This past week, I wrote a short story. It was my first short story in four years. I’m proud of the end result, but I won’t post it here because of the format. Instead, I compiled a list of suggestions from what I learned writing and finishing a short story. The items will probably be most interesting to writers who aren’t too experienced with short stories or writing fiction. If you’d like to read the story, just click here. However, this list could spoil the ending. If you want to read the story, start there. Then, return here.
1. Don’t just write what you know
This suggestion is a caveat to following the commonly stated rule: ‘write what you know.’ Writing ‘what you know’ is a simple way for a story to be engaging and convincing. However, writing also helps me relate and understand concepts which are foreign. Guy Gavriel Kay, in discussing his writing of convincing female characters, said,
As for the female psyche, I used to be flattered when people said I did convincing female characters, but lately I confess it bemuses me. The implied idea underlying the comment is that it is startling that a man can do plausible women characters. If you push this just a bit, you have to ask how any woman could do a convincing man, how any young writer could do a geriatric, how any of us could do someone not… ourselves. Creating characters is, in a large way, an act of imaginative empathy, and I’m resistant to the idea that there are absolute borders to that. In the end, I’d say that we’re really talking about good or bad writing, rather than male and female, or young and old.
In other words, I’d rob myself of an experience of empathy and understanding if I restricted myself in that way.
Also, I didn’t want to fall into the classic trap:
“In every first novel, the hero is the author either as Christ or Faust ”
2. Keep it simple
Even though I didn’t want to limit myself to what I know, I have limitations as an author. I don’t know how to handle transitions between scenes, for example, and I don’t have much experience writing in a voice other than my own. I didn’t want this project to take too long; so, I couldn’t spend too long in trial and error. Not to mention, I have limited life experiences, and I couldn’t run around interviewing people who knew better.
As such, I eliminated several ideas that I had for my story. I ended up with the idea I did to minimize my weaknesses. I didn’t have any scene transitions. I only included a few major characters, and their dialogue was limited due to being set during a bank robbery.
3. Keep writing
This suggestion may be obvious. My rule with any activity or task, not just writing, is to give myself fifteen minutes to focus on my work. If I don’t have momentum at the end of fifteen minutes, I need to take a different approach. If it’s code, I may need to map my ideas or make smaller functions to build to my goal. If it’s an engineering problem, I might get a different perspective and ask someone else about their approach. If it’s writing, I usually need to talk about it.
3. Talk about it
This one is simple, perhaps obvious. I wrote the first 1200 words of my story a several weeks ago but abandoned it. I thought I couldn’t take it anywhere, and the characters seemed flat. I sat down and tossed some ideas with someone, and then wrote the bulk of the story that night. After finishing, I talked with my beta reader more. As a result, I expanded on some engaging areas and filled some plot holes.
4. Imagine exactly what you’re writing
When I had someone read my story, I noticed how many actions in the story she perceived differently. I was vague. For example, when I imagined someone nodding, I thought of the character staring at the floor and avoiding eye contact. That wasn’t clear to my beta reader.
To remedy, I tried acting out the scene in my head exactly as I read it, to good effect.
5. When to use adverbs
Stephen King famously hates adverbs. Some authors say that what’s more important is that they’re spread out. Adverbs need an impact.
I agree. I avoid using adverbs to intensify verbs unless I really want that point to be strong. If I write “quickly,” in front of “ran” every time, it loses its impact. And if I wrote, “violently mashed the potatoes,” when I meant “mashed the potatoes,” I will lose my intent later when I write about the man who does perform mundane activities violently.
Another time adverbs can be used is when it adds clarity, or an otherwise unseen dimension to an verb or adjective. For example, “wearily smiled” adds clarity to “smiled.”
6. Have a narrative voice
I’m not sure how this works in general, because I haven’t written enough fiction. I do know that I found my story much more engaging once I decided that all narration was from the point of view of my protagonist. In my story, I imagined that any narration took the place of the swell of intuition, thoughts, and feelings, which can’t be properly told with a transcript of his thoughts.
7. At the least, a sad ending has to be hard to write
When I was in high school, I had to write a few short stories for my English courses. In general, I wrote sad endings, because happy endings were for kids, and I wanted to be taken seriously. However, I didn’t struggle to write a sad ending, or I planned it from the beginning. I thought it would be “intellectually fulfilling,” that it was evidence of the “hubris” of the character, or other pretentious nonsense.
I wrote a sad ending for this story as well, but only because I saw no other way for it to end. It was hard to write. If I didn’t care enough about my characters for the ending to be difficult, my readers won’t either.
That’s all! I hope you enjoyed my insights and my story. Feel free to comment below. And please let me know if you’d be interesting in giving me in depth feedback on the story (especially if you have experience in writing fiction).
Recently, Gilles Simon, a tennis player from France, argued that women don’t deserve equal pay at the majors (the majors are the only tournaments where equal pay is possible, having the same sponsors for the men and women). I’m surprised to see this debate still being discussed. After all, back in 2007, Wimbledon was the final major to award men and women equal pay. I figure that people would eventually stop caring, and I suppose for the most part they have. However, in some circles, the debate continues.
The detractors do raise some considerable points. At the majors, men play best of five sets; women, best of three. That means men necessarily play a greater or equal number of sets as the women. The men work more, the opponents of equal pay claim, therefore they should be paid more.
‘What do we look like, Marxists?’ the supporters may fire back. Labor-based theory of value, you must be joking. Every major hosting nation, even France, base value in the good ol’ foundation of neoclassical economics: supply and demand.
In that case, the critics counter, the men bring in more ticket sales and television ratings. Sports is a gladiatorial affair. The people of the world tune in to watch the strongest, smartest, and most competitive events, and the paragons of these virtues are the men.
The proponents rally back. The symbolism is important, they argue. Sports are cultural events; our greatest sportsmen are role models, whether or not they or we like it. Why else was Tiger Woods, a golfer, disowned by many fans for his behavior? Rewarding the young women, teens and twenty-somethings, for their skill at swinging a stick at very fast speeds at very particular angles as they run this way and that, it’s a symbolic victory for all the women who work the same jobs for less pay, the single mothers, and so forth.
And what kind of misogynistic world do we live in, they continue, that we can’t have some equity? And anyway, even if the women receive less money, neither Gilles Simon nor the men on the whole will receive additional prize money.
This debate could go on forever, although, most points would be variations on the above, enumerated with different levels of exasperation and eye rolling.
The article linked at the beginning includes Roger Federer’s thoughts, “It’s just a matter of who believes what, and then that is an endless debate.” I can identify with that sentiment. I never commit myself to one side of any debate. While most are frustrated that the other side just doesn’t get it, I’m frustrated when people arrive at conclusions without considering all the complexities of the debate.
Despite my hesitation to commit myself in debates, I suffer a common illusion: that eventually we, humanity, can solve any debate. Truth exists somewhere, and if we argue and search enough, we can find it. The rise of relativism has dampened this sentiment, but most people prefer a contextual virtue-based ethics, rather than a true relativism (abort! abort! I’m not a philosopher.).
It’s silly to exhaust ourselves in arguments over how to best and most efficiently express these virtues. Equity, justice, love are all concepts. Although it’s easy to identify the absence of such things, there’s no natural metric for them, and they lack granularity at higher levels.
Once in elementary school, my class received rice for an art project. Since the amount of rice wasn’t too important and our teacher didn’t want to count grains of rice, she simply poured it onto a sheet of paper for students to use. Quickly, several members of the class compared the amount of rice received and became upset if they received less. Any adult would do their best to arbitrate but wouldn’t redistribute the rice unless someone didn’t have enough to complete the art project. Now, imagine that the kids who received more rice also complained about the other kids receiving too much rice; if I were the teacher, I would give up on the spot.
As another example, when I was a kid I would occasionally wonder which of my parents loved me “more.” That’s nonsense. They both love me, and comparing the two is meaningless at any level, an unintended consequence of the enlightenment and scientific optimism.
More frustrating than people who arrive at extreme conclusions without sufficient evidence, or in the face of significant counter-arguments, is inaction. I think, as a writer, it’s easy to sit at my computer, put two fingers to my temple or stroke my chin, and blog about it. But that’s not who I want to be. I may overreact somewhat to my fears that my life will end without any contributions to society, but I don’t want to see incredibly talented, prominent, and well-paid people arguing over some money when there’s real injustice in the world: people who have basic, irrefutable human rights violated.
I believe the proper response to a complex, difficult debate isn’t to give up. It isn’t to argue until you’re blue in the face.
I’m reminded of two of Jesus’s parables. First, the vineyard workers (Matthew 20). One set of workers worked the whole day, while others only worked part of the day, not out of laziness, but because the landowner in the parable hired them later. They were paid the same amount, despite working different hours. They all received the same amount, because that was what they agreed on before working.
The second parable is the parable of the talents, which is a sum of money (Matthew 25). Three men are each entrusted with a different amount of money by their master. Two of the servants invest the money and earn more with it. They are rewarded by their master on his return. The third servant does not invest the money and tries to appease the master. The master is frustrated with him.
I think God isn’t concerned about ‘fairness’ because there’s no way every debate can be arbitrated perfectly. What Jesus proposes is something completely different: receiving without complaining, and using it well. The answer is to stop complaining and start fighting the real injustices in the world. It’ll never be enough, but the responsibility isn’t wholly ours. However, what else can we do, when we know we have been saved?
An exercise on “finding your writing voice,” huh? Let’s dance.
1. Describe yourself in three adjectives.
Smart! No, everyone’s going to say smart. Who wants to say they’re dumb? And there are many nuances to intelligence. It’s vague. I can do better!
Funny! No. Being funny takes a lot of work and is subjective.
2. Ask (and answer) the question: “Is this how I talk?”
An easy one! Yes, add a few “like’s,” “um’s,” “maybe’s,” elongated “well’s,” and even more qualifiers and caveats, and I’d be writing a transcript of one long, uninterrupted monologue.
Wait, are you asking if I talk in a smart, funny, and uncertain manner, or if how I write in general is how I talk? Confusion: why a “this” should almost always be followed by a specific noun, Alex.
3. Imagine your ideal reader. Then, write to him, and only him.
I had a physics teacher in high school, who had his PhD in physics but spent much of his time as a practicing engineer. He claimed when designing something, engineers should always have a very specific demographic to cater to. Having a specific customer or user base allowed us to research specifications and constraints for the design properly.
That’s not how I approach my blog though. I don’t mind writing about whatever comes to mind; I don’t worry that I may be the only intersection of all my interests. However, when I read this question, the thought was: ”Anyone, I could write for anyone.” I try to write for general audiences; I explain anything that a quick Google search couldn’t tell you. My primary goal in my personal writing is to express the feeling, or explore the quirks, that an intimate knowledge of a discipline can provide.
That’s arrogant. It’s not going to work that way, even for the best of writers. So I’ll take a real attempt at defining an ideal reader.
My ideal reader doesn’t assume I’m too smart for them or that they’re too smart for me. They read an entire post before assuming my word choice is pretentious or obtuse. After they’ve read the post, they have the gumption to criticize. They demand empirical evidence to back counter-intuitive claims. They appreciate passion and workmanship, not necessarily here on my blog.
They want to look up a words they don’t understand. They read a lot and don’t cite War and Peace as their favorite book unless they’ve read it and have a developed reason for it being their favorite. Also, they don’t like Twilight. I’m sorry; I’ll never understand that.
4. Jot down at least five books, articles, or blogs you like to read. Spend some time examining them. How are they alike? How are they different? What about how they’re written intrigues you? Often what we admire is what we aspire to be.
Oh man, soon everyone will know my secret: I’m not well-read.
Fup is a great story about the American West, and is a modern tall tale. The Screwtape Letters has an interesting take on how devils could operate in the modern world. Open, Andre Agassi’s autobiography, is a first hand account of a champion who hated his sport. It’s one of the only cases I can recall with so much detail but none seemed forced or unnatural. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley provided believable, sympathetic characters, in their failures, successes, and loneliness. The Unfolding of Language is a thorough, lucid trek through the evolution of language. Through historical linguistics, it addresses grammar Nazis, semantic sticklers, anyone with a reasonable interest in science, and people who couldn’t care less about language: all without losing its sense of fun. There’s a hilarious poem about how frustrating English spelling is, but unlike most hipsters on Facebook who think thumbing their noses at English is rad, the book addresses how it happened to English, why it makes sense from a historical perspective, and how these oddities exist in nearly every language.
Similarities? Well, now you’re beginning to see why I have trouble picking one topic on my blog.
5. List your favorite artistic and cultural influences. Are you using these as references in your writing, or avoiding them, because you don’t think people would understand them?
Well, I think I strike a good balance between making allusions and avoiding them.
6. Ask other people: “What’s my voice? What do I sound like?” Take notes of the answers you get.
Go, go gadget comments! (Please?)
Hey! A cultural reference.
7. Free-write. Just go nuts. Write in a way that’s most comfortable to you, without editing. Then go back and read it, asking yourself, “Do I publish stuff that sounds like this?”
Boom, one step ahead of you. I’ve been free writing this whole time (what a twist!).
8. Read something you’ve recently written, and honestly ask yourself, “Is this something I would read?” If not, you must change your voice.
Tough to say. I have a lot of misgivings about my writing. It’s not an issue of self-hate; I’m critical of every blog post, book, and movie I consume. I don’t always read posts which seem to have no point to them, which I fall victim to a lot. My posts aren’t as well directed as I would like; I tend to give up on writings without a sufficient preface. I could work on that, but it’s not an issue of voice, just organization.
9. Ask yourself: “Do I enjoy what I’m writing as I’m writing it?” If it feels like work, you may not be writing like yourself. (Caveat: Not every writer loves the act of writing, but it’s at least worth asking.)
10. Pay attention to how you’re feeling. How do you feel before publishing?Afraid? Nervous? Worried? If so, you’re on the right track. If you’re completely calm, then you probably didn’t risk being vulnerable. Try writing something a little more dangerous, something a little more you. Fear is good.
I’m usually concerned about the state of my writing. I’m pretty confident when I post, because editing always makes me feel good. And then I read it a week later and groan.
That’s right; it was time to inject some levity into this blog in the form of a stream-of-consciousness post. Hope you enjoyed.
When I was a kid, I thought my dad could do no wrong. I don’t think this is unusual for kids, but even as I grew older the vestiges of this idea wouldn’t leave me. Media only reinforced my view of my dad as some sort of paragon of fatherhood; he shared more characteristics with idyllic sitcom fathers than most (I think of Alan Matthews from Boy Meets World when I think of sitcom fathers). Sitcom dads are, generally, wise and would ask about their son’s day while sitting around the dinner table after a long day as a grocer or “at the plant” (I think of Red from That 70′s Show, too, even if he’s less idyllic and more parodic). And my dad was even-tempered and wise; he knew when to scold, advise, or comfort, when to hug and when to spank. Rather than dishing out his knowledge and wisdom over the dinner table, however, he talked most when we were on one of our many long commutes or trips. I went to school forty minutes from my home, and tennis tournaments meant two to three hour road trips on weekends, travelling to the far corners of the Pacific Northwest. If my mom, who had a more relaxed approach to punctuality, wasn’t involved, we would arrive at our destination fifteen or thirty minutes early. My dad would continue dole out wisdom.
I was impressed by what my dad could do. He literally built a home for his family; the house I lived in from my birth to the age of seven my dad and grandfather, along with some contractors, built together. Before that, he hadn’t done anything of the sort; he wasn’t an architect or a contractor. He started his own business, a medical supply delivery company, despite never having been to business school. To this day, he wakes up every morning before the sun rises so that he can get his work done (and when I’m home, make me breakfast).
He even seemed to have that deep-seated desire for his kids to do better in school than he did; I eventually learned he nearly failed geometry at his local junior college. He taught me to write and spell before I went to preschool. I still remember when he would try to associate letters with a melody for me; so I could remember it better. He taught me multiplication and division tables the summer after kindergarten. He taught me how fractions worked the summer after that. If it weren’t for him, I probably wouldn’t have that conviction that math were somehow important.
In the car, my dad talked about finances, business, marriage, and other topics of a certain gravity. Once, when talking about his marriage to my mom, he said that the age gap between them, fourteen years, worked well because he was “a little immature” and my mom was “mature.” I didn’t think much of it at first, but I continued hear him use that word in reference to himself: “immature.” My dad’s punctuality, frugality, hard work, and world-wise ways made it hard for me to imagine him as immature.
But at some point, I understood. He joined the military because he was drafted and chose the Air Force because he suited those relative “wimps” (his words). He didn’t attend school for as long as most doctors because he enjoyed it; it was because he wasn’t sure what to do with his life (in addition to a couple associate degrees, he very nearly had two separate Masters degrees, instead of just one, but couldn’t become fluent in Greek in his thirties). He didn’t marry until forty in part because he thought he was too immature to raise a family. He didn’t quit his job as an ultrasound technician because he was desperate for “fulfillment” in his life. He did it because of the flexibility owning his own business allowed more time with his family.
My dad had to overcome his immaturity and his uncertainty in order to become the incredible father I know.
I’ll always remember how much he loves to watch me play tennis. In high school, he was frequently the only father who would be at the matches. Not to fault the other fathers, they likely had careers to attend to, with stricter hours than my dad had. But my dad knew what was important to him and had prepared for years to have the time to watch his sons in their activities. That commitment to his priorities, especially when the priority is loving a family well, is real maturity.
Happy Father’s Day, everyone! Hope you enjoyed the post.