This tweet by @mims_words and the comments are great “resources” if you want to fire off writing insults, but be warned. If you go on the attack with these, expect it right back and so, so much worse. I will never use these on you and request the same courtesy. They are great and I just had to share them.
Writing is not an arcane activity. You don’t need to be an expert in anything to be able to write. Having good grammar, spelling, and punctuation helps, but as long as you have a story to tell, you can write fiction. You don’t need to take a writing course or follow certain rules. You can self-publish a book, and the only critic that can deny you that option is yourself. (The only exceptions to this are that companies have policies against publishing illegal or other extremely objectionable content, but this isn’t about your writing.)
So now that I’ve talked about what writing is not, here’s what writing should be most of the time: fun. Yes it can be hard, scary, or even boring at times, but it’s often fun. Reading stories is fun, and so is writing them. Most fiction is read for entertainment purposes, and even works with great literary merit can and should be enjoyable to read (and write.) Creating a good story is hard work but so very rewarding and entertaining.
If you don’t enjoy writing, think about why not. If you do, consider why you do. Maybe it’s the genre, the characters, or the setting. If one of those really makes the words fly onto the page, keep going! If not, change one of them. Just because you like to read a certain genre of novel, doesn’t mean you will like to write in it. It’s always fun to try a genre and find out if you like writing in it.
Once you really get into a story, it tends to tell itself. Your hands type on a keyboard or move the pen, but the story just is.
Lots of us love to read fiction, but have you considered writing some? Here are two great reasons why you should.
The news is often frightening, confusing, and bad. Some people post on blogs or social media, some write physical letters or e-mails, and some, like me, turn their fear and uncertainty into fiction. Here are some examples.
There are many novels where Hurricane Katrina is part of the setting.
If we go further back in time, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables explores what was happening in France in the early part of the 19th century.
Current events are things people want to talk about and explore, and fiction is a safe way to do that. You can get into many characters’ heads, and explore events from various points of view.
You may end up in The Zone. There’s very little that is better than finding yourself in The Zone. Time is great. It jumps, and suddenly, hours have passed. Blank pages fill with amazing things and nothing from the outside world troubles me while I’m in The Zone. I live other people’s lives, feel their emotions, have their thoughts, and run their businesses. I can be a child again, a baby even, or live what I haven’t yet — to a ripe old age. There are universes out there to find, planets that need you to imagine them into being, and the plain old rich experiences of characters’ daily lives. For me, it’s like being immersed in Essential Oil of Inspiration. It’s pure life. It’s raw existence. It’s infinite, but it’s fresh and exciting every time.
A couple of days ago, I started wondering what The Zone looked like. I’m not sure, but maybe a little like the castle on a cloud from Les Miserables, but instead of rooms full of toys and children to play with, there are rooms filled with settings impatient to be described, plots waiting to unfold, and characters craving their own creation.
Oh, and if you’re wondering, yes, there is a Zone for nonfiction, but it’s different.
Are you afraid of the following: You’ve spent a lot of time crafting a wonderful story, but when you read it over, you find something that doesn’t agree with something else — a plothole.
I’m pretty sure it happens to every writer at some point. It’s certainly happened to me. The question isn’t weather writers are going to find plotholes in our work, but what we’re going to do when we stand on the edge of one.
There’s no sure way to avoid or prevent plotholes. You can outline, try to be meticulous in your writing, but people can and do make mistakes. Besides, what if you’re a Pantser like me and find that you need to just write in order to be able to tell a story? No. Don’t run. Don’t give up on writing fiction. Even the plotholes don’t want that!
What would happen if every chef in the world gave up cooking because they were afraid of burning their fingers? No more Chicken Cordon Bleu, coq au vin, or coconut rice. No restaurants would serve Caesar salad, spring rolls, or sushi. What a sad place that would be! The same is true of writers. If we ran at the thought of a plothole, then Stephen King couldn’t keep us awake all night, Tolkien wouldn’t have inspired generations of fantasy writers, and J. K. Rowling wouldn’t have told magical tales of wizards and muggles (well, okay, muggles aren’t magical, but you know what I mean!) That’d be terrible, but luckily for their Readers, they didn’t let the fear of plotholes rule them, and we shouldn’t either.
A plothole is nothing more than a problem with a plot. Like potholes, they’re not nice and they need to be fixed, but they can be fixed, so let’s fix them!
How to fix them depends on your story, but in general, they go away when you revise. Change one thing to match the other, and the problem disappears. Back up, call the concrete company, and fill ‘er in. Smooth the top until it’s invisible in the road that is your story. Nobody will ever know or even suspect that it was once there. It takes time and effort to fix them, but they can be vanquished, just as the chef who burns their fingers plunges them into cold water for a bit of damage control, your pen (or keyboard) does the same thing for your story. Unlike burning yourself, plotholes don’t hurt anything except possibly our pride, but that will respond to what doctors call tincture of time.
So what are you gonna do when you spot a big ol’ plothole? That’s right. Fix it!
Setting is crucial to creating something your Readers will love, and if you struggle with it, then you’re like me.
Getting setting right might be easier if stories took place entirely in one location, but they seldom do, so writers have hard work ahead. We have to constantly change the scenery, move in and out of it, and describe it just enough for it to serve its purpose. Since only the Author knows the story, I can’t say how much or how little you need to describe the places your characters are in, but these three tips are intended to help you, the Author, figure that out.
- Remember it. It’s easy to sort of forget they’re in a room when your characters are talking to each other. That’s okay, because you’ll revise and you can add setting details later. Just remember it and make notes to yourself to add some description and actions in between dialog.
- Imagine the setting and write it down. You probably don’t need to do this with every part of your setting, but you might find it useful to draw a picture of your teenage character’s bedroom where she and her two friends will spend a large part of the book, or make a rough sketch of where the furniture is in a living room if there’s a big family meeting and you need to keep track of who’s where and what they’re doing. Even if you don’t need all those details for your story, it’s nice to have them available.
- Have fun. Setting isn’t a chore. It’s an integral part of a story. Your story. The one your Readers are going to love.
Pistol: Why, then the world’s mine oyster.
Which I with sword will open.
William Shakespeare — The Merry Wives of Windsor, act 2, scene 2
There are no rules about POV. That’s right, there really aren’t any.
In this post about Starting NaNoWriMo, I said that I was struggling with third person narration in a book with lots of point of view (POV) switching. As I reread my words from what seemed like a long time ago, I realized that there was no reason I couldn’t use first person narration or even use a mix of both styles.
There are no rules about POV. There’s the writer, and there’s the story, and that’s it. Since stories need people to write them down, the writer gets the fun and enviable task of deciding which POV to use.
First person is a very “in the character’s head” kind of POV. It can make some things challenging, such as describing events that the character wouldn’t know about, or not being all that pleasant if the character is self-centered, but there are also advantages. You can really get to know a character from the inside, and transitions are easier because you don’t have to keep zooming the “point” of third person POV in and out to focus on different characters, settings, and action.
Third person narration lets the storyteller become omniscient, and who doesn’t enjoy knowing everything?! However, third person doesn’t always work well, and if used ineffectively, can make the story read very clumsily indeed. If used well, third person can make your fiction captivate your readers.
You might be wondering, since there aren’t any rules, how do you choose the best POV for your story? The one-word answer is: experimentation. I wrote an entire novel in the third person, only to realize that parts of it needed to be in the first. I went back and changed every single “he” to “I.” I also had to change a bunch of “him” to “me,” but it was worth it. The character experiences events in a very internal way, and third person just could not get me deep enough inside his head for that to capture properly. There’s also no problem if POV shifts, as long as the transitions are smooth and clear. When I tell that same story from other characters’ points of view, I switch to third person and it all benefits the story.
As for my science fiction novel with third person throughout, I’m now toying with the idea of changing some of it into first person POV or maybe even all of it. I can use scene or chapter breaks for the switches, and having a lot of characters really isn’t a problem like I originally thought.
POV is a tool. You can do whatever you want with POV. It’s flexible and you can shape it any way you like to create the story you want and need to tell. There really are no rules, and the (fictional) world is your oyster. So get your keyboard or pen, pick up your pages or open that file, and start thinking about POV and how it can work best for your stories.
Without characters, stories would tell very little. Would you want to pick up a book and find that the whole thing was nothing but a description of a setting, a world, or several planets?
Whether you write sci-fi, fantasy, or romance, your story needs a set of characters. Don’t let the magic, technology, or amazing settings overwhelm your story and take away from its characters.
In A Letter to the Pacific Ocean, I conclude that a world without conflict would mean a world without stories. In order to have conflict, you need characters. Not just any characters will do. When I first started writing, all my characters were copies of me. They came with my likes, my dislikes, and my personality; they were static replicas of me. They fell in love, talked to each other, and did what characters do, but they didn’t make a story because they were all too similar. They didn’t learn from each other, and I didn’t learn from creating them, except that copying myself endlessly didn’t make for exciting reading.
To build good stories, good characters are needed. There’s more than one way to get them. Sometimes you might decide some of their attributes and personality in advance, and other times you might find out as you go along. For me, there’s almost nothing more magical than meeting a new character and finding out what they’re like and how it feels to be inside that person’s head.
Are you having trouble coming up with realistic characters? When this happens to me I deliberately make a character who hates something that I love or vice versa. For example, I love everything, so I might make my character a picky eater and discover what that’s like. It helps to make your characters more natural, and also teaches you things. Maybe you’ll end up researching strategies parents use to get their kids to try new foods, or imagine how that character might feel when presented with a table full of only food they’ve never eaten before.
A variety of interesting characters makes our stories interesting and allows us to go where they go, to venture outside ourselves, and to live for a while in the lives of others. That, I think, is what reading is all about.
There’s a lot of writing advice out there. Following some guidelines, such as the ones in my post about dialog attribution might make your writing more pleasant to read, but don’t let writing advice bog you down.
Things can be fixed later. There’s no need to wait until your idea is perfect, or until you’ve mastered all the conflicting writing advice in the world. If you try, you’ll never write another word. You can revise your rough draft, and even then, a book is not a perfect thing.
The true goal of writing is to tell a story, not to be perfect or even amazing. Sure, having your writing considered great would be nice, but the ultimate purpose of writing fiction for an audience is to tell a story. Starting may be a struggle. You might be uncertain of what you want to write, and there may be a voice inside your mind telling you that this won’t work or that that sentence you just wrote is bad. You might feel like you have no idea what you’re doing. That’s okay. It doesn’t matter. Just keep writing. Write until the end of the story you are telling. Write until the end. You can and should take breaks to eat, sleep, and do other things, but do not neglect your story until you’ve reached the end. (You can write the actual words “the end” and then remove them later, or just say them out loud while you save your document.)
So here’s my advice for today. Get your favorite pen or keyboard, find a good place to work, and start to write. In the words of NaNoWriMo, “the world needs your story.”
This is a work of fiction.
Die Religion … ist das Opium des Volkes.
Everyone had been called to Worship. I stood outside the temple, and waited for the doors to be opened. It was early morning, and very bright, with sunbeams reflecting off the snow that had fallen the night before. I felt exposed, standing as I was on the mountain top, near the greatest temple in the world, or at least to my knowledge.
The time between call and opening was usually about an hour. Today, by the glowing dial on my right wrist, it took fifteen minutes.
Once the doors had been flung wide, we all began to file silently inside. I’d been in the temple many time in my life, but the place never ceased to leave me awe-stricken. Everything in it was made of stone, because wood is living material, metal is forged by humans, and only rock has no ancestry.
The two Leaders of Worship took their places at the front, between two columns of stone. They linked hands, and each put their other hand flat on the stone beside them. They looked around at us, and their expressions dwindled from gentle smiles to sadness, through desolation, and then shrank down in horror. A hush fell over us as we listened. The one on the right spoke.
“The dark tide will soon be upon us,” she said. The man on the left nodded. Tears began to flow down his cheeks. “We have displeased the gods, and this is their vengeance.” In the silence that followed these terrible words, I could hear people’s breathing quicken, and some began to gasp for breath. A few children cried, and a few looked at their parents’ frightened faces in bewilderment.
Through his tears, the man said, “There is nothing that can be done, nothing that can placate them now. You may grieve, but there is no point. Soon, this whole city will be utterly destroyed. Our only hope is to leave before the dark tide sweeps us all away. Let us pray now, and hope that the gods will see fit to tell us when the dark tide might arrive.” They both gestured to us and on shaking legs, I stood. Parents pulled their children upright or took babies in their arms. We all moved toward the nearest stone and put our hands flat upon it. The wall was cold under my palms and I was shivering. The rock seemed to draw out all the heat in me, to suck away the warmth of my blood, and to be trying to remove my soul from my breath. The gods were definitely displeased. I wished with all my pounding heart to be told when the dark tide would come.
A few minutes later, the Leaders of Worship shook their heads, a signal that our request to know when the dark tide was coming had not been granted. That was when the wailing started. It hurt my ears, and careful not to lose contact with the stone, I began to edge my way toward the great doors. I was close to the back, and it only took me thirty excruciating seconds to leave, but I was afraid my ears would burst with the terrible sounds the women made. Outside, I kept my hands pinned against the stone of the gods and shivered with cold and fear.
The wailing and grieving went on for hours. The cold grew more intense, and my fear ever greater.
Finally, just after sunset, the crying died down, and I re-entered the temple to see the two Leaders of Worship still standing silently between the pillars of unyielding godly rock.
After about half an hour, the Leaders of Worship nodded, and the moaning subsided into silence.
The woman said, “We have been given a sign, and now we know when the dark tide will come.”
“Hurry home,” the man said, “for in one hour, the dark tide will come, and out of the earth shall emerge a roiling cloud of dark charcoal gray, as a flood, not of water, but of destruction and damnation.”
Both Leaders of Worship signaled us to depart in orderly fashion, and that Worship was at an end. We all let go of the stone walls and the nearest to the back left first. My wife and daughter were near the front, so I left before they did. Their poor throats must have been so raw. There was no running water in the temple, so they would have to wait until they got home. I also worried that either of them could be injured if the crowd exiting from the temple descended into disorder.
Our home was a ten-minute walk down the mountain from the temple. The snow crunched under my feet as I made my way toward it.
My wife and I didn’t own a bicycle cart, so we’d flee on foot with our daughter and whatever we could carry.
I went into the master bedroom and looked at the bed where my wife and I had first made love, and was overwhelmed by sadness. There was nothing I could do, and it was time to pack.
I heard my wife and daughter coming in and going into the kitchen, and I savored a moment of relief that they had made it home safely. I listened until I heard the clanging of pots and pans being packed, and then I went into the closet and began packing our clothes. It would be warmer in the valley below, I reasoned, so we didn’t need to bring our heaviest winter coats, but I did pack our spring ones.
Ten minutes passed and then my wife called to me from the kitchen.
“We’re going now. Are you ready?”
“I just need to get a few more things and then I’ll follow.”
“Yeah okay, but hurry up.”
“I will, but don’t wait for me. We can find each other later.”
I heard them leaving and I tossed the last of my daughter’s socks into the bag. All I needed to pack now were her sketches. I slung the bag over my arm and opened the drawer where I kept the folder of drawings that she’d given to me on my birthday and other occasions for the last sixteen years. I opened the folder and looked at the first one that she’d made at the tender age of two. It was a stick figure that I knew was supposed to represent my wife. She’d drawn it with a black pencil on white paper. It wasn’t very good, but it was her first. I took all of them out of the folder, intending to count them and make sure they were all there, and began to flip through them. The one she’d done when she was three was more elaborate, and showed the three of us, sitting on the grass in the summer, with flowers all aorund us and in our hair.
A gust of wind against the house startled me, and I dropped the papers.
“No!” I bent down, and began to pick them up one at a time. I would now have to count them three times instead of only once, because dropping precious things displeases the gods and counting them would restore order.
My fingers were clumsy and my heart pounded as I picked up sketch after sketch, my mind chattered at me to hurry up, but I would not risk sliding into disorderly haste.
Finally, I had them all in the folder, and began to count. I made it to 287 and then started again. I made it to 287 for the second time, but after the third count, I only had 286. I’d have to count them until I got 287 three times in a row.
When at last I was sure I had them all, I’d counted them fourteen times over. I put them carefully back into the folder and put that into my bag. I zipped it closed and then I looked at the time. A lot more than an hour had gone by. The dark tide must be very near. How long before it burst into my house and consumed me? I rushed to the door and flung it open. It was dark, snow was falling, and the wind gusted hard and fiercely against me. I hoped my wife and daughter had caught a ride with somebody who had a bicycle cart, or they’d be caught out in this, and wouldn’t get far before the dark tide overtook them. I, on the other hand, had to decide if I wanted to walk into a storm, or if I prefered to die holding my daughter’s sketches in the warmth of my home.
I stepped out into the storm. The icy wind blew right through the winter coat I’d donned, and threatened to tear the bag containing my daughter’s art right out of my hands. I clutched it tightly and began to walk. I had taken only a few steps, but I could just barely see my house. How could I find anything in this? It was night and not a single light was visible. I turned back and made it to my door. I practically fell inside, went into my daughter’s room, and curled up on her bed with the folder of sketches in my arms.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
Ocean and humans,
Pacific, no more conflict,
World without stories.
Photo by Gantas Vaiu010diulu0117nas on Pexels.com
Dear Pacific Ocean,
I’ve been reading a book about you. It’s called Pacific, and it’s written by Simon Winchester. It’s also Earth Day, so I guess I’ve been thinking about you lately. My publisher,
, also lives about a ten-minute walk from you, so you seem to be dominating my life and my thoughts right now. But I also just kind of like you, and I’m beginning to believe that every wave can inspire a story. They might be able to tell stories too, but I don’t think they speak a language anybody else can understand.
There are a couple of reasons why you inspire me. The first is movement. When I’m in a boat, rolling along, the rhythm takes me to a place where ideas are as thick on the ground as snow in a midwest winter. You take me to a space of safety where only good things can go on. That said, I don’t want to be anywhere near you when you’re having a “tempest tantrum!” You were named “peacful ocean,” but sometimes, you act like you would rather make war. That’s not very nice, but I suppose you can’t help what you are any more than I can help who I am.
Another reason you inspire stories is your great depth. Your grandure is not to be diminished or ignored, and, being the largest ocean in the world, you command the title of champ, and you could be called Earth’s representative. You may wear that badge proudly, but with power comes a certain responsibility. I hope that you understand how big, profound, and beautiful you are, because all of that inspired me a while ago, and I still haven’t quite gotten over thinking about miles of water below a boat above the Challenger Deep.
Your job isn’t to try to be what you’re not, i.e., always living up to your tranquil name, but to thrash and roar when we pour pollution into you and to pound your shores with all your might when we don’t show you the respect you’re due.
Your twin nature of bellicosity and pacificity makes me think about human nature, and also about writing. Yes, I know, I’m always thinking about writing, but really, there’s a parallel here. Whenever I did book reports in school, I was always asked what the conflict was in the book. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever once read a story that didn’t contain some sort of argument, problem, war, or disagreement. It’s what causes tension, even in a romance. It doesn’t have to be a fight between individuals or nations, it can be a struggle within oneself.
I love her, but what will Dad say?
I love him, but if we start a family, what will happen to my career?
Fiction is built on conflict and resolution. Maybe a friend spills the beans to Dad and he thinks the girl his son loves is great and asks when the wedding will be. Maybe the woman chooses career over a family or the other way round, or maybe she finds out that her boyfriend wants to become a stay-at-home dad.
Nonfiction also offers problems and their solutions. A surgical textbook explains the fine points of operations so that surgeons can correct problems in their patients’ bodies. A book about marketing strategies helps people to find ways to sell their products so they can solve their financial problems. In other words, every single book you ever pick up will contain some type of conflict.
With technological advances enabling us to kill enormous numbers of people and devastate huge tracts of land and put terrible amounts of pollution into your waters, there is the potential for severe global harm. COVID-19 certainly doesn’t make us feel confident about the future. And yet, fear and uncertainty in our conflicted lives lead us to write many stories that thrum with tension. Imagine a story without conflict. It would be a long list of things people did, and might read something like this.
She woke up and ate breakfast. She went to work. Everything went well during the staff meeting. She ate lunch, worked at her desk for two hours, and then drove home. Her children greeted her with delight, and her husband had also had a great day taking the kids to the park and reading them stories when they got home. The family ate dinner together, and then she put the kids to bed. She and her husband spent some quality time together, and then they went to bed.
An entire book that was nothing but a litany of what people did would be about as appealing as being caught out in a small boat in a big storm. Sure, a bit of quiet routine is great between tense moments, but by itself, it’s incredibly boring. So now, imagine a world without conflict, and I think that if there were no arguments, no dilemmas, no disagreements, and not a single problem to be solved, that our ideal world without conflict would also be a world without waves, without inspiration, and worst of all, it would be a world without stories.
What do you think about the Pacific, Earth Day, and conflict and resultion in writing? Please leave a comment.