Writing In the Age of Political Correctness

locked box imageFor better or worse we seem to be in an age where we are hypersensitive to language that is hurtful, derogatory or just outright mean. This all comes under the banner of political correctness and while rooted in a good idea can also be taken to such extremes that questions of censorship arise. While we have the right to free speech we do not have the right to freedom of speech.

Anyone who knows me, knows I can have a bit of a potty mouth. I curse a lot. However, I rarely swear in my writing. I find it difficult to provide enough context within a story to justify the use of foul language. Now I know in name of realism we have to use language that reflects our subjects. A gritty crime story will have more F-bombs than a cozy cottage romance novel. Still, I think care needs to be taken by the writer to temper the use for no other purpose than to avoid diluting power of the words when they are needed. When the moment in the story comes for the character to really show their anger or amazement at a situation your best tool would be colorful language. Unfortunately that tool becomes weaker the more you use so it. Don’t get in a spot where by the time you really need your character to blow his or her top and drop some F-bombs you’ll want them to have impact.

That brings me to the words that have become so stigmatized that even their utterance sends ripples across the internet. You know the ones I am talking about. Racial slurs and derogatory comments that are the bane of anyone with a public image. One slip of the tongue and anything short of a tearful apology sets their career back several years. I bet they miss the days of Sean Penn when you would just clock the person in the face. These words cannot be taken lightly, they are ugly and hateful, but should they never be uttered? Are we as writers to blame if one of our characters likes to use racial slurs? We know people like that exist. Are we doing good or ill by perpetuating that behavior in our works? Basically my question is how far do we take realism? Or do we just need to be smart and follow the adage, do no harm?

What Writers Do

The other day my mind was wondering and I started thinking on how I would answer the question, what does a writer do that allows him or her to create such interesting works. I had to think about this a bit. All people have imaginations. All people grew up playing with action figures or dolls, imagining what it is like to walk across the moon or the concert stage. Even as adults people imagine what it would be like to get a bonus at work or hit the power-ball. The guy in the club imagines what he would say to the attractive girl across the bar. The woman at the bar imagines what she would say to the handsome guy should he come over. All this imagining, all these creative lines of thought are not too dissimilar from what writers do.

That is not to make writing sound easy. It isn’t. A writer just invest time and energy exploring thier craft. What I mean by craft is the act of putting words to sentences, sentences to paragraphs and paragraphs to pages. The rules aren’t so much rights or wrongs but goods and betters. I don’t think there isn’t a writer alive who at one point wished it was as simple as right and wrong. What the writer must concern himself or herself with is the way one word flows to the next. It is more than just relaying the story to the reader. You have to get the story into the reader’s mind despite the words. Attention to the craft of writing is what makes this possible. A successful writer is so comfortable in thier craft the writing never gets in the way of the story. That is the goal and that is what writers do.

Writing In the Lines

coloring book imageYou heard about coloring in the lines. How about writing in the lines? Members of the West Valley Writers Group know about our two minute drills and monthly assignments. Both of these have prompts that ask the writer to continue a story or create something within a certain set of conditions. Anthologies often work this way. For example, you may come across a call for stories 2,500 words or less set in the Pacific North and featuring a beloved pet. Go. Do you get the sweats? Do you ask yourself how will I ever come up with a story like this? The challenge of writing for anthologies is conforming to the theme of the work.

Following the fickle machinations of our muse is one way to get our stories done and results in some interesting works but the moment you hand that muse some guidelines the wall goes up. Is there some magic bullet way to get past this? Sadly, no, in these instances each writer is tested in a unique way as the object is to take these elements and work them into a compelling story. The risk here is readers are not dumb. They can and will pick up an details that are forced or do not feel right for the story or characters.

Rather than thinking of these criteria as constraints on your muse think of them as elements in a garden. You placed them there for your muse to wander through, climb on or hide behind. I know, but just go with me on this. This kind of visualization early into the story creation can really help your writing move past whatever is blocking it. Before a story is written all the elements don’t exist. They are like some bizarre Schrodinger’s Cat experiment, there but not there. So don’t sweat the details, just let your muse wander about them in the garden and soon a story will emerge. I know I have used this technique many times to create works for different needs and even research assignments. Try it you may find your muse enjoys his or her new garden.

Coming Along

wpid-hole_in_mind.jpgWork continues on editing the short stories that will make up my collection, The Hole in Your Mind. I am finding that, unlike a novel, editing short stories is a bit more involving. Each word has to carry the story along and each sentence needs to reach it’s desired effect. So far I have seven stories out of the intended seventeen edited. I am also looking for readers to make sure the editing is having the effect I want. I will also be bringing more of them to my Sunday critique group. Yes, fellow writers more weird fiction from me. Still I feel I am on track to have the book out this year. Although originally i had planned for a summer release. You just cannot rush good editing.

10 Things That Every Brand New Creator of Science Fiction Must Know

bunsen burner and beakerFirst I must send a shout over to my friend Michael Bradley over at Michael Bradley — Time Traveler from whose website I first spotted this sage advice. I have been asked from time to time is writing Science Fiction difficult. My answer is, “why, should it be? You can make your story as difficult to tell as you want.” By this point the person asking is usually clarifying, “no I mean the science part.” There again if all your story has to offer is accurate science you are missing a whole lot.

So head over to i09.com for the full list.

http://io9.com/10-things-that-every-brand-new-creator-of-science-ficti-1537923613

A Glut of Information

binary code holeGlut is an interesting word, it even feels funny on the tongue. Some would think a glut of something as vital as information would be a good thing. As a librarian I used to think that. Now I’m not so sure. We have so democratized information that facts have become open for debate. Pick any major issue and you will find articles, reports, studies all refuting and supporting at the same time. The only difference are the bodies behind and responsible for them. In science empirical evidence, (empirical anything actually), is that which is observable. One would gather that if you see, hear and feel it no further argument is necessary. That’s all cotton candy and rainbows for things you can see feel and touch but what about the rest? No amount of information is necessary for the believer and no amount of information can convince the skeptic. So instead we drown in a sea of information. Where once information was the weapon against ignorance it is now the tool of the ignorant.

Enough proselytizing. Where does this fit in with writing? When you are writing a scene, you have at your disposal a whole host of information to convey to the reader. Is the floor carpeted, hard wood with a scratch where a piano used to sit? Are the walls covered in a peeling flowery wallpaper or a bland utilitarian beige? Is there a lean man sitting in a chair smoking a pipe, or holding a teddy bear? All of this information can either help or hinder the reader. We want to help the reader. That detail about the wood flooring and the piano while interesting may not be relevant unless said piano is crucial to the story. The color and fabric of the drapes, while nice word padding, is about as useful as a shovel in a swimming pool unless it causes your character to reminisce about something important to the plot. Writers have to balance the amount of information they reveal to further the story and set the scene against inundating the reader with useless facts. Information can make or break an argument, well it used to anyway. Do not let that fact cloud your writing with unnecessary or contradicting information.

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

How often have you gotten a really great idea that you do not want to keep to yourself? It’s human nature to want to share our stupendous explosions of mental brilliance. Sometimes though we forget that what we have is an idea. It isn’t a book, it might not even be a story.

I have often heard other writers, (and I’ve done so myself, in the past), talk about ideas for their next book. We either have an incredible location, a really unique twist on history or even a character that is beyond any before. Any number of things lend themselves to a great story, but rather than talking about them we need to be capturing them.

In my case I have taken to creating a notebook in Evernote to capture these ideas for future use. That takes away some of the urge to want to talk about them and all of the fear of forgetting them. I used to, actually still do, keep a leather journal and pen on my nightstand for those ideas that always seem to come when I’m barely cognizant of the day of the week. The few instances where I have been able to decipher my handwriting have yielded some great ideas but little in the way of complete books.

I guess the point I am laboring to make is sometimes it is best to talk your ideas out with you and yourself. Commit them to paper and play with them but remember a story is much more than a killer idea, neat twist, or social statement. A book is blood, sweat, ink, patience and discarded pages. You know better than anyone when the time to plug your work is at hand. You should also know not to even think of approaching an agent or editor without a complete manuscript. I’ve seen this repeated over and over in agency submission guidelines and it rings true. The time will come when you can talk and pitch away, just make sure you have a product to back it up.

First Draft Blues

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This weekend, as I near the complementation of the rough draft of my latest novel, I must have had editing on my mind. I was planning on doing a post about where to begin polishing a rough draft. That is when serendipity stepped in and I came across this informative post on Anne R Allen’s blog.

http://annerallen.blogspot.com/2014/02/from-pathetic-to-professional-8-ways-to.html

I especially liked the very first tip. There is a reason your keyboard has a delete key, you need to get comfortable using it. I know this goes against every fiber of your writer’s mind. You have spent hours, no days, no months on the pages before you. You toiled away until you hit your word limit. These aren’t just random words they are eminations from your soul. I have been there. I have had to see whole chapters succumb to the ravages of the delete key. In truth most times I save the really big stuff for when I need a little something to jump start a chapter or story. Nothing ever really needs to go to waste.

The other tip has to do with character names. I have seen some very boring names in books. You do not want a cartoon character but you need a name that sticks with the reader. Conversely you do not want a name that is so complicated your reader has trouble with it. I’ve see this in a lot of science fiction writing and I am guilty of a tongue twister our two. In my book, Undead Heart, the main vampire’s name is Tzagne Vlastav. I had to provide a pronunciation hint in the first chapter, it is zahnee, still I have heard from readers that the name sometimes takes them out of the story. In addition you should know that names do not have to be set until printing. It may take a little more work to double check so you don’t leave any of those old names floating around. Just use the word find function and you will be okay.

So I urge you to follow the link to Anne’s blog for her tips on how you can take your rough draft from suckitude to greatness.

Tips From a Master

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These are a little more than tips, more of a mindset that if adopted can only improve your writing. Howard Phillips Lovecraft is considered one of the foremost writers of the horror story. In addition he has also written extensively about the craft of writing.

We all look for the secret, the special pill that when ingested will release the master scrivener we know we is inside us and the words will flow from our finger tips. I have found it is the quest for this knowledge that informs me the most. I learn not from what I’ve read but what I am going to read. So in that spirit I want to share this article.

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/01/11/h-p-lovecraft-advice-on-writing/

Predicting the Success of Your Novel

Combing through my RSS feed I came across this interesting article on Gizmodo. Will Your Novel be a Best Seller? Ask This Super Accurate Algorithm.

I have read the paper referenced in the article and suggest you do as well. To me the nature of this study is less a manual for success and more an inquiry into what do more successful books have in common. The best analogy would be to say more attractive paintings have a higher percentage of shades of blue. I Actually I am oversimplifying things but my point is that this study represents an interesting catalog of the components that make up a success book.

Writers are well aware of the do’s and don’t’s but some of those fall out of odds with the study. Especially interesting is the higher percentage of connectors indicating the use of more complex sentences. This also flies in the face of readability levels. Could people prefer their reading at a higher or presumed higher level of complexity. Naturally, as described in the paper, tossing in Hemingway’s work, The Old Man and the Sea, knocks this perception to the ground. Still the data suggests that works with a higher incidence of complex sentences find greater success.

Another finding that I felt was less of a revelation is that successful works tend to skew more towards informational, think journalism, writing rather than expressive writing. The success of crime and police procedurals and even the number of self help books on the NY Times bestseller lists bears witness to this trend. On a deeper level I wonder are people becoming more interested in being informed? Clearly any look on Facebook will show you that people do like informing others. The avenues that information takes is changing. I like to think that no one who has read a courtroom drama develops the notion that they now possess the knowledge of a lawyer, at the same time there must be some kind of pleasure in perceiving the transfer of that information.

So, where does this leave us? I for one have no intention of altering my writing style based on what I learned in this paper. Though it does reinforce some elements that I have cultivated and intend on making use of. Ultimately words are really just marks on the page that communicate to the reader and anything that can facilitate that communication should find a higher rate of success. Also since ours is a living language we should expect changes to come to our use of it. While we do not want to follow them like some hungry dog understanding that not any rule is set in stone can only make our writing stronger.