Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town changed my life. Before I read it, I was a short Vietnamese woman with a lisp. OK, perhaps I exaggerated. Still, if you’re even remotely interested in creative writing, you owe it to yourself to read it. Were I emperor, I’d make it law that no author could receive a rejection without a copy of Triggering Town, and also a year’s supply of bacon. Perhaps this is why I am not emperor… I read Triggering Town as part of my MFA curriculum, and oddly enough there was a point of realization: the one piece of advice Hugo wrote which stuck with me the longest was a comment on teachers. Teachers teach how to write like them, they’re essentially implying the student should embody what they are. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – Liz Strout taught at Queens and I’d give popular parts of my anatomy to write half as well as she does. Still, the impact of an MFA program on a writer’s style cannot be overstated. After graduation, it was a year before I had anything published. During that time, I was writing an enormous amount of bad fiction. Luckily my MFA taught me to recognize my own inadequacies. I had to un-learn some of what I was taught.
This advice made me realize something I’d been fomenting over as a reader for Carve. An awful lot of MFA student fiction sounds the same. The tone is the same, usually dismally emotionally repressed with flowery prose. I’ve gotten so that I can spot a currently enrolled MFA student most of the time (let’s face it, there are exceptions to every rule). When I decided to write this topic up, I went through a few drafts that read just as bad as the fiction I was bashing. I think what it comes down to is a matter of teaching. Most fiction writers are taught to write what we know, a mantra codified in nearly every fiction class since the first stories were scrawled on cave walls with bat guano. If writers only wrote what they knew, the world would be filled with crappy stories about breakups and parking tickets. Granted, some really fantastic stories are written by authors who’ve had amazing life experiences, but for the majority of mortals, daily excitement is limited to the Barista spelling our name right when they scrawl on the coffee cup. I think the lesson should be: write what the limit of your imagination compels you to see. Otherwise it puts a whole new spin on Fight Club, and I’d like to think Chuck Palahniuk is not batshit crazy.
MFA fiction often reads like an over-produced song sounds. The story strikes very specific beats, usually with an overly dramatic opening in mid-conversation. I’ve often rallied against this, and I’ll say it again: I’m likely to reject any story that starts with a conversation because I think it does a disservice to the reader. Sure, there are examples where it’s worked, but there are far more examples where it doesn’t. You start mid-conversation, and you have to immediately back up and fill the reader in to what’s going on. Don’t do that.
MFA fiction themes tend to be centered around relationships, death, death and relationships, student problems, or some utterly bizarre and outlandish concept that no modern reader has been born who could possibly appreciate your story. These kind of stories can still work, but they need to be fresh and they almost never are. Think of the deluge of vampire fiction – nobody wants to read about sexy vampires anymore, and the re-imagined dark prince has also been done to death. Your bad breakup story, or your best friend killed story, they’ve also been done to death. If you’re going to write about an emotionally heavy topic, remember the simplest thing: the reader has no stake in your characters and won’t care unless you make them care. Your teary-eyed re-telling how your best friend was clipped by a train when you were eight is likely not going to be the celebrated fiction you think it is. I’m sorry you had such a traumatic childhood, but you really do need to distance yourself from the story before you can write about it well enough to make a reader want to stick with you. Most emotional stories simply don’t earn their ending, doubly so if it’s an abrupt ending. Take the time to make the reader care. If you’ve ever read Stephen King’s earlier works, they’re good stories because he makes us care about the characters before anything terrible happens to them.
MFA fiction tends to over-weigh prose with back story. I’m a huge advocate for back story, but mostly for the writer’s sake. If you know every detail about your character from their favorite ice-cream to the reason they hate watching reality TV, you’re doing something right. If you include all those details in your story, you’re missing the point. Detailed characters and plots are set dressing to the story. If you know your character is manic about getting a job, you don’t need to tell the reader. Write manic into your story and the context will be enough. Pair down your prose and cut the back story to a few well-placed lines. I honestly think this is a trend in modern times. Some of my favorite stories from the mid-nineteenth century were terribly overwritten. Modern readers will rarely stick with a story that lingers too long.
And lastly, I leave you with this tidbit: as a writer, the best advice we can give other writers is honesty. If your writer buddy reads your work and levies nothing but praise, they’re probably going to hit you up for a loan in the near future because nobody’s draft work is that good. If I critique a story for a stranger or a friend, I’m apt to tell you exactly how I feel – often how bad it is. I’ll also tell you what I think works, but it’s the broken parts we dwell on. As a writer, you can’t fixate on bad criticism. If your aunt Gertrude simply says your story sucks, you need to ask yourself why. If a reader’s reaction is honest, it can never be wrong.
About a year ago, I wrote about media-enriched prose as a contrived method of storytelling, and I mentioned audiobooks. This is the follow-up, a year late because my day job has so little regard for my free time. Stop judging me.
If the audiobook sub-industry is a barometer for success in the digital age, then things are certainly looking good for the modern writer. Audiobook publications rose from roughly 3,000 releases in 2007 to more than 20,000 in 2013, and a huge percentage of that growth occurred in the last three years alone. Audiobooks currently account for roughly 10% of all industry sales – a figure that’s expected to climb past 20% in the next five years. There are a number of factors driving audiobook sales, and I would be reticent if I didn’t mention Audible. As unfriendly as Amazon is to writers, I find it remarkably difficult to decouple their services from my life. You can cancel my audible account when I’m dead. Founded in 1998, Audible surfed the digital revolution and found that MP3 audiobooks were more than a niche market. When Amazon purchased the company in 2008, it was a natural marriage that tied Jeff Bezos’s e-publishing vision together (until the kindle paperwhite killed the ability to play MP3s, and consequently play audiobooks). Fortunately, Amazon’s approach is mostly hands-off. Audible still maintains a distinctly separate site with their own marketplace that has direct links to Amazon content.
What Audible has done for the audiobook revolution should not be overlooked – the ability to track favorite narrator as well as favorite authors can introduce writers to a whole new audience. And, conversely, stilted reading that resembles Ben Stein’s monotone soliloquy from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off can kill enthusiasm for fiction. I absolutely loved Rendezvous with Rama, but I could barely get through the audiobook because the performance was suicide-inducingly bad.
The Netflix revolution has inundated society with content. When it becomes possible to watch seven seasons of How I Met Your Mother in one sitting, only to find out the mother was the least important aspect of the show, finding readers willing to invest hours into your work is a tough sell. Audiobooks are not only a brilliant way to spend long car rides, they’re a great way to broaden your readership, and it’s never been easier to self-publish an audiobook. Though you shouldn’t expect any sales elves to shower you with gold. Royalty rates for self-publishing audiobooks are just as dismal as e-books. It’s also worth noting that audiobook contests are taking off, so team up with a rising voice actor today! Ron McLarty had a successful career as an audiobook narrator, which he leveraged into self-publishing The Memory Of Running as an audiobook. Once Stephen King mentioned it, McLarty’s sales skyrocketed.
If you’re writing, you should be reading. Audiobooks are a great way to fill the gap in your reading schedule. I regularly burn through 60 and 70 hour work weeks, which doesn’t leave much time for writing or reading. I keep up with my backlog by sneaking audiobooks in the car (40-minutes a day to and from work means I can churn through a book in about two months), listening to them at night (I’d rather fall asleep to a good audiobook than re-runs of How I Met Your Mother – just don’t listen to Stephen King unless you like creepy dreams), and listening while I’m doing things around the house. I will forever equate NOS4A2 with parmesan-encrusted shrimp.
But you’re not there yet, you say? You’re still working on that ending where your protagonist delivers a 40-page rousing speech? Well, you are reading your work out loud, right? If so, you’ve already realized that a 40-page speech doesn’t work. I’m not even sure why you brought it up.
I spoke at length about critiquing recently, and I’d like to expound on some of the concepts I discussed. A good writer embraces the critique, which is not the same as accepting every opinion levied against your work. A critique is both an opinion and a fact; the opinion is what the reader feels when they read your work, and the fact is that their feelings are valid. Never apologize for feeling a certain way, and if a reader feels strongly regarding your work you should consider their criticism. Providing they can articulate why they felt the way they did. Nothing’s worse than “this sucks” without any clarification on why.
I’ve been fairly vocal about my dislike for Dan Brown. I think he’s a terrible writer. At the same time, he’s widely read (or was, at least), because readers found something compelling about his work. I could be a bitter egocentric person, convinced of my own superiority, and judge Dan Brown to be inferior and unworthy of my attention. While entertaining, that doesn’t help me become a better writer. Rather, I re-read DaVinci Code several times to fully identify what didn’t work (for me) and what did. That’s the key – identifying what works for me and what doesn’t work for me. DaVinci Code is easy to critique because, while the story is interesting, the characters and structure are rather terrible. The first thing I identified was Brown’s inability to fully realize his characters. In DaVinci Coded, nearly all of the characters become interchangeable trans-gender speakers. Take away dialogue tags, and it doesn’t matter who’s speaking because everyone sounds the same. That’s something I don’t want in my writing. I could keep picking apart the novel, but it’s just as important to recognize what works, and what makes the story compelling. The DaVinci Code is a wonderful mystery, complete with the crucial revelations at chapter conclusions which compel the reader to want more. It’s the mystery we want answered, not the characters. At the story’s conclusion, that same mystery resonates. Brown struck a chord between a believable mystery interwoven with historical fact and enough wonder to make readers question faith. That’s what sold DaVinci Code in droves, and that’s what Brown has infused in his other novels.
A good critique can identify your strengths as well as your weaknesses. When I write a critique, I try to be cognizant of what works for me and write a paragraph or two about it. It’s easy to identify what’s broken and what doesn’t work. Most readers will quickly spot plot holes, character flaws, spelling and grammar mistakes. While useful, that doesn’t paint a true picture of how a given story makes the reader feel, and as writers that’s crucial to understanding what works in your writing.
Think of your favorite novel, something you’ve identified as a great work of fiction. Challenge yourself to re-read that work and find a crucial flaw as well as the essence of what makes it a compelling read.
Writing well requires mastering the fine art of critiquing and being critiqued. That means letting your aunt Gertrude read your work, and sitting through her long-winded soliloquy about why your protagonist should be more like your uncle and less like you. Criticism can bite, but it’s up to the writer to understand not only valid criticism, but to understand how to shape your work into a coherent and compelling story.
Often when we write, we start with a brilliant idea which gets muddled somewhere between the brain and the word processor at our fingertips. We re-read what we wrote yesterday and realize that the brilliant Shiraz-fueled writing session last night actually churned out five pages of mindless drivel focused on the protagonists need to find a clean bathroom. Nobody wants to read that. You need to know how to kill your darlings when required; knowing when and how doesn’t come easy. Before you ask, no I’m not talking about the Daniel Radcliffe movie, I’m referring to what Richard Hugo talked about in The Triggering Town, which should be required reading for anyone serious about writing.
Accepting criticism is a developed skill, right along with accepting rejection. When you write, you’re capturing ideas and shaping words to record the imagery and emotion you wish to convey. That kind of magic requires practice and skill and a lot of work. 10,000 hours or so of work, in fact. Accepting criticism is a developed skill, right along with critiquing someone else’s work. You can learn an awful lot by recognizing what’s wrong with someone else’s story. As a reader for Carve magazine, I end up reading through a few dozen short stories a month. Most are fairly underdeveloped, but the nugget of inspiration is visible. A few are finely tuned, but underachieve a clear focus. When the writing works, when the writer fully engages the reader, the words fall away and only the story remains.
To fully understand the editing process, start by reading. A lot. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read good and bad fiction, read genre, read romance even though you may hate it (“he thrust his manhood into her quivering mound of love pudding…”). Aside from getting enjoyment out of it, you’ll start to recognize the pattern published writer’s use in their work, you’ll start to recognize how stories are shaped and how scenes lead together in a long chain of narration that builds a compelling picture which fully engages the reader. I once critiqued the novel of a friend where nearly everything was working, but the single greatest flaw was the final quarter of the manuscript – the protagonist had a sudden and jarring revelation when there should’ve been seeds of inspiration laced throughout the novel. A single long flashback revealed a compelling past story which should’ve been at the front of the novel. Such things aren’t easy for the writer to notice, especially not in an early draft. The story can be good and still end up unbalanced.
Critiquing lets you practice the skills you’ll need to edit your own work. When you sit down with someone’s story, read through it once and let the surface story sink in a bit. You may recognize flaws early on, and you will want to mark them, but don’t just yet. Don’t distract yourself from the first reading. When finished, go back and identify the easy fixes – misused and misspelled words, grammar and punctuation issues, and also focus on the story itself. Is the imagery compelling? Are the characters clear? Is this the kind of story that sticks with you long after you’ve read it? Identifying what works in a good story is just as important as identifying what doesn’t. I like to write a paragraph or two in my critiques where I explain what I think the story is about. This accomplishes two things: for the writer, it lets them know if their intent was achieved. Just because we wanted to write a story about a man struggling with infidelity, we may have laced so much metaphor we ended up writing a story about a man who wants ice cream to melt in his mouth and any intended sexual innuendo may be lost on the reader. You can get mad at the reader and claim they just didn’t ‘get it’, and you could be right. But if ten readers give you the same general criticism, chances are nobody gets the story but you. And second, writing an explanation of the story helps identify exactly what worked, which you can use in your own writing.
I’m in a public bathroom and go to wash my hands, but the automated faucet doesn’t work. I try another one, doesn’t work. I try the soap dispenser, nope. Paper towel dispenser? Nope.
Some guy walks up to a faucet and it turns on for him. So I try the faucet next to him, no luck. I said, “Shit, maybe I’m dead and I don’t know it.”
The dude looks me right in the eye and says, “I could’ve sworn I heard something.”
Well played, bar dude. Well played indeed.
A battle is raging, a fight between two behemoths who will wreck the consumer landscape. The war between Amazon and Hachette Books is diminished among greater headlines, and let’s face it, practically everyone is more interested in the Game of Thrones season finale. I cancelled my cable, so if anyone tells me what happens, I promise a gruesome and painful death possibly involving moldy gummy bears.
In one corner, we have Amazon. As a writer, I’m supposed to despise Amazon because of their shady business tactics and penchant for mowing over small press. In the other corner, we have Hachette books, publisher of great works from authors such as Malcom Gladwell and Richard Russo. At the core of the argument, as with most arguments, is money.
Amazon wants Hachette to re-negotiate the profit margin for selling the publishers books, wants the right to discount unsold books, and demands Hachette pay for advertising. Hachette thinks the current arrangement is just fine, thank you. Amazon’s defense, however, is more than just a firing shot across the bow. Amazon has conveniently cancelled pre-orders for any forthcoming Hachette titles, and although the digital bookstore insists already in-print Hachette books are just as available as they always were, searches simply don’t agree. When pressed, Amazon’s response for finding Hachette books is to simply shop for them elsewhere.
The battle between creators and retailers is as old as commerce itself, and about half as interesting. It’s easy to side with Hachette because Amazon is resorting to bullying tactics, and bullies are too cowardly to fight fairly. The truth is never so simple, and while I won’t argue that Amazon is abusing their power by affecting Hachette’s bottom line during the price negotiation, the big publishing house isn’t exactly innocent either. Hachette refused an offer to fund half of an author pool to mitigate the impact on authors through the dispute. Agreeing to the pool isn’t agreeing to any negotiating tactic, it’s simply agreeing that authors are unfairly affected by the issue, and Hachette’s refusal sounds more like sour grapes going off to the garden to eat worms.
George Packer’s article sums up Amazon nicely; an online retailer who didn’t mind excess inventory, Amazon was a boon when the publishing industry needed it most. While it’s easy to point at Amazon’s tactics as slimy and underhanded, the truth is they’re doing nothing other retail companies aren’t doing, forcing manufacturers to let retail sell for the lowest amount possible. The publishing industry is broken, and Amazon is taking advantage of that fact by forcing publishers like Hachette to the negotiating table. While Amazon isn’t the only game in town, they’re a force to be reckoned with.
While Amazon started as a bookseller, publishing was always a secondary goal to becoming a retail powerhouse. Achievement unlocked, Bezos. Books were a way to track purchasing habits and gain user information, which is the holy grail for any retail establishment. Amazon’s expansion into media, marketplace, and partnerships with other content providers like HBO has created a powerhouse that’s not nearly so easy to categorize. Bezos, like most tech dictators, knows how to focus the company on profit and how to build something consumers want.
Unfortunately for some, the publishing industry may suffer. The problem with the argument is, in my mind, that it masks the true problem. Publishing is broken and desperately needs a cleansing. Like the music industry, publishing has been slow to adopt electronic formats and has suffered. Amazon’s greatest achievement in the literary world may simply be the widespread adoption of the kindle. While there are better e-readers on the market, the kindle as an inexpensive device is pure genius. Problem is it’s only a small part of Amazon’s ecosystem. As a global retailer, Amazon wants its customers locked in. Buy an Amazon device and you shop in the Amazon marketplace, download Amazon goods and services, view Amazon-sponsored videos. It’s what made the iPhone so attractive; Steve Jobs recognized what could be accomplished by latching a consumer device to a marketplace of vetted applications and content, and that is the holy grail of retail in our modern age.
A few days ago, I tasked a new hire with re-provisioning one of our biggest clusters because we have some firmware updates that should increase per-core performance. It’s a mind-numbing job of pushing a cart around, plugging a mouse/keyboard/monitor into every one of 1200 servers, manually rebooting and manually keying through the firmware update. Takes 2-3 minutes per machine.
So today I check on him. Now, this kid can’t be more than 23, 24, fresh out of college. I ask how it’s going, peek at the monitor which is just finishing up. When the server re-boots, the lights on the front switch from blue or amber to green. The kid says, “Light is green, the trap is clean.”
I said, “Did you just make a Ghostbusters reference? Right on, my man! Slap me some skin!”
He said, “Dude, L-M-F-A-O, my dad likes that movie.”
Well played, kid… well played.
In the first article, I discussed plotting tools and how to captivate your audience by making them feel smart. The second article covered characterization and growth of your protagonist. In this third article, I’m going to cover the blending of plot and narration with secondary and tertiary characters.
Spec Ops: The Line is a first-person action game set during a fictitious conflict in the middle east. Before you groan, the game features a surprising amount of depth and some of the best character development in any media. Brendan Keogh has an excellent analysis of Spec Ops: The Line that you should probably read if you have any interest in such things.
In its purest form, Spec Ops is a retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Though possibly a bit closer to the Apocalypse Now version. In the game, a freakish sandstorm captures the city of Dubai. The city’s wealthy elite flee before the situation worsens, but the population of native and migrant workers is left to fend for themselves. The U.S. Army responds at the request of the UAE government, led by Colonel John Konrad, with the intention of aiding the mass evacuation before the city is completely cut off from the world. If it worked, we wouldn’t have a game.
The player takes on the role of a special forces operative who enters the conflict six months later. Konrad and his infantry battalion have gone rogue, and it’s up to our hero (appropriately named Walker) to skirt the fine line between brutality and savior, finding a delicate balance between the insurgent survivors, remnants of the 33rd infantry, rogue CIA operatives, and an assortment of terror suspects.
What Spec Ops accomplishes that few other books, games, or movies have done successfully is to shift the audience’s sympathy throughout the game. The player is introduced to a brutal world of a collapsed city struggling for survival and infested with terrorists, but we quickly learn the terror suspects are simply survivors who’ve mistaken Walker and his team for members of Konrad’s brutal 33rd. The lost battalion had ensnared the city in an iron grip, punishing civilians and enlisted with death for the slightest infraction. As the game progresses, we learn that the 33rd also aren’t entirely to blame. From the game’s outset, Walker and his men started shooting first and the 33rd acted to preserve the civilian population.
Much of the story is relayed through dialogue between Walker (the player) and his two special-operations companions, Lugo and Adams. It’s through these secondary characters that the player is given insight into the world and allowed to dwell in the land of shoot-your-enemy. Spec Ops doesn’t give the player a choice with violence, which ends up being a choice in and of itself. By the game’s conclusion, we learn that Walker wasn’t entirely sane to begin with and the player’s entire view into the world of Spec Ops was through this unreliable narrator.
When structuring believable fiction, come to terms with the beliefs and ideals of your characters, particularly the ones which differ from your own. It’s through these firmly-held ideals that characters enter into conflict, which not only serves the dramatic tension of your story but binds the reader to your character by making them rounded and complete. We come to understand Walker through his dialogue with his squad-mates, his actions in the game, and his observations from cut-scenes. In one pivotal moment, Walker and his men are pinned down by the 33rd. Angry that Konrad has convinced soldiers to kill one another, Walker decides to end the battle as quickly as possible by firing white phosphorous grenades into the entrenched enemy. During the next cut-scene, we see Walker and his men striding through the remains of both entrenched 33rd and cowering civilians. Walker comments that the 33rd weren’t trying to kill him, they were trying to protect civilians. By using white phosphorous, Walker (and by extension, the player) has committed an atrocious crime, killing innocent women and children simply because he didn’t want to engage in a long-running gun battle. Rather than lament his decision, as his men are want to do, Walker instead curses Konrad and the men at his side, claiming it was Konrad who forced his hand.
Leading your reader to a conclusion is extraordinarily difficult to do without being obtrusive. Most novels accomplish it through characterization, though not always successfully. Think of Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ian Malcolm. As a mechanism for Crichton to reveal the scientific aspects of his story, Malcolm also serves as a sounding board for the theme – the dangers of biotechnology and exponentially increasing scientific understanding with little regard for consequences. Spec Ops: The Line weaves the player/audience through a minefield of difficult subject matter, from the dangers of using chemical weapons on civilian populations to the ever-expanding role of military which often results in violence, all masterfully told through a protagonist who believes wholeheartedly in his convictions.
What makes a good character? Certainly you’d want your protagonist to go through some kind of journey. Otherwise you’ll have the kind of short-sighted one-dimensional character that fits in a Dan Brown novel. I’m allowed to poke fun at Dan Brown – he’s laughing all the way to the bank. As interesting as his DaVinci Code novels may be, the characters are one-dimensional and ultimately underdeveloped. Try reading his work and transposing he for she. You’ll quickly find the characters are only there for window dressing, wrapped around a theological essay. His novels struck a chord because contemporary readers are interested in controversy and anything that pokes fun at the establishment from a relatively safe position. The world longs for characters who stick with us, transformative characters who make us examine our own lives. The best stories are filled with characters who feel like real people. It’s the characters who inhabit the story. The rest is window dressing.
Grand Theft Auto 4, despite what the mass media would claim is a murder simulator, tells the story of an immigrant searching for a better life. Nico Bellic comes to America after hearing his cousin tell stories of untold riches and easy women only to find his cousin is in debt and the only woman in his life is a cab-company secretary who has no interest in him. Nico, as an ex-Serbian army officer, finds the new city offers few opportunities for immigrants aside from illicit activities, and soon becomes involved in a number of illegal enterprises. From bank robberies to running drugs and assassinations, GTA IV embodies the story of the shattered American dream. While playing Nico Bellic, the player has few opportunities to gain money or status aside from illegal endeavors, and the story manages to latch together the difficulties of relationships. Nico’s dating life, for example, balances the need for money to impress his dates with the expected external image of success required of American life – you can’t go to a club dressed in shabby clothes and driving a hatchback, you need a sports car and a pressed suit. As the game progresses, Nico quickly compromises his principles to chase the ideal American dream, and eventually he’s forced to make the ultimate sacrifice – forced to choose between his love life or his cousin, Nico’s past comes back with a vengeance.
GTAIV works brilliantly because Nico Bellic is a dynamic character. The player is drawn into the world because Nico, through his commentary during missions and cut-scenes, is constantly evolving. He balances his expectation of the easy living American Dream with the harsh reality of life on the streets. As the game opens, you get the sense that Nico wants to be an honest man, and even tries a few honest jobs before the loan sharks who threaten his cousin, Roman, show up. Faced with a moral decision, Nico sides with family. He’s from the old world where your family name and your reputation mean more than anything, and soon he finds himself pulling small crimes to clear the debt Roman owes.
Nico’s story works for two very important reasons. Rockstar Games understands the use of caricature, particularly emphasized with popular American culture. Nico, from the outset, is a tragic character. He cannot succeed. He regrets his involvement in the Serbian war, and though we never learn enough about his past, we learn enough to know he doesn’t want to become the murderous killer he was. But life in America isn’t so simple. To save his reputation and his cousin, Nico has to choose violence, and the price he pays is more than he expected.
Nico’s transformation is what makes GTAIV such an engrossing story, embodying what made cheesy 80’s action flicks worth watching. The iconic action hero who wants to be good is faced with an option that really isn’t an option. Kowtow to brutal authority, or forge your own path for honor and family. We know from the beginning which path Nico will choose, but the knowing doesn’t detract from the journey.