Writers can learn from comic books

Too many adult writers I know denigrate comic books when those very same publications were their favorites when they were younger. That’s a shame because many of those same writers ignore an important difference between illustrated work and their own prose. In short, too many writers make little effort to paint word pictures. And I’m not just talking about setting.

Much like films and stage shows, the setting and action are obvious; the viewer sees it all up front. That allows the writers of those productions to focus on dialog and action in the larger sense–that which advances the plot. If a film character picks something up, the writer doesn’t have to detail the action–it’s obvious. If you’re writing a book, however, that’s not the case. Not to belabor the obvious, but everything readers need to know must come from the text.

Here are some illustrations from a comic about Sabrina, the teenage witch. I think they’ll help to get the point across.

In the very first panel, readers are treated to an image that not only sets the scene but details the action and identifies the point of view character as well. Conveying a similar amount of data in a novel or short story would require a couple of sentences, at least, if not two or three whole paragraphs.

I’m not suggesting that every detail from a cartoon scene like this would need to be included in the prose-only version, but a good bit of it would add some realism.

Following closely on the heels of the opening, the comic dips into the point of view character’s backstory.

And once again we’re treated to details via visual that the writer would have to convey in a word picture. In this case, a subplot has been initiated. Imparting the same level of detail in a prose-only format would require descriptions of both Sabrina and her intended victim. The illustration shows that the fellow about to be tricked is a decent-looking sort, and Sabrina appears to be a pleasant service provider. The panel which clinches the subplot would also need some description if done in a text-only version. I’ll leave the specifics up to you. My point is that this level of detail is often relegated to summary narrative leaving the reader to dream up their own visuals.

Ray Bradbury was known for his ability to paint pictures with his words. Character movements, often as minor as scratching an itch or using a napkin to catch an errant bit of food on a shirt, all provided the quick image-inducing responses that made reading his work enjoyable. It also made translating it to an audio-visual format much easier.  

One of the most ideal places to inject the sort of visualizations I’m talking about is in dialog. Novel characters often chatter on and on with nothing but “he said” and “she said” to differentiate them. Adding details about what they’re doing while conversing gives the writer a chance to identify the speakers without using speech tags. The effect gives readers something to visualize. It’s also a means to further develop characters through mannerisms, tastes, and responses to other stimuli. Good writers never ignore such things; they’re powerful items, and if left unused in a writer’s toolbox, the fault can only lie with one person.

So, the next time you sit down to work on your epic tale of romance, intrigue, or adventure, give some serious thought to how you portray what your characters are doing–not just as plot points–but as part of an on-going campaign to make the overall work more interesting. One might also say, “picturesque.”

Your thoughts, as always, are appreciated!

–Josh

Posted in Historical writing, novel writing, short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Who’re you lookin’ at? (Encore)

point of viewFor the past few weeks, I’ve noticed folks in one of my writer’s groups, and several of my students, who are having some trouble dealing with the issue of point of view. It’s a topic that pops up frequently among newer writers striving to do everything right. Many have read novels, especially those written in the 19th century, in which the author didn’t follow the current trend, though that trend is older than most members of the US Senate. The problem isn’t so much point of view as it is Point of View Shifts.

POV shifts are not a big deal and generally aren’t too hard to fix, but those new to the craft need to be aware of them. In most of the popular fiction produced these days, writers use either a first or a third person limited viewpoint. First-person, of course, is “I.” Third-person is “he,” “she,” or “it.”

So in a first-person story, everything the reader learns is filtered Young Brunette Woman in a Martini Glass isolated on a white backgroundthrough the character known as “I” or “me.” So: I saw this, or I tasted that, or I grew tired and took a nap. Everything happens to me!

If third-person POV is employed, everything is experienced via someone else. Suzie saw this, or she tasted that, or she got thirsty and had a great, big martini (with olives the size of cantaloupes). You go, girl!

Sorry.

The word “limited” in the viewpoint description is the important one. It describes the number of potential heads the writer intends to use–per scene–to convey information. There are only two options: one (“limited”), and more than one (“omniscient”). The writer will either stay in one wad of gray matter, or he’s decided to wander the world, popping willy-nilly into any (and potentially “every”) such wad he encounters.

Here’s an example of limited viewpoint. Everything readers learn is filtered through a single character:

SeriouslyYoung Jamie stumbled into a dark alley to relieve himself. He’d just been told his girlfriend had dumped him. He reached the back of the alley, but before he could unburden himself, he heard a noise from the street and turned to see what it was. Silhouetted against a streetlamp, stood a huge man. Jamie tried to swallow, but all the fluids in his body had collected in his bladder. When the brute began to run toward him, Jamie’s bladder gave way. He dug in his pocket to retrieve the off-brand stun gun he’d bought for protection. He aimed it at the approaching hulk and pressed the button.

Now, let’s try this same scene without restricting the viewpoint. I’ll mark the shifts by using a darker color type for the darker character.

Jamie stood at the back of the alley, fumbling with his zipper, when he heard a noise from the street. He turned to look. Biff strained to see into the darkness at the end of the alley. He knew he’d seen someone scuttle back there. This was Biff’s alley, by Gawd. Nobody peedmucked around in there without his permission. He had to investigate. And fast! Jamie tried to swallow, but his throat had gone dry. The brute at the end of the alley was coming toward him at a gallop. Jamie ignored his zipper; it was too late for that anyway, and concentrated on extracting his discount store stun gun from his pocket. As Biff’s eyes adjusted to the dark, he could see a scrawny punk pulling something from his pants pocket. A gun? Probably. Biff raced forward, intending to take the runt by surprise. Jamie pressed the button on the stun thingie, hoping he had it aimed in the right direction. It made a tiny fizzy sound, and an instant later, a man-shaped building landed on top of him.

The second scenario might actually work if the POV shifts were given separate micro-scenes with a suitable visual device–either an extra blank line or some sort of marker (I like flying splats: ~*~) to warn the reader a shift might occur. If left lumped together, however, there’s just too much back and forth. Keep that up for page after page and your reader will feel like they’ve been watching a ping-pong match from one end of the net. Whiplash, anyone?

Do yourself and your readers a favor. Stick to one point of view per scene. There are probably a dozen reasons for not following this advice, the biggest being what to do when your point of view character dies. Somebody’s got to pick up the slack, right? So, I’ll give you a free pass on those. But the others?

Nope. Play by the rules!

–Josh

Posted in editing, Historical writing, novel writing, short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Literally? Seriously? (Encore)

Mark with a CIt occurs to me that many of the people I used to work with–computer programmers for the most part–were very literal thinkers. They didn’t endeavor to be assholes, but they often managed the role without much effort. (Some of them were almost normal, outside the office, after a few drinks or a bit of heavy medication.)

I mention the experience because it suggests a range of potential characters who should, in my opinion, become more common in popular fiction: players driven by literal responses to everyday life. As the general population grows, so does the “special” one. This group includes folks with intellectual and developmental issues, but it also includes those on the cusp of “normalcy,” whatever that might be.

From my perspective, the film and television industries have done a better job of incorporating such characters into significant roles than have the producers of written fiction.

A great example is the popular TV series “Big Bang Theory,” which features a handful of lovable social misfits and a gorgeous gal who serves as their foil. The series has often been derided as nothing more than “nerd humor” which simply proves that we’re not all blessed with the same degree of taste. I love the show, and everyone knows [cough] I’m brilliant!

“Stumptown,” a TV show which debuted in the fall of 2019, features a female private eye whose younger brother, Ansel, has Down’s Syndrome. Despite his genetically-induced issues, Ansel holds a steady job working the back bar at a club called The Bad Alibi. He provides a touch of innocence, and occasional common sense, which his older sibling sorely lacks. Nevertheless, the show’s star is devoted to him, and he brings a humanizing element to the production.

In “I Am Sam,” Sean Penn portrayed a mentally challenged man struggling to retain custody of his young daughter. Audiences loved his character, and he earned an Academy Award nomination for it. Dustin Hoffman’s “Rain Man” character is a classic, and the picture is included in the American Film Institute’s 100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time.

There are many more examples including Juliette Lewis in “The Other Sister” and Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump.” But when it comes to listing similar offerings from the written world, only two jump immediately to mind (and both were made into extremely popular films): John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The characters of Lenny and Boo Radley have been the subjects of countless term papers, book reports, and masters theses.

I’d like to know when we’ll begin to see more such characters in popular fiction. If you’re a writer, and you’re reading this right now, why not give some thought to putting someone “special” into your special project. It might be a challenge, but it just might pay off in ways you never considered. Perhaps it would give you an opportunity to spend some time with representatives from that population. And there are more opportunities for interaction than one might think. One need look no farther than the local Publix or Kroger store to find some warm, wonderful, and yes, even quirky people.

Give it some thought.

–Josh

Posted in Historical writing, novel writing, short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Edit? You mean I’m not done yet? (Encore)

Whoa. Edit my own book? Where would I even start?

Dollarphotoclub_87054689 txtFor most writers, especially those who haven’t already completed at least a couple full-length novels, you need to let your work cool off before you do anything. Why? Because your brain believes your brand-spanking new manuscript is flawless, and it will prevent you from seeing errors.

While your latest work is still steaming from its trip through your cerebral cortex, you won’t be able to do much with it. You must let it cool down; it’s critical that you put some distance between you and your baby. Otherwise you won’t be able to see the difference between the bits you think are cute and cuddly, and the ones everyone else will see as just downright, no-doubt-about-it ugly.

Editing requires a dispassionate mind, the ability to see what’s wrong, and the willingness to make corrections. It’s virtually impossible to achieve that state of mind when you’re looking at something you just finished writing. I’ve seen it happen more times than I can count. So, wait a while; work on something else. Get your mind on another project.

If you’re writing a memoir, the easiest way to do this is to start working on another chapter. Let the last one rest. In fact, consider building up a “reservoir” of chapters (or related essays). Don’t go back and edit the first one until you’ve written two, three or even four more. That way, the earlier material will have cooled off, and you’ll be in a better frame of mind to make corrections. And corrections will be required. They always are.

Assuming you’ve achieved the appropriate mental state (far short of nirvana), it’s time to look for the editorial equivalent of low-hanging fruit: weasel words, stative verbs, adverbs, and clichés.

I’ve addressed all these topics separately, so I won’t go into great detail here. Just know that these four issues are responsible for damaging more potentially good stories than anything else.

Start with weasel words–they’re legion, and they’re sneaky, so look hard. Most of them are empty qualifiers like “almost,” “rather,” “sort of,” “nearly” and “about.” Such words tell the reader you aren’t sure what you’re trying to say. Don’t let Samantha be “rather” pretty or “almost” perfect. Why hedge your bet? Hang it out there. If Samantha is a knock-out, say so! If she’s not, then figure out why and say that. “Samantha could have been a runway model if only she knew how to walk without falling down.” Or “Jeptha had it all, except a clue about what he was doing working in a shoe store.”

Next come stative verbs. For our purposes, these can be reduced to one little word: “was.” Use the FIND feature in your word processor to highlight every instance of “was.” (If your word processor doesn’t offer this feature, find one that does. If you can’t afford anything, download one of the freebies. Apache Open Office, for instance, is a great product with all the bells and whistles in MS-Word.) Now look at every sentence which contains the word “was.” Look, too, at how often it appears on any given page. Treat the word as a warning flag and ask yourself: Is this the best way to show what’s happening? Take the time to think about better ways of saying the same thing. See if you can’t find a real verb to carry the load. Remember: active verbs “show,” passive verbs (including all forms of “to be”) “tell.”

F’rinstance, which tells you more: “Nell was pretty,” or “Heads turned when Nell walked by.” One might even elaborate on the effect Nell’s presence had on males in the immediate locale: breathing slowed, stomachs tightened, mouths went dry, etc. On the other hand, it might be more fun to make observations about the female reactions to her passage. Sure, it might be a bit of a challenge, but it’ll make your work so much more enjoyable to read.

Adverbs suckUse the FIND feature again to locate words that end in the letters “ly.” For our purposes, consider any such words adverbs. Just as with “was,” adverbs tell rather than show.

Examples: 1) Mary walked hurriedly to the store. Does that form a picture in your mind? Okay, maybe. But if you said: Mary raced to the store, or dashed, or stumbled, or waltzed, or skippedthen you’d be painting a picture. 2) Joel watched happily as his daughter danced. [Yawn.] For the love of God, give poor Joel a transfusion! Pump some life into him. Let him grin, laugh, giggle, or howl as he watches his baby girl dance. Let him stick out his chest, or poke a neighboring parent and point to his offspring. Make him say something: “That’s my little Daisy–right there. Look at her twirl!” Don’t let adverbs take the place of words that actually paint a picture.

Finally, read your work out loud in your best dramatic voice, and pay attention! Are there phrases in there that sound overly familiar? I’m talking about phrases like: “sharp as a tack,” “fast as lightning,” “down and out,” and “blew me away.” These are clichés, and they’ll drain the vitality from your work just as profoundly as “was” and any member of the street gang of adverbs.

Take the time to rewrite them. Find a way to put the exact same idea into your own words. In many cases it won’t be easy, but work at it anyway. The problem with clichés is that they become invisible. A reader’s eye will skip past them without slowing down, and they could miss something important. Clichés are almost universally ignored; they just don’t stand out. They become part of the white noise that populates our world. Find a fresh way to say the same thing. Your goal should be to come up with something everyone else will wish they’d said. Let them turn YOUR words into a cliché. Now that would be something to be proud of.

–Josh

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My memoir–my memories (Encore)

Two eye-witnesses, two conflicting stories. Happens all the time. Right?

me tooHaving watched endless courtroom dramas, either live or via Hollywood, we’ve all heard that witnesses often interpret what they’ve seen in different ways. Defense attorneys love it when witnesses can’t agree on details. Prosecutors hate it. The reverse is true when a single witness sticks to his story like a pit bull on a pork chop. I’m all for anything that’ll drive an attorney nuts, but when it comes to memoir writing, I hate to see writers get “the cringe.” That’s a condition in which the writer suddenly becomes concerned about what dear, old, Aunt Dilemma will say, or they’re convinced one or more siblings will escalate to DefCon 9 (launch mode) when they read the document currently in the works. Hence, the cringe. It’s understandable.

A slightly different version of the affliction is based on the fear that what one writes may upset someone else who’d prefer to keep that particular piece of business out of the spotlight, for you know, just a little longer–like say, oh, the next thousand years, give or take an ice age. cant say thatThese folks–and I’m NOT talking about the writers–must surely have a guilty conscience. Either they did something they shouldn’t have, or they failed to do something, say something, or be somewhere as promised. They broke a trust, and they’ve managed to skate by without much in the way of consequences, and now, suddenly it seems, they expect the injured party to keep quiet. Right? Hey, seems perfectly okay to me.

So sure. No problem!  

Except, it is a problem. I know everyone quotes Ann Lamott on this topic, and I can’t see any reason not to join her chorus. To wit: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” ― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Even if the memory in question doesn’t involve someone’s shortcomings, there’s always the chance that two people may not share the exact same recollection of a particular event. At football games, for instance, I’m quite sure I spend more time watching the cheerleaders than my bride does. On the other hand, she’s guaranteed to have a better idea of who’s wearing what in the seats around us. Unless it’s blinking neon or smells of burning creosote and/or last month’s Catch of the Day, I’m not likely to notice. That’s probably what makes us such a good match.

There’s no reason to fear the truth when writing a memoir, even if your truth varies a bit from that of someone else. Your story evolved through your eyes and your experience, and as Ann Lamott so adroitly points out, you own it. Therefore, you can relay it in any way that suits you. You’re the only one you need to satisfy.

So, don’t worry about crazy old Uncle Naboo. What he says or thinks doesn’t matter. If he feels that strongly about it, he can always write his own narrative. But just between you and me, his won’t be as good as yours, ’cause you’ve got me as your coach!

Keep writin’, dang it!

–Josh

 

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Bad words in good books? (Encore)

No swearing sign.I don’t always use the most genteel words in my writing. But that doesn’t apply to all the writing I do. If, for instance, I’m working on something destined for a family publication, or the rare (for me) kid-targeted piece, I’ll avoid “bad” words entirely.

The problem is, we don’t all think of the same words as being “bad.” It obviously depends on one’s judgment. I’d like to think I have a pretty normal outlook on what’s acceptable in mixed company and what isn’t. That said, I’ve still used a few 4-letter gems that I later learned were not universally well-received. That’s too bad because chances are, whoever felt distressed hearing words like “hell” and “damn” almost certainly missed some of the important parts of what I was saying.

And then there’s the whole issue of what is or isn’t “politically correct,” a problem that’s only grown more and more recently. I’m not up for that topic as it’s only going to trigger a sincerely un-PC rant from me. Somewhere in between the extremes of prissiness and political correctness lies the verbal domain I aim to occupy. That’s enough elbow room for me. For others, maybe not.

F bombTake blogger/writer Chuck Wendig for example (at terribleminds). He’s not only a gifted writer of both fiction and non-fiction, but his blogs consistently offer terrific advice and counsel on the writing craft and the publishing industry. There’s no question he knows what he’s talking about. HOWEVER {drum roll} he constantly carpet bombs his blogs with profanity. I suspect he’s doing it for shock value, but when the bomb bay doors are open that wide, and that often, the result is more like schlock value. That’s a shame because he’s got so much great stuff buried in there. Alas, my readership tends to be a tad older and predominantly middle-class, so I don’t often recommend his blog posts because I know the F-bombs, in particular, will prevent many of them from seeing the really valuable information he has to share.

Geez. So now I’m part of the PC police? Say it ain’t so!

More important than how I regard naughty words is how you deal with them. Do you know your target audience well enough to determine what sorts of words you can get away with? We’ve all been to enough movies lately where the F-word seems to be the primary adjective and verb. And in some, I swear (pardon the pun), it’s the only adjective. That doesn’t strike me as terribly imaginative. After you’ve heard the word eight hundred times, the autonomic filters go up, and it becomes nothing more than background noise.

FullSizeRenderI’ve used the F-word in several of my books, but I don’t make a habit of it. I save it for shock value. That may sound odd in this day and age, but if my characters don’t talk that way day-to-day, readers will definitely know something’s up when they do start using that sort of language.

What you do with so-called “bad” language is up to you. If you’re going to use it, I suggest you use it for a reason, not because it’s handy. Figure out how to get some mileage from it. If it comes from the mouth of a child, for instance, provide readers with an explanation of how that happened. Little people, big ears. We’ve all seen it happen. In your book, you’ll need to make it real. And hopefully, funny.

I recall reading Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, a monster bestseller about the battle of Thermopylae. In it, he provides page after page of dialog from the mouths of Spartan heroes. Yet, the dialog seemed to have come straight from a modern US army barracks, complete with drill sergeants whose vocabularies consisted almost entirely of four-letter words. Profanity Stich, Abbildung, gravure, engraving : 1880isn’t new, by any means, and I’m sure Mr. Pressfield’s intent was to capture the “feel” of men preparing for combat. But from an historical perspective, I’m quite sure there’s no way in hell those guys used those words, in Greek or any other language.

When Barbara Galler-Smith and I were working on the Druids trilogy, which is set in the 1st century BC–considerably later than the Pressfield story–we went out of our way to find out just how Celtic warriors of that era swore. What was considered profane? The answer surprised us, but upon reflection, it made sense. Expressions such as “God’s blood” or “Scathach’s abode” might not carry the weight of contemporary curses, but even Anglicized as these are, they were more faithful to the period. We were fine with that, as were, I believe, our readers.

The upshot? Use good judgment, even if it hurts.

–Josh

Posted in Historical writing, novel writing, short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Writer Warm Ups (Encore)

Dollarphotoclub_89277699 smMost of us are creatures of habit. Writers, especially, fall into that category. We’re probably not as bad as big league baseball players who have more rituals than a pasture full of priests, but we, too, can be pretty odd when it comes to warm-ups. Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and more recently, Stephen Pressfield (The War of Art), all recited Homer’s “Invocation of the Muse” before plunging into their work.

(This intrigued me enough to look for a copy Homer hairof the esteemed poet’s immortal words. Alas, they were written in ancient Greek, a language clearly beyond my humble skills. So I went looking for a translation. Just one. I found… many. This link should take you to a list of seven, one of which may get you fired up, and if so, more power to ya! However, the variations left me wondering if they all really started with the same text. <shrug>)

All that aside, it’s probably a good idea to observe a bit of ritual before launching into a writing session. It could be a simple thing like pouring a cup of coffee and reviewing the previous work session’s output, and that’s about the extent of mine. Or it might call for tidying up one’s workspace before digging in, but clearly, I’m guessing at this as I’ve never straightened up a work area in my life. (Ask my bride, but also check out the photo of Mark Twain’s workspace.) No one will think ill of you if you do something minimal. We’re writers, after all, not robots, and we don’t need a ceremony, an extensive set of exercises, and/or ritual ablutions before we get busy. Right?

Ballplayers, on the other hand, have been known to go to serious extremes before, during, and after they get down to business. Buttoning and unbuttoning batting gloves, not changing “lucky” socks (or [shudder] underwear), taking a precise number of practice swings, spitting on, at, over, or around home plate — all are common practices. There are worse things I suppose. Animal sacrifice comes immediately to mind.

Most of us aren’t athletic enough to qualify for the pros, so we can settle for more modest efforts and perform our rituals in the privacy of our own workspace. For some, just having some sort of workspace to claim would be a big improvement. If you don’t have your very own spot, consider finding one as a goal for the coming year. You won’t regret it.

game face

Now here’s a game face!

For those rare types who don’t have any writing rituals, pray tell, what’s wrong with you? Isn’t it high time you got your game face on? Writing is serious business, so if you want to get started on the right track, do something serious! Challenge the Muse to back off and let you wing it on your own. To paraphrase a line from “Blazing Saddles,” you don’t need no stinkin’ muse!

Just get busy.

Until next time,

–Josh

Posted in Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Do your characters act like people? (Encore)

Wait–You mean my human characters?

It may seem like a stupid question, but it’s not. In the process of working our way out of caves and into cars, we have developed certain patterns of behavior which are common to all races and nationalities. The pattern I find significant, as it relates to storytelling, is how we respond to crisis. We’ve been doing it for a long, long time, and we do it the same way, over and over.two robots together

So, again, are your characters — fiction or non-fiction — acting like real people?

Need more detail? Imagine you’ve just been in an  accident, or you’ve received unexpected news (good or bad), or something else of significance has occurred. What happens next?

Here’s where the behavior pattern kicks in. It involves four steps which I first learned about in a blog by bestselling author Jim Butcher. They are:

  • An emotional reaction to what just happened, followed by,
  • A review and evaluation of what just happened, followed by,
  • The anticipation of a response to what just happened, followed by,
  • A choice based on the foregoing.

That may look like a heap of stuff, but if taken a step at a time, it will feel pretty familiar. Why? Because this is how almost every member of our species reacts! For example:

Imagine you’re a male college student, and you’ve just learned that a female friend is pregnant with your child. (Change the background circumstances to see how it works with other dynamics in play.)Dollarphotoclub_63207821_text

1) Your first reaction is emotional. “I’m going to be a daddy!” Or, if this doesn’t come as entirely happy news: “I’m going to be a daddy?” Or, “Wait–are you sure?”

2) Automatically, your mind will replay events leading upDollarphotoclub_63207822_text to this revelation, and you’ll try to evaluate your situation and maybe answer some of the questions you just asked. “I’m pretty sure I was in Pago Pago at the time,” or “You have me confused with my roommate,” or “Finally–I have a purpose in life!” Whatever.

Dollarphotoclub_58282674_text3) After evaluating the situation, you’ll start figuring out how to respond, in other words, you anticipate what to do next. It could be a marriage proposal, or a name change coupled with a relocation to someplace far, far away. It might even be a short, probably ugly chat with your current girlfriend. (See note about background circumstances above.)Dollarphotoclub_58594809_text

4) Finally, you’ll make a choice about what to do, and this translates into action.

This works equally well for fiction or non-fiction. The thing to keep in mind is the order shown here–it’s always the same. Some phases may be more involved than others, and much depends on the severity of the crisis. But these are the steps we always go through, and we always go through them in this order.

If the characters in your memoir or novel don’t follow this pattern, they’re just not acting like real people. [Please note: I have no formal training in psychology or the study of human behavior, but I know what rings true. And this does. How it relates to sociopaths and/or psychopaths is fodder for another discussion.]

–Josh

Posted in Memoir, novel writing, short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

On the topic of sex scenes… (Encore)

If you’re anything like me–human, mostly–and you’ve spent any time at the beach, you’re probably already aware that the ratio of truly beautiful people to the rest of us is, well, pretty damned small. And I mean “beautiful” in the most rudimentary sense: exterior beauty. I’m referring to perfect hair, a perfect smile, a perfect body–the works.

Ilustracion con una pareja de jovenesSo why in the world do we insist on writing about fantastically gorgeous people? Who are we kidding? Not every hero needs to be six foot four, weigh 200 pounds, and have a 30-inch waist. Seriously. I could count the number of guys I know who are built like that on one hand. Prob’ly one finger.

Ditto for the ladies. I’m pretty sure I married the last perfect gal of my generation, and thank God she still tolerates my presence. But on our last beach trip, I had my worst fears confirmed. Hang on to your hats, people, I have really bad news: Most of us just ain’t all that hot.

But you sure couldn’t tell that by what we write. According to much of the fiction I’ve seen lately, women are universally slender, often petite, with flowing locks, and azure eyes–usually limpid ones, whatever in hell that means. The guys all seem to have lantern jaws and slab upon slab of lean muscle. And when one of those guys climbs into bed with one of those gals… content  Well, let’s just say miracles happen. Cue fireworks!

Yes, yes, I know we’re writing fiction, and a desirable element of fiction is fantasy. And certainly, the sex I’ve been reading about is nothing short of fantastic. Who knew that tab A could be inserted into slot B with such spectacular results? Every time. No matter what–or where. Flawless execution, perfect timing, mutual satisfaction, no remorse, and almost never any procreation.

I’d say “fantasy” pretty much covers all that.

Please don’t get the impression I’m some sorta sex scene Scrooge. I’ve written my share of randy romps that logic dictates are utter nonsense. And I’ve been told folks generally liked ’em. Which is nice.

cialissilhouettes2But once in a while, I’d like to read a bedroom scene that contains something a little more “real.” Let’s face it, human bodies weren’t designed to operate in complete silence, and I’m not talking about someone screaming (moaning, gasping, grunting, or otherwise fulminating) the classic, “Oh God, oh God, oh God!” line.

Sometimes people actually laugh. I’m not kidding. Really–they do! And why not? They’re supposed to be having a good time. Heavy breathing is fine, but why couldn’t someone burst out in song? Okay, maybe not the “Hallelujah Chorus or “Row Row Row Your Boat,” but something melodic in between might be nice.

Or maybe, just once in a while, the fireworks don’t happen. I’m guessing that outcome is a lot more common than folks admit. And if I’m wrong, who’s paying for all those Viagra and Cialis commercials?

In my classes, I often use the word verisimilitude. It means the appearance of being true or real. Very handy word, despite being a mouthful and hard to spell, even when sober. But it’s of critical importance when writing fiction. One must focus on creating the “appearance” of reality. How does that apply to sex scenes?

I suspect the answer lies somewhere between the perfection we all wish we had and whatever it is we actually have. A little of this, a little of that, and before you know it, you’ve got… a casserole! And you know what, casseroles can be pretty darned good. Especially the spicy ones.

–Josh

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It’s not *supposed* to be easy! (Encore)

Writing is easy. Writing well is hard. It takes concentration, discipline, and attention to detail. More than anything else, it takes time. It doesn’t matter if what you’re doing is fiction or non-fiction, feature or fantasy. Anything that can be written has almost certainly been written poorly. But not everything that can be written has been written well. And there’s the challenge.technical

Technical writing is often cited as the most tedious of all written work, yet I’ve done software documentation that was actually quite readable. At some hideous moment in the darkest annals of technical writing history, someone — probably an overpaid, middle management type — decided that “serious” and “professional” were synonymous with “boring.” Engineers and software designers, it was decreed, must not be allowed to add humor, sarcasm, or even rhyming words to their written work lest it be perceived as something less than the scientific version of holy writ. What utter crap. If it’s worth writing, it’s worth writing well.

One might argue that scientific types, engineering types and others of a serious and/or scholarly mindset, are rarely capable of writing anything in a lighthearted manner. But that’s absurd. The ability to think clearly and rationally doesn’t preclude the ability Elderly man posing on white backgroundto see the humor in everyday life, or anything else. Why must the difficulty of the subject matter relieve the person writing about it to slack off? Why can’t the writing be as worthy as the topic?

Good writing doesn’t have to be humorous, of course, but it ought to be understandable at the very least. And it must be readable. Great hoary blocks of unrelieved text composed of never-ending sentences, convoluted grammar, and passive constructs shouldn’t ever be the goal. At its very heart, good writing is communicative. If it fails at that, what’s the point?

Scholarly work needn’t be so attentive to the subject that no attention is paid to the literaturefundamental reason for the written description. Being obtuse doesn’t make something profound. It only makes it a greater chore to wade through than it has to be. A writer’s primary job is to connect with readers. It applies to memoir writing, fiction writing, speech writing, and all the other kinds of writing you can think of!

I’ve read humorous obituaries. I hope my own will make readers smile, even if I have to write it myself, which, now that I think of it, isn’t a bad idea. I have no doubt that doing so will require a significant amount of effort. I won’t be able to just sit down and dash off something that’ll do the job. It’ll take concentration, discipline, and attention to detail. It’ll also take time.

But I’m okay with that. Good writing is worth it.

–Josh

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