Free Advice Friday: how not to suck at writing

Take my advice with a grain of salt, because I mostly learned it through sucking and then trying desperately not to.

  1. Write Things Down.  I know, right?  Writers should write things.  But here’s the thing:  Sometimes you spend hours agonizing over a character’s motivation.  Or thinking about what season the story takes place in.  Or wondering what will end up happening to this or that guy.  Or thinking about where you want the story to go.  And you need to use the toilet, or make yourself a sandwich, or move on with the day.  You think, “oh, I’ll remember.”  NO YOU WON’T.  Write it down.  The best writers leave behind notebooks, sometimes banker’s boxes, sometimes MULTIPLE banker’s boxes full of their notes to themselves.  You wouldn’t believe how quickly even a monumental plot decision leaves your head when you stop writing and start living your daily life.
  2. Write Daily.  Do not write when the muse strikes you, because the muse is a fickle wench who will run you on a bender for weeks and then leave you high and dry twenty pages from finishing your novel.  Write daily.  Even if it’s just opening the document and tweaking a few words here and there and patting yourself on the back for not completely sucking, write daily.  If you don’t, you will grow away from your story.  Every day our lives change us, even our brain chemistry changes by fractions.  We continue to evolve.  If we don’t write, we evolve away from our own words.  Trust me, I know.  Shelve your writing for a few months, come back to it, and you won’t pick up where the last sentence left off.  You’ll stare at the horrid thing wondering what self-congratulating hatchet man wrote that inane drivel and then you’ll want to drink until you forget that it was you.  Trust me.  And it’s not just that- details like people’s eye color, what kind of sweater they were wearing, what they were going to say next, how you wanted the story to end, they will all leave you faster than the proverbial Hollywood film producer upgrading to a fresher model of trophy wife.  Write daily, or write crap.  BELIEVE ME.
  3. Read.  Read good things and read bad things, but read.  The best writers are also ferocious readers.  Why?  Because when we read we learn what we do and don’t love about writing.  We, as writers, can take that and improve our own writing by knowing what is good and what isn’t.  You know that one writer whose settings always draw you in?  That author whose quirky characters always steal your heart?  That wordsmith who smacks you down with the opening paragraph and drags you kicking and screaming to the gruesome climax every time?  Don’t you want to be that guy?  I know, I know, stealing other author’s ideas is plagiarism.  But stealing their methodology isn’t, and by reading you can start to internalize those things you love most and recognize writing that you hate.  You’ll start to think, “are my characters as endearing as Rowlings?  Are my settings as breathtaking as Dickens’s?  Is my pacing as nervewracking as King’s?”  Whether you realize it or don’t, you are learning to teach yourself to write by reading.
  4. Know your characters.  Have you ever read a book where the entire time you just couldn’t make yourself like the characters?  Where they felt hollow and unpredictable?  Where they read almost more like caricatures or stereotypes than three-dimensional people with wants and needs?  Yeah, don’t write crap like that, enough other writers already do.  Before you start writing, and as you write, ask yourself a lot of why questions.  Why would he say that?  Why would he wear that?  Why would he want that?  Why would he do that?  Also, ask yourself a lot of “hows” and “whens”.  And (point one) WRITE IT DOWN.  Don’t be afraid to go through, line by line, and ask yourself, “why?  how?  when?” realizing that as you get more familiar with the process of thinking about your characters, it will become more and more second nature.  There will come a point in writing when the words just leak out of you (in an overflowing pitcher sort of way, not an incontinent bowels sort of way) and you won’t have to think and think and think.  Although there will still be times, even several novels in, where you still do have to sit there and write pages and pages about your characters in a notebook somewhere just to say “hi” and get to know them.  Think of it as a shortcut to saving a lot of time later, when you’d have to spend months editing a manuscript just to fix problems that could’ve been avoided by asking yourself important questions before writing the story.
  5. Write about the human condition.  Whether you’re a farmer in the midwest or a banker on Wall Street or a hunter-gatherer in the bush of Southern Africa, you want the same basic things as the rest of us.  You want a safe place to sleep.  You want to be loved by someone.  You want a good meal.  You want to feel like the work you do with your hands pays off.  You want to leave a good inheritance for the next generation.  You want to experience beauty.  That is what makes you human.  If you want your story to instantly speak to anyone who would ever pick it up, write about those things.  The best stories are the stories where the protagonist just wants a decent cup of tea.  Or, just wants to curl up with her boyfriend but an apocalypse keeps happening.  Maybe he’s a servant who can’t seem to even wash the dishes right, but once the adventure starts you think, “maybe he’s going to save the world.”  Even if the plot line is nearly unbelievable, if your story has those elements people will put themselves in it.  They’ll commit.  And if the payoff is good enough, they’ll be loyal to you as a writer, because they’ll feel like in some small way you wrote about them.  And you did, because you wrote about all of us.
  6. Torment your audience, at least a little.  If your protagonist just wants a good cup of tea, make sure he doesn’t get one until the end of the story.  If she just wants to smooch with her honey make sure a really good apocalypse interrupts them.  If he just wants someone to appreciate him, make sure the person he wants that appreciation from the most doesn’t look twice at him and he has to prove himself over, and over, and over.  Believe me, no one wants to read the story that goes like this:  “Susy never had any good luck in her life ever.  But when she woke up that morning, she made the best pot of coffee.  Her bacon was just crispy enough without being burnt or soggy, and for once the pancakes didn’t have any lumps.  On her way to work she met the cutest guy and gave him her number.  Her boss didn’t yell at her once, and then as she was leaving the cute guy called and they met for drinks.  They hit it off and eloped and then made sweet, passionate, just-kinky-enough love.  The end.”  YAWN.  NO.  Make sure Susy burns her toast.  She is too shy to give the guy her number.  Her boss is a major suckwad.  She’s miserable.  She hopes to see the guy at the bar but she doesn’t, but THEN…  You get the point.  People want to see their characters tested because it gives them something to hope for.  Maybe, just maybe, things will work out for Susy.  (And if they work out for Susy, there’s hope for all of us.)  Ah, that’s better.
  7. Torment your audience maybe a lot.  People say things like, “don’t kill off your most sympathetic character or the audience will hate you.”  Then authors like JK Rowling and George RR Martin have a good laugh, because isn’t that how the game is played?  Sometimes there is nothing better than holding your breath while you’re reading, starting to feel that sense of dread, your pulse banging in your ears, thinking, “oh man oh man oh man…” and then, WHEW, the protagonist dodges a bullet.  You put the book down and you think, “woah.”  And then you fall in love with the author and read the rest.  Or, once in a blue moon, the character dies gruesomely, and you throw the book across the room and cuss and cry and swear you’ll never read another word by that author, and you start to pen them a horrid note and then change your mind and read the rest of the book and adore them.  (I’m not the only one who does this, right?)  Because you realize that they were writing about life, and sometimes life takes a turn.  Sometimes it’s brutal and short and mean and the good ones die.  Sometimes by dealing with death we see people to be who they truly are.  Imagine if Harry Potter’s parents had lived; or, if certain other characters had survived in other books.  Would it have been the same tale?  Would Harry have risen up to be the man he was by the turn of the final page?  What if a certain beheading didn’t happen in A Game of Thrones?  Doesn’t the torment the characters experience refine them like coal into diamonds?  So don’t be afraid to torment your audience, because each time a reader feels their pulse change and their throat catch they feel their whole body commit to a story, and that’s good for everyone.
  8. Picture the whole story in your head.  Some writers talk about being inspired by a few scenes, images, or quirks of characters.  (William Goldman and NK Jemisin come to mind.)  That has led to some amazing tales, but don’t think for a moment that when William Goldman first dreamed up the Princess Bride he didn’t sit down and write the sword fight and pirate tale that he first envisioned and then magically end up with that classic novel.  No, he had to work out the story to give those few scenes breadth and depth and meaning.  So if you have a conversation in your head, or one quirk about a character, or a few disconnected images, don’t imagine that by writing them down you will suddenly find your muse and become the next great novelist.  Work your story out.  Picture the whole thing.  If you have to, be like Kurt Vonnegut and get a roll of paper and map the entire thing from start to finish in crayon.  Think about things like pacing and how stories have rolled out as you’ve read them, and make deliberate choices about where you will take your reader and why.  You know this muse that writers long for?  You’ve got to woo her, and you’ve got to pay your dues.  To put the figurative ring on her finger and take her home, you’ve got to know her story.  Unlike the floozies you may find at the bar in the bottom of a bottle (you know the ones, the ones you would NEVER tell your parents about) she’s not going to give it up the first time you sit down at the keyboard.  Work for it.

There’s more advice, of course, but this is the basic stuff.  The big stuff.  The game changing stuff.  The stuff I banged my head against for years and years.  It all boils down to the same thing- don’t expect the writing process to be magic.  It’s called a process for a reason.  It takes a journey to get to a good story, even a short one.  Even a good paragraph means thought, planning, and work.

So work it.


Free Advice Friday: how to win respect even if you lose the argument.

I missed writing Free Advice Fridays almost more than writing my huge rhetorical blurgs about the church. Today we’re going to discuss a skill that takes a long time to cultivate: arguing well. No one wants to relate to someone who is a jerk in an argument. Even more than that, no one wants to listen to someone who doesn’t debate well, so if you want your views to be heard and respected it is absolutely imperative that you know how to debate without taking the offense.

So, here’s some free advice:

  1. Don’t call in the forces. This means you should say, “I believe this” or “I think that”, not “everybody knows.” If you are, for instance, debating politics and say “everybody knows that the Democratic party bribes poor people into voting for them through increasing welfare programs”, and the person you’re arguing with either doesn’t know that or disagrees, they will resent you for it. Or, even worse, you could be totally wrong and then not only lose points for yourself but the “everybody” you’re calling in for backup. But wait, there’s more! What if you say “any Christian would agree”, and the person you are talking to turns out to be a Christian who disagrees? Either you’re wrong, or they’ll think you don’t believe they are a Christian. So don’t speak for more than yourself unless you’ve got cold hard data at your fingertips to show you are right. And if you have that data, relay the data and let it speak for itself. You speak for yourself, plain and simple.
  2. Ask a lot of questions. If someone says something you disagree with, don’t say, “well dude you’re wrong.” Ask, “why do you believe that?” You may find that you learn something you didn’t know. Or, if you still disagree, you may find that you better know how to defend and explain your position.
  3. Listen, carefully, and repeat things back. So the person you’re talking to says, “you need to understand that people in poverty don’t have the options you do. There are a lot of hidden costs to being poor.” Repeat it back, say, “so there are costs to poverty that you think I don’t know about?” Give them time to clarify. Otherwise, you run the risk of misunderstanding what is being said. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen two people debating where one is missing huge parts of the point that the other is trying to make. A lot of times this is due to zealousness in wanting to defend their own point. But, here’s the rub; if you are so busy trying to make your own point that you don’t take the time to understand the other person’s argument, even if you win the argument in your own mind you lose it in theirs.
  4. Don’t use talking points. You know what someone thinks of when you give a talking point that has been bandied around all over the place? They think you can’t think for yourself, they think you just repeat what other people said, and they think, “for the love of all things cool and shiny I’ve HEARD THIS BEFORE and I didn’t agree with it THEN.” You may agree with what you’ve heard, you may think it’s a good point. GOOD! So instead of repeating it verbatim, explain it. For example: “By giving poor people handouts you encourage them to stay in poverty.” Compare that to: “I wonder if people in poverty would be able to come up with better solutions for themselves if they didn’t have government handouts allowing them to continue in the same patterns.” (Note: This is just an example. I believe poverty is WAY more complicated than that, and predates government handouts by a couple of thousand years.)
  5. Be nice. No one will respect you if you insult them, or their views, or subject you’re debating. Use polite language, and use tact and forethought with how you word things. There’s a big difference between saying, “you’re an idiot”, or “that is illogical” or “have you considered things from this other point of view?” One way of speaking is unecessarily confrontational. The other invites a positive response- and a positive response can set the tone of the debate in your favor.

Even if you don’t win the argument, you will go down as someone who welcomes debate and does so with respect. If people respect you, it’s more likely that they’ll seek you out for discussion in the future. And who knows- the more you go around an issue with someone, the more likely it is that they’ll come to respect not only you but your point of view.

So, on this lovely Friday, don’t fear arguments. Just remember that your words are only one part of what people listen to: your attitude and tone also convey a loud message. If you want to win in life you need to win more than just the debate, you need to win respect.

Free Advice Friday: dealing with conflict

Everyone ends up in arguments.  Every personal relationship has it’s moments of extreme tension.  How we confront them and the way in which we cope afterwards says a lot about who we are, our maturity, and our ability to maintain intimacy overtime.  So how to approach conflict?  Here are a few things I’ve learned in six years of marriage:

  1. Tell the person who hurt you that you are hurt.  The assumption that offense is known and acknowledged is a dangerous one.  No matter how intimate the relationship, your spouse, family and friends are not mind readers.  If there is pain, allow it to be exposed.  Be frank.  That is when healing is possible.
  2. Acknowledge wrongdoing. If you bring up thing (A) and your spouse brings up thing (B) that you did to hurt them, stop.  Breathe.  Apologize.  A true and heartfelt apology will open the door for your own hurts to be dealt with and healed.  What is more important, that you immediately achieve recognition of your own pain, or that intimacy can continue?  Be willing to be wrong, and you will find your spouse (or friends, or family) willing to admit their wrongs to you, as well.
  3. Deal with the fact that you only control yourself. You can’t force humbleness, you can’t evoke change, you can’t create better intimacy by requesting it from others.  The only one you can birth those things in is yourself.  If the most important thing is the continued relationship, you will have to make sacrifices.  If the only thing that matters is your own perceived needs…  You may just go on needing, forever.
  4. Always use a soft tone. You may be angry.  You may be red-in-the-face screaming angry.  You may be throwing the chairs up against the wall angry.  But if you approach the conflict that way, you immediately put everyone else on the defensive.  Use a soft tone and a gentle touch.  “Demonstrations” of anger don’t have to be loud and rude.  Softly saying, “I am angry.  I cannot deal with (this) or (that) and I need you to hear me.” will allow for the conversation to grow.
  5. Use personal language– don’t say “you did this, you did that, you hurt me.”  Say, “I was hurt when this or that happened.”  “I had a bad reaction to your words.”  “You may not have meant to hurt me by saying this or that, but I was hurt.”  Do not immediately place blame.  Speak sincerely about yourself and your feelings and needs, and allow an opportunity for the offending party to take blame.
  6. Don’t bring in a third party– don’t immediately bring other people into your personal problems.  It may be tempting to call your mother before broaching a subject with your spouse, but if you do and then say, “mom said this about what you did” expect the fight to continue.  If you must call someone else for emotional support, leave them out of the discussion.  Your problems with your spouse or family should remain between you and the people involved.
  7. Learn how to calm yourself down.  The heat of anger can be dangerous.  Figure out what calms you down, be it breathing slowly or cleaning or fishing or yardwork or painting or handling your Wii (gaming system, for the uninitiated), and if you feel yourself losing control- go do that thing-  BUT-  never just walk out on a conversation.  Tell your spouse (or friend, or family) what you are doing.  Say, “I really want to have this conversation, but if we keep talking right now I will say things to hurt you that we will both regret and be unable to unsay.  Is it okay if I take a few hours to do (this) or (that) and we can talk after?”  If you want to sweeten the deal, you could even say, “here, take this twenty and go see a movie or get dinner while I calm down.”  That way you both feel taken care of, and the discussion can take place over calmer waters.

So, this weekend, have a happy relationship!

Free Advice Friday: Polite discussion

*Note:  I’m just some girl.  Take any and all advice at your own risk.

One of my biggest pet peeves is people who like to argue just to get their blood up.  People who don’t really even care about absolute right and wrong but just proving that they are right- even if they don’t truly believe in what they are saying.  There is a fine art to disagreeing and an even finer art to winning people over.  If what matters most to you is making people concede, you’re a jerk.  So, if what matters most to you is people respecting your beliefs, you have to learn to tame your tongue.

  1. You don’t have to win to be right.  You can still be right, even if other people don’t say you are.  If you feel the need to always have other people agree with you, perhaps your convictions aren’t as strong as you think they are.  So, before getting into a discussion, ask yourself a few simple questions:  “Am I doing this to express myself?” “Do I feel like I need this person’s approval?”  “Will conceding if there is no hope of convincing them harm me in some way?”
  2. Be okay with saying, “we will never come to an agreement.”   Sometimes you have to shake your head and walk away before things get ugly.  Learn to say, “we will never agree”, and leave it at that.  If the person you are talking to says that you are stupid or being unreasonable, walk away quickly.
  3. If what you are discussing is strongly tied in with your beliefs beware of emotion.  It’s easy to lose track of yourself when you are defending something close to your heart.  So remember to separate the belief from the person- just because someone disagrees with your point of view does not mean they think that you are stupid.  (Or… at least…  it shouldn’t.)
  4. If someone tells you that you are just stupid, stop talking.  That person is too belligerent and cannot argue their point of view, so they attack.  Explaining yourself will likely do no good.  The person with whom you’re conversing can simply continue to retort, “you are stupid.”
  5. Be respectful of others, as well.  If you have the right to believe A, B and C even though others think they are wrong, that also means others have the right to believe X, Y and Z even though you think they are wrong.
  6. Everything eventually comes down to personal opinion.  Even when the vast majority of facts support a single argument, people may choose to side with the minority of opinion.  Just look at elections:  there are plenty of facts to defend either candidate- yet those facts will not necessarily garner support.  Why?  Because eventually it boils down to a matter of personal preference.
  7. Use good language.  Be well spoken.  There is language which is contrary and rude, and that kind of language while it may cause people to cede the point, won’t necessarily win them over.  Use gentle language, and always phrase things in a way that shows that you are aware there is a difference of opinion and that is okay.

A simple guide:

Good:  “Personally, I support Senator Obama because I like his Health care plan.”

Bad:  “You support Clinton?  Moron.”

Good:  “There are plenty of good reasons to become a vegetarian, it’s cheaper, it takes less manufacturing and thus conserves energy, etc…”

Bad:  “Barbarian.  Eating meat is murder.”

Good:  “My religious beliefs inform every aspect of my life and make it richer. I don’t care if you believe in God, but you should respect my lifestyle.”

Bad:  “You are a heathen and will burn in Hell.”

Good:  “A liberal philosophy embraces the most sacred tenets of our Constitution, like autonomy of persons and states.”

Bad:  “Conservatives are bigots and selfish fat cats.”

Perfect:  “Are you trying to engage in a discussion about my opinion or only voicing your personal beliefs?”

Atrocious:  “You’ve got to be the most ignorant person I’ve ever seen.  No, don’t open your mouth.  I can tell just from looking at you.”