Welcome to the first elective course in the Dirty Little [Writing] Secrets Curriculum!
The lessons in the curriculum so far have been about how to view another writer’s work and the distinction and rules necessary for providing useful critique about that work, which we have called “craft based” critique.
However, I highly doubt anyone is looking to train themselves on how to give feedback simply so their friends give them ever growing stacks of short stories to review. No, I think we all sense, intrinsically, that the real reason behind learning to say something helpful about another writer’s work is so that we can learn to improve our own craft.
Today’s entry is not about critique. Today’s entry is about the hands on, nitty gritty nuts and bolts of writing. It is about the literary lathe, the synonym circular saw, the comma calipers, the freestanding paragraph planer!
Today’s entry is your first elective course in the DLWS curriculum: Write Shop!
Before we jump in to the first demonstration, I wanted to talk a bit about tools of the trade that every writer, interested in craft, needs to be aware of. Below are tips and links for writers on how to get that fine craftsmen quality detail to their writing.
This is the section for the hammers and screwdrivers that every writer should familiarize themselves in the use of; the very most common tools without which there isn’t much else possible. These tools are things you (hopefully) already use, but they are offered here for the sake of honesty and completeness.
Primary Use: If you have a question, or you need a specific piece of information, the most commonly used solution is to simply type your question directly into the search prompt at google. The folks over there have scary algorithm voodoo majick they use to psychically pull the very best answer for you out of the collective unconscious asshole of the universe.
Also, You should ALWAYS GOOGLE TEST YOUR PLOT RESOLUTIONS. What do I mean by google test? If the central plot twist in your book revolves around your character catching the 7:20 bus from uptown New York to Downtown Boston, google bus routes and makes sure a bus runs from uptown New York to Downtown Boston at 7:20. If your main character uses a cotton sweater to create an electrical circuit between a radio tower and the villain’s prize pet chihuahua, google the electrical conductivity of cotton. Google is your friend when you are confused. It is also the best option you have for checking the veracity of ideas you already HAVE.
Primary Use: Just like in college, Wikipedia is your first stop for fact checks. Do you need your antagonist to be sexually obsessed with Julia Roberts because he saw her in “Pretty Woman” while it was still in theaters? Then you better check wikipedia to see that he would have to have been able to sit up in a movie theater seat in 1990. Does your mystery plot revolve around the half-life decay of Arsenic73? Wikipedia will tell you that your crime needs to have been committed in the last 80 days then. Wikipedia is the primary source, or at least the springboard for all the shiny little details that give a story depth and relevance. If you don’t know what sort of lightning options were available in 1859, head on over to Wikipedia and give the year 1859 a read (yes, you can look up specific YEARS). There is no excuse not have all sorts of tantalizing and authentic tidbits absolutely littering the floor of your paragraphs.
Primary Use: While many writers have come to both loathe and lust after the great social-networking idle, around which all the world now dances in twitter laden pagan orgies watched over by our lolcatz overlords, it is actually a crucial tool for any writer to utilize. Not only is it the best place for you to tell others about your work, but it is also the best place to participate in a little activity known as “crowdsourcing”. Did you know you can crowdsource a novel? Had it ever occurred to you to drop that difficult cheese-based plot twist that you just can’t figure out onto facebook? You would be shocked! I bet you never knew your cousin Mario was a cheese fetishist who knows everything about Gouda. If you don’t know where else to turn, shouting into the great comment echochamber is often surprisingly productive.
NOTE: Facebook should only be used in CONJUNCTION with Google and Wikipedia. Use this tool sparingly.
This is a section where we talk about specific areas that every writer needs to have a mainline on. It is organized by subject.
#1: Math and Science
Yes, it’s true! Every writer, at some point, is going to have to write something that involves a mathematical or scientific explanation. Let the wailing and the gnashing of teeth being! Maybe you’re working on a mystery, and your hero deduces the statistical likelihood that the killer is a giant rabbit teleported back from 150 years in the future and is now stalking the ancestors of its inhumane future progenitor? Maybe you want to demonstrate how creepy your antagonist was by writing a scene where he makes homemade dynamite when he is three years old out of cleaning chemicals and his dead cat? All of these things are going to require some scientific footing. Even if you don’t care, your readers definitely will! Many writers, particularly new writers, are a bit flummoxed on how to add scientific realism to their writing, but it is one of the most vital parts of craft. The best solution is to cultivate a network of specific individuals whom you can go to with sciencey questions. However, in addition to the basic tools listed above, here are some good sites I use for mathematical and scientific facts:
Primary Use: This is an excellent free web service dedicated to helping children and young adults learn tricky subjects. Because it is aimed at a young demographic, it will generally provide you overviews of subjects that are both easy for YOU to understand, and at the right information saturation level for the average reader (meaning you won’t go too far in the opposite direction and over-science your writing)
Primary Use: This website is where I find a lot of inspiration about ways math impacts the world around me. The community here is good for pointing out the ways we writers might never realize math intersects the “real” world. It is a good primer for beginning to see your own work through the lens of mathematics.
#2 Art and Music
As writers, more than any other form of artist, we must be well rounded and functionally “literate” in the other expressions of human creativity. You may not be able to draw the things you imagine, but an excellent grounding in the basics of art will help you to understand how to describe shapes, or what colors are most vivid and complementary to describe to your readers. Similarly, a good grounding in music, the theories of sound and rhythm will help you to enrich your world with authentic details about the auditory sea in which your characters should be swimming, not the least of which is the sound of their distinctive voice. This is one case where finding a friend who has a background in linguistics, or a co-worker who paints on the side is an excellent resource to cultivate. However, barring that, below are some common sense options for getting your artistic side educated.
Primary Use: This is one of the greatest collection of artists on the web. If you are struggling with a character detail, or a color palette, or even just need to find a stimulating image to use as the basis for that antagonist you need to introduce in chapter 9, head over here and search for the type of character you want(i.e., wizard, knight, motorcycle, color wheel, evil palace). You can view tutorials on any one of a number of subjects as well, and many of the great artists of our time have accounts here. This is my first stop for inspirational artwork.
Primary Use: This may sound a little bit odd, but one of the best ways to get down a speaking voice for your characters, particularly one that is articulated (meaning highly stylized or accented) is to go and search YouTube for people speaking in that accent and try and mimic their speech patterns phonetically in your writing. Need your love interest to have a sexy British accent? Is your antagonist a homicidal hill billy from Kentucky? Pop open YouTube and watch someone actually speaking in the voice of your character. When you hear your character’s voice, hold onto it and watch it over and over. It’ll sink in after just a little while, and soon enough ye’ll be written’ da blarney bloghsa! You can also use it to watch certain difficult to describe events, like crashes, or tools in use, or as a resource for rare or foreign animal noises, which can truly help you to capture the real essence of sound in your work.
Here is an excellent primer on art knowledge, for the truly unaware. It is laid out in easy to follow steps that will make navigating more complicated art sites a breeze.
#3 The Masters
You already have influences. Right now, you reading this, are already influenced as a writer by other writers, other media, other art or music. A huge part of developing your own unique style, apart from your influences though, is identifying them. What are the stories that inspired you as a child? Who are the authors that you just can’t put down? What is your favorite book? Movie? Play? Take a look at questions like these, and try to determine who are you emulating (because EVERYONE is emulating someone) and whose creative north star you are following. Take a look at your bookshelf (or your Kindle) and really think about why the things you have are there.
Then, after you know who you are influenced by, figure out who you “should” be influenced by. I put should in quotes, because there is no right answer. However, go out and do research on others who have told stories like the ones you want to tell, and read those works, devour all you can. See what worked for them, and what didn’t. What is your reaction to their work? Even hating an author is useful. Something else that can be very interesting is to look at the artwork that was produced contemporaneously with a favorite author’s work. Or perhaps finding out who was big in music at that time. With that being said, there are several masters that every writer should, at some point, engage with, at least to my view. (PS- they are definitely on my own personal list of influences)
Duh. Enough said. Shakespeare is required reading. And not just reading, but studying. Go google some analysis of any of his plays. Try to grasp his brilliance.
This is a Japanese film maker who takes books and short stories from the Western world and turns them into animated art installations. If you ever want to understand how the tiniest details can add rich dimension to your work, take a look at any film by this man. Classics include Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, The Cat Returns, Castle In The Sky, and most recently Arietti.
A British woman who wrote primarily in the period around and following World War I, she is considered to be a “modernist”. What is so amazing about Woolf is that she is unafraid of language. She ties language up and makes it her bitch. She is completely liberated, and the highest good is the story she is trying to tell. This sort of liberation, in healthy measure, will improve even the best of writing. Check out Jacob’s Room, The Waves, or any of her Mrs. Dalloway series.
These are the basic tools you need to load your shop up with if you are going to work seriously in the craft of writing, at least to my view. However, the internet is a BIG place, so tell me what resources are YOUR “go to” resources for writing? Am I missing a big one? Am I missing a whole category perhaps? Let me know other sites you may use in the comments, and I’ll add them to the post!