Saturday, September 25, 2010

What I Can Write About

I’ve always harbored an unjustified bit of snobbishness about writing fiction. When people [i.e., my mom] would encourage me to go into journalism or grant-writing, I would shudder with boredom. I wanted to be a poet, but the kind of poet who writes prose.

But I’m adapting to the fact that I’m a shitty composer of fiction. I seem to be more effective, lately, at writing articles, or at least selling them. I don’t feel I have the right, because I don’t really know anything, and for me to teach something to people or to impart some opinion seems incredibly brazen and maybe even dishonest. Fiction, though, I could always get behind that: I can make shit up just fine, and if a not-too-well-thought-out idea works its way in, I’ll blame it on the unreliable narrator.

Things I don’t want to write about:

Pop culture/celebrity pregnancies
Domestic duties
Hipster watching
Senior activities

Things I would like to write about but don’t know enough about:

Science (all)
Local history

Wow, that category eliminates most things.

Things I want to and probably could write about:

Funny people I met on the bus/in the grocery store
The Man (whosoever I perceive Him to be)
The advantages of Failure
Why I can’t stand Caitlin Flanagan
Why school is bad for normal human development
Why religion is dumb
Why the Midwest is the only place I’ll live in the U.S.

Friday, September 24, 2010

An author

An author, like any other so-called artist, is a man [ahem. –Eds.] in whom the normal vanity of all men is so vastly exaggerated that he finds it a sheer impossibility to hold it in. His overpowering impulse is to gyrate before his fellow men, flapping his wings and emitting defiant yells. This being forbidden by the police of all civilized countries, he takes it out by putting his yells on paper.

H. L. Mencken

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Joyous Occasion

What came in the mail today? A check. Someone actually paid me for writing something.

How to Write, Part II: 6 little things that annoy the shit out of me

As I mentioned in a previous post, rules for fiction tend to be merely an individual writer's preference. Be wary of any rules that start with Always or Never.

I know you're not a fan of long things, but this post is long. It was even longer until I broke it into two pieces. Today, I will be visiting the Venial, or Sentence- and Paragraph-level, Sins. Tomorrow (or next month, more likely) come the Mortal, or Story-level, Sins.
The following annoying things might be okay when done by a genius:

1. Using clichés

Clichés aren’t just things obvious things like “eyes as big as saucers.” They can be two words commonly seen together, or even one word in a particular context. Knee deep. Moving on. Small world. Keep an eye out* for things on the verge of becoming clichés. This means you must be alert and conscientious, two qualities that behoove any writer (any human, really). Strive for freshness of expression: any time you string two or more words together, really think, “Will this combination of words seem clichéd in 50 years? In 10? Next month?”

This is especially hard to do because the reason clichés get overused is because they are clever – at first. “That’s what she said”** was hilarious when people started using it. Now it’s annoying. I think it’s stupid when people begin articles with “So” (the asshole Thomas Friedman is frequently guilty of this). But at one point it did seem a novel way to approach a beginning: so conversational, so flowing.

2. The Doing X, He Did Y construction.

Some good writers use this judiciously, but I’ve noticed that bad writers use it with abandon, and often inaccurately.

Scratching her jaw, the nurse reached for a hypodermic needle.
This isn’t so bad. It’s plausible: a nurse could reach for a needle while she is scratching her jaw. But there are better ways to phrase this. In fact, the jaw-scratching is irrelevant: you should cut that clause.

Often, Doing X makes it impossible or implausible to Do Y. This makes the sentence grammatically incorrect: -ing makes a verb present progressive. It indicates a continual action. So while the character was doing X, they did Y. At the same time. Thus, you could never say,
Taking a sip of water, Fidel shouted, “I don’t give a good god damn what you think! I love you!”
And then there are writers who lay down the mother lode, and use the Doing X He Did Y multiple times in a sentence:
Grabbing the gun from the cabinet, gasping as she stepped forward, and seeing that the ‘burglar’ was just her husband, she let out a sigh of relief and, chuckling, dropped the gun.
Yes, I really have seen sentences constructed this way. Now, there are some temporal issues here. Did she grab the gun and gasp at the same time? The verbs “grabbing” and “gasping” imply that they happened simultaneously with the subsequent actions. Which they didn’t; presumably the chronology is thus: 1, she gasped, 2, grabbed the gun, 3, stepped forward, 4, noticed that there was no burglar, 5, let out a sigh of relief.

This is an extreme example, but in my experience, people who use the Doing X, he Did Y construction use it in about 3 out of 5 sentences. Which leads me to my next Annoying Thing:

3. Repetition, especially of sentence structure

For the love of Mike, vary your sentence structure! Vary everything, really. Don’t repeat. I repeat: do not repeat.

Do not do this:
I sat down on the couch. I looked out the window. Xavier was on the porch. He knocked on the window. I let him in. He sat down on the couch too. He told me he was tired. I said I was too.
Or this:
Sasha wanted to ask him to dance, but she was a little scared. So she hovered near the snack table, but she wasn’t very hungry so she just nibbled. Her friend Tasha was dancing across the room, but she was too tired to go say hi. She felt like dancing by herself, but she didn’t like the song.

Or this:
Stiffly, the candlestick sat on the mantle. Carefully, Jill picked up the brass candlestick. Suddenly, she clobbered Jack over the head!

Sorry, once I start writing bad examples I can’t stop.

You don’t want to read the same word over and over and over and over and over and over and over, and you don’t want to read the same sentence over and over either. Sentences should be of varying length and denseness and cadence. For the same reason, don’t have pages and pages of dialog unless you’re writing a screenplay. And don’t have chapters and chapters that contain no dialog. Pacing matters.

4. Even minor mistakes of spelling, grammar, punctuation.

Quick, what
’s the difference between past progressive and past continuous?***

This can be tough. It involves a lot of memorization, and in my experience, a knack for grammar and spelling tends to come naturally: some people just get it, others can't figure out apostrophes. If you don’t know the difference between it’s and its, you’ll have a hard time getting to any sort of professional level. If you don’t have spelling and syntax rules memorized, get a fucking copy of The Elements of fucking Style and check everything if you plan on getting your shit published. Assume that one spelling error will cause your manuscript to be rejected. Sorry. I don’t make the rules, but that’s how it is.

The trickiest rule in English, according to me? Lay/laid vs. lie/lay. Tough. Try to remember it, though. Lay and lay mean different things (really). Not: “I laid down on the bed.” (Correct: “I lay down on the bed.”) Not: “I lay the bills on the table.” (Correct: I laid the bills on the table.) Try to learn them.

Further/farther, raised/reared, fewer/less, affect/effect….so much to learn. Get a fucking book.

5. Telling, not showing.

Now, obviously, there are instances where you'll want to tell: for pacing purposes, you can quickly explain some event or situation that would otherwise plod on needlessly. But often, telling can mean the difference between a summary and a story.
You should have seen me the night of the dance -- I was gorgeous. But my best friend Aricely was jealous of me. That didn't bother me so much, because my other best friend, Agatha, told me I looked gorgeous. We had a great time at the dance. We danced all night to some fun songs. Aricely, on the other hand, didn't. When we left we were all tired. It was raining and the road was slippery. It took us a long time to get home.
There’s a lot of missed opportunities for riveting drama here. Well, no there’s not. It’s a pointless story. But, it would not be quite so tedious if the author (me, channeling other authors) had bothered to emphasize what actually happened and not just offered up a bland retelling of events and emotions.

5. Bending over backwards to not split an infinitive or to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition.

Churchill supposedly said, after an editor did exactly that to his writing, "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put." Supposedly. Even if he didn't say it, it's funny.

Who gives a shit? These are Latin rules. You can end a sentence a preposition with.

6. Not using nearly enough fucks, douchebags, cunts…..

Live a little! Swear! Not strictly necessary, but fun nonetheless. Okay, don't follow this rule. It's my own personal rule. Go establish your own fucking rules.

*This is a cliché. Did you catch it?
** This phrase was possibly first used on a “Wayne’s World” sketch.
*** Nothing.


Joe Konrath: How Not to Write a Story.

Nathan Bransford: Do You Suffer From One of These Writing Maladies?

Elmore Leonard's Rules for Writing.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Why I Don't Write More

It's difficult to write with three kids screaming in the background. Even if it's merely an ill-thought-out blog post. I'll try to do better. (Yeah, Yoda, there is a fucking "try.")

Friday, September 17, 2010

On Fucking Titles

I am bad at titles. I don't like to be so definitive. I have gone through several (embarrassing) nicknames in my life because I wasn't sure my name (Katherine) was the right one. I'm noncommittal like that.

I do not exaggerate when I say it took me all day to come up with a title for this blog. Well, that's not strictly true. I came up with I'm a fucking writer pretty quickly, but someone whose opinion I respect suggested I soften it a bit. "Are you trying to get work?" this person said, "People are going to have to look at the word fuck every time they open your site?"

"What's wrong with the word fuck? It's so all-purpose and funny." And no, I'm not really trying to get work. (Well, I am, but let's be realistic: any work I get will not come via the blog.)

But I considered the matter, through laundry and sweeping up dried Play-Doh and cleaning up throw-up. I wrote down an entire page of possibilities. There were the obvious and simple: Kat Vapid, Kat Writes, Escribir. There were the pretentious and inaccurate: St. Paul Scribe, Bons Mots, Internet Griot. The punny: Katachresis, Katacomb. The stupid: Rule Puncher, Painted Speech, Ballpoint Dreams. The single words: Interpuncted, Deauthorized, Shibboleth.

In the end, they were all inane, and I went back to my original instinct. It's a solid title, and it encompasses everything I value in writing: it's concise, direct, and contains the F-word.

I may yet change it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Don't break the rules unless you know them

My previous post was on the universals of writing. I say there are only three real rules in writing because anything else is almost always a) personal preference, tricks, superstitions, etc., or b) a rule that is usually absolute, but one that can be broken in the hands of a capable writer.

Take, for instance, the admonition not to overwrite; it is said that good writers should use simple, clear language, and relatively short sentences that don’t ramble. This is mostly true. But Virginia Woolf was notorious for her rambling, three-page-long sentences. She broke this rule and her writing didn’t suffer; in fact, this was part of what defined her distinctive style.

Now, I’m going to tell you something that may shock you: You are not Virginia Woolf. How do I know this? Well, because she died. Other rule-breakers, such as e.e. cummings and David Foster Wallace, are also dead, so the evidence for you being them is slight.

These people can break rules. Because they’re better than you. I know, this is terribly elitist of me. But it's true. Simone de Beauvoir said: “In order to be an artist, one must be deeply rooted in the society.” You must have a deep understanding of the basic rules before you can transcend them. Jackson Pollock could break rules because he was better than most ignoramuses who stand in front of his paintings and huff, “I could do that!” Ntozake Shange can eschew capital letters and write “was” as “waz” because she is doing it intentionally, creating an effect that is far different from mere carelessness.

Intention is everything. It is the difference between manslaughter and first-degree murder. Knowing the right way to do something and then not doing it is very different from not doing something because you don’t know the proper way. (Thus, “refudiate” is just stupid.)

So, know the rules. Buy The Elements of Style and study that shit. Read the dictionary cover to cover. Use the rules eight solid hours a day for ten to twelve years, until you're sure you get them. Only then should you attempt to fuck shit up.

How to use words right.

How to Write Part I: The Commandments

There are only three basic rules for writing:

2. READ.

These are the universal rules of writing. The commandments. They are not open to debate. You have to follow them. There are other rules, but they are more individual and flexible. The above are immutable.*

There is not much else that needs to be known, but if you would like elucidation of the above terms, please read on.

1. Write. You have to write. A lot. Like, every day, a lot. Write this moment. Write some more. And yet write. Don’t think about it, don’t talk about it, don’t make excuses, don’t go out for a beer on Friday night (or if you need to go out for a beer, go by yourself and bring a notebook. I’ve done it.) Keep writing. Get off of Wikipedia, you’ve researched enough. Now is the time to coagulate your knowledge. Just write. No, don’t go check to see whether the flan you put in the fridge has set. You need to write.

Unfortunately, writing involves actual writing. I say “unfortunately” because some people have this idea that you can earn a pile of crisp money by dashing off a bestseller. These people don’t want to write; they want to be writers, or what they think writers are.** Well, being a writer doesn’t work that way. Most writers don’t earn a living from writing. If you want to make money, become a Major League baseball player.*** Do NOT become a writer.

That’s not you, though. You don’t care about money or prestige or even publishing. Good. I also say "unfortunately" in the above paragraph because even if you love writing, it isn't always pleasant. Repetitive action quickly grows old, and if you are serious about writing, you will want to do it constantly to maintain momentum. Fortunately, writing begets writing. It might come slowly at first, but the more you write, the more your thoughts will segue into other stories, and once you start, once you've got that momentum, the hardest thing in the world will be not writing. This is the principle of inertia at work (or something. I took one physics class in high school and got a D.) Conversely, the more you don’t write, the more you won’t write.

This obsession with writing means you will only get better. The novelist Barry Lyga wrote a nice post about having to write a million bad words before you write some good ones; Malcolm Gladwell speaks of the 10,000 hour rule. Whether you count your words or your hours, you cannot ignore this: It takes a shitload of writing to get good.****

Yet, as much as we love to write, as much as we want to write, somehow shit gets in the way. Writing demands incredible self-discipline, because there is a lot of other shit to do, most of it more fun than writing. Right now, my kids are at their grandmother's house, I have a few hours free, and I am conscious of the million things I could be doing. My own house is filthy, my garden overgrown, it's a beautiful Saturday, and I feel like biking to the farmer's market. So many things to do!

You have to ignore all those things. Other things you have to ignore: friends, beer, the beach, Inception (at least until the DVD release). You have to write, unfortunately. Welcome to the unglamorous, frequently pointless, writing life.

2. Read. The best way to learn how to write well is by learning how to read well. Read everything; why not? Don’t limit yourself to classics or even Really Good Books. If you only read literary novels, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Sure, Germinal is a nice enough book, but it would be impossible now, or at least silly, to write a novel like Germinal. Read lots of good stuff, yeah, but read crap too. Read Life & Style. Great art is always a fusion of something and something else, and often the dash of Something Else comes from pop culture, folk traditions, or outright vulgarity. Know every tradition. I came from a literate household but somewhere along the line, I picked up a nasty Sweet Valley High-reading habit. My mom bought me Black Beauty and The Old Man and the Sea and Tom Sawyer to try to counteract the pernicious influence of Francine Pascal and her army. To this day, I have never read any of those books. But I did find my way back to literature, somehow. And thanks to the SVH quadricentrilogy and many bad pre-teen fan magazines, I know what distinguishes bad writing from pretty good writing from great writing. It’s important to know what you don’t want to write. And, how do you know what’s good if you’ve never read anything bad?

3. Revise. Any good writer hates his or her own work. This is good news, because if you hate it you will be forced to improve it or, more felicitously, abandon writing. If you like what you write, well, best of luck to you: you won't find a publisher, because you are delusional. What you wrote sucked.

I don’t care if you are the next Shakespeare or David Foster Wallace or even Francine Pascal. The first draft of the first thing you ever write is not going to be good. It is going to fucking suck. Even after you’ve been writing for 10 years, first drafts fucking suck. Fifth drafts suck. I revise everything at least ten times, and my writing still sucks. I'm not trying to discourage you; I want you to write (I guess), but I want you to be honest with yourself. And the honest truth is, nothing is good without revision.

I need to emphasize the suckiness of first drafts to counteract the prevailing attitude among amateur writers that they can sit down and write something brilliant on their first attempt. This attitude doesn't seem to infect other arts the way it does writing. I listen to music all the time, but I am pretty sure if I went and picked up a violin with the intention of becoming a concert violinist, I would not play something listenable this month or even this year. Forget the violin analogy; I couldn't pick up a tambourine today and play with the Monkees tomorrow.

I can hear the objections to this: “But my years of nonstop talking have prepared me for writing! I’m quick and witty! If I can talk, well, by gum, I can write!” But talking has as much to do with writing as listening to music does with being a concert violinist. Really. They are different actions. In fact, if you are gregarious, talkative, a great conversationalist, you may even be a worse writer because you are not listening. Writers must have a great ear, not a gift for extemporaneous speech. That is its own gift, but again, involves separate brain faculties. I am one of the most socially awkward people you’ll ever meet. I stumble over my words, I am silent in groups of two or more, and I generally can’t get a thought across unless I have a pen or a keyboard nearby. That hasn’t hindered my writing. (My writing sucks for other reasons.)

The good news is that bad writing precedes good writing. If you want to create good or even Pascalesque writing, you need to revise that fetid glop of words you just strewed across the page. You must revise not only for grammar and spelling and word count, but for structure, fresh images, character development, believable dialogue, and a host of other factors. The painful thing about revision is that you will have to discard many of the lovely words you have written (because your lovely words are, in fact, stupid). Writers have to be both painters and sculptors: first you put color on a blank page, then you whittle away the excess marble.*****

Revision is the time to correct any errors of spelling or grammar. You can't write (well) without knowing spelling and grammar. Sorry. If you plan on submitting your work for publication, even one typo or forgotten comma will pretty much eliminate you from consideration. If you don't know how to spell, look up every word in the dictionary. If you don't know grammar, get some books and study that shit. Study until you know when to use a dash and when an ellipsis. Know the difference between gerunds and present progressive.

Revision is its own art, and I can't fully address it here, but good writers must also be good editors. This means you must be suspicious of every word. Be like those forensics people on CSI. Ask the words why they're there. Demand to know. Find out what the words were doing yesterday (look up etymologies: it's fascinating). I spend very little time on first drafts. The bulk of my writing time is spent on revision. Like, 25 times more time. It's a bitch, but man, it feels good when I shove that manuscript into that slush pile-bound manila envelope and lick it shut. I know I've earned the rejection letter that will arrive in my box in 4-6 months.

One more rule they don't tell you about:

4. Get used to being alone. If you are a people person, you’re going to have a hard time being a writer. Writing is self-imposed solitary confinement. (There are those books written by two people [usually psychologists or something] where the authors keep breaking the narrative dream by saying things like "We have found in our research that....," but those books are annoying and usually only read for class.)
I guess that’s about it, because any other rule I could devise could have a counterpoint to it. If, for instance, I tell you to avoid beginning a novel with the weather, you will pull out your tattered copy****** of that one Faulkner novel that begins with a lovely exposition of a rainstorm. Okay, there is no Faulkner novel like that, but that’s not the point.

The point is, the above rules are the nonnegotiable rules. I can’t think of anymore absolutes. Can you? Read, write (using correct spelling and grammar), edit, by yourself. Now go.*******
*I plan on divulging my own personal rules, the ones that are open to contention, in a later post.
**The title of this post, see, is "How to Write," not "How to be a Writer." I don't know how to be a writer; you'll have to find another blog to help you there.
***Or be an expert at something and become a tech writer. They make decent money.
****Maybe you don't want to be good; maybe you write merely to cathart to yourself. Hey, that's cool. This is a nonjudgmental blog. Well, not strictly true. I judge harshly the people who wear flip-flops into fancy restaurants.
*****This sentence is a good example of mixing one's metaphors, which you should never do.
******Also to be avoided are clichés such as "tattered copy." Why must a copy always be tattered? Aren't there ever any "unread copies" or "gently loved copies"?
*******If you're going to use this many footnotes, better to use superscripted numerals rather than asterisks. This is getting ridiculous.********


Hi there. I'm a semi-aspiring fiction and freelance writer. This page will be what I work on when I'm trying to avoid writing. It will deal with all things written. (Typed, actually.) Advice, reminiscences, musings, and other pretentious bullshit. Enjoy.

My personal blog, which I don't really deal with anymore, is:

Nothing from Kat

And my other weird blog is:

The Lamentations of a Lady