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.


Discovering the Girl God sees: a lesbian’s story

(A submission for my series of emphatic life stories)
I can remember from day one that being gay was seen as a horrible sin. My father was a lay speaker in the church and I remember him getting up there and preaching a fire and brimstone sermon against gay people. We would all rot in hell and God hated us. I heard sermon after sermon that condemned who I was. My dad told me gays were going to hell, my church told me gays were going to hell, and my friends made jokes about queer people. Even if at the time my father didn’t realize that I was gay, I knew. And it was something so horrible and forbidden that I hid that part of me from myself and others. In hiding, I was made almost sub-human. I wasn’t as good as everyone else and God himself hated me, it must be true because The Church and my father said it. That leaves a mark of hopelessness on a child. To know that I would never make my family, my friends, my community, and my God proud of me. Growing up gay is not an easy experience.
I know there are those out there who believe that gay people choose that lifestyle. But as a child and young adult, I didn’t want to be gay. I begged and pleaded for God to make me straight. I wanted to be like my friends and my family and to be an acceptable member of my society. That isn’t to say that I didn’t have choices, I did. I had the choice to continue to hate myself or learn to love myself. I had the choice to hold onto the dogma and hate I was taught from my youth or seek and find God as an adult. I had the choice to continue to hide from myself and the world or step out and truly live in the light. As an adult, I had those choices, but as a child I did not.
Time moves on and I was still a little queer hiding from myself and everyone else. I learned how to not feel anything. To keep my feelings so buried that I could barely feel anything. I was in junior high and wanted to die. I was drunk or suicidal from junior high through college. I wanted to die. I have tried to die. But thankfully I wasn’t able to do it in an overt way. I couldn’t shoot myself although I overdosed on pills. I just threw up and lived, much to my pain and disappointment at that time. No, I did stuff like drink myself silly and drive my car in the middle of blizzards and ice storms. I was hoping to die by accident. I couldn’t bare the thought of my mom finding me so I prayed and pleaded that God would let me die in an accident. It just seemed more noble some how. I also abused myself.
I have scars from me burning myself and cutting myself. I just wanted to feel something. I have held a red hot knife to my arm and not felt it. I could smell the flesh burning and not feel it. I was so cut off from my emotions for such a long time. When I felt anything it hurt, so I tried to not feel. And I got good at it. Too good. I got to where I couldn’t feel emotional or physical pain. Part of that came from me being something God and everyone else hated. Let me say right now that my pain came, not from being gay, but from knowing that people hated me because of that one piece of the totality that is me. It was from being told that even God himself couldn’t stand to look at me. I am so very thankful that I survived long enough to find out that isn’t true.
I won’t get into what changed my mind about my orientation and where I will spend eternity. It is too long and drawn out. But it is enough to say that I heard God tell me that I was who he created, and that I shouldn’t hate what he created. I can remember the exact date that I heard him and believed him. I know he loves me for who I am, even though I ran from him and the church for a while.
I am a lesbian and I am a Christian. But I am also a lot of other things. I am a mom, a daughter, a sister, a friend. I may be your next door neighbor or a person you pass on the streets. I may be your friend or I may be your enemy, but I am real and I am here and I still exist even if some can not understand or accept me. Maybe there will be some who judge me on my orientation or decisions I have made and mistakes that I have done, I can’t help what people think or feel. But I know who I am and I finally like my life and I am secure in the knowledge that my God loves me.
From Lindsey:
My thanks to the author for being willing to share this with my readers.
All comments attacking the author will be edited or deleted.

An abortion story

This story came to me through a friend.  The author wishes to remain anonymous, but I can attest to the fact that it is a true account and the people involved are good people.  I thought I’d post it to this blog to sort of put a “human face” on a topic that tends to be impersonal to a lot of people.  Please, read it, and digest it.

I have something to say about abortion.

It’s an ugly topic.  Pro-life conservatives call it slaughtering defenseless unborn human beings.  Maybe it is, but I would like to tell all you alleged pro-life individuals reading this that if you had your way 5 years ago then you would have likely sentenced the woman I love and intend to marry to a painful death or at the very least crippled her for the rest of her life.

I grew up in a conservative household in a small town, as a young boy I went to church and heard the rhetoric.  Abortion was wrong.  I knew this, but it was a topic far removed from my young life so I never considered that it would ever matter to me.

When I was 19 I met the woman I am with to this very day.  She has been the light of my life since we met and anyone who knows us will attest to the fact that we are as good together as two souls can be.  We’ve had our trials though.  She is and has never been what anyone would call healthy.  Born with muscular dystrophy it was estimated that she would not be able walk once she reached adulthood.  Her childhood was a constant barrage of medical tests in and out of hospitals working to diagnose her condition.  I know this because I see the scars that early 80’s biopsies produce.  They are not pretty.  However all other evidence of these trips has not been found for over a decade.

As a teenager my beloved moved across the country, and a year later her former doctor retired.  Somewhere during that transition her medical records were lost to the point where we have not been able to locate them yet.  As a result none of the doctors in this part of the country know what disease she has.  She can tell them she has muscular dystrophy, but without any documentation it means nothing.   This has frustrated me to no end as every morning I see her stumble out of bed barely able to stand, and I wonder to myself when her next slip will be the one to confine her to a wheelchair for the rest of her days.  I’ve tried to convince her that she needs to go and have the tests redone, but tests cost money and come with considerable amounts of pain, and while money is something we’ve recently begun to acquire pain she has quite enough of already.

Early on in our relationship we began living together.   The first two years we were not well off, I had found hardly any work and she was barely able to support herself with a minimum-wage grocery clerk job.  Our land-lady forgave us 5 months of rent that we swore we’d pay back but never did because the building we lived in was sold before we could do so.  During that period she was told that her birth-control pills were causing her to have extremely high blood pressure and that to continue to be on them would be hazardous to her health.  This is just one of the many complications her illness has inflicted upon her over the years.  So she went off the pill and without having the money for alternative forms of birth control we attempted to get by with condoms.

It never occurred to us what the real cause was when she got sick.  Constant puking day and night dehydrated and malnourished her for several weeks.  She was unable to work, and with me not working our situation became even more untenable.  Finally after 3 weeks of escalating sickness she went to the doctor and discovered she was pregnant.

Together it took us three days to decide what to do.  Her parent’s were involved and supportive.  Mine weren’t, they wouldn’t understand and I don’t ever intend to subject them to the pain of an account of the event.  They can keep their beliefs, because I’m considerate enough to let them.  It was not an easy decision for either of us, I was prepared to support her as best I could, but at that point the only support I could offer was the emotional kind and we both needed much much more than that.  Her health was the biggest concern, already the constant nausea had weakened her, and none of us had any illusions obscuring the harsh fact that she likely wouldn’t come out of the whole affair standing on her own two feet.

I didn’t go with her the day of the abortion, I can’t exactly remember why, but I don’t think I would have wanted to.  She spared me the details, – though several years later she admitted to me there were complications and she had lost a lot of blood – and when she came home we cried some, and then got back to the process of living our lives.  She immediately got on another form of birth control that was less harmful to her heart and I managed to find a job and we have hardly ever looked back.

These days we are far better off, but it’s been only recently that we’ve actually had the money to begin addressing the numerous health problems she has.  It’s going to be a long road, and I don’t know if she’ll ever be fully functional physically but we still work at it.  We still don’t have her childhood medical records so without them all that can be done is treat her symptoms as best we can, and even then we’re constantly wary that any given treatment might just make things worse.  We choose not to have children currently, but if one were to occur by chance we would not abort again.  We don’t discuss this but it is nonetheless true.

I am not clairvoyant, I cannot peer into the world of what might-have-been, so I can only speculate.  But we were not ready to become parents in any way shape or form.  The baby would have likely permanently crippled my beloved without even considering that her disease could pull a plethora of complications from it’s lovely hat of misery during her labor.  We had no money to mitigate any of these risks, and certainly none to raise a child, and we didn’t know yet if our paths were to remain together.  A baby at that point would likely have destroyed all three of our lives.

I realize that we are just two people, but our circumstances don’t seem particularly extraordinary.  If the pro-life movement had it’s way at that time my story would be very different, we would not have been afforded the choice to abort.  Even if there might be extenuating circumstances due to her health condition, without her medical records there would be no way of proving that she was suffering any more than a particularly nasty case of morning sickness.  We would have been told that we should have been more responsible to deal with the repercussions, and if those repercussions included her death then such is the price of our irresponsible lifestyle.

In the grand scheme of things I don’t think my story will effect the opinions of many people.  To some abortion is a heinous act resulting in the death of an infant.  They believe that it is too easy a decision to make, that the three days of our agonizing about what we should do, is similar to deciding whether to have pork or chicken for dinner.  According to them, my love and I should be damned to hell for the horrible crime we committed.  To them I have only one thing to say:

“After you.”

Postscript from Lindsey:

The story is raw, I know, and in some ways it is inflammatory.  I respect everyone’s right to comment and express their views, but I ask that you do so with respect.  Any comments attacking the author, his character, or his relationship with his beloved will be deleted, and the commenter will be reprimanded.