Advanced Writing Problems, Part II.

Everyone has issues with writing.  However, moving beyond grammar issues, many veteran writers will recognize some of these all-too-common scenarios.  Part I of these problems can be found here.

4. The Drunken Snake – That title may seem odd, but my only other option was “The Woman Driver.” And I don’t want to offend any women more than I do already. The Drunken Snake is the story that has a great beginning, wonderful characters, and a charming, instantly-loveable setting. It’s a great starting place, overall, and really draws in the reader, making them want to learn more.

And then it goes nowhere.

Like (I imagine) a drunken snake, the plotline seems to meander back and forth, never really managing to find a satisfactory conclusion. Maybe it’s a drama? Perhaps a mystery? Ooh, there are some horror elements that could surface! Maybe one of the characters has actually been dead the whole time! Despite these incredible literary breakthroughs and strokes of genius, the story just doesn’t have a plot. It’s a hundred pages of trampsing back and forth, never actually making any progress. And yet, even though you can see the approaching brick wall of worthlessness, you can’t bear to abandon the characters, the setting, all those charming little details. So, you push on with the doomed and hopeless venture, praying that some sort of plot will magically materialize. It won’t.
5. The On-And-On – Much like a coworker’s vacation story, or that nightmare with the spiders that you had last night, this story seemed vaguely interesting at first. There was enough to keep you going, to stop you from hitting the delete key right away. But now, as you continue to write, and write, and write, you realize that you are trapped. This story won’t be a quick piece of flash fiction, over in a thousand words or less. It won’t even be a short story, drawing to a conclusion well before ten thousand words. No, this is a dull and pointless novelette, or maybe even a novel, which you are woefully unprepared to undertake. And yet, because you’ve already started, spent so much time writing the first few thousand words, you can’t quite abandon it yet, and feel dreadfully compelled to see the whole thing through.

Most On-And-Ons tend to creep up on us, and the realization of what we’re caught in doesn’t strike until page ten or fifteen. Here’s my advice: cut your losses. As soon as you realize what monster you’ve got on your hands, drop the whole thing. Squash the project, much like you were trying to do to that spider in your nightmare last night. After a few days, gingerly pick up the pieces, try to see if the plot is salvageable, and squish it down into a condensed version. It may still be crap, but at least this way you’ll be done with it by the end of the day.

6. The Frankenstein – Yes, I’m aware that I used Frankenstein in a previous example. This is something different. Perhaps you write a charming little story. Maybe it’s a science fiction drama, with a few hints of Lovecraftian horror scattered here and there. You like it. You’re quite proud of this little story, and decide to bring it in to your editing group.

Well, they like it too. It’s great! Mostly. Maybe you could lose the horror elements, and instead bring out more of the details of the science in the future. Really hit home, point out the nitty gritty to show that you’ve thought through all the technical details of the little world that you’ve created. So you go home, do some editing, cut out those horror bits, and fill the gaps with technical info.

You think that maybe, before submitting it, you’ll get one more opinion. So you send the edited story off to a family member. He (or she, I don’t discriminate) gives it a read, and likes it! But once again, a couple small suggestions. Perhaps, instead of all the drama, you could lighten the tone slightly? You make so many good jokes; if they could be highlighted just a little more, the piece would be side-splitting. You definitely don’t want to offend this family member, whomever he or she may be, so you go ahead and make the changes. There we go, perfect!

Off the piece goes, out into the vast world of the internet, to a couple of short story publishers. Well, one of them writes back, and they like the piece too! Only, it seems to fit better as a pure comedy, rather than as a science fiction comedy. Could you reduce it back to present day, leave out some of the jetpacks and hoverboards? If so, they might have a spot for it. Sure, you enthusiastically write back, anything for a potential publisher! So the story goes back under the knife once more.

Now, by the end of this, you may have a published story. It might even be good. But when you go back and compare it to the original, you will see that it has been hacked and slashed until it was all but unrecognizable. This is the curse of The Frankenstein. In the perpetual search for improvement, your story has lost all its original qualities that made you appreciate it so much.

On the other hand, it’s being published now. So it isn’t all bad.

Advanced Writing Problems, Part I.

Everyone has issues with writing.  However, moving beyond grammar issues, many veteran writers will recognize some of these all-too-common scenarios.
1. The Impossible Dream – Your idea is good. It’s amazing, in fact. You have somehow managed to have one of those rare moments of brilliance, the kind that only comes along once or twice in a person’s lifetime, and the angels have descended from the heavens to present you with the perfect writing idea. It’s a story that is complete on so many layers, so many levels, that Shakespeare himself would weep at its beauty. English professors will spend years discussing and debating the many hidden themes and motifs, and the sweeping, panoramic beauty of the scenes will give James Cameron a semi. (By the way, that last sentence has just disqualified this writing from ever being analyzed by any professor, ever.)
There’s just one problem, however. This idea, this vision, is too perfect. You know your limitations as a writer. Sure, you might be the next Stephen King, but even you can acknowledge that you haven’t quite made it to Hemingway or Faulkner status. What if you set out to write this perfect piece, this ultimate tribute to literature, and you fall short? What if you can’t quite capture the deeply moving themes and ideas, and the piece instead comes across as trite and shallow? It is for this reason that The Impossible Dream, this perfect conception of a story, forever remains in your draft bin, its beauty and majesty on the page never quite equaling how it appears in your head.
2. The Malaise – It started out as a great idea, with tons of enthusiasm and energy. In the first night, you wrote twenty pages, and you’ve added thirty more over the last week. But now, the story’s dragging a little. You’ve managed to reach that boring middle part, where there’s no action, and far too much backstory to be filled in. Your mates have just purchased the latest Call of War: Modern Honor Duty game, and you feel that you deserve a night off to go play with them. Maybe a couple nights off. Better just round it up to an even week.
At this point, you might as well acknowledge it; The Malaise is now dead in the water. You have lost the motivation, the story no longer seems to sparkle as it once did, and you can’t remember all those fidgety little details that really pulled the whole thing together. Because of all the hard work that’s already gone into this story (seriously, it’s got fifty whole pages!), it will never be discarded, thrown away into the recycling bin. Instead, it will remain on your desktop, hoping in vain that someday, some day, you will return with a surge of motivational energy and write the second act.
3. The Copycat – It’s almost never intentional. Lying awake at night, counting down the hours until your deadline when you must publish some sort of update, a blank page in front of you, an idea suddenly springs to mind. And it’s a good idea! A scientist, mad by all accounts but perfectly sane within his own mind, creates what he believes to be a beautiful creature, only to realize the horror of his actions. He now finds himself beset by a monster, and vows to destroy it, for the betterment of all mankind. It’s a wonderful little story, and you’re quite pleased with the results. You hit publish, sending it up to your totally unread little blog, and drift off to sleep feeling happy and satisfied.
It isn’t until two days later, at your editing group, that someone points out that you have just written a shorter, crappier version of Frankenstein.
Oops. You knew the concept seemed too familiar.
Part of the frustration with The Copycat isn’t the fact that some lady beat you to the punch by a couple hundred years (although that certainly doesn’t help). No, what is most frustrating about this pitfall of writers is that, as the story is being written, there’s always a nagging little feeling in the back of your head. That little feeling whispers that the idea may not be one hundred percent original, but you ignore it. Only when someone else points out the obvious does that little feeling resurface, and you feel ashamed, ignorant, horribly uneducated, and like you should issue some sort of apology to Mary Shelley.

My Advice for Writing

Author’s note: I attend a writer’s group, where I tend to lecture on, quite pedantically, about how I feel writing must flow and ebb.  No, that’s not quite true, but I do offer a lot of advice on writing.  I figured that I would share some of that here, with the lucky few writers that check in.

As I told my friend John, in the writing group, “Put in a comma when your brain runs out of breath.”  While this may not help all the time, depending on the lung capacity of your brain, it is a good guide for using commas in sentences.  Commas create pauses, which help prevent run-on sentences from overwhelming the brain with a barrage of information.

Consider the following sentence:

My dad Jonathan was always a fan of woodworking but my favorite memories of him were when I came down to his workshop while he was working on his pride and joy a hand-crafted canoe that he would never finish but always held up as the ideal of his ability.

Holy cow.  I can’t even make it halfway through that monstrosity of a run-on sentence, and I wrote it.  Anybody’s brain will shut down and fizzle before it reaches the period.  But now, we throw in a handful of commas:

My dad, Jonathan, was always a fan of woodworking, but my favorite memories of him were when I came down to his workshop while he was working on his pride and joy, a hand-crafted canoe, that he would never finish, but always held up as the ideal of his ability.

Still a run-on, but much easier to read!  The commas help tell the brain where to pause, collect its breath, and then forge on ahead after recovering.

Another quick-and-easy method for commas is to read your work out loud and put a comma wherever you pause.  This is especially good for stream-of-consciousness writing.

And don’t forget, commas are important!  They make all the difference between
Eating out dudes
Eating out, dudes.

Using similes in writing is like using garlic in cooking; they should both be employed sparingly.  (See that?  That was a great simile.)  There are two main rules to follow with similes:

1.  Don’t overuse them.  Nothing distracts from plot-intensive writing or a good narrative like an overabundance of similes.  A little garlic in a pasta sauce or on a pizza can add a hit of powerful flavor, enhancing the taste.  However, if you throw cloves of garlic into everything, you will overwhelm your dinner guests and leave them gagging.  Same thing with similes.  Try to keep them down to one per page, at most.  Otherwise, readers will be so distracted by the comparisons that they’ll lose the thread of the plot.

2.  Similes can only go one way; they should compare something more obtuse to something more commonplace.  For example:

The sound of the wormhole opening was like nails on a chalkboard.

This is great – not many people know what an opening wormhole sounds like, but everybody recognizes the painful screech of nails on a chalkboard.

Her nails, scraping down the chalkboard, sounded like a wormhole opening.

This simile, not so great.  Unless you are trying to drive home the point (as subtly as a sledgehammer) that your narrator listens to a lot of opening wormholes, this simile compares something obvious to something that is unknown to the audience.

So remember, use similes sparingly, and make sure they run downhill – they compare something less well known to something more obvious!

[Outworld] Chapter openings

Author’s note: This is not a chapter in the Outworld saga, per se; instead, it’s a series of small bits of information that will precede each chapter, as an opener.  They are only tangentially related to the voyage of our narrator and Cain, but do pertain to the same world.  

Salvation was built on hope.  In earlier days, when Outworld seemed smaller, tamer, there was a push to civilize the wilderness, to construct a line of cities and roads stretching across the territories.  At one point, some visionaries even dreamed of a railroad, linking the ends of Outworld.  Salvation was built as a rest stop, conveniently located near a water source, a railroad train.  But construction of the railroad never made it out to Salvation, and the town built on hope began to wither away.


The territory of Outworld is patchwork.  The landscape shifts abruptly, changing from forest to desert to ocean within miles.  Sir Charles Raymond, one of the best-known explorers of Outworld, claims that each biome came from a different world, dropped like a puzzle piece into the landscape.  As evidence, he points to the City of Dis, a square mile of ruined towers with no surrounding buildings.


Many gods in Outworld are feared, but even the Godsends themselves shy away from confrontation with Furor.  The self-proclaimed “god of madness,” he is known for entering thriving towns and slowly infecting the landscape, subtly shifting reality until the minds of the citizens can no longer handle the strain.  Furor is followed by a trail of twisted impossibilities and gibbering husks, capable only of carrying out his commands.  Only Hastur’s name commands more respect.


Where does godliness begin?  The Godsends don’t have an answer, but they know that it ends at the tip of a blade.  Although the founding of their order is shrouded in mystery, the details known only to the highest members of the order, they task themselves with hunting down the gods that roam across Outworld, slaying them so that balance might be maintained.  It is unclear whether their efforts are having any effect.


What is human?  The pervasive magic of Outworld has a tendency to creep into and infect those who visit its plane, leaving them changed in some way.  Some discover new abilities, while others find that they have been irreversibly altered in some way.  Some accept their changes as gifts, but most denizens of Outworld do their best to ignore the footprint left on them by their world.