling audience who have been largely conditioned to abandon any source of entertainment that isn’t constantly jangling their excitation circuits. So do we start every book with a cold open, in res media, bullets flying, pedal to the metal?

I don’t know. I really don’t. It’s too easy, perhaps, to say: write what you believe in, audience be damned. Be true to your vision of what you want your work to be.

Of course. Absolutely. But—at what price? Just how user friendly do we want to be?

 

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