R. LEE SMITH’S SIMPLE EIGHT-WEEK SYMPOSIUM ON THE ART OF STORYTELLING:
WAT R WERDS?
1. Rules For Beginning Writers (and why you should break them)
Good morning, class! It’s nice to see you all showed up for this week’s lecture. Come in, take your seats, put away your phones, take out your pencils and your notebooks, and let’s begin. My name is R. Lee Smith and I write books. This has led some people to think I know how to write books and further, that I have relevant insights on the process to pass on to other people, a notion that—I see that phone, Caroline!—that I greet with a due sense of trepidation and incredulity, but what ho, let’s go.
In my opinion, there can be no better way to begin this series than with a quick look at some of the advice I have been given over the years. And, if any of you out there are writers, you’ve probably heard some, most, or all of these ‘tips’ yourself.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Every one of the rules we’re about to talk about comes from an established author a hell of a lot more successful than I am. I won’t be naming names here. A few minutes on the search engine of your choice will bring you right to these gems, assuming you’ve miraculously managed not to have them flung up on your Facebook page by well-meaning friends and relatives already. Likewise, I do not suggest this is necessarily bad advice. If you actually do look them up at the source, you’ll find most of these rules accompanied by supporting statements that better explain the author’s reasons for advocating them, and it grossly misrepresents them when I do not include those additional notes here.
Trust me, I’m not doing that to make the rule-writers look like dicks. I’m doing it because we inexperienced writers typically are not hearing these rules from the original authors, complete with examples and suggestions and supportive pats on the head. We just get inundated with a never-ending list of Dos and Don’ts that we tend to grasp at because, with very few exceptions, writing is not the road to overnight success. Google “Best-sellers rejected” and take a good, long look at all the million-dollar books no one wanted to touch. Self-publishing is an even steeper uphill climb. At the last writer’s convention I attended, one of the panelists made the announcement that the average self-published author can expect to keep his or her day job for ten years before it is possible to make enough money to support him- or herself just by writing. In fact, of the six authors on that panel, five of them still had day jobs, and all of them had written industry best-sellers. On a personal note, my own book, Heat, sold exactly two copies during its first two years of publication, and one of them was to my sister. Hell, during that same time period, Olivia was also available and didn’t even sell one copy! (Not even to my sister.)
The point I’m trying to make here is, writers spend a lot of time staring rejection in the face. And when you do that, day in and day out, for a couple years, you can get to wondering, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ And as soon as you start asking that out loud, well-meaning souls may start to give you ‘Tips’ like…
“Hook your readers from the first line of the first paragraph of the first page.” This is probably the first piece of advice any new writer hears. I’m not going to sit here and tell you a good hook isn’t important. It absolutely is. What I am going to tell you is that hook needs to be appropriate to the story you’re telling. That opening scene sets the tone for the entire book. If you’ve written a soul-searching romantic drama about a man who loses himself in the Australian outback and finds love with a wallaby rehabilitator, it does not begin with car crashes and explosions.
“Listen to how people really talk and write dialogue accordingly.” When was the last time you really listened to how people really talk? Yes, good dialogue is essential to good storytelling and yes, bad dialogue is a book-killer, but if you made a word-for-word transcription of your actual daily dialogue and let someone else read it, my bet is they’d think you were on drugs.
We become used to the speech patterns of our close friends and family members, as they become used to ours, and we mentally translate one another’s incoherent gabblish until we don’t even hear it anymore. Accents, regional slang, inside jokes, and just so much profanity clutters up the straightforward message we think we’re saying, but to an outside set of ears, you and your friends sitting around the table at Denny’s might as well be a gritty reboot of The Usual Suspects with an all-Benicio Del Toro lineup.
Dialogue should, must, feel natural, but natural doesn’t always mean true-to-life. The best advice I can give you on this regard is to “run” your dialogue. Say it out loud and really listen to yourself. How does it flow off the tongue? How does it hit the ear? If you’re running out of breath before you hit those commas and periods, break it down into smaller sentences. If the sentences are so short, you’re starting to sound like a Dick and Jane primer, build it up with some conjunctions.
Something else to remember is that your main characters should each have their own distinct voice, their own unique color to their speech. Your reader should be able to read dialogue entirely without tags (ie, Bob said, Sally said, Zebediah said) and still know exactly who’s talking just by how they’re talking. I have read so many books where all the characters sound exactly the same. It’s bad all the time, but I find it especially galling when the speaker is supposedly a thousand years old or an alien or some other paranormal entity, who uses the same slang and knows all the same pop culture references as the contemporary human characters. For that matter, utilize the urban dictionary sparingly when it comes to your contemporary human characters, too. Trying too hard to make your characters talk ‘cool’ comes across as exactly that: Trying too hard.
“Stick to writing what you know.” This is probably the one I personally have heard the most often and no matter how much I think I’m over it, it never fails to get on my nerves when I have to hear it again. What a boring world this would be if people only wrote about the things they had first-hand, practical experience with! Look, I get it. You should never use a word if you’re not sure of its meaning (unless the point is to make the character using it look like an ignorant ass) and you should always at least research the setting of your scene, especially if you’re using a real-world location, but don’t think that just because you live in Nome, Alaska, all of your characters have to live there, too. Hell, most of my books don’t even take place on Earth! A little imagination and a lot of research can take you anywhere.
“Tension is the most important element of any scene.” James Scott Bell once said that the best novels, the ones that stay with you all the way to the end—and beyond—have the threat of death hanging over every scene. He quickly went on to point out there are more kinds of death than the purely physical, and taken in that light, he had a point, however, too many times this is interpreted as a command to inject drama (and worse, melodrama) into each and every scene. You may think you’re writing an adrenaline-fueled roller coaster of a novel, but remember, roller coasters have ups and downs. Fear is vital to suspense, and danger is what makes your hero’s successes into triumphs, but never forget that tension is exhausting. I’ve spoken before about how humor can amplify horror, just by giving you that little giggle before the jumpscare. Well, it’s equally as important in romantic scenes. Giving the hero and heroine time to connect, to relax, to just be with each other gives them something to lose. Resist the temptation to remind the readers that these quiet times can’t last, what with the Big Evil closing in on them and certain death and all; letting the readers think of these things for themselves has ten times the emotional punch of just being told that it’s poignant.
“Don’t make the reader work too hard. Don’t use long sentences, big words, or specialized terminology. Keep it simple.” Here’s a simple sentence for you with small words: Bite me. I’m not writing a Baby’s First Pop-Up Book of Erotic Horror here.
My point is, I get that riddling your book with obscure, outdated words and phrases is distracting. Anything that breaks the reader out of the story, like stopping to consult a dictionary, should be avoided. You may think a broader vocabulary makes your writing more impressive, this line of reasoning goes, when it really just sounds pretentious and overworked. Ideally, the reader shouldn’t even notice how the words are put together, because they are so involved in the story. Well, I can see what those people are trying to say, and I even agree up to a point, but words are weapons in a writer’s hand and you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. This rule-writer went on to specifically call out writers who use run-on sentences as…how did he put it?…as a substitute for tension. Well, as the great Curly Howard once said, I resemble that remark and I also kind of resent it. Let’s use something from one of my books as an example.
Here, according to the above rule-writer, is how I do it wrong: Ana had heard the expression ‘a chill went up his spine’ and thought she understood it, but it was not until that moment, when the icy point of that intangible scythe dug in at the small of her back and pulled itself up, unzipping her like a doll and exposing all her wiring to the dead air of this place that she really knew what a chilling thought was, because there was no fucking way he could have done that.
So, I guess this is how I’d do it right: Ana had heard the expression ‘a chill went up his spine’. She thought she understood it. It was not until that moment that she really knew what a chilling thought was. There was no fucking way he could have done that.
Now maybe it’s just because I wrote it, but I prefer the first version. It has that tumbling, chaotic feel that, yeah, I do think ratchets up the tension, Mr. Rule-Writer! Especially as opposed to the second version, which I find cold and distancing. That Spartan style of writing does have its place—I use it all the time, when I want to show my character detaching under pressure and not being swept up and carried off by it—but it can sure be over-used, and it looks just as wrong under those circumstances as when a writer over-uses a run-on sentence. And that brings us right to…
“The Chicago Manual of Style for Authors is your new bible.” No, it’s not. No. It’s. Not. See what I did there? That’s a major no-no, but I’ll bet you a million doughnuts, you heard a whole different tone, even though I used the same exact words. That being said, it is so easy to over-use. Like, just…so easy, guys. Every writer should own a book on grammar and punctuation. I don’t care if it’s the Chicago Manual or the Idiot’s Guide (my personal favorite as far as punctuation is Eats Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss), but you get that book, you read that book, and you re-read that book at least once a year, because backsliding is an insidious bitch and bad habits get harder to break the longer you let them grow comfortable.
“Every character should be sympathetic and relatable and have his or her own story.” This is an adaptation of the old acting adage about how there are no small roles, only small actors. For those of you unfamiliar with that saying, it was coined mainly to placate the actors with small roles so they’d shut the hell up and let the star take the stage. It works the same way in books. There are main characters and there are secondary characters, and tertiary and quad…quadrary?…quadru…There are levels of importance, is what I’m saying.
Let’s look at Back to the Future II. That very last scene (Uh, spoiler alert, I guess? You know what? No. No spoiler alert. It’s been 25 years and frankly, if you haven’t seen the complete BttF Trilogy, you deserve worse than a spoiling), when Marty is left stranded in the past after lightning strikes the Delorean and disappears before he can go back to the present, and that Western Union guy drives up and delivers the letter from Doc in 1885? Well, that courier may have been absolutely the most pivotal person in that scene, but he doesn’t need a name or a wife or a scar with an interesting story or a hobby or food allergies. He just needs to give Marty the damn letter and make a wisecrack about how long they’ve had it lying around the office. That’s it. That’s all you need to know about him.
Just as an exercise, make a list of all the characters in your own book in order of importance. Then rip it up and throw the pieces at your cat. Ha hahaha ha! Stupid cat. Now pick a scene at random and rank each character’s importance on a scale from one to ten. Now rip that up and throw it at the cat, too. The point of this exercise is not to do anything about that number, as much as it is just to make yourself think about the level of importance each character has in each and every scene.
Be aware of your characters. Don’t let the extras upstage the talent. And before I move on to the next rule on the list, let me also take a moment to address the bit about making every character sympathetic and relatable, because those are two entirely different things. There is a seriously annoying trend in books and especially movies these days to make everyone, even the villain, a sympathetic one. When Maleficent came out, I wanted to hurl a battle axe through the screen at the Cursing scene. It was great that she had a tragic backstory and a reason for turning twisted and evil, but don’t you fucking dumb down that story by making her Briar Rose’s guardian angel all those years. That fairy straight up wanted to kill that child. She was hurt and it made her lash out and hurt others and that was what made her awesome and chilling and badass. You take that away from her and it doesn’t make her sympathetic, it just makes it impossible to take her seriously as a villain. She can still have her clarifying moment of redemption when she lets go of her vengeance and chooses to do good, but it only has an impact if you allow her to be evil in the first place.
“Never have more than ten named characters in a book.” And this is one of the reasons I decided to address the whole Rules of Writing thing, because so many of them directly contradict one another. So, okay, all of your characters are supposed to be multi-faceted and dynamic, with epic backstories, strengths and flaws and favorite colors, but not names?! No, sorry, can’t get behind this one at all. I don’t think that every character that appears in your book needs a name (see that Western Union guy from the previous entry), but I do think names should be used as necessary to improve readability and flow of the story. That means that if it is natural for a bit-character to introduce themselves, introduce them, even if you never see them again. “But won’t this confuse the reader by cluttering up their limited memory space with a lot of superfluous names?” you ask. No, I don’t think it will. I direct your attention to the movie Ghostbusters (the real one). You’ve all seen that seven thousand times, right? Quick, what was the name of the dean at the university where the team did research before they went into the private sector? Hey! I saw that! Give me the phone, Caroline. Give it to me. You’ve been warned. You’ll get it back at the end of the class. Ahem. Yes, he had a name and yes, you saw and/or heard it. You don’t remember it because it wasn’t important. And yet he was given one because him not having one would have been more jarring than just saying, Dean Yeager.
“Don’t care about your characters.” Honest to God, I heard this one at a writer’s convention, from a best-selling author to a roomful of budding authors. Now, I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt and say that what she maybe meant was, you can’t care so much about your characters that you don’t want them to fail or get hurt or, you know, die. (It happens.)
I have also heard the so-called advice that, regardless of how wonderful and beautiful and amazing you think your book is, ten years from now, no one who read it will remember your characters or the plot beyond, if you were lucky, the broadest of broad strokes, so don’t waste your time and energy on building spun-sugar castles for people who were just looking to stuff their faces and move on to the next bowl of sweets. Seriously. Someone said that. And yes, you could rationalize it by saying that what she meant was, readers are, by and large, voracious in their appetites, and that while an author may only write a few books in their career, or even a few dozen, a reader will read hundreds, if not thousands, if not tens of thousands. I’ve read enough books to completely fill a U-Haul truck, literally, and I’m sure I don’t remember more than maybe 3% of them by title or author and not that many more by plot. So yeah, it makes sense, sort of, to advise people not to get so hung up on details that the book itself may never be finished, especially as odds are good, it’s not going to fall into that 3%.
Yeah, but no. You need to care about your characters. All of them. The good guys, the bad guys, all of them. You need to hurt for them, you need to hope for them, you need to sweat when they struggle and bleed when they get cut. You need to care, because if you don’t, why should your readers?
“Avoid flat, one-dimensional storytelling. Use symbolism to establish themes without resorting to narrative.” Okay, everybody wants their book to be deep and thought-provoking and stimulate endless coffee house debates on the significance of the rotting pumpkin, but there’s a limit, you know? Who hasn’t read ‘that’ book? The one where the author picks some heavy-handed theme—say, war is bad—and then crams a subtle reminder into each and every scene. There’s a field of poppies in Chapter One, a hawk eating a dove in Chapter Two, a branch breaking off an olive tree in Chapter Three…and pretty soon, you’re not even reading anymore, you’re just taking a mental shot every time you see a new metaphor. Do use symbolism, just dial it back. Believe me, you’d much rather have half your readers not get the significance of that pumpkin and still have something to discover on their next reading, then have all of them roll their eyes at it once and never touch your book again.
Well, it looks like time’s up for this week’s lesson, so let me leave you with the only advice I’ve ever been given that I have always found to be helpful. My mother—a librarian, a reader, a writer and an all-around magnificent nerd—once said, “Learn the rules before you break them,” and if you take nothing else away from today’s lesson, take that. Any rule can be successfully broken, as long as you do it well, with precision and style, which you will never be able to do unless you make yourself familiar with them.