Tag Archives: How to write better

The Impact of Your Work

This humble post is about a story and a song, neither of them mine.

Let’s start with the story. Back in 2009, when I began my first foray into real writing and couldn’t get published to save self-esteem, I’d do market research at all the top magazines. Not only did I want to know what kind of stories they were looking for, I wanted to see what successful writers put in their stories, maybe get a glimpse at their secret sauce. Eventually I ran across Sock Heroes over at Strange Horizons. The first paragraph is a mere two words and from reading those words I was instantly hooked. Unlike some characters who come with built in empathy–the plucky orphan, the hooker with a heart of gold, the starry eyed youth–the protagonist was one I couldn’t care less about BEFORE I read those two words. And just like that, I cared. The author M. Thomas skillfully built on that empathy and by the time I was done I was simply amazed. I realized in no uncertain terms you could write about ANYTHING and it will make for an awesome story, if done right.

Her story spoke to me, and I wanted more from her.  Strange Horizons hosted another story called Beguiling Mona. I don’t have to sell you on how good it was; anyone familiar with my work can see how this story inspired me. Even hungrier now, and pretty much a fan at this point, I looked for more of her stuff.

And that’s where it all went dry. She had written from 2002 and stopped at 2006. By the time I had discovered her, a great many of the magazines and sites she had been published in were defunct.  Googling M. Thomas is probably the worst Google search I’ve ever had to conduct. Thomas can be a first name, a middle name and a last name and M. is just M. I literally could put M. Thomas with the name of the story with the name of the publication it was in into Google and have to damn near scroll to the bottom of the page to find a hint at the right person and oftentimes that was the SFF database ISFDB and not her actual work.

I’ve never figured out what happened to M. Thomas. I don’t know if she just gave up on writing, if life got in the way, or if she’s no longer with us.  I’d like to tell her that I learned much from her examples, especially with character development. Perhaps I’ll share those lessons with my fellow aspiring writers out there in a Creative Combat Arms section sometime in the future. Mostly, I’d like to thank her for enriching my life with her stories.

Her website never worked. It was ironically called www.found-things.com.

Let’s move on to the song. Much more recently, a couple months back, I stumbled across “The Last Laugh” on Netflix. Starring Richard Dreyfuss and Chevy Chase, it’s about an old comedian and his even older manager who decide to do one last comedy tour. So Chevy’s on a date with Andie MacDowell and they stop at a singer performing at a street corner. The song took over, this was at 53 minutes in, and it was bigger than the movie.

I’m ok with folk music and really not much for country… I think I can count on one hand the number of country songs I like and I’d still have enough fingers left to gouge some eyes in a bar fight. This song sat squarely  in the middle of those two genres and it absolutely spoke to my soul.

I tried to Shazam it and it failed. I ran it back, played it again and Shazam failed again. And again. I waited for the end of the movie, got her name, Jessie Payo, from the credits, did some Googling and still couldn’t find her.  And when I say Googling, I mean her name + fractions of song lyrics, maybe add the movie when that didn’t work, maybe change the lyrics to something else in case I misheard it with all that movie dialogue going on around it. Still nothing. In this day and age it’s like she wasn’t trying to be found or something!

Today I woke up, watched a show and afterwards decided I wanted to hear the song again. It still moved me and I realized why. It’s like a flash fiction story. The song encapsulates this brief span of time after you’ve gotten to know someone enough to be comfortable and trusting but before you and that other person are in a relationship and building it.  It’s not about love but rather the journey of discovery towards something that could be love, something neither of you’ll know until you go on the journey. For me, it brings me square back to over twenty years ago, to warm Louisville summer nights and two people who both knew whatever the hell they were doing made no sense but still took that journey together. So when I hear this song, it’s like my wife’s singing it to me.  And I recall a time that was pure magic and become joyful we decided to take that journey that didn’t make any damn sense together.

I decided to try to find Jessie Payo and her song again. And I found both. This is Jessie Payo’s website and this is her song Dance Real Close as I heard it on the movie. When you go to the comments section of the song’s page, you’ll see troves of folks pouring in, saying the movie brought them there and they searched and searched and searched and they were so glad to finally find it.

It’s amazing, the impact your work has had or will have on people. Scores of die-hards may find you and tell you or you may never know the extent.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a household name. It only matters that you put your skill of craft and passion into it.  That piece of your soul will speak to others in a language all its own and enrich them for having discovered it.

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Creative Combat Arms: Infoglossing

Emphasis in the original

Creative writing is both an art and a science.  Most online help focuses on the science of it, because science is definable, quantifiable, measurable… you know, easier.  So you’ll see a lot of scientific formulas for good writing on the webz, sometimes taken to the extreme as in the case of the “was” witch hunt.  You hardly ever see the art side broken down and analyzed… it’s just a bit harder to define art.

Attention, small yet loyal fanbase, I am about to reveal one of the most powerful tools in a creative writer’s arsenal.  I guarantee you’ve never heard of it because I’ve coined the term myself, but nevertheless it’s there, in virtually all powerful works of fiction.  I don’t know if it’s the perfect term for what I’m talking about, but I like it.  I call it infoglossing.

The reason you don’t see this function of creative writing addressed is because when we happen across infogloss I think a reader is generally too busy appreciating the fact they were moved by words to look at why.  It’s that subtle yet powerful.  The first time I became truly cognizant of it was in a poem, Pinero’s “Seeking the Cause”.  This is the line:

“his body was found all over town… riddled with the police bullets his tax dollars bought”

The second time I became aware of infogloss was while reading a literary book called “Candlemoth“.  Forgive me ahead of time, because I know I’m about to screw up the exact wording, but the protagonist said something akin to this of the Vietnam War and the draft he was dodging:

“Someone out there was reaping children.”

In the first example, we all know police equipment’s paid for with tax dollars.  Here the information we don’t know until we read it (that the guy was shot by the police) is presented with information we could extrapolate (he indirectly paid for the bullets that killed him).  Just because we can extrapolate this information doesn’t necessarily mean we will, hence reading this nugget that we already inherently know presents a keen analysis of the situation we might have missed as we continued on with the poem.

The second example stood out to me because most everyone knows the Vietnam war had a horrible death toll, coupled with a draft that ensured many of those deaths were youths.  The author here equated these facts to a macabre harvest (youthful deaths in Vietnam) orchestrated by a sinister individual (the government through its draft).

Infodumping and its sexier sister Incluing are all about presenting a reader with information he or she doesn’t know.  Infoglossing is decidedly different.  Infoglossing is presenting information the reader already knows (or could know through extrapolation) in an impactful manner.

I know, what the hell is “impactful manner”?  Well, that’s where the art of infoglossing starts to take over and its a matter of subjective taste.  One person may find taking a bedazzler to a jean jacket to be horribly gaudy while another may love the punchy whimsy of the glittering plastic jewels.  Likewise, a guy eating at a restaurant may hate garnish cause it’s getting in the way of his meal while someone else appreciates the presentation.  What’s impactful to you may not be impactful to another.  Furthermore the type of impact can be varied.  The impact of  the line in Seeking the Cause was the irony of the man’s demise.  Candlemoth’s impact lay in the protagonist’s succinct assessment of the world events that swirled around him.

These are just two examples.  The impact could be anything really–you could do what these examples did or you could explore the motivation of a character (see Ahab’s motivation for hunting down Moby Dick in his character segment), express an epiphany of human nature or revelation about the future state of humanity.  Anything.

What you infogloss is up to you, a matter of your taste.  How do you do it?  Sometimes these nuggets are there before you even start the story, those little tidbits you thought about or turns of phrase that inspired your story to begin with.  Those take care of themselves.  But oftentimes, stories come from other places, dreams, fragments, a statement you misheard, all those random sources that don’t have the benefit of pre-glossed info.  For those stories, before you even think about the gloss, finish writing the story.  Once you’re done and you’ve given it ample time to cool, reread it.  Analyze it like you would a classic story or novel, similar to how you did back in English class.  See the characters and how their situations, their motivations, and their actions impact their world, or how their world impacts them and what that means for us in our world.  Where are places that stating information the reader already knows or could know if they thought it through be presented in a way that drives home a point?  That’s where you put your infogloss.

Finally, what do you say when you discover a place where you can apply some infogloss?  That’s truly the art of it, and the science of this article is bereft of means to explain.  But when you think about all your favorite passages in literature, chances are some of them will qualify as infogloss.  So what do you put in your own writing, something akin to those small, meaningful shards from your favorite works that moved you in such a powerful, profound way?

Put you into it.

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Intelligence Report: The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest

Most rejections are a matter of business rather than story quality, but that’s logic.  Logic don’t satisfy the warrior-poet in you.  Warrior-poet want the truth!  And in your mind, the truth invariably sounds like “I suck as a writer.”

I say, if you suck then prove it.  That’s what the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest is all about.  Come hither, warrior-poet, and celebrate the best of the worst lines imaginable in fiction.

Named after the dude that originally wrote “It was a dark and stormy night”, this contest is an all out battle to see who can write the worst novel opening.  It’s harder than it sounds.  Your cliches gotta be ripe, your prose Barney purple, your dialogue the stuff of half-eaten B movie scripts.

You would think the winning entries this contest produces would be abhorrent, right?  This is never the case.  Just like movies, bad literature has an event horizon that once you cross it, the bad writing becomes good.  Check out my favorite:

Through the gathering gloom of a late-October afternoon, along the greasy, cracked paving-stones slick from the sputum of the sky, Stanley Ruddlethorp wearily trudged up the hill from the cemetery where his wife, sister, brother, and three children were all buried, and forced open the door of his decaying house, blissfully unaware of the catastrophe that was soon to devastate his life. — Dr. David Chuter, Kingston, Surrey, England (1999 Winner)

Stroll through the Lyttony of Grand Prize Winners and see how awesome some of these bad lines are.  It’s a fun stroll, and you may likely find yourself pondering the worst possible line you can think of.  If you do, enter the contest… it’s free with little at stake other than bragging rights.

Not only is the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest therapy for you warrior-poets wallowing in your own sucktitude, but it’s actually good writing practice.  Actively identifying bad writing to the extent necessary to draft the worst lines ever forces you to think critically on what makes for bad writing.  Which means you stand to make your writing better.  You know, when you’re not intentionally trying to be bad.

Now get out there and be crappy.

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Creative Combat Arms: The War on Was

Your crusade is not without consequence.

The problem with universally agreeable advice is the lack of dissent against it. Since there is no dissent, there is no analysis on possible negatives, no connotation that the advice, if followed rigorously, systemically and completely, could cause a problem. There is no such thing as too much of a good thing.

Writing sites all over the web will tell you to kill passives: passive voice and passive verbs. Attribute action. Bring power to your prose with punchier verbs. Indeed, this is a good thing, and most of these sites affect to know a good thing is something you can never have too much of.

‘Was’ and ‘is’ are not punchy verbs. In fact, they’re the king and queen of passive verbs. They just sit there, not doing, just being. They may as well have a target painted on. And while some websites will tell a writer they need not excise all “was”, none of them will tell you when to use it. Most will give you glaring examples of how much ‘was’ sucks:

NOT: John was hungry.
BUT: John hungered.

NOT: Bob was determined to beat the deadline.
BUT: Bob rushed to finish.

You don’t want your writing to suck. And the wases are doing nothing for you; they’re just sitting there, being. So you kill the was. You seek and destroy, chasing ‘was’ from the pages without mercy or hesitation. I’m not exaggerating. One writing teacher says on her site:

Creative writing instructors tend to get obsessive about removing passive verbs from fiction. I’ve harped on this subject so often I have occasionally caused students to agonize over how to avoid using “was” and other forms of “to be” completely.

As a reviewer of many new writers just learning how to hone their skills in the fine art of storytelling, I have seen the War on Was up close. It needs to stop. Your crusade is not without consequence.

There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Ever hear of water poisoning? Or oxygen poisoning? If the very essentials of life can kill you in large quantities, what do you think will happen to your story if it gets too much of something?

Do you know what happens when all your verbs are crammed, stuffed, packed with action? When all trees crowd and all roads stretch and all mountains tower and nothing stays still? When everything’s moving, shaking, careening and ka-booming? The same thing that happens if you lived a full day of your life on a roller coaster, getting jostled and bounced and turned topsy and thrown turvy in constant, relentless, endless motion:

Nausea. After that, the fervent desire to just go home and rest.

We appreciate contrasts. NBA players are only tall next to average people, not each other on the basketball court. A 40 mile per hour motorist isn’t slow until he’s crawling through 60 mph traffic. But you need the average heighted person to appreciate how tall that ball player is. You need the slow motorist to appreciate speed when you see it. That’s ‘was’ in writing. If everything is moving and punchy then nothing is moving. Nothing is punchy.

Beyond the contrast, realize you are waging war with part of a sentence, and only a part. What happens to the other parts of your sentence when you start renovating and overhauling the verb? Your crusade is not without consequence. Getting punchier is all well and good when John’s hungry and Bob’s rushing but what happens when you want the focus to be the subject or the direct object or anything else other than some show-stealing action verb? You ever notice that the tips sites don’t give this as an example of ‘was’ sucks: “To be or not to be, that is the question”? Or how about Ray Bradbury when he said in Fahrenheit 451, “It was a pleasure to burn”?

Your crusade is not without consequence. I’ve said it a few times for a reason. Look at my mantra through the lens of ‘was sucks’. If you make the verb punchier, how could you not lose some of the alliterative appeal of the sentence, or dilute the grandness inherent in the subject’s metaphor?

Understand that changing a part changes the whole.

Finally, you are the storyteller. That goes beyond the narrator; it extends well past taut action, crisp dialogue and punchy verbs. You are the key… the window to events, people and places we the reader cannot imagine without you.

It is your duty to report their state of being faithfully. Sometimes, some things just are.

Now don’t go taking my advice to extremes and leaving a field full of passive voice/passive verbs. Some sentences (sometimes many sentences) need that loving touch of your overhaul. But leave the “find and replace” function alone. Stop the witch hunt on was. Instead of arbitrarily hating was, look at the whole sentence. Then look how that sentence fits in your paragraph, and how that paragraph fits into the overall story. If it feels right, if it sounds good, if the actiony, punchy, newly realized sentence version 2.0 just doesn’t have the same flow then consider carefully. You may be better off leaving was as is.

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