Writing What You Don’t Know

Most writers have been told to “write what you know.” Meaning, start with your experience, your memories, your interests, your surroundings. Drawing from concrete details is so much easier than making everything up. But at some point, a writer years to try something else. They try writing what they don’t know.

(Fair warning: I’ll be brain-dumping on race, diversity, and privilege in the publishing world. I am ALWAYS open to having difficult conversations and being called out if I say something untrue or offensive. I hope to handle these subjects lightly, and certainly there are other bloggers who have more right to discuss them than I do. Next week, I’ll write about some awesome people on Twitter you should check out.)

I have super scattered thoughts on this subject, mostly because on Twitter, I follow two authors with very different views. One author—I’m paraphrasing here—believes writers should only write characters like themselves. Specifically, this author wants white authors to avoid writing about PoC because so many white authors have portrayed PoC stereotypically and/or problematically. And the authors that have been called out on it have been less than sympathetic or willing to hear the criticisms. White authors doing poor jobs of writing nonwhite characters already cause so many problems in the literary world. It would be better, this author claims, if white authors avoided writing about PoC altogether.

To some extent, I agree with her. Literature, and media in general, shapes culture and our perceptions of ourselves and each other. PoC already have it bad enough in America; they don’t need us perpetuating racism in literature. If we white authors can’t portray them accurately, we shouldn’t portray them at all.

But if I’m only allowed to write about what I know, then all my characters would be depressed white girls. I want to portray other cultures. I want to write stories with diverse casts. Moreover, I’m a fantasy writer. It’s hard for me not to explore other cultures. Impossible, even. Author 2 agrees, saying that a writer who can’t imagine characters outside himself is a bad writer.

There are more problems with white authors writing characters of color, though. White authors are often given a pat on the back for “diverse” work. Author 1 claims a book isn’t “diverse” unless it’s written by someone outside the white, “cishet” (cissexual and heterosexual), abled norm. Otherwise, the book merely reflects the real world—or in the case of speculative fiction, a world more likely than a white-only one. And I do feel that priority should be given to #ownvoices books: novels written by Muslims, about Muslims, for example. If a non-depressed person wrote a book about a depressed girl and got it wrong, I would be pretty upset. I could do better, surely—because I live that life and know what it’s like.

Still…. Maybe it’s my privilege showing. Maybe it’s the contrarian in me talking. Maybe I’m still ignorant, even after listening to authors discuss diversity in publishing for months. But I do still want to write diverse—or perhaps a better term would be realistic—characters. I want to try. And I’ll be damned if I don’t put in the effort to get a culture right. To accurately portray a marginalized individual. If my work ends up being problematic, I’ll go back and rework it until it’s not.

Author 1 says I should “stay in [my] lane” and stick to writing characters like me; it’s not my place to write PoC. But I disagree. Publishing—especially speculative fiction—is way too white, and if I can work towards making the industry more accommodating and respectful toward people of color, then I should at least try.

Some Writing Prompts

If you’ve followed my blog for a while or know me in real life, you know that I struggle with writing every day. I always tell myself that today I’ll write something or I can’t watch that show until I write 1,000 words. Telling myself those things hardly ever motivates me to face the page, however. It may have been this tendency to avoid the very thing I profess to enjoy most that motivated my housemate to buy this book for me.

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That was a few weeks ago. I won’t disclose how many prompts I’ve written to (ahem…) but I thought it would be fun to post some of them here, and explore why these prompts are useful for creative writing.

Prompt 1. What is your (or your character’s) favorite way to spend a lazy day?

Have you played The Sims? All Sims have a “lifetime goal,” something huge and hard to attain, and smaller goals, like going on a date or watching a movie. This prompt will tease out your characters’ smaller goals and explore your character’s lives outside the main plot of the story. I’m pretty terrible at giving my protagonists hobbies aside from “adventuring” or “using magic” or “work.” Learning what your character wants to do with their free time will give you more material to work with.

Also, pretty much every time the prompts ask “you” a question, you can replace it with “your character.”

Prompt 2. What is your favorite work of art? What do you love about it?

This prompt intrigues me because it opens a seldom-explored facet of worldbuilding. For writers of fantasy, figuring out what artistic styles suit your world can lend your story more believability. Do your artists work solely in mosaic? Are sculptures viewed as false idols? Do the nobles in your world keep art on their walls, and if so, what kind of art? What historical events are portrayed in art? If your character doesn’t like art, that’s an answer worth exploring, too.

Prompt 3. Name one thing you have lied to yourself about. Why did you do this?

I can imagine all sorts of ways this prompt can influence a story. Knowing a character hasn’t been honest with themselves can allow you, the writer, to add tension between characters, or between your protagonist and their environment. Recognizing lies like “I want this for myself, not because someone else wants it” or “I can’t get a better job than this” could be huge turning points for characters.

Prompt 4. Do you prefer taking risks or having a safety net?

This prompt is fairly straightforward, but can illuminate some personality traits about a character that had been hidden or obscured. To me, protagonists should take risks in stories—even small ones. Sometimes it can be difficult to know what your characters want or fear, however, and this prompt can help you answer that question and pin down what kind of risk your character will eventually take.

Prompt 5. What do you keep in your pockets/bag/purse?

This wasn’t in the prompt book my housemate gave me, but it’s one of my favorite prompts. I’ve used this in the past to figure out what my characters carry with them, what’s important to them, what they need (or think they need) to attain their goal. This can also help you avoid those moments where you think, “She needs a knife. Does she have a knife? Did I mention one in her pack?” Or, in a more contemporary setting, “Does he carry gum with him? Maybe he keeps old receipts in his pocket.”

That’s all the prompts for today. Next Monday, I’ll post a response to at least one of these prompts, and I hope you’ll write as well!

On Writing, National Novel Writing Month, and Omega 84

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Remember when I said I would try to write every day for three weeks? Well, in a stunning turn of events (not), I failed. But much like my workout challenge, it wasn’t a complete failure. Out of twenty-six days, I wrote for sixteen days and missed ten. This includes creative writing and blog writing. Of those sixteen writing days, I wrote over 750 words on eight of them.

This is by no means my best record. But compared to the amount of creative writing I was doing a month ago, it’s a huge increase, and one that I’m proud of.

Let me tell you a story. In one of my classes, we were put into groups and given an assignment to create a fake publishing house. We also had to write fake query letters to the fake publishing houses. I didn’t think much of my query letters; none of my existing projects fit with any of the publishing houses in the class, so I made up some new ones. One of these stories I named Omega 84.

The fake publishing house I queried, Astral Waters Press, “publishes” science fiction novels featuring LGBTQ+ characters. Coming up with a fake story idea to fit those requirements seemed easy enough, I thought. So I wrote a query letter for a fake story called Omega 84. I won’t divulge too many details—suffice to say it features a gay woman who travels across space a few centuries in the future—but after I wrote the query letter, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. In bed that night, I lobbed questions at my fiancé: What do you think of this? How could this be believable? What should I name the home planet for my character? He didn’t have many suggestions, but he provided support…and then a reminder that he wakes up at six in the morning for work. I stopped asking questions after that.

But I didn’t stop thinking about Omega 84. Pieces started coming together. A narrative arc formed. My character’s motivations became clear and before I fully realized what was happening, I had my first book idea in two years.

I decided (foolishly) to write it for NaNo. So far, I have about eight thousand words, an outline through chapter five of the book, and a rough idea of what happens after that. School caught up with me again and I didn’t write as much as I wanted to, but it’s a start—if a difficult one. Fantasy is my comfort zone: with few exceptions, it’s what I read and write. But science fiction isn’t a far cry from fantasy. (They’re shelved next to each other in bookstores and libraries for good reason!) And I’m not afraid to tackle this unfamiliar genre.

That said, I’ll need some help. I’ve chosen my books through the end of the year but I’ll need some new reads, including some science fiction books, for 2017. Have any suggestions? Drop a comment or tweet me @fictionlass (see the sidebar). And if you’re interested in following my progress with Omega 84, you can search this blog for the tag “Omega 84” or Twitter for the hashtag #Omega84. I fully intend to finish a complete draft of this book and then try to edit it. If I haven’t posted about it in a while, feel free to bug me. I look forward to hearing from you!

Thoughts on Trello

Ooligan Press uses a handy website called Trello to organize all its projects. Trello’s appearance is deceptively simple: you can create “boards,” which are comprised of “lists,” which in turn contain individual “cards.” The cards can contain links, pictures, attached documents, checklists, text descriptions, due dates… It’s a little overwhelming, to be honest. Here, I’ll show you my Trello account. Let’s start with the largest unit first: the board.

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Click to embiggen! (Opens in new window. All images can be embiggened.)

 

In this image, you can see I have two Personal Boards: my “Homework!” board and the default “Welcome” board. Below those are the Ooligan boards I frequent. These boards are similar to folders on your computer, and are basically digital representations of corkboards or filing cabinets. You could have a board for each writing project you’re working on, or for each class you’re taking, or for trips you want to plan—the options are endless. Let’s look at the next component of Trello: the list.

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On my Homework board, I have a list for each class I’m in: Intro to Book Publishing and Book Design Software. I also have a list for Ooligan work, blog posts I want to write, and a catch-all list called “Personal To-Do.” You might notice some different tags on the cards, like due dates, checklists, and colored labels. It probably looks overwhelming, but after only a few weeks of using Trello, I can quickly identify my overdue assignments, upcoming deadlines, time-consuming projects, and works-in-progress. Each list is composed of individual cards, like this one:

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From top to bottom, a card can show you:

  • the title of the card;
  • which list it belongs to;
  • labels and the due date, if applicable;
  • a description of the card (which you create);
  • a checklist to track your progress;
  • comments (which are useful if you’re working with other people);
  • and an activity log.

I’ve customized my labels so each color corresponds with a different type of work. I have labels for Writing: Creative, Writing: Expository, Reading, Big projects (3+ hours), and Editing. Another feature of the card is its ability to house attachments. You can import files from Google Drive or your computer with just a few clicks. I don’t use it very much, but many Ooligan boards do for groupwork and project planning. And once you’re done with a card you can archive it and get it out of your way.

That’s all well and good, you might say, but perhaps you’re still not convinced that Trello would be a useful tool for you. And you might be right. Maybe you’re one of those super cool people who has their life on track and already uses a bunch of planning and organizational tools. Or maybe you don’t care to be organized and would rather live life on the fly. However, if you use a planner, or keep any kind of list at all, or have trouble meeting deadlines, Trello is worth considering. It helps me keep track of my assignments better than a regular ol’ planner because I’m not limited by how much I can write in a book, and I can keep track of electronic readings with ease. The checklist feature helps me break down larger assignments into more manageable tasks—and it’s very satisfying to see the green icon that indicates a completed list. I can also change due dates easily and move cards between lists if I need to. Everything can be rearranged and customized. Plus, there’s a smartphone app, so I can add cards with new assignments without needing to bring my computer (or a planner) everywhere.

I highly recommend Trello for anyone looking for an organizational boost. By the way, it’s free. Let me know if you try it out: I’d love to hear your comments!

Read Your Way to Better Writing

booksUnlike the vast majority of colleges (especially on the west coast), my alma mater offered two English degrees: Literature and Creative Writing. As part of the creative writing degree requirements, we had to take a certain number of writing courses in different genres—I studied the fiction and creative nonfiction tracks—and a variety of literature courses. Now, when I was a freshman, I didn’t understand why lit courses would be required for a creative writing degree. I wanted to write for the rest of my life, not read centuries-old manuscripts and analyze the author’s use of motif.

I’m probably not the only student who shunned the lit requirements at my school. I could do the work, but it wasn’t as interesting to me as writing my own stories or reading more modern fiction. No part of me wanted to read the works of nineteenth-century American authors, but I had to do it.

I don’t remember the specific moment when I realized why my professors required writing majors to take lit courses. I mean, I’d always had some vague understanding of the motivation behind it. Reading the stuff that came before you can make your writing better. But I hadn’t really internalized that. It wasn’t until I had taken a few writing courses that I truly realized the necessity of reading as a writer. The readings in my creative writing courses and the texts I read in literature courses allowed me to make informed decisions about my own writing: how to develop believable characters, for instance, and how to make characters interact with the setting of the story. Reading truly improves my craft—even reading stories I don’t like. (Especially the stories I don’t like.)

I know there are a number of non-reading writers out there, or writers who stick to reading works in a specific genre (typically the genre they intend to write). I’ve always been a fantasy writer and reader, and I probably always will be. But please know that there is so much to learn from reading other genres or other styles you’re not familiar with. Most of the books I’ve read recently have been in the high/epic fantasy realm, because that’s what I enjoy writing, and it seems perfectly natural to me to read only those books. But I’ve also read a number of more “literary” novels, such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Tatjana Soli’s The Forgetting Tree, and those books have helped me hone my craft in ways the high fantasy books had allow me to neglect.

Reading as a writer helps in so many ways. It lets you know which stories have already been written, which characters and worlds have been explored. It provides insight on how to manage world building and character interactions and dialogue. It gives you a model for your story’s narrative arc. And, perhaps most important to writers who intend to sell their work, it allows you to draw comparisons between established novels and your own.

I refuse to accept the myth that reading books is a dying pastime. As long as there are writers, there will be readers.

 

Writing Discussion: On Rejection

Anyone can write a single story. But to be a truly established writer, one needs a combination of several things: dedication and desire to write; a constantly evolving list of books to read; a support system; and resilience. It can take years to cultivate these aspects of the Writer (in a general sense), and unestablished writers might balk at the thought of showing their work to others and submitting it for review. Unfortunately, rejection is a key piece to the Writer’s identity. I’m here to explain it to you and why it’s helpful—even necessary—in your endeavor to become a Writer.

Think of your favorite book for a moment. Remember everything you love about it: maybe you identify with the characters, or the dialogue reads smoothly, or perhaps there was a great plot twist you never saw coming. Think of a few different books, if you like. Heck, think of a bookshelf with every single book you’ve ever read. Got it? Here’s something you might not have known about those hundreds (or thousands!) of books. They were all rejected. The author of your favorite book has received rejection letters, plural. JK Rowling, Ursula Le Guin, Patrick Rothfuss, Meg Cabot, the author of the book on your nightstand ALL know what it feels like to read a rejection letter. I’d bet they all received scores of letters early in their careers, and probably receive them to this day.

Rejection may not feel useful. It certainly doesn’t feel good. But it’s essential for the Writer. Many of my classmates were hesitant to read their work in class and to share it with the group. They were embarrassed, maybe afraid to acknowledge their writing as their own, and probably more than a little scared at the feedback they would receive. Even when the feedback was harsh, though, it was all delivered with the intent on making the piece better. And after drafting the piece again, the authors were often happier with it than they were before—and the story was better.

That’s what rejection can do for you. Feedback is essentially a form of rejection: it’s someone saying, “Your writing isn’t good enough yet—but here’s what you can do to make it better.” When you submit your writing to literary reviews and contests, you might receive a stock rejection letter. But some very special organizations deliver personalized feedback with the rejection, especially if your piece came close to being accepted.

The easiest way to get used to rejection is to experience it. Over. And over. And over again. In doing so, you’ll gain resilience while also getting a feel for the industry, how you can alter your writing to make it better or “more publishable.” Of course, just writing won’t guarantee publication. You must also be able to receive the feedback and adjust your writing accordingly—or, after you’ve developed a style or know your method of writing better, you can choose to ignore the out-of-place feedback. The bottom line is this: the Writer produces content and edits content and submits content and is rejected, repeatedly. Rejection is simply a hurdle (more likely, several small hurdles) for you to overcome. And if you do, you’ll be in good company.

How to Write a Short Story

You probably came here thinking I’d have some sage advice for you, right? Or at least I’d be able to direct you toward some Better Way of Writing. “Here’s a college graduate who studied writing for four years and is going to grad school! Surely she knows something about writing that I don’t,” you think. Well, I have some bad news for you.

There’s no real way of writing a short story.

I hear you. “But length has something to do with it, right?” “My teachers taught me the conflict-crisis-resolution model. You’re saying that’s not true?” “What about a realization for the characters? That’s got to be necessary.” After all, I’m no professor or educator. What do I know, really?

Here’s something your writing professors might not tell you. There’s no single true way to write a story. It’s tempting to define a short story by length, number of characters, time elapsed in the narrative, presence of epiphany, adherence to a conflict-crisis-resolution model. Humans endlessly seek to categorize things they don’t understand, and more than a few scholars and writers have attempted to define a short story as such. But the truth is, defining the short story is counterproductive. Every story is different—every writer is different. To expect the same things of Anton Chekhov’s and Tobias Wolff’s and Samuel Beckett’s stories is to ignore the specific circumstances, styles, lives of each writer.

There are a few generalities we can apply as a loose definition of a short story. They are short enough to be read in one sitting, are interesting to readers, resist paraphrase and summation, and provide some sense of completeness for the reader. Additionally, a short story is complete when nothing can be added or removed. But the further hows and whys of a story resist definition. Where one successful story might have a singular point-of-view character, other equally successful stories may have a wide host of characters. Where one story might occur over the span of a single dinner, others may stretch over a whole lifetime. The one truth of short fiction, it seems, is that for every rule posited by a writer, there are scores of stories that laugh and thumb their noses in the face of such rules.

Some young readers might feel more comfortable with the confines of a conflict-crisis-resolution model where others would prefer a more fluid approach. Similarly, when first starting out as a writer, it can be easy to restrict the scope of one’s writing to focus on single characters and strict timelines. But that’s not to say stories that don’t do those things are bad or wrong. They are simply different. And they all start the same way: as an idea.

Exercise: Write about a time when you or a character had a realization, or epiphany, and found out later that the epiphany was wrong. Stay concrete and specific, and write about what led to you or the character realizing the error of the epiphany.

This post was influenced by Alice LaPlante’s book, Method and Madness, chapter 4. The exercise included here was paraphrased from the book.