Friday, August 12, 2011

How to like, write good and stuff...

Did that hurt? Reading the title I mean? If so, good. It should hurt.

Ok, so on facebook I wrote that I would be writing a post about: "the responsibility of Christians to write well - and tips from great authors on how to do just that."

Sounds good right? Well, I guess I should define great authors. If you know me at all you know that my two favorite authors are Steinbeck and Salinger. So...dead guys. Therefore, it's not like I went up to them, or sent them a tweet: "Hey guys, do you have any tips for aspiring writers?" Even if they were alive, I'm pretty sure they would swear at me or tell me to go away if I asked them that question. But I'm a firm believer that to be a good writer you have to be a good reader. Most of what I've learned about writing has come from reading great books and trying to figure out why I love them so much. What is it about these books that makes me walk away stunned? And, okay, you can't pick up anything I've written at Barnes and Noble. Heck, you can't pick up anything I've written on So...maybe I'm not really qualified to be telling you this. But humor me.

Okay, (crack knuckles, take deep breath, continue) Tips about writing. Things you should do, things you definitely shouldn't we go.

Numero UnoDon't tell your audience everything that your main character is thinking/feeling.
I've read books before that are about 10% action and 90% mental narration. "Joey sat on the couch (there's your 10% action) and thought about what he had just seen. Pete seemed like a good friend, and Joey could always trust him before but now he couldn't be sure. "Joey felt betrayed (SERIOUSLY?! You don't think I could've figured this out on my own?) by the way Pete had acted around Mary. Surely Pete knew that Joey had feelings for Mary, but if he did know, he was trying to sabotage Joey's plan of making Mary fall for him."

It looks funny, but, I literally have read books just like this. Books that, if you were to cut out the inner narration, you'd have about ten pages in your hand (get it? 10% ha - I made a funny). Authors who write like this labor under the assumption that their audience may not be able to figure out what's really going on. They don't want their readers to miss anything, so they tell them....EVERYTHING. As a reader, you should be offended when you read this. Really? You think I'm that mentally impeded...that I can't add up Susie's apples to deduce that Joey's miffed at Petey?! All you had to say was "Joey looked out the window just in time to see his best friend Pete plant a big one on Mary." That's all I needed to figure out there was some hardcore tension there.

Nombre Deux: (is this a polyglot?) Do create real characters.
Think about the way you react to situations in real life. Patsy asks you if you want to get ice cream at 3:00. You've just had a hard day, and though you're a fiend for ice cream, you just want to get home. And you know that Patsy's going to call you in five minutes and say "Actually, can we meet at 3:15? I'm running late." So you tell Patsy..."HECK NO!" But the next tuesday, Patsy says: "Hey I know last week didn't work out, do you want to get ice cream today?" And you, you beautiful dreamer you, have just had the best. day. of. your. life. Someone ghost-delivered your favorite color of post-it notes, the power went out in your office and you got paid to sharpen pencils for a three hours...let's just say it's been a good one. So when Patsy asks you to get ice cream you're like: "For sure, girl."

The things you feel strongly about one day are not always the things you feel strongly about the next. I used to think that one thing we love so much about written people is that they get to be just one person all the time, where you and I, if we're honest, seem like several different people all at once. But the more complex you make your written people, the more they seem like real poeple. People are complex (I wanna shout duh, having even written that. Okay I just did shout it. Good thing no one else is around). Don't make your characters so flat that they're predictable. I had a professor in college who told us that if you write your characters so they're real, sometimes they do things that surprise you.

Which leads me to another sub-point...
Don't let your characters contradict themselves either. They shouldn't be 2D, but they shouldn't be a crazy conglomeration of things either. I recently read a book where the main character claimed (in every other chapter - it got more than a little annoying) that her friends never saw her cry. And guess what! In every other chapter, she was crying. I mean, was that supposed to be written into her character? That she's a pathological liar who clearly doesn't understand herself but wishes she wasn't a crier when she actually is? See the nightmarish vortex you send your readers spiraling into when you don't define your characters rightly?!

Le Point Trois: Cliches. Don't do it. Just don't.
What does it even mean to fall into someone's eye pools? I definitely just read that in a book recently and I thought the whole eye pool thing was a joke. You've seen it, haven't you? "Laurie looked deeply into the calming celestial pools that were Spanky's eyes. If she were to lean a little closer, she would fall in." Spanky must be literally monstrous if his eyes are equivalent to the size of pools. I mean, I want to see someone actually attempt to fall into someone's eyes. Or at least poke a toe in, or a finger. The next time you see someone attractive, poke them in the eye and tell them you were trying to bathe in their eye pools. I'm sure you'll get a phone number or a date out of that.

Four: Don't promise something you can't deliver.
Do you remember that book I was telling you about where the character said she didn't cry and yet she was actually a human geyser? I mean she probably had to keep up a constant water supply to emit so much moisture. In the same book, the author set up this crazy plot in the beginning, where you didn't know what had happened to the characters, how they got the way they were, what had led them to the point they were now. Usually, these things get ironed out by the end of the book. But I got to the end of the fifth or sixth book in the series, only to discover the author had no intention of clearing up the mess he had gotten me into. Remember when your mom asked you to clean your room and you said you would? And you didn't and then you got in really big trouble because you'd said you'd clean it up and then you didn't? Be responsible. If you're not going to clear it up, don't write it.

Last. a.k.a. Five: Do say something. But don't make it easy.
When you write, you're writing to say something. Otherwise, you're just giving us a play by play of stuff that happens. Every author is trying to mean something publicly with their work. But one of the most profound and powerful concepts in great literature is subtlety. Don't end the book by having Joey say: "And that was the summer that I learned that people can let you down, but that doesn't mean you should stop loving people." I love the way Catcher in the Rye ends. He says something about how you shouldn't talk about things because you start missing everyone. It's so abrupt, and it doesn't make any sense and you, the reader, end up with the responsibility of figuring out what that means, if it even means anything. That's what's so great about great literature. You have to work, to think, to figure it out. That's when you're allowed to be a part of what you're reading, and what you've read will always be a part of you now that you've actually invested yourself in it. It's a beautiful thing.

Which leads me to my final point. Again, if you know me at all, you know that I cannot stand mass produced Christian romance, be it Amish or be it city folk. I've never read a Christian romance novel where I've been required to think. A scan of my brain would not show movement or bright coloration of any kind. Gray matter would stay gray.

 If we are possessors of the message of profound truth, and creativity given to us by our God, we should not be producing things that are lacking excellence.

And that is all.


James Allen Willis said...

Great post Liz. And great label tags at the end too. :-)

Unknown said...

Did you really get paid to sharpen pencils for 3 hours? BOooooring!!!


Liz said...

Thanks Jim :) I'm glad you noticed them ;) haha.

No, Ben, I didn't really, that was allllll fabricated! I think I would lose my mind if I had to sit around and sharpen pencils for three hours. haha.