Thursday, November 15, 2012

Writer's Rules Revisited #7

I've been busy working on my new book as part of NaNoWriMo, but that doesn't mean I want to leave you guys entirely out in the cold. 

For those new around these parts, a brief explanation is in order. A long time ago I posted a list of rules and guidelines I've been collecting in my notebook over the years as a writer. I put together the list on the blog and it was fairly popular. (You can read the whole thing here) But there's only so much that comes across in a simple bullet point list. I wanted to expand on it and we've been doing it two or three at a time ever since.

If you want to catch up on the series:

You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 herePart 4 here, Part 5 here, and Part 6 here.

23) Avoid cliches. Avoid them in characters, action, dialogue, story, plot, and anything else that risks being cliched. If you must use a cliche, add uniqueness and freshness to it.

Cliches tend to be the first thing our mind thinks about when we're percolating a story or a plot point. They're cliches because they ring true, but they're tired and need to be put to rest or reinvigorated. And it's a cliche in any form we're talking about.

When you're conceiving of that villain and want to give him that gnarly scar across his eye, think better of it. Everyone has done that. Don't give him the same ambitions as every other villain you've ever read about, it gets boring. With characters, I like to try to find the cliche and then work out how the exact opposite could be true. Your brooding hero is an orphan who lost both of his parents tragically? How very average of you. Why not have him come from a very well balanced and loving home and come up with a different and altogether more startling reason for his demeanor?

You need to try coming at things from a different angle than everyone else has.

Locations are another thing you can use to avoid cliche and they present interesting possibilities for interaction between your characters...  Say you have a scene that would normally take place in an office. Not much can surprise you about an office and the way the scene will play out won't vary from almost any other office. But what if that meeting were to happen in a coffee shop, or a pizza parlor, or an elevator where people are coming and going and the people meeting are reluctant to talk around others. What about a park bench? Or a mechanic's shop? Or on the side of the road with cars roaring by changing a tire? Anything but the boring old office.

I know for your first drafts you're told not to second guess yourself and just write, but second guess some of your choices just once and think if there is something more interesting and less cliched for you do to.

This applies to your prose as well. There are tired old metaphors and similes that that everyone uses. Like a hot knife through butter? More than you could possibly imagine? Butterflies in the stomach? And on and on and on and on...  If those are what you need to put down for the sake of getting your first draft done, great, more power to you. But when you're revising, you need to come up with much better, more precise, more finely tuned imagery.

Part of this is really just being hyper aware of what's been done too often and exploring the world around you enough to know what would be fresh. But think about it constantly.

24) Don't write a story you only have half a heart for. It does a disservice to you and a disservice to the material.

You know that feeling you get when you come up with a scene and all the pieces fall into place and you just can't wait to sit down and start writing it? You have an energy and an enthusiasm for it that is unmatched, it's the scene that makes you want to write the whole piece...

If you're that enthusiastic about one scene, you need to work hard to make every scene that important to your ability to finish your work. That enthusiasm for the story and the prose translates to the reader. What you're feeling comes out in the words and makes its way to your audience.

If you don't have that enthusiasm for a story, it's probably going to be limp and your audience will feel it. And writing is something we do because we love it. If you're not writing something you love, you're just working on sending yourself to an early grave.

Be in love with what you're writing. It's better for everyone.

25) It's a good writer who can write what he knows, it takes a great writer to write what he doesn't. Cut your teeth on what you do know and research the hell out of everything you don't and you'll do fine.

They always tell you to write what you know. Whether you know something or not, you still have to know it in order to visualize it, imagine it, feel it viscerally, and then translate it to words your audience can absorb. 

For those starting out, it's easier to write people, places, and things that are much closer to you, you understand them better. If you're a good writer, you're relying on all of that instinct and experience to provide the most rich experience you can provide a reader. Once you've written more, you can more easily rely on the discipline that writing on a regular basis provides. And the more often you write, the more often you'll find yourself in your every day life looking for things in the world around you that will give you clues to include in your prose and stories.

And if you want to tell a story somewhere or someplace you've never been, then you'll be able to do the proper research to give you the physical details, and you'll use your disciplined imagination to actually put yourself there.

More than anything, though, it's being conscious of what you have around you. Notice things about people, listen in on conversations, make up wild and drastic stories about people passing you by every day. I love taking public transportation for all the different stories I see, hear, and make up. I love walking down the street or hanging out in coffee shops for the same reasons. I spend so much time in my every day life wondering how I'd shoot any given situation I was in if I were filming it for a movie or a short film. I watch and listen to passersby, wondering what their stories might be, noticing little details about them that I might include in my stories. 

All of this goes down into my notebook. All of it. And the more I put in my notebook, the more I "know," even if I don't know it. 

I'm not sure I'm even making sense, but it really is a thing that writer's learn to do and it's a blessing and a curse. I catch myself staring at people, embedding those odd details in my brain. I catch myself not wanting to get off the train when I'm supposed to to see how a conversation will play out. I watch movies and tell myself a thousand ways it could end before the third scene is over and, more often than not, one of them is usually right.

It's just what you have to do.

For working in a place where you need a specific look or feel for your prose or dialogue and you're researching it, don't just go to history books about the topic. Look up newspapers (if possible) from the era. Watch movies set in that time. Read books written in that era and/or about that era. Don't just rely on what a history book will tell you, get a much more bird's eye view of the time and place. Once its soaked in, you can keep it all there and start writing. You'll be amazed by how much you retain.

I suppose that's all for now. Keep writing and good luck with your work.

Be sure to check out Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

If you want to check out the whole list, you can find it here. And while you're thinking about it, feel free to order a signed book from me, or check out my collection of work that's available digitally.
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