Hubris Is Not a Bad Thing For Writers…Except When It Is

photo credit: nWoSyxx via photopin cc

photo credit: nWoSyxx via photopin cc

In most situations, hubris is catastrophic. It leads you to overestimate your competence, which undermines your credibility. This inevitably leads to job problems and, potentially, to problems in your personal life as well. For writers, though, hubris may not be such a bad thing. In fact, it might be essential for aspiring novelists.

Slaving away in solitude for months or years, depending on your process, requires a special kind of arrogance. You need to believe, deep down, almost zealot-like, that you are writing something extraordinary…something people will want to read…something that people will want to spend money on. Devoting that kind of time and energy to a project, especially for indie authors and first-time novelists who lack a fan base to shore up their egos, in short, requires hubris.

You need overweening pride in yourself, in your work, in your imagination and there is nothing wrong with that. Without that hubris in play, most books would go unwritten or unshared. You can’t do without it and you shouldn’t try. The problem with necessary hubris, and you had to know a problem was coming, turns up after you finish the first draft.

That same hubris that let you sustain the work can also lead you to believe that it doesn’t need the attention of an editor, or that the novel doesn’t have structural issues, characterization issues or simple language issues. You are, of course, wrong about that. No matter how well-crafted your novel’s first draft is, it needs work. Always. Period. Do not pass Go; do not collect your Pulitzer.

The hardest part of being a writer is seizing your hubris by the tail and hauling it in once the writing is over and the revisions begin. You need to be able to put away the pride and look objectively at the work. If this sounds a bit schizophrenic, well, it is. You’re a writer. Get used to cognitive dissonance. It’s what you signed on for. Think of your hubris like a tool. Not every tool is right for every job. Hubris is a tool for sustaining the process. Objectivity is the tool for seeing it through to the end.

In Which I Discuss Fiction and the Peculiar Consistency of Voice

photo credit: stephenscottjenkins via photopin cc

photo credit: stephenscottjenkins via photopin cc

A very long time ago, a lifetime ago it feels some days, I got it into my head that I was going to be a writer. Not merely a writer, I was going to be a writer of short stories and novels. So, I wrote short stories and started novels, most of which were truly awful, unoriginal, or plagued with the kinds of mistakes that all writers seem to make in the early days. I submitted the short stories to various markets. In most cases, I received the dreaded form-letter rejection and I still have all of them tucked away in a folder somewhere. Every once in a while, though, I found myself getting a scrawled note of encouragement from an editor.

In those early days, I didn’t recognize the significance of those scrawled notes. Intellectually, I knew they meant that I was getting somewhere. I knew it, but I didn’t feel it. I felt the rejection, of course. The fragile confidence of youth always recognizes rejection and I wrote less. Then life began to intervene. There were deaths in the family, college, relationships and I wrote less and less and less. Until, finally, I wasn’t writing fiction at all.

It was years before I turned back to writing fiction and I went big. I started with a novel and, by and large, have stuck with it since then. It’s been a hobby, a thing done between the paying gigs, and that seemed okay by me. Then, a funny thing happened. The holidays rolled around. Western society all but ground to a halt and I had some extra time on my hands. I had a lot of extra time on my hands. So, I wrote a few short stories. These were ideas that didn’t have a place in my novels, but persisted in reminding me they existed.

I discovered two things as a result of that little experiment. The first thing I discovered or, perhaps, remembered is the correct word, is that I like writing short stories. It’s fun. It’s also demanding. Writing short fiction forces you to excise all of those extra characters and subplots and interesting tidbits you can squeeze into a novel. The second thing I discovered is that voice is shockingly consistent.

In the process of looking for something else, I found an old short story I had written and submitted in the bygone days of 2003, buried in the depths of my email. I pulled the story out of the email and reformatted it into something readable. Then I read it. It wasn’t a great story. I wouldn’t even call it a good story, though it had the potential to be a not bad story. The interesting part about it, however, was that as I read it, I recognized my own writer’s voice in it. I could imagine writing that story, with very similar language, today. There was something in the cadence, in the word choice, in the particulars of description that I recognized as me.

It was like hearing a decade-old echo from a younger me that I barely remember sometimes. What I do remember about that much younger version of myself isn’t terribly flattering. I wasn’t an awful person, at least, not any more so than all 20-somethings are raging, self-involved psychopaths that substitute hubris for self-confidence. I’ve just reached a point in life where I felt like that person and the person I am now didn’t share anything. Then I read that story and realized that I did share something with my younger self. I shared a voice. I shared a sense of how language can be employed for effect. I could connect the writer I am now to the writer I was then and, by proxy, the person I am now to the person I was then.

It was a strange realization that voice, less polished and precise, perhaps, but still the same in its essentials, was so consistent. I just assumed that my writing had evolved in the same way that I had evolved as a person. The funny thing is that I was right, but not in the way I imagined I was right. The hardest, sharpest edges that made me problematic as a person were worn down by time and experience. The roughest, most flagrant errors that made my writing problematic were corrected by the same thing. It wasn’t evolution I was experiencing, but a process of refinement. The impurities, the flaws, the blemishes were being burned away, slowly, so very slowly, but they were exiting the picture.

The process isn’t over, it’s never really over until you die, but I can see it now. I haven’t become a different person or a different writer. I have become and am still becoming a purer version of both and that’s okay by me.

3 Strategies to Improve Your Writing

originally published 5-27-2012

In my bid to provide you not only with entertaining blog posts, but also useful information, today I’m going to cover three key strategies for improving your writing. These are not secrets that I gleaned from ancient yogi’s high in the Himalayas, just straightforward tactics that any writer can employ to strengthen their writing.

Strategy #1 – Expand your knowledge base

Yep, this has nothing to do with the act of writing, but it has everything to do with more effective writing. It can be so easy to get caught up in the craft of writing that we forget that writers must actually write about something. Pick a topic that you find interesting and spend two weeks or a month or a year and learn about it. Read articles. Read books. Watch documentaries. As you ingest all this information, it gives you an entirely new set of material to work into your writing. It also exposes you to the way in which other people write, speak and think about material. That is never a bad thing.

Strategy #2 – Read Aloud

For reasons both sad and predictable, the tradition of reading aloud has almost entirely fallen away. Why read aloud when we can watch TV or movies or go see a play where the actors effectively read aloud for us? Yet, reading your own writing and the writing of others aloud can teach you a lot. Think about it. Even when discussing fiction, we still use sentences like “That author really knows how to tell a story.” Until the last few centuries most stories were passed along through the oral tradition. You’ll pick up flaws in your writing by reading it aloud that you would never catch simply by rereading it on paper. It may not be conscious, but readers recognize it when writing strays too far from how human beings actually communicate verbally. People don’t follow the rules of grammar as stringently in their speech. For you fiction writers, read some of your dialogue out loud and ask yourself if you could imagine anyone you know actually saying those words that way. Reading aloud can also help you to tap into a better understanding of cadence in writing. Try it out for a few weeks and see how it affects your writing.

Strategy #3 – Submit Your Work

This is the scary one. There is no surer way of finding out where your writing stands than through the submission process. You can gauge your progress by the type of response you get. On the whole, there will only be three. If you get a form rejection letter, you’ve got a ways to go. If you’re getting personal notes from editors (even scrawled onto the form rejection letter), your writing has breached some critical quality barrier. That generally means you’ve gotten to the point where getting published is merely a matter of time rather than hope. Acceptance letters mean you’re operating at a professional or close to professional level. I won’t lie. The submission process is brutal. For getting a quick and dirty snapshot of where you stand in terms of writing, though, I can’t think of a more effective way.

The Short Story: Pacing

Originally posted 2-27-2012

Pacing a short story may very well be the hardest element in the whole process because it has so much to do with what kind of story you’re writing. Short stories in the so-called literary category tend to have a slow, almost languid pace, beginning to end. Short stories that fall into the category of mysteries/thriller/horror tend to ratchet up the pace as they go, in order to build tension. Science fiction and fantasy short stories have no defined kind of pacing.

This is one area where the writer is largely on his or her own. The best way to get a feel for pacing is to read extensively within the genre that you’re writing. By extensively, I don’t mean a dozen. I mean hundreds of short stories. You need to absolutely immerse yourself. However, to give you a few examples of people that I think write extremely effective short fiction, regardless of genre, check out the following books:

Tim O’Brien – The Things They Carried

Neil Gaiman – Smoke and Mirrors

Ray Bradbury –  I Sing the Body Electric

James Baldwin – Going To Meet The Man

F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald

J.D. Salinger – Nine Stories

 

The Short Story – Technical Details

Originally posted 7-8-2011

Writers love to talk about the craft of writing. In some cases, they love talking about it so much that they never get around to actual writing. However, at the risk of sound like a businessman, there are some technical aspects that go into formatting a short story to make it possible to sell it.

Every outlet for short fiction provides formatting guidelines, which is something of a misnomer. The term guidelines suggest that there’s some wiggle room or that the things set out in the guidelines are suggestions. Wrong! Absolutely, fundamentally, wrong! The guidelines that magazines, the prime market for short fiction, set out should be considered sacrosanct. I cannot stress this enough. Unless your name happens to be Margaret Atwood, Chuck Palahniuk, Annie Proulx or Tobias Wolff, you can rest assured anything other than the most minor and accidental deviations from the guidelines will help to ensure your story’s rejection.

The very simple reason for this is that deviations create work for the magazine staff. As a generally underpaid and unappreciated group of people, the magazine staff isn’t looking to make their lives harder. While there are no absolutes in the land of formatting, there are a couple of assumptions you can make.

Margins should be set to one inch. This one is pretty standard. I think it’s even the default on most word processing programs, so you shouldn’t have to mess with it.

Double spacing. God forbid you forget to double space. Double spacing is standard, in part, because it makes the story easier to read. It is also standard because it provides editors with a bit of space to scribble instructions to those worthy souls that will take your printed masterpiece and make it appear in the magazine.

Your Name. God knows how people forget this one, but most guidelines call for your name to appear on the first page and in the header of every single page of the document. Some places only ask for the last name to appear, other’s your full name. Check the guidelines, but make sure your name is on that thing.

Use the right paper. 20 pound bond paper. It’s readily available in retail outlets and online.

Print in black. I say it again. Print in black. Any color other than black will almost certainly land your submission in the trash. The very simple reason is that it is unprofessional. It doesn’t make you stand out. It just looks gimmicky, like submitting a resume on pink paper.

So, there you go. Some technical basics that most, if not all, editors will appreciate. And don’t forget to read the guidelines.

The Short Story: Structure

Originally posted 12-23-2010

A short story can be structured in a myriad of ways, but experience dictates to me that the VAST majority of stories do not need complicated structures to work well. More to the point, I find that the VAST majority of stories that try to do “creative” things with structure fail to achieve the goal and are simply muddled.  There are exceptions of course, but the exceptions that work are few and far between.

So, on that note, I encourage people to write their stories following the stock plot structure, which goes something like this: exposition, rising action, climax.  If necessary, you can include the falling action and resolution, but I find that the falling action and resolution get folded into the climax in short form fiction. Of course, these terms are fairly hollow, in and of themselves, so here’s a short example.

 

Exposition:

Miriam had thrown the party of the year and she knew it.  She floated from guest to guest, basking in the glow of her success.  For the first time in ages, she not only was, but felt witty and at ease.  The mistakes of the past were washed away by the attentive eyes and the engaged conversation.  She made her way through the crowd, a passing word here, a light touch on the arm there, on the way to the wet bar.  The server smiled at her, his starched shirt impossibly crisp and his teeth impossibly white.

“Scotch on the rocks, please,” she said.

The server poured the drink and handed it to her.

“Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Yes, have you seen my husband?”

The server shifted his eyes before nodding his head no, but Miriam caught the unspoken lie.

 

The above does most of the things the introduction portion or exposition portion of the story should do. It introduces our central character, gives setting, and builds up to the moment of rising action.

 

Rising Action:

Miriam had no conscious thought for her guests as she rushed from the room, almost knocking one of the catering staff of his feet as she shoved open the door.  She raced up the stairs of the million dollar home she had spent too much time alone in over the years.  Her eyes passed over the artwork and the antique silver.  Without even understanding why, she recalled the cost of each and said it under her breath.

“Thirty-eight thousand, twenty-two thousand, fourteen thousand,” she whispered.

She ran toward the master bedroom, her high-heeled shoes cracking against the hardwood with a sound like gunfire.  She stopped short of the mahogany door, her hand resting on the ornate brass handle.

 

In the above, I build up the tension by showing that Miriam is concerned and racing to see if she’s right to be concerned, but there’s nothing confirmed at this point.  Everything here is by implication, rather than explication.

 

Climax:

 

Miriam took a breath to try to steady her racing heart.  She braced herself for the worst, turned the knob and stepped into the bedroom.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” said John, holding out a glass of champagne to Miriam.

A breath she didn’t know she’d been holding exploded from Miriam.  She took the glass from John and drained it.

 

Here the climax is relatively straightforward and, as the conflict in the story was one built on assumption and expectation, can be resolved quickly.  While this little example won’t win any awards, it should help to clarify what is meant by exposition, rising action, and climax.  In this case, there isn’t any real falling action or resolution outside of the climax.

The Short Story: Getting Started – Part 2

Originally posted 12-22-2010

I said we’d talk more this time about setting. At the risk of being called out for oversimplification, outside of pure genre fiction, I find setting to be a matter of secondary importance in most short stories.  The reason for this is simple.  Unless it has a pretty specific and obvious allegorical meaning, the setting in most short stories cannot be developed to a sufficient degree to make it core to the story. This is less true inside genre fiction, where the setting (especially a previously existing one) can be a fundamentally important element.

Nonetheless, much like character back-story, the writer may have or need to develop an extensive understanding of the setting in order to render sketch coverage of the setting believable. Putting the story in a swamp doesn’t necessarily require that you go on at length about the flora and fauna, but at least a few descriptive sentences are necessary.  You could talk about stagnant water or decaying vegetation, the presence of methane from decaying vegetation.  If the larger geographic region is the southwest, Texas or Louisiana for example, it’s called a bayou rather than a swamp.  This is the kind of information you need to research and, frequently, the sum knowledge you’ll accumulate will eclipse the amount you’ll use.

Establishing setting, much like establishing a clear character, can also help to limit the scope and presentation of the story.  While an abduction story can be told in urban, suburban and rural settings, the way the story can be told is different in each one.  Police response, both the speed and size, will vary between these settings.  The purpose and reasons for an abduction will vary.  (again, some research will probably be necessary to give these elements some authenticity) Issues such as dialects, slang and the kinds of vehicles being driven will vary.  The characters in a story set in Washington, DC will talk very differently than characters set in rural Arkansas.  Vehicles in poor farming communities will be different than those driven in Beverly Hills.

The fundamental rule for setting that I follow is that the setting must serve the purpose of the story. If there’s a setting you’re determined to use, don’t try to bend an idea to fit it.  Wait for the right idea for that setting.

Caveat: I recommend avoiding dialects unless you are very, very familiar with them and expect your readers to have the same familiarity. Dropping in appropriate slang is usually sufficient.

The Short Story: Getting Started

Originally posted 12-21-2010

There is no right way to start a short story.  There are certainly no hard and fast rules about it, at any rate.  When setting out to write a short story, I find it helpful to have one potent image or line from which to launch myself.  I frequently find that when sitting down to actually write the story, it turns out that this line or image doesn’t actually appear until midway or later in the story, but the important part is that I have something to build the story around.  I’m lucky enough that powerful images or title or lines tend to just burst into my conscious mind for no good reason at all.  I’m giving credit to Billy the Idea Gnome, which is how I imagine the little part of my mind that dreams up these potent lines or images.  Reliance on an idea gnome may not be your cup of tea, so there are other ways to go about getting started.

Build a character.  With very few exceptions that I know of, all stories have characters.  I’m using the idea of character loosely.  An animal can be a character and so can a car.  Stephen King has made good use of both at various points in his career.  Think of Cujo or Christine. For most of us, the most natural characters are people.  Establishing the features of a character can help to limit the scope of the story.  A 13 year-old girl is not going to wind up in conflict with the IRS and a 45 year-old man is equally unlikely to be concerned by math homework.  A clear character limits the context available to the writer.  It’s been my experience that knowing your central character usually leads naturally to another good starting point: the conflict.

A good short story needs a clear conflict.  This is not to say that the conflict must have a clear resolution, but the elements of the conflict must be available to the reader.  Most good conflicts can be easily expanded into something novel length, which is part of the problem.  Many short stories that I’ve felt didn’t work were those that tried to cram a novel’s worth of conflict complexity into a short story.  The best short story conflicts are those that grab the essential essence of a conflict and work from that. This generally means giving up on those details that writers fall in love with putting down on paper.  Let me give you an example of how you might introduce a conflict in a novel and then how the same conflict could be handled in a short story.

 

Novel Version:

Micah stared across the dusty street at the tavern door.  The desert sun beat down on him and he wiped sweat from his brow.  The sand trapped in the sweat scraped against his skin.  He leaned against the post and the leather of his gunbelt creaked at the shift in stance.  He had trailed Murdock for weeks, pushing one horse to death and nearly killing another.  The image of Micah’s brother, sprawled dead in the street, flashed across his mind and he hardened himself against the killing that was about to happen.  He stepped into the street and walked to the center of it, his spurs jingling with each step.  He stared at the doors of the tavern, hate etched on his face and death in his eyes.

 

“Murdock!  You killed my brother, you son of bitch!  I’m calling you out.”

 

Short Story Version:

Micah stood in the street outside the tavern, hands ready to pull the Colts from their holsters and deliver swift justice.

“Murdock!  You killed my brother, you son of bitch!  I’m calling you out.”

 

Both versions deliver the same essential information.  The main difference in introducing the conflict is the amount of time spent giving details about it.  In the short story, you have to deliver the conflict as concisely as possible. To that end, when developing your conflict, it might be helpful to state it in as simple terms to yourself as you can.  Knowing the backstory can be useful, but only deliver the amount the reader absolutely needs.

Next time, I’ll talk about setting.

What Grey’s Anatomy Taught Me about Writing

Originally posted 11-19-2010

Recently, in a desperate bit to impress a woman, I watched an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.  (Okay, it wasn’t really desperate or any particular bid to impress her.  We were watching TV and it’s what she had on DVR, but I like to open blog posts with something strong.)  Like millions of other people, I got sucked in and have been catching up on past episodes through a combination of Netflix and Hulu.  The interesting thing that I realized today was that I don’t think there’s a single character on that show that I’d ever want to know in real life.  I mean, seriously, those characters are damaged in ways that would make them all horrible friends to have.

Yet, while I’d avoid them all in the real world, I find their imaginary world to very compelling.  It’s the damage you see.  The almost absurd degree of brokenness these characters have allows them to serve as mirrors that amplify our own faults to a point that makes it not merely sad, but interesting.  After all, small selfishness just isn’t that interesting.  We see it all the time.  But massive selfishness, of the kind that disregards everything but the range of the moment, is very interesting to watch because the consequences are equally amplified.

So what does all this have to do with writing?  It’s simple.  Writing with characters that mirror the small, normal flaws of people in normal situations leading normal lives isn’t fun to write.  More importantly, it’s not fun to read.   Sure, some people are out there writing meaningful books full of depth and symbolism that aren’t (necessarily) fun to read and contain such characters.  We should all read those books, sometimes.  The rest of the time, we can read books that give us some entertainment value.

For example, I spend a lot of my time reading high-powered philosophy texts.  These books are important, meaningful, and frequently agonizing to read.  Most philosophers are terrible writers.  A lot of it can be laid at the feet of the discipline, but some of it lands on the writers.  The rest of the time, I read things that entertain me.  For example, I love Jim Butcher’s Dresden series.  Those books are not high-powered or particularly meaningful, but they do entertain.

The lead character is damaged in BIG WAYS.  Dresden is an orphan.  His relationships with women have the tendency to end catastrophically.  His lacks the ability (possibly at the genetic level) to refrain from shooting his mouth off to people in the position to do him harm.  He makes big mistakes with big consequences.  That makes it interesting to come back and see what’s happening with him again.  He amplifies flaws I can relate to in some way.  I can see them in a size and context that makes it safe to judge them without feeling like I’m judging myself.  That isn’t bad for popcorn fiction.

So, unless you happen to be writing important, meaningful novels, don’t feel compelled to make your characters too balanced.  Give them amplified flaws and consequences and see if you don’t like the results better.

Things Must Happen

Originally posted: 5-23-2010

One of the things that can make or break a story is action.  I don’t necessarily mean gunfights, high adventure and explosions, though they can be fun to read and write.  What I mean is that things must happen in the story.  There must be movement on some level, whether it’s physical, intellectual or emotional.  Without some kind of internal momentum to carry the reader and characters forward, the story stagnates, spinning its wheels and looking for traction.

Think of the last book or story you read where you found yourself starting to skip paragraphs or entire pages.  That’s the juncture at which the story you were reading lost momentum.  For whatever reason, the writer lost traction there.  As an object lesson, if you can remember where it happened. Go back and reread that section of the book where you started skipped parts.  Read the section right before and right after it, where you were eager an engaged.  Try to identify what it is that bored you or left disinterested.  Then, avoid doing that in your own stories.

One of the things I’ve identified as a boredom generator is endless description.  Without a doubt, you must describe in your writing, but there’s a line at which description becomes simple telling.  People don’t like being told things.  They want to stir in their own imaginative herbs and spices.  In my own fiction, I’ve learned to err on the side of leaving lots of room for reader interpretation.  This is what alpha and beta readers are there to help you sort out.  If you haven’t said enough, they’ll let you know.  Trust me when I say, you’d rather add details than cut them.  It’s harder to kill your darlings than you think.