Writing Advice

The Best Writing Advice of 2016

2 January 2017

From The Atlantic:

2016 was not an easy year to be a writer. Not just because of the constant, concentration-wrecking pull of our devices, their glowing screens beckoning with the promise of fresh horrors.

. . . .

For the past three years (see 2013, 2014, and 2015), I’ve compiled the best writing advice from this series. In 2016, as in the past, authors shared some great insights—Alice Mattison explained how to structure a short story without a traditional plot, for instance, while Ethan Canin unpacked the art of the last line. But the bulk of the advice writers offered this year was not about “craft,” so much, as about the work of becoming a better person. In order to overcome their creative challenges, the authors I interviewed didn’t need to write prettier sentences: They needed to become more disciplined, more generous, braver.

. . . .

2016 has been filled with ugly reminders of how factional humans can be. This year’s writers suggested that their work demands something different: openness, plasticity of thinking, the ability to entertain and evaluate multiple points of view. Canin, the author of A Doubter’s Almanac, described how writing is a process of self-questioning, a method of backing away from what you’re most convinced you know. As he put it:

I’ve seen plenty of students come in and say, I want to write a novel about blah blah blah. But you just can’t do it. You can only write a novel about a character who does something wrong, and see what happens from there. Novels are compendiums of bad behavior, and literature is the gossip about it.

In other words, if you’re writing a piece of fiction, I’d urge you not to try to show anything—instead, try to discover something. There’s no way to write anything powerful unless your unconscious takes charge.

With characterization, you have to let go. You’ve got to release yourself from your grandiose intentions, your ambitions, your ideas about humanity, literature, and philosophy by focusing on the being-another-person aspect of it—which, by the way, is freeing, delightful, and one of the few real joys of writing. Stop worrying about writing a great novel—just become another human being.

In his discussion of Borges’s great short story “The Aleph,” Michael Chabon, the author of Moonglow, spoke at length about detail and description—the process by which he chooses the right words from a sea of possible choices. Writing a convincing character, he said, is an act that requires a kind of radical empathy:

Infinite pity, I think, is the proper attitude to have towards your characters. Not pity in the way we mostly tend to understand it—which is the condescension of a superior looking down at an inferior and feeling sorry for them … It’s a much more self-implicating pity, where you see and understand the tragic and routine flaws people have, the ways in which your characters fall short of the marks they set for themselves—just as you fall short of the marks you set for yourself.

. . . .

Alexander Chee, the author of The Queen of the Night, made a similar point about following what gives you pleasure. A famous writing teacher warned him never to write about parties in fiction; he found himself wanting to do the opposite. In our interview, he made a case for using party scenes in fiction, even if they seem frivolous on the surface, and are challenging to write:

The qualities that make parties such a nightmare for people—and also so pleasurable—make them incredibly important inside of fiction. There’s a chaos agent quality to them: You just don’t know who’s going to be there, or why. You could run into an old enemy, an old friend, an old friend who’s become an enemy. You could run into an ex-lover, or your next lover. The stakes are all there, and that’s why they’re so fascinating.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

The Most Commonly Misused English Words

1 January 2017

From attn:

The English language is not easily mastered. Homonyms — words that are spelled or pronounced the same but mean different things — can be particularly challenging, which is why even the most highly educated English speakers get tripped up sometimes.

. . . .

  • Adverse: Unfavorable or harmful; commonly confused with “averse,” which means disinclined.
  • Appraise: To evaluate the value of something; commonly confused with “apprise,” which means “to inform.”
  • As far as: The same; commonly confused with the phrase “as for,” which means “with regard to.”
  • Begs the question: Implies a conclusion that isn’t supported by evidence; commonly confused with “raises the question.”
  • Bemused: Bewildered; commonly confused with “amused,” which means entertained.
  • Cliché: A noun; commonly misused as an adjective.
  • Credible: Believable; commonly confused with “gullible.”
  • Criteria: A plural word; commonly misused as a singular word. The singular is “criterion.”
  • Data: A plural word; commonly used as a singular noun.

Link to the rest at attn:

The Art of Revision

20 December 2016

From Literary Hub:

The late John Gardner, my writing mentor more than thirty years ago, once told a story about revision that has stuck with me. He said he gave a reading, and during the Q&A a woman raised her hand and said, “You know, I think I like your writing, but I don’t think I like you.” His reply was memorable. “That’s all right,” he said, “because I’m a better person when I’m writing. Standing here, talking to you now, I can’t revise my words. If I say something wrong or not quite right, or maybe offensive and it hurts someone, the words are out there, public, and I can’t take them back. I have to rely on you to revise or fix them for me. But when I’m writing, I can go over and over what I think and say until it’s right.”

I think Gardner captured the heart of the creative process. We often hear that 90 percent of good writing is rewriting. We also know that writing well is the same thing as thinking well, and that means we want our final literary product—story, novel, or essay—to exhibit our best thought, best feeling, and best technique.

When I compose a first draft I just let everything I feel and think spill out raw and chaotically on the page. I let it be a mess. I trust my instincts. I just let my ideas and feelings flow until I run out of words. It’s fine for an early draft to be a disaster area. I don’t censor myself. When I have this raw copy, I can then decide if this idea is worth putting more effort into. If so, then with the second draft, I clean up spelling and grammar. I add anything I forgot to include in the first draft and take out whatever isn’t working.

Then the real fun begins with the third draft. (Despite its importance, art should always be a form of play.) That’s where I work on what I know are my creative weaknesses.

Link to the rest at Literary Hub

Design words with data – How data informs our writing at Dropbox

17 December 2016

From Medium:

Writing is a form of art. Words can make us laugh, move us to tears, or inspire us to do great things.

But I’d say there’s also a science to writing. Data can inform writing choices and help us think more objectively about what we write.

. . . .

As UX writers at Dropbox, our goal is to make sure every word we write makes sense. One wrong word can break a user’s experience. A vague button label or unfamiliar term can easily frustrate users.

To make sure we’re choosing the right words, we use a few different techniques to help us make informed choices about our writing.

. . . .

1. Google Trends

Let’s say you’re trying to decide between a few different terms, and you’re not sure which term is best. For example, which of the following should you use in your product?

  • Log in
  • Log on
  • Sign in
  • Sign on

One thing you can try is Google Trends. Just enter all of these terms, separated by commas. Google Trends compares how often people search for these terms on Google. The search automatically includes phrases like “facebook log in” or “can’t sign in.”

So what does Google Trends say?

Ta-da! Looks like “sign in” is the clear winner here. That means people are more likely to use “sign in” when referring to this action. If you want your words to match user expectations, “sign in” is probably a safer choice than the other options.

. . . .

2. Google Ngram Viewer

Ngram Viewer is similar to Google Trends, except it searches published books, scanned by Google. You can use this data to see which terms are more commonly used in your language.

Link to the rest at Medium

2 Exercises to Maximize Your Creativity First Thing in the Morning

10 December 2016

From CNBC:

This is not going to be a typical morning post. But then again, there are not many “typical” things about my morning.

I realize the benefits of your traditional morning routine staples — journaling, meditation, running. Surely they have helped thousands of people over the years. Adding all of these to my morning routine might make me a more fit and mindful person.

There’s just one problem.

They all make me want to vomit.

As a writer, I realize that I am supposed to love journaling. It’s reflective, after all. It helps you process your feeeeelings. It helps you learn from your life.

Blah, blah, blah.

I never got into it.

Meditation is just as bad. Maybe I just have trouble with being stillness, but in the morning, I’m ready to GO. I don’t want to sit and think about anything.

. . . .

Besides, I don’t use my mornings to reflect, I use them to progress.

Link to the rest at CNBC

See through words

4 December 2016

From Aeon:

If you could ask Dante where he got the idea of life as a road, or Rilke where he found the notion that time is a destroyer, they might have said the metaphors were hewn from their minds, or drawn from a stock of poetic imagery. Their readers might have said the imagery had origins more divine, perhaps even diabolical. But neither poets nor readers would have said the metaphors were designed. That is, the metaphors didn’t target people’s cognitive processes. They weren’t engineered to affect us in a specific way.

Can metaphors be designed? I’m here to tell you that they can, and are. For five years I worked full-time as a metaphor designer at the FrameWorks Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC, whose clients are typically large US foundations (never political campaigns or governments). I continue to shape and test metaphors for private-sector clients and others. In both cases, these metaphors are meant to help people to understand the unfamiliar. They aren’t supposed to make someone remark: ‘That’s beautiful.’ They’re meant to make someone realise that they’ve only been looking at one side of a thing.

. . . .

Pretty much every metaphor designer is inspired by Metaphors We Live By(1980), by the Berkeley linguist George Lakoff and the philosopher Mark Johnson at the University of Oregon. It’s the classic look at how metaphors structure the way we think and talk, and once you’ve read it, you can’t help but agree that, at a conceptual level, life is a journey, and arguments are wars (you take sides, there can be only one winner, evidence is a weapon). However, for the practical metaphor designer, psycholinguistic research turns out to be much more useful than philosophical commentary, because it studies how people actually encounter and process new metaphors.

It was the Princeton psycholinguist Sam Glucksberg who in 2003 argued that metaphors are really categorisation proposals. Provocations, you might call them. You’re suggesting that one thing belongs with another. But the thing that lets us make sense of ‘paintbrush as pump’ – or ‘lawyer as shark’ – is that ‘pump’ is the name of a category for liquid-moving mechanisms, just as ‘shark’ is the name of the category for predatory individuals. Words such as ‘pump’ and ‘shark’ aren’t just the names of individual things; they also speak to generalities. They have what Glucksberg calls ‘dual reference’. He points out others that have become conventionalised metaphors. ‘Butcher’ refers to ‘anyone who should be skilled but is incompetent’, ‘jail’ to ‘any unpleasant, confining situation’, ‘Enron’ to ‘any dramatic accounting scandal’, and ‘Vietnam’ to any ‘disastrous military intervention’.

Link to the rest at Aeon

Researchers have quantified what makes us love Harry Potter

29 November 2016

From The Washington Post:

A good story often takes its reader on an emotional journey from despair to elation, and hits many notes in between.

It’s something that writers and readers understand intuitively. But it also can be analyzed, quantified and graphed. In a fascinating new study, researchers use machine-learning techniques to analyze 1,327 literary works — including “Romeo and Juliet,” “Frankenstein” and Harry Potter — and reveal what exactly it is about popular stories that makes us love them most.

The idea of graphing the emotional arc of popular stories is not a new one. The author Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote about it in a master’s thesis, which he called his “prettiest contribution to the culture.” The University of Chicago actually rejected the thesis, but Vonnegut went on to write and speak more about the idea.

In one of his most popular lectures, Vonnegut stands before a blackboard and graphs the emotional roller coasters of Cinderella, Hamlet and the Bible. In Vonnegut’s graphs, the horizontal axis tracks the story from beginning to end, while the vertical axis reflects positive or negative change in the characters’ fortunes. When Cinderella gets a fairy godmother, the line rises. When Romeo and Juliet quaff their poison, it plummets.

. . . .

For their recent study, the researchers fed the emotional arcs of the more than 1,000 literary works back into a machine-learning algorithm, which then sorted them into broad clusters. As the Harry Potter graph above demonstrates, individual stories may have very complex emotional arcs. But analyzing the emotional arcs very broadly, they found that there were six types that fit 85 percent of the books they had analyzed, Reagan said.

Roughly one-third of the stories were either rags-to-riches stories, in which the emotional arc rises through the bulk of the story, or the opposite, riches-to-rags stories, in which it broadly falls. “Romeo and Juliet” and many of Shakespeare’s tragedies show up in this second category.

. . . .

The researchers also find a subcategory of stories in which the emotional arc rises, then falls, which they label Icarus, after the Greek mythological figure who falls into the sea after flying too close to the sun. Another arc, where emotions rise, then fall, then rise again, is labeled “Cinderella,” after the fairy godmother tale. Its opposite, a fall-rise-fall pattern, is labeled “Oedipus,” after the Greek tragedy in which a king unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother. (“Frankenstein,” graphed below, fits the bill.)

Link to the rest at The Washington Post and thanks to Tom for the tip.

I’ve heard from a lot of people who want to write so that they can get rich quickly

25 November 2016

From bestselling author Dave Farland:

It seems that in the past few weeks I’ve heard from a lot of people who want to write so that they can get rich quickly, and I worry about them.

I don’t begrudge people the desire to get rich.  If you’re a writer and you make a decent wage at it, it will give you the freedom to keep writing.  That’s a good thing.

But I’ve met a couple of novelists who have told me that they have a terrible time writing, that even though they make good money at it, every word that they write is a chore.  That strikes me as being . . . rather painful.  Why do a job that you hate just for money?

In both cases, the novelists seemed to write less and less until they went out and took other jobs.

So that’s one problem with writing just for money.  But there are others.  I see many writers trying to take shortcuts.  They try to go out and get major publishing deals before they’re ready—before they’ve really learned to write.  In fact, many of them will go write a novel and then work to get that major deal without ever having gotten a single critique.

That’s like sitting down at a piano and banging out your first concerto while hoping for a recording contract.  It’s foolishness.  These same people will pay decent money for stupid scams.  For example, there’s a writing book that claims you can write a bestselling novel in thirty days—in only five minutes per day.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

Here’s a link to Dave Farland’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

Stupid Writing Rules: 12 Bad Writing Tips New Writers Give Each Other

20 November 2016

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog:

Fake news isn’t our only problem in the era of social media. Fake writing rules are everywhere. Even I get taken in. I shared a meme on Facebook yesterday that gave a spelling rule that was 100% wrong. Thank goodness an English teacher friend set me straight. (Thanks, Bev!) Not everybody is so lucky.

I tell new writers to join groups and get feedback from other writers, but now I do it with the caveat that most of the feedback you’ll get needs to be taken with several shakers of salt.

. . . .

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The problem with groups is that the most ignorant people are generally the most sure of themselves.

This phenomenon has been scientifically proved. It’s called The Dunning-Kruger Effect. Scientists David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University did a study in 2000 that proves the least competent people are the most likely to overestimate their own competence.

I remember feeling perfectly confident I knew everything worth knowing at the age of four.

Then I went to school and it ruined everything.

So make sure you cross-reference if any suggestion for a change goes against what you’ve observed or heard from respected authorities. Look up any stupid writing rule in a writing guide that was written by somebody who’s actually been published. Preferably sometime in the past 50 years.

. . . .

8 Stupid Writing Rules Currently Making the Rounds

1) Don’t make your opening scene too dark.

A writer I met recently started her novel with a pastoral scene with no tension or plot: just a pretty scene with pretty people being happy. Somebody she respected as an “authority” had convinced her to cut her nail-biting car accident opener and substitute this.

I suspect the “authority” was fresh out of a beginning course on screenwriting. What he/she had told the writer to substitute for her exciting opener was an “establishing shot”

But contemporary novels don’t have establishing shots. The start in media res (in the middle of things) and that’s what readers expect. Save the sunny afternoon idylls for your poetry.

She might also have been influenced by somebody who misunderstood the “hero’s journey” story arc. The “hero’s journey” theory of story, based on the teachings of Joseph Campbell, says a story must begin with the hero in his normal life at home, before the “call to adventure,” like Dorothy in Kansas before the tornado hits.

But home doesn’t have to be sunny and pastoral. You can have a storm brewing, and Miss Gulch can be pedaling that bicycle as fast as she can to reach Toto and do him harm.

Readers want action and emotion in the first sentence. Otherwise they’re on to the next book on the shelf or page. Here’s a list of 10 Things Your Opening Chapter Should Do. It doesn’t include painting pretty pictures.

. . . .

5) Novels can not contain contractions.

This one floored me. A writer heard this from an “editor”. (Which shows you should carefully vet freelance editors. Anybody can call himself an editor, so do your research before you hire somebody.)

If you follow this editor’s advice, every character in your novel will sound like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.

People who speak English as a first language (and are not robots or space aliens) use contractions. If your characters don’t use them, your novel or memoir had better be set in a robot colony or on the planet Vulcan.

6) “Said” is boring. Use more energetic tags like “exclaimed”,”growled”, and “ejaculated.”

Whoever thought up this one must have read so many Hardy Boys books growing up that they became imprinted on their brains forever.

They’re also treading dangerously close to Tom Swifty territory.

“Said” is invisible to the reader. Any other dialogue tag draws attention to itself. Use other tags judiciously, the way you do with exclamation marks. You do use exclamation marks judiciously, don’t you!!?

Mostly you want to avoid tags altogether, except where they’re needed for clarity.

Instead of “‘It’s freezing,’ Tom muttered icily,” say something like “‘It’s freezing.’ Tom shivered and buttoned up his overcoat.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog

Here’s a link to Anne R. Allen’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

How Jack Reacher was Built

13 November 2016

From The New Yorker:

All fiction depends on what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief,” the reader’s decision to put the argumentative, quibbling part of his mind into neutral and go along for the narrative ride. The suspension is voluntary, though not necessarily conscious; it’s not as if you reach up and toggle a setting in your brain. Rather, as readers, we usually fight the story a little bit at the beginning, while we’re getting our ear in; then we submit, and are carried along by the flow, unless something happens to jolt us out of it. If something makes our disbelief become unsuspended—one implausibility too many, a series of narratorial bum notes—then the whole fiction comes crashing down.

This isn’t the same thing as aesthetic judgment—deciding whether a book is good as a work of art. The question is not “Is it good?” but “Is this for me?” Most readers have their own standards for how much implausibility they can handle. Mine is something that I call the Superman test: Is what I’m being asked to believe less likely than the character’s being able to fly?

. . . .

One of the great pleasures of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels is the immensely accomplished manner in which he balances wish-fulfilling fantasy and earthbound detail. The element of wish fulfillment is embodied in the figure of Reacher himself. He is a six-foot-five-inch former military policeman, whose weight fluctuates between two hundred and twenty and two hundred and fifty pounds, none of it flab. (This is one reason that hard-core Reacher fans didn’t fall in love with the character’s cinematic portrayal by Tom Cruise, who has many virtues as an actor, none of which include being the same size as an N.F.L. linebacker.) Why a military policeman? The explanation comes early in the first Reacher novel, “Killing Floor,” from 1997:

A military policeman deals with military lawbreakers. Those lawbreakers are service guys. Highly trained in weapons, sabotage, unarmed combat. Rangers, Green Berets, marines. Not just killers. Trained killers. Extremely well trained, at huge public expense. So the military policeman is trained even better. Better with weapons. Better unarmed.

The implication is that if members of Navy seal Team 6 get a little frisky Reacher is the guy who’s sent to make them simmer down. Reacher isn’t just tough; he’s supertough. He is exceptionally good with all manner of weapons. His expertise as a sniper is regularly called upon, often via the forensic question “How would you do it if you were the bad guy?” He routinely gets into fights with multiple opponents, confident in his maxim that “two against one is never a problem.” All the Reacher novels feature a climactic combat, sometimes against vastly superior numbers, sometimes against an opponent of superhuman size or strength or inability to feel pain, sometimes against all of the above. The bad guy seems impossible to defeat, but Reacher always defeats him. In Child’s new novel, “Night School” (Delacorte), Reacher gets into a fight with a large group of neo-Nazis, and dispatches the first seven of them with no difficulty, needing a little help only with the eighth and final one.

. . . .

We’re verging on Superman territory here. Yet a number of things conspire to ground the novels in reality. One of them is that the unlikeliness is enjoyable: Child has a great time with Reacher’s invulnerability, and is a good enough writer to make us enjoy it, too. The prose is crisp and clean, and the fighting is realistic within its implausibility. Reacher’s strength might be hard to believe, but when bone hits bone, when arms and faces are broken, when villains are choked to death, it feels real. Here’s a moment from the big fight in “Night School,” with Reacher wielding a baseball bat:

The guy brought his arm up to protect his head, and the bat caught his elbow, and his triceps, which impact smashed the heavy bone of his upper arm backward into the point of his jaw, where his neck met his skull. Which dropped him to his knees, but the lights stayed on. So Reacher swung again, this time properly right-handed, probably good enough for nothing more than a fly ball at a July Fourth picnic, but more than adequate against human biology. The guy rocked sideways and then flopped forward on his face.

Not pretty—but it’s not trying to be. The “more than adequate” is a clue to Reacher’s psychology: he is aiming to do maximum damage. He’ s a good guy who is, with his penchant for violence, very close to being a bad guy. His code is chivalric, in the sense that he fights on behalf of the good; sometimes this means the weak and the wronged, sometimes this means the U.S. government or its proxies. His actions, though, are as unchivalric as they come. He executes opponents, kicks people when they’re down. If he gets a chance to shoot someone in the back rather than the front, he takes it. He may be a hero, but he’s a realist, too.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

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