“How to Write With Style” Part 3

This post is part of a series called ‘The Writer’s Pool.’ I will be drawing from the wealth of knowledge from the world’s greatest writers to explore their advice, techniques, tools, and more.

We’re talking a look at one of Kurt Vonnegut’s best essays on writing. The celebrated author is breaking down style—the way your writing sounds. One of the biggest points he makes is that you must have something interesting to write about. And so he writes:

So your own winning style must begin with ideas in your head.

This might just be enough to discourage any would-be writers. As we talked about last time, how do you know if what you’re writing about is interesting? Interest and taste are subjective, so let’s look at it from another perspective.

How do you separate the “bad” ideas from the “good” ideas?

I once heard it said, “There’s no such thing as a bad story. It’s just how it’s told that matters.” Well, that doesn’t really help us, does it? We need to know if our idea is worth writing about. Will it hold a reader through a short story or exhaustingly long novel? Can it hold my attention, long enough to finish it?

We can’t predict how people will react to our writing. Not at first, at least. At the start, we are stuck with a certain kind of struggle. We just need to get something on paper. Worrying about what people think will only hamstring us. But we’re still left with this question: is my idea any good?

Forget the old, tired question of where do ideas come from? If you’re interested in writing, you’ve already answered that question. Ideas come from the driving passion you have to tell stories. The ideas come from you; or better put, that stuff that makes you, you. And, if you want to tell stories, you need to have a certain perspective.

You need to be always thinking about stories. Somewhere in the back of your mind, there is always a process going on, analyzing your environment. Little comments, images, questions, interactions are fodder for new ideas.

What you need to do is learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff. And it all boils down to passion.

That’s how Vonnegut answers this question.

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

Vonnegut believes the key to winning style is to write about something you care deeply about. At least, that’s the first key. I suppose this is the best way to decide if an idea is “good” or “bad.” For the sake of a fiction writer: is the idea so intriguing to you, so compelling, that you need to explore it? Does it nag at the back of your neck like a pinch, that you have to do something with it?

“Subject” in this sense can mean almost anything. In storytelling, it could be a character. Or a setting. Or a type of story. Or even a question. The “heart” of your story needs to be something that keeps you at your writing desk, day in and day out, until you finish the dang thing months (or even years) later.

Vonnegut says it doesn’t have to be a novel. Even a letter to you mayor about a pothole or “a love letter to the girl next door” will do. Anything that gets you writing, and writing authentically will work.

But what does it mean to write authentically? What’s the difference between writing from a place of true passion—and just writing because you think something will sell? I think we can explore this idea, next time.

I AM HADES: Outlining the book

Okay, so how do you outline a story? Last week, I wrote about how I wanted to write my own superhero story. At this point, it’s going to be a manuscript for a novel. Typically, superhero stories are comic books or graphic novels. But since I barely have enough hours in the day to do this, I figured I’d start with the words—which take considerably less time.

Normally, when I write a story I jump in feet first. It isn’t until I reach the unbearable middle of the story that I realize I need some planning. As a writer, it’s very attractive to just start with an idea, when the enthusiasm is high. But, sooner or later, the reality sets in. Writing is super hard. It’s work. It’s not as magical as those idiots in school claimed it was.

If you’re a writer, and if you’ve tried both methods of writing (outlining ahead of time like a Type-A lunatic or writing from the jump with no plans in sight), you hit the same challenges. I like to think outliners tricked themselves into thinking that, as long as they plan ahead, they won’t hit the block. But they do. Everyone does. That’s because coming up with an original story that connects with a reader is much easier said than done.

So, I wanted to show a little bit of my process, to dispel all the nonsense online. If you’ve ever looked for helpful solutions for writing online, you probably found endless articles that promise you the moon. If you only followed their “6 Easy Steps” or whatever, then you’d write a masterpiece every time. Not true. There are many hurdles you have to overcome, if you want to turn an idea into a story.

Outlining can help relieve some of your anxiety. But not all of it. While working on my new story, I realized that outlining can create a false sense of security. Sure, in a matter of days, I have over ten chapters of this book “done.” But that’s not true. I have a skeleton of ideas, strung together like a Halloween decoration. But do these ideas constitute a story? Am I spending enough time with the characters, getting inside their heads, really figuring out what this is all about?

There is a certain kind of alchemy that happens only when you’re writing. Ideas connect, synapses fire, and your story goes in directions you did not expect. I don’t think that happens as often when you’re outlining. It’s almost like cheating, getting the answers before the test.

That doesn’t mean outlining is for the birds. It means, even for someone devoted to writing their story before they write it, you have to be flexible enough to let the story change in unexpected ways as you draft it—even if that disrupts your precious outline.

What’s my progress?

So far, I have sixteen chapters outlined for I AM HADES, including a short prologue. By this time, I have reached the dreaded middle of the story—the longest part where the most happens, but is the hardest to work out. My setting has been more or less worked out, the protagonists and antagonists introduced. I have a few ideas for the main conflict and theme of the story. But there is still much more ground I need to cover, before we get to that satisfying ending.

One thing I did learn is the risk of rushing through with an outline, before letting things “marinate” in my head. What do I mean? I recommend most writers spend time thinking about their story, long before they write it. If you’re stuck, get away from your notebook, go for a walk, put on some music, and just let your imagination flow. Put yourself in that scene or setting that you’re stuck on and just see what happens.

This kind of brainstorming is necessary for building out your story. You did it before you started writing. You imagined a story in your head. So much so, you had to write it down. But, chances are, the story was long from finished. When you get to that unpaved road, you need to step away from the outline (or manuscript) and go back to brainstorming. I find that going for walks, while listening to music helps. Parts of my brain are distracted enough so my imagination can work.

I realized I needed to do this while outlining. My focus was so tightly knit on one aspect of the plot, I had neglected details needed for the story. Of course, those things could be put in as I write or rewrite. But sometimes, details need to be in there ahead of time, so that they can influence the rest of the story.

Ever wonder why stories sometimes don’t work? (Be they in a book, comic, or movie?) It’s because the writers moved too quickly, rushed out an outline or script, and never let their ideas “breath” in brainstorming. You can rewrite all day long. But, if you’ve ever finished a story and tried to rewrite, you’ll know that some things cement down very hard—and are impossible to lift up. By that I mean, there are things you put into your story early on that you can’t change. No amount of rewriting is going to fix it, short of starting all over again.

This isn’t my attempt at discouraging you from writing, but a warning sign before you cross that rickety bridge. Don’t rush ahead with your outline. Let it breathe. Take your time. Go for that walk. You’ll be happy you did.

Dissecting Vonnegut’s “How to Write With Style,” Part 2

This post is part of a new series called ‘The Writer’s Pool.’ I will be drawing from the wealth of knowledge from the world’s greatest writers to explore their advice, techniques, tools, and more.

Last post, I only touched the surface of Vonnegut’s essay. We looked at the question with which he starts his work, “Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it?” My answer was, because style is really about finding the best way to communicate your ideas. It’s not about sounding trendy or mimicking another writer but reaching your reader in a way that is meaningful to them.

Vonnegut goes on and says something very challenging. “The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.” Ouch. This could be the place where many a young writer gives up. There is a lot of self-doubt in writing fiction. And perhaps some of the most talented writers stop because they think what they are writing isn’t interesting.

Ironically, their willingness to question their work could make them a very good writer (meanwhile, so many writers who never doubt their work end up producing garbage). Vonnegut asks this question, not so you would throw up your hands in defeat, but so that you (again) take a good hard look at what you are writing. And perhaps more importantly, why?

So, how can you figure out what is interesting and what is not? I guess, on a certain level, interest like taste is subjective. Something might be interesting to you—but not to anyone else. Growing up, I knew a boy who was obsessed with trains. I couldn’t stand this kid, for other reasons. But one thing I knew about John was that he couldn’t get enough of trains. Years later, he popped up on Facebook. His profile picture, as an adult man, was him standing beside an old fashion steam train.

I guess he never gave up his love of trains. They were interesting to him. Certainly not to me. If he had been a writer, he might have produced long works about the glories of the locomotive. But would others have cared to read it? I’m sure there are people out there who share his love of trains, if he could find them.

How do you know your interests are, in fact, interesting? You can’t be the judge yourself. And I don’t think the answer is by trying to find out what is interesting by looking at the latest bestsellers. Trends change very quickly and are manipulated by the publishing monopoly. What is “interesting” today will be dull in a few weeks by their own doing, because they need to keep things fresh to sell more books (if they can sell more books).

Vonnegut gives us some insight into how to know if what you’re writing is interesting. He goes on to say, “Did you ever admire an emptyheaded writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.” It seems that he thinks an interesting writer is someone with something to say. By contrast, a writer who is boring is “emptyheaded.” They might have a mastery of language. They can make words jump off the page with style. But they are idiots and by that virtue are boring.

It seems the key to being interesting is that you actually care about what you are writing. I think this is something we need to get buttoned down in our heads. Chasing a trend or genre, because you think it will sell, is not the way to go. Sure, it might have worked for Nicholas Sparks, but do you want to be credited with writing “A Walk to Remember”? I don’t think so.

Sparks and others like him might have found tremendous success by gaming the system, but few can try that and produce something people want to read. And you might find yourself writing something that a certain group loves, but you hate. Do you want to internally hate yourself for years to come, because you chased a trend? Writers already struggle with enough self-loathing as it is! Why add to your grief?

Becoming interesting, regardless, seems to be a skill in and of itself. Like an acquired taste, you have to work at it. Read outside your preferred genre. Try new foods. Go to events you’d never thought you’d like. Read the Arts section of the newspaper (or news website). You might hate everything you experience. But you’ve broadened your horizons and exposed yourself to thoughts you wouldn’t have otherwise. And some of that will work its way into your creative brain and improve your ideas.

This process is kind of like stretching. Your brain is used to certain routines, processes, and ruts. If you don’t force yourself to experience something new from time to time, your ideas can easily get stale. And that includes what you write about and how. It might not immediately connect with style, but as we’ve seen, style is much more than just how impressive your writing can be. It’s about finding the best way to communicate your ideas to your readers. But if your ideas aren’t holding them, style doesn’t really matter, does it?

Developing a new project: I AM HADES

Yes, I want to write a new book. I have several already on the fire—only one “finished” and none of them published (in any format). But, such is the way of a writer, I always have new ideas I want to explore.

Where do ideas come from, you may ask? Well, that’s a conversation for another time. Sufficient to say, ideas present themselves to you when you are in a certain mindset.

I grew up loving superhero stories. They were, perhaps, the biggest influence on my creative mind. It wasn’t until I was older that I got into high fantasy (like Tolkien), Star Wars, old Westerns, and occult detective stories—all genres that impacted me later on.

Superheroes, to me, were the greatest thing in the world. Sadly, today, they are mostly garbage. A few good superhero movies come out from time to time. But the heart of the genre, comic books, is mostly a wasteland. The major publishers have given up, handing over their territory (their characters) to untalented hacks who abuse social politics to push an agenda. And what they produce is far from good.

There is a thriving indie market, though. Real artists, exiled from the big companies, have found a way to connect with readers and publish work on their own. This is great news, but more needs to be done. Can I, somehow, contribute to this community? I want to, and this will be my attempt.

The heart of superhero stories is comic books. Plain and simple. Some of the best work being done right now is by veteran artists and writers who left the big companies and are self-publishing thanks to crowdfunding websites. I am far from being a talented comic book artist. I can draw and over the course of ten years produced a webcomic called The Wizard of Quippley (which is still viewable on this website). But I don’t think I have the talent to produce a quality comic book or graphic novel. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to try to do something.

For now, I want to write a book. I have no idea how long it will be. Nor is there is a “market” for superhero stories in prose form (there are plenty of fiction books featuring superheroes, of course, but are any of them good?). But this is the start of the journey.

Sometimes, you just have to start. A new superhero fiction book might not be the right thing. The project might morph into something else down the road. But it’s better to get the ball rolling now, developing my ideas and story. Otherwise, what have I done?

My project is currently titled “I Am Hades.” Not much else to say about it. The idea started as a small idea, what would my take on the Justice League look like? Obviously, I have no interest (or ability) to use the actual characters owned by DC. But I can develop my own superhero league (understanding that I can’t use the word “superhero” in any creative work, as it is owned by the big guys). How would I handle characters as different as a superhuman from another world? A dark crime fighter? A dramatic and inspiring heroine? And so on?

That got me wondering what kind of dark avenger type of character I wanted to make. How would he be different from the ones already out there—but still keeping with that tradition? That brought me to the name Hades. And that’s as much as I got right now.

Before I start with my hero team, I wanted to flesh out this character. What does he look like? What kind of strengths and weaknesses does he have? What started out as a simple thought is quickly becoming a possible story.

But what do I do next? All stories begin with an idea. But an idea’s not enough. A writer has to do the hard and unenviable task of pounding that idea—like raw metal—into something useable. A story. That takes time, dedication, talent, and a stubborn refusal to give up.

Normally, I’d just start writing. But without a plan, it’s very easy to get derailed, frustrated, or lose focus and momentum. I think for this project, I will invest some time into building an outline. Just a little bit of structure to keep me focused. Then, I will begin the rough drafting stage, where I will “sketch” out my ideas for each chapter. Those sketches I will flesh out into the actual narrative.

Interested in seeing how the process looks? Then stick around.

Dissecting Vonnegut’s “How to Write With Style,” Part 1

This post is part of a new series called ‘The Writer’s Pool.’ I will be drawing from the wealth of knowledge from the world’s greatest writers to explore their advice, techniques, tools, and more.

Writing’s never easy. Ever since the days a school teacher made you pick up a crayon and scribble out your first words, you realized this important truth. It doesn’t get easier as you get older. Most of us are content to keep writing at bay, like a rabid dog. We only use it when absolutely necessary—and it shows. Like math, it’s something we don’t think we need in normal life.

So, imagine how painful it is for those us of who make a living off of it?

I write for money. And, like an overworked muscle, I can easily spit out thousands of words without really thinking about it. But that’s a far cry from producing something that I’d actually want to read—and be proud of. For that, you need a few things: talent, time, and a stubborn refusal to give up.

People who pursue writing as a craft have to deal with a variety of hurdles. These hurdles keep us from achieving our ultimate dream: a story we hope others will read and enjoy. The hurdles are different for each writer. And they can change as we move through the stages of story development. But one big one for me is simple: getting my words to sound the way I like.

That might seem like an obvious thing to solve. Just write what you want to write, right? Isn’t that the whole thing—just tell a story and get on with it? But people who haven’t sat down and tried their hand at a story since grade school might not appreciate just how challenging it is to

A) come up with a story that is unique enough (yet still accessible!) for people to care about and

B) write it in such a way that it is enjoyable to read.

Most aspiring writers strain to make their words sound like someone they admire. They have their own Neil Gaiman they are trying to emulate. And emulation is fine, in a sense. But it can become a trap. Because you’re not Neil Gaiman, nor are you Stephen King, Tolkien, or whomever you look up to.

I’m not sure there was anyone wishing they sounded like Kurt Vonnegut. I’m sure, in his heyday, there were. He was respected enough as a writer for many people to crave his advice. And, as a gifted teacher, he spoke about the topic at length. But I’m not sure there is anything he said that is more potent and valuable as his How to Write With Style.

It is a simple essay with a few points that any smart writer will take to heart. I wanted to look over some of those points and dissect them. Not because they needed adding to, but so that we can find a way to apply what he said to our own writing, so it actually works.

Feel free to read over the entire essay, if you like (the link’s above). I will quote only a few parts as is needed.

Vonnegut starts out with a simple question: Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? It’s worth slowing down and considering this question. Even considering why he even asks this. Are we stopping and thinking about what we are writing?

Oh, man, there are so many bad books out there, aren’t there? Spend some time on Amazon, looking through the self-published eBooks. You’re gonna have a bad time. There are thousands, if not tens of thousands (maybe millions?) of people out there who think they are hot stuff. They churn out some half-baked rip-off of something they watched on TV. Not once did they bother to revise it or even proof it for grammar. And in a matter of days (or hours), it’s on Amazon.

(Worse still, it’s on one of thousands of fan fiction websites, where eager—albeit childish—readers gobble it up.)

These people never stopped and considered their work was hot garbage. Now, in a sense, you have to admire these people. They were brave enough to write something and put it out in the world. Sure, they might have an ego bordering on Personality Disorder, but at least they finished something.

Their problem (and many of us share it), is that they didn’t follow through. They were lazy, unwilling to stop and consider the fact that their work—although wonderful that it was finished—is not good at all. These people never stopped and asked questions about their writing. Never considered that this “gold” about their favorite anime characters getting it on was not something worth sharing with the world.

Vonnegut starts out with this question because he wants us to stop and start asking questions. Questions about our work. Why do we write? Is our writing any good? What can we do to improve it?

There are probably many writers out there who have no time for such questions. They are brilliant and the world needs to know that. We might have felt that way in high school, when we knew nothing. But spend any time seriously trying to take a crack at writing and you’ll realize you are far from brilliant.

And asking these kinds of questions is key to getting better.

The first question anyone should really ask is, “Why am I writing?” Hopefully, you’ve answered that question yourself (nobody can answer it for you and there might be many good answers to it). But let’s spend time considering Kurt’s question. Why should we examine our style, so we can improve it?

Because, as he says, it shows respect to our readers. If we are very lazy about how we write, nobody will be able to understand us. And if they can’t understand us, how can they appreciate our stories?

So, we see, style isn’t about being impressive. It isn’t about wowing a literary agent or publisher. It’s not about getting some blogger critic to gush over your work. Style, at its core, is about finding a way to simply and effectively communicate your ideas to your reader. So that, and here’s the kicker, they actually know what the heck you’re talking about.

Sound too simple? It isn’t. Our ideas about style evolved out of this pragmatic reality. Past writers simply wrote to be understood. We came along and wrapped boundaries around their words choices, idioms, and rhythms and called it a style. Then we trapped ourselves inside this narrow definition, preventing us from actually doing what we are trying to do: be understood.

Vonnegut understood this. And that’s why so many people respected his writing.