Beautiful words are daunting.
Well, let me restate. Trying to write beautiful words is daunting. Beautiful words are beautiful— it’s the writing that gets hard.
Neil Gaiman. Laini Taylor. Patrick Rothfuss. These people have beautiful words flowing from their pens on every page. Maggie Stiefvater. Cornelia Funke. Miriam Joy. (Yes, I’m including her, because, guys, her book.) With all of these people, it seems like they roll out of bed spouting poetic prose. Even their headdesks are eloquent.
Then there’s me, who’s still trying to get his protagonist’s head on straight. I can maybe make one pretty word in a million, but a whole string of them? That makes me headdesk, and that just emphasizes the point: I am not naturally poetic. Those of you following the Teens Can Write, Too! blog might have noticed by now: John Hansen posted this exact complaint a couple days ago, about his own writing. We have this in common, I guess. Pretty writing is not natural to us. In his post, John affirms that it’s okay to use Orwellian prose (prose as a clear window to the story, not distracting), and your personal style is always better than copying someone else’s. He’s right.
Some of my favorite authors have very clear, Orwellian prose. Brandon Sanderson is the most notable; several times on Writing Excuses, he’s claimed— even boasted of— his non-poetic style. It’s true. He tells his story plainly, without any of the frills or vivid descriptions that often characterize fantasies. He writes what the story needs and no more, preferring to emphasize his setting, his plot, and his characters. Personally, I set more store in those three things than the style of a book. As long as the words are serviceable, I’m fine with them. I’m not going to dock points for plain prose.
Especially at the beginning of a writer’s learning curve, I’d rather have a coherent plot and good characters than pages of brilliant writing. Without purpose, those words are useless. It’s more important for a learning writer to gain skill at creating and developing a story than at obsessing over the Right Word.
If I agree with everyone, why am I writing this? Read the full post »
Posted by Liam Wood on October 22, 2014
I’m sure you’ve heard the age-old advice about acting and reacting; in fact, I’ve echoed that advice several times. Your good guys shouldn’t spend the entire book reacting— it makes them seem slow and apathetic, as if they’d lie in bed all day if there wasn’t a villain to trample their watermelon garden or blow up downtown. Instead, they should, at some point in the story, switch from reacting to the villain’s moves to acting. Instead of waiting for the next strike, they go after the villain. Usually, the switch comes around the midpoint. You can see it clear as day in superhero movies, or most action movies.
But there’s a different kind of reacting I’d like to talk about, one that doesn’t involve the grand scope of things. It involves the little people, the walk-ons and the side characters, who so often end up as cardboard cutouts beside your vivid, engaging main character. With all the work you put into your plot, setting, and characters, the side characters can fall through the cracks to become faces in a crowd, with speaking roles but nothing memorable.
Cardboard will not destroy your story, but flesh and blood can’t go wrong. How do we make side characters real? Read the full post »
Posted by Liam Wood on October 14, 2014
They say that every word should count.
Unfortunately, “they” say a lot of things— and not all of their words count. In fact, in most conversations, people repeat themselves, say meaningless half-sentences and fragments before stopping, or just grunt expressively. Most of these verbal effects are impossible to convey in written dialogue, so we take them out and replace them with concise statements, full sentences, and blocking to show character. Every word must count.
Even so… in dialogue, even stylized dialogue that you find in fiction, you see plenty of meaningless phrases. “How are you?” “I’m fine.” Unless the statement directly opposes the obvious (such as a broken leg), it doesn’t do anything but fill space and make each word mean less.
Is that a big problem? No, of course not. You can use “I’m fine” as much as you want and no one is going to take off points. But you know amazing writing by the way every word counts, even “I’m fine”.
Take an example, the line that inspired this post. In the movie Serenity (sequel to all of Firefly), the characters are involved in a high-tech car chase— they’re on a little open-topped hovercraft and their pursuers are on a spaceship, and they’re zipping around the geography chasing each other. Along on the journey is Simon Tam’s little sister, River, who is often crazy and occasionally psychic. Simon looks out for her, but on this run there was no room for him to come. So River is caught in a spaceship chase without her big brother. Things are exciting, people are hurt, and metal objects go boom— all as expected, and the good guys barely come out on top, back at their spaceship. Simon immediately rushes to River’s side and asks her if she’s all right. River responds, “I swallowed a bug.” Read the full post »
Posted by Liam Wood on October 8, 2014
You can picture the scene. It’s a mystery-solving, crime-stopping TV show, with a main character who can drop witticisms even as he finds clues and shoots people. Despite his capabilities, however, he isn’t much for technology— but that’s okay, because he’s got his bespectacled techies to search traffic cams and enlarge photos for him. This week on TLA: Big City (TLA short for Three-Letter Acronym), the main character must solve the murder of a middle-aged woman, dead by a combination of prescription drugs she didn’t need. It’s a murder that slowly but surely unravels, until the main character hits a wall. None of the suspects has had any of those drugs, or has a history with them. It’s a dead-end.
Meanwhile, the main character’s sister buys him a smartphone, much to his chagrin. He has no idea what to do with the thing, and gives it to one of his techies at work to figure out. She sets it up quickly and begins telling him about the features, at all the wrong times, when he’s trying to concentrate on case-related things. Finally, he’s fed up with the case and decides to sit down with the techie and learn how to use his device. She shows him the basics as he watches, barely comprehending; setting up email, social media, and subscribing to news alerts. She even shows him how to use Google. As an example, she Googles the victim’s pharmacist and, scrolling through the results with the main character, finds an old news story. That story gives the clue the main character has been looking for, which casts suspicion on the pharmacist and solves the case.
Minus the witty banter and specifics of the case, I just gave you a one-hour crime show plot. I didn’t bother with character development, character conflict, or even character names. I didn’t bother with the detective’s jurisdiction, or scary buildings they have to investigate, or any of the red herrings they find along the way. Even without all that, though, I gave you a rudimentary plot that would fit almost any crime show. Read the full post »
Posted by Liam Wood on October 2, 2014
Subplots are, at best, distractions.
That’s a good thing. When your main plot is moving slowly, or has to wait for something to happen, a subplot can come in and keep people interested. Or, when something awful is happening and you don’t want the reader to put down the book because it’s too intense, a subplot can be just the thing to gloss it over and help bring the reader through. In short, subplots are great when you need to distract.
But subplots can’t just spring from nowhere. If you only acknowledge the existence of subplots for the few moments when you need to distract from the main plot, it’s going to feel contrived. The subplots must be there already, available to be used for your purposes… but they’re still distracting. Subplots aren’t as important as the main plot— that’s why they’re called subplots.
Does that mean you’re allowed to ignore all subplots and only go with one plot line for the entire story? No. It’s said that characters interact in pairs— there’s a different relationship between each set of characters in your cast. That’s a subplot for each pair, really. Not only that, but we’ve seen before that subplots can cloud a mystery or prolong a romance. Subplots have many uses, from pacing to developing character. They’re useful, naturally. But they’re still distracting.
At this point, it seems like subplots are more trouble than they’re worth— putting them in means distraction, leaving them out means less to work with in terms of plot. There’s no way to win… is there? Read the full post »
Posted by Liam Wood on September 29, 2014
The beginning of a story is like its pitch.
I think that’s easy to prove. A pitch must engage a reader and make them curious about the story itself— a beginning must do much the same thing, except it gets more words and leads into the rest of the story. The pitch acquaints the reader with the type of story it is— a beginning does exactly the same, but in more depth. Really, a beginning is just a beefed-up pitch. That’s why it’s so important, and so difficult.
A pitch boils a story down into a couple words that are each loaded with meaning. Wizards at boarding school— each word there has a very specific meaning to generate the correct picture. Jane Austen with magic— again, each word is loaded with meaning (except the prepositions, of course). We all know Jane Austen’s style of writing, and we all have varying ideas of magic. We don’t need to know exactly what the magic is yet, but those four words are enough to conjure up the perfect image. Pitches like these use combinations of familiar words with specific connotations to create something new and interesting.
But notice, pitches never include the names of the characters, or the name of the magic, or specific syntax from the story. Harry defeats Voldemort at Hogwarts— if you didn’t know those terms already, that would mean nothing to you. It’s one way to pitch the story, but it doesn’t work unless you take some time to introduce each of those terms. (Note that this sort of pitch can be used for a sequel, because the syntax has already been established.) Because of these restrictions, pitches must only use terms the layman can understand— words that have very specific meanings, yet are still common to almost everyone’s vocabulary. Read the full post »
Posted by Liam Wood on September 22, 2014
Last month, I went to Europe. Since our group was large, we stayed in large hotels, which— correctly guessing the average metabolism of a group of a hundred teenagers— kindly supplied each room with a snack, a granola bar. More specifically, a Corny bar.
Never have I seen such an apt description. The bar was a standard chocolate granola bar in every way. The wrapper showed the name in big, curly letters, over a picture of the granola bar itself, which in turn partially covered a couple heads of grain and a chunk of chocolate. Corny? Why, yes, and not just because it included corn.
Occasionally, as a writer, I look at something I wrote and find that it is completely, utterly, corny. The main character is a Chosen One orphan who lives as a farmer/blacksmith in the backwoods of a medieval country with grotesque and snarling beasts that ravage things (who doesn’t believe in magic but sort of believes in the legend of the Dark Lord from whom all ravaging beasts were born); and the plot is just the Hero’s Journey expanded to fit a sassy but lovable rogue (also an orphan) picked up in the first city the hero comes to. This, my friends, is nothing new— and yet, occasionally I find myself writing something like that.
This used to be my greatest pet peeve in reading and writing: originality. With the world so stuffed full of fiction already, can there actually be anything original? My goal as a young writer was to find that thing. But it’s difficult to break out of conventional genre and define something new all by yourself. It’s difficult to be completely original. In fact, almost no one is original— they just know how to work with corniness. Read the full post »
Posted by Liam Wood on September 14, 2014