Begin at the end. Or some shit.

Today was all about where you start your story.

Buddy Christ's seal of approval.

My professor has a knack for asking a question or posing a problem and never really answering it. For example, she asked several people today where to start their stories. But she never stated why the individual’s proposed beginnings were problematic. My story started with the discovery of a dead body. She suggested I start later. I have no idea why. I thought a dead body was a good beginning to a story. Which is why I did it.

But anyway, deciding where your story begins is difficult. Mostly because you feel like everything you say is important to the plot. Sometimes that’s true. A lot of the time it isn’t, a lot of the time it’s what they like to call “throat clearing”. I don’t like that phrase (I don’t like a lot of phrases writers use. Like “show don’t tell”. The fuck does that mean? It’s a fucking story, you’re telling it. God that was said so much in class today I wanted to stab myself with my pen. But then I realized that it would ruin my pen.). But that’s what it is, it’s you getting shit out of the way that you want to put down on paper but you have no idea where it actually belongs.

So how do you know where the *shudder* throat clearing ends and your story begins? Well, you’ll probably sense it. But really it’ll be all in the rereading when you’re editing. Once you get to the end, once you know what is actually important to the conclusion, you can see how the beginning fits that. Since my story is a murder mystery, I figured the dead body was a good way to start. But if I get to the end and decide it’s a story about a girl and a dog, maybe I’ll begin differently.

It’s also an important decision to make depending on what you’re writing. If it’s a short story, you need to get shit going pretty fucking quickly. You don’t have time for meandering. I recently read a Jhumpa Lahiri story that basically follows a whole life in 15 pages. She didn’t have time for-UGH-throat clearing. Novels give you a little more leeway. But only a little bit. Because your reader invests more in reading a novel, you have to hook them and hook them fast. If you meander too much, they’re going to get bored. I feel sorry for novel writers. They have a lot of shit to get together.

This is also why I feel like editing when you finish is a good idea. Because if you don’t actually have the ending written, you don’t know how it’s going to work out, how the fuck are you going to know where to start? You won’t, that’s how. You’ll just keep editing and editing your beginning and never finish. Well, that’s what I’d do, at least. I don’t know you. 

 

Okay, so, yeah. Write better beginnings.

Enter title here

So how hard should you work to make sure that your reader understands what you’re trying to say?

Talk to the hand because the face ain't listening

I mean, that’s basically the question every writer asks himself at least once. And the answer is kind of…douchey. Which is to say, you work your ass off without making it seem like you worked your ass off.

Readers, and I’m saying this as a reader first and a writer second/third/last, do not want to be aware of the author. We don’t care about you. We don’t want to see you manipulating the characters to do what you think we want them to do. We don’t want to wonder if the dialogue is real or if it’s another trick. At the heart of it, unless you’re talking to a pretentious jerk, readers don’t want to consider the fact that someone else created the story. For 200 or 300 pages, we kind of want to believe we’re reading a snippet of a real life.

That can’t be done if you’re constantly showing the reader how clever you are. So you’re tasked, as the writer, with the seemingly impossible job of making writing so effortless that it looks true.

You have to let the story be told. I know that sounds like horseshit, but just hear me out. If you have a strong enough story, you won’t have to explain shit to the reader. You won’t have to use SAT words or a constant string of analogies. And you won’t bore the reader. Stories are interesting on their own. Think about how long storytelling has been around. If one thing can be said about humans it’s that we love to listen to how fucked up or crazy someone else’s life is. Look at how many gossip magazines there are to say, I don’t know, encyclopedias. Shit ton of gossip magazines. And all I can think of is Encyclopedia Britannica.

It relates to my post about word choice  last week. Don’t use the word envisage when think will do. Don’t complicate the story if the story isn’t complicated.

Also, be careful with narration. Especially first person narration. If your story is in the first person, I want your narrator to relate to other characters using the same language and vocabulary as he narrates the story. There cannot be a disconnect between your narrator’s dialogue and inner thoughts. UNLESS it’s intentional. And by intentional, I mean your narrator actually mentions to the reader at some point that he talks to certain people in certain ways. Because if there is a noticeable difference between the narration style and the dialogue, it’s immediately obvious we’re in story. The reader feels manipulated and maybe bored.

That’s not as much of a problem with second or third person narration depending on how close you are. It might be something you have to consider when you’re in close third person. What am I saying, might. It is. It is something you have to consider. So consider it. And second person is a whole different bag of nuggets. Second person is like the three chambered peanut. You don’t know why it happens and it’s a little scary at first, but once you realize it was a bonus tasty treat, it becomes acceptable.

Now I’m not saying you have to dumb shit down for readers. Which is difficult to do, as well, unless you’re already dumb. Then I guess it’s easy. I wouldn’t know. I’m not dumb (shut up).

I’m a huge advocate of writing how you talk. But I know that most of the time it’s not plausible to write that way. At least not if you want to be considered literary. And it is fun to throw in the occasional pretty sentence. God knows I don’t talk prettily.

A good writer knows when to step back. He treats his characters like people and lets them act accordingly. He realizes that books are, for the most part, an escape. Readers don’t want to be preached to, we want to sit down and watch shit unfold. That’s why reality TV is so popular. That and people are stupid.

Guess who’s back, back again

Allo! Did you have as fantastic a summer as I did? Probably not. My summer is what I like to call “fucking glorious”. I was more than a little disappointed when I realized it was over and I have to go back to being an adult with responsibilities and gross stuff like that. But hey, there’s still rum, right? Silver lining.

The semester for me started yesterday. It’s going to be a long one. I can tell.

I don't know why I don't have a giant book labeled "Excuses". Maybe Borders has them....too soon.

The first day of workshops is always the most boring. I constantly consider skipping them. I don’t because a lot of the time the workshopping schedule is decided and never want to be stuck on a terrible day (in this case, she made up the schedule which was annoying because now I have to go through the hassle of changing one of my days since I won’t be there). Inevitably, your professor is going to make you go around the room, say your name (Yermama), why you’re there (because I had nothing better to do with $1500?), and what you like to write (fanfiction. Always fanfiction). Sometimes you’ll get asked what you’re working on (An EPIC Doctor Who fanfic in which I’m captured by Daleks and the Doctor has to save me. He doesn’t know that I’m secretly his wife from another dimension) and/or what you like to read (Playboy magazine). If you’re in a program, as I am, then you’re going to end up hearing the same shit over and over again about your classmates.

Workshop first days are rapidly becoming a study on what I’m not going to do on my first days when I become a professor. Because no one cares what you’re saying, we’re busy thinking about what we’re going to say. Or we’re thinking about what we have to do when we finally get to leave. Melissa Bank did it the best I think, she had us email a mini-biography of sorts about ourselves to her before class, because this “go around and tell everyone about yourself” business is really just for the teacher. And for the shallow people who like to talk about themselves. The rest of us either want to learn something or go home. Or not travel 2 hours by train just to hear that Joey Kissass loves the works of Pretentious Author Mcgee.

I’m going to try hard in this class, I promise. I try hard in all of my classes. I’m not as slackery as my laziness would suggest.

Anyway, out of all the things we talked about in class (besides my not being able to use my thesis for workshopping and having to do an in class exercise), one thing I noted in particular was word choice. Being quite a fucking wordsmith my damn self, I think wit mah headstuff this was an interesting topic.

At the time, the professor was picking on a dude who used the word elegant in his scene. A word I’m pretty sure no one else paid attention to aside from her. And when she made him read the sentence again, it, again, didn’t strike me as anything special.

But that was the point. What does elegant mean? What do you picture when someone says “Jackie had a rope elegantly tied around her neck”? Nothing remarkable. I just see a woman with a rope around her neck. Telling me it’s elegant, isn’t exactly telling me anything. Professy Wessy also said the same goes for words like beautiful, handsome, etc. They’re not helping the reader picture your scene. Because beauty, elegance, and the like mean different things to everyone. For example, I think this vampire is hot. Others think this vampire is hot.

There’s no accounting for taste.

So yeah, choose your words wisely. I mean, I know it’s difficult. I just did a search on my complete thesis document (over 300 pages, what whaaat) and I used the word beautiful 17 times. Granted some of it may have been within dialogue, and my professor said you can say anything in dialogue. Then again she told someone that she didn’t think one of the characters in her scene would say a particular thing. After hearing the character say one line before that. And not knowing anything about the character. But whatever. Say what you want! In dialogue! Exclamation point!

My professor says those words are lazy.

(She also said pop culture references are lazy. I, for one, like pop culture references. Yeah, it dates the material or whatever, but I like to feel like my characters are in a real world. Pop culture is in the real world. So, take that as you will. I’m not a bestselling author, she apparently is. Who you gonna believe?)

I don’t think those words are lazy, I think they’re a product of you either writing too fast and not knowing exactly what you want to say or you have an image in your mind that is difficult to translate onto paper. I’m completely terrible at setting up scenes (and, somehow through 4 semesters of the MFA program, I have yet to get better at it) so I know that images can be hard to write. D$GJ is the master of imagery, talk to him if you want help. He might not help you, though. He’s busy.

I absolutely hate it when published authors say something is lazy like the moment they got published, writing became a cakewalk. I get it, you’re hot shit, we should emulate you. Whatev. There’s so much to think about when you’re writing and also want to be published, it’s very easy for a word like beautiful to slip through. And, I don’t know, I’ve seen plenty of books become NYT bestsellers with it in there. Hell, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Beautiful and Damned and I’m pretty sure he’s one of the best authors ever. But I’m biased.

So go forth, beautiful writers! Create handsome works of elegance!

And stay away from vampires.

Living la vida crazy

Well hallo thar. I vaguely promised a post during the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, but I forgot to take into account that I was not planning on bringing my computer. Which made posting difficult. Thus why I did not do it.

Only BAMFs have unread messages. The rest of us read them right away.

Anyway, so all in all, I didn’t learn much at the festival. Well, not much that I didn’t already know from the program. My workshop was pretty informative, though. My teacher was only slightly older than I am (well, so it seemed. Maybe she was older than she looked. I’m not the greatest judge of ages.) and that gave me hope for my becoming a professor soon. At least as long as I publish something. That’s apparently important.

She said one or two interesting things about making sci fi/fantasy stories fresher and more appealing to wider audiences. She told me, in fact, not to call my book a book of short stories but a novel in parts because that would make it more marketable. Which I agreed with. But I’m not publishing it, so there’s that. But she was right, so whatever.

We did, however, have an interesting discussion about dealing with the race or ethnicity of your characters. I was all “Race? LOL, wut’s that?” because, you know, I don’t see skin color. I only see the colors of the American flag. And I also see the horrendous colors some people think go together.

Seriously, though, most writers are guilty of making their characters white. It’s just what happens. Although, I’m sure non-white writers make it a point to create characters that aren’t white. (I only did it just recently, but that’s because the concept of race bores me. I’m more interested in witty banter and a good story, not giving a very important lesson to my reader about tolerance or whatever. I’m not saying tolerance isn’t important, but that’s not what I’m writing about). It’s easier for them to be able to do such a thing because there won’t be a question of authenticity. The moment you create a character that is non-white, everyone is going to be all in your shit about authenticity. “Would a black kid say something like that?” “Do hispanics really call everyone mami and papi?” “Why isn’t your asian good at math?”

Okay. Yeah. So, you get it. Also, unless your editor is a racist, that last question probably won’t be asked. And if it is, maybe get a new editor? That shit ain’t right.

My teacher said that she was once told by a professor of hers that race is never mentioned in a story unless the character isn’t white. Everyone is going to assume that the character is white right from the get go. And think about it. I’m sure you’ve done that. I do it all the time. I did it a couple of  finished books back while reading The Demon’s Covenant by Sarah Rees Brennan. It was mentioned, a couple of times now that I’m looking back on it, that the narrator was black but it went over my head. When it was mentioned again in the last couple of pages of the book, I was all “She’s black? When did that happen?”

The point is, not only did Brennan do it so seamlessly (race was mentioned but it didn’t become a BIG DEAL because there were other more important things for the characters to consider at the moment. Like, you know, demons.) but the character didn’t become a token. She didn’t force stereotypes onto the character to make her more real or some bullshit. And she didn’t use race to gain sympathy for the character. It was fantastic (In fact, if you ever want to know how to correctly write a character who isn’t of your race, I suggest you read that book. I give much props to Brennan).

And I believe that’s the key to writing a non-white character. Honestly, there’s no need to continuously draw attention to race unless it’s a central issue of your story (Which, I think that’d be sort of lame, but whatever you want to do is up to you). Non-white characters are no different than white ones in pretty fundamental ways. They’re still people, damn it.

I’m not saying you should just write a non-white character completely as you’d write a white one. That wouldn’t work. It’d confuse the reader, since there are things that will come up with say, a Puerto Rican character that wouldn’t come up with a white one. For example, I recently created a Puerto Rican character who occasionally slips into Spanish. I modeled that off of my mom, who will toss in a Spanish phrase or two in passing. My character doesn’t do it all the time; she doesn’t get all sassy and call people chica. She’ll just swear in Spanish every once in a while. Her boyfriend thinks it’s sexy. Which it is. Because hispanics are fucking sexy.

If your character interacts with his/her family a lot, then culture and whatnot is going to come into play. The dynamics of an Asian family are going to be different from a black family. That’s when research comes in handy.

And that’s the main thing. If you’re going to create a character who is of a race you’re not familiar with, you’re going to have to research. Then you’re going to have to determine what part of that research is relevant. Is the Han Dynasty important to your Chinese character? Probably not. So don’t force a dialogue where that comes up just to point out that your character is Chinese. You’ll look like a douche. But maybe your character’s favorite food is a traditional Chinese dish that her grandmother makes. Maybe she gets a craving for it when she’s fighting off a zombie apocalypse. You see? You see what I did there?

Basically what it comes down to is don’t be a douche. Do your research, but also don’t treat your character like some sort of alien. Avoid stereotypes like Tea Partiers avoid logic. Don’t have him shouting “BEANS AND CORNBREAD“. Not all white people say “bro” and “dude” all the time.

But yes, all hispanics are fucking sexy. True facts.

Stop ta-ta-ta-talkin’ that

See, this is the stuff that happens to me. I start a blog or a journal or whatever then I get bored with it. I shall try to press on.

Well, I might be tired too. Not doing homework is exhausting.

Ohhhkay! Gonna talk about characters today! Yay! Really, they’re the most important part of your story. Well. I guess character and story go hand and hand. Because you won’t read a book that has a shitty premise with good characters and you won’t like a book with shitty characters but a good premise. Or maybe you will, I don’t know your life.

Anyway, sometimes making characters is hard. Sometimes you’ll have a story all set up but creating a plausible character escapes you. Or maybe you just can’t get a character right. It happens. It’s never happened to me because I’m awesome, but I’m sure it’s happened to others so you’re not some sort of character failing freak. No. I’m kidding. Maybe.

You have to know your characters well. They have to have more of a history than you do. Because you have to be able to put them in any situation and have them act in character. To do this, some people suggest a character bio. I, however, don’t like character bios. I think they’re kind of lame and unproductive. Just listing your characters’ likes and dislikes and hobbies and shit? You’re not setting them up on eHarmony. What I like to do is a character sketch. Which is basically writing them in a brief scene that reveals their nature. When I’m done with my sketch then I may or may not write down things about the character that I don’t want to forget, like some historical facts about them or whatever. But only after I have my sketch.

An initial character sketch will help you later on if you’re getting writing prompts. Personally, I don’t like in-class prompts that much because they’re usually really random (I had to write about what came to me when looking at an old football  and I responded with playing around with my phone for 20 minutes and writing something shitty last minute because I HAD to.) and I think they’re difficult to do on the fly. But I’m not the type of writer who can write when you tell me to. Because I don’t like being told what to do. BUT after thinking about a prompt, they’re really useful for getting to know your character further. Obviously. You might think it’s useless to know what your character would say if he were thrown into a bear cage, however, it could perhaps give you insight on how your character acts under high pressure situations. I mean, your character should come across conflict in your story or you’re doing it wrong, so see how that would help?

Also, a lot of the time I make shit up on the spot when I’m asked about a character. For some reason I find it easier to remember details when I make them up in the heat of the moment. I do it all the time (It also impresses people, they think you know your character really well when you answer right away). And usually if it is the first thing you think of, it’s probably right. That’s why women don’t do well on standardized tests; they second guess themselves and change their first answer, which is usually the correct one. So. Fail.

When you don’t know your character well, it shows. Recently in class, I remarked that someone knew one of her characters more than the others, which made the scenes she wrote with the good character more entertaining and interesting.

(Tangent: why is it pea-khan instead of pea-can? There’s no letter in the spelling that would make the “khan” sound. Also, why to people pronounce car-a-mel as car-mul? There are 2 A’s. And the last I checked mel wasn’t mul. While we’re at it: sam-on? There’s an L! SAL-mon. English is so weird.)

Anyway, this person confirmed that the less interesting character was the one she found harder to write. So, it was suggested that she put the character is a compromising situation just so she’d know how he’d react and get it out of the way (in this case it was make the character have sex) so that question wasn’t hanging over her head. By avoiding the situation, she wasn’t letting herself get to know the character enough to write him well.

Now, for people having problems with place instead of character, this second half is for YOU!

Miraculously, I found out that I was doing something correctly when I asked Lou Ann Walker how one goes about describing a place that doesn’t exist. I mean, that sounds like it’d be easy, but it’s not. Well, not technically. Because the thing is, it has to be believable. Your reader has to see your fictional place and say to himself “oh yeah, that reminds me of that podunk town I had to pee in when I was driving across the country”. It can’t be vague because that will call attention to the fact that you made it up. Which will distract your reader. People read with visualizations, if they can’t visualized what you’re talking about, they lose interest. I can’t say I read that way, because I know I don’t since I’m always being told that my stories lack scene.

So I brought this question up in class a while back and, whoa ho, look whose writer costume is looking especially realistic. Yeah, that’s right bitches. Mine.

Lou Ann suggests you make a map of your fictional place.

Guess who did that about a month before asking the question?

Yeah, that’s also right, bitches. Me.

Okay, so how does this help? Well, if you know what shit looks like, it’ll be easier for you to write it. It might also hinder you, though. Because you’ll know it so well, you’ll forget that everyone else doesn’t. But if you’re good, you’ll get around that.

Anyway, I’m “tired” now. Hope that was informative.

Oh PS, Tell me some books to read. Rules: FICTION, no women writers, no fantasy if you can help it, and no YA. Aaaaand GO!

When things start going right

SO! I know I should not be updating on my thesis as much as I am, seeing as this blog is about the writing process and not my own bullshit, but I have another thesis related update for you.

…I’ll give you time to click away if you are uninterested.

I looked like this in another life.

Anyway, I am now back on track with the thesis. I have decided to cut one of the stories that I felt wasn’t meshing well with the others (it wasn’t playing nice. It was the antisocial smelly kid in your fourth grade class). I have also gone back to actually writing shit, which is good, because my goal to be done by the end of the semester is getting pretty close. But, the most exciting of it all is I have a thesis advisor now. So, I’ll actually be whipped into shape and told what the fuck I’m supposed to be doing. Remember kids, sometimes you have to actually be nice to people if you want to get around in this world. A lesson I learned the hard way (thanks, Eckerd). But yeah, it’s good to be writing again. Soul crushing despondence isn’t good for productivity.

Today we talked about what you do after you’re finished with your first novel. Since I’m not actually going to be published, I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention. Well, that’s a lie. To teach, I’m going to have to publish. But, I mean, I’m not going to walk out of this program with a book deal, is what I’m saying. I paid enough attention so that I can relate necessary information to anyone who may need it (i.e D$GJ), though.

So, what does one do when the daunting task of the first novel is completed? I mean, you can’t expect to live off one novel for your whole life. I heard that someone got a $30,000 advance on their novel, which was followed by the fact that you usually get about (or almost) half of your total money when you get an advance. Which would mean $60,000 a book? Yeah, you’re not living off of that for the rest of your life, so get over that shit really quickly. Anyway, the serious author will be wanting to make a career out of it. So what you should do, what was recommended to us by an author in the know, was you should start your second novel right away.

“How the fuck am I supposed to do that?” you might be asking. “It took me long enough to get my shit together for the first damn novel!” Well, if you calm the fuck down, I’ll tell you how you do that.

What was suggested is that you get a folder, whether tangible or virtual is up to you, and put into it every and any idea you get for a novel. Because really, having an idea is the hardest damn part. Sometimes it comes to you out of the blue and you’re all “FUCK YEAH! I’m writing that!” and then sometimes you’re sitting at your computer for a decade and a half and the word document is still blank. You don’t want to be that one novel douchebag, or the guy who waits too long to write a second novel and everyone forgets about you. Having your ideas in one place will help. I would even take it one step further and write scenes and stuff as they come to you. I do that a lot. I also take scraps from other stories that don’t particularly fit and work them into something else. I will grudgingly admit that Ursula Hegi taught me that. Also, keep writing. Submit to literary magazines just to keep your name out there and to keep from getting out of the game (I’m going to go over the whole literary magazine thing later. If you knew the shit that went down with them, you’d never want to write again). Basically what I’m saying is don’t write the first novel then be like, “well, mission accomplished bitches. Where’s my private island and my rum fountain?”

I guess I was informative after all. Don’t underestimate me, bitches.