Friday, July 22, 2016

An Idiot's Guide to Okay-ish Writing


I'm a writer in the same sense that I'm a poet, or musician, or decent human being: it's a hobby, I'm not very good at it,and I don't even always enjoy doing it, and when I do, I avoid doing it in public. I don't publish anything, I barely let anyone else read what I write, minus some trash poetry, and I'm pretty much super unqualified to give any advice on the topic.

Which has never stopped me before, so I won't start now. Here are some of my favorite, potentially contradictory, bits of advice, learned through many hard years of not doing creative writing and generally being terrible at it!

-Do enough research to make it believable to the average reader, but not so much that it becomes a manual. There is a balance to be had between making it up and lecturing on the finer points of machinery, science, or any specialized field of knowledge. Just remember: Believable science always trumps incomprehensible gibberish

-Minutiae and world building are always secondary to the story. Sure, you may want to spend 30 pages describing the alien circulatory system, or try to give a valid biological explanation for dragons and zombies, but your time is better spent elsewhere. At the same time, preemptively offer explanations where appropriate, because people will ask. Bonus points if you can include it as valid progression without being ham-fisted

-When all else fails, make it up. Never underestimate the power of winging it.

-Good characters, good story, good writing. If you manage 2 of those, you’re lucky, but it only takes one to involve the reader, so don’t worry too much

-Start small. A line, a phrase, a visual image. Write a paragraph or a page. Take the time to feel out what you’re writing

-Write what you know. This includes your vocabulary, technical details, activities, action, and dialogues. It even includes basing characters off of people you know, loosely or very accurately. Sometimes it's cathartic to kill that asshole Steve, from work, in your writing... even if it's as Steef, the impotent, horribly disfigured slime goblin being mercilessly immolated by a clumsy sorcerer or eaten alive by tiny fecal parasites

-Art imitates life, after all. Or some equally pseudo-profound crap. Use your experiences like a toolbox, to shape your end product

-A cliché can be as telling to a reader as upsetting a cliché can be. Don’t be afraid to use a trope, just be afraid of using it poorly.

-If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. If you can’t join ‘em, call it satire and write it anyway.

-When you can’t find a way, magic is a weak excuse. Just remember that a weak excuse is better than no excuse

-Telling CAN be as good as showing, if you tell it right

-Never be afraid to kill a character, or add a twist to advance the plot. Never do it just to be edgy

-If the story gets stuck, write the next bit you’re sure of, then come back. Sometimes it helps to work backwards

-The line between thorough and pompous is as thin as the line between accessible and dry.

-Finish what you start, even if it’s awful. Even if you hate it, you’ll feel better that it’s finished

-Never be afraid to cannibalize a good idea from a bad piece so that it can live on in an overall better bit of writing

-Learning to take good advice is just as important as learning to ignore bad advice. The same goes for criticism. Some people are helpful, some are just assholes.

-Accept that your vision will change, and the story may very well end up as something totally different than what you wanted to write. Sometimes, you’ll love it even more for that

-People will love the things that you write and hate, don’t disparage their interest or support

-Unless you’re writing technically in a field-specific professional way, avoid using jargon that isn’t commonplace. Same goes for clumsy, clunky, unnatural dialogue

-Everyone has flaws. That includes your characters, and the person writing them. Just remember that you’re better off being harsh to your creations than to yourself

-If it rhymes, and it isn’t for children, you’re doing it wrong

-Don’t be afraid to walk away and work on something else if you get stuck. You can come back later with fresh eyes

-Your twists and hints are never as subtle as you think they are, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your best to make them that way.

-Realism in writing has its place, but when in doubt, defer to the story

-If you don’t know, ask. If you’re too lazy to ask, lie convincingly.

-Sex scenes make great page filler, even if they’re marginally out of place in the genre. On the other hand, it’s quite obvious when your smut is just there to fill the quota. But if it’s good smut, people will give you a pass

-Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Homage is just a fancy way of saying you borrowed our ideas. It’s also an easy way to build a framework. Just don’t lose sight of the line between imitation and plagiarism. It’s alright to stand on the shoulders of giants to see further, but the goal should always be to add your own perspective

-Your villain should have the same depth as your protagonist. Save the "evil for evil's sake" for high ranking henchmen and lawyers

-Chances are, your ideas are just a re-imagining, reboot, or other term for resurrection of a previous work or idea that is fairly well known. So own it. It’s just as easy (or difficult) to give an old idea new wings as it is to develop something truly novel (see what I did there?), especially in writing. 

-People have been making stories since before recorded history. It’s not about whether or not you did it first, or did it best, but about doing it your way

-Write for you first, the audience second. If you’re not into it, it shows

-You can paint a picture with words, but sometimes it will be a finger painting. Sometimes it’s bad. Really bad. Own it.  Practice makes perfect

-You can let your readers do some of the work. Leave some wiggle room for imagination. This also lets you be a little lazy, so everyone wins

-You’ll be tempted to explain your reasoning to your readers; don’t. Especially in poetry, the interpretation counts more than the intent. Even (especially) if the interpretations are stupid or wrong

-For readers as much as writers: not everything needs to be symbolic or thematic. Sometimes the curtains are just blue. Sometimes the protagonist has eggs for breakfast.

-Never end on a cliffhanger. It’s a book, not a crappy TV show.

-Don’t let editing get in the way of writing. Also, don’t give in to the temptation to over-edit. You may not say it right the first time, but chances are you haven’t said it much better the 8th or 9th edit through.

-If the reader is happy, then you’re still probably unhappy, because you’re your own worst critique. We all are. Your feelings aren’t a determining factor of quality

-Establish your style, then work at expanding it. Sometimes a story is more effective when told a different way, and you’ll need to get comfortable with putting the story before your own process or at the very least, expand your reach

-Inspiration strikes at weird times. Scribble the ideas down. Text them to a friend. Email them to yourself. Stay up way later than you should.

-Write when you can, even when you don't want to

-Rewriting a line, page, or paragraph 87 times will happen. Just remember that you can save the nitpicking for editing

-Character and location names are important in your setting. Stupid or overly cliche one swill be remembered. We get it, he's a bad guy, you don't have to name him Caine Alucard VonHitlerDarkness. 

-Editing is more than grammar and spelling. Edit for clarity, for flow, for logical story progression, and continuity. Nobody cares if your spelling is impeccable and your grasp of syntax is superb, if your story is a useless, jumbled mess

-Write what makes you happy, what reaches you. Chances are, someone will have a reaction to it, and the reaction (good or bad) is what matters

-Making up languages and words is all well and good, but forego the Lovecraftian approach and make them pronounceable 

-It’s alright to write the same thing, multiple ways. Reuse characters in unrelated works, reuse names and concepts and plot lines. Tackle the same problems in different ways, or the same way in different worlds. Work with it until it sticks

-A second set of eyes is always helpful in finding flaws, errors, and inconsistencies. The more eyes reading, the more helpful it can be. Chances are, if they don’t get something, there are others who won’t either

-Those who can’t write, write poetry. Which is still better than not writing at all.


And there it is, a little bit of playful support for all of my fellow writers. Obviously this refers mainly to works of fiction, and a little bit to poetry, but if it helps with your dense academic writing, more power to you! Also, yay me for this not being a poem! Feel free to leave your own bits of advice!