Category Archives: writing advice

Fluid Imaginalphabet: E is for Ekphrasis

Ekphrasis is the process of translating one form of art into another, whether that means writing a poem about a painting or singing a song about architecture.

As a writer, it’s your job to translate one work of art — the world of your imagination — into another: the words of your story. Ekphrasis is one way of doing so.

This post is not about the trick for performing ekphrasis. It’s about conceiving of your writing that way.

Whether you’re working on science fiction, fantasy, horror, a romance novel, or a tale for young adults, the need to conceive of the world — your world — as a work of art, is paramount. You have to remember that the description you’re about to give of an apple, a chair, a blonde bombshell, comes not from reality, but from art, the art of your imagination. It’s your job to translate the work of its art into the words of your art. Be free in your interpretation, and allow yourself to color in words all your own.

What’s an example of ekphrasis?

It doesn’t matter. Search Wikipedia if you’re interested. Or check out the Guardian’s examples of the ten best uses of ekphrasis.

The point is not what ekphrasis is, but what it does.

Relate its process to your writing, and see what it does for you.

Fluid Imaginalphabet: D is for Defamiliarization

In Art as Technique (PDF), the literary theorist, Victor Shklovsky, writes:

If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic…We apprehend objects only as shapes with imprecise extensions; we do not see them in their entirety but rather recognize them by their main characteristics. We see the object as though it were enveloped in a sack. We know what it is by its configuration, but we see only its silhouette. The object…fades and does not even leave a first impression; ultimately, even the essence of what it was is forgotten… And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war… And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony… The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception, [removing] from objects the automatism of perception.

In other words, art involves the technique of rendering the familiar as unfamiliar, defamiliarizing the objects of perception in order to engender in your reader the experience of seeing something again for the first time.

While providing a “clear” description of a given object allows your readers to assimilate it into their conception of your fictional world, providing a defamiliarized description forces them to engage with the text, to wrestle with its strange and wonderful language before “getting on with it.”

Defamiliarization is the not the technique of turning your text into a riddle, however, and it should not be used for the sake of obfuscation. It should be used, instead, to draw your reader deeper into the world of your story.

In his novel, The Sunlight Dialogues, John Gardner uses defamiliarization to describe the driveway of his main character, Police Chief Clumly:

He went up the gravel driveway to where his garage sat half-hidden under burnt-out lilacs and surrounded by high weeds. In the glow of the headlights, the weeds looked chalky white and vaguely reminded him of something. It was as if he expected something terrible to come out from their scratchy, bone-dry-looking obscurity—a leopard, say, or a lion, of the mastiff bitch that belonged to the Caldwells next door. But nothing came, and only the deepest, most barbaric and philosophical part of Chief Clumly’s mind had for a moment slipped into expectancy. He put the car away…

We all know what high weeds around a garage might look like, but had Gardner left his description at that, his readers would have hardly perceived them. The image is familiar, and our perception of the weeds would have been habitual, which means, nonexistent. By presenting the weeds as a potential source of danger, the hiding place of a dangerous animal, Gardner forces us to consider the weeds anew.

What’s more, Gardner not only defamiliarizes the weeds, he defamiliarizes his character’s perception of them as well. Chief Clumly’s perception of the weeds as a potential source of danger did not occur in his upper consciousness — “only the deepest, most barbaric and philosophical part of Chief Clumly’s mind” experienced the foreboding. Gardner does not throw the defamiliarized weeds away as a one-off perception; he uses it to defamiliarize the sensations experienced by his character. Gardner forces his reader to wrestle with the philosophical assertion that an individual’s mind contains a myriad of parts, two of which might be described as barbaric and philosophical. In order to even conceive of the author’s intent, the readers must engage with their own notions of the human mind, which forces them see these notions as if for the first time.

A couple of weeks back, I wrote that fiction writers need to eschew ambiguity when it comes to their sentence-by-sentence descriptions of a fictional world. Defamiliarization is a technique for doing that. If you don’t give your readers a new perception of the already familiar, you run the risk of giving them nothing at all.

Fluid Imaginalphabet: C is for Concept

The one question most writers seem to hate is also the one question I often want answered by my peers: “Where do you get your ideas?”

I’m interested in the answer not because I want to learn some magic formula for coming up with story ideas, but because I want to marvel at some bit of inspiration that hadn’t occurred to me. In short, I am a devoted fan of inspiration, and I like to hear how it happened.

But here’s the thing. The ideas don’t really matter.

As Neil Gaiman explains:

The Ideas aren’t the hard bit. They’re a small component of the whole. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder. And hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you’re trying to build: making it interesting, making it new.

Of course, most stories don’t happen until you get the idea for it, until you get the concept. Neil goes on to say:

You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.

And that’s the important part, the part that matters. Writers “notice when we’re doing it.”

Writers are driven by our need to produce. This need is visceral. If we’re not putting down the words, then we feel…bereft, lost, useless…which makes our ability to “notice when we’re doing it” a survival skill.

Writers need to notice our daydreams and ideas because we need fodder for our next story. We’re constantly seeking out (or waiting for) the next idea, and so when it appears (usually out of nowhere), it’s crucial that we get it down. That’s why some writers are never without their little notepad and why others carry around a mini voice-recorder.

But even still, what does a concept feel like, look like, sound like? In the cacophony of the writer’s mind, what makes one idea more distinctive than another?

The truthful answer to that question is “nothing,” because it’s absolutely true that the ideas don’t really matter. What matters is sitting down and putting one word after another.

Think about it: how is a writer supposed to judge the inherent worth between “A boy goes to a magic school” and “A girl steps through the looking glass”? You can’t. Without pursuing the story that comes out of those concepts, you can’t judge one concept against another. After all, is there something inherently wrong about “A terminally wounded cop returns to the force as a powerful cyborg with submerged memories that haunt him,” or “A vengeful father escapes from hell to get the men who killed his daughter“? Of course not! Taken in the right direction, those ideas are just as creatively rich as “Two people go about their separate business, crossing paths with a gallery of indelible Dubliners.

A concept doesn’t make your writing great. The execution does.

As a writer, it’s your job to turn concepts into stories and ideas into characters. Because you’re not “an idea man.” You’re a writer. And writers write.

Fluid Imaginalphabet: B is for Beat

InThe Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer, Sandra Scofield writes:

The term beat refers to the way one breaks down events into small steps of action, making it possible to evaluate whether those steps move the action effectively toward the culmination of the scene. Even if the beats are nested in a scene dense with description or reflection, making them clear and vivid will keep the line of action in the reader’s mind as the scene moves toward the outcome of the event.

Think about an event, any event. For this example, let’s use something slightly dramatic, a police officer telling a newlywed man that his wife has just been killed in a car accident.

As you can imagine, such a scene will be filled with all kinds of vivid emotion and (if it’s any good) rich description. But if the reader can’t follow the individual beats of the scene, the actions and reactions of your characters — in short, what your characters are actually doing during the scene — then all of your emotion and description will be for naught.

Told from the perspective of the police officer, the beats for our imaginary scene might include the following:

  1. The rookie officer pulls up to the victim’s house
  2. The officer knocks on the door
  3. The officer rehearses what she will say
  4. A kind-looking, young man opens the door
  5. The officer asks if the man is who she thinks he is
  6. The man answers in the affirmative
  7. The officer looks past the man, into the living room, where there is a picture of the now-dead woman kissing the kind man at the door during their recent wedding
  8. The officer begins to speak, but finds herself crying before she can get the words out
  9. The man invites her in, and not understanding the issue, he begins to comfort her
  10. The officer becomes embarrassed
  11. He continues to comfort her
  12. Sitting in the living room, facing the photos and knickknacks of the poor newlyweds, she grows even more upset
  13. The officer becomes cowardly, and can’t tell him the truth
  14. She lies about why she’s there, making up some story about why she’s crying and why she knocked on his door, making sure to keep the two facts unrelated
  15. He tries to calm her down, but to no avail
  16. She excuses herself without ever explaining that his wife is dead
  17. She gets in her patrol car
  18. He watches from the screen door
  19. She backs out of the driveway and drives down the block
  20. She pulls over and cries

Now, that’s a relatively dramatic event in the police officer’s day (not to mention the poor husband’s!), and it might make for an interesting short story. But as you begin drafting it, you might find that you’re getting caught up in the officer’s backstory. Since you need her to be the kind of person who would grow cowardly in face of such a conflict, you’ve detoured the reader into the officer’s character history, which is fine. But unless you keep control of the beats in your actual scene, your reader (and you) will get confused.

Basically, the beats of a scene are the outline of what’s happening. If you pull them out of your text and look at them in the abstract, they’ll not only keep you on track, but they’ll also ensure that the logic of your scene remains plausible.

In the above example, the crux of the event happens in beats ten through thirteen. You can see the subtlety that those beats will need from the verbs we’ve used to describe them: becomes, continues, and grows, followed by a non-action, the can’t telling of the central truth. If I were to actually write this scene, I’d probably break those four individual beats into finer detail, zooming in on them until the logic of her cowardice makes sense to even the bravest of men.

I’ll give Miss Scofield the final word:

[Scenes can have] a beautiful interweaving of character interaction, theme, and mood, but all those things [only] work [if your character] is doing something.

Fluid Imaginalphabet: A is for Ambiguity

Ambiguity is one of the many antagonists you’ll have to face in your development as a creative writer. You can think of it as an evil fairy that sits on your shoulder, reads your sentence-in-progress, and tells you, “Yes, don’t worry, you’ve said it the best you could. There’s no better phrase to describe that feeling and no better image to convey that idea. Maybe you didn’t get it exactly right, but don’t worry, you came as close as you could, and you should be happy. Time to move on to the next sentence.”

If you want to improve your writing, you have to do everything you can to shut that evil fucker up. Because ambiguity doesn’t want you to succeed as a writer; it only wants you to get to the end, get to the end!

Unfortunately, if you’re striving to get to the end rather than striving to use the right word at the right time, then you’re not really much of a writer.

This is not to say that ambiguity doesn’t have its place in literature. It absolutely does. But its place comes at a higher level than the sentence. You can be ambiguous when it comes to plot and character. You can be ambiguous when it comes to theme.

But when it comes to the words you use, to the metaphors you create, to the sentence-by-sentence experience of your text, ambiguity has no place at all. You can use words and sentences to create ambiguity, but within the words, within the sentences, you must be as exact as possible.

Instead of writing that the door is red, you need to describe what kind of red it is. Instead of writing that your character looks angry, you need to show us how she looks angry. Words like “red” and “angry” don’t actually do anything. At most, they give us a range of meanings, but they don’t actually mean anything in and of themselves. They are, in a word, ambiguous.

“Red” and “angry” are the kind of words about which the evil fairy says, “Don’t worry. Everyone knows what red is, what angry looks like. You can move on to the next sentence now.”

The trick to avoiding ambiguity’s false prompts of self-satisfaction is to recognize its soothing words for what they are: cowardice.

Ambiguity comes from writers not being brave enough to push through the crowd of words that gather around the center of what they’re actually trying to say. And when that evil fairy sees all of those false words clawing out at you, crying “Pick me! Pick me!”, it tells you that you’ve gone far enough, and says, “What’s the point in soldiering on when any of these words will do?”

But it’s all just a lie.

You haven’t reached your goal yet. You can still see, just beyond all those crowding and crying words, the lightning strike at the true center of your idea. You haven’t reached it yet, and you know it because you haven’t felt the wonder of its power surging through your mind, the glorious sensation that we all, as writers, strive for, the sensation that tells you, “Yes, I’ve got it!”

Instead, all you have is a voice — not a sensation, but a voice — telling you that this word or that word is good enough.

Be brave in the face of that voice. Tell it to shut the fuck up. And then turn your back on it and soldier on, not letting up until you capture the lightning.

Grand-Theft Author

T.S. Eliot said, “Good writers borrow; great writers steal.” But the question is, what’s the difference?

When you borrow in writing, you allow the originator to maintain ownership of the idea by providing an allusion to the original text or giving the source as a direct quotation. You let it be known that this idea you’re using, it’s not yours; you’re just borrowing it.

But when you steal in writing, you take the original idea and make it your own. I’m not talking about plagiarism or copyright theft, both of which are unforgivable; instead, I’m talking about letting the original idea marinate inside your soul until it takes on the unique flavor of you.

Let’s put this in musical terms by looking at two different covers of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

The first cover, by Richie Havens, increases the rhythm a little bit, but the song remains essentially the same. Havens borrows the tune from Dylan, rather than stealing it.

Jimi Hendrix, however, steals the song outright.

Comparing Dylan’s version to Hendrix’s for the American Musicological Society, Albin Zak III writes:

There is little in Dylan’s recording of the song—a spare, folklike acoustic rendition—that would seem to have invited either Hendrix’s flamboyant electrified version or its eclectic attitude. Although Hendrix’s “All along the Watchtower” contains all of the song’s basic elements and retains its theme of alienation and apprehension, its affective sense is altogether different. While Dylan’s is a stark glimpse of an overheard fragment reported in the third person, Hendrix’s is wrought in large dramatic gestures in which he, though ostensibly the song’s narrator, appears to have an overtly protagonistic role. In both versions, the song’s characters, a joker and a thief, may be seen as facets of the artist’s persona, two sides of an internal dialogue. But…Dylan’s arrangement imparts an air of detachment, while Hendrix, in deepening the musical problem both sonically and syntactically, situates himself firmly at the center of the song.

In taking on Dylan’s song, Hendrix does not provide a veritable note-for-note remake like Peter, Paul, and Mary’s covers of Dylan’s songs, nor a slightly stylized remake, like Richie Havens. Instead, he takes the song into the core of his being until it becomes his and his alone, a sonic scream that Dylan couldn’t have pulled off in his wildest dreams.

And now when people do covers of “All Along the Watchtower,” they bypass Dylan’s original and aim instead for Hendrix.

Because he stole that song, claimed ownership, made it his. And that’s what makes it great.

You should do the same.

Writing A Fight Sequence

Beginning fiction writers have difficulty expressing the momentum of a high-energy fight sequence without their sentences taking on a breathless pace that is heavy in ellipses and light in detail. They forget that fight sequences require the same richness of language as a passage where their protagonist stares out into the rain.

Take, for an example of a fight sequence done right, the outbreak of the battle for Helm’s Deep from Tolkien’s The Two Towers.

In this scene, an army of Elves and men are fighting a fortified battle against a great host of Orcs, a host as “thick as marching ants.” The Orcs come to a halt before the high walls of Helm’s Deep, and the Elves and men “looked out, as it seemed to them, upon a great field of dark corn, tossed by a tempest of war, and every ear glinted with a barbed light.”

Brazen trumpets sounded. The enemy surged forward, some against the Deepening Wall, others towards the causeway and the ramp that led up to the Hornburg-gates. There the hugest Orcs were mustered, and the wild men of the Dunland fells. A moment they hesitated and then on they came. The lightning flashed, and blazoned upon every helm and shield the ghastly hand of Isengard was seen. They reached the summit of the rock; they drove toward the gates.
Then at last an answer came: a storm of arrows met them, and a hail of stones. They wavered, broke, and fled back; and then charged again, broke and charged again; and each time, like the incoming sea, they halted at a higher point. Again trumpets rang, and a press of roaring men leaped forth. They held their great shields above them like a roof, while in their midst they bore two trunks of mighty trees. Behind them orc-archers crowded, sending a hail of darts against the bowmen on the walls. They gained the gates. The trees, swung by strong arms, smote the timbers with a rending boom. If any men fell, crushed by a stone hurtling from above, two others sprang to take his place. Again and again the great rams swung and crashed.

Beginning writers should note that Tolkien does not abandon the powers of metaphor and simile when the battle begins. The enemy “surges”; the arrows are a “storm” and the stones a “hail”; the enemy takes control of the gates slowly, but fatefully, “like the incoming sea”; they hold their shields above them “like a roof” and send “a hail of darts” against the defenders above the gates.

Tolkien does not narrate the action with objective descriptions; he colors his language with the same mythic vocabulary that he has established over the previous 800 pages of The Lord of the Rings. Trumpets are brazen, lightning is flashing, sigils are ghastly, men are roaring and leaping and springing, trunks are mighty, arms are strong, timbers are smote with rending booms, and great rams swing and crash. As in the previous 800 pages, he keeps the action apparent and his adjectives effusive.

Nor does Tolkien increase or decrease the enthusiasm of his narrator just because this sequence describes a fight rather than a fireside tale. His strategic use of passive sentences in the opening of the passage stalls the onrush of the action, freezing time in a lightning flash to describe the size and sigil of the evil horde, and at the end of the passage, he moves his tense to the subjunctive, posing an “if, then” statement that opens the field of his description from the moment-to-moment action and onto a wider range of time periods, one that covers both the current action and its potential: “If any men fell…, two others sprang to take his place.”

The breathlessness of the beginning writer’s fight sequence is probably due to the influence of cinema. Because a movie camera captures “truth 24 frames-per-second,” beginning writers think their fight sequences have to describe every thrust and parry at the speed of time. They forget the power they have as writers to stop, slow down, and speed up the movement of their world.

If the influence of film is to blame, beginning writers should, perhaps, look to the more cinematically-adventurous fight sequences for inspiration. Directors such as Zack Snyder and The Wachowskis capture in incredible sequences the temporal freedom awarded by poetic license (see this sequence from Snyder’s 300). These directors are doing in film what writers from Tolkien to Homer have long since done with words: freezing time to focus the mind’s eye.

So, beginning writers of fight sequences: stop using ellipses, stop using incomplete sentences, and focus, instead, on capturing the beautiful ballet of battle.