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Tag: Fiction

Your Best Will Always Change

Probably the most frustrating aspect of writing is following up on an easy story. Chances are you know exactly what I’m talking about, or you soon will. That story where the research was a pleasure, your characters eloquent and obliging, and the first draft needed little improvement. You never know when these ‘gifts’ are going to occur, or how to summon them into being, so you just enjoy it and keep writing.

Only your next story isn’t a gift. You have to drag it onto the page. Characters that were warm and three-dimensional are now cut out of a cornflake packet. You’re so baffled and bored by the research that you end up spending four hours on a single paragraph’s detail. And the most unpleasant part? You need to keep going. If you stop in the midst of all this, even for a moment, then the truth will catch up to you – you’ve lost it. Whatever divine intervention or lucky accident that enables you to write is no more. Logically you know this isn’t true. Every writer has bad days, days where all you have are bad words; the good ones stuck between your teeth like popcorn kernels. Usually you just work through that, but when it follows something that showed you how good you can be? That’s another level of pain.

My biggest fear is that I only have so much. There are a finite amount of good scenes, exciting moments, and funny remarks stored in my knowledge box. It’s the kind of fear that leads to bad habits like squirreling away a piece of great dialogue, saving it for your next piece because this one has already had its quota. The truth is that writers do draw from a well, and finding out what replenishes your well is vital to future scribblings. Sometimes we have an uninterrupted connection to that well, for who knows what reason, and it’s easy to drain it dry. Trying to deny that, trying to portion out your best writing, is like trying to hold back a river with your hands. If your work was of a consistent, unwavering quality, then you’d be one of many writers in the neighbourhood. What often stops people from writing isn’t that they lack talent, but that they’ve sampled how monotonous it can be to create something coherent with that talent.

Is there an amount of self-delusion here? You bet. A less cynical person might call it faith. Personally, I try to remind myself that some bad writing is a good sign. It means you’re still paying attention. Self-publishing has a bad rap because too many of those writers think they’re pretty great. We all get those ‘Yeah baby!’ moments now and then, of course, but that’s usually just before ‘Oh God, what have I wrought?’ That kind of mind-set may not feel best to the writer, but it leads to better product for their reader.

What Simpsons Censorship Taught Me About Comedy Writing

 

One of my favourite Simpsons moments is from the episode “Bart the Fink”, where Krusty the Clown’s tax evasion is discovered. They call his Banker, a fat man in a panama suit, who gives a rich chuckle before answering ‘I’m sorry, I can’t disclose any information about that customer’s secret, illegal account.’ He then puts the phone down with a smile. Except that wasn’t the whole scene. I saw it a few years later and realised they’d censored the original, only censorship had actually improved the joke. In the non-censored version, the Banker then says ‘Oh crap, I shouldn’t have told them it’s a secret’, ‘Oh crap, I certainly shouldn’t have told them it was illegal’, before sagging back in his seat and saying ‘Ugh, it’s too hot today.’ This turned something smart and succinct into a joke that tried to explain itself, and in so doing killed off a good deal of the humour.

This dilemma certainly isn’t limited to comedy writing. Adverbs are known as the beginner’s curse because they betray a lack of confidence, a need to spell it all out which can lead to horrifying clunkiness like ‘The impact twisted his arm painfully.’ When you have a funny moment, or a dramatic/exciting one, it’s easy to start dragging your feet because you want to squeeze out all that potential. Comedy writing is quite new to me with my Pumblesmythe series, but I felt the aforementioned temptation right away. Often, though, it’s best to let that moment play out and move on. Doing anything else is a sign of fear: fear you won’t come up with anything as good, fear that once you leave this glorious oasis then it’ll be back to the plod plod prose.

Are there exceptions? Of course, and those fit very well with the advice that ‘Once you know what the rules are, you can break them.’ Take the South Park “Imaginationland” episodes – in particular the mayor’s “Imagination” song. Literally him just singing ‘Imagination!’ repeatedly. Well-judged because it’s a little funny at first, becomes annoying, then breaks through and is funny again. South Park in general has a reputation for never shirking the chance to follow any joke or idea right down to the knuckle. That kind of comedy writing takes courage as well as experience, because it’s not always going to pay off. Running jokes are another: frequent enough to qualify, but not so fast and familiar that the reader gets sick of them.

It’s easy to dismiss the comedy writer’s worry of ‘Is this funny?’ as a trifling one next to ‘Is this exciting/frightening/upsetting?’ but the anxiety and self-doubt is just as real. For me, seeing that uncensored episode was a huge relief, as there was a time when I thought the Simpsons’ writers could do no wrong. These days I look to the creator of “Community”, Dan Harmon, for my fears and doubts. How the hell is that man so funny?

Wait! You’re reading it wrong!

 


As a writer you’ll set out to make someone feel a certain way; this much is obvious. You want your characters to be layered and intriguing, for that old formula of “the hero’s journey” to feel fresh. So you get in there, building your players and raising the stakes, trying to make the reader laugh or cry. Annnnd, it’s finished. Finished, not polished yet, but you’re sure the first reader will understand that. Only something goes awry. They have a flick through it and start pointing out misplaced punctuation, quotation marks, explaining the concept of a split-infinitive. ‘There’s a story in there!’ you want to yell, shaken and betrayed by their detachment. ‘This is important too!’ your critical brain tells you, but it feels too much like you’ve just shown someone a painting and they’re fussing over the frame.

Personally speaking, I am not a brave man when I have completed a story. The sense of relief quickly becomes a drumbeat of anxiety, with every small action: print, paperclip, another step to the guillotine. You’ll need technical readers, you accept that, but the acknowledgement of what you tried to achieve should come first. Surely it should! Punctuation, grammar, syntax, they’re the gears beneath the gilded exterior, a point of secondary interest; what kind of joyless Vulcan probes them first? Certainly if your mechanics are so bad that the story doesn’t start, the train just grinds and jerks on the platform, then they are a primary problem. Just go through a normal day as a writer and corrections will pop into your head wherever you look. My forays into internet dating, reading personal profiles, can make me feel like a carpenter watching people hammer nails in with their head. So yes, you can’t go too far in that direction but then what about Cormac McCarthy? Blissfully ignoring all kinds of grammatical rules as he pens his latest work. Surely if your writing is good enough then you can just do it, feel it, even Einstein said that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”

The sad fact is we’re probably not that good. At least, not good enough to thumb our noses at the rules and get a free pass. You need to earn that kind of freedom. So, on my better days, I appreciate the technical readers and feel I can understand them a little better. Art can be such an individual thing. So slippery in meaning that, given the choice, wouldn’t we all approach it armoured with the ten commandments of ‘do’ or ‘do not’? That feels a hell of a lot safer and more solid to plant your feet on. At some point we will need that detachment to make our work stronger. Technical readers, please keep doing what you do. Just don’t ignore the flowers when you’re checking the water in the vase. The flowers came first.


Being ‘Good Enough’

 

An unspoken, yet widely held, belief about writers is that they sit down at the keyboard feeling really quite good. They have a sip of tea, smile at the blank page like they’re greeting an old friend, and start typing. In actual fact there are many like this, so brimming with self-assurance that they write with a confidence that never trips them up or leaves them agonising over this word or that word. “Easy reading is damn hard writing” Nathaniel Hawthorne once said, but to these writers easy reading is easy writing, they imagine the prose slipping down as smoothly as they lay it on the page.

You may want to envy them. Why don’t they hate writing at least as much as they love it? Why doesn’t searching for one perfect sentence make their brain spin in circles? The answer is pretty easy. They tried to cheat the system. They saw a mountain and found the ski-lift while the rest of us were fighting tunguskan death leopards halfway up the crags of doom. Introspection never occurred to them. Maybe they’re right. You start wondering if you really are just a stereotype with your brooding torment and emotional see-sawing.

But here’s the thing. Every slushpile; magazine, novel, and agent alike, has earned its terrible reputation because it is inundated with these fearless souls. Old hands think fondly back to the 1950’s as a time when you could submit a story and have it accepted or rejected in the same day, previously recognised author or not. Now, it seems, everyone is a writer. Maybe you can blame the internet for making so many of us think we are adept at communication, or the electronic ease of submissions, but the result is the same no matter the cause.

The short of it is: if you have ever questioned your worth as a writer then you are already far ahead of ninety-nine percent of your competitors. This may come as small comfort when you realise, astonished, that the reason editors often don’t give more detailed feedback is that their reward for doing so is usually abuse that they would dare question that writer’s abilities. I know, I know, you want to choke the life out of these people. It’s okay. The important thing to remember is this: don’t get lumped amongst them. When you submit, submit perfectly. There are numerous articles out there on submission formatting guidelines, if they’re not already detailed by the publication you’re targeting, and you should follow these to the letter. Don’t give them an excuse.

Don’t make them think you’ve taken the ski-lift.

So what’s it about?

Oh, and it was all going so well. Yes, ok, they brought up J.K Rowling; as though it’s somehow a useful comparison, but they were making all the right, appreciative noises about your writing.

“So what’s it about?”

“Well, there’s this pirate….” I’m always tempted to say, aping Shakespeare In Love, because this isn’t going to end well. Still, you start to outline your latest short story or, god help you, try to give a breakdown of your novel but it’s all going wrong. The plot sounds like some vague outline scrawled on a fag packet, characters become your own wish fulfilment fantasies. Your listener’s eyes glaze over as you frantically expand the synopsis, trying to find the right words to show the good that you know is in there. The more you detail the worse it gets, until you’re on the verge of actually quoting passages.

“That’s great” they smile.

It’s the same feeling I get when I double-space a story. The neat ranks of words, all helping and supporting one another, are broken apart like a routed army. Suddenly it’s weak and you hate the editor the way you hate the innocent enquirer: they wanted the nuts and bolts. It’s oft quoted advice that the only fresh idea is your take on things, and the outline robs us of even that. No wonder it’s so exasperating!

The solution? As the deeply wise Dorothea Brande advised: just don’t discuss your outlines. Don’t get into it. Give some polite but vague one-liner to any idly interested parties. Now I know writing is lonely, you might want recognition and understanding where you can get it, but neither of those come from telling the nuts and bolts. What’s more, your story starts to sound bad to you. You believe this hurried, anaemic synopsis and it drains away passion you so sorely need. It turns your work in progress from fluid, exciting, and alive with potential to that one fatal thing: already told.

Even better, don’t let on that you’re a writer. No sense in startling your material.