Writing Exercise: Be Myth-Taken

Mist in the valley beyond the stub lightSince the dawn of time, people have been telling stories to explain the parts of life that don’t quite make sense. The most powerful of these stories became repeated and repeated and repeated until they became sacred to the people who told them. A myth is more than a story that engages your readers – it is one that connects to them on a primal or even spiritual level.

Myths can be divided into several categories. One of the most popular, the creation myth, deals with the mysteries of how humankind became humankind. Sometimes, our species is created by a divine being. Other times, we wander onto the stage from the same shadowy realm as the divine beings themselves.

When humanity is not being created in a myth, it is frequently being destroyed in one. The end of the world, just like its beginning, can happen in a variety of different ways. Angry gods, cosmic catastrophes, and even plagues of zombies might be foretold in a powerful end-of-the-world narrative.

Between its creation and destruction, humanity needs to do something – and that something frequently includes being rather afraid of some natural disaster or another. As someone who’s been known to chalk up everything from bad traffic to garden pests to an angry god, I have a special appreciation for myths that explain life’s little frustrations as part of a nice, neat cosmic scheme.

Another fun category of myth is the trickster tale. From Puck to Coyote, tricksters have been delighting audiences for millenia with their ability to weasel their way out of any predicament. I like to write this kind of myth when I’m in the mood for creating something humorous and clever.

Regardless of what kind of myth inspires you the most, writing one can really help you grow as a storyteller. From pacing a narrative to using archetypal characters, you can practice a variety of storycrafting techniques when you write your own myth.

5 Tiny Details that Impact the Meaning of a Sentence

Cricket on flax 2A large part of producing good writing is polishing your writing. Keeping a close eye on details will not only help ensure that your writing is elegant, but also help ensure that it means what you want it to mean. These three “little big things” will pop up in almost every piece you write – so keep an eye out for them, and make sure you’re using them in the best way possible.

  • Articles like “a” and “the” are likely the shortest words in your sentences, but they convey a lot of information about the nouns they govern. “An apple,” for example, is one of many ordinary fruit, but if you talk about “the apple,” your reader will assume that it stands out from the rest in some regard.
  • Parenthetical phrases can be one or two words long, but they can make make a big splash. “I had tea with my friend Deborah at the beach” refers to one of many friends, while “I had tea with my friend, Deborah, at the beach” identifies Deborah as being one of a kind. The difference is that the second “Deborah” is contained in a parenthetical phrase, which functions to describe a solitary object rather than to point out one object out of many.
  • Modifier placement is another huge tiny detail that you need to watch out for. If I write “I want this dinner to end badly,” for example, I’m expressing ill-will. However, if I move the modifier around so that it reads, “I badly want this dinner to end,” then we see that I’m probably just tired or suffering from a headache.

As you develop your writing style, you’ll find that you have a fairly large set of details that you tend to fuss over time and time again. This is not a bad thing – the more you find yourself correcting little details, the more attention you’re paying to your writing, and the happier your readers will be.

Writing an Antihero

Potter wasp 2We sometimes think of heroic characters as very “squeaky clean” types. They slay dragons, they hold the door for strangers, they give up their seats on the bus to needy folks, and they rescue baby animals from all kinds of predicaments. Except when they don’t.

The antihero does the hero’s job, narratively speaking:  he or she is integral to solving the story’s problem, he or she is in conflict with the villain, and if it’s a romance, he or she will probably be part of it. However, an antihero goes about these tasks with a very different moral attitude than a traditional hero. Antiheroes, by definition, have some characteristics that make them seem unsuitable for or undeserving of the hero’s part.

Greed, lust, a short temper, long-held grudges, and a tendency to party hard are just some of the features we can find in an antihero. They’re not just a hero with a flaw – they are deeply flawed or troubled characters who may even come across as villainous in the first part of the story. However, writers should be careful not to add too much grit when they’re creating an antihero. The contest to see who could create the darkest, edgiest, meanest antihero ended in the 1990s, and readers are more likely to be bored than entertained by characters who are defined entirely by their roughness.

A large part of the appeal of antiheroes comes from their potential for deep, complex development as people over the course of the narrative. They almost never lose the characteristics that made them ‘un-heroic,’ but they generally develop improved strategies for coping with their world and maintaining the relationships that are most important to them. While your antiheroes definitely need to have their share of faults and rough patches, they also need to have the capacity to learn and grow as people.

It’s Like a Metaphor, See?

Pair of pearsWriters are constantly drawing comparisons between apples and oranges. It’s an important part of our job – part of the delight of reading, for many readers, is seeing the similarities between two concepts that may appear to be completely unrelated. It’s clever. It’s interesting. It helps us maintain the illusion that there’s some order and purpose in the universe.

Many of us (myself included) think of “metaphor” as a catch-all term for comparisons made between unlike things. However, that’s not really true; we make a metaphor only when we make that comparison implicitly. “Your grandma’s a fox,” for example, is a proper metaphor. The reader knows from the context of common speech that the speaker really means “Your grandma is attractive and glamorous,” so no further clarification is needed.

That’s the thing about true metaphors: they lack explicit comparative signals, so you need some kind of interpretive context if you don’t want to lose the reader. If you don’t have the space for that context, then what you need is a simile. It does the same job, but it uses “like” or “as” to give you reader a clear signal that a comparison is being made. For example, “Your uncle is as mean as a snake” doesn’t leave the reader wondering how the uncle is like a snake; the comparison is drawn without excessive work on the reader’s part.

Whether you use a metaphor or a simile really does come down to how much effort you want the reader to put into understanding your comparison. This isn’t always an unpleasant effort – indeed, many of us enjoy reading poetry for the challenge of figuring out all the complex metaphors. However, if you don’t want the reader to be distracted by the comparison, or if you think the reader might be confused by it, then a simile is generally your best bet.

 

Writing Exercise: Your Own Cooking Show

Apricot jamA writer’s job is to show the reader how something happened – how the princess was saved from the dragon, how the handsome highlander married the wild lady of the moors, or how the hard-boiled detective solved the case and got his reward. These dramatic stories can be fun to write, but they can also be daunting. If you think you could use some practice crafting a narrative, you might try telling a fairly simple story that happens every day of your life: how you cooked your dinner.

This topic may seem simple and dull, but therein lies its effectiveness. You have nothing inherent in your plot that will make your story interesting – no mysterious billionaires, no intergalactic warfare – and so this story will be carried entirely on the weight of your storycratfting. Using nothing but your writing skill and the things you have in your kitchen, you need to develop character, create suspense, and craft and ending that satisfies the reader.

You’ll find that this challenging task will show you which tools you rely on most when you’re crafting your story. Maybe you use a lot of backstory, taking a few sentences to wonder about where your beef came from. Maybe you prefer to draw your reader in with vivid imagery and delicious descriptions of your ingredients. Maybe the restrictions of this exercise will even inspire you to use some new narrative device to spice up your supper story.

Cooking a meal is seldom as exciting as falling in love or solving a mystery, but it is nonetheless one of those things that sometimes happens, and which writers can therefore turn into a story. This writing exercise will help you understand the tools you use to build a narrative, and it will challenge you to built a story that is carried entirely by the strength of yuor story crafting.

Should Writers Study Literary Theory?

Hornets' nestThe study of literary theory is several degrees removed from the process of writing literature. The discipline incorporates elements of political theory, art theory, and cultural anthropology; its great works are often dense and dry. Studying Edmund Burke or Louis Althusser will not give you any hints on how to improve your sentence structure or tighten your plots. Nonetheless, some writers find it rewarding now and then to devote a little attention to literary theory.

This discipline is not concerned with the crafting of a work, but with the reading of a work. Literary critics explore the relationship between a story and its reader, and they do so from a variety of angles. There are critics who want to examine the nature of beauty; there are critics who want to examine the representational nature of language; there are critics who want to examine the subversive politics that make a certain narrative appealing.

Because the practice of literary criticism is so reader-focused, I find that reading criticism helps me understand why the audience wants the things it wants. This in turn helps me think of ideas that a particular audience might enjoy. An interesting discussion on a topic might inspire me to take it up in a story, or a harsh criticism of a trope may inspire me to re-imagine it in a way that makes it more palatable.

I certainly won’t argue that reading criticism is a necessary exercise for everybody; in fact, I seldom find I have the dedication to read a dense critical piece in my spare time. However, writers who have a high tolerance for dense prose may find some remarkably good ideas buried in a piece of literary criticism.

 

How to Avoid Misplaced Modifiers

Clive's bread puddingI really do like modifiers, I swear. If we want to make our writing clear and our images vivid, we need adjectives, adverbs, and the phrases that do their jobs. It’s just that we have to use modifiers correctly, or they do the opposite of their intended job.

The misplaced modifier is a classic example of this maxim. It occurs when a modifier occupies an entire phrase, which is typically separated from the ‘governing clause’ by a comma. How do we identify the governing clause? It’s simple: the governing clause contains whatever information is being modified by your adjective or adverb.

Because English is a subject-verb-object language, many clauses will contain a noun for both the subject and the object. For example, the clause “Becky set the pie on the windowsill” contains the subject “Becky” and the object “the pie.” Because the sentence is structured around the subject, readers will assume that it is the subject, not the object, being described by any modifiers added onto the sentence.

This gets to be a problem when you decide that you need to add on a modifying clause to describe the pie. Let’s say you want to tell the reader that the pie is steaming from the oven. Now, the sentence reads, “Still steaming from the oven, Becky set the pie on the windowsill.”

This is a classic example of a misplaced modifier. The reader assumes that “Still steaming from the oven” is describing Becky, and that paints a rather grisly picture. To fix this mistake, we need to make it very clear to the reader that the pie, not the cook, is the one which has been baked. This is most easily done by scooting that modifier as close as you can get it to the governing clause: “Becky set the pie, still steaming from the oven, on the windowsill.” If you want, you can experiment with the wording “which was still steaming” and see if you like how it makes the sentence work.

We all write them on occasion, but misplaced modifiers can really make a piece of writing stand out in a bad way. Whenever you’re writing a complex sentence, be wary of this error, and be sure to correct it whenever it occurs. This will keep you from confusing your reader or accidentally phrasing things in a very unfortunate way.

 

Time: The Key Ingredient

Apricot budsWriting can be very much like painting a shed. It’s easy to get really into the job, do it as thoroughly as you’ve done anything in your life, and then step back to see that you’ve missed a spot or five. When you’re painting a shed, however, it’s a simple matter to step back ten or twenty feet and squint at it. You can’t quite do the same thing with a written story.

Many writers find that they miss some big mistakes when they edit their own work. This isn’t actually due to sloppiness or laziness, but rather due to the fact that writers get to know their work very well when they’re writing it. In fact, they know it so well that they can understand what’s going on even if their writing doesn’t actually convey it clearly. It’s easy to skip over a logical leap or a small plot hole when you have a creator’s familiarity with the story.

For some writers, the solution to this problem is to share the story with someone else. I myself have a few colleagues with whom I’ll trade work when it needs to be edited in a hurry. However, we can’t always do that, and sometimes we just need our own perspective for whatever reason. In these circumstances, the best thing you can do is take a break from your story and work on something else. It could be another story, or it could be the backyard – the important thing is that you distract yourself until your mind has loosened its grip on the story’s details.

When you return from this break, prepare to be mildly confused by your own writing. There will be a sentence here or there that mystifies you. There will be a piece of vital information missing when you’d sworn you’d written it down. There will be glaring grammatical errors that you don’t know how you missed. But, take heart – now that you can see the spots you missed in your first edit, you can fix them.

Learning to Learn from Criticism (Constructive and Otherwise)

Scorpion beside rulerIn an ideal world, everyone who read our stories would think carefully before sitting down to pen a clear, polite, and helpful review. The criticism would list what worked and what didn’t; it would tell you what seemed excessive and what needed to be developed more; and it would say all of this in a tone that reassured you that you’re not doing a bad job, really, you’re doing just fine and you just need to keep on practicing.

However, we don’t live in an ideal world. In fact, some of us even venture into the world of online feedback, which can range from well-thought out, useful advice to crude sexual remarks or even bizarre threats. In this modern climate of instant publishing and instant criticism, it’s important to separate the wheat from the chaff where criticism is concerned. What looks like useful criticism may be well-meaning but stupid, and what looks like an ordinary wish for your painful death might in fact be a sign that you need to do something differently.

When I look at a comment on one of my stories, I try to find where I did whatever they mention in the comment. If I can’t find a passage that the review could be talking about, then I usually disregard the review. If the reviewer said nice things, then that’s excellent, but they will not help me unless I can find some specific area of my writing to associate with them. Similarly, I can disregard some nasty comments indeed (except for that “Caketown” fellow who called me a “super lame writer” when I was 12), provided that they at least point to what I did to make the reviewer so mad at me.

If the internet offers anything in abundance, it is opinions. Sifting useful opinions from useless ones can be a boring, unpleasant task, but it can help you identify the strong and weak areas of your writing. Once you’ve done this, you’re a step closer to improving your writing and earning more positive (and hopefully useful) feedback.

Adding Suspense to Character Development

Joules looking up at a peachA little over a year ago, I landed wrong after hopping a fence and sprained my ankle badly. Although it doesn’t hurt anymore, it didn’t quite heal right, so my left ankle is much knobblier and more puffy than my right. This kind of thing happens to people all the time. We’ll get through some calamity – minor or major, physical or mental – without severe permanent damage, but we’ll be marked by it in some way for the rest of our lives.

Fiction writers will frequently create characters who have been shaped by a traumatic event in their pasts. These characters may have strange mannerisms or attitudes; they may be difficult to get along with; they may even show impulses that shock the reader at first viewing. It’s tempting to explain these quirks as soon as humanly possible, but giving into that temptation might not be a good idea.

When you have a main character with a troubled past, you have the opportunity to add a degree of suspense to your character development. The character’s behavior becomes a mystery that the audience wants to solve – but not too quickly. In real life, people carefully set boundaries about the parts of themselves that they see as the most vulnerable. The audience expects your characters to behave the same way, only letting their guard down and revealing the secret to the mystery when they’re talking with someone they trust completely.

Ideally, the moment when a characters’ old wounds are finally explained to the audience is dramatic and satisfying. The reader finally has an explanation for behavior that has mystified them throughout your story. To pull this off, however, you need to be sure to realistically portray your character keeping their guard up until the moment is ideal for an important revelation which has a significant effect on the plot.