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.

Finding Your Feet

Brick wall 3Rhyme and meter are the building blocks of poetry, and metric feet are the building blocks of meter. It’s important to be able to identify what kind of ‘foot’ a word has – and not just in case you’d like to write a sonnet. Understanding the metric profile of your writing style can help you develop it, understand it, and refine it as you write. Whether you’re a poet or an aspiring prose master, this list of metric types can serve as a handy reference.

  • An iamb carries its emphasis on the second syllable. “To be,” “Rotund,” and “Astride are all examples of this poetic foot, which is frequently formed across two words.
  • trochee carries its emphasis on the first syllable. Unlike the iamb, it’s easy to find a trochee that is only one word: pizza, movie, lady, pirate, hamster, driver, and soda are just the beginning.
  • With the anapest, we move into three-syllable feet; the anapest carries its emphasis on its last syllable. Like an iamb, an anapest is likely to be composed of more than one word: from the lake, condescend, tearing up, and bedding down are some examples.
  • The dactyl, the anapest’s counterpart, carries its emphasis on the first syllable. These are more likely to be one-word feet than anapests, because plenty of words like galloping, contraband, terrorize, and even Instagram fit this pattern.
  • The spondee takes us back to two-syllable feet, but with a twist: the spondee is never used to carry a line. This is largely because it’s night impossible to arrange English words in such a manner that every syllable is accented. The spondee is usually used as a gap filler, or as a label for a word that doesn’t fit in with the rest of a poem’s meter. Examples are typically an odd arrangement of syllables, but sometimes you’ll encounter a single word like humdrum or lampshade that does the job.
  • If you suspect that the trochee might be a two-syllable foot with both words unstressed, then you’re correct! This is a more common gap filler than a spondee, and usually shows up in explanatory phrases like “son of” and “comes from.”

It’s certainly possible to imagine poetic feet with more than three syllables, but it’s most efficient to think of them in terms of the two and three syllable feet. Armed with this knowledge, you can approach formal poetry with a handy tool for understanding and interpreting it.

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.

 

Small Town Settings: Cute Nostalgia or Dark Secrets?

Spello 2They’ve become a fixture of American literature because they’re a fixture of American geography: those dinky little towns of 500 to 2,000 souls, clinging desperately to the industry or the Interstate that keeps them from disappearing into the empty places of this country. Though few people like to live in these places, many of us like to read stories set in an American small town.

On one level, this setting is appealing because it offers a certain nostalgia for a simpler time, when the whole town knew your name and you could count on any of them to help you out of a tight spot. To a degree, small towns in popular culture signify communal trust and the virtues of a small, close-knit family. That’s why, when you need a character who’s a bit naive, one of the go-to choices for backstory is to have them come from an itty-bitty town way out in the sticks.

However, as anyone who actually grew up in one of these towns can tell you, it’s very easy to lose that wide-eyed innocence without moving to the big city. The dark side of small towns in America is well-known: these places tend to be isolated, insular, and plagued by poverty and bad education. In fiction, that’s just the start of the trouble. Drugs in the water supply, doomsday cults, serial killers, and beautiful families of teenage vampires are just some of the dark secrets held by small towns in American literature.

So, why do we insist on keeping up this idea that we, that any of us, perceive a small town to be a cute little oasis of innocence in a mean ol’ urban world? You can argue that it’s political, and it probably is, but it’s also probably because of the prideful cynicism we have in this country. Yes, we want to be the one to debunk that inspirational quote on our friend’s Facebook. We want to be the first one to tell Aunt Hortense that her chain e-mail is an urban legend. If we admit that we already know that a small town is just as dark and dangerous as the Big Scary City, then we lose the chance to re-live that beautiful smug journey toward Being Right All Along.

So, when you decide to set a story in a small town, feel free to paint it as the cheery, innocent place where you’d just love to settle down and start a family. Your audience won’t mind – especially if you later give them a chance to “discover” the hidden dark side of your All-American setting.

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.