How to not react like a petulant loser when you’re reminded that your writing is less original than you thought it was

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. For someone who’s writing an epic fantasy series, I’m not especially well-read in my field. I tend to read the dusty old work of long-dead authors, along with Star Trek apocrypha, popular history books, and anything by Neil Gaiman. I have a fairly embarrassing ignorance of what’s currently being written by successful fantasy authors, or enjoyed by fantasy readers, or  – perhaps crucially – picked up by fantasy publishers. I’m aware that these are the sort of things that are vital knowledge for anyone who is hoping to court commercial success as an author, so recently I’ve been taking steps to combat my ignorance.

This began with following up on a recommendation from a friend to read Temeraire by Naomi Novik. My friend clearly knows me very well. I’m a little late to the ball with this one, given that 2016 will mark the ninth book in the series, but I’ve been thoroughly enjoying it.

Temeraire

Novik was an easy choice of companion for an exploratory foray into contemporary fantasy because she has essentially taken my favourite historical novels – the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brien, which inspired the film Master and Commander – and followed the time-honoured fantasist’s tradition of adding dragons. Temeraire portrays the Age of Sail with the same sublime sophistication as O’Brien (I suspect Novik might adore him as much as I do) and her integration of fantasy elements into real world history is absolutely seamless. I have ordered the second book in the series before even finishing the first.

So that went rather well. I’m hoping that reading a series like Temeraire will benefit my understanding of what publishers expect from a long book series, as well as improving my style through osmosis. To find more authors, I’ve also been trawling through the epic fantasy lists on Goodreads. But this has lead me to an unpleasant realisation.

I think I can safely enjoy Temeraire because it is sufficiently similar-but-different from the stuff I’m writing, and the same might be true of a lot of other epic fantasy. But when I saw that people are enjoying books that are a little more similar to my own work, my reactions were different. Specifically, if you must know, I had a small temper-tantrum and then felt embarrassed and confused about why. So, being a millenial, I thought I’d blog about it.

I won’t waste further space with a comprehensive description of what I’m currently writing. What I will say is that it falls into a niche which is growing in popularity and (as I was initially dismayed to discover) is already sufficiently populated with books to constitute a subgenre, which has been given the moniker of ‘flintlock fantasy’. There are two series in particular which filled me with no small panic when I discovered their existence. Here they are, the rotten blighters:

  Promise of Blood  Shadow Throne

The Powder Mage trilogy by Brian McClellan and the Shadow Campaigns by Django Wexler. They are doing precisely what I’m trying to do: taking the tropes and hallmarks of sword-and-sorcery fantasy and moving the context forward by several centuries into a world of gunsmoke, brass buttons, square-rigged tall ships, centralised bureaucracy, natural philosophy, revolution, colonialism, and even sillier hats.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that anyone writing a series about gunpowder colonialism in a fantasy setting (like me) would enjoy reading books about gunpowder and colonialism in a fantasy setting (like these). Which is why I was so frustrated with my own first reaction to the existence of these books: mostly irritation about their existence, and dread that I’d been hopelessly left behind on the starting blocks.

Do all aspiring authors feel the same way, I wonder? Are we so personally invested in our writing that our first reaction is one of childish jealousy, rather than a feeling of kinship, when we encounter other authors writing similar material?

I’m aware of how I should feel. I see authors talk on Twitter about how anyone who aspires to join their number should view other authors as comrades and helping hands, never competitors. There is room enough in the publishing world that two books may be similar without one of them displacing the other, and when readers have a taste for a particular subgenre they are usually hungry for more books to be written in the same vein by different authors. I should feel encouraged, not disheartened, that there is similar material being written. People in the industry are willing to publish it, audiences enjoy reading it, and it sells well enough for writers to be able to write trilogies and pentologies. Even nonologies, in Naomi Novik’s case!

Temeraire in Flight
Dragons and tall ships: flintlock fantasy at it’s finest

This is good, because I envision my series as being quite long. I’ve heard that trilogies are in vogue at the moment, and I was starting to worry that the number of books in the Discworld (41) and Aubrey/Maturin (20½) series had given me unrealistic expectations of the extent to which publishers and readers would be willing to indulge me. At least now I know that a longer series is feasible, if it’s well-written.

Having spent time thinking about it, I’m now mostly just looking forward to reading these books. My bookseller sister is working on acquiring them for me at a discount price, and when they arrive I will devour them and tell you about my impressions. But I’d be lying if I said that I’m not feeling apprehensive. I hope I can simply enjoy them and appreciate their fine qualities, but I’m worried that they might leave me gnashing my teeth or feeling like I need to make drastic alterations to my first draft, lest I’m accused of being a copycat.

There’s a certain irritation that I’m not the one treading boldly into virgin territory, going where no author has gone before and writing something truly original. But of course, nothing is truly original. We are all, to an extent, copying Tolkein, and recycling the same ideas that have formed the building blocks of fantastic storytelling since Homer’s first recitation of the Iliad. If there are already footprints in the snow of flintlock fantasy then maybe I should be glad I’m not the first one pressing out into the snow with no path to follow. Perhaps that’s appropriate for someone writing about colonialism: Columbus wasn’t the first European to reach the Americas. Nor will I be the first person to write flintlock fantasy. Others went before me. I can see what worked for them and what didn’t, emulate their successes, and try to navigate around any shoals that they might have got caught up on.

And now if I’m at a party and someone asks me what kind of stuff I’m writing, at least I have a better answer than “it’s sort of like Game of Thrones with muskets in it…”

Drama versus Prose: An Overview and a Challenge

So, you’re a pretty experienced writer by this point, eh? You’ve done prose pieces? Short stories? Maybe even a novel or two? Not bad, not bad at all.

But if that’s you, then I’ve got a new challenge for you. Try writing drama.

Of course, this challenge won’t be too hard for you, because you’ve already mastered general storytelling elements such as plot and character development. The rest of it couldn’t be too hard at all, right?

Wrong!

Drama masksIn my last post I wrote about my recent experiences with writing children’s drama for my church. This time I’d like to talk more about the major differences between drama and prose–because, believe it or not, there are many, and being good at one does not necessarily mean you’ll be good at the other. In fact, as far as I’ve seen, in famous authors and aspiring ones alike, it’s relatively uncommon for one person to be really good at both prose and drama.

And before my challenges to you start to sound like I’m bragging about being such a great writer myself, let me level with you for a minute. I’m not good at both prose and drama, either. I consider myself a pretty decent writer when it comes to narrative prose, but I’m really not so great at writing drama.

“But wait!” you may ask. “If you’re not good at writing drama, then why were you in charge of writing drama for church recently, and even of subjecting innocent children to partaking in puerile performances of your poorly-penned plays?” That’s a good question that I’ll get to a little later.

For now I want to tell you a story, dating back three years or so to my undergrad years. I was an English major with a Writing minor, and I had already taken classes on creative poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. As an elective for my minor, I decided to take a class called “Writing for the Stage.” I had written church drama several times before and also had a little prior experience writing a (probably not very good) play for my high school theater senior project. Like I alluded to above, I probably thought that, as a master of prose, I would have an easy time with drama too. But, upon getting a ways into the semester, I realized a couple of things: 1) the class was mostly full of close-knit theater majors, so an English major like me was a little out of place, and 2) drama is an entirely different animal from prose, one which is not particularly my forte.

There may be many elements that differentiate drama from prose, but I’ll tell you about the one that I think tripped me up the most. In drama, you as the author can really only speak through dialogue and action. You have to do everything you normally do in prose–develop characters, flesh out the plot, etc.–but you must do it through only dialogue and action. An outside narrator doesn’t really have much of a voice to describe with words what is happening or what a character’s inner thoughts are like. And, for a wordy author like me who is used to the freedom provided by prose, condensing so much meaning into so few words is hard to do.

For example, my play’s protagonist was a very well-developed character. At least, he was well-developed in my head. I had a pretty specific idea of his backstory, his goals and motivations, his inner thoughts and feelings, etc. And, to me, he was a very sympathetic and relatable character. But, when we peer-reviewed each other’s plays in class, most of what I knew and felt about my character didn’t come through to my readers, because I wasn’t good at conveying it through limited dialogue and action. Everyone else, for the most part, saw my protagonist as distant, flat, and unlikeable, because they didn’t know him like I did and I didn’t do a good job of showing what he was like through this medium. (In hindsight, maybe I also shouldn’t have picked a protagonist whose personality was by nature secretive and guarded. That combined with my inexperience with the medium made it doubly hard for the audience to get to know him. But I digress.)

Hamlet“But wait!” you may ask. “Is all drama always so restricted in what it can show? Aren’t there some plays with narrators and characters who clearly explain themselves to the audience?” And the answer is that yes, there are. Dating back to ancient Greek drama and throughout subsequent centuries, it was very common for plays to have an outside narrator, often called the “Chorus” or some other entity. Later, in Shakespeare’s day, characters often spoke in asides or soliloquies, which was one character onstage speaking directly to the audience, often openly stating his or her own thoughts, feelings, and intentions. To me at least, that kind of direct writing seems relatively easy to do. But it’s no longer in vogue these days. In modern drama (or film, etc.), audiences don’t really take it seriously when narrators or characters explain the action to them so directly. It’s considered tongue-in-cheek or corny at best, and didactic or insulting at worst. No, the stage of today is not the place for long written descriptions of characters’ thoughts and personalities, but rather for quick dialogue and visual actions that should show what they’re like.

So, going back to my recent writings, maybe I should amend an earlier statement. It’s not that I’m horrible at all forms of drama. Like I detailed in my last post, I’m good at writing children’s drama. I’m good at writing the kind where relatively basic stock characters can speak directly to the audience and talk openly about what moral they learned today. I’m able to entertain, amuse, and educate a certain type or demographic of audience. But serious drama, for adults, with passion and pathos, nuance and skill? That’s a bit above my reach for now.

This is not to completely discount the genre or my experiences with it. Although I cringe a little when I think back to the play I wrote in stage-writing class that semester, the experience did help me to learn more about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. And could I get better at drama if I tried? Yes, knowing what I now know about my limitations and the areas where I fell short before, I could probably get at least a little better if I worked at it more and practiced with that genre again. I just haven’t done so in a while, and I’m not nearly as comfortable in the world of drama as I am with prose.

But sometimes it’s good to get a little uncomfortable and challenge ourselves to try something different. So, if you’re used to writing prose, then I challenge you to try some drama as well. Write a short scene where all you can show between a few characters is dialogue and stage directions. Or, if coming up with one from scratch is hard, take a scene from a favorite book, or from a story you’ve written previously, and rewrite it as if for the stage. See if you can still develop the characters fully and make the plot just as clear without being obvious. Warning: you may get frustrated and find that it’s not as easy as you thought! Or you may stretch your creative horizons and learn more about your potential as a writer!

500 Words-a-Day

Happy Sunday, one and all!

I have been enjoying my weekly spots here on the Art of Writing, and I hope that you have too. I seem to be bouncing back and forth between stories and thought pieces, and I enjoy the variety, so I believe I will keep that pattern going. Which mandates that this week’s post should be a thought piece.

Imagine if you will the author scratching his head like a species of undercaffeinated ape and trying to pin down what exactly he’s been thinking about lately.

The first thing that springs to mind is that the word count of the book I’m writing is now sitting prettily at just over 20,000 words. Here’s a gif which sums up my feelings about that.

kirk-mccoy-nod

I am very pleased to have reached the 20K word mark, but I am not pleased at all with how long it took me. Having written the first 11,000 words in a single month, back in April, the next 9,000 were a slow crawl. I had a long stretch of stagnation, self-doubt, procrastination, and outright slothfulness, which delayed my progress immeasurably. Perhaps it was just that England’s having an unwelcomely humid summer, but the image occurred to me of myself as an explorer sitting in my camp, knowing that the 20,000 word goalpost was hiding somewhere in the nearby jungle, eluding me. Instead of pressing out into the jungle every day and hacking a little further through the trees, as I did in April, I often just ended up sitting in my camp and…doing something that jungle explorers do in their camps which could pass as a metaphor for playing video games in my bedroom.

I also ended up reading a lot of books, which did eventually help to drag me out of stagnation and get me over the 20,000 word hurdle. No matter what you’re writing, I can recommend reading as a cure-all for your writer’s block. A lot of writers read voraciously anyway and won’t need this advice, but there may be others like me who have always been faintly intimidated by the fact that they don’t have the same obsession for reading that they observe in their peers. If any of those writers are reading this, I urge them to pick up a book which is relevant to what they’re writing. I’m writing about colonialism in a fantasy setting, and for research purposes I bought myself several weighty academic tomes concerning the history of European colonialism in South Asia. I can’t say that the content is always deeply riveting, but there are curds hidden among the whey, and history is replete with isolated incidents and longer sequences of events that can be readily adapted into entertaining fiction.

More importantly though, I feel like reading widely and robustly has the ability to completely recharge my writing ability. Once I am filled to the brim with insights that I have gained from my reading, I feel ready to discharge those insights onto the page as quickly as possible. But even that can still have its challenges. Even when I am extremely motivated to write, it remains all too easy to rest on my laurels – to think “I’ll write after dinner”, or “I’ll write after I’ve exercised”, or “I had a rough day, I can give myself a night off”, and eventually allow myself to feel justified going to bed without having written anything. And I think the secret to avoiding that trap really is just to get up in my metaphorical camp every morning, pick up my metaphorical machete, and then step out into the metaphorical jungle and start hacking away, slowly and methodically, at the trees. I might not find the elusive beast I’m searching for, but I will at least cut a little further into the jungle every day.

Personally I do my best to write 500 words every evening, but you can figure out the right word count for you. It may not seem like a particularly revolutionary piece of advice, but I think that when you’re writing the first draft of a book, the important thing is to write, or read, a little every day.

Write Well, everyone!

Writing for Children (and how to do an at least halfway-decent job at it)

Today I’m talking about the writing project I’ve been working on most recently. I’ve been busy—traveling to visit family and attending to some projects with tight deadlines—so, sadly, I still haven’t made any headway on either of the stories I mentioned in my last post. What I’ve been doing lately is of a fairly different nature. Last week I wrote a series of short skits (that I will also direct and act in) for my church’s upcoming Vacation Bible School.

I know. It’s hardly lofty or literary writing. It’s not a deeply involved sci-fi story, and it’s not even written in the same medium as a novel. (I’d like to talk more about the differences between drama and prose, but that may be a post for another day.) I’ll be honest: as you might have guessed from my descriptions, these skits are geared toward children, and they’re designed specifically for teaching moral and spiritual lessons, in a way that some might understandably consider didactic. I wanted to write a post on this project, because it’s my most current creative writing experience. But I admit I had some trouble with the question of “how can simple skits like these relate to the writing of more ‘serious’ fiction?”

Of course, C.S. Lewis is also well-known for his own series of children's books that are still well-loved by many adults.
Of course, C.S. Lewis is also well-known for his own series of children’s books that are still well-loved by many adults.

But, according to a long-standing principle of writing fiction, a book written only for children is a bad book. A good children’s book (or skit, etc.) will be enjoyable to children but also appeal to adults, because the author hasn’t watered down the quality just because it’s for kids. If I recall correctly, C.S. Lewis espoused this belief on children’s writing (or one like it) in An Experiment in Criticism, and our own Mr. Mastgrave reminded me of it when I asked him if he had any ideas for my post. So now I’m trying to see whether or not my skits can be counted as “good” children’s fiction by appealing to people of all ages.

As I’ve already admitted, these skits I’ve written are not literary or extremely profound. Yes, they are mostly episodic in nature, and yes, they do each feature a “Brady Bunch” sort of ending in which characters verbally recognize a moral, apologize to each other, and resolve their conflicts nicely and neatly by the end. That’s kind of dictated by the nature of doing only a ten-or-fifteen-minute skit for instructional purposes. In fact, I might say that the quick, clean-cut moral resolutions are more due to the time constraints than to the age of the audience. In any case, due to the nature of the beast, these skits inherently have some qualities that definitely seem non-literary and would be seen as bad writing if they appeared in serious fiction.

Nonetheless, that’s not all they have. When I write skits like these, I do make an effort to write for adults as well, because 1) I know that the leaders helping with VBS will also be watching them, and 2) I’m an adult and I like to feel clever to myself with my writing. So, in accordance with the above principle about good and bad children’s writing, here are some qualities in my skits that I hope will appeal to both children and adults:

  • Humor. When you’re writing for children, you’ve got to make it fun. But shouldn’t writing for adults be enjoyable too? I try to fill each skit with jokes that, while still not incredibly clever or original, can be appreciated by both children and adults (as long as the adults like corny puns, which I happen to personally). In fact, sometimes the humor is more for adults than for kids, because the youngest class of children (four-year-olds) doesn’t understand the wordplay. Nonetheless, I still include one goofy, comic relief character who often tells puns. But the humor doesn’t exist in isolation; more serious characters react to the puns but still show off their own eccentricities as well. For example:

Megan: As camp guides, you and I will be responsible for watching over the activities and making sure all of our campers have the most awesome time they can!

Jared: Wow! That sounds pretty intense! [Smiles and points as if he’s just made a hilarious joke.]

Megan: [Confused.] Yes, um…very intense…

Jared: Get it? Intense? Like, “in tents”? [Slaps knee and laughs loudly and obnoxiously.]

Megan and Sam: [Groan and facepalm.]


Megan: A movie, huh? That does sound kind of interesting. What’s it about?
Jared: It’s about a park, not so different from this one, except it’s full of huge, tall giraffes. And then the giraffes escape and go wild and try to eat everyone in the park!

Megan: Oh, that’s silly. Giraffes don’t eat people. They just eat plants!

Jared: Well, in this movie, the giraffes are ferocious hunters with huge fangs, and it’s awesome!

Megan: That still sounds silly. What’s the name of this movie, anyway?

Jared: It’s called…Giraffe-ic Park!

Megan: [Sarcastic.] Oh, wow. What an original idea.

Jared: The first movie has a boy giraffe and a girl giraffe falling in love. And there’s a really cute baby giraffe.

Megan: A BABY GIRAFFE? OH MY GOODNESS! I’VE GOT TO SEE THIS! [Rushes over and sits down with them.] I can’t wait to see that baby giraffe! I bet it’s gonna be sooooooo cute!


  • Morals. Again, the moral messages here can’t be too complex or obscured as they might be in more serious fiction, and that’s just the nature of this type of writing. Nonetheless, the moral principles conveyed apply not just to children but to people of all ages. Furthermore, I tried to bring them away from just a quaint platitude in a Bible verse into the realm of real-life application. For example, one skit is about the dangers of hurtful words. In addition to just quoting Bible sayings about words, I also want to show, in a realistic way through the characters, that hurtful words don’t solve anything, and that encouraging and affirming others is important. Do kids need to learn that? Sure. But so do a lot of adults these days.

Sam: So, you and Jared got into an argument, and you both said some mean things to each other. Is that right?

Megan: Yes…that’s right.

Sam: And his words were hurtful to you?

Megan: Yes! They hurt a lot!

Sam: And did saying mean things to him make you feel better?

Megan: Yes! Well, no. I mean, a little bit at first, maybe. But now I just feel awful about the whole thing!


Sam: Even though you can do a lot of bad things with your tongue and with your words, you can do a lot of good with them too!

Jared: Oh yeah? Like what?

Sam: Well, how about this? Megan, I think you’re a great part of our team! I like that you’re always hard-working and focused on the important things!

Megan: Oh…well, thanks for saying so.

Sam: Jared, I think you’re a lot of fun to be around! You bring a lot of good energy and enthusiasm to our team. Plus, I like your jokes!

Jared: Yay! Thanks, Safari Sam!

Sam: See how much better it feels when you use your words to say nice things instead of mean ones? When you encourage and strengthen each other instead of trying to hurt?


  • Creativity. What I love about writing these skits is that they allow me to be creative and have fun onstage, and this sort of fun (costumes, visual spectacle, etc.) appeals to children and to young-at-heart adults. Here’s a quick run-down of the most creative element I included this year.
  • When performing these skits, I work with high-school or middle-school-aged volunteers. Thus (if I write myself in at all), I usually make myself the older leader of some group, and have their characters be my underlings. For example, when we did a medieval theme a few years ago, I was the king, and the other actors were my knights and ladies. Last year, they were secret agents and I was the commander of their top-secret organization. This year’s theme is some blend of camping, mountain climbing, and an African safari, so I made myself the camp director and made them guides or counselors under me.
  • If including a talking lion worked for C.S. Lewis, then it's got to work for me too. Right?
    If including a talking lion worked for C.S. Lewis, then it’s got to work for me too. Right?

    But, in my opinion, camp guides aren’t quite as exciting as knights or secret agents. So I asked myself, “what can I do to make this more exciting and fun?” And the theme-appropriate answer was to make one of the other actors into not a camp guide, but a lion. Yes, a friendly, cartoonish, anthropomorphic pet lion, with a limited vocabulary about the size of Scooby-Doo’s, who the camp staff has taken under their wing. But a lion nonetheless. Because, adult or child, who wouldn’t rather see a lion onstage than another boring old human?

  • Having a lion as a main character is another source of comic relief to the skits, but also a chance to do a lot of visually fun things, like tackle other characters or chase them around the stage. And I think it adds a nice touch to the skits overall. I anticipate that the kids will love seeing the lion (the youngest ones will likely be ecstatic), and the adults will have fun with it as well.

So that’s what I’ve done to try to make my children’s writing slightly less childish and make it fun for adults as well. Did I do a good job or do I still need some work? Have you ever written for children? What approaches do you use to make it appealing for everyone?

“Make ‘Em Laugh!”: Basic Tips for Funny Creative Nonfiction

For my past couple of posts, I talked a little bit about creative nonfiction. I gave a brief example and then tried to give a working definition and explain how creative nonfiction relates to writing fiction. My basic definition of the genre is this: stories that are true (more or less) but which, just like fictional stories, are told with creativity, with artistic style and authorial voice and good narrative techniques.

Today I’d like to talk about one of my favorite kinds of creative nonfiction: the funny kind. Because who doesn’t like to laugh at a good, funny story? If you have any interest at all in writing humorous stories—short fiction, satire, stage or screen plays, or even a comic relief character within a more serious plot—then it may help you to get some good practice by looking into funny creative nonfiction. And even though we don’t always use the exact term “creative nonfiction,” I think this genre has already pervaded our culture more than we realize. Allow me to explain.

Some of us already watch funny creative non-fiction without even knowing it. What’s one type of entertainment that revolves

Chris Hardwick performing stand-up comedy
Celebrity Chris Hardwick performing stand-up comedy

entirely around people telling funny stories in creative ways? Stand-up comedy, of course. Depending on the particular comedian and their typical subject matter, stand-up comedy is little more than telling true stories or talking about real topics, but with a certain method of delivery and timing that will make people laugh. Recently, I’ve been doing some freelance writing for a little extra cash, and several of the jobs I’ve taken have been descriptions of various stand-up comedians based on their clips on Vimeo. I have to find different wordings to describe what they’re doing, and I’ve noticed that a lot of times I just say that the comedian “tells the story of” something or “describes his experiences with” a particular event . They’re basically just telling true life stories in funny ways. That’s all it is.

If you need some funny inspiration from stand-up comedy, then there are probably a lot of names I could recommend, and you may very well have a few favorites of your own too. But, based on some of the jobs I’ve taken recently, I’d suggest you look up some of the following: Daren Streblow, David Dean, Jeff Allen, Bob Stromberg, and Taylor Mason.

Also, in my last post, I mentioned David Sedaris as one of the big names in contemporary creative non-fiction. If you get a chance, you should look up a video of him reading some of his works to an audience, because his essays are (often) funny, and so reading them live becomes a lot like a stand-up comedy routine. When I took my class on creative non-fiction, our professor showed us a clip of Sedaris reciting one called “Six to Eight Black Men.” My prof also remarked on how great it is that someone in the field of creative writing can gain fame and a living just by reading his works to an audience. You should check it out.

Do you know where else a lot of us read and do funny creative nonfiction? Social media. Think about it. Let’s say you had aSocial Media Explained funny or awkward moment in your day and you want to share it with your friends. But, instead of just reporting what happened verbatim, you decide to give it a little sarcastic or witty twist. That counts as creative nonfiction, even if it’s just a few sentences for a quick status update . You’re telling a story, or a snippet of your life, in a creative and funny way.

I’ll give you a few examples of my own from my recent Facebook usage:

  • “Last night I had a dream that I still had papers to grade. This whole Master’s degree thing is gonna take a little while to recover from.”
  • “Don’t you hate it when your alarm goes off in the morning and you just know you forgot to do something really important? For example, my alarm just went off this morning, and I realized that I forgot to go to sleep last night.”
  • “Friends, I need some professional advice. If I responded to an online pet-sitting ad, and the owner described her house as a bachelorette pad with lots of books and sci-fi stuff, then at what point is it acceptable to ask her to marry me?”

Of course, the sort of creative non-fiction that’s done on social media also translates easily into blog-writing, which I touched on in my last post. A lot of bloggers (myself included) like to try to spin unique, awkward life situations into funny,  relatable written stories. The main difference is that, if I just have one quick moment to share, then it usually turns into a Facebook status, but if I have a fuller story then I can make it into a blog post.

However, this sort of writing can still present a problem. As the writing professor I used to work for has sometimes said, “You’re not always as funny as you think you are.” For example, I’ve written blog posts about bad things happening to me, or disappointments in the area of romance, and I’ve thought to myself, “This is funny, because I’m looking back on it and laughing now.” As they say, tragedy plus time equals comedy. But I’ve had some readers interpret those posts as still being sad, serious, or sympathetic rather than funny. In order to be funny, I need to not just describe events objectively as they happened, but make sure I emphasize the sarcastic/facetious tone, focus on portraying myself as a comical character, etc. It may take practice, but it can be done, especially with helpful inspiration from some of the other funny sources I’ve listed above.

If you’re interested in writing funny, lighthearted, or tongue-in-cheek fiction of any sort, then try out some funny creative non-fiction first. Chances are, if you have a Facebook or Twitter, that you’ve already done some without realizing it. But find some funny, awkward, or noteworthy moments in your life, and figure out how to tell those stories in the best and funniest way you can.

Creative Nonfiction: A Brief Overview

In my last post a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I wanted to write about creative nonfiction next (and also provided a brief example in the form of a pseudo-epic narrative poem about recent events of my life). So, without further ado, here’s a bit more on the topic of creative nonfiction:

I started getting seriously into creative nonfiction about three years ago. My school was offering a class on it as a summer elective, and, having already taken classes on creative fiction and poetry, I figured I’d give this genre a shot. In that class, we learned about how creative nonfiction has been gaining a lot more recognition and popularity in recent years, in the forms of biographies and memoirs and blogs about one’s own life. We sampled some prominent authors who have

"Me Talk Pretty One Day" by David Sedaris
“Me Talk Pretty One Day” by David Sedaris

dealt in the genre, ranging from the essays of David Sedaris and David Foster Wallace to

the autobiographical works of Tim O’Brien and even Tina Fey. Also, as part of the requirements for the class, we began our own blogs and had to post in them on a regular basis. That was when I began my personal WordPress blog about the many adventures of my own life, and I’ve kept up with it ever since. In fact, for these past few years, even when I’ve been too busy to devote much time to the larger fiction stories that I’ve wanted to work on, I’ve still kept up with a good amount of creative nonfiction through blogging and other outlets.

Of course, if you’re new to this genre or you haven’t dealt much in creative nonfiction before, then you may have a few questions. The main questions I anticipate at this point are, “What exactly is creative nonfiction?” and “Why are you writing about nonfiction on a blog about writing fiction?” Those are great questions, and I’m glad you asked. I think I can answer both of them at once. I’ve touched on this already, but creative nonfiction (at least in the context that I’ll be speaking of it) is the art of writing about real-life topics, often one’s own life experiences, in a creative and entertaining way. It can range from celebrities writing their autobiographies to amateur bloggers writing about their last vacation. It’s writing and telling stories that just happen to be true. That’s why I think creative nonfiction can still be relevant and helpful to writing fiction, because they’re both forms of storytelling. They both involve characters, plot, narrative style, and other aspects and techniques that each writer has to hone and figure out as they go along. The main difference between the two genres is simply that the content of one of them happens to be true.

Or, at least, stories in creative nonfiction are as true as the writer’s memory can get them. There is an ongoing discussion in the genre (that we had to consider when I took the class as well) about how much embellishment is allowed in creative nonfiction, about whether details have to be exactly true in order to be truly called “nonfiction” or if a little leeway is allowed in the name of artistic license. That’s a big discussion, and I won’t get into all of it in this post, but for now let’s suffice it to say that stories told through creative nonfiction are more or less true—and, as the name suggests, they are told with creativity, with artistic style and authorial voice and good narrative techniques.

And that’s the sort of thing I try to do on my blog too. I write about things I’ve experienced or lessons24720422_b811249d00_o I’ve learned in life, but it’s not just a bland, factual, objective report. I write funny anecdotes about friends or relationships or dating, and I use humor to highlight the funniest parts, or I try to play up the portrayal of myself as the awkward-but-endearing everyman underdog hero of the tale. Or I’ll write about a great achievement in my life and make myself out to be some grand epic hero—but usually still with a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor and self-awareness about how melodramatically I’m portraying my otherwise mundane circumstances. There’s a lot you can do with a nonfiction story—with the story of your own life—if you’re creative with it and you figure out how exactly you want to present the story to your readers. Maybe I’ll elaborate on my own techniques and style in a future post if there seems to be enough interest or material for it, but for now I’ll just say that the possibilities are endless for writers who are willing to explore them.

So now that you have the basics down, you should at least be able to start on writing creative nonfiction of your own (and, as with any genre, you can learn and improve more with practice over time). Next time you have writers’ block when it comes to fiction and you can’t think of anything original to write, stay in practice by trying some creative nonfiction. Write about your own life, whatever is on your mind or whatever interesting thing has happened to you that week. But do it creatively. Write about your own life just as if you were writing about characters in a story and crafting their adventures in the most skillful and artistic way you know how. Try it and see what you come up with!

A Brief Introduction to Creative Nonfiction

Greetings! I recently had a good idea of what to do next on this blog. I’d like to do at least one post (maybe more) about creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is a topic that’s been rapidly rising in popularity for the past few years, and my own writing focuses have somewhat shifted in that direction as well. But also, even though it’s nonfiction, it has a lot of common principles that can be applied to writing fiction. It’s basically storytelling–telling your own story in a fun and interesting and exciting way–and so it can have a lot in common with other forms of storytelling too.CNF

So I wanted to do a post about that. And I will. But, like my good friend Selayna recently mentioned, I am also rather busy right now, with finishing up my master’s degree and final papers and thesis revisions and getting ready to graduate in a week and a half. (It’s so close! I’m super excited.) So, unfortunately, I don’t have time right now to go super in-depth into what I know about creative nonfiction. I probably will for (at least one) later week. But if you’ve never delved into the topic before, then hopefully I’ve piqued your interest enough to stick around.

For the time being, then, I’ll just leave you with my most recent work-in-progress: a creative nonfiction narrative poem about this final leg of my grad school journey. Enjoy!

Like Odysseus returning home from his journey,

Or Hercules performing his glorious labors,

I’ve come far enough to know that I’m unstoppable.

The pressure surrounds me on all sides, but I press forward,

Ignoring the crushing, crippling weight on my shoulders.

Through each excruciating essay,

Through massive mountains of grading,

Through every terrible thesis revision,

I beat on toward the green light at the end of the dock,

Knowing my quest is nearly complete

And I can hardly fail to grasp it.

When obstacles try to thwart me

with clouds of stress looming overhead,

Then I defy the stars,

Raise my fist up to the heavens

and shout with all my might,

“I am Samuel, Grad Student of Grad Students!

Look on my words, ye mighty, and despair!

I am he who has read the unabridged entirety of Moby-Dick!mobydick

I am he who won the second place arts and humanities award at the Graduate Research    Symposium!

I am he whose thesis draft is a full hundred pages long,

And I shall not be denied!”

With Faustian monomania I stay set on my course,

An inflexible severity of purpose,

Hunting that elusive white whale of success and satisfaction.

Leaving no stone of my victory unturned,

I murder sleep just like Macbeth to complete every last little part,

Pushing deadlines and transcending limitations.

I toil tirelessly through the night

On the strength of caffeine

And the tragic flaw of my own hubris.

But even the great Gilgamesh was tainted by mortality,

And even King Arthur had a final fall—

And, well, for all of their dauntless determination,

it’s not like things worked out so great

for Faust, Ahab, or Gatsby, either.

So even I come to the end of myself

With only so many hours in a night

And so much energy I can exert,

My sudden halt plunges me all the way down

To the feet of a merciful father

And the broken concession that I still need help.

Oh, I’d much rather plow through on the strength of my own pride

Than accept one more deadline extension,

One more admission that I couldn’t do it all in time on my own.

I resist grace because change is painful

Just like O’Connor always said,

But as I lose my wooden leg

And rest my weary eyes

And put it all away to come back to tomorrow,

I know once again that I’m not invincible

But maybe it’ll still be okay.

Science Fiction and Human Nature

I love science fiction, and I’ve consumed quite a lot of it–books, movies, comics, and more–in my day. And as much as I love an epic quest or a final showdown where the hero defeats the villain in some spectacular way involving super powers and futuristic technology and lots of flying colors, there’s one thing I’ve been noticing lately about sci-fi. It’s that good sci-fi is not necessarily about technology or the future or quests to save the world from evil madmen. Sure, those things are great, but they shouldn’t necessarily be at the heart of the story, and sometimes they can even distract from the main focus. Rather, the best sci-fi is about human nature and what real people would be likely to do with a particular technology or science.

Of course, this principle may sound basic; an understanding of human nature is essential to any good fiction. But it’s something I’ve been noticing especially in science fiction lately. A friend of mine recently showed me a couple different short stories he was working on. Both took place in mostly normal worlds, but each had one thing that was different–one new technology or one new law that changed things for the way people lived. And the stories were not necessarily about the technology itself, or the government that built the technologies or put the laws in place, but they were about ordinary guys living in these worlds and using these different technologies as they saw fit–usually for personal pleasure or gain.They were about how human nature reacted to new developments in the world.

I don’t want to publish my friend’s ideas without his permission, so I won’t say specifically what twists and gimmicks his stories contained. But I’ll give you another example. I tried to emulate this same principle with a story I recently wrote on this blog, a five-part installment tentatively titled “Parallel.” In this story, a regular, flawed, unhappy guy finds a way to travel to alternate dimensions, but there’s not a big epic quest where he has to find his way home or battle evil parallel versions of himself. In fact, the narrator even makes the point directly to the reader that he’s not battling an evil alternate version of himself (okay, maybe I’ll be a little more subtle in my revisions). Rather, he just uses dimensional travel as a way to escape his failing marriage and unpleasant home life–and it works about as well as it ever does when normal people without interdimensional travel try to run away from problems in their lives and their marriages. The technology is a fun gimmick that helps make the story work, but it’s not the focus or the main point. The story is about this guy and his life and his marriage and the choices he makes.

Another good example is the film Inception. In the movie, there’s a technology that lets people enter each other’s dreams

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

and be in control of their actions within the dream world. Very little attention is given to how the technology works or why it was developed, because that’s not the point of the story; it’s basically just assumed that, in this fictional world, dream travel is possible. But again, dream travel alone isn’t the main point of the story. One could say that there is a “quest,” or at least a convoluted heist that the protagonists work to pull off to achieve a certain goal, but there’s more to it than that. The story is about the main character, Cobb, and his life, and his guilt over a past relationship with his wife. The existence of the technology in this world allows for the plot events to play out the way they did, but it’s not the main point of the story. It’s about how the technology affects the lives and the psyche and the character development of realistic people. It’s about what human nature does with the technology.

I think I’ve made similar points to these in my previous post about dystopias, because a good dystopia, while often futuristic or post-apocalyptic, requires a focus on human nature as well. And speaking of post-apocalyptic dystopias, I’ll also use The Walking Dead as an example–both the comic books and the TV adaptation. Despite all evidence to the contrary, The Walking Dead is not about the exciting or gory action of human good guys killing zombie bad guys. No, it’s about how the need for survival changes people over time, how the breakdown of civilization brings out the worst in humanity. It’s about how, as Nietzsche warned, he who fights with monsters should be careful not to become a monster himself. Author Robert Kirkman stated in the introduction to the first collected volume of the comic series that he wanted the story to be more about realistic character development over time than just about zombies scaring people, and I for one believe he’s achieved that goal well. He doesn’t just deal with zombies, but with the effect that zombies have on human nature.

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

Your challenge, then, next time you’re lacking inspiration or need a new story idea, is to think about science fiction–and not just sci-fi itself, but about how sci-fi affects human nature. Come up with a technology or innovation that could exist in speculative fiction. If you can’t think of one that hasn’t been done already, then just come up with a new law or government regulation that could possibly be put in place. Then ask yourself: what would real, flawed, human beings do or act like in a world where this exists? What would you do with it? What would your friends or enemies do with it? Or what about that guy you met on the street with everything to gain and nothing to lose? Be creative, think about the implications that a certain innovation could have on human nature and behavior, and write the most real and natural story you can. You may be surprised at what you find.

Staying in Practice with Short(er) Prose

“You’re doing NaNoWriMo, right?” people keep asking me.

“Uh, no,” I reply. “Not this time. Sorry. I’ve got too much else going on right now.”

“Come on! You should do it!”

“I mean, maybe I’ll try a little bit. But, realistically, I just don’t see it happening this time.”

“Lame!” they chide me.

And I almost wonder if they’re right. NaNoWriMo (or National Novel Writing Month, for those unfamiliar) is designed to help you actually write something even in the midst of your busy schedule by setting reasonable goals for each day and having many people all writing at once to help keep each other accountable. And I know I’ve been the one on the other side of the spectrum at times, encouraging and/or pressuring my friends to be as gung ho about creative writing as I am. So what does it say about me that I’m not willing or able to put forth the effort this time around?

I did participate in and successfully complete NaNoWriMo three years in a row, but that was back when I was still an undergrad. Now that I’ve moved up in my education and taken on more commitments, this is my third year in a row not doing NaNo, and I do kind of miss it. I even have a plot outline in my brain that I’ve been wanting to get out on paper for some time now. But it’s looking again like this November is not going to be that time.

The good thing, though, is that even though I’m too busy to do NaNoWriMo, it doesn’t mean that I’m not writing. It doesn’t even mean that I’m not writing for fun. As I touched on in another post, while it’s been a while since I’ve tackled any larger works of fiction, I’ve shifted my attention in recent years toward shorter prose of various different styles. In addition to writing for this blog, I write articles for an ezine, I’ve dabbled or tried my hand at other online magazines and forums, I recently put out a few posts full of lighthearted anecdotes on my personal blog, and have of course been writing academic papers for my grad classes too. While part of me looks forward to the day when I can work on my novel(s) again, I dare say that I’m not exactly being slack in my writing right now.

Image taken from studentleadercollective.org
Image taken from studentleadercollective.org

Maybe you’re like me, and you want to stay in practice with your writing, but the thought of a huge, lofty project seems daunting or unrealistic right now. If that’s the case, then you may benefit from hearing what I’ve been doing to try to stay in practice even in the busy times of life:

  • Be disciplined. We’ve probably all heard before that good writing requires discipline and dedication. I don’t really have anything new or profound to add to that conversation, except that I’ve been finding that it really is true. While it’s not a novel, working on short prose and academic writing like I’ve been can be plenty daunting on its own, especially if you’ve taken on several different projects like I have. This week I put out two posts on my personal blog, because they had been in my head for a while and I wanted to get them out into the world, but I also had this blog post due and the next article for the ezine, along with at least five pages of a rough draft for a grad paper. How do I do it all in the same week? The only answer I can really give is discipline and making writing a priority. Lately, after all my other homework and reading is done, I’ve usually been using the last hour or so (sometimes more) of my day before bedtime to write, instead of to watch TV or whatever. It’s a good time for me to get a lot of thoughts out in a relaxed manner (as long as I go back and edit later when I’m less tired). Of course, each person’s schedules and habits are different, but I’m willing to bet that you have time to write in your day if you just work a little bit and prioritize to find it.
  • Be flexible. Being flexible can incorporate a few different things. For me, working on several short pieces at once, it means that I have to be able to go back and forth easily; sometimes I’ll work on two or three or four different pieces in the same day or night, and I have to be able to focus on each one without letting the mental shift feel too jarring. But flexibility also means writing what you can when you can. If you’re not sure what to write in the absence of one grand, overarching project, then just take whatever smaller opportunities come your way, or start a journal or blog about your own personal experiences. If you don’t have a huge block of free time in your day that you can devote to writing, then use the smaller times you do have, and cram it into five or ten minute slots wherever you can. Since there’s no one definite formula for good or consistent writing, you need to find whatever works for you and be willing to do it, even if what works for you is drastically different from one day to the next.

    Image taken from busywriting.net
    Image taken from busywriting.net
  • Be creative. If you’re used to writing creative fiction, then the idea of shorter prose may not appeal to you as much at first. But writing blogs, articles, and other short works doesn’t mean you can’t still be creative and let your own unique voice shine through. There’s not room in this post to delve thoroughly into what constitutes the genre of creative nonfiction, but it’s basically telling a story the same way you would in fiction–except that the story just happens to be true. You can still give things your own interpretation and your own personal spin and narration. Just because you’re writing something short and (arguably) more serious doesn’t mean you can’t express yourself and have fun with it, too.

I realize I haven’t said anything particularly profound and new here, but this is what has been working for me recently. Still, if anyone has any good tips on how to balance writing short projects with everything else in life and also work on a novel somewhere in there too, I’d be glad to hear them! 😛 But whatever you’re writing this month, keep at it and be consistent! You never know how it might help you stay “in shape” as a writer and improve your craft for the future.

Dystopian Fiction Story Challenge

The Hunger Games logo
Image found on Flickr Creative Commons

Dystopias are all the rage these days. From The Hunger Games and Divergent to Elysium and Transcendence and everything in between, It seems like about half of all summer blockbusters and 95% of all popular young adult novels feature a post-apocalyptic or dystopian society in some form or another. I exaggerate, of course, but not by much.

Some may ask just what exactly it is that makes dystopias so appealing and long-lasting in our society. There could be a lot of answers to this question, but after taking a class on Utopian Literature and incorporating the dystopian trend into my Master’s thesis (currently in progress), I think I’ve learned at least some of the answers.

The great thing about dystopias is not the futuristic sci-fi action or high-tech special effects. In fact, dystopias aren’t necessarily even about the future. Sure, many of them are set centuries in the future in societies that have gone too far in some direction or another. But they’re really just projections of concerns, fears, or criticisms that we have about our present-day society. Dystopias look at the flaws and problems in society currently and ask, “What if this was taken to an extreme? What if humanity continues going down this dark path for however many years in the future?” And then they answer those questions, sometimes in very poignant or haunting ways.

In my experience, there are at least two major criteria that make dystopias; most dystopias include one or both of these in some form or another.

1. In a different or future society, some advanced technology is misused or overused.

Many dystopias involve or focus on technology, which is not terribly surprising considering the haunting implications that some modern technologies could bring about. One classic example is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which human beings are grown from test tubes, mass produced just like automobiles, and psychologically conditioned from birth. Another example is Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, in which people become so dependent on technology to perform all their tasks that humans become lazy and obsolete. The wrong or excessive use of some technological innovation can provide fascinating insights into human nature and why man uses things the way he does.

2. In a different or future society, some wrong practice has become the law or the expected cultural norm.

Image found on Flickr Creative Commons
Image found on Flickr Creative Commons

In this sense, dystopias are not necessarily about technology or the future, but more so about human nature and human society. Literary critic Northrop Frye described a utopia as a society “governed by ritual habit,” so it’s not necessarily technology that goes wrong, but just human behavior and government. There are a number of literary dystopias worth looking into that don’t contain much science fiction, including Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Similarly, some more realistic American novels about secluded societies have been considered dystopian, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Some dystopian stories take place only in the near future and thus don’t include many technological differences from today’s time, such as the comic books V for Vendetta and Y: The Last Man.

3. Some dystopias combine both of the above criteria. For example, in The Hunger Games and Divergent, advanced technology plays a prominent role in the plot and the setting, but it’s not the main focus of the dystopia. The stories are more about the government and its restrictions on the people.

So, if you’re looking to write a dystopia, you shouldn’t necessarily start with the setting itself or the finer details of advanced technological trappings. Start with an idea about society and something that it’s doing wrong, or that it could conceivably be doing wrong in an extreme way in another time and place. Then flesh out the specifics from there. What is this society like? In what ways exactly are the people and/or the government taking things too far? What are the people like who will dissent or disagree with the values of their culture? What will happen when these two ideologies come into conflict?

As an example, I’ll use a dystopian novel that I’m currently working on (and, by “currently working on,” I mean that I wrote two chapters some time ago and am totally going to finish the whole thing one day when I have more time to write). I didn’t decide from the beginning that I wanted to write a dystopia. In fact, I wasn’t even intentionally brainstorming for story ideas at all. Instead, I was just feeling frustrated by our culture’s attitude toward relationships (a topic which I’ve written about more extensively on my personal blog) and society’s overemphasis on needing a romantic relationship to be happy. And then I got to thinking.

“What if, in the future, there was a society where this obsession with relationships was mandated by law—or at least by strict cultural expectations? What if, for example, people were required on their 18th birthday, as soon as they hit adulthood, to choose a partner to spend the rest of their lives with? What if people who remained single were outcasts or exiles? And what if there was a teenage boy coming up on 18 who wasn’t that interested in relationships and didn’t want to be forced to choose a partner before he was ready?” Suddenly the central premise and conflict of the story began to fall into place.

I asked myself other questions about this society, too. If people are forced to choose their perfect soulmate at only 18, then does that system actually work to foster positive and healthy relationships? Or would there still be divorce, unfaithfulness, and unhappiness in relationships, despite society’s best efforts? I concluded that these negative elements would indeed still exist in this world. Often, that’s a hallmark of what makes a work dystopian rather than utopian: society tries something that is meant to keep everyone happy and in line, but ultimately the system still falls apart because flawed human nature keeps coming through.

Image found at http://wizzley.com/what-is-a-dystopian-society/
Image found at http://wizzley.com/what-is-a-dystopian-society/

Your challenge is to write a dystopian story, either a short story or the beginning of something longer. (Each presents its own set of challenges. In a short story, you have limited space in which do a lot of important worldbuilding for your society; in a novel, you have much more room, but it obviously takes much more time and effort to finish!) Either way, start by trying to pinpoint a few flaws in society or human nature that you’ve noticed, and then ask yourself what it would be like if those flaws were made law or taken to the extreme. Ask yourself what life would be like for people who didn’t go along with the values of this culture. If you can answer these questions and flesh out some more details, then you’re well on your way to writing a thought-provoking piece of dystopian fiction!