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…and then what happened? And then? And then? — getting the story started and keeping it going

Just start writing.

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.)

Time to fire up those word processors! #NaNoWriMo

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!

Please join me for National Novel Writing Month!

Ah, yes, the Lady Mondegreen dancing with the devil

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.

Except…

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.)

A conspiracy of muses, or, the myth of writer’s block

“I would start writing by I haven't finished my daily procrastination rituals yet.”

Some memes hit too close to home…

I have been far less productive at fiction writing this year than I have for decades. It has been frustrating. It has been distressing. It has been exhausting. That last bit is rather bizarre because one of the things that has been interfering with my personal writing productivity is that I am often physically exhausted because of long hours at work. I’ve been emotionally exhausted because of the stress of work when every department I interact with is short-handed, the stress of worrying about the health of many people I love, the stress of the constant existential threat from the people currently running the government wanting people like me (and many other kinds of people) gone, and the stress of being sick this year so much more often than I have usually been.

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.

Struggle against the darkness… or, an opening phrase isn’t the same as an opening sentence

Cover of the 1984 paperback "A Snoopy Special Snoopy and It was a Dark" by Charles M. Schultz.

This, alas, is not my copy of this book. I don’t know what happened to my copy. I moved several times during my 20s and early 30s, and I think the book disappeared in one of the moves.

So I’ve seen this one post on Tumblr many times where people are just outraged, really outraged, that the Bulwer-Lytton contest exists. And I keep refraining from chiming in to explain that they don’t understand, because 1) I am afraid it will just come across as Mansplaining, and 2) if they really don’t understand, they will never understand the truth. So I’m going to explain it on my blog. And since my blog cross-posts to tumblr, if any of them connect the dots, I can just block their comments on my blog.

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.

Most writing advice is free, but the value varies

“Writing Advice 5¢ - the Expert is In”

We’re all experts…

I made my first professional sale to a science fiction ‘zine (Worlds of If) forty-four years ago. And I was ecstatic, because I had only been submitting to professional ‘zines for two years, and I had already made a sale! I was on my way, right?!? Except I didn’t make another sale until thirteen years later. So maybe I didn’t quite know what I was doing, just yet. And for the next ten-ish years, I only managed to sell stories to fanzines and semi-prozines. Which seemed like more proof that I wasn’t quite a pro.

Except…

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.

That’s not a plothole…

Plot hole. I do not think it means what you think it means.

A classic…

Frequently when people are trying to explain why they don’t like a particular movie, series episode, or book, they will refer to a plothole. They will express great frustration about this problem in the story. And they will get angry at you if you don’t agree with them that this plothole was a horrible mistake that made the whole story worthless. I get it. When I really dislike a movie or book I find it hard to believe that other people—particularly my friends who have common interests—find any redeeming qualities in it. Now there is an entire other essay’s worth of discussion about how different people feel that different parts of a story are important than others; that’s not what I want to talk about today.

A lot of people use the term plothole incorrectly. And the people who are most likely to use it incorrectly are also the people that believe that a plothole trumps every other aspect of the story. So, what is a plot hole?

Plothole A gap, inconsistency, or contradiction in a storyline that breaks the flow of logic established by the story’s plot.

As a writer, plotholes are the bane of my existence. When I find a contradiction in my story, it sometimes makes me want to tear my hair out. Sometimes a plothole isn’t very difficult to fix, once you find it. But others do indeed make the entire story fall apart. The existence of that latter type is why some people think that anything labeled plothole completely invalidates the story.

There are many other kinds of gaps which people confuse with plotholes. Those include:

  1. things an individual reader/viewer wish didn’t happen,
  2. character actions that contradict the version of the character the individual reader/viewer has constructed outside canon,
  3. things that contradict the political/moral preferences of the individual reader/viewer,
  4. things the author(s) intentionally plant to foreshadow something that will explain everything in a future chapter/episode/sequel,
  5. things the author(s) didn’t think they needed to explicitly explain because they thought you had critical thinking skills,

Let’s tackle these:

Things you wish didn’t happen. I have great sympathy for this issue. There are almost always things that I wish didn’t happen in any story I read or watch. Characters you wished to live are killed, or characters you thought should get together don’t, or a villain you thought should suffer more doesn’t. It can be very upsetting when a part of the story you care about doesn’t go the way you want. But that isn’t the same thing as an actual plot contradiction. And if it makes you feel any better, often the author is just as upset about the direction a story goes as you are. Seriously. When I was writing the first draft of one of my books, there was one scene where I was bawling my eye out while typing, because I didn’t want that character to die, sacrificing himself so his daughters could be saved, but everything in his story had led to that moment, so that’s what I wrote.

Character doesn’t behave the way you think they ought. When a story grabs us, we usually find ourselves identifying with many of the characters. And we’ll imagine a version of the character based on what we see in the early stages of the story. When we don’t realize is that we are also basing the character on things that aren’t actually in the story, but that appeal to us. Sometimes we overlook hints of things in the character’s personality that are less pleasing to us. So when that particular aspect of the character’s personality become a major plot point, we yell “out of character!” and “that contradicts everything we know about them.” Sorry, no it contradicts things you imagined into the character, not what was actually in the story. A subset of this problem is that sometimes we forget that humans are impulsive and make decisions based on emotion and hunches. Humans make mistakes. No one in real life is 100 percent consistent, so we shouldn’t expect fictional characters to be, either.

Things that contradict your political/moral preferences. One of my favorite movies is a silly comedy released in 1991 called Soapdish. The story contains, among other things, a supporting character played by Carrie Fischer that is my favorite thing she’s ever done outside of Star Wars. I laugh myself to tears every time I watch it… except it has one problem. A major running sub-plot is resolved in a quite transphobic way. Even in 1991 I was a bit troubled by it. More recently, I have to brace myself for it, and I no longer recommend to movie to people without a content warning. But, despite that thing being problematic, it isn’t a plothole. It is perfectly consistent with the rest of the story. Do I wish it didn’t happen? Oh, yeah. Do I enjoy the movie less because of it, again, yes. In this case, I’m able to enjoy the rest of the movie despite this problematic bit. I understand perfectly if other people can’t. But, it isn’t a plothole. It’s a failing of the narrative and demonstrates that some of the characters are a bit less open-minded that I would like.

Things that the author plans to explain later. For example, in one of my works in progress, one of the protagonists is a shapeshifter. But they don’t advertise the fact. At different points in the story, their hair (color and other qualities) is described in different ways, because their hair changes slightly with their mood. It looks like an inconsistency early on, but it is eventually explained by the end of the book (and there is one big hint in the opening chapter). Other dangling unfinished bits you notice at the very end may be intended for a sequel. If the unfinished bit doesn’t invalidate the resolution of the main plot, then it isn’t a plothole.

The author thought your critical thinking skills would fill in the gap. Not everything has to be spelled out. For one thing, trying to do so would add hundred of thousands of words to any book. The author has to make some judgement calls about things the readers will figure out, and things that need to be explained. The author will never guess correctly for every single reader. If, when you explain your plothole to a friend, and they immediately say, “Oh, I just figured that Y happened because of X,” you’re probably dealing with something the author thought you would figure out on your own.

Any of these reasons, of course, are a valid reason for you to dislike a particular story, movie, show, or book. But it does not mean the authors left a big plothole in the middle of the narrative road. And it doesn’t mean that the story is inherently, objectively bad.

Chock-full of meaning, or more adventures in dictionaries

Clck to embiggen.

A discussion about writing advice crossed my social media stream this week. One topic was archaic similes that literate people know the meaning of, but because they refer to practices or objects that are no longer part of daily life, no longer conjure a vivid picture in the mind of the reader. The first example was “hoist with his own petard,” which many people more-or-less understand, but since almost none of the people who recognize it knows that a petard is a small explosive device, and that the word hoist in is the past participle meaning to “lift and remove.” So the full meaning of the phrase as Shakespeare first used it is that a person who has tried to set a bomb against another person has instead had it blow up in his own face (and removed them from the situation).

An informal survey I conducted many years ago among acquaintances at a gaming event proved that a substantial number of people were certain that a petard was part of a sailing ship, and so the image they all had was of people being hooked on some sort of winch and raised into the air. One could argue that that is close enough, but it is definitely a different image than the evil bomber who is taken out by his own bomb.

Someone else suggest that the phrase “chock-full” fell into the same category because many people don’t know what a chock is. And… well, it is probably true that a lot of people don’t know what a chock is, but the noun, chock (meaning a block or wedge of wood) didn’t enter the English language until the 1700s, where it derived from a French word meaning a log. Whereas chock-full was an English word more than 400 years before chock, and it has no connection to the noun.

chokkeful Middle English crammed full

The earliest written version is from the year 1400, but there is reason to believe the word is older than that. And it has always meant “crammed full.” Which is kind of amazing, when you think about it. The only thing that etymologists aren’t sure of is whether it is a derivative of the Old German (and Saxon and Old English) word chokke which as a noun originally meant “jaw or cheek” and as a verb meant to grasp a person by the jaw, or if it comes from on Old French word choquier which meant to “collide, strike, or crash.” If the former, than the image our 15th century ancestors was imagining was a mouthful. If the latter, the image was of someone forcing more things into a container than it ought to be able to hold.

Now, if the argument is that one must imagine the exact same physical manifestation of a word for it to be meaningful, I guess you could say people ought not use chock-full, given that some people think it has something to do with chocks. But if that is the standard, than no words can ever be used. Besides, I abide by a slightly different school of thought. Chock-full hasn’t been a simile for at least 600 years. It is simply a word that means “crammed full” and since that meaning has been the same for all that time, well, the only native English speakers who are going to be confused by it are those that are over thinking things.

If chock-full is a word that you use in every day speech, then if it seems to fit in something you’re writing, use it.

The problem with making word choices while writing isn’t whether a specific word would be defined exactly the same by every reader, but whether the word flows naturally in the narrative. For a lot of people, “hoist with his own petard” is an affectation that has been inserted into the narrative to emulate Shakespeare. And every writer goes through a phase where they are trying on styles and phrasings of writers they admire. If you do that, the reader will seee that inauthenticity right away.

So the first rule is: is it a word that you use yourself without having to think about it? If so, it fits your style and is probably okay to use. The second rule is, is the way you use it one of the commonly understood definitions, or it is jargon—is it a specialized meaning of the word that is only understood by members of a particular profession, sub-culture, or clique? Well, then maybe limit its use.

Of course, there is a difference between word choices in the narration than words used in dialogue. Maybe your character fancies themself a Shakespearean hero and is constantly quoting (or misquoting) lines from famous plays. Of course a character like that is going to use the phrase “hoist with his own petard,” and you, the author, will likely have another character ask what it means or correct him when he says it wrong (and I have heard so many people, probably because they think a petard is a winch or similar rather than a bomb, say it “hoist on his own petard”). That works just fine!

There is also the choice of audience. Maybe you intend your story primarily for members of a particular community. Even then, I still point back to rule number one: stick to words you use conversationally yourself. And if you’re not sure, read the whole scene outloud. Any phrase or sentence that trips up your tongue needs to be re-written, because if you can’t say it without getting tongue-tied, it isn’t written in your voice.

Don’t choke on the vocabulary, don’t shove in pretentious phrases, and don’t get cheeky.

Don’t stick a fork in the reader, or, getting the ending right

“Beginnings hook readers. Endings create fans.” plotwhisper.com

“Beginnings hook readers. Endings create fans.” plotwhisper.com

We talk about beginnings and opening lines in fiction frequently. I’ve written about it many times myself1, as well as participating in panels at conventions on the topic. We spend less time talking about endings. One reason why is because it’s a more complicated topic, because for the ending to work all of the stuff in the middle of the story needs to come together in a satisfying way, and ideally the ending will tie back to the opening. So it’s easier to give advice about moving character arcs along, making them work with the external conflict, and so forth, and assume that the ending will take care of itself if we get all the rest right. I’ve been thinking a lot about endings lately in part because I’ve been seeing the topic talked about a lot on various social media—but also because over the course of the last week I’ve watched season finales of three shows that I’ve been following for years2.

First, an ending doesn’t have to be a happy ending to be satisfying to the reader. Tragedies have been around for a long, long time. But most readers do want a character they can root for throughout the story, and if the character fails in the end, the reader still wants to feel that they were right to root for that character. Maybe the protagonist’s death allows others to escape a terrible fate. Maybe the cause was worth the sacrifice and the way the protagonist failed leaves the reader with a glimmer of hope that someone else will succeed where they failed. Maybe all the reader needs is to know that the protagonist believe their sacrifice was worth it—making an effort against the forces of darkness is better than not trying at all.

Even happy endings have to feel earned. The reader isn’t going to be satisfied if it doesn’t feel as if the struggle was real.

And surprise endings? Surprise endings can’t feel as if they came from nowhere. You can surprise the reader at the end, sure, but a second after the surprise is revealed, the reader should go, “Dang! I should have seen that coming!” The surprise has to make sense within the narrative frame and the character arc(s) you’ve already led the reader through.

I’ve written about that particular phenomenon once before, specifically in the context of murder mysteries and similar stories, so I’m just going to quote myself:

For me, part of the fun of a good mystery is finding the puzzle pieces in the storyline and admiring how well they are constructed, or how good a job the author does of putting them in plain sight while not making them obvious.

Sometimes I am completely blindsided, and if that happens without the author cheating, that is just as much fun as figuring it out before the reveal.

Bad mysteries aren’t bad simply because they are predictable. They’re bad when they are too predictable. When the author (or author and director, in the case of a movie or show) clumsily gives things away or relies on cliches, there is no delight in the reveal. If the author cheats by simply withholding information, or otherwise pulling something bizarre and shocking out of nowhere, that also spoils the fun.

And, as in all stories, if the author makes us care about the characters, even if the puzzle isn’t terribly difficult, we can still enjoy the battle of wits between the detective and the puzzle.

Getting the ending right isn’t easy. And if you get it wrong, the reader doesn’t just dislike the ending, they feel as if all the time they have spent on the story was a waste. And remember, it is a sin to waste the reader’s time. This doesn’t mean that you have to give the reader the ending they want—it means your ending has to make sense, it has to pay off any questions or themes you teased the reader with before, and it has to feel earned. It has to be the best ending you could deliver, not a prank you pulled on the reader to show how clever you are.

It isn’t easy, but nothing worthwile is.


Footnotes:

1. The Night Was Sultry, part 1—adventures in opening lines, The Night Was Sultry, part 2 — more adventures in opening lines, The Night Was Sultry, part 3 — finding the emotional hook, The Night Was Sultry, part 4 — fitting the opening to the tale, The Night Was Sultry, part 5 — closing the circle, openings and endings, and Begin at the beginning, not before for instance.

2. Specifically Lucifer, Arrow, and The Flash. Which I feel I need to mention, because I know that one reason so many others are talking about this topic is because of the final season of Game of Thrones which is not a show I have ever watched—so none of this is intentionally about that topic.

I hate the term “fan service,” or, don’t forget you’re writing to an audience

“A story has to be a good date, because the reader can stop at any time. Remember, readers are selfish and have no compulsion to be decent about anything.”—Kurt Vonnegut

(click to embiggen)

I was reading a review of a work of art that I had already observed, but the review was by an author that I usually like, so I was interested in their take on it. Now while the review was mostly phrased as a positive, it also included the observation that the work of art was mostly fan service, and that stringing together a series of entertaining moments was not the way to accomplish substantive writing.

Bull.

While everyone is entitled to their opinion, that doesn’t mean that the opinion is valid. I mean, technically, if one’s definition of substantive writing absolutely excludes the possibility that anyone would find said writing enjoyable, I guess it is a valid observation. But I don’t think that such a definition is a reasonable one.

One of the reasons I hate the term “fan service” is because the implication is that merely because a moment in a story (whether that story is a novel, short story, movie, or television episode) makes the audience cheer that means it is objectively a bad thing. Now the counter-argument is usually stated that they aren’t saying a story shouldn’t be enjoyable, but rather that the author shouldn’t put something in merely because the audience wants it.

To which I say, “Bold of you to insist you can always discern the writer’s motive.”

On one level, the fan service critique sounds like simply another way of stating an oft-repeated piece of writing advice: “Of course you have to write to an audience, but never forget you are writing for yourself.” That’s a good piece of advice so long as you understand what it means is that you shouldn’t compromise your story to appeal to an audience. And by compromise we mean, don’t make the story unsatisfying/unbelievable to you. Because then you aren’t writing your story.

Sometimes what people who use the term “fan service” really mean is that it is something they think the wrong sort of person would want. It’s a weird form of gatekeeping. “This plot development appeals to the sort of person I don’t want to consort with, and I don’t want to consort with them so much, that I don’t want to be perceived as liking the same sort of things as they do.”

While others who use the term seem to honestly believe that if something is enjoyable that it isn’t worthwhile. Because only difficult-to-understand art is substantive? Though there is a lot of snobbery in this attitude, so it may just be another form of gatekeeping.

Other times, the person using the term means the event was something they didn’t care for. And that is a valid reason to dislike a particular story, but that doesn’t mean the story is objectively bad. Whether you like the plot point or not is literally a subjective thing. And you know what else is subjective? The definition of “substantive” when applied to any work of art. Because substantive just means “important” or “meaningful” and what is important and meaningful is going to vary from person to person.

“A story has to be a good date, because the reader can stop at any time. Remember, readers are selfish and have no compulsion to be decent about anything.”
—Kurt Vonnegut

I like this Vonnegut quote because it embraces the idea of subjectivity. Readers are selfish, he observes, but he doesn’t say that is a bad thing—because in this context it isn’t. Just as a person who is on a date with someone that they find incompatible (whether they simply have no common interests, or are off-putting, or creepy, or acting like an asshole) has the right to walk away, so too the reader has the right to set the book aside and never finish it.

It’s simply the flip side of the principle that not every story is for everybody. While a particular person may be incompatible with you, they may be absolutely perfect for someone else. The same goes for stories. Something that I can’t stand might be one of your favorites, and vice versa.

Putting things in your story that makes some of the readers cheer ought to be one of your goals as a writer. You shouldn’t be afraid of it. The key is whether or not that same thing is something you think belongs in the story.

The ultimate goal is to write a tale that makes some readers keep turning the page, again and again, anxious to find out how it ends. That means at least occasionally including moments that cause that reader satisfaction.

That isn’t fan service.

That is simply good storytelling.

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