This week’s lack of a substantial post brought to you by an untimely tumble down a tvtropes wormhole.
This happens to me from time to time. (TV Tropes, for the uninitiated, is a treasure trove of all the things your favorite media do that has been done before, lovingly compiled and enumerated by legions of internet geeks and cross-referenced in such a way as to ensure that once you start to slide in, much like the Sarlacc pit, you will not easily (if at all) escape.) I watch a movie, I really enjoy it, and I want to deconstruct it a little bit, so I head over to tvtropes.org. This is a thing that, if I stop myself at all in the act, I call research, and it is — kind of. The site really is fascinating as a consideration of all the ways these movies and shows crib from one another and follow paths carved out ages ago, even if they feel fresh and new.
And it certainly can be inspiring and enlightening to see that all the ways that fresh and innovative film took the tropes we’ve seen before and tweaked them or inverted them or straight-up embraced them to such effective … um … effect. Invariably I get new ideas for my own story while browsing the site. Or I get new insights on things already happening in my story, that I can then flesh out and play up as I go back to work.
But as aforementioned, every page links to dozens if not hundreds of others, and they’re a bit like Pringles — you can’t click just one.
All of which is to say that while I should have been writing a pseudo-intellectual, slightly grumpy take on some thing or other, possibly writing related, possibly otherwise, I was spelunking in the page on Thor: Ragnarok instead.
Oh, also I re-watched Thor: Ragnarok for the more-than-enough-th time, because, why not?
And when I’m not using my writing time for writing, I’m often using it to browse writers’ websites or writing hashtags on Twitter. In that endeavor, I read a lot of writing advice. On Twitter especially, I read a lot of responses to said writing advice. And there’s a movement, particularly visible on writer Twitter (but present everywhere), that says all advice on writing is BS. Do what you want, write how you want, whatever you’re writing is all good and a-okay.
And maybe that’s appealing to a certain sort, I can see that. In our post-truth world, authority and expertise are dead, and the opinion of any schmuck with a cell phone and a Twitter handle can gain as much traction as that of a Pulitzer-prize winning, New York Times Bestselling author. And the thought that anybody can do whatever they want, be whatever they want, is certainly in vogue right now.
It feels good to flip the middle finger at the people telling you all the things you can’t do.
And I’ve certainly been guilty of a bit of that middle-finger-flipping myself from time to time. Heck, it’s a core belief of mine that nobody knows what the hell they’re doing, that we’re all making it up as we go. Sure, we pretend to be experts. But none of us really knows anything. Just ask any parent. Nobody knows a damned thing. We’re all stitching our own parachutes as the ground rushes up to meet us.
But when it comes to craft? Sometimes the people who have been there actually know what they’re talking about.
I know. Hard to believe. And not very millenial-mindset of me. But it has to be worth considering — doesn’t it? — that the people with publishing credits, to say nothing of accolades, to their names might, maybe, if viewed in a certain light, know what they’re talking about?
Take the perennial conversation around adverbs. Popularized, possibly immortalized, by none less than Stephen King:
Bloody avoid them, in other words. But this admonition is the source of endless strife in the writing community. Why? Because we love our adverbs. Tenderly, gently, softly, the way perhaps we love a pastrami-on-rye late at night. Look at that, three adverbs in a single sentence! Use all the adverbs you want, says the anti-advice crowd. Who the hell is Stephen King to tell you how to write your masterpiece?
Well, among other things, he’s a literary giant with scores of books and dozens of film credits to his name. Is he right? Is he wrong? Bugger all if I know, but he seems to be doing something right.
No prologues, says another writing “rule”. Why? Because a prologue introduces actions and locations and whatever else that may not be central to the story you plan to tell. Prologues are a distraction, a diversion, a spinning of the wheels when what we really want is to dive right into the story world.
Hell with that, crows the anti-advice mob. Write all the prologues you want to. Hell, have two prologues. Have a prologue to the prologue, why the hell not? It’s your story, do it your way.
This is massively empowering to the author just starting out. Especially, if I may say it, if they are of a mind to include a prologue in their work. Or gobs and gobs of adverbs.
Oxford comma, yay or nay? Which POV is best? Write every day or only when the mood strikes you? Outline the entire work or make it up as you go? There are as many rules and variations on rules as there are writers, and when you combine all the permutations — this one does it this way in this situation, that way in this other situation — then the variations of what “works” might as well be endless.
And for as much as the writing community argues for one way over another, you’ll find as many outspoken critics arguing the other way.
There are no rules. Write your story your way.
It’s all so alluring, innit? Taken to its rational conclusion, whether you follow every rule to the letter or you throw every rule out the window and blaze your own trail through the fire and flames, you’re a winner.
And on the one hand, I’m very much for that. If you have a story to tell, then by science, tell that bloody story.
If your stories are to be anything more than your own musings into the void — your own pile of electric documents moldering on your own hard drive — then I humbly suggest that you take the voices of the dissenters, of the eff the rules, do it your way crowd, with a grain of salt.
But Pav, I hear you cry, if we adhere mindlessly to the roles set down by our forebears, how shall we innovate? How shall we craft our own paths?
A fair question.
Consider driving, for those of you who drive.
When you got your license, you started with that little booklet that contained all the rules of the road. All the variations of traffic lights and traffic signs, all the on-the-road situations that might come up. You studied them, internalized them, took a test, and forgot all about them. These days, you know what’s safe, you know what will get you legally from point A to point B, and you know how to bend the rules when your situation calls for it.
But you wouldn’t throw that manual out the window. You wouldn’t just decide, flip what my forebears said, I’m driving on the left side of the road from now on because that’s how I choose to do it. I mean, I guess you could. But you’d be arrested or dead very, very soon.
And you break the “rules” of writing at your own peril. Death may not be on the line, but readability certainly is.
Does this mean we must subscribe to the tyranny of what the masses cry for, what the gatekeepers demand?
Well, if we want our work to reach people, to find success? It kinda does.
It doesn’t mean we have to like it. Fifty Shades of Grey was a bestseller. That doesn’t mean we have to hold it up as the gold standard of literature. But we have to recognize that, maybe, it did something right. Ditto for Twilight or Divergent or whatever other series you think was hacky and awful. Fact is, something in those works appealed to the masses. Was it right that they were appealing in whatever way? Who knows? Who cares? It is what it is.
This is where we bump up against the real world the way everything does eventually. Incidentally, this is why we get frustrated politically, and religiously, and any other -ly you can think of. Writers get frustrated because the world we live in perhaps isn’t the world we feel it should be. Vampire fanfiction shouldn’t, we feel, top the NYT bestseller list. And maybe in a cosmic sense, it shouldn’t!
But it did. We live in a universe where some truly awful writing reaches the pinnacles of success.
Does that mean that we shouldn’t write our own stories based on whatever rules we want?
Of course not! You want to write your story using an adverb in every single sentence, then you write that story. Prologues? Write five of them. Flashbacks? Have one every single time a character opens their mouth. Oxford comma? Use them at random. Throw the rule books out the window, but not before you’ve torn them to pieces, thrown the pieces into an oven, and detonated the oven in a supervolcano as a meteor strikes from the heavens.
You are a beautiful snowflake, and so is your story. And if telling that story means breaking every rule in the book, then by all means, break the rules. Every single one of them. Commit your own personal holocaust on all the so-called rules of writing.
But don’t expect anybody to read or enjoy your story.
We have the right, as storytellers, to tell our stories however the hell we want to. Rules and preconceived notions about storytelling be damned.
But our audiences are under no obligation to accept those stories, and we would do well to remember that.
Rules are there for breaking, no doubt. But the fact is, we have to understand the way the rules work together, we have to know what it is we’re rebelling against if we want to rebel effectively.
TL;DR, we have to think. Creatively, critically. If we’re going to break these “rules”, we need to be doing it for a good reason, and not just for the sake of breaking rules.
Authority and expertise may be dead, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them.
Go forth and write your stories. But maybe assimilate a little bit of knowledge from the people who have gone before you along the way.
I don’t usually do this, but I was editing and adding a much-needed section to my novel-in-progress and enjoyed it so much I just thought I’d post it. (Incidentally, it allows me to update the site and prove that I’m not just wasting time over here. Well… not all the time, anyway.)
It may not make the cut in the final version, but it was fun to write, and, you know, sometimes that matters.
“This place really needs a name,” Dina says. Linc peeks out around the potted ficus he’s managing. “What do you mean?” “I mean, it’s lame to just go on calling it ‘the hideout’ or ‘the lab’ or whatever you’ve been calling it. You’re a proper villain now. You need a name for your place. You know. Fortress of Solitude, or whatever. But for bad guys.” “That’s stupid.” “No, it’s practical.” Tonya sets the couch down in the corner, blinks to the fridge for a soda, and blinks right back onto the couch, kicking her feet up over the armrest. “Besides, I agree. So that’s two to one. We gotta name it.” Dina shuffles off to the kitchen herself, kicking her shoes off on the way. “Two to one.” Linc wants to point out to them that this isn’t a democracy, to remind them that this place is his, that Vector is his, that the plan to bring the Academy low is his, but it doesn’t seem worth it. “What do you have in mind, then?” “You’re a nerd, so it’s gotta be nerdy sounding, you know? Strike fear into the hearts of everybody with an IQ below 150. Something like … The Motherboard.” Dina tosses Linc a soda. He fumbles it before catching it by his knees. “Why The Motherboard?” “Because it’s where we keep our chips.” Dina rattles a bag of tortilla chips at him before gashing the bag with her ring and spreading a thick layer of chips on a plate. “That’s terrible.” “I kinda like it,” Tonya says. “It’s got some kind of ring to it.” “Nope. The two of you can vote to name it, that’s fine, but I’m holding out veto power over the name. We’re not calling it The Motherboard.” Dina has sprinkled cheese over the chips and tosses the plate into the microwave (stolen, along with the 70-inch television, from a Best Buy a few hours away). “That’s okay. I got a bunch of ideas. How about The WreckTangle?” “The Rectangle?” “No, the WreckTangle. As in, Wrecked Angle. Get it? Because math, right? Plus, you know. Get wrecked.” “Nice.” Tonya lifts her soda can in salute. “I dunno.” Linc leans against the counter, scanning the bank of monitors for news, or updates. Vector’s display shows the robot cheerfully making rounds on the mountainside. “I got one,” Tonya says. “The Trapezoid.” “I don’t —” “Ooh, I like that.” Dina flings the microwave open for her plate of nachos. “Right? Because it’s a trap. Plus…” Tonya glances around. This sounded cleverer in her mind. “Plus it’s got that z in there. That’s cool.” “There’s nothing in here that’s even trapezoid-shaped,” Linc points out. “And by the way, I’ll give you a dollar if you can tell me what a trapezoid is.” “I don’t know that.” Tonya crumples her can in one hand and tosses it at Linc. “Who even needs to know that after high school? Or in it, for that matter?” “If you’re going to call your hideout The Trapezoid, you should at least know what a Trapezoid is.” “It’s your hideout, not mine, damn!” Dina raises her voice around a mouthful of nachos. “Vector, what’s a trapezoid?” Vector’s screen types out an immediate response. Trapezoid: a four-sided shape with only one pair of parallel sides. “That. It’s that,” Dina says, pointing. “You owe me a dollar.” “That doesn’t count.”
Why are writers so insecure? Today I’m going to tell you!
Many, many years ago, back before I even considered myself a writer, when I was just working on a play kind of as a lark, when I was just scribbling odd little nothings to myself in notebooks (which would become the blog posts and morning pages of today), I had an interaction with my sister. I couldn’t tell you what the substance of the interaction was, or what we were talking about, or what I said, exactly, or really any details of the interaction — except for one.
And this detail, well, it stuck in my consciousness like the rusted-out bicycle that a tree grows around. I shaped myself around this comment, almost certainly to my detriment, in the intervening time. It ate me up from the inside, turning me into a neurotic mess of a writer, shaking my confidence the way earthquakes used to shake buildings before they started putting buildings on wheels.
Here’s the situation. I was home from college — or maybe just visiting my folks after college — or, hell, maybe it was before college, who can tell, that’s how bad my memory is but it’s not the point — and talking to my sister about something. Who knows what. And I said something.
What I said, I could not tell you today under pain of torture, except to say that it was an attempted witticism, a stab at something snarky, a foray into wordplay that went wrong. I felt it going wrong in the moment of saying it, the way a major league batter just feels the home run when it leaves his bat, or more precisely, the way he feels that he hasn’t just missed the pitch, he’s tipped it, at dangerous speed, probably past the protective netting, probably into the face of an unsuspecting fan, or worse, a kid, where it will knock out teeth or shatter cheekbones and necessitate a carefully-worded statement from the front office and probably an apology tour in the media. The words felt like that, coming out of my mouth. (Whatever they were.)
I knew, to put it bluntly, that I had botched my attempt at making good words, and botched it badly.
And my sister said to me, in that hurtful way that only your little sister who’s taken a lifetime of your crap can say, “wow, you’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”
You know that scene in every action movie where the building (or the car or the villain’s fortress or whatever) is exploding — just going entirely to pieces, irreparable damage, nothing but fire and pain and devastation filling the frame — and the hero (or heroine, this is the 21st century after all) is totally cool, walking away from it without a care? Or the end of Star Wars (episode IV or VI, reader’s choice) where the fateful shot is away, the heroes are flying off into the dark of deep space, and the villains keep flipping switches and coolly saying things like “fire on my mark” but they don’t know that they’re dead already?
This was like that.
“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you,” would stick in my brain and shape me more than I’d like, and certainly more than I’d care to admit, for years and years and years.
Every now and then, sometimes while writing, sometimes not, I’d hear it again, playing on a loop in my brain, and it would never fail to demoralize.
Wrote a sentence in my novel I’m not too sure about?
“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”
Used a totally inadequate word because I couldn’t think of the perfect one?
“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”
Said something totally idiotic in a everyday conversation?
“You’re a real wordsmith, aren’t you?”
Just sitting there watching TV, not even thinking about writing at that particular moment?
“YOU’RE A REAL WORDSMITH, AREN’T YOU?”
Everything I write, I have to contend with that voice in my head: it’s good, sure, but is it wordsmith good? So I second-guess myself to death. Is this creative enough? Is it clever enough? Smart enough? Or could any schlub with a pencil and half a brain come up with something better?
Then, once second-guessed, it’s only natural to third-guess the problem. I could make it better by throwing in MORE words. Better words. ALL THE WORDS. Or maybe get rid of the sentence entirely — the words can’t be dumb if there are NO WORDS AT ALL.
This thinking leads, like a boulder down a mountain path, to overthinking, until the boulder turns into a self-doubt and self-loathing black hole, population: me and everything I have ever written.
And while I internalized that comment, like an ingrown toenail, or like the point of that Morghul blade working its way inexorably toward Frodo’s heart, my sister got to walk away and never think about it again for the rest of her life. Probably the most she ever thought about it was in the very next second after she said it, to say to herself “good burn,” and then forget about it forever.
I tell you all this not to shame her, but to shame myself. To purge the poison by first acknowledging the fact that I’ve been poisoned. The fault in this tale is not hers for saying the thing, but mine for taking the thing and wrapping it in silk and tucking it away in the secret place in my mind to take out and fetishize and fixate upon.
It’s hard — nigh impossible, I’d almost say — not to do this. When we identify so closely with what we create (as authors and artists of all stripes must, by necessity), then an assault on that thing becomes an assault on us, in much the same way that, oh, I don’t know, a high-profile sports star saying disparaging things about certain people in positions of power makes people that like the disparaged person come to hate said high-profile sports star, even though they have no personal stake in what was said at all.
AHEM AHEM I DIGRESS.
Our work is a part of ourselves, and that’s not a bad thing — but we also have to be able to see our work as not a part of ourselves. To see that the words we write aren’t themselves who we are, but instead just a reflection of who we are in the moment. And, most importantly, those reflections can always be improved and changed — and we don’t have to beat ourselves up over them.