Category Archives: On writing

What is the “point” of blogging?

Fangs

Why did you start a blog? Are you getting what you wanted from it, or has your experience gone in an unexpected direction?

Here are the reasons I can think of for blogging, starting with the most basic:

  1. You like to keep an online diary, which, as we know, was the original purpose of a blog. A web log.
  2. You have opinions and you want to share them.
  3. You want to socialize but are shy or busy, and blogging allows you more control over how and when you socialize.
  4. You want to interact with like-minded people.
  5. Writing practice, argument practice, formatting practice, etc.
  6. You are building a social media presence.
  7. You are promoting your writing, art, photography, business, etc.
  8. You are trying to acquire customers for your freelance editing, graphic design, writing, or other skill-based service.
  9. You intend to create a blog that gets so much traffic you can sell ad space and make money.
  10. You are hoping to leverage your blogging popularity into a full-time career.

I am a writer and began blogging a few years ago to “get my name out there” and to generate interest in my writing. So you can say I got into it for reasons 6 and 7. I have accomplished neither.

The lack of achievement on latter objective–promoting my writing–has to do with the fact that I have little to promote. My stubborn resistance to self-publishing practically renders my blog useless, since writing novels is my game and I haven’t sold one to a publisher yet. Also, let’s face facts. The only people we are blogging to are other writers. Potential readers don’t troll WordPress looking for new novelists. This is an echo chamber.

As far as a social media presence goes… I have done zero research and am speaking anecdotally, but I don’t see much overlap between blogging and other forms of social media. This blog has almost 3000 followers. I’ve been on Twitter for a two years and have 160 followers.

Do you want to hear about a social media experiment I’m conducting? Four days ago, I created a second Twitter account with a different name and much more Twitter-friendly identity and have collected close to 200 followers already. I also started a WordPress blog associated with that account and have made two posts. Not test posts, either. True content-heavy, image-saturated, well-researched posts that should appeal greatly to my new followers. I have gotten all of 7 hits.

fangs2My preliminary hypothesis (and common-sense observation) is that blogging does not draw the same audience as do Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and the like. Ergo, blogging does little to build your social media presence, and your social media presence does little to promote your blog content.

I’ve left out one major social medium that is unlike all the others, and it seems to be the only one that offers a path to the top of whatever mountain you are climbing: YouTube. More than a couple of YouTubers I’ve followed when they had fewer than 100 subscribers are now regularly appearing on MTV and other youth-oriented television channels and making a living at it. I’ve even made a few dumb little videos of old Motown songs–built from scrolling B&W photographs and nothing more–that sans any promotion have collected 10,000-20,000 views and counting, which is more than I can say for any WordPress post I’ve written. Maybe I should invest in video equipment.

How about you? Have you ever thought of packing it in as a blogger or does blogging offer its own intrinsic value? All opinions and perspectives welcome!

 


Is Your Story Self-Propelled?

Flintstones car

Every novel and short story needs a hook if its writer expects attention from publishers and agents. The better it sounds in a logline, the more likely it is to get noticed.

For example, Alice Sebold’s The Lovey Bones offers this intriguing concept: “After a young girl is brutally murdered, she tries to intercede from beyond the grave as her father searches desperately for the killer.”

Not that he needed a logline at that point in his career, but Stephen King could have described Pet Sematary with this one: “After a young doctor discovers that the pet graveyard behind his new house can bring dead animals back to life, a heartbreaking family tragedy tempts him down a grim path from which he can never return.”

Those are pretty great hooks. The problem with a lot of books, though, is that the hook is not supported by an actual story. In recent months, I’ve quit a number of books with good hooks because they lacked something ultimately more important, which is internal momentum.

That is, a good story must not be able to end before it ends. I’m going to be vague in this example because I think it’s bad form for a writer to publicly trash another active writer, but I will explain why I just stopped reading yet another novel with a good hook but zero momentum.

It’s about a guy who is saved from a terrorist attack mere moments before it takes place when a strange woman hands him a note from his dead girlfriend urging him to flee.

Given the way modern stories are sold to publishers, that’s not a bad hook. The problem is that the hero survives the terrorist attack unscathed and then spends the next who-knows-how-many pages asking around and asking around and hitting dead ends, at least when he is not reminiscing about all the fun things he and his girlfriend used to do. Perhaps a threat and a villain emerge later in the novel, past the point at which I quite reading, but for quite a long time, the story has zero conflict. The hero could easily have said, “You know what? I have no idea what happened, but I’m fine, so I’m just going back to Wisconsin to finish radiology school.” The end.

Meow?

Meow?

One way around plot inertia is inevitability. Pet Sematary is a shining (pun intended) example of inevitability. The doctor doesn’t have to return to the cemetery that revives corpses, but you know he will. King masterfully sets up the tension by showing us how deeply the doctor loves and cares for his family—that he will do anything for them—and then showing us the dark magic of the graveyard when the doc buries his daughter’s dead cat there, hoping to protect her from discovering the critter had become roadkill.

The dark magic works and the cat returns alive… but it is decidedly off.

Then, when the person he loves most is killed in an abrupt and gruesome manner, the doctor misplaces his perspective on right and wrong and… well, if you haven’t read it, you can probably guess where the story goes. If you have read it, you know it goes there and then ten times farther still.

A writer can also inject story momentum by giving the hero a stark choice: a Seemingly Impossible Challenge vs. an Inevitable Dreadful Outcome.

The movie Alien pulls this trick off more than once, which is why it’s one of the most suspenseful films of all time. When the “facehugger” attaches itself to Kane’s face, the heroes have to choose between letting it potentially kill their friend or cutting it off and hoping the creature’s acidic blood doesn’t eat through the hull of their spaceship.

Later, after the Alien has killed two of the crew and is hiding somewhere in the ship’s air ducts, Dallas has to choose between going into the air duct with a flamethrower to hunt the monster, or letting it hunt them. I’ve seen well over two thousand films, and I’d rank this air-duct sequence alongside the restaurant scene in the Godfather as the among the most nerve-racking moments in cinema history.

Dallas (Tom Skerritt), armed with only a flashlight and a blowtorch, crawls through his spaceship's air ducts searching for the titular ALIEN in one of the most hair-raising suspense sequences ever filmed.

Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), armed with only a flashlight and a blowtorch, crawls through the spaceship Nostromo’s air ducts searching for the titular ALIEN in one of the most hair-raising suspense sequences ever filmed.

Still later in the film, after the monster proves virtually unkillable, last survivor Ripley turns off the ship’s engine-cooling system to destroy the whole craft and the alien with it, only to discover the thing has blocked her only path to the escape pod.

There are many other ways to imbue a short story or novel with internal momentum that keeps the reader turning the pages. What are your favorite methods?

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When Literary Agents Turn You Down: A Useless Analogy

Rodney Dangerfield

For novelists seeking traditional publication through agency representation, the most spirit-crushing moment in the whole sordid affair may occur somewhere around rejection number 8. That’s when reality hits, shortly before the numbness kicks in. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let us go back to the beginning of the querying process for a moment…

Though you have written a literary masterpiece, you know on a rational level that rejections are coming for one of the following reasons:

  1. No one wanted the last thing you wrote, proving rejections do exist.
  2. The book people warned you about rejections.
  3. The book people are idiots who don’t recognize a brilliant, innovative, blockbuster work of art and/or a merchandising goldmine when they see it.

There’s no concrete evidence yet, but scientists who can’t get their books published believe C is the correct answer. Still, you’re different from the other writers. You are meant to be.

You start querying.

The first two rejections hit. No problem. Those were only part of the pre-game warm up anyway. The next two submissions bounce back. Who cares? You didn’t want to work with those agencies anyway. Then another drops, and you adjust your tie, Rodney Dangerfield style. Did you overestimate yourself a bit maybe? Then another. You start to sweat. A seventh! What? It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Surely somebody should have recognized—

Your smartphone chimes to indicate a new email. You look. It’s her! The agent at the very top of your wish list, the one who needs exactly what you wrote, is about to tell you she is simply dying to read your manuscript. You tap the icon and the email opens.

Dear Author. Thank you for considering our agency. Unfortunately, due to the high volume of submissions, we regret that…

You delete the message in an instant and jam your smartphone into the front pocket of the handbag you got for 75% off at TJ Maxx so you don’t have to look at the stupid ugly ungrateful little bastard anymore. But it’s not your phone’s fault you keep getting rejected, is it?

No. It’s because you suck. You are the worst writer who ever lived. Ms. Agent probably forwarded your query letter to all the other agencies, where it was laughed at hard for good 30 seconds and then forgotten forever.

That’s not remotely true either. You are as talented as anyone. Writing futility is just another reminder of the meaninglessness of life (that’s the numbness kicking in, by the way. Congrats. You are now dead inside).

Though we all know the chance of landing an agent for our novel is slim, it still stings when you are not picked, because statistics aren’t especially effective at buffering disappointment or boosting self-esteem. Most of us who manage to actually finish a novel, revise it, polish it, and dream about publishing it are also the kind of people who work incredibly hard at honing our craft. After all, the agent said she was looking for New Adult Paranormal Romance Spy Thrillers in Esperanto, and you wrote a New Adult Paranormal Romance Spy Thriller in Esperanto, putting two years of your life into making it as awesome as you possibly could.

Ready for a non-sequitur?

I have two superpowers. One is the ability to compose funny limericks on any subject. The other, unfortunately, is not the ability to solve unsolvable problems, like why a good writer can’t find an agent. My second power is to come up with analogies (that may or may not stand up to logical scrutiny but at least sound good on a folk-wisdom level).

So here’s my analogy for when literary agents turn you down. If you are a frustrated, unpublished novelist, it won’t get you any closer, but it might help the sting feel less personal:

But does he speak Esperanto?

But does he speak Esperanto?

Pretend you are looking for love and sign up at Match.com. In this scenario, you are interested in men who are over 6 feet tall and have dark brown hair and eyes, and you let your potential suitors know this via your online profile.

The caveat: If you make it to a third date, you have to stay with him for at least a year, and you have to give him a lot of attention despite your insane schedule. Not only that, you have to find him a job with a company that has only a few openings but thousands of applicants. All this time, he doesn’t have to spend a penny on you.

Are you gonna take the first 6-foot-tall brunette that asks for a date? The second? The third? You might meet 50 guys fitting your dating preferences and not click with a single one of them. Not to mention all the short redhead and blonde dudes who didn’t bother to read your dating preferences and cluster-bombed you with requests.

In this analogy, you are the literary agent.


What exactly are “unnecessary” words?

Never hire a Dalek to edit your manuscript. They don't understand nuance.

Never hire a Dalek to edit your manuscript. They don’t understand nuance.

One of the problems with writing rules is that writing deals in words, and we, as writers and readers, experience words differently.

The term “rule” implies (to me) a black-or-white statement with no nuance. Do not drink bleach is a pretty good rule. Get rid of words that do not add meaning, however, is more complicated. Applying that rule without nuance may not leave you with the best-possible finished work.

Look at my post title as an example. On a mechanical level, the word “exactly” is unnecessary. Without it, “What are unnecessary words?” is still an easy-to-understand construction. But on a subtextural level, is does not at all mean the same thing as “What exactly are unnecessary words?” The addition of that single word says, Eric is skeptical about something, and this post is going to challenge the status quo. Not bad for one of those crappy old adverbs everyone hates.

If writing served the solitary, utilitarian purpose of conveying information, banishing words that do not add literal meaning would be a sound objective. But writing isn’t solely function; it’s also art. Art has style, rhythm, form, and flow. In the previous paragraph I wrote that “What are unnecessary words” does not at all mean the same thing as “What exactly are unnecessary words?” At all does not add surface-level meaning. A robot would not glean additional information from it.

However, I’m not writing for robots, I’m writing for humans. I added at all because I like the rhythm of the sentence that way, and I like how it flows with the rhythm of the sentences before and after. You may look at that sentence and say, “I would not have written it that way,” which is fine, but, see, it’s my sentence. Write your own blog post. Damn it.

Danger, Will Robinson. You are forgetting why you started writing in the first place.

Danger, Will Robinson. You are forgetting why you started writing in the first place.

If you have taken a writing course or read books on said subject, you’ve likely been presented with an essay showing the power of lean, simple, crisp writing from which all unnecessary words have been excised. No doubt the essay was at once like a cool breeze blowing off the ocean and a bright blue sky with life-renewing sunlight washing over your body. You were suitably impressed by the writer’s (and editor’s) expertise.

Of course, those essays are great lessons for the rest of us. Learn how to be a lean, mean writing machine! But what if you are going for gothic dread or satire or noir? Sometimes you need those “unnecessary” words to lend weight or make people laugh or perfect the timing associated with stylized storytelling.

I do not suggest that when writing teachers talk about “words that do not add meaning” they lack the insights presented in this post. I do think, however, that the nuance of this message gets lost by the time it filters out to inexperienced writers and novices, leading some of them to obsess over rules and, in the process, lose the unique character of their writing.

Most times, extraneous words are exactly that: Clutter that must be cut away to reveal your voice and bring your story to life.

Sometimes, though, a word that adds no meaning can change everything.

♦♦♦


The Art and Science of Editing

Writers. Your best friend is your editor.

The members of your writing group and your beta readers can be great assets, nudging you toward the type of material you were meant to create and, sometimes, painfully, letting you know it’s time to move on from a piece that isn’t working.

Mike Babcock

But whether we writers want to admit it, we are competitors. Pretend you are a hockey player for a moment, and imagine your fellow writers as team members. You all want to win the game together, but that doesn’t mean they are okay riding the bench while you get all the ice time. What player ever fantasized that someone else scores the big overtime goal?

When our fellow writers read their pages in a critique group, or when we are asked to beta read a story, a big part of us wants to provide support, encouragement, and guidance. Meanwhile, a deeper, more concealed, far less secure part is busy comparing ourselves. Am I as good as this writer? Am I better? Would I have written it that way? If I slam this piece in front of everyone, will I feel a bit too much sadistic pleasure?

Your editor lacks something your writer friends carry into every writing-related interaction with you: An agenda. Or maybe I should say you and your editor share one agenda. Your success.

Ideally, your editor also has experience and fluid intelligence, since these tools are essential to the science and the art of the editing craft.

I’m going to get the “science” out of the way first. The science of editing, of course, deals with grammar, punctuation, syntax, and language mechanics. A good, experienced editor can spot the extraneous words, dangling modifiers, and parallel-construction errors you passed over a dozen times in revisions. Your editor can also see story logic problems and help fix them by moving a paragraph or sentence up or down the page.

When your editor makes such corrections, it does not mean she understands writing better than you do or that you are not good enough. Every writer makes mistakes. Your editor makes those sorts of mistakes in her own writing, which is why we all need an editor. Writing is hard.

As an editor, the art of editing is the aspect that intrigues me the most. The art entails appreciating and respecting the writer’s voice, embracing the poetry in his words, understanding the rhythm and flow of his prose, and, for lack of a better term, “getting it.” A good editor can see the aesthetic quality in a manuscript, and her edits only remove that which obscures the writer’s vision.

A good editor does not try to change your vision or trample your voice. If your editor is caught up in rules and cannot see the words for the letters, get a new editor. If you write noir and your editor does not understand noir, get a new editor. If your editor tries to take over your manuscript and make it read as if she wrote it, get a new editor.

If your editor is smart and makes suggestions that sometimes sting but that you know, deep down, to be true, listen. A good editor is your most trusted advisor.

In our hockey metaphor above, your editor is the coach. She never gets to leave the bench. She wants all of her writers to score the overtime goal, because no matter who scores that goal, she wins.

You.

You.


Can you be a good novelist AND a good short story writer?

dr evil and mini me

I’m sure somebody brilliant can, but what about the average, competent wordsmith?

Though I’m a business writer by profession, I consider myself a novelist for no good reason other than the novel is my preferred vehicle for storytelling. 80,000 words feels about right for saying what I want to say. Still, I’ve dabbled in short fiction, usually ending up with unwieldy pieces that are too long for literary rags but too short for standalone publication.

Over the past several months, I’ve been intermittently digging old stories from the vaults (otherwise known as my hard drive) and rereading them. Most were written 5-6 years ago, with periodic revision since.

My first conclusion: I’m not sure I understand the short story as an art form. What makes a short story “good”? How much stuff needs to happen for it to qualify as a story and not a vignette? What does a character arc look like when you only have 4000 words to play with? Why can’t anyone in the Galactic Republic program R2D2 to speak English? It can’t require more than a few megabytes of memory.

I’ve tossed some of these stories in the direction of different beta readers to get some general opinions, which have ranged from “I was hooked from the first word” to “Burn it.” Which shows the limitations of getting feedback from a statistically insignificant number of readers, but that’s a different post. What I discovered is that people don’t like when you experiment with different voices and writing styles. I thought freedom was the cool part about writing short fiction, but that may not translate into enjoyment for the reader.

My second conclusion: I am not engaging in further revisions or seeking publication for any of these stories. Aside from a few flash pieces, I have only written one short story in the past 3 years, and, in comparing it to the earlier ones, it blows them away. Perhaps I’ve improved too much to feel these old stories represent me as a writer anymore. I hope that’s the case.

The point of all this is I am going to serialize at least one of the stories here, and maybe more. Some of you may remember I already did that with one of my old pieces, The Last Stop (which I’ve just pasted in its entirety under the “Fiction” tab above, if you want to check it out).  In terms of blog traffic, I was quite pleasantly surprised at the response to my serialization.

So, starting tomorrow, I’ll begin serializing another of my malformed progeny, On the Way to My Grave, featuring yet another unlikable protagonist! I must have been going through a phase.

With Thanksgiving next week, I will post fewer, slightly longer segments—compared to last time—to get it done before the holiday. You are welcome to critique, destroy, hate on, or respond as you otherwise please in the comments. I shan’t be revising the tale further.


I Wish I’d Written That #1

Jacques-Louis David "Patroclus"

“Patroclus” (1780) by Neoclassicism’s most revered painter, Jacques-Louis David

I scarcely need to ask: Have you ever come across a sentence or phrase so exquisitely capturing an idea or feeling that you were compelled to shout, “Why didn’t I write that!”

Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde might be popping into your head about now.

It happens to me all the time, but I then I forget because I’m a flake. Well, guess what. I’m going to keep track now.

Today’s entry belongs to art historian Hugh Honour and appears in his book Neo-Classicism, which was published in 1968 but not discovered and bought by me until two weeks ago at the Princeton Public Library’s used book section for $1.

Honour was talking about conventions so familiar to writers and artists that we master their use but no longer think about what they mean on a cultural or philosophical level.

He called such conventions “Furniture of the Mind.”

You have achieved total victory, Hugh Honour.*

*unless someone else thought of it first and I’m too much of a Philistine to realize that Honour was simply borrowing it.

Please share a thought or phrase below that made you go, “Why didn’t I think of that?”