Entries in writing (22)
This is a gross oversimplification, I know, but as I see it, actors and writers are the same people. The only difference is that actors tend to need people to love them and writers tend to need people to stay the hell away from them.
But actors and writers both live and thrive in alternate realities, where voices in the head are cause for celebration and not for witchcraft trials. And, really, writers are all actors, just without the applause.
To write great characters requires empathy and an understanding of emotions. And to write great stories requires great characters. Great actors know how to project themselves onto other people by creating empathy. It's no surprise that great writers know how to do the same thing.
The ability to act or write well demands the ability to put yourself in the shoes of others and to understand the universal emotions that we all feel. Most of us don't know, for example, what it feels like to be taken hostage and held at gunpoint, but we all know how it feels to be out of control and afraid for our lives. And maybe most of us don't know what it's like to do a standup comedy routine that bombs, but we've all experienced at least one moment of utter embarrassment or discomfort while under the scrutiny of judgmental eyes.
These feelings of fear or humiliation or shame or whatever are the universals. As much as specific experiences might change, feelings and emotions are always the same. Good actors and good writers create worlds and truths and realities by recognizing that a smile and a good laugh mean the same in Swahili as they mean in English, Urdu, and Russian.
Remember -- good writing is action. It lives and breathes and feels. Good writing touches all our senses, just as good acting does. When you write well, you act. You inspire. And you connect.
Write for the Jugular, folks.
Yeah. Writing is hard. Writing is an unforgiving, unapologetic, megaton bomb backpack of false leads, dead ends, and bad ideas. Writing is a time-consuming, soul-draining, tiring trek across harsh terrain in bad weather. Writing exposes you to the elements and all manner of wild animals that haven't eaten in days.
No, I'm asking. So what? You think it's a easy to be anything that matters in this life? You think rock stars and astronauts spend a hundred percent of their time getting laid by supermodels made of chocolate cake? You think lawyers and accountants and pastry chefs don't put in long days or get their feelings hurt or devote themselves completely and totally to their jobs at the expense of their health and families sometimes?
Anything that's great in life is hard. Didn't you ever see A League of Their Own? Tom Hanks said it best: "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, anybody could do it. The hard is what makes it great."
Your work, your stories, your mind and imagination ‒‒ those are yours. They belong to you. But that doesn't mean it's easy to know what to do with them. Getting your thoughts, your ideas, your vision down takes effort, time, and patience. Of course that's going to be hard. That's why it's so important.
In my other life, as the owner and president of a business-to-business writing and speaking firm, my evil twin François (pictured, looking curiously Italian) runs into the occasional problem that gives me some direction in other areas of my life.
You see, we had a corporate contract assignment that kind of went awry. And please note that "kind of" is evil-twin-French-guy talk for "clusterfuck." I was asked to be part of a project that it turns out I didn't really understand. It was over my head and out of my element, and it cost me dearly. Though I had done another assignment for this particular company ‒ and nailed it ‒ this latest assignment probably cost me the client.
Needless to say, I was a little miffed at François. Though, for the record, I wasn't (and still ain't) mad at the company. But looking at François at his worst, at the moment he realized that the job was over his head and beyond his ken, was painful. We all like to think our inner François can handle anything, but the truth is, you have accept that he can't.
The good news, at least, is that the François Incident has given me a chance to reorganize my own thoughts and learn a couple lessons.
1. Know your limits. François' problem with the corporate gig was that it was technical and specific, and François is a looser thinker. It's always good to go beyond your comfort zone, but there are just some tasks that are not in us. Recognize that if you can't run your own literary magazine or make a living as a medical writer, it's fine. Remember, they draw foul lines for a reason ‒ we all need our boundaries.
2. Know your strengths. I can speak well and I can write. And I can help the overwhelmed make sense of their writing projects. So yeah, maybe a corporate technical project isn't my thing, but writing compelling ad copy is. And maybe writing a novel isn't my thing (and it really isn't). But I can short-story your brains out. And I'll still call you the next day.
3. Learn your lessons. There are a lot of pithy sayings, like "It's not whether you fall, it's whether you get back up." And they're pithy because they're true. Failure is inevitable. But the thing to do is to recognize a failure and see the opportunity in it. From François' blunder, I have a renewed vigor to concentrate on my teaching and workshops. Because that's who I am.
Have you ever had to rebuild in the face of a ridiculous crash-and-burn? Share it with us! Leave a comment below. Nothing helps the world like knowing that someone just like us has gotten through a bunch of crappola.
And as for François? The least I can say to him is merçi.
Écrivez pour le Gorge, Chacun!
I love Tammy Bleck. She is one of those happy oases you sometimes get when macheteing your way through the jungle, only to find a grove of exotic fruits and a river of tequila. I found her wonderful blog, Witty Woman Writing, by accident, through Twitter, I think, and I did something I've only otherwise done with the great Brian Hodge -- I subscribed.
People say women aren't funny, but Tammy is. Moreover, she's generous, courageous, insightful, and ... did I mention funny? A speaker, writer, and deft observer of life, Tammy would be my new BFF if I lived anywhere near her at all. But I don't, so the least I can do is let her play in my yard this time around.
So you want to be a writer when you grow up?
Me too. Of course after 58 years (dear God I’m old) I’m still working on the growing up part, I’m happy to report that I have reached the writer status.
So, you’ve read the manuals and you’ve taken the writing course. You are beyond convinced that the world needs what you write.
What the world needs is individuality. What we need is courage. People who are willing to take a risk; go out on a limb, discard the manual and write what they feel; those are the writers worth reading.
Say it differently, say it bolder. And if being you is a bit crazy, all the better. Why should you be the only sane person in the room? The dirty little secret is that all writers are a little bit crazy. Why else would we dedicate so many hours sequestered writing stuff we think people will never read? Unlike the real world; in the writers world crazy is good.
Everyone has a different set of rules for writing. My humble opinion is; rules are for society, not for writers.
Sure, there are the basics; check your spelling, your grammar, tense and have purpose in your subject. Don’t make up facts, double check the ones you have, never plagiarize, don’t use the internet as your only source, and always respect a deadline.
Writers are a quirky bunch. No two of us are alike. Some write at three in the morning, some need coffee shops to fuel their minds, some need to be cloistered in a locked room in complete silence, and some need motivational music. I’ve known writers that were too shy to even look up when at a book signing and others that performed like circus ringmasters. Rules can’t possibly fit all personalities. And they don’t.
The number one writer’s creed is simple: just write. Easier said than done. Time is a thief; jobs, kids, appointments, life, it all takes precedence. But if you’re really a writer, there is always a little time for writing. Five hundred words here, fifty words there. A thought process that curls onto a written page takes but a breath of a moment.
When I first began writing I would correct and rewrite as I went along. Huge mistake. Now I free write; I delete and correct nothing and I go back and clean things up for my final product. Different strokes for different folks (yes, I really said that). There are rules teaching you to free write and there are rules instructing you to never do it. Forgetaboutit. However you want to express yourself is how you should be writing.
I’ve heard it time and time again, “Write what you know”. I would change that to “Know what you write”. If we only write about the things we know about, it would be a pretty boring life. Venturing, exploring and expanding the written world is what good writers do.
Writers write for one reason; to share their thoughts; tell their story. In the end, it’s all about the written word. And speaking of the written word, less is always more. Edit your stuff, then edit it again and before you send it out; edit it one last time.
Of course, if you want to be a writer so you can make boatloads of money, sleep late, work from home and do TV interviews, good luck with that. The more likely truth is that you will be living off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Mac and Cheese for a while. Be patient, cream always rises to the top.
Plain and simple; if you want to be an author, act like one. Submerge yourself in the workshops, readings, and book clubs and writing associations. Walk the talk and stop hiding behind the title.
When someone says to me “I’m a writer”, I smile and say to them “prove it”. Show me what you’ve got. Be brave enough to put it out there. No sense in writing if you don’t have the courage to share. A writer’s life is a lot less ego and lot more bravery. There are few things harder to do than to pour yourself out on paper and submit it for approval or ridicule. Discouragement is a writer’s middle name. Accomplishment is a writer’s claim to fame. Take heart, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.
And so there you have it, if you can prove your craft, if you can put your name on something you have written that someone else wants to read, you, my friend, are a writer.
And that opens up a whole new door to becoming published. Another topic for another day.
Tammy Bleck is the author of the book Single Past 50 Now What?, a speaker, columnist and life commentator. She is also a blogger extraordinaire at WittyWomanWriting.com.
Ladies & germs, welcome to a most excellent piece of writing on what it takes to be a good writer -- from the brain of a a freakin' awesome one. My friend and, this week, partner in crime, RS Guthrie offers his A-side to my B-side -- his half of a joint blog post that we're sharing on our websites. If you want to read the B-side, visit Rob's page at RobOnWriting.com. And if you don't want to read it, drop by Rob's site anyway and get to know him. He's a rare creature in Writerworld -- an ass-kickin' writer with a huge streak of humanity.
All right, enough of the bromance, read this and listen:
I know, I know—what’s up with the tricky negative? Well, this is a companion piece to writer Scott Morgan’s brilliant “5 Things Writers Should Do (When They Want To Suck)”—not only was I shooting for witty symmetry between our opposite angled views of the same issue, I also loved the pith of Morgan’s title and decided to suckle right up to it. I figure it’s only plagiarism if my counterpart says so, and he admires me too much to do that. Right, Scott?
Best to get on with my own list and hope for my peer’s deep propensity to forgive.
In all seriousness, if you want to suck, please disregard the five suggested truths outlined below. Better yet, go out and do the exact opposite. I’m not saying your work will suck—I’m guaranteeing it. And you may be tempted to think I am pulling a Joe Namath here—allowing my arrogance to coerce me into making a bold prediction (particularly not knowing you, your writing, or anything about the market for which you intend to write). Don’t simply be tempted: know it. The five suggestions below are not complicated, nor are they really anyone’s secret. But I warn you: violate them at your own peril. Or at least the peril of your writing.
(In a ill-disguised knockoff of master David Letterman’s Top Ten lists, I have attempted to order mine from least to most egregious. This prioritization could easily be debated. What cannot be debated is that in doing so I flagrantly violated my cohort’s fourth rule. Want to see for yourself? Afterward you can click here.)
#5. Read. A lot. If you are going to be a writer, you need to immerse yourself in the trade. The trade, dear readers, equates to the books. Not just those you write, but the entire canon of literature out there. (And yes, using the word literature just now in reference to “all” the books out there absolutely did make my skin crawl—but hopefully you get the point.)
The truth is, a writer can never read enough. The bad along with the good. The ugly along with the pristine. Most people know Shakespeare’s classic adage “learneth from thou mistakeths”. Or was that Monty Python? In any case, we writers can learn as much from other writer’s mistakes as we can from our own. Spend some time in a critique group, reading piles of other aspiring writers’ pieces. You’ll learn some invaluable lessons about what you definitely don’t want to be doing in your own writing (along with some great examples of what you do want to be doing, too).
Imagine a shipbuilder who, despite her amazing talents and potential, locked herself away in a building all of her life and never viewed so much as a single other ship. Unless she was a savant, chances are when she presents her brilliant masterpiece to the world, the last thing it will resemble is a seaworthy ship. They call them industry standards for a reason—you can’t “think outside the box” until you know where the box is.
#4. Write. A lot. Imagine a different shipbuilder who does nothing but watch and admire other builders’ work. One who signs up for every “How to Be the Next Best Ship Seller” seminar on the ‘Net. Such behavior equates to saying “show me the easy way to the money and success, please.” It doesn’t work that way in any other profession and I dare say in the creation of art it is even more crucial to polish your talents by doing what you do.
#3. Show, don’t tell. Fiction writers should be disallowed the usage of adjectives, adverbs, and all dramatic prose for the first ten years of their writing careers. No, wait—twenty. In fact, these elements should be banned altogether—particularly the adverbs. The irony is, the more elaborate the adverb or adjective, the weaker the writing becomes. Try it. Take the best piece you’ve ever written and throw in a whole gaggle of flashy descriptors. Have a tongue? Make it flailing, tomato-red, and obese. Your hero? How can he be a hero if he’s not devastatingly handsome, magnificently endowed, incredibly hilarious, wickedly smart, and excruciatingly debonair?
Never use a ten dollar word when a ten cent one will do. Seriously. People don’t seethe. They rarely rage. Weeping was a largely eighteenth century activity. Well-written characters hardly ever romp, gnash, prance, bludgeon, abhor, relinquish, fiddle, waddle, or wince. Objects never rocket (unless they are actually rockets). Only explosives explode. And eyes, no matter how angry or venomous, cannot act anything like lasers shooting laser beams.
Oh, and yes—snakes are venomous, but rarely human beings. (Never eyes.)
Don’t worry. A few of these words never killed a damn thing. But if your prose is littered with them? Not good. Not good at all. Venomous, actually.
#2. Care. Write from the heart (or as my counterpart will tell you, for the jugular). Same difference. And no, doing this does NOT require any of the words from #3. It doesn’t say “write like you care”—you actually need to give a crap about what you are saying. You cannot simply write to sell. You can’t write only because it makes you happy to write, either. Trust me, it doesn’t make anyone else on earth (not related to you) happy to have you write. Not unless what you write makes them care. The reader won’t give two, uh, hoots about your words if they are just ink on white page. And that’s all they’ll ever be if you are writing a story that means nothing to you. A writer will never write anything stronger than the words that come from the depths of the writer.
#1. Create compelling characters. At this point you may be wondering why this necessary truth appears at number one. Don’t. In fact, if you take nothing away from this posting, take away this: no story ever mattered to anyone that contained flat, uninspiring, cookie-cutter characters. You must—read MUST—create characters the reader can root for and about whom they can care. In fact, when you have great characters, faux pas in #5-#3 can sometimes be forgiven by the reader (#2 was intentionally left off—it’s almost impossible to write great characters without the words coming from the heart).
This doesn’t mean you have to give every character who walks onstage a limp or an accent or a funny affectation. Far from it. Some of the most memorable characters are memorable simply because of how human they are. As readers, we love to relate to a character. That also doesn’t mean we want to relate to her prowess as a CPA. (Maybe, if that prowess is juxtaposed against a deep ethical dilemma because she is forced to cook the books in order to pay for her son’s bone marrow transplant.)
You get it. Live inside your characters’ skins. Infuse them with your own loves, fears, dreams, desires, and dilemmas. They need to have depth. Nothing leaves uncreative swampland in its wake like a story littered with shallow characters.
I’ll summarize this way: you can ignore the advice above. I’ll share something with you, however: I learned all of this from other writers who cared enough about my potential to share their experience with me. I didn’t discover these truths on my own. Heck, I don’t always follow them myself—none of us is perfect. But these gemstones come from the most sacred place of all: from mining the successes, failures, and infinite experiences of all the other writers who have come before us. The worst thing we can possibly do is ignore them.
Only contrarians and teenagers ignore the advice of those who have been there before them.
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