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.

On the Virtues of Beautiful Places

A carpet of narcissi & tulipsI hope you will not mistake me for one of those people who feels that it’s always necessary to surround yourself with beauty and inspiration if you want to produce a high-quality work. I’ve composed poetry in front of an industrial sink and written novels in crowded airports. However, I’ll readily admit that going or being someplace beautiful – or better yet, making someplace beautiful – is a good idea if you like to devote yourself to creative endeavors.

The most important thing about beautiful places is that they encourage us to relax, to let our minds wander, and to forget about the things we’re worrying about. We all need to do this, especially when we’re trying to compose a piece of writing. Drafting a story or novel is a stressful, tiring task, and there’s a lot to be said for going on a break now and then and taking a walk in a nearby park. Taking some time to briefly distance yourself from your work – even if you only go upstairs to make some coffee – is a good way to relax, refresh, and reorganize before delving back into it.

Just as they help us distract ourselves when we need it, beautiful places can also help us focus on our own sense of what is beautiful. This is a very important understanding for a writer to have, as it will guide many of your creative choices and contribute to the higher themes of your narratives. I’ve always found it worthwhile to take a few moments and write about what makes your favorite place beautiful. Different people find beauty in different areas for different reasons, and the simple task of articulating these reasons can be a truly inspiring task.

Whether it’s the quiet of a mountainside or the cheerful bustle of a city park, almost all writers and artists find it helpful to spend some time in a beautiful place. You can use them to relax, to contemplate, or to find inspiration for your work – and they make bad places to sit down for a picnic, either.

Rethinking Originality

Foxes and cubsWriters talk a lot about creativity and originality. We spend hours trying to come up with ideas that haven’t been seen before; many of us dream about writing the innovative work that changes the face of a genre forever. Seldom do we pause to ask ourselves why we’re on this quest for novelty. I think we should spend more time doing exactly that.

It’s true that people get bored when presented with the same information over and over again, and we often find ourselves believing that readers want to see something they’ve never encountered before. However, a quick scan of the best seller list will tell you that this assumption is mistaken. Time and time again, readers turn into books with familiar plots and common character types. That’s what it means to develop a preference in literature – you seek out a new book not just because it promises something different, but also because it promises more of the same.

So how valuable is that “something different?” And where does it come from? Obviously, readers want something in your story to be new to them. If it isn’t a unique setting or a bizarre, experimental narrative, then that something may well be your unique perspective on the world. This perspective shines through in your writing style, in the way you discuss the plot points, and in the way your characters interact.

It’s this intimate, unpretentious kind of originality that many readers are looking for in their next good read. Just as people are unique and interesting despite their similarity to each other, a story can be creative and original even if it is derivative in some ways. The important thing is to make your personality shine through the prose in such a way that your readers will be happy to count your work among their literary friends.

Writing Exercise: Vocabulary Lists

Praying mantis on a sauce lidWe sometimes think of vocabulary exercises as the worst sort of busywork, something mainly imposed upon schoolchildren to teach them how to sit down and do something uninteresting for hours on end. However, writers can gain a lot from the simple task of defining and briefly using a list of words.

An increased understanding of vocabulary is never a bad thing, and going through a vocabulary list forces you to double-check your understanding of the English language. You’ll be surprised how much you learn about words you think you know – one word may have had more nuance than you realized, while another word might have another use that you didn’t know about. Still other words get learned once and then put in storage in the back of our minds. Going through a vocabulary list is a good way to find these (frequently excellent) words and put them to work in your writing.

In addition to a new perspective on the vocabulary of the English language, writers can gain a new perspective on their craft from this exercise. When you’re used to plotting, composing, and editing a long work, “use _____ in a sentence” can be a bit of a jarring task. Doing this kind of thing over and over again, without the distractions of plot and character development, lets you focus on how you construct sentences. If you’re trying to make your style more elegant, going through a vocabulary list will help you think about the mechanical elements of style.

Even if you’re the one your friends come to when they need to know how to use a word, you can benefit from the simple practice of defining and using all the words on a vocabulary list. This process can help you understand the English language better, it can help you develop your style, and it can even help you come up with an idea when you’re looking for inspiration.

A Little Goes a Long Way with Noun Phrases

Toad against the wallEvery sentence has at least one noun phrase, which includes a noun and a modifier or two. I say one or two, because by using multiple, repetitive, unnecessary modifiers to a noun phrase, you can wind up with ugly, bloated, miserable sentences (see what I did there?). Strong writing features well-constructed noun phrases which are used well.

The thing about noun phrases is that they don’t do things the way that verb phrases do. Your writing is not carried on your noun phrases; if you try to make your noun phrases carry it, then you need to stop. Unless you have a truly interesting and important interesting noun phrase, it doesn’t need to be made longer than the verb phrases. Pronouns and unadorned nouns are typically all you need to use for the majority of your sentences.

Not only should noun phrases be short, but they should also be distributed sparsely throughout your sentences. Although it’s occasionally acceptable to use a brief list in your sentences now and then, you can confuse your reader by stuffing your sentences full of noun phrases one right after the other. If you have problems with stacking your noun phrases on top of each other, you might also have a problem with sentences that are too long in general. Practice writing shorter sentences, and try to give each noun phrase the attention it deserves.

Noun phrases are an important structural element of every sentence, and a good writer knows how to use them effectively. By using short noun phrases and distributing them sparsely throughout your sentences, you can tighten up your prose and make it much clearer. This helps keep your readers interested, and it helps you tell your story more effectively.

How Does Your Inspiration Grow?

Irish fleabaneAny conversation about the art of writing will eventually turn to the topic of inspiration. Finding something compelling to write about can be almost as hard as writing about it compellingly. Many writers dread the day when they’ll wake up and find that they have nothing, nothing whatsoever to write about. Although this is a frightening fantasy, the reality is that inspiration doesn’t always have to occur spontaneously.

I like to think of inspiration as coming in two basic varieties. The kind we think about most frequently (and covet the most when we have it) is the kind that pops up on you when you’re thinking of something else. Many writers pick hobbies or activities that give them plenty of opportunities to be struck by this information; part of the reason I like to garden, for example, is because it gives me a chance to sit and think in a pretty place.

However, just because you can give yourself more chances at this kind of inspiration doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to come up with a good idea. If you want to count on getting an idea you can work with, you’ll need to put some work into your inspiration process. Compile a set of resources you can depend on to give you ideas (I use tumblr tags, searches on pinterest, and certain books in my library), and then use it. Write down ideas that appeal to you, and write down little bits of development until you have something you can start a story from. Develop a system that works for you, and stick as closely to it as you can. It’s not the most glamorous way of coming up with an idea, but it’s been a steadfast friend to me when life doesn’t sprout inspiration from its ears.

The quest for inspiration is one of the most romanticized and poorly understood parts of the writing profession. It is true that writers are occasionally randomly struck by inspiration that seems to grow wild. However, you’ll find yourself inspired more easily if you learn to use your resources to systematically find and develop your ideas.