For half a year now, I’ve been getting paid for selling my books. Not a hell of a lot, but for a writer, getting paid anything for your writing is an amazing, precious thing. It’s validating, plain and simple.
Steven King once said that he considers a person a professional writer if they’ve ever paid the light bill with their writing. Well, I haven’t done that, but I did do all my Christmas shopping with it.
But to be honest, I don’t feel like a professional yet, and it’s not because of the amount I’m making, but rather how I feel about where I am in the craft. Clearly, (and you can all agree, I’m sure) I need to work on proofreading and editing, for example. At the same time, I’m pretty sure I can competently construct a narrative and put real thought into the works of others.
We tend to think of any craft in terms of Masters and Novices, but there’s not a lot of thought devoted to the middle ground, where someone has learned the basics, knows some tricks and can do good work, and yet cannot hold a candle to many in the field. Based solely on the crafting experience tiers in The Elder Scrolls games, I’m going to call that position ‘Journeyman’.
Not a Hugo Award, but I’m proud of it.
So that’s where I am: still striving to become more, but definitely not a new hand at this. I have been writing since I was in seventh grade, after all.
And as such, this article is dedicated to examining some of the mistakes I both remember making and now become annoyed with on a regular basis. But it’s not just about smacking other writers on the nose and going ‘no’; it’s about explaining to you, the reader what I remember going through my own mind as a writer when I was doing those same things.
I call it…
Dear Aspiring Authors, Stop Doing This
And the first subject we’ll be looking at is…
At this very moment, some horrible, disturbing people are finding this article via Google. Just ignore them and for god’s sake: don’t make eye contact.
Anyway, ‘eye porn’ is probably the amateur literature equivalent of Quentin Tarantino’s famous obsession with feet. A lot of new writers fixate on the eyes as a descriptive body part and then run them into the ground by referencing them at every possible opportunity, usually including descriptions of their color (more on color later) to boot.
One very clear symptom that this is setting in is when a character can’t look, wink, blink or perform any other almost universally eye-related activity without the reader being informed that that action is being done with eyes of a certain color.
Another is when the write talks about the eyes so much that they eventually have to scramble for synonyms and inevitably bust out with ‘orbs’. ‘Orb’ is not a word real, meat-based humans use in conversation when discussing their meat-based, jelly-filled sensory organs; it’s a word that generally describes the shape of those things and was never, ever meant to replace the real word for them. Incidentally, if ‘orb’ shows up to pinch-hit for ‘breast’, we’re dealing with writer who is having the exact same problem and should probably be going to the booby well next.
Dibs on ‘Booby Well’ as a band name!
I see this all the time in fan fiction and original amateur works. When it shows up in published works, it’s usually in a work with language so overwrought that it’s clear that the editor gave up.
So why the hell is this so prevalent?
Because we like eyes. We as in ‘humanity’. Eyes are a big part of how we evolved as social creatures: the action of the muscles around them are responsible for a massive number of our non-verbal gestures and cues as to our moods. That’s why the old saying goes that eyes are the window to the soul (which is why the guy in the short lived, but awesome show, Brimstone had to shoot out the eyes of the evil souls returned to Earth).
It’s because they’re so expressive that writers go to them again and again to display emotion on characters. Facial expressions are a big part of ‘show, don’t tell’, and as I’ve just pointed out, the eyes play a big part in those.
The other key ingredient is that inexperienced writers don’t yet fully understand the economy of words. And that’s not their fault entirely. I know for a fact that American middle and high schools put a lot of emphasis on classic literature, a lot of which was originally posted as serials and paid by the word without adequately explaining that using the maximum words possible was not a stylistic choice but born out of the desire to get paid more money. And so, to many new aspirants to the field of writing, more is better. So instead of just blinking, a character blinks their azure orbs (+3 wordliness! That adds up across chapters.).
As for ‘orbs’, that’s simple: orbs sounds like a really classy word, and when you’re new and unsure, throwing in classy and archaic words and phrases seems like cruise control for good writing. Add to that the fact that lit classes rarely if ever praise anything written after World War II, and these young writers are largely exposed to books written in what amounts to a different language.
People don’t really think about this, but language drifts, so much so that the original Beowulf, while written in English, is incomprehensible (with different letters even), and there is still appreciable difference between the language of today and, say, 1960. If you don’t believe me, go ask grandpa if he understands what you mean when you say you’re planning on using twitter to organize a flashmob to drive hits to your blog.
And as for the color thing…
Color Compulsion and Confusion
The same writers who overdo the eye porn also stumble into this as well. It’s actually two different problems, but they often come hand in hand.
At its base, it works like this: once a writer establishes the color of something, they feel obligated to note that color whenever that thing is mentioned, and just as in the ‘orb’ discussion, they eventually try to come up with synonyms to break the monotony with disastrous results.
As you can already guess, this combines with eye porn to create a truly awful train wreck where you’re constantly told about a character’s blue orbs, their azure orbs, their periwinkle orbs and their aquamarine orbs.
See the problem? It’s okay if you don’t. To a lot of people, blue is blue, no matter the shade. In fact, depending on your language, it might actually be that way for you. But to other people, people who care about colors, you’re making that character’s eyes shift color at random. And it doesn’t just need to be eyes, this also happens a lot to clothes, cars and furniture.
I’m going to admit right here that I am not one of those people that cares all that much about color. I’m a little bit affronted that there are different shades of white and black, which should, by all rights and the rules of physics, by binaries. But since I’m a writer, I pick up a lot of information I don’t really care much about in order to deliver a better product to the audience, the vast spectrum of colors being one of them.
Live it, Learn it, Loathe it.
Azure is a specific color. So are periwinkle, robin’s egg, royal blue and ice blue. To some people, a lot of people even, this is important and equating them makes as much sense to them as calling a fruit a character is eating an apple one minute and a banana the next. It takes them out of the story while they blink in confusion and ask the air ‘what the hell?’, and we don’t want that to happen.
And the reason is once again a lack of understanding when it comes to the economy of words. Adding color tags to every thing with a color makes the work longer and, in the spirit of Charles Dickens’ wallet, better. Except it doesn’t. I understand admiring Dickens’ storytelling or his awesome ability to pun with impunity in serious works, but honestly, some of his profit driven superweight prose was tedious as hell—and this from a master of the craft. My advice is to not try and copy it, because no one is paying anyone by the word n that way anymore.
And while these problems are the product of looking to the wrong time and audience, there’s one that’s in the wrong industry altogether:
This one I didn’t name; it comes from the fan fiction community, where for a long time, fan fiction and fan scripts shared the same spaces until, just like leaving chihuahuas and pit-bulls in the same pin, a terrible new breed was born. And it has spread to non-fan fiction as well: I see it all the time on FictionPress.
A script fic is a piece of fan fiction written (ostensibly) in script format. However, they aren’t real scripts because they rarely contain any stage direction or other normal script elements. Essentially, they just replace normal dialog tags:
“Hello” said Mary.
If the reader is lucky, the narrative will be written normally, with the dialog breaking out of the normal format to go into script mode. If not, there will be no narrative at all and no stage direction, leaving the characters speaking disembodied dialog in a blank void.
As a general rule, it makes for a wretched reading experience and there’s reason for this: scripts are not meant to be read.
Let me explain. A script is not a complete story. It’s the skeleton of one, meant to be a scaffold from which other parts; actor performances, set/costume/prop/creature design work, directorial vision, scoring, etc; to hang off of. A lot of essentials for a complete work is missing from a script. That, and the script format itself is designed so actors can see where their next line is coming up, not for making reading enjoyable.
So why in blue blazes would anyone write like this? Two different reasons, I imagine. The first is related to the stigma growing in the writing world for said bookisms, the extra little dialog tags that replace the standard ‘said’ and ‘asked’ like ‘inquired’, ‘spat’, ‘growled’, and the ever hilarious, ‘ejaculated’.
They’re a way to spice up the dialog and add some more of the show don’t tell magic I mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, a lot of people developed a pathological fear of ever using ‘said’ in their text, resulting in increasingly ridiculous and embarrassing inclusions of said bookisms until everyone got sick and tired of it.
The backlash makes the internet’s treatment of Firefly or Nickelback look reasonable and measured by comparison. Much like the teachers of yore (in this case, 1955) tormented kids out of using their left hand, modern writing teachers and advisers now drill into young writers the Evils of Said Bookisms like they’re grimores in a Cosmic Horror story. There’s even stories of how editors will reject books out of hand if they use them. (Personally, I find this suspect, because those same editors insist that they know best about putting a few back in).
As a result, writing a dialog heavy story gets monotonous with nothing but a field of ‘said, said, said’ all over the place until you’re wondering where the joy of creating has gone.
But you know a format where you don’t have to use dialog tags at all? Script format. You can just write and write and write without all those annoying ‘saids’ in the way. It’s freeing… except the facts that: One, script format is worse on readers than said bookisms AND fields of boring ‘saids’; and two, any editor is doubly less likely to accept a manuscript written in it.
So if you’re serious about either delighting readers or getting published, skip the script because it’s giving you practice in bad habits.
The second reason is that a lot of new writers had a grasp of dialog, if only because that remains consistent throughout all types of media, but no confidence in their ability to do anything else. The script format lets them hide this flaw but ‘justifying’ a lack of anything but dialog with the format. Sadly, dialog without action isn’t as good as it could be.
And this lack of confidence leads me to the last item of this article:
Apologizing For Your Work
It’s a strange thing: a person can make their money shoveling rat carcasses into a furnace that drives an engine that shoots scalding steam onto orphans and they’re expected to be proud of doing an ‘honest day’s work’, but when someone reaches into their mind and takes their thoughts and crafts them into something new and interesting, they’re expected to demure and be self conscious about it.
Our culture (well, American culture) constantly reinforces it: artists are supposed to be neurotic or on the razor’s edge of it when it comes to their work and feel eternally bad about it.
And to an extent, we all follow that. We play things close to the vest, get massive, crippling cases of nerves about sharing our work with the world, and when sharing our rough and amateur works, we apologize profusely for wasting everyone’s time.
Which is weird, because most of the time, we’re apologizing to a group that’s come together specifically to read one another’s work. Almost every time someone (including myself many times) post something in my writing group, it’s prefaced with ‘it’s not very good, but…’ or ‘this is just a first draft…’.
Okay, now apologize for apologizing so much.
Modesty is nice, but this borders on self-loathing. And worse, it does something to the person who is expecting to give your stuff a read. Take a minute and think about every other instance in your life outside of reading amateur stories where someone apologized in advance.
Besides ‘we need to talk’ and ‘I have to tell you something’, the preemptive apology is the closest thing we have to a verbal klaxon horn. Those words, spoken to an English speaking human, is a warning to brace for impact because nothing good ever comes of the rest of that conversation. You hear someone apologize in advance for something and you involuntarily flinch a little.
That’s the mindset you put a person into when you apologize for your work before they even read it. Even if they aren’t thinking about it consciously, they’ll have a tiny finger of dread in your mind as they wait for the bomb you were preparing them for.
On the other hand, some people manage to combine insecurity and dishonesty in this maneuver, using the apology and comments about how ‘bad’ and ‘unpolished’ the work is to bait readers into telling them how great they are. For those people, I certainly hope they never experience a mote of joy in their lives again (isn’t that much cooler than ‘die in a fire’, internet?).
Not that I want writers bursting into discussions and being all like ‘BEHOLD MY GLORY’, but have some pride. And if you can’t have some pride yourself, let me give you some: Most people will go through their adult lives and will never partake in an act of creation. They might put something together from a kit, or follow recipe, but they will never bring into being something unique from somewhere in their soul (or soul analog if you don’t believe in souls). If you have written something, you’re ahead of the game already. Yes, you need practice and you need to learn more of the craft, but that’s okay; so do I, do does every other writer you’re going to be talking to—hell, I will wager that if you could ask them, Steven King, Terry Pratchett, George RR Martin, and whatever other author you want to talk about will admit that they do to. That’s just how art works: you can always improve and should always try to.
But there is not shame in not being perfect or even good if you have this in mind and can learn from your mistakes. Aside from script fics, I’ve done every single one of these and many, many more and I’ll bet so did every member of the bestseller’s list (If you only care about money, Stephanie Meyer still does all of these and she is now more money than woman now).
Thus endth the lesson. Keep your head up and keep writing. And if you’re just a dedicated reader of my work, why not try writing something yourself?
Next week, I have no idea what I’m going to blog about. Make suggestions in the comments and I’ll just might take them.
Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.
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