Writing Badly, Well: Use concrete and specific language

This one I’m often being called out for.

The Rule: Use specific and concrete language so your reader is not left guessing what you mean.

The idea: If you are ambiguous in your narrative, it will cause your reader to stop and reread a passage, get lost, or be so confused that they are otherwise taken out of the story. One may think this is true of most readers. That most readers are ADHD-stricken and bobbing between the book in their hand and the 4 screens splashing pretty pictures into the room. But I would argue this is NOT the case.

Counter example: Gone Girl.

In Gone Girl we have two main characters. Both with their own POV. Both are HIGHLY unreliable narrators. Both speak to the reader in very ambiguous language. At no point did the masses say, “No, Flynn! No! I can’t understand your words.” In fact, the only thing that made that book great (or at least pretty good) is that very ambiguity that most writers are afraid of.

Mysteries and suspense novels are built around ambiguity and plays on word choices and pronoun games. An entire genre has been in existence for 100+ years that uses this at its very core.

But what about “normal” writing? Same thing applies.

One of my favorite things to do is to have 2 men (or 2 women) in a room talking and have sparse dialogue tags. I do this very methodically. If the last comment in the scene is “Yes” it may change the scene VERY MUCH based on who said yes. Does it change the outcome of the novel? No. But it could give insight into each character depending on who said it. Do I have to tell you who said it? No. Most readers will imply one speaker or the other.

Probably my FAVORITE example of ambiguity is Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The ending leaves something to be desired, but not so much so that you throw the book. And the reason? Well, the rest of the book, that’s the reason.

My wife and I both read Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and STILL to this day argue as to what actually happened. I say Toru went into the well to find himself and never actually came out and probably died in there. Being the all forgiving optimist, my wife thinks that he climbed out of the well and bettered his life based on the conclusions he came to.

Does it piss me off that this happened? Not a chance! I love that it’s such a subtle ambiguity that two readers can both thoroughly enjoy a novel but yet read extremely different story lines from that same text. That takes massive tinkering and planning and mastery on a scale that few have managed. But to experiment and succeed is the point of writing!

Stop being a writer and start being a written storyteller!

Writing Badly, Well: Write what you know

“Write what you know” is probably one of the first bits of writing advice each of us receives. It’s usually attached to “What should I write about?” Granted, if you’re asking that question, it should be followed up with “Why am I writing if I’m asking you what to write about?”

That said, I’m here to say that this is taken WAY out of context. “Write what you know” is about 2 specific things. And it is specifically NOT 1 thing that everyone does.

First, the not: “Write what you know” is not “Tell a story you know” or “ONLY write what you know.” It’s a jumping off point.

When someone says that to you, they don’t mean “Write ONLY what you know.” If people only wrote what they knew, there’d be no fantasy, no science fiction, no historical fiction, no magical realism, and no paranormal romance (OK, not such a bad idea there).

People like Stephen King write mostly about places in Maine…because he lives there. Tony Hillerman wrote with the Southwest as a backdrop…because he lived there. His daughter is doing the same…for the same reason. Noticing a trend here?

What they know is a jumping off point. They took the vivid images in their mind, broadened them, and added to them. If King ONLY wrote what he knew, there would be no Pet Cemetery, no Green Mile (which nobody would fault history for), and no Christine.

What “Write what you know” is: Setting and emotion. 

Setting: As in the examples above, many authors use a setting known to them to build scenery that captivates and comes alive. But that’s where their “Write what you know” stops. Killer cars are hard to come by in rural Maine.

Those with a backgrounds in hard sciences tend to write science fiction. Those with backgrounds in theory and philosophy tend to write with big picture concepts. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is based on a thought experiment by Socrates when he discusses the nature of man. Of course, Socrates never brought up orcs and all the other creatures, but the concept that started the ball rolling for Tolkien was a tiny forgotten thought experiment from 2400 years ago!

Emotion: This is what people REALLY mean by “Write what you know.” The emotion, the characters, the pain and tribulation that drives all stories needs to come from somewhere deep…and true.

If you’ve had the perfect life, it’s hard to identify with a black slave from the South. If you’ve never spent time with a mentally disabled person, it’s tough to identify with one. Because it’s tough to identify with them, it’s tougher still to created realistic, lovable (or loathsome) characters.

Sure, King never met a killer clown, but he knows the fear when you’re in the middle of nowhere and your brain screws with you. That fear is real.

Most of the great writers throughout history have come from sorted and tortured pasts. Drug addiction, abuse, torture, war, mental illness, poverty, etc. Why is this the case? Because someone who can truly identify with the absolute darkest of humanity can WRITE about the darkness (and the light) of humanity.

So, if you’re reading this, stop writing what you think you’re bound by. Write about the fantastic, the unthinkable. Then, dig deep into that part of the soul that few take the time, energy, and tears to venture into.

Writing Badly, Well: Part 2, -ly adverbs

Another rule you hear all the time is -ly adverbs are for lazy verbs. If you have a lazy verb that requires an -ly adverb, delete the -ly adverb and change the lazy verb into a dynamic verb.

Example: “He said loudly” can easily be corrected and strengthened by changing to “He yelled.” You’re cutting words (which is always good) and you’re using a dynamic verb that MEANS “said loudly.”

These are true moments where the -ly adverb is almost always deletable. And THIS is what the rule is meant to fix. However, this rule is also taken to extreme to include every -ly adverb in the history of storytelling!

I am actually (UH OH) taken aback when I read a story and there are ZERO -ly adverbs. They do exist for a reason. They are not bastard children of the English language. They need love too.

Let me give you a good example where an -ly adverb works and should never be reworked to be deleted:

“She squished the bug.” versus “She squished the bug longingly.”

I’ll wait till you’re done digesting that last little ditty and are done squirming around.

But now you see what the benefit is to an -ly adverb. “Squished” is already active and strong. The -ly adverb here acts not as a typical -ly adverb but as something more. It serves to tell a whole new story with a single word. She didn’t just squish the bug, she longs for something. She longs for something so creepy and disturbing that squishing the bug brings that emotion into her consciousness. If you read it like Flowers in the Attic, you get one story in a single word. If you read it like Pet Cemetery, you got an entirely different story in that same solitary word.

Do we know what that something she longs for is? No. But do we need to know what that something is to get the full effect of that sentence? Hell no! If you shuddered, it worked.

As one who enjoys screwing with the reader, and scaring the crap out of people, that’s one of my favorite flash fictions. And, as one who enjoys  a good horror story, the scariest part isn’t that we know what the something is, it’s that we DON’T know what the something is!

Writing Badly, Well: Part 1 “To Be” verbs

If you write or are new to writing and are still waiting for your muse to come along or time to be on your side, then you’ve heard the adage “Delete passive voice” and “Use active verbs.” I’m here to tell you that, unless you’re brand new to writing, it’s time to step up your game and stop living by these rules. If you ARE new to writing, stop reading this, stick to the rules you’re told because you’re not ready for this.

First up, not all ‘to be’ verbs are passive voice. And not all passive voice is bad.

I linked these two rules “Delete passive voice” and “Use active verbs” because they tend to run in tandem. But they ARE different.

As for using passive voice, one need only look to Catcher in the Rye for your example of how to use it, master it, and when to use it appropriately. Passive voice is good if you want the actor of the action to be ambiguous. Or if you want to instill a sense of lack of action or even instill in the reader a sense of despair.

My favorite case of using passive voice is ANY time the action and the acted UPON matter more than the actor doing the action on the acted upon. Make sense?

Example: “Mistakes were made.” or “The door was left open.”

Who’s the actor? In the first case, it’s unclear, probably for a reason. That reason could be political (I don’t want to step on toes even though I know who made the mistakes). In the second case, “The door was left open” is left without an actor probably because we don’t know! But the most important thing is that the door was left open. In horror, you want to keep the fear alive, so you delete the actor. In suspense, you delete the actor for…well…suspense.

Passive voice isn’t bad. And if you use it correctly, you can add an element to your writing that breathes life into the prose and the reader’s experience.

Second, all ‘to be’ verbs are inactive.

This is true. But not all inactive verbs are bad.

Changing every ‘to be’ verb to an active verb is painful to read. It tires the reader. Inactive verbs provide a moment of calm when there’s no reason to engage the reader or get the heart racing. Changing “He was tall.” to “He towered over things.” is stupid. Unless there’s a good reason to tell us that he’s towering over someone in particular, all that’s important is that he’s tall. That’s it. Changing “She was American.” to “She spoke with American gusto.” is all well and good, but if that’s not important to the story beyond she’s an American, then why????

You want to keep the reader reading, not tire them with every sentence being the most important sentence on the page. Some sentences are just informative. Those sentences need inactive verbs. It gets you to the point and makes active verbs jump more when they do come up.

This push for active verbs is the same thing that’s wrong with modern horror movies. You’re constantly on edge and fake scares are thrown at you so often that by the time you get to the horror you’re so damn tired that you don’t even care anymore.



The Murakami Code: A theory of Murakami’s ability to wow

Those who read and love Murakami know that there is just something about his storytelling that is just unsurpassed. For over 5 years, I’ve been reading, enjoying, changing through his stories. As a writer, I’ve looked up to Murakami and tried to hone in on how he does it.

How does Murakami write stories that are so personal as to be disturbing and absolutely realistic even when moving into the absurd, while at the same time being so universal as to make the reader question every aspect their life and life choices.

Well, I think I’ve figured it out.

Word of warning: If you enjoy Murakami as a reader only and don’t want his storytelling pulled apart, stop reading this post. This is a pseudo-literary look at his writing into what I think it is that makes his writing so unique and so enveloping.

If you’ve ever tried to explain a Murakami book to a friend in one sentence, or a whole damn conversation, you’ll notice it’s damn near impossible. Wind-up Bird Chronicle starts with Okada cooking pasta and talking to his wife. Not a typical page turner, yet it is. 1Q84 jumps from storyline to storyline enough to make you mad, but you have to keep reading, and little happens for much of the 3 long books. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki opens with nothing happening and jumps timelines so often and so confusingly as to test your patience.

So what is it that keeps you interested? And what is it that screws with your psyche?

The simple answer: Haruki Murakami breaks the rules of writing.

It’s a trifecta of rule breaking that brings his stories to life.

First, Murakami uses passive voice when he writes in 3rd person. One of the first writing tips you always hear is “don’t use passive voice.” This is SO wrong.

Many critics said he shouldn’t write 3rd person, it doesn’t suit his writing well. I think that’s bullocks. The way Murakami uses passive voice is on par with that of Salinger. He uses it strategically to do two things: bring you in and feel one with the main character while also making the character seem the passive actor when they THINK they are a passive actor themselves. When done right, as done here, you too feel passive and uncomfortable.

Second, Murakami opens his stories with interesting and seemingly unimportant info dumps that turn out to be the crux of the character’s second guessing their lives. Another crap piece of writing advice is “Never info dump at the start. Drop the reader into the action.” This too is bullocks. Badly done info dumps are just info dumps. But when done masterful, they play a different role.

Murakami doesn’t give you full names or explain the color of clothes characters are wearing or other unnecessary info. Instead, Murakami drops the reader in seemingly innocuous scenes where seemingly nothing is going on. Then, he peppers in seemingly inconsequential info about side characters and past incidents. But before the end of chapter 1 that ‘inconsequential’ info disappears into the background as the main character loses friends or what they thought was theirs. The character loses the very thing that was peppered in and disappears.

What does this do? This has the effect of creating the sensation of unconscious loss in the reader as well as the character. Rather than starting the story in action and giving you a reason for giving a damn later, Murakami gives you the reason for giving a damn without you knowing it and then SLAPS you with the action so that everyone feels the loss equally. This loss makes you keep reading.

Third, use of “negatives” in the narrative. A critique I get often is that “you can’t use too many negatives. Tell the reader what IS. Not what is NOT. By using negatives, you paint no picture for the reader.” When using negatives for negatives’ sake, you don’t paint a picture for the reader. What do I mean by negatives? Saying something was not red or not new instead of saying it was green or it was old. You paint no picture for the reader.

Murakami does something else. He paints an actual un-picture. Each time he uses a negative, it’s on purpose. And he does it in giant clusters. He paints an un-picture leaving a sense of emptiness in the reader and pointing out the loss the main character has up against. The first few chapters of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a great example of this.

This is the Murakami Code: the trifecta of passive voice, negatives, and “no immediate action.” This creates an overwhelming sensation of loss and disassociation with the reader as to set you up open up. It sets you up allow anything to fill that gap…even if it means walking into the absurd and insane. It allows Murakami to use magical realism in ways no other author does, by starting in reality and sliding you in so slowly but so mercilessly that you don’t know what hit you until you’ve already given in to the crazy creatures and absurdity of the storyline.


Why We Read What We Read

Finishing “The Orphan Master’s Son”, and reading through the interview snippet and discussion questions at the end of this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, I’m left wondered, why do we read what we read?

The questions and the discussion at the end of the book focused on the fact that this U.S. author could attempt to (and seemingly accurately) depict North Korean life. The ideas of North Korean life and the amazing abilities to give the world a view of North Korea was all anything or anybody could talk about. Hell, this book made it into talk radio where someone asked how we can believe what Johnson wrote.

I honestly can’t figure out why THIS is the topic of discussion of this book.

It’s fiction. Yes Johnson toured what that part of North Korea every “lucky” outsider gets to tour. That gives him ZERO understanding. This is fiction and must be seen as such. But there IS something that SHOULD be discussed.

His ability to truly understand pain, suffering, the psychological distortion of torture and brainwashing and totalitarianism. THAT’S what people should be discussing.

Johnson did something I can’t believe he could do. I can’t find much about Adam Johnson online other than his teaching background, but I’m guessing solely on his current station in life, that he did not live a life even remotely painful enough to truly understand the consciousness of someone in those positions. However, he did so in ways that are so NOT topical, I questioned if he actually DID live such a life.

At one point early on, Jun Do, the main character, sees a homeless man laying sprawled out on a bench. You’d expect a narrator to draw attention to the man’s ability to sleep or live peacefully while Jun Do lives in Hell on Earth. But no. Jun Do comments to himself about how he knows the man grew up being able to sleep where he wants on large objects because his arms and legs were sprawled out, whereas Jun Do slept all his life on a tiny sliver of a “bed.”

That is truly impressive work. And yet, nobody gives to solid shakes about it.

It’s ironic too, because a major theme is that the man doesn’t matter, the story does, and that truth is what those with the power to write it write it as. Here, people are focused on the topical piece of North Korea. They care about the place and the scenery, not the story.

TwitterFiction Fridays: Get Ready for Them

It’s been a while since I’ve jumped into Twitter fiction. But since I’m spending damn near all my time editing, I need to get the creative juices out of my body in some sort of weekly expulsion of goo. Yup. I went there with the gross.

Starting tomorrow, you’ll be able to enjoy at least a handful of single tweet, self contained stories.

To view, just go to RMullenWriter

There you’ll find all my single thought ramblings. And every Friday you’ll be witness to some of the shortest, darkest, stories on this spinning nugget we call Earth.

Top 10 Things You Probably Don’t Know About Me: A Facebook Reflection

Never thought I’d use those two words in the same damn line, but there it is. This is a post based on a viral quiz/questionaire/whatever that floated around my Facebook friends’ pages these last few weeks.

The question was: Tell us 10 things about yourself we might not know.

Nobody asked me, which is fine. I’m not much into Facebook. But it did get me thinking. I’ve spent the last few weeks soul searching and would like to share my findings with my (tiny) audience.

So here is MY list of ten things you probably don’t know about me:

  1. I only regret one thing in life: missing my baby brother’s high school graduation.
  2. I’ve never finished a poem that directly related to my wife.
  3. Until this month, I had never written a character based on my wife.
  4. I play the lottery in hopes of being able to pay off my grandmother’s reverse mortgage (Don’t get me started on reverse mortgages)
  5. I watch FAR more TV than I claim to.
  6. I don’t own any video games. It’s not because I don’t like them, it’s because I’m addicted to them and will waste ALL my time playing them.
  7. I haven’t smoked a cigarette for about 12 years. Though, often, I dream about sneaking a pack and trying to hide it from my wife. The only thing stopping me is the price tag.
  8. I left my hometown because of HORRIBLE choices I made as a post-high school adult.
  9. I’m scared that one day the world will find me out as being a maniac with terribly inhuman thoughts and everyone will shun me. That might sound funny, but I really fear this…every day.
  10. I’m jealous of how happy my wife always is. I’m drugged enough to keep me less-mopey. But I wish I had her happiness surrounding me all the time. That’s probably why I’ve tried so hard to keep her close.

An unexpected hand

This afternoon I went hiking in the Sandia Mountains. It’s was so pleasant and quiet. I went to clear my head of the last few months of losses. My grandfather in August and my father this past month.

Alone I walked for an hour. On my way through Baca Canyon, I heard a strange bird chirp. It was like a short sound like a laser beam. I thought, “What an odd sounding bird.” I never saw it though, as hard as I looked for it. That was the only time I heard that bird too. Only in that one segment of the entire hike. After about an hour  or so I sat to contemplate and speak to each of my father figures, one on one…something I haven’t done since their deaths.

On my way back, I got lost and couldn’t remember which of two separate paths I had taken. I began to worry that I’d end up one of those idiot city boys who goes hiking without the proper equipment and without telling anyone only to be rescued from hypothermia three days later when civilization was a stone’s throw westward.

Then I heard that same laser bird chirp. That’s when I realized it was the only time I had heard that bird the entire hike. I stood there for an extra twenty minutes. Just listening to the chirp know that I knew which direction to go (right…as that was the direction of the chirp). I tried to find that bird while I stood there. Never did. Then I realized it wasn’t a bird. It was my grandpa helping me along. Under my breath, I thanked him for his help. The chirping immediately stopped. Swear to heaven and french bread pizza it did!

I never heard that chirp again. That’s when I knew. He knows how much I love him and miss him dearly.

NaNoWriMo Survival Gear

Just over a week away, let’s get down and dirty with NaNoWriMo preparations. Half of your success comes from outlines and such. The other half comes from the gear you’ve got by your side. So here’s your essential list of necessary gear for surviving NaNoWriMo 2013.

1. Candy

Sugar and caffeine is a must. You’re already going to be loopy and tired. Sugar and caffeine will aleviate at least one of those issues.

2. Loose fitting clothing

You’re going to be sitting a long while. Unless you’ve mastered the art of running and writing. Which I bet you haven’t. Sweat pants, sweatshirts, PJ’s. That’s right. There’s no shame in being comfortable while you write. All the best writers wore their PJ’s while writing. I don’t know who, but I’m certain some of them did.

3. Notebooks

These are my favorite notebooks on the planet. I’ve been using them for work and for writing for years now. Moleskin are a little on the pricey side. But they come in all sizes, are super durable, and come in a variety of colors and styles of paper. I use the pocket sized ones…because they fit in my pocket which means I carry them EVERYWHERE.

But any notebook will work. Friends of mine wait till Back to School sales and buy piles of those spiral notebooks for 10 cents a piece. I also use the notebook on my smartphone. Evernote is a great little app that works on all devices and even in your computer browser. So it’s everywhere you are.

4. Space

You don’t need a huge space. My wife and I live in a one bedroom apartment. No den. And I can’t write in libraries anymore. Too many PTSD memories of grad school. But I do section off part of the dining room for my laptop and have requested “me” time. That time means my wife can’t be in the same room. She’s my biggest critic. So, even if she’s sitting on the other side of the room, I feel her eyes on me and I can’t write. When the weather is good, I’ll go outside on our small porch. New Mexico provides warm Novembers.

So find a space. Whatever that space is. And call it your headquarters.

5. The Cloud

I really don’t care what cloud service you use. I don’t. I’m particular about my own cloud choice. But get one!!! I’m so crazy sick of hearing about people who’ve lost their work because their computer exploded, their dog ate their hard drive, or they got a virus because they were looking at porn opened an attachment.

There are dozens of options. Many of them free. All of them secure to one degree or another. All of them more reliable than your email, hard drive, flash drive, or bank vault.

6. NaNoWriMo Swag

You didn’t think I’d actually forget this part did you? The nanowrimo.org site has tons of swag. And what better way to get pumped up for the coming month than to wear the funness too! Besides, NaNoWriMo is a non-profit organization. You’d be helping a good cause.

What’s your favorite NaNoWriMo preparation gear?