Monday, May 23, 2011

How to be a Better Writer (Wide Lawns style)

A while back, someone asked the famous blogger Miss Britt for advice on how to be a better writer and she replied and I was jealous, for I wanted someone to ask ME how to be a better writer. This is not because I am a better writer per se. I'll be the first to admit that writing is something I have decidedly not mastered, but while I'm not going to sit here and have the balls to call myself the greatest writer in the world, I can, without apology, say that I am an authority on bad writing. I've taught enough writing to high school and college students and sat in enough workshops with people who really wanted to write, God bless them, that I have read a lifetime's worth of terrible writing. 

This week I got grounded from the Indie Ink Challenge because I slacked and my boob got infected and I half assed my challenge and didn't get it in on time last Thursday. Still, I wanted to contribute to the world of writing in some way and although not a solitary soul asked ME how to be a better writer, I've decided to give unsolicited advice. In my writing classes I have bitten my tongue so many times that it's a wonder I still have one. When dealing with individuals, sensitive types who write, one must be kind and delicate. On the Internet though, with a pack of strangers you can say whatever the hell you like, so I'm going to give good writing advice delivered in a manner that I could never get away with in a professional setting.

Here are 21 bits of advice on how to be a better writer:

1. Read - This should be obvious but many of my students want to write and refuse to read anything at all. I don't care what you read. There are books and magazines about every possible topic known to man, so find whatever you are interested in and read about that. If you want to read US Weekly instead of Derrida then have at it. Reading is reading and the more acquainted you are with the written word and with reading instead of just hearing language, the more ease you'll have with writing. Reading should be fun. Read whatever you want.

2. Write - Duh. You wouldn't believe how many people I know say they want to be writers and they won't sit their asses down and write anything. Many of them are more enamored with the imagined romantic life of a writer than with the actual writing part of being a writer. To these people I say two things: stop trying to write and just read the stuff you like OR sitting in a bar, rolling cigarettes and looking dirty does not make you hip, edgy, Charles Bukowski or a good writer. It makes you stink, both at writing and literally. Go home, get a shower, turn the computer on and write something.

3. An ampersand in the middle of the page (and other similar attempts at cleverness) does not make a cool and postmodern "story." That is some lazy assed bullshit. Again, write something. Don't decorate a page with nonsense.

4. Stop going ape shit with pronouns at the beginning of sentences. Also, it would help to know what pronouns are in the first place before not going ape shit with them. Bad writing is often marked by a repetitive sentence pattern that goes like so: Pronoun verb blah blah blah. He did this. She did that. Change up your sentence structure and patterns throughout a piece of writing to avoid this.

5. Name your characters. Lately I've noticed a disturbing trend in the line of pronoun ape shittery where no one wants to give their characters names anymore. It's all anonymous He and She. Why? It sounds pretentious not to name these people. Who are they? Then, if you do name them, please give them names appropriate to the times in which they were born and their social status and don't give your heroines stripper names unless they are actual strippers.

6. If you have written something, especially but not limited to poetry, which contains the following imagery, please rethink what you're writing and do an extensive edit: hearts, dripping blood, flames, pain, daggers, roses, black roses and red roses in particular, thorns on said roses and the boy or girlfriend who just dumped you.

7. Do not, under any circumstances except very good satire and probably not even that, write about vampires. Vampires need to get back in their coffins or go underground or wherever they sleep and rest for a good twenty-five years or so until we can drag them back out again and reinvent them for a new generation of angsty teens. I think we need a new monster and it shouldn't be zombies because those need to stagger back to their graves for a while as well.

8. If you write fan fiction you need an ass beating. I know that fan fiction has gotten some people started writing in the first place, but stay away from it. Make up your own characters and ideas. Imagine your own magnificent worlds. Don't riff off of someone else's.

9. Don't write the first thing that comes to mind on any given topic or writing prompt. We humans aren't usually that effortlessly original. Whatever you think of first is pretty much what everyone else thinks of first too. Keep brainstorming and write about the fifth or sixth thing that comes to mind. This technique has helped me get published a number of times. I'll see a prompt or challenge or a call for submissions on a topic and I'll try to imagine what everyone else will write about and then I'll turn it on its head and write something totally unexpected, finding a new angle on the subject so that I stand out.

10. If you don't have a good hook, I don't want to read past your first few sentences and neither does anyone else. Be mindful of that first sentence. Make it unexpected and surprising. Use an unusual image, sentence structure or piece of action.

11. Start your story in the action. In my creative writing classes so many students struggle with how to begin. Too often they'll want to write about a trip they took and they'll write four useless, boring pages about getting up and going to the airport and flying there and it will have nothing to do with the actual trip. If you find yourself beginning with your character getting up in the morning this is a massive red flag that you're starting in the wrong place. CSI doesn't start with its detectives getting dressed for work. The show starts when they find the dead body.

12. Everything you write should have a point to make about something. The best writing makes connections. It shows us a facet of the human experience, making us feel that we are not alone. Try to figure out what point you're going to make before you start writing so that you have an objective. Even the simplest experience, in writing, can be about something more profound. Look for the greater meaning in everything and then use your writing, fiction, poetry, non-fiction, whatever, to illustrate that greater meaning.

13. Subtlety is sublime. Do not beat the living tar out of your reader with that point you've decided to make. You don't need to lecture your reader about the meaning of what he or she is reading. Readers like to be detectives and find the meaning for themselves. Give hints and clues along the way. Be stealth. It's more fun for everyone.

14. Please don't write run-on sentences they make you look stupid. Long live the coordinating conjunctions. Use them. Punctuation is good. When I read anything full of run-ons, even a facebook status update, it makes me want to choke the writer.

15. Avoid writing about personal drama while you are in the middle of it. This is big people. I've made this mistake a couple of times and it's a fast track to a train wreck if you do it. Write about the personal dramas that have already played out. You'll have gained some perspective and you'll know the ending. You won't sound like a freaking lunatic. Save the venting for your journal and turn it into a more serious piece later on.

16. Sleep on it. Sometimes when we write, we'll get caught up in the creativity and become delusional as to our own brilliance. Other times, we'll get stuck and agonize endlessly over some nitpicking element of our project until we're paralyzed. Both scenarios are cured by putting the piece away for a while. Sometimes overnight, sometimes a week or a few or a month or two. I've come back to things years later. After a break you can see your writing with fresh eyes again so you can revise like a reasonable human being.

17. Don't write in a manner that is so obscure and dense that your reader can't understand you. Writing is about reaching out and connecting to others and if you haven't done that you've failed at your mission. Writing is about letting people in, not shutting them out. Just tell us a story simply and beautifully. What happened? To whom? Why? Let us know that we're all going to be ok in the end somehow.

18. Don't kill off your main character. I don't know why my creative writing students always insist on doing this and thinking they are the first person to ever come up with such a wild idea.

19. Don't be Tobias Funke. Arrested Development was one of the greatest television comedies of all time and one of the show's best characters was Tobias Funke, a clueless cheeseball who wanted to act in movies so desperately that he did everything wrong, proving himself an over-eager amateur with talent only for making a fool of himself. Beginning writers remind me of him a lot and I too have been guilty of a few Tobias-isms. If you don't know what I'm talking about, get the dvds and start watching and never include glittery confetti with your cover letter.

20. Some stuff needs to happen. This should seem obvious, but it isn't. In a story (even true ones) there's action, not a bunch of people sitting around talking with no discernible point. Action. We like action. Blow some shit up (metaphorically for the most part).

21. And oh, the endings. Endings are hard. It feels like you need a conclusion to wrap it all up but how do you do that without sounding sentimental and corny or repetitive? If you must, then keep it short, but better yet, just end on an image. Let your reader go with a picture in his or her head to remember. These endings are always the ones that move me the most deeply. Like this. There you are, at your computer, your hands about to strike the keys. You with the light from the screen on your face, about to write something brilliant.


Head Ant said...

I think I have been writing without names because someone complained about names in my first Indie Ink.

Thank you for saying that about fan fiction! It's akin to plagiarism in my book.

I've been actually meaning to ask you something about writing. I just can't remember what it is.

word said...

Best opening line ever: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

And the closing isn't bad either: It is not often someone comes along that's a true friend and good writer. Charlotte was both.

My 11 year old son wants to be a writer and I am going to work with him some this summer on his writing. Do you mind if I take out some of the "asses" and "bullshits" (not that he hasn't heard those words before) and credit you and print this out for him to read? I have a few other sources I am going to use that are specifically meant for children/teens and they go over some of the same things so I think it will be great for him to hear it from different people.

Living in Muddy Waters said...

Can I still write about psychic vampires?

Melanie said...

Awesome post!

greyspasm said...

Great advice. I would add that trying to get everything right in the first draft can lead to wooden, overwrought prose. Try to get a good flow going, and worry about fixing things later. And maybe starting the story with your character waking up isn't a bad thing, if that where you must start---just be sure that later you edit that out and start the final draft with some action/conflict.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting your advice even though you weren't asked. I can think of a few bloggers who could heed your advice. Especially those who like to write from their dogs point of view aND TyPE LIke tHis as if a creature capable of learning to use a computer can't also learn to use the shift key correctly!

skip 2 colorado said...

Thank you for this...good advice. By the way,I would have asked you for advice first!

Anonymous said...

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

The opening line of William Gibson's Neuromancer completely captured me when I first read it in 1984. I also love the irony that technology has rendered the opening line of the greatest of late-20th century science fiction novels meaningless within 25 years of its publication.

For those under the age of 25(?), he was talking about this stuff: TV snow

Calitri said...

I read the memoir of a buddy (read: internet friend) and, although it was interesting and entertaining because it's a great story, almost every sentence started with "I something". At first, it was distracting. By the end it was kind of annoying. I was rearranging his sentence structure in my head just to get by. It's a memoir. You're the main character. Everything's happening to you or being done by you. We get it.

Would a publishing company have picked him up instead of having to self-publish if he sprinkled in a little sentence structure variation? I'd like to think so. But what the hell do I know? I'm no expert and he had an editor that let it slide.

Teacup said...

Great post.
I read a mystery that introduced 13 characters in the first 4 pages. I know this because I had to get a piece of paper and write down the names so I wouldn't be completely lost.

I agree about the action. Sometimes when I'm reading I say to myself, "Is this a mood piece? When on earth is this going to get started?"

Anonymous said...

You know, I'd love to be a good writer. However, I really think sometimes people write for the same reasons others sing - it makes them happy. I sing off-key and I write in a disorganized manner, but both make me feel all warm and fuzzy. That can't be a bad thing, right?

- Maureen

Jimijam said...

Amen on point number 8, Lawnsie. I've been thinking the same thing myself a lot recently.

Miss Kitty said...

I love you, WL. Thank you for telling it like it is.

As Stephen King once wrote, "If you don't have time to read, then you also don't have time to write." William Zinsser's On Writing Well is currently kicking my butt and reinvigorating my prose; I highly recommend it for everyone who wants to write. Don't just sit around and talk about writing, or go to writers' conference after writers' conference with nary a line of work to show for all the posing. Either write, or get out of the way.

BTW: I've quit teaching and am now venturing out on my own as a freelance writer. Working on a small project for a local business, as well as a couple article ideas for magazines and my long-overdue novel. When you and Baby Lawns have time, y'all drop by E&P. :-)


JoeinVegas said...

Thanks, absolutely

Miss Britt said...

How ironic that I very often get SO many of these wrong!

English said...

Great advice! Add one more about adverbs paving the road to hell (Stephen King). lol

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