General Writing

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Jan
12
I discovered copywork after listening to a podcast (I’m not sure what episode or which podcast it was from; to that, I apologize). I devote about 20 minutes on the exercise: I take a novel or short story and then copy it, word for word.

That’s it.

I rotate between three stories. Currently, I’m doing Stephen King’s IT, James Clavell’s Shogun and Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings. I then switch out a title once I’ve finished copying a chapter, either doing another novel or short story. When I’m reading a story and come across an engaging scene, I make note of the chapter and page so I can copy it after I finish reading the book (read for pleasure first; study it later).

I started doing copywork because I was insecure on how I style my sentences. Often, when I’m writing on my manuscript, I worry that I’m using too much action and description, and not enough character thoughts and narrative intrusions. After doing some copywork, I began questioning the oft parroted rule “show, don’t tell.” Eventually I found that the rule must be broken: it is not “show, don’t tell,” it is “show and tell.”

Novice writers tend to “tell” a lot. They overstay inside their character’s head, make the narrator intrude too much, and blabber on and on and on about the world they crafted. But once they take the advice “show, don’t tell” to heart, the novice writer will overdo it and is left with nothing but action and dialogue and description.
Mistakes must be made, and the novice writer must learn. So I learned.

Copywork made me understand that “showing” and “telling” is a spectrum. It is not about balance; it is about rhythm.
There are seven narrative modes. I have listed them from concrete to abstract, from “showing” to “telling.”
  • Action
  • Dialogue
  • Description
  • Summary/Transition
  • Thought
  • Intrusion
  • Exposition
The “showing” modes are action, dialogue and description. These are concrete. You see action, you hear dialogue, you sense what’s being described, like the smell of wet garbage or the taste of a lip-puckering lemon slice.

In between “showing” and “telling” is summary and transition. Action and dialogue are condensed by the narrator in this mode.

The “telling” modes are thought, intrusion and exposition. These are modes that belong to the narrator, who is an abstract entity of the author’s creation. It reveals what the character is thinking. It intrudes like a ghost, telling us something about the character, or what’s about to happen. Sometimes they’ll explain something that may or may not be relevant, but feel it’s important for the narrator to convey.

So I do this copywork exercise for 12 minutes. Once I’m done copying, I’ll start highlighting clauses and phrases by their narrative mode, which usually takes less than 8 minutes.
The following are the color-coding I use and a brief explanation why it’s colored that way.
  • Action as Red or Orange, like blood and explosions, the stuff associated with action movies.
  • Dialogue as nothing because you can easily identify it with quotation marks. If you’re doing copywork of Cormac McCarthy, who eschews quotation marks, then you can add those for your sake (and sanity).
  • Description as Green, like most of Mother Nature with her trees and grass and shrubberies.
  • Summary/Transition as Yellow, like the caution signal in traffic lights.
  • Thought as Blue, like the sky where clouds float, which I associate with thought bubbles in comics (because they look like clouds).
  • Intrusion as Pink because Narrators are fabulous entities (the color choice was a personal thing).
  • Exposition as Gray because it’s a dull color.
Of course you can have your own color scheme that makes sense to you.

Now that we have designated certain colors to their modes, we start highlighting. Look for clauses and phrases, not sentences alone. You will highlight the following:
  • Main Clauses
  • Subordinate Clauses
  • Absolute Phrases
  • Participial Phrases
These are the main ones you should identify. I omitted Prepositional Phrases because they function as adjectives or adverbs.

Let me explain, then, what the narrative modes are.

Action is self-explanatory. If there’s movement, then it’s action. Keyword here is dynamic.

Description can easily be discerned with the S-LV-C sentence construction (is, was, see, hear, smell, feel, taste, etc.). It can be identified with sensory verbs. Keyword here is static.

Dialogue is pretty self-explanatory as well. If folks are talking in real-time, it’s dialogue.

Summary are sentences or paragraphs that speed up time. If Action or Dialogue is being portrayed, but not in great detail, then it is Summary. Transitionals are usually subordinate clauses that marks a jump in time or change in location, thus changing from one scene to another.

Thought has two types: direct and indirect. Direct are sentences with thought tags (I can't believe I broke my arm for that, he thought). Indirect are phrases or clauses without thought tags, but still attributable to a character’s thoughts (Jimmi remembered that time he broke his arm. He knelt down, wondering why he climbed that tree in the first place).

Narrative Intrusion or Intrusion is when the narrator addresses the reader or relays what a character is subconsciously thinking or feeling.

Often Indirect Thoughts and Intrusion are hard to discern. If it comes to that, my rule is this: if the character may think it at the moment, then it is Thoughts. Otherwise it is Intrusion. The following example is from The Gunslinger by Stephen King (underline is my revision):

[He muttered] the old and powerful nonsense words as he did . . . Strange how some of childhood’s words and ways fell to the wayside.​

In the second sentence (Strange how some . . . ), it is not clear who is conveying this. The narrator could be interjecting their thoughts, or the gunslinger could be thinking this. But since it’s plausible the gunslinger can think this, the second sentence is Thought.

Same example, but as Intrusion (original text):

[He muttered] the old and powerful nonsense words as he did . . . It was strange how some of childhood’s words and ways fell to the wayside and were left behind, while others clamped tight and rode for life, growing the heavier to carry as time passed.​

In the second sentence (It was strange how . . . ), the gunslinger might be thinking this. But since the gunslinger is preoccupied with singing a childhood song, it’s hard to imagine that he is having this detailed train of thought. The clue that makes this an Intrusion is the narrator’s interjection on how “others clamped tight and rode for life”.

First person POV frequently addresses the reader since the narrator is either talking to themselves or the reader. The following example is from Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov:

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.​

Another thing that a narrator can do is look into the future that the character would not be aware of. For example:

Jim stopped to look at the grotesque painting. If he hadn’t looked at it, then he would have been safe from the curse that would kill him in ten days.​

On the second sentence, the narrator intrudes, giving the reader a hint of what’s to come. Dramatic Irony is always an Intrusion. Dramatic Irony is when the reader knows more than the characters, thanks to the narrator giving that info. On the example above, the reader knows that Jim will be cursed, but Jim is not aware of it yet.

Exposition or Info Dump is the narrator relaying facts and information regarding the story’s universe. If Intrusion is intimate, then Exposition is cold. In Intrusion, the narrator is subjective, biased or opinionated towards the subject. In Exposition, the narrator is objective, detached or fact-based.

Jim stopped to look at the grotesque painting. It was made in 1723 by Johann Mayorga, who had used virgin blood for the reds and charred bone for the blacks. Jim shivered at the sight of it.​

On the second sentence, a fact has been relayed to us. This is a quick exposition. The following is an info dump:

Jim stopped to look at the grotesque painting. It was made in 1723 by Johann Mayorga, who had used virgin blood for the reds and charred bone for the blacks. The canvas, though mistaken with real cloth, was made of stretched and dried human skin. When the authorities eventually discovered his macabre hobby, they had found thirteen canvasses, all dried and ready to be painted on. His brushes . . .​

Too much information could rob the reader of some intrigue and mystery. It is good practice to sprinkle it in bite-sizes unless you want to elicit an emotion from info dumping. But it can become tedious. Veteran authors are adept with info dumping;...
Sep
13
Fiction inspires, and where it has inspired good in the world, it has also inspired evil. John Hinckley, Jr. is infamous for shooting President Ronald Reagan, in an attack that wounded three others, including the late gun control advocate James Brady. He claimed to want to impress Jodie Foster after he became obsessed with her from her performance in Taxi Driver.

More recently, two adolescent girls were arrested for attempted murder after luring their peer into the woods and attacking her, in an effort to impress the fictitious character Slenderman. Other attacks and atrocities have been tied to video games and music. Right or wrong, creators are often blamed for atrocities when perpetrators claim to have been inspired by the creators' work.

Thankfully, many creators have not stopped creating as a result of such crimes. In fact, they sometimes respond to the criticism through their chosen medium. After being blamed for inspiring Columbine attackers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, musician Marilyn Manson dedicated a chapter of his autobiography, The Long, Hard Road Out of Hell to the outcry against him. To this day, he continues creating.

Despite legal protections for creators against criminal liability in such cases, there are those who argue creators have a responsibility to abstain from content that could potentially inspire evil actions. Unfortunately, that argument does not take personal responsibility into account.

The nature of motivation comes into play, and it is imperative for creators to realize motivation is internal. To use an analogy, the sun may inspire an artist, but it cannot pick up a paintbrush for him. A person may claim they were inspired by something to do evil, but they still made the choice to commit the action. Therefore, a creator is not morally responsible for the actions of those inspired by their work.

That lack of liability on legal and moral grounds does not, however, release us as creators from any responsibility whatsoever. Early editions of Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk were rumored to contain a recipe for an explosive substance. Later editions of the book and the movie the book inspired omitted certain details, so anyone seeking to create explosives would end up with an inert substance if they followed the instructions given by Tyler Durden.

More recent editions of the novel include a note from the author describing how people responded to the story. He tells of "fight club" themes in everything from rodeos to adult entertainment, mostly used as a marketing tactic. But there were also those who started illegal fighting organizations, committed criminal conspiracies, and even maimed themselves to be like the story's characters. It's clear from the story that the creators did not encourage these actions, yet people did them.

If we as creators wish to avoid censorship, we must censor ourselves proactively. Common sense dictates there is a difference between telling someone about a violent event and laying out the procedure for the event in detail. There is a reason movies and books about crime often fictionalize the names, locations, and layouts of buildings destroyed or otherwise attacked by criminals in a story.

The art of storytelling allows room for "telling it like it is" without providing an instruction manual for chaos. But even if we write a realistic story without providing too many details, there will always be the potential for someone to be inspired toward criminal activity because of our work. That's not our problem, frankly, and we would do well to keep from blaming ourselves for those actions.

In summary, a creator's responsibility is to tell a good story, while utilizing common sense and empathy to avoid details that make immoral or criminal activities easy. Certainly someone could find instructions for anything, but it's important that we aren't the ones to provide that information. While no one but we can decide what we consider immoral, there is always a way to tell a good story and steer clear of dangerous content.

If we do find ourselves at the center of controversy, we are at least in charted territory. Many creators have faced accusations and criticism for inspiring violence, but have continued to create in spite of--and often because of--those accusations. The most we can ask of ourselves is to live decently within the law, and tell a good story. If we've done that, we can be certain that anyone accusing us of inciting violence has no ground to stand upon.
Apr
03
Joseph Campbell said to follow your bliss. My bliss is making up stories and experiencing them as if I’m inside the character’s head. (Sometimes I hear their voices, but they shut up once I put them on paper.)

At one point, however, writing became as excruciating as pulling teeth and jamming them back in.

A little background:

I always believed that in order to write professionally you needed to outline. So I did an outline for a novel that I always wanted to write. I had everything completed. I had a scene list, a timeline and a character sheet.

I was prepared.

But when the time came to write, I choked.

For some reason I couldn’t write. I had been enthusiastic when I was creating the outline, but that enthusiasm didn’t translate over to actually writing the story.

I went into writing depression for months. I got out of the funk when I read that Stephen King, Terry Pratchett and, to some degree, George RR Martin were discovery writers. For those who don’t know, discovery writers don’t do outlines. They’d jump in the story without an outline to buoy them.

Writing without an outline? Sounded crazy. And scary. But at that time, I had nothing to lose, so I experimented. I started small, wrote a short story without an outline.

Tell you what, it was fun.

I felt like a kid again, that kid who tapped on his daddy’s typewriter, writing stories, conceiving of worlds and scenarios that delighted me and me alone. Bliss. Oh childhood bliss!

After that, I learned I was a discovery writer . . . to some degree. You see, I still outline. I enjoy outlining actually, mapping out how the story unfolds in those ugly bullet-points. But here’s the kicker: I outline only after the first draft.

It is my process. It is my bliss. Some are discovery writers. Some are outliners. Some are just maniacs who type gold.

Campbell said to follow your bliss; for us writers, it’s find your process.

Everyone has their own way of writing a story. For me, I’m slowly discovering it although I’m not sure I have it pat down. Take a gander of my trainwreck of a process:
  • WRITING PROCESS (SUMMARY)
  • 1st Draft
    • Write the damn story
    • Keep a free writing file to keep track of thought process
    • Outline as you go. Use the beats format below. (VERB-ING, Etc.)
  • 2nd Draft
    • Phase 1: Read through, note taking and commentary
      • Work on a print out for this
    • Phase 2: Create Proposal Outline for 2nd Draft
      • Don’t fill in the Action/Reaction Beats. If there’s Action/Reaction Beats that needs to appear, make note of it, but don’t fill it all.
    • Phase 3: Write the 2nd draft with an Active Outline as a guide
      • Similar to “outline as you go,” fill in the Action/Reaction Beats on the outline
  • 3rd Draft
    • Phase 1: Silent read and revise as you go.
      • Do 10 pages at a time, then rest
    • Phase 2: Read out loud and revise as you go.
      • Work on the computer using a pacer
      • Do 4 pages at a time, then rest
    • Phase 3: Read out loud, and apply final edits, polish and touches.
      • Work on a print-out of the manuscript
So how do you find your process? Well, think back on how you crafted your novel or short story. Go through the process in your head and write the steps down. You can outline it or whatever. It’s your process. Do what you want.

Break them down in drafts, like the one I have above. Next step is to label the phases for each drafts. Phases are actions or to-dos or special rituals, like summoning Cthulhu, within each draft. With my process above, you can see the phases I go through on the second and third draft. Use that as a template, then fill out your own process.

You hear about how artist steal. Well, my fellow artist, here you can steal my writing process. (But why?) Your brain might be repulsed by it, and to that I say, “good.” My brain was repulsed when I outlined my story. Oh, here’s a secret: the writing process above is stolen from multiple writers. It is literally a Frankenstein of writing processes.

But why write it down? The very act of writing it down makes it tangible. You can see areas where you can improve, innovate and, more importantly, experiment. If I hadn’t experimented on writing without an outline, then I wouldn’t have finally finished my first novel. And having it written down is like capturing your trade-secret as a writer.

Does that mean you have to follow your process every time you write a story? Of course not. Like I mentioned earlier: improve, innovate and experiment.

So,

follow your bliss; find your process.
Mar
05
Getting story ideas – Thinking inside the box

When designing a story to really grab a reader's attention, the phrases, “writing what you know” and “using your imagination” can sometimes be misleading and unhelpful. I find that they're often far more useful with guidance.

If someone asked me to write a story right now, I would, naturally, be imaginative while also relying on what I know to inform the text. Unfortunately, with such free reign, my idea would be in danger of bending towards an idea that already exists.

Who else has been reluctant to test read the epic historical fantasy novel with multiple narratives, a rich back-story, bloody violence and steamy/twisted romance plots from a talented fellow writer who just happened to be a massive Game Of Thrones fan? Who else was reluctant to read the abstract prose from a friend who fancied themselves as the next William S Burroughs? These writer's imaginations were filled with the imaginations of other writers. What they knew was other people's work.

I probably sound quite cynical here but I'm mostly talking from bitter personal experience. You may be able to fill your story with rich characters and have a beautiful writing style but you may still stumble at the final hurdle: the psychic, cynical part of every reader's brain that pounds: “I can see right through this. If I know better than the author, why should I care?”

There is a trick to bypass this part of the reader's brain. Here's a method that I find helpful:

Make your idea more original by giving it some strict guidelines.

Let me illustrate an example. I've always wanted to write a cyberpunk story. I've got the genre (the floor). Now I just need a roof. I don't have much time right now so I'll think of something at random.

Okay... the main character has to be a pig.

I've got some guidelines. Ridiculous guidelines, sure, but they're there. Now, I have to think: what is the best possible idea I can think of that involves cyber-punk and pigs? Do I make it a comedy? Should it be a children's book style parody of Blade Runner where the characters are talking farm yard animals (with the potential title: “Do Electric Pigs dream of Android Sheep?”?) Should I make it a dark reflection of our own world; perhaps a look at the theoretical implications of future technology impacting the meat and farming industry? Should it be from the Pig's point of view? What kind of language would a Pig use? How will I balance the tone? Already my idea is starting to germinate. You're creativity can sometimes create better ideas inside a set of specific guidelines over being given total freedom.

(Another exercise that I like to do is to walk into the section of a DVD store, pick a random DVD off the shelf, look at the cover, the title of the film and the tag line. I imagine what the story of the film would be based only on those scraps of information and then I read the back. If you like the idea you come up with and it turns out to be completely different from the film's actual plot, you have one idea totally free of charge!)