Making It Matter: What If You Don’t Know What You Want To Say?

In a preceding series of posts, I’ve talked about making your writing mean something.

Your writing should be about more than just people running around doing stuff. It should be about something that matters. I’m not saying you should deliver some kind of “message” (although there’s nothing wrong with that if there’s a message you think the world needs). However, I’m saying you should write about something that’s worth the time you invest in writing it, and the time that a reader spends reading it.

In other words, you should write about something that you and your prospective readers care about: learning to love, dealing with pain, finding friends, coping with family, making the world a better place, et cetera, et cetera.

But what if you don’t have anything to say? Or what if there are things you want to write about, but you’re worried that your thoughts will be dull or that people will laugh at you?

First, if you’re worried about such things, you are not alone. Plenty of writers go through bouts of insecurity and impostor syndrome. Furthermore, writing about things that matter can dredge up all kinds of baggage, and dealing with that stuff may not be easy. It’s even harder if you’re coping with depression, anxiety, or other such conditions. I am totally not the person to advise you on those kinds of trouble…except to say that you should consider finding someone who is qualified to help you. Caring for yourself is important, and may be a prerequisite for being able to write at all.

Second, remember that unless you’re a professional writer with a contract in hand, you’re under no obligation to show anyone your writing. If you write something and then decide to hide it in a drawer (or more likely, to stash it in a computer folder with some boring name that’ll discourage other people from looking at it even if they hack into your system), that’s totally fine.

In fact, I strongly recommend that you don’t share your work with anyone too soon. Work on it until it’s in a shareable state. It doesn’t have to be perfect (especially if you’re giving it to alpha readers or a workshopping group) but it shouldn’t be too raw. Go back and revise the piece until it’s ready to leave the nest. And if that day never comes, so be it. Every good writer occasionally has stories that just don’t gel. If you don’t sometimes find that you’ve reached too high, then you aren’t trying to reach high enough.

With those two caveats out of the way, let’s talk about finding meaningful stuff to write about. Sometimes you already feel driven to deal with a topic, and that’s great. Write what demands to be written. But other times, you might just struggle.

This is where daily writing comes to your rescue. In the first real writing workshop I ever took (an embarrassingly long time ago), we called this “freefall”. Now it’s often called Morning Pages. (That link tells you where the name comes from.) Whatever you call it, the idea is that you write freely and loosely every day—not to create something you’d ever show to anyone else, but just to let your brain play around. See what surfaces from your subconscious. Plumb your memories and your senses. Practice getting words on paper or pixels, just to develop your word-slinging skills.

Then (and this is important), review your morning pages a few days later. Read them over. Mark them up. Do certain themes or images keep repeating? Are some passages more alive than others? Are there points where you approach something that’s close to the bone, but then shy away?

Over time, morning pages will show you where your mind is at: what you’re truly concerned about…what engages your brain and your heart.

So that’s where to start. Next time, I’ll talk about how to use what you find in your morning pages if and when you’re ready to write a story.

Making It Matter: Theme

The reason I started writing this series of posts was because I wanted to talk about Theme.

The idea of Theme scares lots of people, including writers themselves. I blame this on badly taught English courses, which often force students to state the theme of a story, novel or play. When this happens, you can get the sense that there’s a single correct answer: that a good piece of writing ought to have a single statement of what it’s about.

Of course, that’s nonsense. Very short stories may indeed only be about one thing, but any longer piece is about multiple subjects. Furthermore, few pieces of writing can have their “meaning” boiled down to a single easily stated idea. Meaning is cumulative. It’s also ongoing, even continuing past the point where the story ends. We’ve all heard the saying that the journey is more important than the destination; it’s a cliché, but in writing it’s also true.

So I see no reason why a story should have a single easy-to-articulate theme. At the same time, a story should be about something: something worth writing about. A novel takes months or years to write; why spend so much of your time on something vapid?

Write about something that has actual human meaning. Love. Friendship. Loyalty. Growth. Forgiveness. Change. Loss. Redemption. Warnings of danger. Wonder. Reason. Corruption. Kindness.

I’m not saying you need to have some message you want to preach. If you do, go ahead—there are things that people need to be told (although you and I may disagree on what those things are).

But if you don’t have a message, that’s fine too. What kind of message can you have, for example, about love? Certainly nothing that hasn’t been said a million times before. But writers will be writing about love as long as writing and humans exist. Why? Because it’s a subject worth writing about. It’s a subject that’s never exhausted, provided you aren’t just going through the motions. It’s a subject that’s close to many writer’s hearts, so they’re driven to write about it.

And what if you don’t know your heart? What if you can’t tell what you’re driven to deal with in writing? Those are excellent questions. I’ll talk about them in the next post of this series.

[Image is the famous theme from Beethoven’s Fifth symphony.]

Making It Matter: Hooks

In the previous posting, I talked about the need to give readers a reason to care about your story. In the very first lines of the piece, you have to present a character worth caring about—a character whom you the writer care about—and something to promise that you aren’t going to waste the reader’s time.

How do you do this? If you’ve read any books about writing, I’m sure you’ve seen advice on “hooking” the reader: presenting something that intrigues readers enough that they’ll want to keep reading. Typically, hooks are discussed in terms of plot—you want to indicate that interesting events are going to unfold, and perhaps introduce a note of mystery so that readers say, “What’s that all about? Tell me more.”

But stories should also begin with emotional hooks. They should introduce at least one character that readers connect with. The connection should generally be positive—readers should like, sympathize, or even admire the character.

Negative connections are also possible. One very common trick is to start a book with one or more sympathetic characters getting slaughtered by bad guys. The hope is that this will make a reader hate the bad guys so much that he or she will keep reading in order to see the bad guys get their comeuppance.

But even in this case, it’s advisable to lead off by presenting the sympathetic victims-to-be…and to make them very sympathetic. The first Star Wars movie showed the spunky rebel underdogs before eventually bringing in Darth Vader. Vader is cool and intriguing, but (at least in Episode IV) not someone you’d root for. So long as he’s just evil, he can’t carry a movie himself.

To create an emotional hook, therefore, you need someone the reader wants to see more of. A tried and true method for doing this is to show a character doing something positive, thereby signaling the character’s potential for being a good person (even if they aren’t very good to start with). This is often called a “Save the Cat” moment, as immortalized in the screenwriting “how-to” book Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Snyder advises that even if a lead character has a lot of negative qualities, an early moment when he or she does something good (such as saving a cat from danger) will make us feel as if the character is redeemable. We’ll then be ready to watch the movie or read the story in order to see if the character really does become a better person.

This may seem trite and cynical, yet it’s important and it works. My favorite example is the first Kingsman movie. The protagonist Eggsy is a drunken delinquent who steals a car in the movie’s first few minutes. He seems like an unlikable lout…but in a car chase trying to escape from the police, he literally veers the car to avoid running over a cat. The car runs into a wall and Eggsy gets caught by the cops. But now we know he isn’t all bad, so we’re willing to keep watching what happens to him.

The key is to engage readers’ emotions very early in a story at the same time that you engage their intellectual interest with plot-related matters. Let me give an example.

Even before someone tried to kill him, Max Vereen was having a bad day.

At 5:00AM, a drunk driver smashed into a car in the parking lot right outside the window of Max’s apartment. Loud blaring of the car’s alarm. Max jumped out of bed to see if his own car was the one that was hit. It wasn’t (thank God!), so Max was inclined just to go back to bed. But then the owner of the car that was hit came running out and started screaming at the drunk driver. Screaming threats and banging his fists on the guy’s car. Max hated to get involved, but things looked like they might get ugly, so he sighed and called 911.

The police arrived in time to stop a serious fight, but then they were out there for an hour with their flashers lighting up Max’s bedroom and talking so loud that Max just couldn’t get back to sleep. Eventually, he decided to get up and make himself a real breakfast as opposed to just Red Bull and a granola bar…but being groggy and sleep-deprived, he burned the toast and got little bits of egg-shell in the omelet. He ate them anyway. He also ate the granola bar and drank two cans of Red Bull.

When he walked out to his car, he tripped over a side-view mirror that had been knocked off one of the cars in the collision, and just left lying on the parking lot’s pavement. He nearly fell flat on his face. But it turned out okay because his stumble meant that the bullet aimed straight at his head missed by a fraction of an inch, whizzing past his ear fast enough that Max felt its breeze.

What does this example give us? A plot hook in the very first sentence, then a couple of paragraphs introducing Max and showing that he’s an ordinary guy, but decent enough to call 911 even when he’d rather not get involved. These paragraphs also establish a basic setting: probably modern-day in some urban part of the developed world. With that set-up done, it’s back to the action of the plot.

I’m not saying this is a brilliant opening—I dashed it off without too much thought, and it’s likely a bit too generic. Even so, I hope it shows the basic principles of both plot hooks and emotional hooks.

But there’s more to “making it matter” than just helping the reader connect with your characters. In the next blog post, I’ll start dealing with what I really wanted to talk about when I started this topic: theme.

[Fish hook picture by Mike Cline from Wikimedia Commons]

Making It Matter: Caring

Simple principle: A story should mean something to the reader. Otherwise, it’s just people running around.

We’ve all read stories that didn’t grab us. Maybe they had plots that looked okay on paper (ha ha)—they had a “heroic” character who had to deal with problems until finally reaching a solution. But we just didn’t connect with the character or the incidents. We weren’t moved. We didn’t care.

If you find a story like that (or if you already know of one), it’s valuable to investigate why it left you cold. What was it missing? Or perhaps what did it do that turned you off?

It can be difficult to analyze and learn from good stories because it’s like vivisecting a living frog—as you start slicing and dicing, the frog dies. The living essence of a successful story is often a complex interplay between story elements. But an unsuccessful story can be easier to examine, because it starts off dead. Cutting it into pieces won’t hurt it.

In my experience as a writer and editor, stories end up dead when they aren’t about something meaningful. They don’t deal with anything that matters to the reader. More precisely, they don’t manage to make things matter to the reader. Even if they deal with elements that seem universal—love, survival, success, etc.—they do so in a way that doesn’t click. They don’t engage our emotions or our interest.

So if you’re a writer, how do you make readers care?

Step 1: You have to care. If you’re writing about a situation that ought to be engaging, but it doesn’t engage you personally, then your story is already dead. The elements must matter to you.

Take a simple example. Many thriller stories start with characters discovering that their lives are in danger. Character X is walking down the street when a bullet barely misses X’s head. (Yes, this is a cliché, but it will probably be used in stories long after you and I are both dead.)

To make such a story work, you the writer have to care a great deal about Character X. You have to be interested in the person and in that person’s survival. Then you have to communicate that feeling to the reader. Why is X someone who deserves to live? What is X living for? Why would it matter if X were killed?

Emotional engagement starts with you, the writer. What makes you care? And then how do you stir similar feelings in the reader?

There’s often a getting-started problem involved. You may care about Character X because you know a lot of cool things about them. However, you may not be able to tell all those things to the reader at the very beginning of the story, especially if some of those things are secrets that only get revealed later on. Besides, you hope to hook the reader with the sudden surprise attack, so you want to get to that as soon as possible, rather than first spending time on momentum-less characterization.

Well, too bad. Story beginnings always have to juggle multiple elements at once. You have to introduce the setting, at least one character, the action, the story’s tone and maybe more, all simultaneously. Readers might give you a small amount of slack—let’s say a paragraph or two—but for some readers, you may only have a single sentence to get in the hook.

So you have to connect fast. You have to give readers a reason to care. That means presenting a character worth caring about—a character you care about—and a promise that you aren’t going to waste the reader’s time.

In Part 2 of this series of blog posts, I’ll say more about how you do this.

[Bullet picture from User Moriori on en.wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons]

Layers

Attention novice writers! Stop comparing your first draft to published stories and books. It’s just silly.

Today I turned in the final proofreading on my next novel, They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded. This was my very last chance to change the book in any way…and while it’s highly frowned upon to make significant alterations at this stage, I still made a number of tiny tweaks that were artistic improvements rather than just correcting typos.

This was the end of a lengthy process of writing and rewriting—mostly rewriting. The very first time I write a passage, I typically go back the next day and read it over to improve the flow of the text. Also during the first draft stage, I decide I have to make large-scale changes, e.g. throwing out one or more scenes and putting in something different. By the time I’m finished the “first” draft, I’ve probably combed through every word at least three times, and a number of sections are completely different from the way they first emerged from my head.

Then I do the same thing again. I go into the “second” draft knowing much more about the story I want to tell—the conscious

and unconscious elements which were brought to light by writing the first draft. The second time through, I can shape the narrative and the details more strategically. I can layer in more richness and more set-up for things that matter. I can also deal with problems I decided not to fix while I was writing the first draft…because during a draft, I repeatedly face the question, “Do I go back and deal with that problem right away, or do I leave it till later?” Sometimes I decide, “Fix it now,” and sometimes I decide, “Leave it till later.” The second draft is “later”; it’s when I tie off loose ends and patch up holes that I didn’t do the first time around.

(For those who care, I make notes in Evernote whenever I realize there’s something I need to fix. I also use Evernote to record details I need to remember: character descriptions, timelines, and so on.)

After the second draft, I share the book with first readers. That leads to another draft, which may or may not mean a ton of rewriting. The result goes to my agent, Lucienne Diver, who also gives feedback and advice on changes. After I’ve dealt with that, the result goes to an editor…which leads to more changes. Then copy-editing. More changes. And finally, proofreading the typeset version of the book for one last kick at the can.

Because of the repeated nature of the process, and the constant reworking of the text as I go along, it’s difficult to say how many drafts a book actually goes through. It’s like an oil painting: all such paintings are made by adding layers of paint on top of layers, with later layers adding detail, color and texture to earlier ones. Paintings start with broad strokes; subtleties are added last. The same is true of writing. We constantly remove weaknesses and layer in higher quality material. Stories and novels aren’t born perfect, they’re built a layer at a time.

And yes, once in a long while, an almost-perfect story just blurts out from your subconscious without needing much additional improvement. Writers should be grateful if such a miracle happens, but depending on miracles is not a reliable career path.

Develop a process. Learn to layer. And don’t judge yourself when the first words you put on paper aren’t as great as someone else’s umpteenth draft.

(Paint layer image: Hariadhi [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons)

Writing References

On Friday, October 13, I led a writing workshop for Can-Con in Ottawa. To make life easier for me at the workshop, and also to share a useful list for any writers out there, here are some books that I’ve found useful as references.

(Since the workshop is in Ottawa, all book links are to Amazon Canada. This is simply for my own convenience; if you want to buy a copy of any of these, visit your favorite bookstore or web site.)

Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer
A quirky but useful general introduction to writing science fiction and/or fantasy
Into the Woods, by John Yorke
One of my favorite books on story structure and plot
Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. Le Guin
One of the few books that deals with the nitty-gritty of actually telling
stories, down to the word and sentence level. It’s not a beginner book, but it’s a book to read when you’re ready to get serious about prose.
A First Page Checklist by Ray Rhamey (PDF)
Since the workshop I’m doing is specifically on openings, this is a useful set of points to consider, even if you decide to let some slide

As time goes on, I may add more to this list. I’ve just begun working on the start of the third book in the “Dark vs. Spark” series, and as part of the process, I’ve picked up a number of other writing books that have been recommended to me. For the moment, however, the books above are a great place to start.

While I’m at it, let me add that all writers should carry something that they can immediately use to make notes. Your phone doesn’t count if you won’t actually use it, nor does it count if you don’t review those notes within a day of making them and then store them in a searchable format.

For years, I’ve been using normal 3×5 index cards; I put 3 or 4 in the back pocket of my pants where they lie nice and flat but are immediately available for writing. After writing on a card, I leave it by my computer so I can transcribe it ASAP, either into a text file, Evernote, or Scrivener. The nice thing about index cards is that they’re cheap, and if they get crushed, or wet with rain, or whatever, I can just throw them out and grab another handful. It’s like a notepad that never runs out of pages!

Writer’s Block

I’ve recently become (a bit) active on Goodreads, and that means answering a few questions about writing. One of the questions is, “How do you deal with writer’s block?” So let me deal with that by coming at the question sideways.

The English word “meditation” covers a lot of techniques from a lot of different traditions. However, one common type of meditation is (silently) naming what you’re feeling. This can include physical feelings (“My nose is itchy”) as well as mental ones (“I’m restless”).

Specificity is useful. For example, what are the physical qualities of restlessness? (Perhaps tense shoulders, a tendency to bounce your foot, and so on.) Specificity helps you pay attention to what’s going on in your body and mind. Specificity during meditation may help you recognize the same symptoms when you aren’t meditating, so perhaps you’ll be more aware of your feelings and better prepared to deal with them.

What isn’t useful is interpretation: stories to explain why you feel a certain way. “I’m restless because I have so much to do…” etc. Telling yourself this kind of story distracts you from your real feelings. It’s not that the stories are false (although they very often are). It’s that the stories take over your brain. You put your time and energy into the stories, letting them spin and suck you in. The stories replace your actual experience, so that you stop being aware of what you’re really feeling. Even worse, you can cling to stories for a long long time…as opposed to real physical and mental sensations which tend to come and go relatively quickly.

For example, suppose someone cuts you off in traffic. You get a jolt of fear and adrenaline. Then the actual experience is over. You may have a reaction of anger immediately after. Fair enough―you feel what you feel. But if you start making up stories, you can ruin the rest of your day: you feed your anger, you attribute all kinds of horrible qualities to the other driver, you might reinforce unfortunate prejudices (“Any driver who wears that kind of hat is a moron!”), and so on. The stories inflate a momentary experience into something that eats up a chunk of your life.

And for what? The incident only lasts a second. You may never encounter that driver again. Making a big emotional story about the experience does you no good at all. Conceivably, it might be useful to have some clearheaded thoughts about what happened―“At this corner from now on, I should drive extra carefully”―but that’s different from getting carried away with the story.

Now let’s come back to writer’s block. Writer’s block is a story. It’s a phrase that blinds you to whatever you’re actually experiencing. The actual experience may be sleepiness, or restlessness, or (often) some internal monologue about the story, your abilities, or whatever. But just like obsessing over a brief incident, calling an experience “writer’s block” isn’t useful. That’s just feeding an unhelpful story.

So if you’re having trouble putting down one word after another, try stopping for a few minutes in order to become aware of what you’re experiencing. Identify your physical experiences as specifically as you can, but just labeling, not interpreting: “I’m hungry”, “I’m cold”, “My mouth is dry”, “My arms are tense.”

Identify your thoughts too, but be careful. If you’ve got some big internal monologue going on, just identify it as, “Talk” without any further comment. Otherwise, you’re likely to get sucked into the story. If the monologue keeps going, every few seconds identify it as “Talk” again. If you can retain enough detachment to do that, the monologue will usually settle down and dwindle away. A new monologue may spring up again, but you can label that as “Talk” too.

After a few minutes, you’ll have a better idea of where your body and head are at. You can then deal more clearheadedly with your situation. Are you hungry? Have something to eat. Are you cold? Put on a sweater. Are you tense? Do some pushups, go for a walk around the block, or take five minutes to relax in some other way. (Notice the difference between this and procrastination. Procrastination is avoidance, whereas I’m talking about dealing with issues that you’ve observed through direct experience.)

Improving your clearheadedness also helps you with creative issues. You may realize that you’re having trouble because you can visualize a scene, or because you don’t know what happens next. Okay, that’s just a matter of brainstorming: get a piece of paper and scribble down a bunch of different ideas, or make a mind-map, or open a separate file and do some freestyle experimentation. Pull out the tools in your writing tool kit, and see what you can make.

So my point is that “Writer’s Block” is an unhelpful story that masks what you actually experience. If you’re having trouble writing, take five minutes out to pay attention to your body and mind. Identify what you’re feeling, and label your thoughts, but without interpretation. That will help you clear your head and make you aware of actual problems that you should address…as opposed to feeding unproductive narratives that just spin and use up your energy.

In a way, this is like the internet maxim, “Don’t feed the trolls.” Don’t feed unhelpful stories. Stop. Step away. Clear your head. Then do something that will actually be useful, rather than getting trapped in emotional quicksand.