Emotional Extremes & You (Us, actually. All of us.)

Happy Friday, writers! As the Christmas season rolls in, time seems to creep along in preparation for what’s just over the horizon. If you participated in NaNoWriMo, you have my sincerest wishes that it went well–if you met your word count, congratulations! If not, don’t beat yourself up about it.

Speaking of overused phrases used to address emotions, that’s what this week’s post is about; I’d like to briefly discuss the fine line between truly conveying the subtle way any specific emotion overtakes a character, and the flipside, what happens when you smear it on thick as molasses in winter. (Forgive me, I just finished reading Saving Wonder by Mary Knight and the beautiful idioms are feeding my chicken-fried heart. The wheel’s spinning but the hamster’s dead. Brilliant.)

For my own NaNoWriMo novel, the interpersonal and internal conflict for the protagonist is very emotion-heavy, and the story is told in first-person present tense–a self-imposed reckoning of my own abilities, since evidently I hate myself. We’re talking long-term conflict that’s carried with the MC over the course of the novel, issues that are looming and essential to the story. No one tells you exactly how hard it is to write present tense emotions like that without sounding like you’re giving stage notes for an actor:

Anger boils inside of me. I dig my nails into my palms, biting back the things I want to say, but shouldn’t.

Chills run up my back and arms. The unknown is what frightens me–too easily can I envision those beady eyes in the darkness, watching my every move.

Moments like these… aren’t very good. Or, at least, they translate from the page weaker than we’d like them to, and I’m not happy with the way these moments continually unfold in my first draft. Not for a narrative running over 50k words. It’s undeniably difficult to restrain from using phrases that we tend to see assigned in third person stories–it makes my hair stand on end–but no one, realistically, speaks like that. Given, it would sound more casual if it were owned by the narrator, for example that gives me chills, but even then, the sentiment is tired by stating the emotion in first-person.

After taking reading and writing seriously over the past few years–as a craft to be consumed and regurgitated–I’ve found a pattern in first-person books that handle emotion really well. My favorite example of how sustained extreme emotional turmoil can see a story through from beginning to end is, without contest, Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner. It’s a nightmare-come-true story about a young man named Carver Briggs who loses all three of his best friends due to a car accident he may have inadvertently caused via texting.

(If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s my favorite YA novel and offers a visceral, cathartic experience. But I’m easy to make cry, so take that last bit with a grain of salt.)

In a flashback scene, Carver relives the moment in middle school when he met one of his now-deceased friends, Blake. As the heartfelt dip into the past ends, Zentner gives us this:

We go and eat lunch. He shows me his YouTube page. I tell him about my stories. We laugh.
We laugh a lot, actually.

And that, right there, is just one minuscule example of how Zentner manages to show Carver’s mourning, regret, longing, indescribable grief–deftly, through a freaking flashback. The accident has already happened, his friends are already dead, yet he’s remembering their good times through the lens of someone who already knows how that story ends. It’s brilliant, and seems effortless when read, but is difficult (for myself, at least) to put into practice.

That’s part of why Goodbye Days so successfully manages to marry the emotions of the story’s events to the character: being human isn’t an experience that happens to you, it is you. When you feel mad, or guilty, or happy, it affects every other part of your life–you take on life as a series of reactions, viewing everything that happens to you through that lens. Overwhelming emotions aren’t typically something you slip into for one scene, and then from which you become a blank slate the next minute.

I’m guilty of this. It’s hard to remedy, easier to take those throes in the moment and let it fluctuate like a roller coaster. But if we can keep that tapestry woven–let every. single. action. of our characters reflect their headspace and serve as gentle reminders of where they came from, and where they’re going…? Well. I find it hard to believe our stories wouldn’t be stronger.

I worked one of Zentner’s signings for the release of this book, before I even read it. Was just then trying to become a writer. He signed, Tell a good story.

Minutes vs Moments: When Measurements Can Damage Your Storytelling

WHO’S READY FOR ANOTHER PASSIONATE AND NITPICKY POST?

This entire post–the whole freaking thing–is sponsored by the word: minutes.

I’m not going to give specific titles, as I don’t like being in the business of shaming authors, but there have been more than a few instances where I will be reading a scene and something like the following sentence happens:

He picked up the stone and was silent for a few minutes as he looked at it.

Okay. So, on its face, this is a fine sentence. It gets the point across–there is a pause while the character observes something. The issue I take with it, is that “a few minutes” is a staggeringly long time compared to what the author was likely going for (perhaps a few moments?). Let’s assume “a few” could even be interpreted as being as short as two minutes–120 seconds.

Now, feel free to listen to this video I found (which, yes, I did search “annoying 2 minute video” to make you see my point, sorry) and you let me know if you think 120 seconds is an appropriate amount of time for a character to exist in liminal space while they think of how to respond to another character. If you were talking to someone, and they abruptly stopped talking, after probably around 15 seconds you’d try to engage them again. Unless our character is looking at something of great detail or intricacy, I highly doubt he needs minutes to come to a general conclusion.

woman and man wearing brown jackets standing near tree
“You’ve been watching that bird for the past two Hozier songs, Elena. If you’re still not done, would you mind if I at least make a phone call?”

Exception! If a sentiment like this is followed by non-dialogue descriptors of the environment, or thoughts going through a character’s head, this is likely fine. It’s when it happens in the middle of an otherwise fast-paced scene or dialogue that it’s jarring and distracts readers (or maybe just me, pedantic asshole that I am).

Phew. Let me take a deep breath as I segue into the bigger point I’m building to, which is that exact measurements rarely add anything to the story, unless you are able to pull it off tone-wise (a la Dahl). Allow me to defend my claim.

Say we have this sentence in a book:

The corrugated metal sign was only two feet tall.

I see why the author has chosen this wording; they have a very precise estimation in their head of what said sign looks like and wish to project it exactly. But I would argue that this is almost never more powerful than other methods of description they could use:

The metal sign was low to the ground, and easy to miss.
The sign barely came above her knee, its serrated edges threatening to add more holes to her jeans.
Tall grass obscured the writing on the reflective sign, and bugs crawled freely on its face.

Not only do these convey the same idea, but they help set the scene more effectively than giving exact measurements. Instead of forcing numbers and estimations into the readers’ heads, instead find other ways to say what you will. Be wary when you fall back onto using units of measurement in your writing: feet, miles, cups, kilometers, pounds, cents– these words can act as red flags and give you an opportunity to be more lyrical.

P.S. As much as I just railed against these words, there is obviously never a set way to write. If you insist on writing with exact measurements, or it fits your tone better, or you just want to keep writing this way out of spite for me, then please do! I just wanted to address this topic for those who might be interested in observing their own writing style in a way they might not have considered before.

fuck ur language conventions

Are you ready for a rant post? No? Too bad. Let’s start, as all white girl raging does, with a little bit of Shakespeare.

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty
According to my bond; no more nor less.

That’s from King Lear, Act I. Spoken by his daughter, Cordelia. Fucking brutal, yeah? Also, eloquent and lovely and all the other descriptors that people pull up when talking about Shakespeare monologues. You know what else is eloquent and lovely?

Maud went to college.
Sadie stayed at home.
Sadie scraped life
With a fine-tooth comb.

The opening lines of “Sadie and Maud” by Gwendolyn Brooks, inarguably one of the best poets of the 20th century, and the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. You may begin to understand where I’m going with this, but one more for the holy spirit:

The U.S-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country — a border culture.

That’s Gloria Anzaldúa, in her book “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza.”

Now, if you showed someone the Shakespeare excerpt next to the Gwendolyn Brooks excerpt and asked them which one was the better piece of writing, which one do you think they’d choose? If they’re indoctrinated with high school English classes, probably Shakespeare. Everyone knows that Shakespeare is The Standard to live up to, right? Right?

Wrong.

OH DAMN, bet you didn’t see THAT coming, did you? It’s not like I was projecting my intentions from the very first syllable or anything. Here’s the thing about Shakespeare–or Dickens or Chaucer or [insert-any-old-white-man-here]–being revered as The Best: it doesn’t leave room for diversity of perspective, and by extension, diversity of language.

Here are two fun terms that you may or may not know: Standard American English (SAE) and Edited American English (EAE). SAE refers to the “standard dialect” that “most” Americans use. EAE is this same concept, only written down and, you guessed it, edited. The concept of a “standard dialect” is, to put it mildly, fucking wild. It implies two things: one, that there is a standard to be met, and if said standard is not met, that your speech is subpar; and two, that there is a single dialect that an entire country should be using.

The demographic most likely to both speak and enforce SAE is, shockingly, the white upper class. The idea that it is something that should be taught in a standardized form dates back to grammar schools, a convention of the late 19th and early 20th century, where there was a massive emphasis on correct spelling, writing, and speech without regard for actual comprehension of the mode and manner of communication. Working class people looking to move up in the world sent their children to grammar schools so that they would learn how to speak and write “properly,” i.e., like the upper class.

This problem persists today, wherein people with dialects that are outside of the “norm” are often considered uneducated by their oppressors and punished for it. Communities of color and low-income communities receive the worst fallout from these stereotypes.

Now, obviously this is racist and classist as fuck. It is also, as you’ll find all prejudiced views to be, lacking in evidence that proves its veracity. Linguists have proven time and time again that SAE is not a more efficient, effective, or eloquent way of speaking than other dialects, nor does it say anything about intelligence or education. See suggested readings at the end of this post for more information, because this is still technically a blog and I can’t go on a full academic rant with in-text citations without losing some people.

Okay, so back to my dude Willy Shakes. Why is it dangerous for people to put his writing on a pedestal? Firstly, because the guy made more dick jokes per scene than a high school boy, and would have been horrified by the fact that we view his writing as “sophisticated.” Secondly, it halts the development of language to assume that older writing and dialects are inherently more beautiful  or valuable than those of modernity.

If you’re still not following, let me say it like this: language is supposed to change. If you’ve disagreed with what I’ve said so far you are a cold, stale, butterless piece of burnt toast. It’s supposed to have different dialects, none of which are inferior. Languages are supposed to blend and merge. If you work “pièce de résistance” into your everyday conversation, you’re a fancy little lad, but if you’re Gloria Anzaldúa–The U.S-Mexican border es una herida abierta–mixing tongues with all the fluidity and eloquence of a principal dancer on opening night, you’re told to “pick a language,” and “how are we supposed to know what you’re saying?” To that I’ll offer two pieces of advice: if you don’t what’s being said, either look it up, or perhaps consider that you are not the target audience. I know, fellow white people, it’s hard to imagine a world in which every piece of media was not created for us, but it’s the reality of things.

Alright, damn. Long rant. Glad I got that out of my system. I’d just like to end with saying that I am aware that I benefit from the social privilege of speaking SAE as my primary dialect, that I have written this blogpost in SAE, possibly with more swearing than my high school grammar textbooks taught me. That is to say, I am not an authority on the topic, nor have I any first-hand experience in language discrimination.

As mentioned previously, I have attached scholarly articles and other resources below should you wish to learn more from people who are far more knowledgeable than I.

Suggested readings:

Black Linguistics: Language, Society, and Politics in Africa and the Americas

Perceptual and Phonetic Experiments on American English Dialect Identification

Sociolinguistic nostalgia and the authenticity of identity

ACLU’s sheet on language discrimination and your rights

Yale Grammatical Diversity Project

 

“Yeah, that’s what [INSERT AUTHOR] said, too.”

I have a fine arts degree in communication design. I fought tooth and nail in a class of 40 to win one of 15 spots for it. I’d fall asleep studying in the library. I managed to scrape by my final semester in the worst throes of depression that I’ve experienced in my life. This is to say, I didn’t take my college grades lightly.

Even though my education was deathly serious to me and I sat through enough philosophy lectures for a small mammal to die of old age, ultimately I realized I didn’t want to use my degree. As you might have guessed, creative writing is not something I ever took higher education courses in—I wrote when I was a child, I wrote throughout grade school, and then I studied the structure of visual storytelling and tone for four years in university.

As someone who lived their life missing what some people might consider a necessary fundament in the creative writing process (and as someone who felt deathly dependent on knowing all of “the answers”), this realization left me feeling dangerously unprepared once I decided I wanted to write books. A lot of these insecurities I still grapple with: how am I ever going to land an agent, what if I can’t afford to attend writers’ workshops, my writing is likely terrible in comparison to others’, will anyone in this industry even take me seriously if I don’t have a masters degree in writing? That’s a lot of “what if’s” to entertain on top of the stress of writing, but that’s where I started–back before I’d drafted my kids series, back before I had any picture books written, way back before I even realized my first picture book about a caterpillar was essentially garbage.

So, what do you do? If you’re anything like I was, you assume everyone else who’s “made it,” who seems even remotely approachable has the answers for you. You keep your eyes peeled for Q&As on Goodreads and Reddit, you occasionally tweet at them in the hopes that your question is interesting enough to grab their attention, and if you’re really lucky, you attend author signings and ask them in person when the floor opens up to questions. After all, whatever they did worked, thus inherently they have some insight into what might work for you, too.

adult alone black and white blur
“I just want my first draft of my first book to be flawless.”

And this is true… to an extent. I was fortunate enough to work specifically on author signings at my local bookstore for a year, and I had the opportunity to speak with a variety of authors coming through as I helped host their events: Crystal Wilkinson, Isaac Marion, Jan Brett, John Scalzi, Greg Iles, Jeff Zentner, Kevin Sherry. Not only did I ask them if they had any tips for writers trying to get published, but without fail, whenever it was Q&A time some hopefuls in the audience would as well. And that’s great! If you love an author, you probably want to know how they got to where they stand now.

But I’m gonna let you in on a secret, friends: I didn’t love all of those authors. I loved a few of them (omg Marion), but most were just people promoting their careers, and we only saw each other as polite faces in a work setting. The benefit of talking to lots of authors about their “secrets” indiscriminately—even ones I felt no butterflies over—is that I can deliver this kernel of truth that I learned to others, this granule of experience.

They all said the exact same thing, once boiled down.

Thus, I have created an untouchable formula for how to be a Successful Writer:

 

Success = finding what works for you + lots of effort + reading + creative partnership

 

That’s it. No tricks, no big secret. Just finding your own rhythm, sticking with it, consuming other stories, and getting feedback on your own. Don’t get me wrong, it’s going to take a lot of patience; the publishing industry moves at a glacial pace in itself, but all of these things are going to take time from you, as well. A metric fuck-ton of it.

The point of this post is to say that if you’re anything like I was when I started writing, you might be inadvertently wasting time by collecting knowledge from those who came before you instead of actually applying yourself. Don’t get bogged down in the preparation stages. As my own CP and co-contributor Herb might agree, preparation is a slippery slope—it’s easy to find yourself feeling endlessly shorthanded, when in reality your toolbox has been full for months. So next time you feel like you need answers from someone more experienced, pause–open a word processor–and try writing instead. You’re good to go, friends.

Dialogue Part 1: Well That Escalated Quickly

Soap Opera Syndrome. It’s a totally real term that I did not make up just now. It refers to drama for the sake of drama, but, more than that, it’s dialogue escalation due to a lack of something better to do. You know the type of dialogue that goes something like,

“Why’d you do that?”

“Chill out. It’s not that big of a deal.”

“WELL IT IS TO ME.”

You stumble backwards, tripping on the previous paragraph to see if you were skimming and somehow missed the build-up to this explosion. Most of the time, of course, it’s not quite that dramatic of a tone switch, but there is still such a thing as escalating a dialogue too quickly.

In my highly dubious opinion, it’s not actually rapid escalation that’s the problem, but a lack of good reason for it. So let’s look at a couple of bad reasons to take it up a notch.

    1. The plot was getting boring. I’ve done this before. You’re writing, it begins to feel stale, alarms start going off and your first instinct is, NEED CONFLICT. Quick, throw in an argument! Create some dramaaaa. The problem is, the staleness was probably not due to the fact that your characters weren’t fighting, it’s that you’ve lost sight of the true conflict and need to work your way back to that.
    2. I wanted to shock the audience. A well-done unexpected outburst is very satisfying. But you have to explain it after. You have to make sure the audience realizes that it was not, in fact, unexpected, but rather they were looking at it from the perspective that wouldn’t have seen it coming, i.e., from a third person narrator who doesn’t have access to that character’s feelings, or a first person narrator who is not the person who had the outburst. Additionally, there has to be damage control afterwards. That can be in the form of quickly sweeping the drama under the rug if your character(s) are the avoidant type, or having them talk about “hey, what the fuck was that?” There’s nothing more jarring than a character suddenly exploding, and then watching literally everyone move on like nothing happened. It’s the same technique as when creators kill off a character for shock: the writer wants the reader to experience a jolt of surprise, but they don’t want to deal with the fallout of that surprise.
    3. My character is a hot-head. Okay. I really dread social situations, but that doesn’t mean I always hate talking to people. People have certain character traits due to their environment, not because they are given them by, say, some all-powerful writer who has breathed life into them and their world. And while quick-tempered people are certainly more likely to be snappy and or have a sudden onslaught of anger, over-use can be annoying, or more oft than not, mess with the tone of the scene. Were things tense to begin with? Are they in a stressful situation? Even a hot-head isn’t going to blow up if they’re lying in bed and watching ASMR videos when someone knocks on their door to ask them if they’ll come help with dinner.


So, solutions? Well, that’s a little trickier. Despite the ease with which I can describe the problem, actually knowing when it’s an issue verses when it’s appropriate is far more difficult. The simplest advice I can give is just to look at every argument (quickly escalated or otherwise) and ask yourself,

  1. why your characters are fighting,
  2. how it moves along the plot, and
  3. if you’ve properly set up the conflict.

So like… the same questions you ask yourself with pretty much any problem you’re having in your narrative.

Thanks for joining me for part one of my dialogue series, join me in two weeks for tips on awkward dialogue!

Character Games 101: RPGs

LET THE GAMES BEGIN.

I am very excited to start a new series of posts that marries the process of character development to different types of games! I am doing this in the hopes that it might 1) inspire people who aren’t confident in their characters to delve into them in a fun way, and 2) encourage those who write but who’ve never been into games to find the stories waiting for them there (video games are a wonderful medium of storytelling, but we will get to that at a later date). To start off, I’m going to talk about the most straightforward and possibly the most fun genre of gaming in which you can get to know your character

Character Games #1: Role-Playing Games

Good characters should be able to be boiled down to their most basic parts. What drives them? What are their weaknesses? What is their moral compass like? When we know these building blocks, the character is able to transcend one plane of reality we’ve developed for them and shift into any other that we like, because the circumstances through which we view them shouldn’t affect the essence of who they are. Think of “alternate universes” in fanfiction–just because your favorite Kingdom Hearts fanfiction is the one where Riku is Johnny Rotten doesn’t mean that what makes Riku Riku is any different. This flexibility of characters and their ability to translate into other worlds is what makes this first Character Game so much fun.

Take your pick of Role-Playing Game, or RPG. There are thousands to choose from: you might opt for a tabletop game, a fantasy campaign video game, a Massively Multiplayer Online RPG (MMORPG), or even just Live Action Role-Playing (LARPing). Despite what you choose, the concept is simple: play as your character. I am far from the first person to use this technique, and the reason for that is because while it is obviously fun, it also gives you and your character something to bond over, making it a great way to get to know yourself. You’ll have a story to complete together, enemies to defeat, mountains to climb. Along the way, as your character is forced to make choices you hadn’t thought of before, the gaps in their mental profile will fill naturally, which will be a boon once you are ready to return to writing.

If you were to put your character into D&D, what race would they be? What class would they play? A thief, or a bard, or a berserker? Would they be chaotic neutral, only doing whatever served themselves, or would they be lawful good, jumping to the rescue of whomever needed it without a second thought? How would they approach a dangerous situation? Weapons drawn, diplomatic, hesitant? What kind of loot would they enjoy, if they sought loot at all? Are they agreeable with the rest of your teammates, and what dynamic do they fill in that space–what relationship do your party members have with them?

Perhaps your character wants to meet Dragon Age’s Inquisition. What are their thoughts on the control of mages’ freedoms by The Circle, by templars? Are they a city-elf in an Alienage, or a Dalish apostate (rogue mage) who can shapeshift? Perhaps a Qunari, but even so, are they born in the Qun, or are they a Tal-Vashoth, and how do they feel about their caste ranking?

If your character were to join the battle for Skyrim, would they be a Nord fighting against Ulfric, much to the chagrin of their family, or would they perhaps be a beast-race, a khajiit who (for some reason) found their loyalty with the Stormcloaks? Would they practice Magicka? Adopt children? Are they scared of draugr (mummies), or spiders, or dragons? Or maybe you play them as being terrified of werewolves, and avoid Whiterun at all costs due to the rumors floating about the city? Which of the Divines do you think they would be likely to worship, if they were to worship any of them at all?

I can pitch fun questions to you all night and day, but unless you’ve inserted your character into these worlds before, you’re missing out. Being able to have fun with the familiarization process is not only something that we take for granted, but also a hidden joy of living in the time we do, where the medium of story-telling via gaming has never been more colorful and in-depth. So, dear reader, I would encourage you to hold your character’s hand and take a trip with them. Go to Azeroth, or Albion, or Mordor. Take them into another world and see what happens. It’ll be fun.

The 7 Habits of Mildly Effective English Majors

or, the war between my academic and creative side rages on

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m a recent college graduate. Majored in English, minored in convincing people that my major was a good idea. As an English major, I did a lot of writing. Like, a lot of writing. You’d be correct in assuming that this would be useful for a writer, but there are downfalls too.

*Cue academic tone*

In this essay, I will be discussing seven tools used in both creative and academic writing, the habits I have acquired as an English major regarding these tools, and how said habits have both helped and hindered my creative work.  

1. Research

If you happen to write works that require citations, you’re probably familiar with the way one conducts academic research. Combing library databases with keywords that never bring you quite the results you’re looking for, cursing JSTOR for not giving you access to literally anything, and, if you’re a sixty-year-old trapped in a twenty-year-old’s body, getting hyped when the library has a physical copy you can check out (they’re easier to browse, I swear). When I first realized I was unlocking the skill of research, I thought, “Score–this’ll help me with my creative work.” To some extent, that has proven true. I’m better at quick fact checks while writing, instead of shrugging my shoulders and making shit up. I’m better at note-taking, at tracking my sources, at streamlining to find exactly what I’m looking for. I’m grateful for these skills, but there are times when the academic style just isn’t going to cut it.

Example: I’m currently working on a creative project that has me looking into ideas concerning the intersection of psychological trauma and the supernatural. When I first started the research, I naturally went straight to my university’s database, began searching keywords, and downloaded a couple books and dissertations. It didn’t even occur to me that there are other ways to gain information besides wading through a grad student’s (genuinely interesting) work on ghosts in Irish literature. I spent a solid hour reading an article about the history of witchcraft before remembering that I’m not even writing about witchcraft, and another forty-five minutes looking up synopses for horror movies I haven’t seen so that I could better read a piece about childhood trauma and the paranormal. The lessons learned here are:

a) Emily is a giant nerd who likes to learn.

b) Stay focused. When I’m researching for an essay, I know what I’m looking for; I scan an article, and if it doesn’t seem to be relevant, I move on. When researching for a creative piece, I kept thinking, “you never know what’s going to be useful later!” thus allowing myself to delve into a research hole that, while interesting, is ultimately a form of procrastination. Which leads us to…

c)  Know when to quit. If I told you I spent a couple hours reading stuff that wasn’t relevant to my story, you can imagine how long I spent with the material that was. Did I need to spend a full week looking into one aspect of a story instead of actually writing the story? No, but it sure was a great way to put off doing the actual writing. And, thanks to my academically-oriented brain, a week seemed like a reasonable amount of time to spend on research. It’s worth mentioning that, for some creative projects, a week or a month or a year might indeed be a perfectly apt amount of time to spend doing research. If you need to know all there is to know about Santa Claus’s origin story, then it might take a while (he’s a complicated guy). But if you’re just doing a quick dip into why we call different groups of birds different names, don’t spend hours learning about English hunting traditions. In an essay, you need to gather as much information on the subject as your schedule permits before you even begin to write it, so that you can make an informed argument from there, but in creative writing, you can only do so much research before you have to… you know, write. 

books on shelf in library

2. Making an Argument

When writing an essay, I continually ask myself questions like, “What is your point?” “What is the argument?” “Why does it matter?” These are valid and important questions; they help me cut out unnecessary information. And actually, they can be very important questions to ask with your creative writing too, but there’s a different way to go about it. In academic writing, I ask myself these questions while I’m prepping, outlining, writing. But in creative writing, I have to save these kind of questions until after the first draft. If I’m screaming at my characters “WHAT IS THE POINT OF YOU?” all throughout a rough draft, I’m probably going to give up, because that’s just depressing.  

Regarding the question of argument: a lot, if not most, of literature does not have a distinct argument to speak of. If you suffer from Academia Syndrome like me, it’s such an ingrained thing to want in your writing that sometimes your creative stuff can get… preachy. Preachy is not the same as political–you can have a piece that has a very clear political message that doesn’t involve the characters breaking down the fourth wall and handing you the moral of the story in a neatly wrapped conclusion with citations. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. A Christmas Carol is a hundred and fifty pages of Charles Dickens putting the upper class English into a chokehold and saying, “but really, REALLY, can you stop using your money as toilet paper?  In general, though, the idea of argument is one that should be left to the essay formatting.

3. Outlining

Speaking of the essay format, let’s talk prep work. One of the best things that my academic career has taught me is how to plan what I’m going to write. I used to dive head first into stories without any idea as to where I was headed, and while I understand that this is a technique that some people use successfully, I am not one of them. I’m so governed by structure that if I start something without at least a vague idea of where I’m going, there is a 98 percent chance that I will give it up. So thanks to academia for forcing me to do thorough outlining. The one thing to be wary of is being so busy following at outline that you don’t let yourself think outside of what you’ve already planned. When I’m writing an essay, especially if I’m on a time crunch of “If I finish this I can finally go to bed” then I’m going to be following that outline without detour. I’ve done the research, I know my argument, now all I have to do is write. But with a story, it’s much more likely that I’ll realize a massive plot hole, or find a much more interesting way to get from point A to point B, or get deeper into a character’s psyche and realize they would never make that decision, etc., so I’ve learned to leave room for improvement.

idea bulb paper sketch

4. Sentence Structure

Please compare these two scenarios and spot the differences:

a) A compliment from a professor: “You write such long, beautiful sentences. Look at this one: half a paragraph. Amazing.”

b) Comments that Verb leaves on my stories: “Is there a way to make this more succinct?” “This is a little rambling” and “Good lord Emily this sentence is so convoluted you might as well stick a minotaur in it and call yourself Daedalus.”

For reasons that probably have to do with the fact that the longer the sentence, the harder it is to read, and therefore by some skewed logic the smarter you have to be to parse it, scholarly writing is chock full of unnecessarily long sentences. It’s great, for the sole reason that it means I can get away with sentences that find their purpose 3/4 of the way through like a protagonist in a coming of age novel. It’s also not great because the habit has transferred over to my creative writing, and Verb isn’t going to put up with that bullshit. Of course, the thing you want to be wary of is not long sentences in general, but rather, long sentences that could easily be shorter without losing an ounce of meaning.

5. Tone

Every single scholarly article I’ve ever read has the air of someone who’s sitting in a leather armchair in a study that smells like fancy bathrobes and outdated source materials while sipping on scotch and saying, “Listen darling, it’s none of my business, but logically speaking, if you’re looking at Homer’s Odyssey through the proper historical lens, the sirens clearly represent his lust for sex rather than knowledge, and furthermore, if you’ll just turn your attention to page 407 of Fitzgerald’s translation–because what are we, animals?–you’ll see that blah blah blah…” I’m going to be honest, I (un?)ironically love that tone. It’s interesting, hilarious on occasion, and meant to keep you somewhat objective, though admittedly that fails more often than not. I’ve spent a lot of time replicating this tone, figuring out its trigger vocab words and structure. However, I totally get why a lot of people find it unspeakably boring, and therefore I’ve prepared a three-step process to avoid having it leak into my fictional writing. At this point the blog just becomes me talking to myself.

Project No Fancy Robes Step 1: destroy objectivity. It doesn’t exist anyways, and there’s no reason why your narrator would keep a neutral tone unless, for example, they’re a scholar, sitting in their study, sipping on some scotch while calmly and dispassionately telling you about their battle to the death with a fellow scholar who had the gall to use Fagle’s translation of the Odyssey. I’ve found myself falling into a weird pattern in which I have my narrator justifying or rationalizing other character’s actions simply because I, as the author, know their motives and therefore feel the need to be objective. Impartial narrators can work, but if you’re not using one, don’t go out of your way to make them try and be fair.

Project No Fancy Robes Step 2: don’t point out themes. For the love of god, Emily, don’t point out themes. If you’re using the concept of themes properly, subtly, with a level of finesse that would make Kurt Vonnegut proud, then the reader will be able to figure it out without you putting a big neon sign up that says, “we’re talking about sexism.”

Project No Fancy Robes Step 3: spare the details. That cool fact? That interesting piece of information that you are sure is relevant to your story? It’s not. Cut it. It doesn’t add validity to your argument because you don’t have an argument.

pile of covered books
Just fuckin’ cut the deadwood, y’know? (This is Verb, by the way. Sometimes I crash Herb’s posts.)

7. Reading as a writer vs. reading as a scholar

This has less to do with the struggle of writing, but since reading is an integral part of writing, I figured I’d mention it anyways. The way I read books as an English major is antithetical to the way I read them as a writer. When I’m reading a book for school, I’m looking at social and historical context, finding symbolism, scouring for an aspect I find interesting enough to write an entire essay on. When I’m reading as a writer, I’m thinking, “wow, I care a lot about this character. Why is that? What did the author do?” “Hm, this section is losing my attention, what went wrong? What can I learn from that?” Both are valid and fun ways of reading, but I have not found a way to do both at once successfully. Sometimes when I’m reading for pleasure I hear the little English professor demon on my shoulder, tempting me to really concentrate on that fire imagery instead of just reading. This isn’t so much a problem as a minor side effect of my academic choices, but it’s worth noting, since it falls under the category of “habits I picked up whilst majoring in English.”

7. Oh my god you just wrote a 2000 word BLOG POST with numbered sections and academic jargon are you even listening to your own advice?

No, I’m not.

In conclusion, some of the habits you picked up while writing for university are bad if overused, or bad for creative writing in general. But if you are by some miracle still reading this, hopefully you got that and this tell-them-what-you-told-them outro is useless, as most essay outros are.