Tag Archives: writing

What Is Good Writing?: Idiots Weigh In

What is good writing? A woman ponders the question.

Recently, I was asked to create a tweet answering the question: “What is good writing?” The finished product received a mediocre grade, which means I must not have addressed the issue very thoroughly.

“How did I manage to mess this up?” I groaned. “Any idiot could explain good writing!”

In today’s post, Any Idiot gets their chance. Continue reading

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Day Job: Five Things I Planned to Do While Waiting to Get Famous

Rohan Kishibe, Jojo's Bizarre Adventure

When I was three years old, I decided I wanted to be a writer. When I was nine, I realized I would need a day job. That’s an awfully tender age at which to have your spirit crushed, but there you have it. My parents were nothing if not straight with me.

I spent the rest of elementary and middle school brainstorming potential occupations to keep me afloat while I waited for my literary ship to come in. Unfortunately, most of the ideas I came up with weren’t so much “day jobs” as they were “different ways to become famous.” Here are a few of the careers I mulled over during my fame-whore years. Continue reading

21st Century Serial: Thirty Five Weeks in Hell

Nature Abhors a VacuumDo you love late nights? Deadlines? Posting unedited first drafts online where everyone can see them? Then have I got a format for you! It’s called serialization, and it’s been around at least as long as there have been writers who get off on suffering. Between August 2014 and April 2015, I serialized a science fiction mystery story on the official blog of the Mid-Michigan Prose and Writing Group. The story is called Nature Abhors a Vacuum, and I describe it thus:

Pip is a minimally motivated, socially maladjusted college student with a ‘shroom-addicted roommate and a callous fiance. When her upstairs neighbor is murdered, Pip decides to investigate, drafting her younger brother and a local public radio host into service as her assistants. What they discover will forever change their views on space, time, and door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesmen.

It’s an idea I’d been kicking around since 2007, when my then-boyfriend began selling for Kirby, manufacturers of high-end vacuums and workplace degradation. I won’t bother describing what a horrible experience it was–many of the gory details made it into the serial. (Although, if you’re hungry for more scandal, you can check out the “Litigation” section on Kirby’s Wikipedia page.) Anyway, when the leader of my writers’ group asked me to write for their blog, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to get this story out of my system.

And it was. But boy, did I learn some lessons along the way.

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“I’m Too ____ to Be a Writer”: Inspiration for the Discouraged

Let’s start with a confession: I’ve been discouraged lately. Not just because I wrecked my car, or because I have awful PMS, or because my job has me encountering poop more often than a proctologist moonlighting as a zookeeper. It’s the socially-conditioned things that have me down–assumptions I and many others hold about what it takes to be a successful writer. I suspect I’m not the only one who flounders amid these sorts of defeatist attitudes. That’s why I’m about to br-br-break ’em down.

Proctologist

“Time to clear out your Assumption Chute!”

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In Ars Dolor: Depressing Stories by an 8-Year-Old

Last week, I introduced you to Diary of My Demented Kid Brother, a repository of my baby brother’s elementary school journal entries that I set up back in 2008.

You’ll be pleased to learn that, in addition to writing spot-on surrealist book reviews, the kid was also a genius at depressing prose. Not a single one of his fourth-grade stories has anything resembling a happy ending. Indeed, most of them end on a note of abject futility. No wonder my parents got called in for a conference with his teacher.

Here are some of my favorites (in order from least to most depressing).

The pencil that smells.

The pencil that smells
Once upon a time there was a pencil named Vern. One day he was playing with his friend they were having a rotten egg war. Vern got hit five thousand times he smelled like rotten eggs. He snuck in his house but his mom could smell him peeeeeyou you smell like rotten eggs. Your gonna hafto take a shower but I hate taking it’s so dark and WET!!! But it’s the only way you’ll get clean. Oh all right so he took a shower and he didn’t smell anymore. So he went back to his friend’s house this time they had a toxic waste and he got hit ten million times he went home but this time it wouldn’t come OFF

Your fourth grade pencil.

pretend your fourth grade pencil talk about your life.
Vern my owner keeps on sharpening so I keep on getting shorter I used to be seven point five now I’m three point five talk about short. Every day he uses me I get so tired of arrrrgh! But when they go home I just sit in his pencil box and sleep but he wakes me up nine 0’clock in the morning. Now I’m lost I don’t know where I am but I think the janitor threw me away if so I’m probably crushed right now let me rest in peace.

The giant baby that went down the Mississippi.

The Baby that went down the MIssippi River
One day a women called Mrs. Johnson had and she called him Baby Bob but the baby weighed so much they couldn’t carry him so they. Asked if the nurse could get some help but unfortunately. They couldn’t get him out the door so they sat down and thinked. But no one thought of anything so they had to get a canoe and put. Him in it and he would hafto go down the Missipi river. So they did and waved good bye till he disapeard into the Fog. Now since baby bob all alone he was hungry so he picked. Some berries along the way and then he was tired so he took a nap for. About five hours and woke up and he was at the mouth but the boat couldn’t hold his weight.

The Bee Keeper.

The Bee Keeper
once there was man that had a lot pride in his bees but one. Day he put his hand in it but he forgot to put on his safety gear. So he got stinged very badly so he had to go to the hospital. When he woke up they asked what happen? Well I pinched my nose to long and passed out. He felt really bad that he lied and he really wanted to get out. Of the hospital so he tried opening a window but that didn’t work so he asked. The guard if he could go and the gaurd said no then he felt something right. Where his heart was so he just layed down and died.

The end

“What the Hell Did I Just Write?”: When Authors Hate Their Creations

I spent all of yesterday writing a horror story that I just might hate.  It’s partly the subject matter (a bereaved young woman finds herself rotting alive after wishing she could trade places with her dead brother), partly its basis in personal experience (a death in my family), and partly the fact that I hate just about everything I write.

Though there exist certain weirdos who wax rhapsodic about the jewels that flow ceaselessly from the nib, the bulk of writers feel at least some dissatisfaction with their work.  Indeed, there’s some consensus that you haven’t “made it” until everything you write makes you want to barf.  If you’re at that point, you’re in good company.  Welcome to the hallowed ranks of…

1. Stephen King, Pet Sematary

Stephen King, Pet Semetary

Even horror writers have a sticking point.  Stephen King’s was apparently reanimated toddlers.

During a teaching stint in Maine, King lived with his family along a busy highway where many household pets met their end.  So many animals had gone squish, in fact, that the neighborhood kids had taken it upon themselves to establish a burial ground for the furry departed.  From this kernel grew Pet Sematary, the tale of a man who resurrects first his cat and then his son by burying them in an ancient Indian graveyard.

The completed story badly upset its creator, who hid it in a drawer for five years before reluctantly submitting it to a publisher.  King believed he had pushed the subject beyond the limits of reasonable good taste and still cites Pet Sematary as the most troubling entry in his body of work.

2. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes portrait

If your patience for Holmes has been worn thin by his rabid following on Tumblr, spare a thought for poor Mr. Conan Doyle.  His antipathy for Sherlock Holmes ran deeper than that of Moriarty and Moran combined, yet try as he might, he couldn’t escape the guy.

“I think of slaying Holmes…” he wrote to his mother in 1891, “and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.”  Those better things, incidentally, were his more serious historical novels, which few people now remember.  Conan Doyle sent Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls, the Sherlockians of the world shat a collective brick, and the ensuing uproar caused the author to bring Holmes back ten years later.

“Lol jk not dead!” Holmes declared, mumbling something about Japanese wrestling.  Meanwhile, Sir Arthur sobbed softly in the distance.

3. Ian Fleming, The Spy Who Loved Me

Ian Fleming, The Spy Who Loved Me

“Man,” said Ian Fleming. “Everyone thinks James Bond is soooo cool.  Let’s see how they like a James Bond book with hardly any James Bond!”

They didn’t.  The Spy Who Loved Me, which centers on the romantic travails and near-rape of one Vivienne Michel, went down like a cement laxative.  Fleming’s apparent intention was to expose Bond as a misogynist and dispel some of the cool mystique surrounding the fictional spy.  It didn’t quite come off, and critics tore the thing to shreds. 

Fleming later sought to bury the book.  No one tried to stop him.  The film version of the novel uses exactly zero plot points from the original, which is pretty damning when you consider how many silly elements made it into those movies.

4. Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess’ story of ultra-violence and the old in-out in-out, has always been more than a malenky bit controversial.  Its graphic depictions of delinquency, rape, and wanton destruction fascinate some and repel others.  Thanks largely to the movie version, the book’s author can be counted among the latter.

At the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film, our wayward protagonist, Alex, is cured of chemically-induced aversion to violence and given a job to compensate him for his suffering.  He gleefully contemplates the acts of physical and sexual violence he will perpetrate now that he’s back to normal.  This stands in marked contrast to the original ending of Burgess’ novel, which depicts Alex outgrowing his violent ways and longing for fatherhood.

Burgess considered the movie little more than a glorification of violence and lamented his unavoidable association with it.  Tough luck, droog.

5. Kafka, More or Less Everything He Ever Wrote

Franz Kafka

As he stood on death’s doorstep, Franz Kafka looked back at his body of work and decided he just wasn’t feeling it.  He wrote a letter to a close friend, read posthumously, that asked him to burn virtually all of his writing.  His friend responded with a curt: “Dude, no,” and got it all published instead.

What we have of Kafka’s work comes to us courtesy of that one traitorous guy.  Thank you, sir, for being such a divine frenemy.

Rebel Without a Clause: Let’s Break Some Writing Rules!

For four years, I taught SAT/ACT essay writing.  It was ball-achingly dull.  Standardized tests, you see, require a very specific, very rigidly-formatted style, the type of writing you’ve had tattooed on your cortex since sixth grade.  The hook.  The thesis.  Three body paragraphs offering supporting evidence.  The conclusion. The arrival of a team of paramedics who attempt to resuscitate you after you shoot yourself in the face to avoid ever again having to write something so boring.  I didn’t love teaching it, and the kids didn’t love learning it, in part because it bears so little resemblance to any of the writing you see in the real world.

Think about it: when was the last time you read an op-ed piece that went like this?

Recent scandals within the VA health system have shocked American sensibilities.  Eric Shinseki, the United States Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs, should step down.  He should do so for the following reasons: he is incompetent at his job, he needs to give someone else a chance to lead, and he has dumb taste in shoes.  I will now expand upon these points with concrete supporting evidence.

Or a novel that began like this?

Margaret had grown weary of her quotidian existence.  She was weary for the following reasons: her boyfriend had dumped her, she had too many student loans, her IBS was acting up…

Et cetera, et cetera.  I understand why we all learn this style growing up.  It’s tight, cogent, and easy to understand.  It emphasizes the need for concrete supporting evidence (a need that loads of adults and the entire Fox News team have yet to internalize.)  It prevents our nation’s middle school students from trying to argue in favor of euthanasia by writing about the time they ramped their BMX bike off a sick jump (that’s a thing middle schoolers do, right?)  In short, it’s effective, if desperately, desperately boring.  Fortunately, as we grow older, we learn how to bend the rules to make our writing more engaging.

But just how far will the rules bend?  Surely some writing rules are sacrosanct–never to be broken under any circumstances?  After all, professional writers are always rattling off lists of definitely-dos and absolutely-don’ts.  Those lists must mean something.

Well, no.  Not really.  Your writing needs to make sense and keep the reader interested, but everything else is surprisingly flexible.  Here are some of the rules that popular authors have broken, are breaking, and will continue to break for the foreseeable future.

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