Original cover art by Jaime Hernandez from The Complete Love and Rockets Book 9: Flies On the Ceiling, published by Fantagraphics, October 1991.
I have 3 word documents open that I can’t seem to add anything to so I’m going to do silly top 5 lists instead
In 1963, a sixteen-year-old San Diego high school student named Bruce McAllister sent a four-question mimeographed survey to 150 well-known authors of literary, commercial, and science fiction. Did they consciously plant symbols in their work? he asked. Who noticed symbols appearing from their subconscious, and who saw them arrive in their text, unbidden, created in the minds of their readers? When this happened, did the authors mind?
“The conclusion I came to was that nobody had asked them. New Criticism was about the scholars and the text; writers were cut out of the equation. Scholars would talk about symbolism in writing, but no one had asked the writers.”
Phillip Lopate, “Writing personal essays: on the necessity of turning oneself into a character” (via insomnius)
Very relevant to writing on tumblr, where your personal essays can and will be disconnected at any given moment from the personal space of your page and shot out into the impersonal tumblrsphere, deidentified and stripped of context.
Female characters can be physically weak, unusual, “unattractive” or disabled and be well-written characters.
Female characters can be emotionally fragile and be well-written characters.
Female characters can be introverted, shy, frightened, inexperienced or have little personal agency and be well-written characters.
Female characters can be assertive, defensive, volatile, stubborn or manipulative and be well-written characters.
Female characters can be dynamic, changing drastically in their beliefs and/or behaviors over the course of a story, and be well-written characters.
Female characters can be any damn sexuality and have any degree of sexual desire/knowledge or lack thereof and be well-written characters.
Female characters can present as feminine, masculine or anywhere in-between and be well-written characters.
Female characters can be anything at all and still be well-written characters because women are, as deeply disturbing as it is that this keeps needing to be said, people and have an infinite range of traits, personality types, appearances, life experiences, biases, preferences, disorders, abilities and belief structures that determine their behaviors. As long as a writer is being thoughtful and purposeful about their choices while writing a character, a female character does not need to be strong in a culturally determined sense to be a well-written character. There seem to be so many voices in the world demanding otherwise and discouraging writers from writing female characters by holding them to nearly unattainable double-standards of what makes a quality female character; expectations that place “acceptably feminist” female characters in a tiny box between the walls of “realistic” and “powerful” and “role-model material,” and result in characters whom a lot of women and girls would not be able to identify with.
So, basically, dear world-at-large,
Can we please not tell writers that they’re bad people for struggling earnestly with writing female characters, when the fact of the matter is that what they’re really struggling to be is better writers who are also feminist, in spaces where they’re facing criticism and censure from one side by misogynists who attack them for writing female characters outside of a sexualized or objectified context at all and the other side by fellow feminists for writing female characters who aren’t strong-willed or good-hearted or badass enough for their own personal tastes?
THANK YOU AND GOODNIGHT
Strong Female Character is a trap. Can we stop using that phrase now please?
Quotable Arts by Evan Robertson / Obvious State
this is genius
“Avoid cliché” – good advice, of course, advice you get early as a writer and never lose. But if the advice remains, the reasons for it can get lost, particularly as there’s more than one type of cliché, and more than one way it can harm writers and readers.
Here, in roughly ascending order of iniquity, are five types of cliché. I sometimes shudder at them as a reader, but more often as a writer – I’m not immune to them, nobody is, and it’s in a spirit of confession not superiority that I’m writing this.
BOILERPLATE: What Maura Johnston, a Twitter conversation that inspired this piece, called the “lettuce of writing”. Flavourless shreds of words, dotted here and there around a piece just because they came to mind so easily. Look, there was one just now – “here and there” is doing no work in that sentence at all, it just emerged as I wrote.
Boilerplate’s damage, I think, is mostly tonal: it creates waffle where none is needed, and makes everything just a touch greyer. Sometimes changing it up for something livelier can impede flow, though – there is only so much thinking you’re going to get a reader to do, and you should probably save your most interruptive language for your best ideas.
A classic example of business boilerplate is “In today’s [x] marketplace”, where [x] is “dynamic”, “fast-moving”, “ever-changing” etc. – this never adds anything to the sentence it introduces, and it’s particularly bad because you’re almost always throwing away the beginning of a piece or blurb.
EMBEDDED METAPHORS: A level up from boilerplate, these are metaphors which once might have been fresh but are now so automatic we barely unpick them at all. “Sophomore album”, “vocal gymnastics”, “raw talent”, “outside the box”, “blue-sky thinking” – yes, the enervated poetics of ‘business speak’ fit well here.
Occasionally the metaphor actually sucks, and fun can be had teasing out why. Mostly they’re perfectly good analogies which simply no longer tickle the synapses. They’re worse than boilerplate only in that they signal you as a lazier writer, happy to take the – here we go – path of least resistance.
BORROWED STYLE: A slightly harder one to nail down which is why being accused of it gets people defensive. The language here may be fresh, the cliché lies in the tone of voice. Once a few people have spotted the borrowed style it becomes recognisable (and laughable) everywhere – think the winsome packaging tone pioneered by Innocent on their smoothies.
Is it always harmful? Not necessarily, there can be something reassuring about it, like spotting a familiar landmark. But it can be toxic, imprisoning even the very good ideas it contains: research reports and white papers, for instance, suffer horribly from the overused ‘school science experiment’ style. “METHOD: A sample of 1000 was recruited” etc etc.
TIRED CITATIONS: There’s nothing wrong with proverbs and truisms, but there’s also a reason you don’t often see people sagely note that “too many cooks spoil the broth” in a published article: there’s no way to present it as an original thought any more. But the army of overfamiliar quotes and aphorisms you see on business blogs and publications shows no signs of such humility. The power of these quotes – to underline and sell an idea – rapidly diminishes through sheer overuse and they seem to blend into a meaningless whole. Half my customers want a faster horse – but I don’t know which half.
Outside the persuasion industry the problem is less acute but anyone whose seen the “dancing about architecture” quote wielded in anger will know what I’m talking about.
Tired quotes get us to the central problem with cliché. Someone who peppers their marketing blog with the same quotes found on every other marketing blog gives the distinct impression of never reading anything other than marketing blogs. If the quotes are second-hand, won’t the ideas they back up be too? (And yes, the same thing definitely goes for citing the same old case studies, experiments, etc. too.)
UNEXAMINED IDEAS: So we’ve gone through hackneyed phrases, metaphors, styles and examples to get to the real issue – what happens when ideas themselves get baked into writing and rolled out unopposed? This is the point at which cliché shades into stereotype or ambiguity. A very open-ended, ambiguous word like “real” or “viral” or “engagement” gets dropped into a piece, because it can be reached for easily as a substitute for what they actually are talking about. The peculiar danger of these clichés is different from others – in other cases, the cliché is a cliché because it has an agreed-on meaning (more or less). In this case, the cliché is a handwave, and the reader rushes to fill the gap with their own understanding of what a word means. The effect is the same, though – nothing new gets through
Research at the moment is full of these words, and in another piece I’ll take a look at some of the most virulent. In the meantime, explorers of cliché should read (if they haven’t already) the best ever book on the topic, Gustave Flaubert’s brilliant and sometimes cruel Dictionary Of Received Ideas.
reblogged so I can stop doing five out of five every sentence
[Description: Photoset of the book covers of sci-fi novelist Octavia E. Butler.]
Satire: IT IS DIFFICULT.
If you don’t know WTF you’re doing, you will end up with this kind of clusterfuck.
Which is not uncommon. Satire is brutal. Badly-executed satire will take down its writer much faster than its target.
Because when you fail at satire, you have not only written something crappy, you’ve probably insulted your audience.
It’s not for amateurs. Satire is some next-level shit, writing-wise. You need to have actual writing ability, not just possession of a keyboard. Attempting it without a lot of thought and preparation will not go well.
And blaming everyone for failing to get your joke will not be a sufficient defense for your inability to properly execute it.
Zadie Smith - On Writing
1 When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
2 When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
3 Don’t romanticise your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle”. All that matters is what you leave on the page.
4 Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
5 Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
6 Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
7 Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.
8 Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
9 Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
10 Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.
I’ve reblogged this before. Reblogging again.
- Over-explanation. This includes prologues. “Prologues are never needed. You can usually throw them in the garbage. They’re usually put on as a patch.”
- Too much data. “You’re trying to seduce your reader, not burden them,” Friedman said.
- Over-writing, or “trying too hard.” “We think the more description we add, the more vivid it will be; but we don’t want to be distracted from the story” we open the book for.
- Beginning the novel with an interior monologue or reflection. Usually this is written as the thoughts of a character who is sitting alone, musing and thinking back on a story. Just start with the story.
- Beginning the novel with a flashback. Friedman isn’t entirely anti-flashback, but the novel’s opening page is the wrong place for one.
- Beginning a novel with the “waking up sequence” of a character waking, getting out of bed, putting on slippers, heading for the kitchen and coffee…a cliche
- Related cliche: beginning the novel with an alarm clock or a ringing phone
- Starting out with an “ordinary day’s routine” for the main character
- Beginning with “crisis moments” that aren’t unique: “When the doctor said ‘malignant,’ my life changed forever…” or “The day my father left us I was seven years old…”
- Don’t start with a dialogue that doesn’t have any context. Building characterization through dialogue is okay anywhere else but there.
- Starting with backstory, or “going back, then going forward.”
- Info dump. More formally called “exposition.”
- Character dump, which is four or more characters on the first page.
First off, this isn’t directed at anyone in particular. I just skimmed through a lot of the comments related to this post and saw a pattern of statements suggesting you can break any of these rules (which is true, but more on that in a second) or that some of these suggestions are complete crap. While I will say the original article uses some inflammatory language, these are all rules I’ve heard from a vast array of published authors, agents, and editors. I wouldn’t dismiss them out of hand.
Yes, it’s true you can break any “rule” of writing so long as you do it well. But it’s that second part that trips people up. The vast majority of manuscripts I’ve work-shopped that use these techniques also commit a variety of style errors, usually rely on formulaic plots and stock characters, and in general could be stronger over all. So these opening cliches have become warning signs that suggest to agents that a manuscript is not ready for publication.
Remember, agents have read thousands of manuscripts, maybe more. When queried, they only look at the first ten pages of what can easily be (for a 100K word novel) a four hundred page manuscript. This is speed dating. They’re trying to see if there’s anything remarkable about these opening pages to entice them to read on. If they see the same trope they’ve encountered in the last thousand manuscripts, they may be inclined to pass because they’ll assume—rightly or wrongly—that the rest of the book will be riddled with cliches and overused devices.
Before you break the rules, consider why they exist. Take the “no prologues” rule Friedman starts with. Prologues seem to be a staple in fantasy novels (though their use is waning even there), but are seldom seen outside it, at least in modern work. Why? Because for the most part, prologues are only tangentially connected with the main plot. Usually they supply back story which could be effectively seeded throughout the novel at another point.
I don’t know how many fantasy prologues I’ve read (and written myself; I’m human, too) that serve primarily to introduce the reader to the world they’ve crafted with a history lesson. I get it. This information is vital. But it usually doesn’t need to be dropped right then and there. Trust your reader to figure things out without a massive dump of exposition at the start, or an opening that has nothing to do with your main character and their role in the conflict you’ve created for them.
Agents generally look for a novel that gets them—and by extension, later readers—hooked from the opening pages. They want to be enticed to read on. Most agents I’ve spoken to say it’s a compelling main character that keeps them turning pages. So if your protagonist’s not in the opening pages, there may be a problem. Again, not always. Rules can be broken. Understand why they’re in place and know why you’re breaking them.
Even when rules are broken well and for a reason, it can still be a hard task getting agents and publishers to take note. Look at Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Publishing is a business. Agents read a lot of manuscripts and make snap judgments about them. If you’re aiming to get published, it might be helpful to read over anything they post on their websites or in magazine articles about what they like and don’t like to read in their submissions. If you have no desire to get published, then by all means write the story however you see fit.
So: to what extent would you say a fiction writer is really just a big kid with a magnifying glass looking for ants to torture?
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
One of the Masters speaks.