To say I have a love/hate relationship with writing does our affair little justice. Writing pains me and thrills me (sometimes at the same time). It is the reason and the bane of my existence. Nothing feels more fulfilling, and nothing tears harder at my very soul than writing.
That should be a bit overdramatic, but it really isn’t. (Okay maybe a little bit).
Anywho, the struggle of writing is real. Everyone knows it, and everyone gets over it in different ways to certain degrees of success. Or they don’t get over it. The degrees of success separate the writers from the wishy-washers. That can inspire you as well as daunt you. Such is writing.
Everything I write here is based on wrangling through typical pieces of advice for what you write. The process of sitting my butt down and doing the writing is a whole ball of pains different from the writing itself (and will likely become its own post). Every piece of advice I give here is to be taken with a grain of salt, and I mean that.
Anywho, all disclaimers aside, I’ve boiled it down to 5 things that get me particularly mucked down and neurotic.
1. You need an original (but believable) plot.
If I haven’t said it before, I’ll say it now: I write fanfiction. In the future there will come a post defending fanfiction, but for now let’s not get sidetracked. Basically, I write and read intentionally derivative works with pre-existing characters, settings, and backstories. However, I still worry about originality. Why? Because I still need to make a plot using those characters. The purpose of writing is to tell a story, your story, something no one else has told before in quite that way. In fanfiction especially, a story should add something to the original work from which it has drawn inspiration. Failing to say something new is like writing a duplicate data entry, or buying one more carton of milk than you need. Redundancy in the thesaurus means pointless. And the last thing you want your story to be is pointless.
No pressure, right?
But what is an original plot? How do you make one? Can you buy one at Walmart?
It varies, it varies, and not yet.
Because this blog is written by Yours Unduly, Yours Unduly shall give her largely unwarranted and un-expert opinion. And that opinion is that originality – like soulmates, Santa, and the reality of reality TV – doesn’t exist.
GET OVER IT
I have come to believe rather firmly that there is no such thing as an original plot. Perhaps I’m looking to excuse my own writing failures. But there is expert defense in my corner. A literary critic (and self-proclaimed climate expert) named Christopher Booker devoted a 702-page volume to discussing what he identifies as the Seven Basic Plots. It’s not a fiery book looking to upset the literary world and tell seekers of originality to get over themselves. Rather, it serves as a classification system. When you write a story, it likely falls into one of 7 categories: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, or Rebirth.
You can make a substantive argument that Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter are the same story, give or take a few variations to names, settings, and subplots. You can say that every quest story follows The Odyssey, or that everything ultimately goes back to the Bible. Also, every author who ever had a favorite author was likely influenced by that favorite author on some level.
All in all, you can never really come up with something entirely original. So what do you do? Don’t kill yourself over it. If you’re beating yourself over the head because you want to use hoverboards in a dystopian future but feel like you just ripped off the Uglies series, think about what other traits makes your story unique. Chances are, they (1) exist and (2) are more central to your unique plot than hoverboards.
However, if nothing in your story meets that criteria…
GET THROUGH IT
…time to start caring. Even in fanfiction, no one wants to read a story about a magical Chosen One named Harriet Pocker and her adventures at Wogharts if that’s all there is. Someone already wrote that story and wrote it well (and went from rock-bottom to becoming the childhood of millions of kids). But if you make Harriet Pocker, say, an ordinary Muggle girl mistaken for the actual Chosen One and a bunch of related mis-adventures, then you have an interesting tale. (But still a fanfiction. Sorry.)
To use a less blatant example: the Jo-Schmoe-who’s-actually-the-Chosen-One-in-Another-World-and-embarks-on-a-Quest-to-Save-the-World-and-show-his/her-extraodinary-qualities plotline describes more young adult series than you really want to think about. Some of them, however, turn out well, while some of them merit dramatic eye rolls. What makes the difference?
To use a science metaphor (brace yourselves), think of the organism classification system. All animals fall under the Animalia kingdom, but different traits puts them under different branches. These branches grow increasingly specialized and distinct until ultimately each species has its own distinct place on the genealogical tree. What brings them uniqueness? Details. But significant details. Because you can switch genders, hair colors, settings, and all the cosmetic things you want, but that doesn’t change the brick-and-mortar of a plot arc. Unless, of course, you let it.
The Lord of the Rings follows the Chosen-One-Quest plot arc very closely, but in an extraordinarily unique environment that moves the plot and moves to the plot. It makes a difference to the plot that Frodo is a Hobbit. It makes a difference that the quest begins away from the Shire, all the way in Rivendell. The places the Fellowship travel shape the overall plot, even though setting is ultimately a plot device.
Details make the difference, and with enough of them you can give your story the illusion of originality. Where do you get those details? Brainstorming and research. I could go on and on about the glories of writer research, but for now I’ll assume that y’all know how to use the Google.
But say you wanna pull a Hannibal and take everyone by surprise. Then look up tropes with the full intent of using them. Please note that I mean these tropes and not these tropes.
Why in God’s name would you do this? Personally, you sometimes just run out of ideas. Maybe you’re writing a medieval warrior for the first time after spending all your time writing snotty teens in suburbia. What do you need to remember? How historically inaccurate can you be without provoking an eye-roll from your (presumably) educated reader? Or maybe you’re after a clever mystery, but the clever ends and/or means are evading you.
Basically, seeing what others have done is research. Copying it is plagiarism. The difference between them is best left undefined and up to your own good judgment (and before you make fun of my vagueness, I call upon Potter Stewart to stand for my defense).
Here’s an article that explains the usage of tropes better than I can. But sometimes it’s better to tame the dragon than try to dodge it forever.
2. You need not-annoying characters.
I subscribe to the theory that characters matter more than plot. A plot is a problem (or series of problems) presented to a character. You follow the journey of a character (or characters), not of a plot. A plot gets resolved, a character grows and develops. If you do a really good job, you get one that starts talking back to you and stealing food from your fridge.
(Actually, that’s just me. I really like your yogurt.)
But how do you create a likable character? When applied to characters like Loki and Hannibal Lecter, ‘likable’ becomes a very awkward term very fast. ‘Hate to love’ and ‘love to hate’ seem too strong of emotions for characters like Claudius in Hamlet. I’d rather use the term ‘not annoying’ to describe the very base of your goals in all character creation.
More important characters need more than that (duh), but every person you make or mention must at the very least not make your reader gag. You don’t want a reader flipping ahead (or worse, putting a story down) because they hate a character’s presence so much. Nobody liked Umbridge, but God, wasn’t she great to read? I’m not invested in the success of villains, jerks, and creepy step-parents, but I can enjoy when they are on-screen, or on-page in the case of literature.
So then: Why? How? What makes a character not annoying?
Thinking minor characters or less than savory individuals who I enjoyed reading, I find they boil down to several important traits
- They have good and bad traits that make him complex (i.e. imperfection, but not evil evil)
- They add something to your story (be it an extra challenge, a boon, humor, tragedy, whatever)
Let’s dissect Gandalf the Grey for this example.
Gandalf at his paper bones is a big tall plot device of Tolkien to get Baggins’ out their door. He kicks off the story for Bilbo and Frodo in their respective works. Even worse, the depth of his Wizard power is nebulous, which in fiction means potentially infinite. And yet, everyone loves the character of the Grey Wizard on his own (and if you don’t, you should). Why?
Gandalf is more than a Magic Fix-It Man. He helps challenge other characters, ranging from Saruman to Boromir to the Baggins’. The wizard’s very presence challenges each of his favorite hobbits get his hairy hobbit butt out the door in the first place. He helps reveal others’ weaknesses and induce character development. That’s no job to sniff at.
However, a good reader can smell your plot devices a mile away. And if you fail to make them more than plot devices, the reader gonna get (as my grandmother puts it) pissy. I have a good friend who found Prim to be a little gooey-eyed plot tool of Suzanne Collins to make Katniss do whatever Collins wanted her to do. It was my friend’s opinion, of course, but it was enough to turn her off from the entire Hunger Games series.
A not-annoying character must also stand alone as a character. What do I mean by that? Gandalf has a back-story, a past entirely individual to himself that shapes his behavior in the present. He also has a personality. While fundamentally good to the core, Gandalf’s grumps and sass are legendary. Not to mention that his wit serves more than a comedic purpose. It deepens his own character by making him imperfect (and therefore a perfect character), and it challenges other characters’ beliefs and intentions and reveal their flaws (talking to one Thorin Oakenshield here).
However, Murphy’s law still applies. Exceptions to the above rules exist. There is no formula into which you can plug and chug stuff and get a guaranteed Darn Good Character out of it. If one ever gets made, I will destroy it personally. All of you precocious younglings deserve to go through the pain we had to go through to make our own characters. (Yes, I’m only 18.)
But if I were to give one piece of advice….
GET THROUGH IT
…it would be to research. Research, research, research. I cannot emphasize it enough. There is so much inaccuracy in the literary world alone (I’m not even going to touch the film industry) that having some accuracy in your character depiction will set you apart.
How do you use this? Going through a list of character traits is a crude but effective way to develop a character, but research helps you portray a trait accurately. Especially when it comes to disorders and medical issues, like schizophrenia or anorexia. Striving for accuracy will set your character apart through your use of fact rather than common societal notions of things, inspire your plot to have more appropriate challenges, and give your story believability.
Also, think of common-sense challenges your character has to face. Does he have a sword? Look up an appropriate blade style for the time period, and how sword care and maintenance works. Maybe he sucks at using a whetstone and some shieldmaiden has to show him how to do it without looking like a fool. And maybe it becomes a heated moment, and just like that, badabing, badaboom, a mini detail becomes a bigger plot point. Combined with the added level of believability that comes from your devotion to realism, your story just became that much better. Way to go, dude. You rock.
GET OVER IT
The only surefire way to get a good character is to guess and check. Write out a character. Does s/he suck? Analyze why, revise, and redo. Do it again.
Experience builds character, in more ways than one.
3. Show, don’t tell.
“WHAT DOES THIS MEAN,” screams every writer at their computer screen at least once. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is the poster boy for phrases that are ‘easier said than done’. You can explain easily what ‘show, don’t tell’ means – you use details to suggest or imply something to the reader rather than tell them outright what’s going on – but trying to get it on paper becomes a nightmare.
To demonstrate: My character Little Johnny has big blue eyes. This detail serves more as paint than concrete in my story’s framework, but it helps the reader picture Little Johnny in their mind. However, I cannot just say: “Little Johnny had blue eyes.” To make this detail known to the reader, I have the following options:
- Put it in an active sentence
Ex: Little Johnny’s big blue eyes quivered in the moonlight.
- Tell it in dialogue.
Ex: “Don’t give me those big blue puppy eyes, Little Johnny,” warned Red.
- Tack it on a sentence that delivers more plot-relevant information.
Ex: “But I want Micky-D’s,” whined Little Johnny, his blue eyes wide and mournful.
That’s simple enough. It’s when we have more complicated information to deliver that it gets rough. Say that Red is reluctant to go to McDonald’s because his ex-boyfriend Ace works there, but no way is he telling Little Johnny that. To tell the reader that, I have the following options:
- Have Little Johnny triumph over Red. They go to McDonald’s and Ace is working the cash register. Awkwardness ensues and Little Johnny (and the reader) hasn’t a clue why until Ace drops a telling line.
ISSUES: If Ace is too rude, the Rules of Believability dictate that he must be fired. If Ace is too nice, Little Johnny (and the reader) won’t be able to tell what’s going on. Red could be the awkward one who drops the tell-tale clues, but his behavior here has to align with his core personality. Also, if the scene is too subtle, the reader won’t get it. If the scene is too blatant, show-don’t-tell is violated. Lengthening the scene gives you more room to work with. However, the longer the scene takes, the more important it has to be (by the laws of Vigorous Writing) to the overall plot.
- Red wins the argument. Little Johnny pouts the entire way to Red’s place, where he learns about Ace from Red’s brother Gill.
ISSUES: It has to be believable that Gill knows about Ace, but for some reason Little Johnny doesn’t; that Little Johnny can get Gill to tell him about Ace, and that Red can stand up to Little Johnny’s big blue puppy eyes.
After plotting all that out and reflecting on it, it doesn’t seem so terribly complex to show and not tell this more complex piece of information about why Red won’t let Little Johnny bully him into getting McDonalds. But compared it to this-
- “But I want Micky-D’s,” whined Little Johnny.
Red sighed. Normally, he’d be up for a quarterpounder any time of day (or night). However, he happened to know that his ex-boyfriend Ace would be working tonight’s shift. And any encounter with Ace would go poorly at best, murderously at worst.
– it seems like an awful lot of trouble to put yourself through, especially if it’s a blip on the radar screen of your overall plot (i.e. Red and Little Johnny’s massive scheme to take over the drug market of Minnesota).
GET THROUGH IT
Write the scene as concisely as you can. Use strong verbs, sparse words, and active voice. Treat Strunk and White like your personal Apostles. Write, then edit it down, then edit it down again until the scene is so bare-bones that it’s akin to a telegram (but still a work of fiction).
Yeah. That’s hard work. But all it requires is the doing. And don’t be afraid to call or help. Even Marine, who are strong as heck on their own, know they can’t go anything alone and expect to accomplish much.
Tell yourself that you can do this. Because you can. I know you can.
GET OVER IT
If some expectation of quality is weighing over your head like a foreboding grand piano and paralyzing you, that’s a problem. Not Writing is worse than Writing Crap. Because Crap is fixable. You can’t fix what isn’t there.
If you can’t fix yourself, then fix the expectation. Step away from it, give yourself some fresh air, write with abandon. (To be honest, that’s one of my secret plots with writing this blog: to get myself to write something for goodness’ sake)
Go look at your favorite authors’ works. How do they show? When do they tell? (Because chances are, the most popular authors in the world occasionally ‘tell’ certain pieces of information.)
In the end, ask yourself: can you write? Do you write with good grammar and mechanics (or at least a willingness to proofread)? Yes? Then throw Strunk and White out the window. Ignore the haters and the ‘rules’ of writing. Write how you want to write and call it your voice. There is no one in the world who can write youer than you.
(Unless the haters are giving good advice. Then give them an ear or two. Just because it’s your writing doesn’t mean it’s good writing.)
Speaking of which….
4. Good writing is active, concise, and always meaningful.
Every word must count. Every sentence must say something new and important. Every ‘to be’ must perish. Every adverb must cease. Every verb must speak on its own.
And if you fail this, your writing will suck and no one will ever read it.
(Unless of course, your name is Jane Austen, Herman Melville, J.R.R. Tolkien…)
Like the Bible and Vogue’s fashion advice, certain bits of wisdom derive their wisdom from their essence rather than their literal meaning. Passive voice has its place in writing, and using ‘to be’ will not raise the hounds of hell. That being said, many things said could be said better, and more concisely. How many times have you read something and thought, “Jesus, you could have boiled that entire paragraph down to ‘Emma had a gimpy leg and that made her sad’ “? As someone who chose to write her AP English research paper about Jack London simply because his books were short, I appreciate brevity in other authors’ works. It would be at best hypocritical of me to make my readers deal with pointless rambles. At worst, that’s just plain wrong.
(As I ramble on into infinity in this single post…)
GET THROUGH IT
Good, ruthless editing should do the trick. Do two sentences repeat the same information? Cut one of them out. Is this piece of dialogue integral to this scene? If not, banish it. Is this scene integral to the plot or development of a character? If not, purge it. (Or save it on another document for future writings if you feel particularly attached).
Think of it like interior design: a red East Asian-inspired blanket won’t work so well in a nautical themed room (unless you make it work, but that tends to take more time and effort than you should give). Also, lots of stuff is fine, but clutter is not.
GET OVER IT
‘Without sacrificing much style’ is key. Sometimes, there really is no better way to say something that you’ve said. In that case, congratulations, I have no idea why you’d read this post.
Hemingway had his style, and Joyce had his. Sometimes lengthiness is called for and much appreciated.
However, while massive page counts never deterred a true Harry Potter fan, J.K. Rowling started her series with small, unassuming books. Make an attempt at revision, but don’t kill yourself.
Once again, the flow of this post is strong, because the following topic is very relatable.
5. Your first draft is crap. Always.
Le moi: But, but, but, I think it’s really good-
Le voice: No, it sucks. You just don’t know.
M: Oh, ok. Will everything I write suck the first time I write-
V: Yes. Tremendously. Just go back and look at it. Pitiful.
M: Okay, yeah I can see your point. There are some glaring errors in there. But some of it could just use some better phrasing.How do I phrase it better though? Better diction? What’s a more accurate synonym for ‘run’: ‘jog’ or ‘sprint’? Do I rearrange the words? Cut out stuff? How much? What else needs improvement?
V: I dunno. I’m just your head. But know that it is crap.
M: But which parts specifically?
V: It. Is. Crap.
You get my point.
I tend to have two modes when reading my stuff: 1. I am the wittiest wit to ever wit, or 2. oh my God, I’ve encountered dumpsters that stunk less than this.
Getting the right balance of self-surety and humility is tricky when it comes to something that I and I alone brought forth onto this great Earth. I’m sure my writing more often than not falls on some spectrum between Wonderful and What The Poop, but the Itty Bitty…Nitty Gritty Committee in my head gets carried away sometimes. I could tell it to take a hike in the Himalayas, but I also need that Committee for ruthless proofreading. There’s no need to settle on crap when with a little elbow grease and cups of coffee you get some solid gold out of yourself.
GET OVER IT/THROUGH IT
(You may have noticed that I’ve pulled my focus out of the world created by writing and into the process of writing itself. It happens. I forgive myself. I hope you forgive me, too)
Writing is a unique skill. You do not need a degree to be a writer. You do not need it in your job title either. Everyone can do it, but not everyone does it, and not everyone does it well. Writing is not talent. There is no such thing as talent. ‘Prodigies’ like Mozart accomplished the 10,000 hours of practice needed for mastery by the time they were six. Writing is a skill, and skill requires patience and persistence to master. You can build these qualities in yourself; anyone can. The World Wars were fought (and won) by drafted men. They were not called upon because they were great already, but because they all were capable of greatness. You can be great, and there are few obstacles in your way that you cannot somehow overcome.
You and your ideas are worthy of being heard. That does not mean that everything that pops out of your mouth is sterling silver, but it has the potential to be.
Editing while writing is a no-go. The first draft doesn’t have to be good, it has to be done. I repeat, it doesn’t have to be good, it has to be done.
Do it, because you can do it, and nobody else will do it for you.
If they do, that’s called plagiarism. And if you get one thing out of this blog post, let it be that plagiarism is bad.