Tag Archives: Genre

Why new writers need the “Make Your Story” series

30 May

“Scheherezade” by Édouard Frédéric Wilhelm Richter 

I started writing Make Your Story on my blog because I wanted to contribute some of my ideas about imagination, vision, and voice to writers who are just starting out.

Make Your Story is less about how to write a story than it is how to “make” good writing and artwork.

This is because you have lots of options for learning about story and structure as a new writer. I highly recommend that you familiarize yourself with those key elements and here are some great places to start.

In this post, Now Novel has good overarching advice about structure. Follow that blog for solid insights to story, fiction, and the rudiments of writing prose. They always have intelligent things to say about writing.

Writers Digest is always trustworthy and this article by Orson Scott Card is general but excellent.

On a more specific, structural approach, the 7-Point Plot Structure is a good tool to know, and I bet you already do if you’ve seen any Hollywood film more than three times in your life. What you may not know is how to execute it.

If you respond to the 7-point approach and want to know more, check out the Story Structure Database by KM Weiland. This database breaks down an impressive number of contemporary films and classic novels into plot points (almost always the 7-point structure, I believe). This approach doesn’t always work neatly (Moby-Dick wasn’t written to be wedged into this structure) but it’s a terrific resource if you have movies, books, or authors in mind that you want to emulate.

And there are many other great resources. Feel free to mention your favorites in the comments so other writers can check them out!

But I started Make Your Story because, for all the blogs and resources out there about story structure, there’s precious little on the Internet about (a) feeding the imagination, (2) employing personal material in fiction/art, or (c) considering how one sees the world and how to develop a writing aesthetic and voice that express what you see.

This is because people have the expectation that you can teach yourself to do anything on the internet. Wanna grout your bathroom? Change your oil? Pull up a life-hack on Youtube! And it’s totally, utterly awesome that that’s even possible. I believe the modern human species is better for widespread knowledge-sharing.

Storytelling isn’t solely like grouting bathroom tiles, though it can be! Now Noel’s piece on how to use adjectives in fiction takes that approach, and it’s good advice, indeed.

But creative storytelling (fiction or nonfiction) is also learning how to take what you see in the world and make it into a narrative that other people can relate to.

Ever try to tell a story that really happened to you, only to have people read it and say, “That doesn’t seem realistic.” And you think, joke’s on you because THAT’S THE WAY IT REALLY HAPPENED!

Well, the joke isn’t on your audience – it’s on you. All writers do this at some point because they haven’t yet developed a sense for what real-life material works as story or how to deliver it so that it will. We’ll talk about what makes good material and how to use it, in Make Your Story.

Every professional writer dreads the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” Mainly because the answer is so sewn into their DNA and/or brainwaves so intrinsically that they can’t articulate it and know they’ll sound like idiots if they try.  In Make Your Story, we talk about ways to feed your imagination and deepen your pool of available story ideas.

Writing also requires an aesthetic (AKA knowing if your writing is awesome) because at the sentence level, your writing style has to be engaging, beautiful, or seamless/invisible if readers are going to keep reading your work. Do you know what seamless writing looks like? Can you imitate it? What is a beautiful sentence as opposed to purple prose? How do you engage people with words? Great writers typically express their personal aesthetic with a killer writing voice, a skill we’ll talk about here, too.

Lastly, making your own story requires learning how to really see the world, not just repeating what you think you know or churning out cliches. Cliches especially stand in the way of a personal aesthetic/voice and saying what you really want to say. Do you know what that is? Do you know what you’re really looking at when you look at something? Are you sure?

What about the name? Why “make your story” and what does that mean?

Minneapolis photographer Doug Beasley refers to photography as “making a photograph,” not “taking” one. “Taking” a picture is quick and sounds underhanded while “making” a picture is mindful, takes a little time. “Telling” a story is similar. It sounds like it’s all done, waiting inside you until you are ready to spill it, like Sheherezade famously did for 1001 nights in a  row, when really, writing or telling a story is usually a creative, mindful process (and often a slow one).

So please join me and let’s talk about how to make your story.

Why Aspiring Writers Need to Heed K. Tempest Bradford’s Advice

25 Feb

In this article from K.T Bradford,  “I Challenge You to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year,” writer K. T. Bradford says she was looking to improve herself as a writer a few years ago and decided to focus, for one year, on reading stories by authors of color, LGBT writers, and writers who were women.

As you can imagine from an in-your-face headline like that, a lot of white male writers (and others) are upset by Bradford’s suggestion. They say it’s reverse racism, white-shaming, it’s punishment/censorship of perfectly good authors, and so on.  Readers can read the article and decide if Bradford is playing race cards or not.

But this post of mine isn’t about race, really and it isn’t for readers. I want to talk to the would-be writers out there, and I want to back Bradford’s suggestion 110%. To me, this is such a self-evident suggestion for aspiring writers that it’s astonishing to read the blowback that Bradford is getting (even from some witers). Reading outside the mainstream pool of white, straight, male writers is something you absolutely need to do at some point soon in your development as a writer, if you haven’t done it already.

A lot of people have dismissed Bradford’s idea as an exercise in political correctness, but that knee-jerk reaction totally misses the point where writers are concerned. Writers are the assessors and observers of culture. Whether young/new writers realize it or not, they are judged by their powers of observation and their ability to translate life into scenes, plots, imagery, compelling description, etc.

What you have to observe about life is what makes you interesting as a writer. It’s also part-and-parcel to why cliches are anathema to good writing. This isn’t just because readers don’t want to read crap they’ve read a thousand times before, but because using or misusing cliches shows very unsophisticated observational skill.  If your characters are simply too easily recognized or your plots are trite or your turn-of-phrase is cliche, it’s because your skill as an observer of life is weak. You’re relying on the work of other authors (television screenplay writers?) to do your observing for you. And that doesn’t cut it. Not remotely.

If you want to be a writer, your ability to encapsulate a character into a stick of dynamite on the page, your ability to craft a great plot with perfect beats, and your golden writerly voice are essential, of course. But a writer’s ability to assess the world effectively, beautifully, and UNIQUELY is unteachable. If you have it, your ability to observe well will separate you from your peers very quickly (all else being equal).

Observing well is unteachable in the sense that if I were your teacher, I couldn’t say for certain if I knew how to give you what you need to become a decent observer of society, of homo sapiens, our emotions, human drive, life. So much of that depends on what kind of observer you want to be, and what kind of observer you are capable of becoming, and that’s almost impossible to assess for any teacher. Who can say what any human mind needs to fertilize itself and grow into becoming a decent writer? An established author could assign you all the reading that was important to him, that helped his mind open, stretch, and become what it became, but, truly, no teacher has a clue how your mind works. Teaching you isn’t a guarantee, and in most cases, isn’t possible.

But you can learn to observe and assess by watching how other, better writers do it. In fact, it’s the only way to become an effective writer: Watch, learn. READ. And try imitating your heroes by writing, writing, writing. You might have had teachers who reached you along the way, but leaving their sides and learning on your own is absolutely essential. Who are your writer-heroes, can you say? I hope you can. Who writes the way you wish you could? Which books fill you with the boiling desire to sit down at your computer and bang out your own words? Make a list. You might be surprised which names spill out.

Chances are, you did something like this in high school, even grade school. Naming your heroes is how you quickened into becoming an embryonic artist/storyteller/journalist/writer. You began honing in on your goal and your pantheon of favorite writers changed along the way. New writers were introduced to you — maybe in school, maybe by respected peers — and these new heroes were more robust thinkers and better storytellers than the ones who originally moved you. And of course, the writers you worshiped at the age of eleven were different than those who blew your mind at twenty-two. At thirty-two.

At least I hope so.

Bradford’s advice is for the writer who knows herself well enough to steer against her own trends and predilections. That’s what she did as a writer, after all. She realized she was slipping into frustration because she wanted to get better as a writer, so she decided to focus her reading, hone in on a certain type of writer. The reason writers develop at all  is because their own sense of what’s entertaining, beautiful, striking, and wonderful becomes more sophisticated, fine-tuned as they grow. And writers who limit themselves to reading mostly (or only) from the predominant culture are self-editing to a degree that’s damaging to themselves as observers. They are swimming dangerously close to cliches, always.

Between 1985 and 1987, I read almost exclusively Latin American writers because I was obsessed with El Boom, coming out of Mexico and Central America. I was so obsessed with this particular brand of “fantasy” and the very words these writers used that I started reading them in the original Spanish, too, and in the case of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I translated certain beloved paragraphs from Spanish to English myself. I did this because I was curious why his words and images hit me so hard, even though I was reading him in translation. Were his scenes of magic butterflies and starving angels hitting me because of the images’ potency or because of the delivery of the prose? I wanted to know how Garcia Marquez’s magic worked, both his word-magic and his stories about magic (I decided it was both — his wondrous imagery delivered via his journalistic, matter-of-fact bluntness was the formula, a technique that works even better in Spanish, to my ear). Breaking down his sentences to the level of poetry seemed the best way to learn how to do it.

I did this earlier when I started reading lesbian writers (again almost exclusively — not quite a year). Andrea Dworkin’s writing was so effective to me because not only was it so radical compared to anything I’d read before, but her prose itself had a steamrolling, hectoring quality. Every word hit like a punch, a kick. Was it hitting me that way because I was a young, straight, white man reading her work so fresh from rural Wisconsin taverns that you could smell the stale beer on me? Sure. But once I filtered out the “bullying” as I thought of her words at that age, I could easily hear her arguments — and I got that same quality from Audre Lorde, Pat Califia, and other lesbian writers from the mid-eighties. Clear-cutting points of view that had to be delivered via potent, condensed prose — so very admirable to me as a young writer learning how words worked.

Reading the literature (the accepted great works by writers who’ve come before you), reading the great works by writers who are writing today whether in your culture or not, and knowing where the predominant trends are in literature and in your specific market are vital to being a serious writer. You need to be a voracious reader capable of digesting great volumes. If not, you’ll limit yourself — damagingly so. You won’t understand why your work is rejected (not an impressive trait for someone who needs to be an assessor, an observer). If you resist knowing where your place is in the larger world of letters, you won’t comprehend why reviewers trash your work as they place you in a context that you won’t understand. Worst, you won’t learn from being in a writers group, because your peers will be assessing you in ways that make no sense to you. Everyone will be speaking a language that you have chosen to ignore.

Conversely, reading outside your culture will feed you. The pepper and zing of words, thoughts, ideas, and points of view from writers writing outside the predominant culture — whomever they are and whomever YOU are — aren’t just spice. They’re your nutrition. At this stage in your career, you need to read different points of view like you need air. Deny yourself to your peril.

So forget the debate about whether Bradford is being a PC race-baiter. That’s just bedlam and noise. If you’re a writer, open yourself to the idea that you need to expand your color wheel and read accordingly.


* Free Issue of Uncanny Magazine to People Taking Bradford’s Challenge

Sex, Books, and Vomiting: The Life of Georges Simenon

28 Oct

Writer Georges Simenon was The Beast

Belgian detective novel writer Georges Simenon (1903 – 1989) was a writer-killing writer, the kind of writer that mama writers and daddy writers tell stories about to their baby writers in order to make them behave.  Even now, in death, Simenon could kill other writers, making Halloween week the perfect time to honor this horror, this beast.

The New Yorker ran a piece on him in the October 10 issue, and I’m still haunted, rattled by Simenon’s hyper-demonic level of productivity. Get a load of this…

* Simenon’s first novel was published at eighteen.

* Between the ages of nineteen and twenty-six, Simenon wrote 150 novels and novellas.

* During his established “mature years,” Simenon wrote 134 novels.

* His famous Inspector Maigret Saga was 75 novels and 28 short stories (a new installment came out at an average of 2.5 per year).

Were the books crap? Most assuredly were. It typically took Simenon seven to eight days to write a novel and then two or three days to revise, a pace that produced “sloppy” books that “damaged his work terribly,” according to writer Joan Acocella.

Nonetheless, as if in a B-horror slasher film, I am the bikini-clad girl who pussy-foots out into the dark for no other reason than to get a look at The Beast. Cry out to warn me if you will, but don’t you want to see, too? I mean, how on Earth…?

According to Acocella:

[Simenon] said that, upon beginning [a new book], he entered into a trance, in which, chapter by chapter, the plot came to him….When he felt a novel coming on, he cancelled all appointments and had a check-up with his doctor to make sure he could endure the stress.

How stressful was it? During his early novel-writing period,

Every morning, he sat down and completed his self-assigned daily quota of eighty typewritten pages. Then he would vomit, from the tension, and spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing.

No Microsoft Word cut-and-paste stuff either. Typewritten pages. Whatever your daily word count is, writer, you suck.

But if all that weren’t staggering on its own, Georges Simenon also boasted that he had slept with over 10,000 women — to which his long-time mistress Denyse said, “pooh, it was probably only about twelve hundred.”  Even decimated, that figure is stunning and one that begs the same question as above. How on Earth..?

One day, when Denyse was in her study conferring with one of her assistants, Joan Aitken, Simenon entered the room, wanting to have sex. “You don’t have to leave, Aitken,” Denyse said, and she and Simenon got down, briefly, on the rug.

From the novel production to the daily word count and upchuck, to the manic need for moremoremore, reading Georges Simenon’s story is like watching a compulsive animal pacing in its zoo-cage, back and forth, to and fro, waiting for feeding time or whatever craved, biological function comes next. Crapping books and puking breakfast. Acocella says it was a simple equation for Simenon, “The more product he turned out, the more he expected to earn.” And the more he earned, the more he bought (expensive houses, trips to Africa, wolves, a white stallion, prostitutes), and the more he bought, the more books he had to crap out in order to support that lifestyle. Round and round, back and forth, to and fro.

I’m not intimidated by this writer’s output (OK, maybe a little), but I watched Paranormal Activity the other night, and Simenon’s story of undead writer-life scares me a hell of a lot more.