You never know what you do wrong until someone tells you, or until you do it. That is just how a lot of writing works. Even with critique groups you’re left pulling things apart yourself to figure things out.The broadest question is How to Write? and from there we get How Do I Become A Better Writer (#writelife #writerwednesdays) There’s a reason for that. Writing is a skill that is intuitive and learned, one of possessing talent and crafting skill, one of cultivating your best traits and minimizing your worst. It is easier said than done at almost every possible level. So it pays to spend more time figuring out your weaknesses especially for beginning writers and writers who have primarily written their craft for themselves. Doing the introspection, self-reflection, and criticizing yourself isn’t easy. You have to step away from your work for months if not years to even see how much you have or have not improved. But no matter what we can and must pick apart our writing somehow.
For the last few months I’ve been working on a novel, and truthfully something about it has felt off the whole time. I love the story. I love the characters. I love the central conflict. However something has constantly seemed off. So today I pulled out my book on writing guide: “Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft” (The international edition) by Jane Burroway. I sat down at my desk and began to go through the book. I knew what worked so I stayed away from the chapters on characterization and focused on the other chapters. I reread old notes in the margins, and began highlighting chapters as I reread them. Why? Well the book is pretty damn great for giving you plenty of comparative examples of what to do and what not to do from both published and purely example based writing. It doesn’t speak in absolutes, but pulls from dozens of writers and pieces to give you a concise break down of how to write well, how to write compelling stories, and how to convey theme without sacrificing anything. And I went to the section on filtering.
Yes, I the “show don’t tell” critique queen, have a drastic problem with filtering. Filtering is between showing and telling. For example “She looked out the window and she saw him standing outside her building”, when for the whole paragraph we’ve been in her head so “Outside her window he stood on the stoop of her building, waiting”. Instead of relying on the reader to be smart and follow along; instead of allowing for direct action I present the filters like “seemed”(been using that one alot) “saw”. I don’t just show you what the character sees and that’s a problem. Honestly that is probably why I do it with others. Subconsciously I do know I have a deep struggle with using filters instead of conveying direct action. Why? Honestly it’s a natural inclination, but its also it is the result of careless readers in critique groups. You gotta pick them well people. I spent an hour or two reading the book again, carefully searching for my answer and now that I have it I’m taking action not just by editing, but by rewriting what I’m editing so it is more present, more in the moment, and direct.
It’s hard to be direct as a writer just like it is hard to confront our problem areas directly. I was very lucky that I picked up that book and managed to follow my instincts into what was plaguing me. I didn’t just fall on the page, but I’ve lived with my writer self for long enough to seek out my faults. Why? Because I was in those critique circles to begin with. As much as I did get some perhaps misinterpreted advice in regards to how to clarify who is what and what is in whose view I did get advice. Solid advice and reactions that allowed me to see where I could improve as a writer. Some people really are able to identify those things on there own, but even still other’s input allows you to see how others read. You need that feedback (and you also need to give feedback too because it does make you a better writer, but that’s another subject).
So what’s my point?
Take time to understand your weaknesses, and don’t be afraid to seek them out. Sometimes a writer can be positively wrong about something in their piece. We think the best part is the worst, we think the most nonsensical section is clear as day, and we even second guess out instincts. The only chance you get to know those weaknesses and address them is by digging deep and figuring them out. Get books on craft and read them. Join critique groups. And don’t be afraid to reread your pieces. Most importantly…don’t be afraid to edit. Sometimes out weaknesses are charming and add a particular character. Hell sometimes our weaknesses are so out shined by the good they don’t matter. But no matter what you owe it to yourself to take time to better understand them.
Do you want to know more about filtering? Do you want to know more about my erotica and romance writing? Ask me below, or just share you thoughts on knowing your weaknesses whether in writing or in life. I have plenty of advice both about writing and about life on this blog, and I think so far I’ve shared one thing…for writers both are deeply connected. We gain a lot by talking and exchanging. So go fill up that comment box!
How do you edit the first chapter of your story is a question every fiction writer asks, and it is a question I’ve done my share of struggling with. However I think I’ve found the most important bit of advice when dealing with the beginnings of any story, and even any non-fiction piece. Whether you’re doing chapter one or the opening paragraph of an essay, you are doing a fine balancing act. You have to give as much information as possible to the reader without overwhelming them, but also ensuring they’re following along with everything you say. The opening of your story, regardless of genre, will sink or swim your novel. While I don’t claim to have perfected the opener, I do claim to have worked at working around and through common mistakes authors are prone to make. And so I’m going to offer the best advice I’ve ever heard for editing chapter one of a novel, advice I was reminded of by the lovely Stephanie London via her youtube channel.
When you’re writing you feel the pressure to get everything just so because you want to be clear about who, what, where, and why. However, the dangers of exposition are many. Since I’ve been an active member of scribophile I can tell you that I’ve seen my share of wonderful tales bogged down by the exposition fairy. That little butthole flew through the window and just refused to leave from the moment the story began. The exposition fairy encourages telling not showing and harkens back to the way we most naturally tell stories, orally. But away from the oral tradition you have to put people in the story. You have to give them a front row seat, and if the exposition fairy is guiding your hand at every other paragraph, or god forbid every other sentence, the reader will be stuck in the back of the theater.
So how do we deal with this?
Well, truthfully it will always be tempting to have it happen unless you are a minimalist story teller. Fans of grand epics and sprawling worlds fall prey to the exposition fairy most of all, but everyone can be a target. To that end, you have to write smart. BE vigilante of your own bad writing behaviors, and then keep writing. MAke notes, and even make minor changes but don’t edit constantly while your writing unless you truly benefit from it or it has to happen. Then once your opening is written you have to do this one super important thing. This is the thing that will make all the difference in the world….
Go back through your opening and highlight every ounce of exposition.
Reread and highlight. Whether you print it out or do it digitally, go through and highlight everything that is only there for exposition. What lines only serve to explain what isn’t shown? You may wish to use different colors for exposition related to different characters or events in order to keep track. Sometimes I mark exposition important to the plot with stars or sidebar comments so I know why they’re their and that they matter. If your opening is mostly color coded and coated then chances are you need to tighten that sucker up. You will most likely need to rewrite the whole thing. It isn’t enough to disguise exposition in unnatural dialogue. It isn’t enough to excuse why its there because it is there for a reason. It isn’t enough for it to be there to help your readers understand. If it isn’t furthering your theme, your plot, your characters, and bringing people into your text then it isn’t working. I say to do this because you need to see how much explaining to the reader you’re doing. Seeing it visually becomes a lot harder to justify or overlook. Does this mean all exposition is evil? Not at all, but there are ways to pace exposition and present it that are vastly superior to walls of text that may not enrich the story.
By doing something as simple as highlighting expository text you are increasing your ability to keep the story in action and moving forward, which will keep your audience engaged.
This has been on my blog banner and book listing page forever and it must be baffling to you all if you’ve paid attention. Well It’s a series I began writing shortly before starting this blog. So I wanted to explain what that series was originally going to be and what it is now, as well as talk about how our story plans can mutate into completely different creatures.
The original idea behind The Marquess series came from a story titled Come At Night. The blurb:
After years apart, Marquess Angela, the dusken beauty of the old world, and Lord Rion, a handsome boon to the new world, are drawn together again due to Angela’s loss of her husband’s estate to his siblings. With both their spouses recently dead they choose to eschew the formality of propriety and take comfort in each other. However, years of bitterness and unhealed hearts have taken their toll. Old wounds don’t heal quickly…then again if the choice is freedom or regret Angela knows her choice. Will she truly be able to make it or is that, like Rion said, a self deception?
Now Here is the (current) novel blurb for Come At Night
If I asked you to do the unthinkable and uncertain to save yourself…would you?
After years apart, both their marriages end in tragedy, and life throws them into a net of old magic and politics Marquess Angela and Lord Rion find themselves tangled up in each other again. Is it fate that brings them together or the cruelty of the universe’s limited imagination? With few allies and an old love burning in her heart Angela makes a choice that will threaten her family, her reputation, her faith, and her life. Vows of love and devotion make for beautiful sentiments in her eyes, but she is no one’s fool. However, wisdom can only take her so far when all she craves is freedom, but perhaps that is just another cage. As for Rion, he has tried to mature and be more than family rebel, but as he wraps himself in a woman who reminds him of his rebellious youth he must choose between his beliefs, his heart, and his family. He made this happen, but is he truly ready for what true love will cost?
So what do we have here?
What we have is the hardest part of writing erotica…not turning it into a well rounded story all the time. However, it isn’t really a problem when you turn it to your favor. The original series would be pseudo-dramas around the Marquess and her sensual experiences as she and Rion fall further and further away from convention. It was mostly sex driven.
Now, it is a socio-political drama about how Angela and Rion struggle with falling further and further away from convetion and begin to question if there is such a thing or not. In novel Angela is the dark skinned descendent of the native peoples of their nation and Rion is not. she is borderline pagan, traditional, and seen as a remnant of a savage age and people. Not all dark people are viewed this way, but the general feeling is the invaders did a service by showing the natives “the right way of living” and slowly intermingling. The darker you are, the older your bloodline, but that carries no weight. Yet, Angela is very modern socially and is essentially a socialist, as was Rion. He drifted away from socialism and became more involved in his family obligations, but it never sat right with him. He feels that until Come At Night he spent his years acting foolishly, and is now trying to set things right. Unfortunately he is just as impulsive as he was…and Angela often gets swept up in that.
How the hell did I get that from a series of sex dramas?
Simple really. I made Rion and Angela characters and people. I defined the problem between them. The original idea began with the image of this long raven haired man standing in the doors of a balcony, a man with eyes that ached and burned. The sensual images of him and the woman he loved gave rise to the knowledge there was more to them then sex and lust. They were deeply complex figures with pasts together and who were driven apart. I wanted to know more, so I began exploring them in the hopes of making the sex more rich. Really I followed the path of The Demon’s Bargain by weaving sex and emotional intensity in with complex story lines. I realized the series may be closer to Outlander or Game of Thrones more than anything else, and I couldn’t stop. Angela and Rion do everything right and everything wrong. Their principals compromise in the worst places and they bring out the bad in each other that your heart breaks because you see the good they bring out. They are two people striving for what may be unobtainable, but they try.
Once you give characters that much depth you’re pretty much boned in keeping it a short story. How can you when you know the characters so well and you find their journeys of love and loss so damn compelling? You just can’t. It feels like a crime and an intimate crime at that. On one hand it is a good thing because Romance novels sell better than erotica. On the other hand wow now I have to write more…but I was going to write a series now everything is just longer and that gives you more time to fall in love with these characters as I have.
Have you ever had a story or blog or article exceed your expectations or original intentions? Is it a boon or a burden?
Why do so many people disparage happy endings as a general concept? Why is it such a cardinal sin for romances to end happily and why do so many writers think their hipster protagnoist passing out in a gutter is so much more valid? Well no one seems to be asking, “What the hell does this story actually need?”…more importantly What’s the problem with tying up your story’s end too tight? Isn’t happiness a good thing?
There is such a thing as a story tying up way too nicely with too happy an ending. 400 pages of struggles suddenly skips a few months and everything is resolved somehow (I’m looking at you Jennifer Weiner’s In Her Shoes. I do love her though). Everything works out in the best possible manner for everyone and “All’s well that ends well”. Trouble is we know that isn’t how life works, and you know not every story calls for a happy ending even if you love it. When things get tied up too neatly you get three responses people either embrace the sappiness for pure satisfaction, raise a brow but accept it, or respond with full on eye rolls followed by questioning your writer cred. While other writers have mentioned getting negative reactions for not making happy endings, this post is going to focus on the other side because for some reason tidy endings come across as more scrutinized. I don’t think any of these reactions are wrong, but I do think the validity of negative responses hinges on one thing beyond personal taste: There gets a point where the book doesn’t support a happy ending. Sometimes a book doesn’t actually build towards one. Sometimes you get half way and the last arch of the story is obviously hastily put together. You can’t help but feel like you didn’t get your money’s worth or,if you’re kind, you just wish it were better.
When the whole story is perfectly tied up in a neat little package and has a nice little bow that is one thing, but when the package is all lumpy that bow won’t really fit especially if its two small for the package you made. Your story has to support its end, and for all the well loved and consumed romance novels in the world…very few of them actually do this.
Let’s Get Serious?
So why do people roll their eyes at romantic happy endings? It isn’t just them being sappy if that was the case then most people would move on and not feel the need to drag story endings. If that was the case romance wouldn’t necessarily be treated like the genre of the brain dead. For some reason happy endings make people feel like the author just isn’t being authentic or just hasn’t really written anything of note. Of course this gleefully ignores 90% of beloved literature has romance plots regardless of if that is an intense center focus aspect of the story. So why? Aren’t literature and book geeks smarter than this?
No. Not really….ok I’m half joking.
I mentioned this in a previous post (Disconnected from Happily Ever After?) but it is relevant to romance, and any literature aimed at women. There I talked about the outside pressures affecting endings, but long before economic shifts people rolled their eyes at happy endings and balked at the stories with them being more than entertainment. The distaste for happy endings can be tied to the view of woman orientated literature as being of lesser importance because that literature tends to focus on relationships and “frivolous” things. Men are traditionally considered more “logical”, action driven, and less people orientated. It’s all biased thinking though differences across averages suggest relatively minor differences in relationship building and gendered responses to them.Mostly women are socialized to be more focused on relationships(all kinds). We also get called over emotional, etc. etc. Male focused stories and authors are assumed to write about less “frivolous” more serious happenings and female focused stories are assumed to be shameless author inserts with a lack of imagination and over emotional style. As a result stories with a heavy focus on dramatic relationship elements, especially if they’re by women, usually get side eye for not being “real literature” by old fuddy duddies of all genders.
“The romance genre”, a dusty professor assumes,”does nothing except offer entertainment instead of intellectual thought.”
Bullshit, of course, but it tends to be taken as true. Ignore the fact that romances allow women the ability to explore romantic and sexual journey’s we’re often told we shouldn’t or can’t have. Regardless of gender they can reflect ideas of how you can conduct a good(or bad) relationship, offering riveting story lines, and make you feel a thousand different emotions, etc. However, the tendency for romantic stories to result in happy endings often leads people to conclude those endings can’t be taken seriously. They’re automatically frivolous, unrealistic, and idle feminine wishes. “Mary-Sues, self-inserts, reflections of fantastical, petty, and female selfishness , and not the huMAN condition, blah blah blah more bull shit blah.”
Serious is not synonymous with realistic, but we often use those words interchangeably when talking about writing. That itself probably is a reflection of gendered thinking that we should get out of. The serious isn’t frivolous, and so the serious is realistic. Its a bit of a leap, but it seemingly follows. You can have a happy ending but it is strongly tied to the romance, the female, genre. It isn’t real…just a day dream for bored housewives.
Meanwhile proponents with good reason often defend the value of entertainment, the benefits I indicated, and assert that having a sad or neutral or even ambiguous ending just for the sake of it is really a reflection of ego and faux “depth”. They question the fundamental assumptions of traditional literature and undermine their premises. In a way Jennifer Weiner, who talks about this often, is kind of punk rock for doing that as are those on that side of the argument. Plenty of writing classes are filled with faux depth and assertions that the Tom ending up drunk in a hotel room is far more “real” and human then Betty getting happily married. Its such a troupe the “edge lord” and MFA hipster novelist are often joked about in inner circles. Hell check this out twitter. The joke is real and for a reason. Let’s be real every generation has people, usually men, like that who then in turn have dictated what stories and story elements have value. Luckily people of all genders are calling the BS out for its shallowness. Still with that out of the way we’re left with one thing…
Both sides of the argument often focus on the concept of endings ,for any story, as having to be neutral, happy, or sad instead of endings fitting individual stories.
We say the ending is bad, but we don’t go back and understand why. If you don’t understand why you can’t write better next time, you can’t learn from someone else’s failings, and really you end up making blanket statements about the concept of endings without story context.No ending is inherently good or bad, but if things are put together too neatly then you end up in a weird place
Nothing sparks more eye rolls than Shakespeare. A beloved male author whose stories are prototypical “wrap it up in a giant red bow” stories when they aren’t tragedies. Still he was considered a masterful play write whose works are held up as a standard of writing and reading. However that doesn’t necessarily mean he goes unchecked by those unimpressed by old Willy S’s rep. As a trained actress who has surrounded herself with people interested in his works and other actors who participates in performances of them there is a general consensus regardless of age or gender that the stories tie up ridiculously neatly. I can still remember reading and watching Much Ado About Nothing in high school. Kids of all races, classes, and background collectively rolled their eyes and almost every response to the story my teacher got from the most to the least interested student was about how “ridiculous everything falling into place seemed”. Once again the problem was that when the story breaks down the pretty language, which was foreign to many, couldn’t convince them the story was good. Willy didn’t convince them, and those who plop on happy endings instead of crafting them will end up being just as unconvincing.
When you get past the Willy worshipers ,who are usually the same people suggesting happy endings don’t really belong in literature and romance stories are rarely is ever literature, you find a ton of people who think his works are too neat.
At the end of the day Much Ado has two characters who have come to hate each other, who are manipulated, a scheme by an angry prince to dispose his brother, a grave misunderstanding created out of pure spite on an issue that to this day can end with girls being pushed out into the streets, more deception, and then…everything works out. You can’t really write Much Ado to sell in 2016 unless you’re actually working on a version of Much Ado. The sudden solution to everything appearing like an angel from heaven doesn’t impress readers who are inundated by narratives and have literally millions to choose from. For the rare few they can weave gold with a single word, make doves cry, and the skies weep! Then there’s the rest of us who do the best we can.
Write What The Story Needs Not just What You Want!
If you’re crafting a narrative you build a base where the audience understands your characters like you want, where the plot flows like it needs to, and where you are without question writing what the story demands. I say that last part to you a lot. You are writing a story in your head and it is yours, but that story still can make demands. You can break convention, but you must do so artfully where it seems like your intention. That’s why people say don’t break the rules until you understand them because otherwise your audience can’t separate mistake from intentional action.
My problem with In Her Shoes is that the happy ending is there because the author wants it there. She forces that metaphorical shoe to fit at the end when she, the reader, and the characters haven’t actually earned it yet. Without earning it there is no tangible satisfaction. It comes out of left field. It comes with little preparation. It comes like someone threw a puppy into your house. You might want it, but shit that’s not only inconsiderate but unsatisfying because (the puppy’s fine) BUT YOUR DAMN WINDOW IS JACKED AS FUCK. But you got a puppy that makes you feel warm inside, so shouldn’t you be happy. Maybe. Not if it isn’t a puppy you did not want, did not ask for, were never prepared to take care of, were never prepared to get, or it just doesn’t fit with anything that is going on in relation to how you get that puppy(a puppy doesn’t fix a broken window).
If you establish a world of terror, characters with a thousand different problems, and a tone that just does not serve to make your readers believe a pleasant solution is possible than your happy ending won’t feel real. Your story can telegraph happiness and still feel real, but it can’t ,without any warning, do a 180 at the end so almost every single problem gets solved. Your book may be excellent, well written, perfectly proofread, and almost perfectly well executed until the ending. What the reader will remember is the dissonance of that random ending. They will remember it not making sense that all of a sudden everything fits together so each heart break is forgiven, every couple is happy, death is mourned the forgotten, new jobs are destiny, old jobs are saved, and peace is restored. Most of all they will remember none of it ending as it really should as established by how you wrote the story. If you establish sadness without establishing hope and resolution then your writing will feel like you couldn’t bear to end the story on a less sad ending. When that happens the feeling your story gives off is one that makes the end see thoughtful, inauthentic to the rest of the story, perhaps rushed, and most of all completely out of place. Worse is that some people will question your skill as an author. Truth be told I haven’t looked at another Lauren Beuke story after Zoo City because the last half was…unsatisfactory to say the least. I may pick up another book and try again, but what I remember is the ending. This goes to show the importance of establishing your story in a way that feels correct to your audience.
I’m not advocating for the idea that you can’t choose anything. We’re writing after all. In fact what I’m saying is you do have a choice based on the obligation you’ve made to tell the story. You can choose to tell it one way, to add certain elements or subtract others. You dictate the story, so you have to dictate it correctly so the audience grasps not exactly how it is going to end, but the possibilities of that ending. At the end of the day that is the problem audiences tend to have with endings once you get past the emotional response. They just didn’t believe how the movie ended. They couldn’t resolve the dissonance between the rest of the story and what a writer established and the way the story ended with everything being tied up neatly. Things were shit 30 minutes ago in the movie. Two issues ago these characters weren’t even talking to each other anymore. Over the last 260 pages we watched the main character’s lives nearly crumble, be belt back up again, and then fall apart in a way more severe than what happened at the movies start. How is it in the last 15 minutes, last seven pages, last ten pages that everything is ,not just resolved, but fixed?
It is one thing to leave the reality of exactly how the sausage is made out of the kitchen and just serve sausage, but it is another to start making the sausage and end up serving everyone a nice Caesar salad.
You need to write what you love and what you believe the story should be. I’ll never tell you any different, but you need to always ask yourself if any of that relates to the story your actually writing. If the ending of your story gets tied up at the end with complete happiness for the main characters when you’ve set up a story of constant heartbreak without much in the way of hope or possibility than the neat little bow on that boxed Caesar salad of an ending is lopsided…and you haven’t given anyone anything they really want to sink their teeth into. And when you do that the audience may decide to sink their teeth into you instead.