Writing Badly, Well: Repeating yourself repeatedly

The Rule: Don’t repeat yourself and delete repetition when you find it.

I’m going to break my own rule here and say that, in many cases, this might actually be the case.

An infamous inside joke amongst my writer friends and I is that you should watch out of “rocky rocks.” Calling rocks rocky is redundant, and repetitive.

Also, making constant mention of specific information can leave the reader feeling bored. Give the reader more credit.

But that’s where my willingness to buy this rule ends. For three reasons, I think repetition can be helpful.

1. To instill a very specific sensation or emotion in the reader through repetition. One of my favorite examples is 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. Without giving away too much of the plot, there’s constant mention of moons, two moons, one moon, loneliness, and a rather repetitive life style for many of the characters.

This leaves a sense of belonging between the reader and the character. It also creates a sense of complete isolation from the world (like the characters are experiencing). And the moons? Well, to this day, my wife and I can’t look up into the sky, see one moon, and not wonder where the other moon went.

2. To instill urgency and passage of time in a heart pounding scene. Here I’d like to bring up The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Todd, the main character, is constantly repeating himself. He repeats himself a lot when things are moving very quickly by saying something like (and not a real quote), “I ran. I ran and ran until there was nothing left in me.”

This does a couple things. It makes the reader feel running while propelling the young reader forward and still letting you know there’s a significant passage of time just then even though it’s not explicit.

3. Repeated sentences drive home a point. If you come to a segment of your story where you’re trying to make a point, it could be a great time to use the Rule of 3s. The best example of this Rule of 3s is in Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a Dream” speech. “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.”

So, be repetitive, repetitively. Just make sure you’re doing it for a reason. Because, if you’re not, like all the rules in Writing Badly, Well, you’ll just be another amateur.

Writing Badly, Well: Stories Must have Conflict

This is a rule I struggle with regularly. I have still yet to meet a critic or receive a critique that didn’t include “every story needs conflict to run throughout the story.”

This is also a rule I refuse to abide by. The reason? It’s not freaking true.

For argument’s sake, lets ignore the pre-2000’s novels and stories. Before this spastic schism between storytelling and !EXPLOSIONS AND ACTION AND CONFLICT AND EXPLOSIONS! novels seemed to be riddled with info dumps, to be verbs, and “bland exposition” that puts to sleep most unmedicated adults with ADHD. Though I still fail to see how Pride and Prejudice would be better with war scenes or lots of slapping, or heaven forbid a lack of exposition.

One of the main arguments I hear against my “No, not every story needs conflict” is that “just because it’s not fight scene conflict doesn’t mean there isn’t conflict.” Yes, this is true. Conflict can be emotion, internal, (Hamlet, most Romance, Moby Dick). But it’s also true that requiring conflict to move a story is both a new concept and a VERY Eurocentric story structure.

Eurocentric story structure comes in 3 Acts: setup with inciting incident (problem), confrontation of problem with conflict, and resolution of that conflict and finality of the problem through solution. But that’s not the only option.

For instance, the Japanese story structure does not include the typical story structure you and I know and are taught. It’s called Kishōtenketsu and comes in 4 Acts: introduction, development, twist, and resolution. Instead of conflict and action, Kishōtenketsu relies on exposition and contrasts to maintain interest in the reader. It’s why you might like Murakami but can’t explain what the book’s about without sounding like a raving loon. It’s also the reason why the average American reader gets bored with Murakami.

The article linked above includes my favorite representation of just such a story:



japanese story structure

Here we see an entire story knocked out without conflict. There’s no struggle for either character. There’s an implied emotion in both the boy and the girl, both in their separate and individual lives and also once they connect and share a moment. But conflict is not present in this story.

And Japan isn’t the only culture with this sort of story structure. I haven’t found a confirmation yet, but the few Nigerian novels I’ve read have the same Japanese structure to stories with a lack of conflict.

So, take a deep breath. Conflict is not an absolute necessity. However, this does mean, if you play this card and set conflict on a back burner, you’ve got to step up your A Game and really hammer home the prose, exposition, and plot.

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: 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.


Reading Fiction: Being an Active Reader

A frequent complaint I receive in my many writing critique group circles is that I read too far into the stories that I critique. This critique of my critiquing style is so prevalent that I’ve decided to explain things, mostly for my own self-esteem.

What sort of critiques am I talking about? Well, I tend to call writers out for stereotypes, storylines that suggest racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, and a bunch of other -isms. This past week, I critiqued a novel that was one solid analogy of God and Jesus Christ, the fall of man, and the fall of the Devil. It was so prevalent that I rebuilt his story in my critique pointing out the VAST and deeply woven analogy. His analogy was BRILLIANT! It was so complex and well done on many levels…with a few contradictions I don’t think he intended…

Problem is, he says that analogy doesn’t exist…My critique colleagues mostly felt the same way.

I’ve called others out for sounding sexist and that readers will see that sexism and be turned off. Others have said, you just read too much into things. Today, I think I figured out what’s going on.

Reading so much philosophy made me an active reader. I don’t mean the type of reader that catches grammar or knocks the author for his ill use of adverbs and prepositional phrases. I mean, actively tearing apart the story, what it means, what the author is trying to convey, what is being said in the background.

You might say, “Well, it’s fiction. It’s just a story.” No story should ever be “justa” story. Stories, even fairy tales, are told for a reason. They are meant to convey a moral principle or point out the good or bad in something. If you read a story for the story, even sci-fi and fantasy, you’re missing SO MUCH!

So, I say this to my readers and those in my critique groups: Don’t expect me to relent. Active reading is what keeps me going. Having an active editor will make your story more important to the world. And, given the swath of books flying at you from all angles, if you don’t have an IMPORTANT BOOK, nobody gives a damn.

To Write or To Query, This is the Question

Obviously writers need to do both in order to be successful. That’s clear, and I’ve embraced this marketing side of writing. The problem is that, now that I have stuff to send out, how do I balance this? So, I ask you!

How do you balance writing/editing your work and writing/sending out query letters? 

I have a novel (and 3 more in finishing phases), short stories, and poems, all in search of homes. I’m the Humane Society of stories. I’ve also written quite a few query letters and found numerous places to send my work.

Here’s my idea (that I have not yet working into my routine):

Saturday: Chill and hang with the wife.

Sunday: More chilling…if wife is busy, maybe some looking for places to send my stuff

Monday: Edit/write. Because by Monday, I need to feel I’ve accomplished something, even if that means EDITING.

Tuesday: Querying and looking for places/people to query. Every writer needs to do some of this or they are just writing to themselves…and that’s only one step away from talking to yourself.

Wednesday: Open rejection letter emails. Then promptly get to writing/editing. Have a drink (to help keep the self-esteem in check after your rejection).

Thursday: Chores that I put off during the week of staring at my computer. In between chores, read some. Because, as anyone knows, reading is as essential to writing as the actual writing is.

Friday: Realize you haven’t done squat! Mix a stiff one early in the morning because that’s the only way to deal with the fact that I’ve squandered another full week of potential.

Action Kills Your Novel

This is a comment I’m sure other writers will come at me with pitch forks screaming blood murder. But I’m sticking to my guns here. Action, more importantly, too much action, will kill your novel.

Let me explain…

Dialog versus Narration:

Current trends say that you should have some sort of even ratio of dialog to narration. As if by some miracle, having the characters tell the reader what’s going on frees the burden of “telling” from the author. Not true. If a character tells, it’s still telling and it’s still wrong.

Next, very few great books are written in dialog only. Most don’t even have a ratio coming anywhere CLOSE to even Steven. Why? Because the world does happen when people are talking. It’s teh author’s job to make the narration not FEEL like telling. It’s not the author’s job to get fat and lazy and let the characters “say” it and therefore walk away unscathed by the “show, don’t tell” police.

The To-Be Verb Being Verbed Out

This one I’ve commented on before. To be verbs are not bad, but they are shunned by most writers now. They think that by shoving action down the readers Optic Nerves, they will enjoy the novel more. Not true. Most authors use the To Be verb constantly. Why? Because it’s a stative verb. It tells what is or is not. If all your story does is throw things and scream, you kill the story.

This is a hold out from all the amateur teachings of “use more active verbs.” Which is true. One should always use more active verbs when possible. But once you know the rules, break them. This is an amateur rule. This is like someone telling you, always preheat the oven before you start mixing stuff. If you’re a chef, you’ll start that fricken oven whenever you need to.

Lulls are Essential

It’s rare in life that we live the life of an action hero 24 hours a day. Even John McClane had a day off. And the only way to truely feel FOR John, is to give us some reason to care. Guns blazing and bad guys dying is great. But without a reason to care, John’s just another action adventure cowboy.

Lulls, or what seem to count as lulls as of late, are necessary pieces of the puzzle. They aren’t lulls. They are story. That’s right STORY. Something far removed apparently from the lexicon. They are back story, they are character finding themselves, wondering about life and the world.

Charater Biographies: A NaNoWriMo How To

One of the quickest ways to get bogged down in “writer’s block” is to not know your characters. Not knowing your main characters leaves you (and your characters) speechless when push comes to shove. And there will be a lot of shoving in November. National Novel Writing Month is fun, but it can get…hectic.

How do you get through it?

I say character bios are the best way.

You probably know what a character bio is, but try and sit down and write one. Just try it. Go ahead I’ll wait…

See! What do you have? Birthplace? Age? Gender? Name? Occupation? Not much huh?

How about this:

Facebook Page: This might sound silly, but think about it. What do people put on their FB pages? Everything! And who doesn’t know FB already. I even had a friend of mine actually create a FB page for her main jerk character. She did it because everyone who read her story hated him and she wanted to play with us. It was a riot!

Plus, you get to know your character inside and out. Their desires, their “likes”, their friends, hometown, dislikes.

Conversations: Some of my writer friends actually have conversations with their characters in their head. Laugh as you will, it seems to work for them. Me, I recognize the borderline mental illness that comes with having lively conversations with imaginary friends. Then again, don’t all fiction writers do this to some extent?

Me? I actually write dialogs. I have my character talk to whoever or whatever I want. Just something, so I can get a sense of their voice. Without knowing your character’s voice, they will sound just like your narrator, and unless you’re writing first person, that’s a problem.

I also write long back stories. I don’t write actual back STORIES like friends of mine, but I take extensive notes that include everything from relatives to pets to regular irritations, loves, hates, and the like. Anything that comes to mind that builds my characters into living breathing individuals. See? I’m just as ill.

Note Cards and Separate Documents: Have all these bios surrounding you. Either on the way where you write most often or on your phone or on your computer so you can easily get to them when the going gets tough and the time gets going.

How do you write your Character Bios?