The Hardest Thing To Learn In Creative Writing

voice

To be an author, and I mean a good one, takes a lot of hard work and training. The true Creative Writers needs to learn how to develop great characters and wonderful story lines, and how to blend them into a magnificent plot. An author needs to know how to make his people come alive, not only with a genuine and unique personality, but by an individualized speech pattern and vocabulary. And finally, we know how to blend the plot and people in the story with an appealing interaction and effective dialogue. And after all of this, there is still one more thing, and it may be the most difficult thing to get down – the narrative voice.

Voice Is Everywhere

This is how you tell the story, or more to the point, how it sounds. All artists have this distinctiveness about them. That’s why if you’ve studied art, and you should, you can not only distinguish schools, but also artists. In painting, we know what it means to be an Impressionist or a Surrealist, and we know the difference between a Van Gogh and a Renoir and a Monet, or a Picasso or a Brach or Duchamp. In classical music, we know what makes one piece Baroque and another Romantic, and what Bach sounds like as apposed to Vivaldi, or what distinguishes Brahms from Wagner.

It’s the same with great authors. Let’s face it, writers are well read. There is no way around that. And when I say well read, I do not mean in poplit, like Rowling or Brown. I mean the classics, the universally agreed upon greats. The well-read writer will know how Dickens sounds differently from Austen. The great author will recognize the sad music made by the French and the Russians, and how Hugo resonates differently from Tolstoy, Dumas from Chekhov, and Stendhal from Dostoyevsky. The one trained in both reading and writing will fall in love with the Midwestern Minimalism of Hemingway, the New England melancholy of Fitzgerald, and the Southern gothic dread in Faulkner. It’s all there, just like the music lover can distinguish Beethoven from Bartok and the aesthete knows his Rembrandt from his Raphael.

Voice Is Everything

Your voice as an author is what makes your writing sound like your writing and no one else’s. That is the consistent plague of poplit, it has so little individualistic voice to it that it all blends together into one car wreck and train derailment of words and utterances. And now it’s about time I got to the secret for developing a devastating voice as an author. If you’re a Creative Writer, then you are accustomed to disappointments by now. I cannot say this or that makes a voice that is all your own. Was Mozart’s voice determined by using a B-flat in a given piece and not a C-sharp, or a half note here and not a whole note? The long answer is “yes, if” and the short answer is “no, but.”

Everything goes into creating a given author’s voice. It’s our vocabulary and use of vernacular, our word length and sentence length, what punctuation we use or don’t use, and so much more. Our voice is shaped by the times and places where we set our pieces, the themes and subject matter we address, and the overall kind of story we are trying to tell. That is one of the many things that make it so difficult the define voice in so many words, and all the more difficult to teach how to accomplish it. Maybe the best I can do is advise that we as writers be mindful of how everything contributes to voice, either distinctive or bland. With that, be mindful of every choice you make and think of not only how it affects that particular work, but how it contributes to your voice. You may have to edit with just voice in mind like you should for character’s dialogue. I think I have a fair idea of my Creative Writing voice, how I’ve shaped it and where it’s going, but truth be told – voice is something you work on every day you write until that day you write no longer.

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Outline Everything

 outline

I have found that there are two kinds of writers, plotters and pantsers. Plotters outline everything. Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. They may have some idea of where the story goes, or they may have nothing other than an idea and a character or two. They really wing it. They admit that they don’t know how the story will end.

I’ve heard pantsers say that they can’t outline because it will take away all of the creativity and spontaneity of writing. Of course, this is complete piffle. As a committed plotter, let me assure you that outlining does not take away any of the creativity – in fact, it multiplies it.

Let’s just call it what it is: pantsers don’t know how to outline because they haven’t been taught. And they haven’t been taught how to outline because they haven’t been taught how to write. They haven’t been taught how to write because they never took the time and trouble to learn the discipline of composition.

If I had my way, people who have never studied Creative Writing shouldn’t write or call themselves a writer. You’re not a tuba player simply because you own a tuba or your mommy thinks you’re the best tuba player ever. Like anything else, you have to put in the wrench time. Learning is hard work, regardless of the subject. Creative Writing is something that takes a lifetime to learn and longer to master what you have learned.

Those who have taken multiple Creative Writing classes and have learned the basics know the value of outlining, even the necessity of it. Stories have structure. But more than that, composition is always more of an art than a science. Some people have studied the structure of stories, but still know nothing about who to write a great story.

It’s Not That Bad

An outline for a novel can be done on a Word document or on index cards or on a white markerboard. How you outline and how much you outline is up to you, but please, do something! I truly think that pantsers do some outlining, but maybe they don’t write it all down. I had a pantser tell me once that writing a novel was like playing music, and while I like to read the music on the page to see what notes to play he liked to play jazz. Even jazz musicians read music – it’s called a chart. It has time and tempo, key and chord changes. No one plays notes willy-nilly. Jazz improvisors follow an outline, and in some way, so do pantsers. I’m sure of it.

Instead of music, think of your novel as a university term paper, or more to the point, an advanced degree thesis or even a doctoral dissertation. No one writes a term paper without an outline of some kind. You are writing a creative dissertation and it needs to be organized and based upon some kind of structure. And like all good papers, you build everything around the thesis. The introduction builds to the thesis and the closing wraps things up after the thesis has been proven by the body of the paper. The setting for our story is the introduction and it all leads to the thesis – or in other words, the conflict. All things lead to the climax, the resolution of the conflict, and the denouement takes out of it and into our The End.

The body of our creative thesis is the rising action of our story. Everything that is a part of the rising action needs to help or hinder our hero from achieving or not achieving what he wanted but could not get that set up the conflict. This achieving or not is the conflict. The rising action is the hardest part of the novel to write. We need to know what happens between Once upon a time and They all lived happily ever after. This requires preparation and organization. It requires an outline.

Welcome To The Machine

Stated in the most tedious terms, novel writing is a series of making and correcting mistakes. That’s why writing is re-writing. It may be impossible to come up with a perfect manuscript, but merely one you can live with. Anything that cuts down on the errors should be eagerly pursued. Making an outline for your novel will give you much less to edit out. And there is no better preventative for the dreaded Writer’s Block than the slightly less dreaded novel outline. All of this preparing and organizing tends to fix problems before they begin.

Outlining helps us avoid all of the bad stuff and do all of the good stuff. It gives our novel direction and somewhere to go. We have a definite point A and point B and we know how to get to one from another even if it’s not a straight line. And if we consider the final product, all of the things we like in a really good novel can’t be done by pantsing, but only by plotting. Speaking for myself, my outlines give a better story because it gives me better characters. All of those wonderful sparkles of literary fiction certainly cannot be achieved without an outline, such as portends and symbolism.

I’ve heard people cry against outlining because they cannot be creative or spontaneous if they are following an outline. From my experience, an outline feeds my creativity and is the course of constant surprises. Remember that Creative Writing is almost an organic, living and breathing entity, something that does not so much come out of us but through us from – somewhere. We will still be startled by this we discover as we write, even with an outline, or said better, because of our outline. Some novels are non-chronological. I don’t see how a personal pull this off without some preparation. And on top of that, I don’t always writing chronologically even if the story is. I may skip around, chapter 1 today, 2 tomorrow, and then chapter 5 the next. I could not do that if it was a slave to chapter due to pantsing.

Here’s my secret: I get me ideas for my novels from my dreams – I really do. I write down the basics the following morning and let it sit. I decide what to write and pick two dates, one to begin outlining and another to start writing. I’ll spend six to eighth months preparing and organizing and two to three months drafting. I’ll look through my original notes and set out the road story, then I’ll make a list of potential characters like you see at the beginning of a play. I return to the story and break things into scenes and go back to the characters and flesh them out more. This ping-pong game allows me to develop story alongside my characters. No only do outline give me a cleaner first draft, but a novel where the story and the characters were developed side by side, and I think everything is the better for it.

I hope this advice helps you as it has helped me. And keeping in line with the title of this article, I outlined this post before I did anything else.

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Writing is re-writing

edit

I hate watching movies about writers because there is one thing they always do that is totally wrong. What you commonly see is a writer at a typewriter or laptop, and they write the last sentence, type The End, pet the cat, pour a glass of wine, and celebrate that they are all finished with their novel. Wrong! When you’ve finished your first draft, you have only begun the Creative Writing process.

The End?

I’ve never added The End at the end of a manuscript until I knew it was edited as far as it could be and was ready for my formatting and publishing. Not only should you have other people, called beta-readers, look over your manuscript, but you should be editing your book, too. In fact, most of the changes should come from you. And regarding these beta-readers, your mommy should not be one of them, unless your mother is a professional writer or editor and can scathe you objectively.

And if anyone criticizes your manuscript, don’t take it personally. I must admit that this was a hard one for me, and sometimes still is. The problem is that our writing is so personal to us, that when someone finds fault in what we write, it’s easy to see that as them finding fault with us as a human being. If I’m editing your novel and I say you use far too many adverbs, I’m not saying you are a bad human being (but if you leave them in, then you are!).

It’s so easy to fall in love with your own words and you don’t want to lose a single one of them. The way around this is to read your stuff dispassionately and objectively. The way I do that is when I finish a first draft, I set it aside for a month, maybe six weeks. I’ll work on something else, maybe outlines for future projects, or articles for my blogs. Do something else, and house cleaning doesn’t count. It needs to be something else that has to do with writing. So when you read it again, you’re seeing it cold, or at least as cold as you the author can.

Self-Editing

This is my editing process. You can do whatever you want, but maybe this will give you some ideas. On my first reread, I look for misspelled words and punctuation errors. I’m also on the look out for bigger picture problems, which I’ll mark later and fix after that.

On my next go through, I shape the book. By that, I mean attach imagery and symbolism. I’ll ether have them in mind when I do my first outline or see what comes out in the first draft. I also break up the dialogue with action. Let’s face it, things happen while we talk. On this draft, I’m not actually rewriting anything, just deciding where to insert those things which make the story full.

This edit can take longer than the first draft simply because it is so meticulous. I’ll read a chapter, note what I marked, and let it sit in my head and stew for a while. I’m constantly writing things down in my original notes of my outline. And when I think I have, I fix the chapter. On the next day, I move on to the next chapter.

After this, I let it sit for a few more weeks, possibly a month. This is like letting the dough rise, at least in my mind. On the next rewrite, I focus on characters. I study once more all of my original notes in my character development. I go through the manuscript looking for just one character at a time, starting with the protagonist, then the antagonist. I follow this with all of the other principles and lastly the minor characters.

I look at everything that makes that character as fully developed as possible and as uniquely individualistic as I can get it. Principally this is done my making sure that person has a unique voice in the dialogue. It also goes for all descriptions and actions. I’ll read it three of four more times, sometimes more, because there is always something to fix.

 

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The Opening Scene Of Reservoir Dogs & Character Development

rdogs

Quintin Tarantino’s date film Reservoir Dogs set a new bar in film making and put Tarantino’s name on the marquee. It’s about a botched diamond heist and one of the crooks is an undercover cop. None of the thieves use their real name, but are given names of color, such as Mr. Blue and Mr. White. The only characters whose names we know are boss, Joe Cabot, and his son, “Nice Guy” Eddie. The names of a few thieves pop out in the story, but I’ll stick to the color names.

After seeing it several times, I noticed that the opening scene paints the characters in clear terms. It is worth a study for Creative Writers so they can learn how to draw their characters cleanly and clearly from the start, even if it’s in a scene that really has nothing to do with the actual story, like breakfast a diner before the attempted heist. I’m going to look at each character in this opening scene and show how Tarantino draws in narrow terms that show their personality and temperament. I’m only going to stick to characters that survive the initial shootout with the cops.

  • Joe Cabot – During breakfast, Joe has an old address book that he hasn’t used “in a coon’s age.” He’s trying to remember one name, Toby. His failure to identify this person in the book portends his inability to identify the rat in his house.
  • Nice Guy Eddie – Eddie talks about the song, “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia.” He had heard it recently on the radio. He never realized that the singer was the killer. This shows us that he’s not too bright.
  • Mr. White – Mr. White takes the book from Joe when he gets tired of hearing him drone on and on about Toby. He says he’ll give it back after breakfast, but threatens to keep it. It’s all done in humor, but no one could get away with that unless they were close to the boss. More than anything else, we see his relationship with Joe in this scene.
  • Mr. Orange – Mr. Orange is the undercover cop. He “rats out” Mr. Pink for not leaving a tip. He says less than anyone else, but his persona is writ large by this simple exchange.
  • Mr. Blond – Mr. Blond offers to shoot Mr. White if he doesn’t give the book back to Joe. He ever shots him with a finger gun. Mr. Blond is the most violent and starts all of the shooting in the botched heist. We see his trigger-happy nature even at breakfast.
  • Mr. Pink – Mr. Pink doesn’t believe in tipping. He has very clear rules for how he runs his life, especially when it comes to money. He claims always to be the one acting like a professional. He does this when other people are not living up to what he thinks the rules are for crooks.

This movie does have strong language, even in this breakfast scene. If that matters to you, I suggest you see it on cable where they edit out a lot of the foul language. I personally think profanity only comes from a lazy mind. Tarantino was cutting shortcut by having his characters swear. Still, he made a compelling movie and painted some wonderful pictures in the opening scene of what his characters are like, and then gave them interesting things to do after that.

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Writing Iceberg Stories

iceberg

Ernest Hemingway once gave an interview in which he compared his writing to an iceberg. The words on the page represented the visible part of the iceberg. The part of the iceberg we do not see, which is up to 90% sitting under water, is the rest of the story.

Hemingway is the master of saying it without saying it. That annoys some people, but a few others and I find this the most compelling reading and the most advanced writing.

Hemingway’s Greatest Icebergs

These are just a few examples of what I’m talking about.

  • The Sun Also Rises – A nymphomaniac is in love with an impotent man. Hemingway never tells us he’s impotent, but still makes it clear.
  • A Farewell To Arms – They are not in love, even though they constantly tell each other how in love they are.
  • Hills Like White Elephants – A man tries to convince his girlfriend to have an abortion in a story that doesn’t even use the word “abortion,” or “baby” or “pregnancy.”
  • Ten Indians – Nick’s father lies to him about the unfaithfulness of his girlfriend because she is an Indian.
  • Big Two-Hearted River – This is pretty much all iceberg. It’s a story of a man who goes fishing. It has traditionally been understood as a man home from the war suffering from shell-shock. I mostly agree, but I think the man is still at war. He is wandering the battle front of Italy, but his mind is fishing back in Michigan.

The Best Example Yet

These are not the only examples, but just a few of the clearer ones. And yet, there is one work of Hemingway’s that uses iceberg composition so well, that I thought it should be set aside and discussed with a little more detail. I’m talking about the short story “Indian Camp.”

It’s a story about an eight-year-old Nick Adams who goes with his father, Dr. Adams, and his uncle George to an Indian camp near their fishing cabin in Michigan. Dr. Adams has to help with a difficult delivery of a child. Uncle George goes along because he is the father of the child. Of course, this is never said. This part of the story is submerged beneath the text, but is still a clear understanding. Consider the following facts from the story.

  • George’s boat arrives first.
  • George hands out cigars to others Indians there on the shore.
  • The woman in labor screams when Dr. Adams, Nick, and Uncle George enter her house. It seems she is screaming when she sees George.
  • The woman’s husband lays in a bunk above with a gangrenous wound on the foot (traditionally in literature, a wound beneath the waist is symbolic of impotency).
  • The woman bites George on the arm, and when he later looks at the wound, others Indians smile “reminiscently,” as if to say, “I remember when my wife bit me when she delivered our first child.”
  • After the delivery, the mother looked pale, which is a way of saying the baby is pale-skinned, which indicates a white father.
  • Dr. Adams says he should check out the father, who suffers the worst from “these little affairs.”
  • The husband had cut his throat during the delivery. He had known all along that he was not the father of the child, and now with the delivery his shame will be open.
  • Uncle George stays behind after Dr. Adams and Nick return to their fishing cabin across the lake.

These are all visible parts of the iceberg that tells us about what rests underneath. If you haven’t read it in a while, you may want to do so.

A Challenge To Us Writers

Even if you’re not a fan of Hemingway, if you’re a writer, trying reading some of his work, as well as the industry of other minimalists. Try to write something in a minimalist style, even if it is nothing more than an exercise. The value of minimalism to a writer is that it forces you show and will not allow you to tell. You’re writing not only becomes focused on details, but on those that are the only ones you need.

You may not wish to try your next novel or short story that you wish published in the Hemingway style, but having learned it, you will be a better writer. And who knows, but you might find yourself wishing to go on a fishing trip or see a bullfight. Now go and enjoy those icebergs, just don’t crash into one.

I can’t wait to read your thoughts on this. Please let me know what you think in the Comments section below.

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Job #1 For Creative Writers

1

As an author, you may feel as if you have many things you must accomplish when you sit down and write a story. But with all things, we need priorities. There is one thing all Creative Writers must do before they try to do anything else. First and foremost, tell a story. If you are a Creative Writer, you are a story teller first and foremost. This goes for novels and short stories alike. This seems as if it is so obvious it shouldn’t need to be said. But guess what? It does.

Some people get it in their head that their story needs to be about something. And while things like theme could add to a story, it is never more important than the story. I hate it when someone asks a writer what their story is about, and they go to discuss the themes and principles they are trying to get across. No! when someone asks you what your story is about, tell them what it’s about, not what it’s about. I hope that’s clear.

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Show, Don’t Tell

show

This is the A-1 capitol axiom of Creative Writing. When I took classes, this was something the professor said over and over to me and all of the other students. This is hard skill to get down, in fact, I’m still working on this one. I probably will be for the rest of my life.

If you are a writer, then you need to show us the action of the narrative. Don’t tell us how it happened. This comes down to using great verbs or weak modifiers, such as adjectives and adverbs. Clear action told with strong verbs makes a story a much better read always than anything else. If you show instead of tell, then you can take two sentences of telling and make into two, three, or four pages of wonderful telling (if not more).

When I was taught, my professor used an example from Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, and I still use today when I teach Creative Writing to someone. It involves Monroe Stahr, the main character and movie mogul, talking to his head writer, a man named Boxley, on how to build a scene.

“Suppose you’re in your office. You’ve been fighting duels all day. You’re exhausted. This is you. A girl comes in. She doesn’t see you. She takes off her gloves. She opens her purse. She dumps it out on the table. You watch her. Now, she has two dimes, a matchbox and a nickel. She leaves the nickel on the table. She puts the two dimes back into her purse. She takes the gloves, they’re black. Puts them into the stove. Lights a match. Suddenly, the telephone rings. She picks it up. She listens. She says, ‘I’ve never owned a pair of black gloves in my life.’ Hangs up. Kneels by the stove. Lights another match. Suddenly, you notice there’s another man in the room watching every move the girl makes.”

Boxley then asks, “What happens?” and Stahr replies, “I don’t know. I was just making pictures.” Notice this is simple action, and it’s riveting. He feels no need to add superfluous describers, such as happily, triumphantly, or eerily. He does use “suddenly” twice, which I wish he wouldn’t, and if I was one of his editors, I would have struck them both. The point is that you and I are like Monroe Stahr, and like what Boxley should be, people who are just making pictures, or telling stories. That is hard enough and there is no need to complicate it with things that should be cut out anyway.

 

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How To Master Creative Writing

master

I officially turned my mind to Creative Writing in 2001, but I’ve had storytelling in me as long as I can remember. I took as many Creative Writing classes as I could and read as many articles on the subject as I could get my hands on. Every short story I wrote was an exercise in some aspect of putting a story together. Even now, I approach novel writing as trying to develop some feature of novels. I am always learning. I think it is impossible to know all that can be known about writing, and even then, being able to execute all you know will take a lifetime of work.

10,000 Hours

Malcolm Gladwell became famous for his 10,000-hour rule. He states that for someone to become a master of any subject, then they must put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. There are critics of this, but all they claim is that simply putting in this time will not guarantee you will become a master. But this is a misunderstanding of the claim. I see it as no one can become a master of anything without putting in at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

No one is an instant expert in anything. You have to walk before you can run, or like my dad liked to say, you have to learn to dribble before you can slam dunk. I took this 10,000-hour rule seriously, and spent years writing short stories as exercises before I finally started a novel. That was 2006, and now it is 2018. I have eight published novels under my belt, writing the draft of my ninth while outlining my number ten and eleven. I have also written six non-fiction books and am writing my seventh. I even have a children’s book out there.

The Instant Expert

I have borne the dread of encountering far too many people of all ages who claim to be a writer but have no training. Either they are teens or young adults, and their mommy always said they were good writers, so they’re starting a novel before their skulls have hardened. Or maybe it’s someone older, middle-aged or retired, who always wanted to write as hobby. They, too, write with only a desire but no training. And without exception, what they write is poorly done.

No one decides to play the violin without taking violin lessons. And no one elects to become a carpenter unless they have had a shop class or two. Likewise, I never even thought about starting a novel until I had put in the time to learn how to write, years of training, still learning and still practicing. Whenever I teach Creative Writing I begin with a list of guidelines. Most of these are the rules taught to me when I was first learning how to write. I have modified them by my experience and continual study. Whenever I start a new book, I go over these again, and a few times while I’m in the first draft. If you’re interested in getting a hold of this list, email me at abbott.neal@yahoo.com. I hope they take you as far as they have taken me.

 

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Top Ten Articles from 2017

10

At the beginning of a new year, we look back and this about what we accomplished and what we neglected. It feels better to think about what he actually got done. When I reconsider what I posted her last year, these are my favorites.

10 Book Jacketing 7/10 – Give your story a definite beginning and ending place.

9 Animal Group Names & a Collection of Characters: Part I – Birds 1/9 – Describe groups of characters as a murder of crows instead of just a bunch, or a flock, or a herd.

8 Keys to Success 8/14 – To succeed you need to give it all you’ve got.

7 Animal Group Names & A Collection of Characters: Part II – Land Mammals 1/16 – Or maybe a thunder of hippopotamuses or a shrewdness of apes fits better.

6 Creativity: Part One – As Inspired by Osho 2/13 – Writing is creative, so to be the best you can, you must become a child again.

5 Alchemy of Authors 9/11 – Creative Writers take what is ordinary and make it precious.

4 Creativity – As Inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien 3/15 – Tolkien’s creation myth for his literary world teach us how to write stories.

3 Haute Cuisine & Creative Writing 6/12 – Great writing is like fine dining.

2 “There Are Two Kinds Of Men,” A Study In Foils From Doctor Zhivago 1/30 – A study in how foils in secondary characters can develop your main character.

1 “Of All The Gin Joints In All The World:” The Power Of Coincidence In Fiction 5/29 – Literature depends on things happening just so.

I hope these posts help you in your Creative Writing development just as they helped me. Here’s to a Creative and Prosperous 2018!

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My Brief Book of Whimsy, now available on Amazon and Kindle

whimsy

Is War & Peace too long for you? Is Harry Potter too juvenile? Is The Da Vinci Code too ridiculous? More importantly, do you have a bathroom?

People with indoor bathrooms are amongst the most well-read people around. And while The Grape Of Wrath may be too sad for you to read while taking a nature break, My Brief Book Of Whimsy is a cracking good read doing something else that doesn’t require too much concentration.

Not since Blaise Pascal’s masterpiece Pensées has there been such a more splendiferous collection of aphorisms that will make you think. Mostly, they’ll make you think, “What’s wrong with this guy?”

My Brief Book Of Whimsy is the perfect companion piece for your other library, the one you actually use. It’s the number one book to go with your number twos!

My Brief Book Of Whimsy

ISBN-13: 978-1975849061

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