Friday, July 22, 2011

"I Should Just Write Horror..."

Way back, many years ago, my first novel got picked up and published.  And, like any young writer, I was thrilled.  To the point that I actually had the audacity to go up to a few graduate students in the English department to share in my good news.  I tell the story a lot about how they turned their nose up at genre fiction (insert effete snooty accent, if you please), but there was one guy who really got my goat.  I'll never forget his words because of how they marginalized my beloved genre, but also because of how they insulted me and any other writer who dared to write something a little scary.  Here's what he said:
I should just go write a horror novel so I can get published quick, then I can get back to real writing.
I memorized it.  That's how hurtful and wrong the statement was.  But, like any true Texan, Scotsman, and professional loudmouth, I couldn't let it go.  It took a while to get all the obscenities out of my head, and to quash the almost insurmountable urge to strangle the self-important bastard (not obscene...I truly believe his parents were never married), but here's my carefully considered response.

Go for it.

If you think you can do what I do, if you think it's easy to frighten people with words on a page, or to build an eerie atmosphere, give it your best try, Sparky.  See, here's the thing:  We're trying to do the same thing.  We're both trying to tell a story.  We're both trying to develop characters that people care about.  We're both trying to make our readers feel the way we want them to feel.  We're trying to make that emotional connection between us and the reader that allows them to feel sympathy, or love, or wonder, or fear.  I just happen to concentrate on the fear aspect.  That's all.  His story, as I understood it, was a very heart-felt tale about a boy who grew to manhood having never experienced his father's love, and was full of chapters in which the character sat at a desk and thought deeply about how much he'd missed, all the while never comprehending how much he was currently missing by sitting in the dark like an emo-kid and contemplating how his dad never hugged him enough.  Frankly, I'd choose zombies over that any day, but to each his own, right?

And while we're on the subject, do you really think that by writing horror you could just "get published quick?"  Really?  Again, go for it.  I've got rejections upon rejections to throw your way.  See how easy you think it is to "just get published quick" when your work is shot down by fifty or so publishers.  Not so easy, is it?  Nope.  We have just as hard a time, if not harder, than the so-called "literary" types because we can't rely on academic presses and because there are many more of us than of you.  So to get published, we have to be at the top of our game and turn in the best piece of fiction we can in hopes that someone will like our work.  I think we actually have it harder than you.

I think the point I'm trying to make is this:  Horror isn't bad.  In fact, none of the genres should be considered "bad" or "lowbrow" or "unworthy to be printed on paper because only the ignorant masses care for that kind of thing and I'd rather spend five-frickin'-years working on a single manuscript, secure in the knowledge that no one will ever print it because it's too high a concept for their tiny brains to handle" or any other such thing.  Good writing is good writing.  Bad writing is bad writing.  That's the bottom line.  If you can't string together two sentences, chances are you need to either re-evaluate your career choice, or you need to suck up your pride and work on it.  But to say you're not an artist, or a real author, or any of a thousand other derogatory things because you write genre fiction is insulting, small-minded, and ridiculous.

So remember that.  Everyone deserves to be respected.  Every genre deserves its own little pile of respect.  Because if it were that easy to write what we do, you would be writing it too.  Admit it.

Oh yeah... And Buy My Books!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Common Errors in Writing Fiction

Like every writer on the planet, I always try to improve my own craft. I'll be the first to admit, I've made mistakes. But as someone who's been in the business for a while now, and who has some experience, I feel like it's part of my responsibility to throw those mistakes into the open and help someone else avoid them. So here are a few common mistakes that new writers make, and maybe you can excise them from your work.

  • "...he thought to himself" - Well, yeah.  Of course he thought it to himself.  Who else would he be thinking to?  Unless he's psychic or has a wireless e-mail system tucked into his noggin, then, if he thought, he did it to himself.  In fact, the whole phrase "he thought" isn't really necessary in nine out of ten times it's used.  If you're writing in, lets say, third person limited, you're in the character's head.  Therefore, the narrative is from his perspective.  Therefore, what the narrative tells us, we see as fact.  Instead of "'Sure is dark in here,' he thought," try instead "The room was dark."  In one way, we're kept at arms distance, and the other pulls us right into the action.  Get it?
  • "He could see/smell/feel/taste..." - Same thing here.  Keep us in the story.  Instead of telling us what the character's senses detect, just show us.  "He could smell car exhaust."  Or... "The scent of exhaust hung in the air."  See?  One way, we're told what he smelled.  The other way, it's stated as part of what builds the scene and puts us more into that place, more into the story. 
  • Disembodied Body Parts (DBP) - Having your character's body parts move independently of him is fine, so long as it works within the confines of the story.  Otherwise, the arms don't flap themselves, the character flaps his arms.  "His feet ran..."  No, he ran, unless his feet were somehow removed and then ran off without him.  "My wings flapped..."  Did they?  By themselves?  Or did the character flap her wings?  Think hard...  Yeah...The character flapped her wings. 
  • Naming Protocol - Quick...Run down the hall and talk to someone.  Anyone.  As long as you know them (for heaven's sake don't get arrested for bothering some poor stranger...).  Now count the number of times you or the other person says each other's name.  Chances are, once, or even not at all.  So why, then, do we insist on writing the names of our characters in dialogue when it doesn't work for the scene?  We're trying to make realistic characters, and realistic characters speak in a realistic fashion.  Read your dialogue.  If your characters call each other by name every time they see each other, or often in the middle of the conversation, you need to go back over it. 
  • Inappropriate Dialogue - This is a big problem.  I'm not talking about foul language, I'm talking about dialogue that may be inappropriate for a particular age group/educational or social class/etc.  Put simply, a Harvard graduate and a high-school drop-out do not speak in the same way.  In real life, people speak in accordance to everything from their age, education level, and region to their economic standing, their country of origin, and how they're feeling at the time.  If all your characters sound alike, they're either robots (or Daleks) or you're not writing them well. 
These are my top five mistakes that noob writers make.  They're also some of the top things that raise red flags for agents and editors.  Funny how that works, isn't it?  Keep this list in mind, maybe not for the first draft (the "just-get-the-damned-thing-written" phase), but for sure in the subsequent phases.  "But Uncle Scott," I hear you say.  "I've seen lots of books with all that stuff in it, and they got published.  What about..?"  Fair enough.  However, there are a couple of responses to that.  First, just because you've seen it doesn't mean it's good.  Second, even a blind hog finds a truffle once in a while.  Third, and most important, as a writer, it is your job to elevate the art form.  Let me repeat that.  It is your job to continually try to improve to elevate the artform instead of resting on your laurels of some publishing award you got when you were twelve.  If you want to be a pro, act like a pro.  Write like a pro.  Write with power, write with passion.  But also, write intelligently.  

Just my unsolicited $.02.  Hope it helps someone.  In the comment section below, share some of your top writing errors!  That should be fun!  


Oh yeah... And Buy My Books!