Issues Writers Face

Viewing only articles categorized with "Issues Writers Face".

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.
Dec
24
I'm not some great Author.

I'm not published, and I may never be published. One day I hope to hold my own book in my hand, but I don't follow market trends or try to write what's popular. None of that matters to me, because I've written since I could read. I'll be writing on my death bed. Because I know why, guys. I know why we're all doing this.

Writing is the language of life. No matter what you've done, no matter how you've changed throughout however many years of life, your writing is always there for you.

I was eight when I crafted my first narrative. It was a crappy fan-fiction, but I loved Starcraft and Buzz Lightyear. I wanted to be Sarah Kerrigan, leading the Alien knockoffs against boring, redneck humans, and I wanted Zeratul to have more narrative than the games gave him. So I changed the Buzz Lightyear of Star Command movie into a Starcraft story, with the space rangers as Protoss and Zurg as... the Zerg. It was horrible. I still have it. My kids love it.

When I was in Afghanistan I lost friends to pieces of trash and fertilizer combined into mines capable of peeling the armor off of tanks. I watched brothers, literal brothers, loose each other. They had joined together and trained together. Now, one walks with a cane, the other's soul haunts Afghanistan. That Marine was better than me, and he died. The only thing that kept me going was writing about those brothers; private stories that no one will see. In my stories about them they WON. Every time. They crushed their enemy.

When I almost died in Okinawa I was stuck in a hospital bed for a week, with forty-five days afterwards spent thinking my right arm would never work right again. But, while I was trapped in the barracks, I could still prop my gimp arm on a desk and write a nasty, sex filled cyberpunk romp. I didn't fantasize about blazing through the sprawl of Neo Tokyo, guns blazing; I wrote it. I lived it.

I wouldn't be alive if not for writing. Sure, I'd exist in the world somewhere. You'd see me walking around. I'd have a job, watch TV, like facebook stuff, but I'd be dead. I'd be one of a billion boring people tweeting their butt flexes for subs. I wouldn't be alive.

Writing helps us express our lives in ways nothing else will. Give us one paragraph, we will give you a whole new world to love, and break, and fuck, and cry for.

Please, never stop writing. Never stop telling stories. You know you love it.
Feb
13
I've been participating in writers' groups for a very long time. More often than not these days, I'm the one answering the questions, and I'll be very forthcoming about why people like listening to my answers. It's not because my answers are the best, it's because my answers are unique.

Because I've been around so many writers' groups, workshops, classes, labs, and forums over the last ten years, I've been able to collect a lot of data. And what does that data show? It shows that people have been giving the same lame answers to writing-related questions for at least ten years. My goal is to buck that trend, because I know that hearing “you should read more” for the ten-thousandth time is not going to help you write.

The writing community is still asking the same basic questions, and that tells me that the answers they're getting are garbage. Plain and simple. As writers helping writers, we owe it to our contemporaries to not waste their time by regurgitating the same cookie-cutter advice that has been floating around for decades. The writing community needs new answers, smarter solutions to the problems that plague us all.

Toward that end, I'm going to answer the most commonly-asked question I've ever come across:

Where do you get ideas?”

This is not a simple question, yet so many people give it a simple answer. “Read more fiction” is a simple answer, but it's also a crappy one. Yet, so many writers say it, repeat it, and swear by it. Why? Because we all enjoy reading and, heck, it sounds like a decent way to get ideas, right? Not so much. It's more likely to set you up to steal ideas, and you won't even be doing it intentionally.

You know darn well that many new writers produce work that reads exactly like someone else's story. That's because knuckleheads keep telling them to read more, and then these new writers take the advice and read their 900th R.A. Salvatore book. Then they're surprised when their own work continues to read like a bad R.A. Salvatore fan fiction. What do you expect?

Now, I've seen even worse answers to the “where do you get ideas?” question. Some folks will talk about sitting on their porch, taking walks, or playing with their kids, offering these up as advice to “get ideas.” These are also crappy answers. They are ephemeral, personal exercises that aren't universally actionable. At best, they're distractions. They can play a part in the innovation process by freeing up your subconscious mind, but that's still not an answer to the underlying question.

Why am I so obsessed with getting down to the hard answer? What's wrong with telling another writer to sit on their porch when they need a creative boost?

Look, when someone is asking how to come up with ideas, it's like they're asking for help finding food. They're starving for a creative spark. If a hungry person were asking how they can eat and not die in front of you, you wouldn't tell them to go for a walk. “Go play with your kids and maybe you'll think of a way to get food!” No.

You also wouldn't tell them to watch you eat until their stomach is no longer cramping from hunger. Watching someone else succeed at eating won't sate their hunger! We all know this, yet so many writers are quick to apply that stupid logic to writing. “Go see how another writer created a novel and you'll get creative ideas!” Nope. It doesn't work that way.

Let's go all “parable” on this; If someone needed to feed themselves, the best course of action is to teach them to fish. In doing so, you're showing them where the food comes from (the river) and how to get it (hand grenades. Or a fishing pole. Whatever.)

Likewise, the best answer to “where do you get your ideas” is to explain where ideas come from and how to catch them.

The problem, right off the bat, is that most people have no clue where ideas come from. That's why I'm here. I'm going to tell you.

Ideas are produced by a largely-subconscious synthesizing process. The human mind is incredibly good at taking multiple concepts and combining them into new ones. It takes A, adds it to B, and creates C. Every new thought in your head is a product of that math, although you don't see it happening.

It's like this: At some point in history, someone looked at a potato, then looked at a hammer, and mashed potatoes were born. The idea of mashed potatoes didn't just fly into someone's head while they were playing with their kids. The idea was a synthesis of two existing concepts within the creator's mind; In this case, it may have been “I can smash things with a hammer” and “potatoes taste good.”

The point of that barely-adequate illustration? If said person had no idea what a potato was, they couldn't have come up with mashed potatoes. A+B=C. They would have lacked the required conceptual raw materials to assemble the idea.

The more concepts you have in your mind, the more creative you can be. Think of knowledge as a pile of Lego bricks. The more of them you have, the more things you can build. Therefore, the first step to becoming a never-ending wellspring of creativity is to stockpile your mind with conceptual raw material. Yes, this means learning about the world and experiencing its many facets for yourself.

Now, go back to the Lego analogy. You may have a pile of blocks as high as your waist . . . but what if they're all blue 4x4 blocks? You can only build so many things when you have a pile of the same block, because your creative options are so severely limited. You get the same outcome when you learn about, read, or experience the same things over and over again. You'll have tons of “stuff” in your head, but it's all variations on a theme. Thus, the second step to unlocking your creative mind is to diversify your conceptual raw material. Reading nothing but science fiction novels will fill your brain with all the same blocks. Where's the fun in that?

I never run out of ideas. When other writers are stuck with their own stories, I can usually come up with a solution in seconds. Why? Because I have a huge, diverse stockpile of raw concepts. I enjoy writing fantasy, but I haven't read a fantasy novel in two years. I read naval history books, magazines about celebrities, National Geographic, biographies, and non-fiction books about photography. And guess what? I've gotten more original ideas for fantasy fiction from reading photography textbooks than I ever did from reading fantasy. The reason is obvious: if you're getting ideas for your fantasy story by reading fantasy novels, you're going to have a hell of a time being original.

When it comes to raw innovation in storytelling, you can forget “The Hero's Journey.” Forget outlining and all of the technical methods. It's the assortment of knowledge, the raw materials, in your brain that matter. Star Wars exists because George Lucas watched Flash Gordon and old samurai movies. His creative mind combined elements from what he knew to assemble what he created. He didn't just pull the ideas from the air . . . nor did Lucas ever claim to. He'll openly tell you where his ideas came from, and if he'd never learned about a variety of genres, Star Wars would not exist. That's that.

Ideas do not come from some other dimension. They are not magical or bestowed by the muses. They are the product of intelligence. They are the product of diverse knowledge. There's a good reason why most successful writers are bright-minded folks. If great ideas magically appeared from space, everyone would have them. There would be no bias leaning towards intelligence, but there is. If you want better ideas, focus on learning more about the world.

Don't take offense to that previous remark. If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that average people don't aspire to write. (These days, statistically-average people don't even read.) If you desire to be a storyteller, you're already ahead of the curve on the whole “smart” thing. The next challenge is to feed your brain with a diverse spread of knowledge. Reading fiction is easy, but reading to learn can be a challenge. And that's where most aspiring writers cut their own throats. They read novel after novel, usually in their preferred genre, thinking that it will have some impact on their own ideas. Reading non-fiction, especially if it has nothing to do with what you're planning to write, will give you a far greater creative advantage. I promise.

As a writer, it's your job to constantly learn. Broaden your horizons, and do not have a “wheelhouse.” You don't want to specialize, because specialization will kill your creative mind. Learn about psychology, history, dancing, agriculture, textiles, stock markets, auto repair, avionics, biology, and everything else. It's what you don't already know that will be assembled into your next great idea.
Nov
22
Fiction writing is great, many of us are here to create fantastical worlds with colorful characters in hopes others will get lost in them just as we do when we read our favorite books.

However, sometimes, it's hard to start or know what to say or not say or when to say. We create imaginative worlds with complex magic systems, Victorian-esque customs, philosophical government ideals, or any number of things that require explanation.

In this month alone, I read countless new threads of new and experienced writers wondering "Where do I start my story?" or "Is my beginning good?" and even "How do I let readers know how my magic/government system works?". If you've ever asked yourself any of these questions and still struggle with it, I have two pieces of advice.

I - Start as close to the inciting (What sets off the intrigue or action) incident. 8 times out of 10, this is the best place to begin a story as a reader will not need a lengthy explanation of their day, how they got there, or anything of the sort. Get the ball rolling, so to speak.

II - Exposition is plain and simply not the optimum way to start your story. Your reader just picked up their book, most likely for entertainment purposes, and suddenly they're learning about the geography, monarchic history of the kingdom, and a bunch of wars that already ended. That's not what a reader is looking for at the very first sentence.

This all ties in to the question YOU ask yourself when you pick up a book:

"What is this about?"

Sounds familiar right? How many times have you picked up a book and asked yourself that as you open up to the first page and see if this book interests you? Probably every time.

There is a simple rule of thumb that's used in multiple disciplines, including in writing:

Who is in this scene?
What is happening?
Where is this happening
Why is this happening?
When is this happening?

Also known as the 5 Ws, this is key information that a reader needs to formulate the imagery necessary to get hooked into your story. No, you do not need to reveal everything in paragraph one but if in two pages most of these questions are not answered, your reader might not be able to sink himself into the book.

Keeping this in mind; as a reader and not a writer, if you open a book and are bombarded with exposition information that means zip to you, will it answer "What is this about?" or will it just leave just as many if not more questions?

So this is what it comes down to: if you ever wonder how to start, where to start, or what to reveal, think of the five W's and whether the questions "What is this about" is answered.