“Advice” or “3 Ironic Tips for Writers”

Writers write about writing a lot. Go figure.

I don’t actually blame us. This is something we care about, so it’s something we talk about. It’s also one of those things where, no matter how good you are, you want to be better. …Unless the idea of attaining perfection repulses you, in which case I doubt you read many blog articles aimed at improving your craft.

For the rest of you who do read such articles, perhaps you’ve noticed some pieces of “recommendation regarding a decision or course of conduct” come up a lot. Like, all the bleeding time. To the point where you stop listening and start looking for ways to entertain yourself by pointing out the irony inherent in the advice’s continued use.

…Am I the only one who does that? Oh, good. Then you’ll probably be able to read my alternate take on these 3 done-to-death writer tips without any sense a déjà vu.

1) “Avoid clichés.”

The irony: The criticism of clichés, in itself, has become a cliché – trite, hackneyed, and so overly commonplace that it’s lost potency.

Why it bugs me (apart from the fact that I hear it all the bleeding time): Life is a cliché. You can only get so original before your story stops making sense and nobody wants to read it. Readers, bless their/our contradictory little hearts, want originality and creativity both. They want to read something they’ve seen a million times before without it feeling like they’ve seen it a million times before. They want old made new. They want clichés dressed up in a WOW factor. They want the same old heroic journey/love story/tragedy with new characters in a new setting and a new reason for them to give a hoot.

My advice: Don’t focus on what makes your story the same as the rest. Focus on what makes it different. Because, as the Backstreet Boys sing it, that’s what makes it beautiful. (No, One Direction, not knowing your own beauty does not make you beautiful. It makes you oblivious.)

2) “Show, don’t tell.”

The irony: People will be forever telling you this instead of showing it.

Why it bugs me (apart from the fact that I hear it all the bleeding time): You know what writers are? Storytellers. “Storyshowers” isn’t a word. Unless we’re talking about silent films or picture books completely devoid of text, there has to be telling involved. We’ve got to tell to show. Call me a literalist, but these are just the facts.

My advice: Tell the darn story. Just tell it in a way that shows the story, rather than laying it out in dry summary. “Ollie died, and this made Joey sad” gives you less than “Joey wept over Ollie’s fallen body”. I’m telling you both examples (as opposed to showing you, which would necessitate pantomiming the whole thing for you on video, or something), but doesn’t the second one make you feel a little closer to the action? If “storyshowers” were a word, it would be the characters’ job description, not the writers’. The characters show, we writers watch, and then we tell what we see.

3) “Kill your darlings.”

The irony: This seems to be a darling phrase of writing advisors everywhere.

Why it bugs me (apart from the fact that I hear it all the bleeding time): Notwithstanding my frequent fantasies in which I knock somebody over the head with a large stick, I don’t actually like violence. And this phrase – much like talk of slashing at your first draft until it bleeds red ink – strikes me as unnecessarily brutal. Editing does not have to be a slaughter! Does a surgeon hack mercilessly at the patient on the operating table like a Viking berserker? If your answer’s not “no”, change doctors now. A qualified surgeon enters the problem area with delicate skill, gently removes the unsightly tumor, and disposes of it in the proper receptacle. Tumor removal: Still a nasty metaphor, but so much more elegant on an artistic level, not so?

“Alright, Nurse – it’s time to painstakingly extract the darling.”
“Alright, Nurse – it’s time to painstakingly extract the darling.”

My advice: No matter how much you love a thing – that character, that scene, that witty phrase – if it does not serve the greater good of your story, it is an abnormal growth of tissue that possesses no physiological function and needs to leave for the body’s health and quality of life. Put on your surgical gloves and work some writer magic.

What think, fellow writer-types? Any writing advice clichés you’d like to put under the knife? Show Tell me in the comments.

“Thank-You-Ma’am” or “Fan Mail to My Perfect Fan”

Hey, Momma – did you know a “thank-you-ma’am” is defined as “a bump or depression in the road”? “From its causing the head to nod as though in acknowledgment of a favor”, it says. Amazing, the bits of trivia a glance through a dictionary can turn up.

In other news…

"It's your birthday?!"
“It’s your birthday?!”

It’s your birthday! And since I gave Daddy his very own blog post in recognition of his birthday, I can in good conscience do no less for you today. ‘Cause, y’know, you’re just as special. (:

So let’s take a few moments to celebrate the role you’ve played in making me the awesome author gal on the brink of publication we all know and love today, why don’t we?

You gave birth to me. Obvious, but vital.

You treated me like a wordsmith-to-be from day one. No baby talk between you and me, oh no. (Not until these last few years, anyway.) Your one-sided conversation showed Infant Me how English was supposed to sound, and your intolerance for non-words like “lookit” guided my early communication toward a healthy formality. Everyone who compliments me as well-spoken has you to thank.

You taught me that every character has his or her own voice. All your patient repetitions of “Spot” flap-books really drove that lesson home. Turtles advising us to “try the basket” sound different from lions declaring, “No one can see me!” With your example before me – not to mention countless hours of your audio book picks in the kitchen and on the road – I learned how reading aloud can make a story leap off the page, and how crucial it is to let each character I create sound true to their individual selves.

Spot and I share this in common.
Spot and I share this in common.

You let it be okay to treat fiction as reality. If I wanted to be Sherlock Holmes, you handed me a deerstalker cap and set me off on a Birthday Hunt mystery. When my obsessions moved in a more boy band and “Lord of the Rings” direction, you arranged for the Backstreet Boys and some Scottish pirate person growling about Aragorn to leave me a string of touching messages on the phone’s answering machine. And even now, you’ll buddy around with Will Scarlet when he bursts into our conversations, like he does. As interesting an experience as it might have been to get sent to a mental institution, I like the way you deal with me better.

You always supported my creative endeavors. …Even if the endeavor was a big glob of colored glue. You never begrudged my colossal wastes of paper on treasure maps to nowhere, board games with no rules, summonses, ventriloquist dummies, and of course, stories. You gave me pretty much free rein to dabble in artistic media, and when I eventually decided that my strongest passion lay in writing, you rooted for me 100%. You became one of my first critique partners and complaint buddies about writerly pet peeves; a listening ear when I need to talk through story stumbles, and a sometimes surprising source of inspiration; a wall between the world’s bothersome distractions and my writer’s cave; and the first person I want to go to with either hard disappointments or heady victories. I don’t know how authors without amazing mommies do it.

You pretty much did everything there was to do, shy of writing my stories for me. I’m glad you left that part to me. I happen to love my job, more or less as much as I love you.

Thank you, ma’am, Backstreet-style. I luvva you.

Momma and Me, circa her 55th Birthday

“Type”

Have you noticed a pattern in the sort of people you’re attracted to? Do they tend to have short hair, or curly hair, or light-colored lashes? Are they usually artistic, or scholarly, or reckless daredevils? Would you generally rather that they be taller than you, or shorter than you, funny, or serious, or so overly serious that you can’t help but laugh? Ideals will infinitely vary; even individuals will probably change their minds about what they do and don’t like, over time. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a particularly dire question, and yet it’s one we’ve heard before and will doubtless hear again: “What’s your preferred general character or structure held in common by a number of people or things considered as a group or class?”

            …Or, as perhaps you’ve heard it more commonly asked, “What’s your Type?”

            Physically speaking, my tailor fits my Type pretty well; other examples included a previously-mentioned former Backstreet Boy (bonus points for his lovely singing voice, and extra bonus points for when his hair was long), and Aragorn as seen in the “Lord of the Rings” film trilogy (bonus points for a having a sword and wearing a cape). But that’s just one type of Type to have – the “Eye Candy Type”, if you will. Suppose you strip away the physicality, and even the materiality, leaving only personality as revealed in the printed word? (I’d say a minstrel took over that last sentence, except it’s all rhyme and no rhythm; my minstrels, they would have me assure you, have better meter than that.)

            We’re talking now about your “Reader Type” – the sort of characters you’re drawn to, that you love to read about. When it comes to my reading, I’ve noticed some patterns there, too – for example, my infatuation with thieves. Charitable outlaws living it up in the forests of medieval England (referring, of course, to Robin Hood and his merry band), ex-convicts stealing their way to a Victorian gentleman’s lifestyle (looking at and loving you, Montmorency), sociopathic kings of criminals who ruthlessly manipulate their way to whatever goals they set (Tirzah Duncan’s Syawn fits the bill; he even plays dirty by trying to pander to my Eye Candy Type, the punk), whatever. If there’s clever thievery going on, my immediate interest level spikes.

            Actually, I’m attracted to cleverness in general; reading about idiots tends to frustrate me no end. And I don’t like reading about people who are just plain bad, unless of course they are supposed to be the villains, in which case I say, “Never mind, bring on the evil!” I like reading about characters who hang around with awesome friends, and share laughs with them, and stick by them in times of exciting crisis. (Naturally, they should stick by their friends in times of boring crisis, too, but I won’t necessarily want to read about it.) And if these characters happen to be handsome, singing swordsmen on the wrong side of the law, so much the better.

            Do an author’s Reader Types influence their Writer Types – that is, the sorts of characters they find themselves attracted to writing? To some degree, I think. If I don’t want to read about it, I don’t want to write it (although I will admit, writing idiots in small doses can be fun). I enjoy writing characters who are cleverer than me (or at least sneakier and quicker on the draw), and who always have time for witty quips with their pals during escapades, and very sinister villains, and I’ve got a handful of thieves (including my own Merry Men, huzzah!). I also spend a lot of time writing musicians – particularly minstrels, which just goes to show that the Reader Type/Writer Type influence goes both ways: Buzzwords like “minstrel”, “bard”, and “lute” send my immediate interest level through the roof since I’ve written “The Ballad of Allyn-a-Dale”.

            And what of you, Ever On Word followers and guests? When it comes to reading – and, if you’re an author, writing – what’s your preferred general character or structure held in common by a number of people or things considered as a group or class? (If you want something to be doubtless heard again, sometimes you’ve gotta say it yourself. 😉 )

“Imagination”

One of my favorite TV shows during the early ‘90s was “Barney and Friends”. (Actually, the addition of a baby sister gave me an excuse to spend a good bit of time with the dinosaur sensation in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, too. I’ve never been in any hurry to grow up.) Nowadays, my list of gripes against the show is rather lengthy – in a nutshell, the quality of the production rolled steadily downhill, over the seasons – but early on, I had only two. Firstly, Barney was not my idea of purple; according to my extensive collection of colored pencils, Barney was, at best, magenta. Secondly, I felt that there was some false advertising going on when it came to the powers of imagination.

            The premise of the show was stated for all to hear in the theme song: “Barney is a dinosaur from our imagination…” A bunch of kids hanging around after school could make their little stuffed dinosaur come to life just by pretending that he did, and the gang would then go on to have approximately half-an-hour’s worth of imagination-centric fun. One of the videos that I recollect viewing with some frequency involved Barney and the kids transporting to a castle where, among other plot points I’ve since forgotten, they held a race in costumes that made it look like they were mounted on horses. I was all for castles and horses, but I found it incredulous that a brief incantation of the phrase “Shimboree, shimborah!” could actually bring about such an adventure. Wasn’t it a bit unethical of Barney to get people’s hopes up like that?

            Well, it took me a few years, but I’ve finally figured out what was going on: The program was not, in fact, showing what the characters were literally experiencing – it was letting the kids watching at home see what was presumably going on inside the characters’ heads. No, Little Danielle, no one was really racing around a castle, or making it cycle though spring all the way to winter in a single afternoon, or making a jungle appear on the playground. They were only pretending. Extra-visually.

            This seems like a non-secret I ought to have understood a little better. My “ability or tendency to form a mental image of something that is neither perceived as real nor present to the senses” (if I may splice definitions 1a and 1c of the word) has ever been enormously active. The games I loved best were made up of me, the sister three years my junior, the few dozen people each that we pretended to be, and the usually impossible escapades of these aforementioned people and their talking cats and space alien fathers. Were sister and I really splitting off into all these different bodies, harboring orphans in our backyards, filming movies with Scooby-Doo, and playing gigs with the Backstreet Boys? Obviously not. But it sure did look like it through our eyes, didn’t it?

            In one sense, the power of imagination is not particularly impressive. It does not cause actual cities to materialize out of thin air, or literally teleport you halfway around the world, or otherwise allow you to legitimately act as some sort of regional god. But in another sense, it’s absolutely astounding. It gives architects the visions which, after much time and money and labor, become everything from a one-story ranch house to a multi-level skyscraper. It inspires explorers to want to see what’s beyond the horizon, which spawns the invention of ways to get there – sailing ships, steam engines, space shuttles. No, you still don’t get to be God; the creator of the world gets deity rights, that’s the rule. But with a little imagination, you can create worlds of your own. As many of them as you like. You can even make a career of sharing those worlds with the habitants of this one, a la my personal goal.

            He may not have known purple from magenta, but when it came to imagination, Barney had the right idea.

“Music”

Back in my community college days (little as I care for formal education, an Associates Degree is a handy thing to have), I enrolled in an Introduction to Music class. I found it a tolerable blend of basics I’d already learned in my twelve years of piano lessons and hitherto unknown, usually decently interesting facts about musical terms and periods and all that jazz (ignore the pun potential).

            One of the assignments given in the class was a brief paper on the definition of music. We students were to find two or three different definitions, and then compare and contrast them with a definition of our own. (One of those “no right or wrong answers, so long as you can justify it” deals. Personally, I preferred the black-and-white world of quantitative literacy, which just goes to show what a contradiction this non-mathematically-inclined dreamer can be.)

            To shamelessly plagiarize from my own paper:

“‘Music is love, love is music, music is my life and I love my life’ (McLean*). I don’t agree that this is a good definition of music. This is the type of definition that may sound nice, but falls short of defining what music actually is. With a little substitution, this definition could be translated as, ‘Music is music, music is music, music is music and I music music’, which is nonsense and tells us absolutely nothing…

“‘Vocal or instrumental sounds having some degree of rhythm, melody, and harmony’ (American Heritage Dictionary). …While I do think that this is a better definition of music than was the first, the first definition dealt with something that this definition does not: Emotion. The first definition dealt purely with the emotional aspect of music, while the second definition deals purely with the practical aspect of music. Each definition has what the other lacks, and… music is a merger of practicality and emotion…

“I have defined music as any sound that evokes an emotion in the listener. I was tempted at first to define it as any sound that evokes a positive emotion, but quickly dismissed this idea. Even if one’s definition of music included only songs heard on the radio, there would be songs that the listener would not care for, perhaps due to dissonance, agitated rhythms, painfully high pitches, or instrumentation that creates what the listener feels is an unpleasant timbre**. Music can bring us down just as easily as it can cheer us up.”

            Some handful of years later, do I still stand by that? Not quite. Nowadays, I’m more a proponent of the minstrel philosophy, and the minstrels of my acquaintance say, “Why limit music to a sound?” Take, for instance, Gant-o’-the-Lute’s rebuttal when his mother dared disparage his singsong way of speaking:

“There is nothing absurd in attempting to word things

in ways that are pleasing for ears to hear.

Can the sun be told not to be bright? –

the lack of light kept separate from night?

What’s absurd is to think a musician can speak

without making the words that he spake into music.

There’s far more to song than a tune –

there’s a rhythm that can’t be escaped in the everyday; not for me;

not for the kind who can find music all the time,

in everything that he sees and he says and he lives and he breathes.

Such is music to me: It is breath, life, and beauty.

And truly, to think any less

is the height of what might be called absurdity.”

            Lute would have made an interesting classmate in Intro to Music.

*That’s A.J. McLean of the Backstreet Boys, hands-down best “boy band” of the ‘90s and beyond! Long may they prosper! (Especially Kevin, who I’ll love extra forever, even though he left the group and I despaired of marrying him years ago, much to the hypothetical relief of his wife, I’m sure. What is it with these wonderful green-eyed hunks getting married without me, anyway? My tailor’s the same way, darn him.)

**Timbre – now, there’s a word, for you, meaning “the combination of qualities of a sound that distinguishes it from other sounds of the same pitch and volume”. A wonderful arrow to have in one’s verbal quiver, though the pronunciation will trip up the unwary. Looks like “timber”, I know, but it’s “tam-ber”. French origins, dontcha know.