I have been working on a couple of posts (on various not-related sf/f things) that keep not gelling. I was working on one such post while also starting to feel drowsy and decided it was close enough to bed time that I should just pack it in. I fell asleep really quickly. I half-expected to dream about the post I had been wrestling with. Instead I had about six dreams that were all variations of the same story. Most of the dreams weren’t about me, though I and Michael were supporting characters in one variant of the story. And while processing this (and waiting for my coffee to perk), I realized that there was a piece of writing advice I have repeated (and sometimes expounded upon) which my be useful to revisit and reconsider.
Before I jump into that, one weird digression. I saw recently on one of the social media platforms a question: When you dream is it like you are inside the story reacting to whats happening to you, or is it more like you are watching a movie about something happening to you? And I wanted to answer, “Those two choice assume that my dreams are always about me.” Because sometimes my dreams are, indeed, like an immersive experience, and other times as if I’m watching a movie or play… but I don’t always dream that I am me. And in all six of the ones that led to this post, the main character/who I was wasn’t Gene, at all. And in most of them none of the other people were anyone I know in real life.
When I was in school, I had more than one teacher covering English or Literature make the assertion that there are only four plots: person vs person, person vs nature, person vs themself, and person vs society. I wasn’t the only member of the class who didn’t quite buy it—when we came up with counter-examples, the teacher would find a way to shoehorn it into one of the four. In the years since I have seen it much more common for folks to list seven plots… the problem is, I’ve seen at least four variants of the list seven which don’t map to each other very well. Which is probably why other people have written books about the 20-something or 30-something fundamental dramatic situations you can build a story from. And so on.
All the dreams I had that night were variants of: being taken to meet the parents. And specifically, being taken to meet the parents who are not yet comfortable with their child being queer.
I know one reason that my sleeping brain easily cooked up six very different versions of that story is, in part, because being a queer person myself I have (in addition to having some personal experiences with the situation) listened to, read, or watched many, many, many variations of that basic situation.
And that’s the point of the Lauren Beukes quote above: what makes a story is the execution, not the plot.
Which brings me to the piece of writing advice I talked about earlier. It has been observed many times that every person is the protagonist of their own story. Therefore, it is useful for the writer to keep the motivations of all of the characters in a story in mind. If you write yourself into a corner, the advice goes, try re-writing some of your scenes from the point-of-view of another character. In a novel-length story if you find yourself needing a subplot to intercut with the main plot, a great source of sub-plots is to pick some supporting characters and ask what is going on in their lives off screen.
And that’s good advice.
But it may also help to actively invert the usual advice. Everyone is the protagonist of their own story… but also everyone is the supporting character or villain of someone else’s story. That might seem to be implied when someone advises that you re-write scenes from other character’s viewpoints to look for ways to move your plot forward, but I’m not sure we all actively think about it that way.
Especially about your hero. Sure, you know that your protagonist is the villain in your antagonist’s story… but is there anyone else who see your protagonist as an irritant, or a burden, or an obstacle… or maybe a villain, just in a different way than your antagonist does?
And in which of the supporting and otherwise background cast of your main story is your protagonist a supporting player, or even merely a superluminary? If you can’t imagine who might look at them this way, maybe you haven’t made your protagonist as well-rounded as you think?
It’s worth thinking about, at least!
But how will the reader know that they are really evil? Or, maybe shortcuts have no place in your writing
I had no trouble believing this anecdote, because I have gotten into more than one argument over the years with people (almost always cisheterosexual men) insisting that just because a character in a particular movie or television series or book raped someone, it doesn’t mean that he’s bad.
What’s most appalling about the anecdote is that a really large number of men think that kicking a puppy is ten-thousand times more evil than sexually assaulting a woman.
But on a less intense level, it’s also pathetic that a number of movies and stories without any rape at all have chosen to show the villain kicking or shooting or otherwise attacking a dog/puppy just to drive home the point that this character is really, really evil. It isn’t just dogs. In the original Terminator, for example, one of the ways the director hammers home that the titular character is a heartless killer is to show a close up of the robot callously stepping on a child’s toy, destroying it.
Puppies and toys aren’t the only kind of shorthand which lazy writers have used to indicator a character is not just a bad person, but despicably, unredeemably bad. One of the other ways that has been used a lot is queer-coding of villains. Queer-coding is where certain behaviors, mannerisms, or means of talking that hint that the character isn’t heterosexual (or possibly not cisgender). It frequently has been used with villains. People often point to villainous characters in Disney films (Jafar, Ursula, Scar) but it’s been around longer than that. Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, Rope is a frequently cited example.
And some works don’t even bother with coding. For instance, Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune, (and the sequels) explicitly depicts the most depraved and evil characters as gay. There is one character who slowly develops bisexual curiosity as she is corrupted, and then goes full queer as her moral corruption reaches its pinnacle.
Full disclosure: I didn’t even notice the correlation between queerness and evil in the Dune books (which I have loved since my early teens), until someone pointed out to me in my mid-to-late-twenties that I, a queer writer, was doing the same thing in stories I was writing at the time. It’s a pervasive culture notion, coming out of the homophobic belief that simply being non-heterosexual is a deep moral failing.
Queer-coding and overt queer-villaining still happen, but more people (and not just queer people) in the audience are willing to speak up and object when it happens. But the sort of writers/directors/et al who feel they need to hammer the depravity of their characters home seem to have switched to a new shorthand: incest.
In my review of a recent episode of Star Trek: Picard I blamed Game of Thrones for this problem. I stand by my explicit statement (as well as the implicit one) that the series (television and books) commits a huge number of literary and ethical sins, but I do have to admit that the encroachment of the incest meme as shorthand for very evil goes back further than that. In Cora Buhlert’s review of the same episode of Picard she points out the incest=villain trope goes back at least to 1974’s movie, Chinatown.
And obviously incest has been mentioned in fiction and folklore for a long time, including the Greek story of Oedipus, Arthurian legend (Mordred sometimes being depicted as the product of an incestuous tryst between Arthur and his sister or half—sister), and more than a few times in the Old Testatment. Though it is worth mentioning that one of the times it happens in the Old Testament the narrative is less than condemning of it.
But in most of those tales the incest plays out as a tragedy. Real life incest is also almost always tragic (since most often it is part of an abusive relationship). So, I’m not saying that incest should be off-limits in narrative fiction, because real human failings are fair game for your fictional works. I’m just annoyed that it seems recently that it’s being thrown in as a lazy way to show that a character is particularly twistedly evil. And it’s not necessary.
You can show the character doing evil things. Physically choking her subordinate tells me plenty about the character of the evil sister of the Hot Romulan, for instance. Sending death squads after people shows us that the character is evil. The narrative didn’t have to make them siblings for any part of the story to work. There are millions of ways you can have your villain behaving cruelly or coldly or viciously to demonstrate that they are a despicable, vile, dastardly, abominable, loathsome person.
Don’t use shorthand to indicate a character is evil. Write the story in such a way to show us the character is evil. But keep it in character, make sure that everything you show the reader also moves the plot along, and so forth. And if a reader is the sort of person who doesn’t recognize that coldly ordering someone’s death (or whatever things that happen in your story that are in character for your villain) is a bad person, maybe your story isn’t for them.
I didn’t think it was my place to write about the Helicopter story, other than to link to a few of what I thought were the more thoughtful pieces about it. The story uses for its title a meme that has been a popular attack from certain kinds of bigots against trans people. It was an attempt by the author to take a painful attack and turn it around. As one of the stories I linked in this week’s Friday Five showed, for some trans readers it succeeded in that goal. For others it didn’t. Art is risky like that, even when you aren’t tackling such fraught topics.
I’m not trans myself, and as such when trans people are talking about problems they face and issues they are struggling with, I believe my first duty is to listen, and when I can, amplify their words. Thus linking to two pieces by trans people in the Friday Five but not commenting myself.
The author has since asked the publisher to pull the story. The editor of the online zine has done so and issued a explanation.
In the aftermath, I’m seeing certain accusations being hurled around about those who didn’t react well to the story. One of the accusations is that every person who explained why they were uncomfortable with using that meme as a title was attacking the author. Similarly, people are characterizing criticism of parts of the story that didn’t work for them as a reader, again, as a personal attack on the author. Others are making the cliched attack that people who admit they didn’t read the story (and then carefully explained why just seeing the title brought up painful memories) have no right to comment.
Here’s why I disagree with all of those accusations:
In the early 90s I made the decision to do what a small fraction of the LGBT community was doing at that time: to take back the word “queer.” It was hardly a popular idea. My own (now deceased) husband was dubious at first. The word had been hurled at me and at him and others like us as an attack throughout our childhoods and beyond. I decided to pick up the those stones and turn them into a shield. But that was my decision.
It’s been 28 years, and I still occasionally get grief whenever I use the word queer to refer to myself or the community. Quite often from old white gay guys just like me.
They don’t like the word because it and the memories it evokes are painful. And it doesn’t matter that I have just as painful memories as they do, I have no right to demand that they deal with the pain the same way I have decided to. It’s true that I have forcefully asserted my right to use the word queer, but that is in the face of a different kind of criticism. Yes, I have also had people tell me not to use the word and that I’m a bad person for doing so.
But mostly, the negative comments I’ve gotten after using the word have been along the lines of: “I can never bring myself to use that word. Please don’t call me that.”
They don’t disagree with the word because they lack the discernment to tell that I mean it in good faith. They don’t refuse to use the word for themselves because they think I’m a Nazi. They aren’t attacking me when they explain why they refuse to use the word for themselves. They aren’t spreading misinformation when they speculate about why people like me are comfortable with the word and they aren’t.
Taking back a slur isn’t an easy thing to do. And it is perfectly reasonable for people to avoid the pain of engaging with the slur. It is perfectly reasonable for people to explain why they don’t want to engage with the slur. Deciding not to engage with the slur isn’t an attack on the author.
The helicopter meme has been used as an attack (mostly) on trans people. Not just the meme, but many variants of it. I’m not trans, but I’ve had angry bigots use the attack on me when I’ve posted certain opinions online. Angry words, harassment, taunting, and badgering hurts. Yes, I block frequently and quickly, but still the initial blow lands and it stings.
When one has suffered through those attacks repeatedly, seeing that attack used as a title of a story in a magazine you may admire, understandably fills you with apprehension at the least. The first time I saw the book Faggots I was caught off guard. I didn’t expect to see that word in large red letters on a book. I didn’t know, at the time, who Larry Kramer (the author) was. I didn’t know he was a gay rights activist. My first response when seeing that title was pain and fear. It didn’t matter that I was in a queer-friendly bookstore at the time. The title caught me by surprise and like a punch in the gut. I learned later that a lot of people in the community who did know who Kramer was and had read the book hated it when it first came out and saw it as an attack on the community—and for many, the wounds still burn decades later.
That’s the power words have. As an author, I am constantly reminding myself that words matter, that words can hurt as well as heal. Editors and publishers are mindful of this, too. Unfortunately, even the best of us with the best of intentions sometimes make mistakes. Readers who are caught off-guard and given no context will react. Some of those reactions will be raw. Some of those reactions will be misinterpreted.
It’s okay to disagree. It’s okay to take risks in art. I think attempting to take the power from slurs is a good and worthy pursuit. I also know that sometimes trying to do that causes discomfort or pain to some of the people that we’re trying to help. It doesn’t mean we stop trying. It just means that we try to do better, next time.
There are other people writing very thoughtfully on the topic:
I did National Novel Writing Month again this year, with my project being to get The Trickster Alliance out of it’s doldrums and possibly finished. I hit the default NaNoWriMo word goal of 50,000 words on Nov 22. Since in the past I’ve hit higher numbers, I then went for my stretch goal of beating my previous high word count, was was 66,000+ words. I hit 66,000 on the 29, and got a bit over 68000 on the 30, though apparently I waiting until too close to midnight to post my final number, because my stats don’t show the final word count.
I’ve spent part of the last couple of days figuring out how many of those scenes to transfer over to the book file. I know not all of them. There were several scenes that I wound up re-writing from scratch four or more times before I had a version that actually worked, for instance. I also wrote a couple of scenes that I am 99% certain aren’t needed in the story, but I needed to write in order to figure something else out.
The book isn’t finished, but it is significantly closer to it, and two really big plot problems that had bee holding me up for a really long time were sorted out. Sometimes having a deadline makes my subconcious spit out an answer, you know?
Now I do my annual switching of gears. The Christmas party is only 18 days away, and I have to have the annual Christmas Ghost Story ready by then. Often at the end of November I haven’t yet decided which of my many possible Christmas Ghost Story plots I’m going to work on this year. I have a bunch, and every year I think of at one or three more, so I’m not in any danger of running out of ideas at the moment. I actually started on one of the ideas in late October, so that’s likely to be this year’s tale.
Not all of the plots I’ve thought up for Christmas Ghost stories are set in the same universe as my novels, but the last several years those have been the plots I’ve been going for. I think part of the reason is because it’s easy to transition from working on one of my fantasy novels to a short story in the same universe.
Anyway, I need to get to it!
Several years ago I was on a writing panel at a convention. I don’t remember the exact title of the panel, but it was about what happens when you’re stuck or otherwise can’t seem to get a story moving. I was supposed to have a co-panelist, but they had to cancel at the last minute. The crowd in the room wasn’t really big, so I suggested we do something a bit more interactive. I briefly explained who I was and that most of my writing advice came from (at the time) about 12 years of reading the slush pile for a semi-prozine I was involved with. Then, rather than throw it open for any question, I asked for examples of times they had been stuck, and gave every in the room an opportunity to respond to it if they wanted.
This got a nice back and forth going.
One guy described how he’d had this story he’d been working on for a long time where he kept writing a few sentences or paragraphs about his main character getting the news of a death in the family, which was supposed to kick the plot off where the character would meet another character and they would both get involved in looking into what had happened. His problem he said, was he never knew how to get the main character from getting the news to meeting the other character.
I (rather flippantly) ask, “Why not just hit return and then type, ‘Later that day…’ or ‘A week later…’?”
And he looked stunned. “But don’t I have to explain how he got there?”
“You only have to show the reader things that move the plot forward. You can skip the boring stuff. You can jump past interesting things that happen to the character but aren’t important to the plot. Just jump ahead. Particularly in a first draft. During the second draft if you realize there is something important that you skipped you can add it then. But don’t do stuff like that until you get to the end of your first draft.”
Someone else in the room asked a question about the plot which made it clear that they thought plot was merely a list of everything that happens to the character. So I explained that plot is a problem, mystery, or challenge which confronts the protagonist at the beginning of the story, is resolved at the climax by the protagonist’s own actions, and is the thread the ties everything that you write about between those events together. It isn’t that every single thing the character does is part of the story, right? How many action movies show the characters going to the bathroom, for instance?
What a lot of people call writers’ block is a combination of indecision born out of the fear that what you write isn’t going to be perfect. So the first thing you need to do when you find yourself stuck is to realize that nothing anyone writes is ever perfect. Especially in the first draft. Your favorite book in the whole world was almost certainly a terrible mess in the first draft. It isn’t a great book because the author wrote exactly the perfect opening line, and then wrote every single sentence and scene that followed perfectly.
It’s great because the writer blundered along through the first draft until they had the skeleton of the story laid out before them—but not with all of the bones in exactly the right place. Then, during rewrite, the author got the bones arranged properly, added flesh to the bones, and eventually they had a living, breathing story that was ready to grab some readers and say, “Come one! Let’s have an adventure!”
Don’t let that fear of the imperfect prevent you from plunging in. Just start writing. And then keep writing until you reach the end.
Shakira – Try Everything (From “Zootopia”) [Official Music Video]:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) once more. If you don’t know what that means… well, in the past I have quoted from the NaNoWriMo website to describe what the event is, but during the last year they migrated their old site and forums to a new host (and in the process did a re-design), and there is no nice way to say this: they have really messed up their web site. It took me a very long time poking around the website to find where they have moved the “What is NaNoWriMo” information to… don’t get me wrong, there are links called that in their menus, but if you don’t already have an account set up, those links don’t take you to pages that actually answer the question. The closest I could come to the old information is this:
…each year on November 1, hundreds of thousands of people around the world begin to write, determined to end the month with 50,000 words of a brand-new novel. You may know this mass creative explosion by the name National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo
The basic idea is that thousands of us all over the world will, starting on November 1, attempt to write 50,000 words of either a brand new novel, or to continue one started previously, or to revise one started previously. People who sign up for accounts can join regional forums, set up NaNoWriMo buddies to encourage (or compete with) each other, attend in-person or virtual write-ins, and so forth. It can be a lot of fun, particularly if you jump in with the notion that you’re just trying to get the first draft—no matter who bad it is—down so that you can edit and rewrite later.
Another thing about the migration is that everyone’s Buddies have disappeared. I went through the archive site and sent invitations to people I used to be buddies with to try to re-establish my old network. But a lot of folks haven’t logged in, yet, this year.
Anyway, I have set up my project for this year. If you are doing NaNoWriMo this year and want to add me as a writing buddy, please do so! My username on NaNoWriMo is “fontfolly” just as it is here at my blog and on twitter.
Let’s tell some stories!
Back in 1954 writer Sylvia Wright proposed a new word: mondegreen, meaning a mishearing or misinterpretation of a word or phrase in a poem or a song. Her idea for the name came about because when she was a child her mother frequently read to her from a book of poetry, and one of her favorites was a specific Scottish ballad that referred to the murder of an Earl by his enemies “and they laid him on the green” — in other words, put his body on display as a warning to other enemies. But Wright had always thought the line was “and the Lady Mondegreen.” So she had always thought that two people had been murdered.
One of my oldest friends used to tell how back in the day her Mother had thought that the Bee Gee’s hit from 1977, “More Than a Woman,” was actually “Bald-headed Woman.” And I’ve written before about how I had completely misunderstood a lot of the lyrics of the song Doris Day was most famous for singing.
I listen to music a lot. I have literally thousands of playlists, and I like to have background music when I’m writing, or working, or doing just about anything. Particularly in my writing playlists, some songs appear again and again. There are some songs that I think of as themes for some of my characters, for instance. Others just really go well with certain kinds of subplots. And the song is one that is currently in my draft NaNoWriMo 2019 playlist, which I’ve been fiddling with for a bit over a week.
Sometimes I like a song really well, but there are a few of the lyrics I’m not sure of. You can’t hear some words as clearly as the others for various reasons. For instance, there is a song that has been in a bunch of playlists for two or three years, now, “Dancin’ with the Devil” by Lindsay Perry. And I like the song quite a bit, but there is one line that I’m slightly unsure of. In the chorus there’s this sentence, “Cause there’s nothing much more for me to do, but go dancin’ with the devil in these old soled shoes.” Or at least that’s what it sounds like to me.
Except, I’m not sure what “old soled shoes” means, exactly. I mean, all styles of shoes have soles, and it the soles are old, one presumes the entire shoe is old, right? It’s just a weird phrase. There is a brand of children’s shoes called “Old Soles” but they are children’s shoes (and expensive), so not really in keeping with the rest of the song where the character portrayed in the lyrics is at the end of their rope because they made a deal with the devil that has turned sour as those deals always do.
I kept thinking that I must be misunderstanding her, so I finally decided to see if lyrics to the song were posted anywhere.
They are. But it soon becomes clear that every site hosting them is copying them from a single site where a fan with really bad hearing has made a guess at the lyrics. I say this because there are lines that are quite clear and unmistakeable earlier in the song that this attempt at transcription gets wrong. For instance, the line in the song “It was the devil in disguise with his hazy eyes, I should’ve known better from all his lies.” But the web lyrics render it as “He was the devil in disguise with his eyes of ice. Should I know better from how is last” Which makes absolutely no sense at all.
Plus there are other, worse mondegreens later.
The line I am slightly uncertain of they render as “go dancin’ with the devil in its handsome shoes” which I know is wrong, because, for one, everywhere else in the song the devil is referred to as he/his, not it. And frankly, I can’t imagine how anyone could get handsome out of the phonemes there.
Well, I’m not completely sure I’m right about that one bit of lyric, so do I really have a right to judge someone else who thinks it’s something that, to me, makes no sense at all?
Maybe you can hear it better than me.
Lindsay Perry on Sonny’s Porch / Dancing With The Devil:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
The problem with stress and exhaustion is that stress makes it difficult to rest and rejuvenate from the exhaustion, while exhaustion makes it difficult to process and recuperate from the stress. It is a vicious circle that can be extremely difficult to break.
Every now and then some clever jerk writes an article or blog post claiming that if you aren’t sitting down at the keyboard and writing every single day, you aren’t a real writer (or you’re not serious, or you’re lazy, et cetera). And because so many of them say this, every writer out that has heard that so-called wisdom and (whether they meant to or not) internalized it. Which means that if one has a day such as one I had earlier in my current bout of bronchitis and sinusitis where:
- I was coughing so severely through the night that I got almost no sleep,
- consequently when the alarm went off I was groggy and in pain and barely able to thing,
- knowing I couldn’t afford to take a full sick day, made a doctor’s appointment and notified my boss that I would try to work from home,
- but first collapse because of the complete exhaustion and slept for a couple hours,
- then logged into work and tried to be productive for a few hours,
- until it was time to get dressed and drive to the clinic,
- where I thankfully didn’t have to wait long for the exam, and
- with diagnosis and prescriptions in had drove to the pharmacy,
- then finally returned home with various medication, and
- after explaining what all was happening with my husband, ate a simple dinner after which,
- I literally fell asleep at my person computer keyboard until the severe coughing returned,
- so I took the newly prescribed codeine cough syrup which knock me out,
- until my alarm went off the next day.
I didn’t get any writing in that day at all, nor for the next several days. And that’s not because I’m lazy, or not professional, or not serious. A particular kind of jerk will argue that since I managed to make myself work for a few hours, I could have made myself write. The problem is, in our current stage of capitalism, if you don’t work you don’t eat, can’t afford a home, and can’t get medical care.
So, the first thing that I want to say to any writer, artist, or other creative person out there who has experienced self-doubt because you’ve been told there’s something wrong with you if you can’t write: don’t listen to those jerks. They are wrong. Life happens. Besides, an important component of the creative process is living your life.
You’ll also find a lot of articles and blog posts out there they claim the writer’s block doesn’t exist. And some of them have some valid points in their argument, but many of their points are just as wrong the point above. The ones that aren’t wrong are really playing with semantics. They will point out the everyone gets stuck every now and then, but that being stuck is actually part of the creative process. They will usually then advise that you use the time being stuck to do things that nurture the creative process. Read, for example. Pick out an activity that requires some creativity but uses different skills than writing. Paint something. Clean out and organize a closet. Sing along to your favorite song. Listen to some new music you’ve never hear before. Go dig out and replant those flowers in that one part of the yard you’ve been meaning to get to.
Doing stuff like that will help your subconscious work through whatever it is that has you stuck. Living your life and doing things you enjoy (or that just give you a satisfying feeling of accomplishment once finished) helps the writing process.
And it doesn’t have to be elaborate! When my eyes were swollen in another bout of illness earlier this year so that looking at a screen hurt, and trying to make letters on a paper page focus also hurt, I lay in a dark room and listened to an audiobook that had been in my queue for a long time. Later than week, when I was a bit less sick, I managed to write a new scene in a story that I had been banging my head against before I got sick. It was only a little bit, but it helped.
Sometimes it is hard to tell whether we are procrastinating or we’re really stuck. Just as it is sometimes difficult for someone outside your head to tell the difference between you performing vital chores that have to be done to keep your life moving and procrastination. And that is because there is no objective difference between those states of being.
Which leads to the second thing I want to say to every creative person struggling with feeling stuck or being angry at yourself for procrastinating: don’t beat yourself up! Because it is subjective, you can decide that the time you spent doing other things were part of the process of getting unstuck. If you can accept that being stuck is part of the creative process, then you can take a deep breath and get back writing (or drawing or whatever).
And I don’t necessarily mean you have to sit down to the project that you’ve been stuck on. Maybe trying writing something else, just to prove to yourself that you still can write. For instance, sit down and write a blog post about being stuck and how you feel about the unhelpful advice that you found yourself thinking about while being irritated at yourself for not having written all week.
Which is what I just did. Right now, you’re reading it. Took my less that 40 minutes to write more than 1100 words. And I don’t know if any readers will experience but about the five paragraphs back, I realized those voices of doubt in my head telling me that I’m a failure for not getting things written lately, for not having decided what I’m going to work on for NaNoWriMo and so forth got a whole lot quieter and much less intimidating.
So, I gotta go. There’s some stories that need my attention.
So, first, the misunderstanding. They are all upset because “It was a dark and stormy night” seems to be a good opening line to any story. And you know what?
They are right.
Those 7 words are a great opening line. Edgar Allan Poe and Madeleine L’Engle both used the same seven words as openings to stories that went on to acclaim.
So what’s the problem?
There are a lot of contests out there where people are challenged to compose a horrible opening sentence to a fictitious novel, and those contests are named after Edward Bulwer-Lytton, first Baron Lytton, because of a horrible opening sentence he wrote for a novel called Paul Clifford published way back in 1830. The problem is that Baron Lytton didn’t put a period after night… his actual opening sentence went on for a whopping 58 words total.
Fifty-eight words! With at least two parenthetical clauses (depending on how you count, it can be four or five!)!
Full disclosure: I once won a Bulwer-Lytton contest for an opening line to a fictitious sci-fi novel, and I am personally acquainted with two other people who won such contests.
So, let’s look at the actual opening sentence, shall we?
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
If Lytton had just allowed his editor to change that semi-colon to a period… except he would have had to re-word the following phrases a bit, too, and he refused. So that’s the real problem. He wouldn’t concede that his opening sentence should have been both 1) multiple sentences, and 2) re-worded.
The most egregious sin in the sentence that Bulwer-Lytton insisted on, in my opinion, is that “(for it is in London that our scene lies)” because it breaks the fourth wall (which no other part of the novel does). Plus there were much more elegant ways (and with fewer words!) to convey the information. For example, consider this as an opening:
It was a dark and stormy night.
Rain fell in torrents—interrupted at intervals by violent gusts of winds. The winds swept up the London streets and rattled the housetops—fiercely agitating the scanty flames of the lamps that struggled against the darkness
I’m not the greatest editor in the world, but my first attempt at cleaning up the fifty-eight word run-on sentence to three sentences totalling forty-four words. And not one single nuance was lost with that reduction in word count!
My rewrite represents a reduction of words to about 76% of the original. And my primary skill set is developmental editor. I suspect a grammatical editor could reduce the word count by at least another 25% without losing a single instance of meaning.
And that is the point of the Bulwer-Lytton contests: quite often succinct is far superior to verbose. And a lot of people mistake elaborate vocabularies as being superior to concision.
I mean, knowing lots of words is cool, and sometimes elaboration is better than minimalism. So I get it. But no one is saying “It was a dark and stormy night” is a bad opening line. On the contrary, we’re saying that Bulwer-Lytton should have stuck with that and moved on.
Finally, for full disclosure, this is the sentence with which I once won a Bulwer-Lytton contest:
Lance Lace, skulking in the shadow of a spaceport warehouse, checked the charge on his blaster and wondered—for not the first time that night—what all of this had to do with the pair of pliers and water-soaked lace panties found in the pockets of the murdered Rigellian.
My primary source of income since 1988 has been writing. Most of that has been technical writing (and related jobs) in the software industry, but I find it really hard to discount the fact that the word “writer” has been part of my official job description for a bit over 31 years. So my day job and my hobby job for more than three decades has been “writer” — so maybe I have some idea of how to put words together? Plus, for more than two decades I was the editor of a semi-prozine that produced at least three issues a year for those two decades. Which were offered for sale and purchased in sufficient quantities to cover the cost of printing.
So maybe, just maybe, I have some correct notions about what it takes for a story to appeal to an audience, right?
But here’s something I am absolutely certain of: I can’t teach you how to write. I can tell you how I do it (the parts I understand—there’s a whole lot going on in everyone’s subconscious that remains ineffable). I can tell you techniques that work for me. But only you can figure out how you can write.
And that’s true of everyone. No one, no matter how accomplished, can tell you how to write. I love reading or hearing about how other people go about writing. I like attending panels and seminars and the occasional online class from other writers. So I’m not saying don’t take anyone’s advice or class, just remember that in the end you are the person who is telling your stories. So only you can figure out which things people suggest work for you, and which don’t.
A lot of advice gets repeated regularly, and it seems sound. When you’re feeling anxious about writing, it can be comforting to have these rules to fall back on. But these pieces of advice can be stumbling blocks or worse. For example, one frequently repeated piece of advice is to cut out the adverbs. “Search for words ending in ‘ly’ and delete them!” So take out things like terribly and gently and carefully and slowly. Supposedly this makes your writing clearer. It also makes your writing duller. Some adverbs are superfluous. But like every other kind of word (nouns, verbs, adjectives), sometimes they are exactly right.
Then there is that tired old chestnut, “Show, don’t tell.” I’ve written before about how that advice is more wrong than it is right. In a nutshell: the extreme version of the advice leads you to remove all exposition from your story and exclude people who don’t share all your (unconscious) cultural assumptions. For a writer of science fiction or fantasy, that makes it impossible to put the reader into a world that is different than our own. Better advice is to paint pictures with your words. Anton Chekov said it thusly: “Don’t tell me the moon was shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” So use exposition when necessary, but make sure it isn’t flat and boring.
Said is a perfectly good verb. So is snarled, whispered, replied, asked, shouted, demanded, muttered and retorted. So that advice about never using any verb other than said as a dialog tag is another one that is well-meaning, but not completely right. Now, it is true that a writer can go overboard with the dialog tags. I was cringing mightily during a recent audio book where the author seemed to take the flip side of the advice and never used said at all. Among the horrible tags he did use were: extrapolated, polled, nodded, puffed, interrogated, and the absolute worst: all-caps-ed. This is another one where the truth is somewhere in between. Don’t go bananas with the synonyms for said and asked, but don’t stick to only those two, either.
Also, sometimes you don’t have to use dialog tags at all. You can describe what the character is doing: He pursed his lips. “Do you want my honest opinion?” Or if you are telling the story from a particular character’s point of you, you can describe their thoughts or feelings: Sarah wanted to hug him. “You have no idea how much I needed to hear that today!” But again, you need to figure out what works for you. I have a bad habit in first drafts of putting a she/he/they nodded on about half the dialog entries. I think it’s because I nod when people talk to me (which is hilarious when I do it on conference calls!). But when I read the draft later—especially aloud to my writer’s group—it sounds like everyone in my story is constantly bobbing their heads wildly and can really distract from the scene!
Some people insist that you absolutely must write every day on your project or you aren’t a real writer. Bull. Yeah, some people write like that. And if that works for you, great. But some of us need to take days off. My day job involves writing and editing, so some days when I get home my brain is burned out, and I don’t get much if any writing done. And don’t tell me to get up super early and write before I go to work. I’m not a morning person, and frankly if I tried I have no doubt that some days I would be much less than good at my job. And I like my work. Work pays the bills! And I like eating. If writing every single day works for you, great, do it. But don’t feel like a failure if some days you just have to do something else to recharge the mental batteries.
There are two very common bits of writing advice that I do fully endorse:
- A writer writes. You can skip days, but you can’t skip writing altogether. If you feel stuck, force yourself to write a single word. Just one. Then, look at it, and decide what the next one is. If that’s what it takes, just make yourself put one word after another until you have a sentence, and then another and another.
- A writer reads. Read other people’s work regularly. Read things you love. Every now and then, read stuff from a genre you don’t like. Or a style of writing that you usually don’t take to. Not all the time, but make sure you are expanding your reading horizons, regularly.
Other than that, I just have to ask: why are you still reading this post! Go! Write something! The world needs your story. And no one can tell your story except you.