Seoul Writers Workshop

Resources, tips, and inspiration for the Seoul writers’ community.

Ten Tips for Better Writing

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One of our most widely published members, Bryan Fox, has penned a set of ten points for better writing.  Some should be familiar to anyone considering writing as a vocation or hobby; others may be a little more nuanced.    All are right on the money.   Enjoy.

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As I near my one-year anniversary here in Seoul and as a member of the Seoul Writer’s Workshop, I am proud to say I have seen and critiqued my fair share of pieces from a wide range of writers in our community.  I’ve seen things that have blown me away, and things that have made me shake my head in disbelief.  And, while there is no ‘formula’ for successful writing, and no objective set of criteria which make a piece ‘good’, I have noticed some definite themes emerge throughout the workshops and the critiquing.  That is to say, I have seen many people who could be good writers making the same mistakes.  So, as a Christmas gift to putative novelists and poetasters, I have compiled this list of the –

Top Ten Things to Avoid When Writing Fiction…

1) Show, Don’t Tell – Perhaps this is the most important item on the list.  A good narrative is evocative, good characters are developed, not explained, and a good writer doesn’t simply lay it all out in point form so that the reader doesn’t have to do any thinking.  If your protagonist is a stingy, mean old man, don’t simply say that he is – have him kick a dog and tell a beggar in the street to piss off.  If a scene is set in the most important day of your character’s life, “He awoke on what would be the most important day of his life,” is a bad way of prefacing the events to follow.  Let your events describe your characters and your story describe your message.  Keep your explanatory background information (“The trains in Seoul are crowded at any hour”, “Koreans love to drink when they are hiking” etc) to a bare minimum, because it is telling, and not showing.

2) Don’t make your dialogue so realistic it isn’t worth reading – We all want our characters to be believable – we want the reader to identify with them and be able to relate to the things they say, feel, and do.  But ‘real’ doesn’t always make for good reading:

“Hey,” Johnny said, walking into the kitchen and throwing his keys on the counter.
“What’s up,” Renee replied, not diverting her eyes from the newspaper she was reading.

“Not much,” Johnny said, “how about you?”

“Nothing special,” she answered, scratching her cheek absentmindedly.

Sure, this is realistic, but it’s also dreadfully boring.  A lot of the conversations we have in life aren’t worth writing down, but the conversations we write down should be worth writing down.  For every conversation, you should ask yourself: Does it advance the plot?  Does it reveal something about the characters?  If the answer to both of these questions is ‘no’, then something’s gotta change.

3) An unlikeable protagonist raises your degree of difficulty considerably – Not every character we write is going to be a hero.  In fact, a lot of good stories revolve around a character you wouldn’t want to share a beer with, or even allow into your house.  That being said, even the most execrable of protagonists needs something redeeming about him.  It may be hard to find, and it may not ‘prove the point’ that you are looking to prove, but really, if you write a character who has no friends, no positive interactions, no goals, and makes no attempt to defend himself, you’ve made your task as a writer – namely, getting the reader to relate/sympathize/maintain interest – much, much harder.  Call it the “Sopranos Syndrome” – watching the show, you basically ended up feeling sympathy for a cast of murderers and thugs, because they were good to their families and to each other (in general).  They had hobbies.  They were human.  Everyone has good and bad about them.  Even Hitler treated his dogs well.  A character who is 100% miserable gets old real fast.

4) Write what you know and know what you write – A lot of people in the group are just starting out with their writing careers.  A lot of us haven’t even written one complete story that we are happy with.  You have to start somewhere.  To make it easier on yourself, start small.  Your first completed piece, if it’s to be believable, probably isn’t going to be a spy thriller set in a country you’ve never visited where the characters speak a language you don’t know.  If you read a lot of genre fiction, you may write a piece in that genre, but even created worlds have to have fairly well-defined parameters, and defining these parameters means extra thought and extra work for you outside simply constructing the story.   Memoir may be an over-popularized genre nowadays, but dig into your own past for your first story – find an interesting character or episode and work on writing a story that brings the person or event to your reader in a way that only a person who was there can do.  Or, pick a character or story out of your current life and illustrate that.  Work on something finite instead of something rambling – it feels good to finish something, even if it’s only 1000 words (and it’s far easier to workshop as well).

If you are hell-bent on writing straight fiction, realize it’ll be necessary to do some research – if your protagonist has a job that you’ve never had before, you’d best find out some of the terminology of the job, what it involves, what types of people do it, and so on.  And this may mean more than 10 minutes on Wikipedia.  It’s very easy to find flaws in work done by someone writing well outside the scope of their knowledge if they haven’t done their homework.

5) Don’t be afraid to overwrite – We all like to think (or hope) that every word we write is gold.  We craft a scene we love, and another, and then look for any way to connect the two simply because we want to.  We write a 3000-word story and we get protective of those words.  But a 10-page final draft may be culled from a 14-page rough draft.  Stephen King, although he has never been accused of brevity, makes a good point when he says that your final draft should be 10% shorter than the penultimate one.  That means trim the fat.  Get to the point.  Say what you need to, and not everything that you think the reader needs to know.

When you are drafting, it’s ok to write through a scene even if you don’t think you’ll use it.  Write the connections that you think your reader will need and don’t be afraid to take them out later when you realize she won’t.  When you’re famous, you can sell your notebooks on eBay or publish them in their entirety to let the world in on your thought process.  But remember that nobody writes a final draft the first time around, and good successive drafts shouldn’t get longer and longer – they should get tighter and tighter.

6) Remember that no topic is intrinsically interesting or inherently boring – In the workshop, we get an inordinate amount of pieces which deal with drugs, sex, and death.  Now no one is saying that drugs, sex, and death aren’t interesting – they are recurring topics in contemporary fiction.  But just because the main character gets laid a lot or you’ve written a mountain of cocaine onto the table in your party scene, that doesn’t automatically add up to an interesting piece.  If anything, introducing these ‘easy interest’ items makes your task as a writer more difficult, simply because you run the risk of creating stock characters in stock scenes doing things the reader has seen before.  If you can write a drug scene, or a sex scene, or a death scene, that isn’t like any other one you’ve seen in a film or read in a book before, congratulations.  If not, write about something you don’t often encounter in fiction – it’s much easier to be innovative that way.

7) Don’t be overinfluenced by your influences – Hopefully, if you want to be a writer, you read.  Hopefully you read a lot.  Hopefully you read so much that it almost gets in the way of your writing, because what better way to learn how to construct a narrative than to read constructed narratives and determine which ones are good and why?  But – be careful not to let what you’re reading unduly influence what you write.   If someone asks you to describe your style, you shouldn’t be able to answer by saying “It’s like Palahniuk, but edgier,” or “It’s like Hemingway, but more contemporary.” It’s natural for us to compare everything to something else; it’s probably a side effect of living in the Information Age.  But you need to be clear where you deviate from what’s come before you.  Why would you aspire to write “just like Garcia Marquez”?  There’s already one of him, and he’s doing that just fine, thank you very much.

You may be in a period where you are reading lots of books by a certain author, and it’s hard not to let this affect your writing.  Try to vary your reading list.  Read a mix of contemporary and classic, of fiction and non-.  Read things in styles you don’t want to write, just to see how they work, too.  If you do read too much of one author it may become very difficult not to emulate him/her to an unhelpful degree.

8 ) Don’t let your plan get in the way of your story – It’s a good idea to write outlines, especially for longer pieces.  These don’t have to be formal, but it’s nice to know where you are going with a story, because a map may help you reach your destination.  However, sometimes we may find ourselves writing deus ex machinae which surprise us.  This isn’t necessarily bad.  Part of the fun of writing is the unexpected twists and turns we may create for ourselves along the way.  Don’t summarily dismiss any and all deviations from your plan – the story you end up with may be far better than the one you started out trying to write.

9) You don’t have to listen to everybody’s critique, but you should consider listening to everybody’s critique – Ostensibly we bring our pieces to workshop to hear both good and bad things about them (and if you are only submitting for praise, you aren’t really respecting your readers’ intelligence or even asking for their opinions, when you come down to it).  Anywhere between 5 and 15 people may read and critique your work at a workshop meeting.  It can be humbling to hear things you didn’t think about brought to light.  You may find that your colleagues aren’t nearly as enamored of your work as you are.  And, to be fair, you don’t have to heed every comment you receive – if you are just writing for fun, maybe you don’t really want to edit.  A person may have misread something and come to a faulty conclusion.  However, it should be said that, if you ask ten people for their opinion on the believability of the climactic scene of your story, and eight of them aren’t buying it, that’s probably for a reason.  One out of ten people may misunderstand your story – it’s doubtful that seven out of ten of them will.  Remember to separate the criticism from the critic, just as, as a critic, you need to separate the writing from the writer.  Socrates died because, among other things, he preached that the majority isn’t always right.  But when the majority speaks, it might not be a bad idea to listen.

10) Don’t be afraid to abort the mission – This may be the toughest piece of advice of all.  Sometimes we have a wonderful idea, an idea so splendid we can see the final draft in print when we sit down to type out the first bold lines.  Sometimes we put a lot of effort into something, edit it, revise it, expand and contract it, and tweak it until we feel it cannot be any better.  And sometimes, we then bring it into workshop and are shocked when we find that it isn’t well-received at all.  Or, worse, we take that brilliant idea and get ourselves several pages into it before realizing that we’ve lost our Voice, we’ve lost our direction, and our characters have hijacked a perfectly good story on us and won’t give it back.

If you’ve finished the piece, workshopped it, corrected it, and still not gotten the feedback you want, you have to be strong enough to say “this piece at present is now as good as it realistically is going to be” and to leave it there.  If you’re stranded in the middle of a narrative and can’t find your way out, you have to be strong enough to realize that sometimes getting bogged down in a story you can’t work through may well impede you from moving on to other work.  I have a folder on my desktop titled “unfinished”, and most of the files in that folder will probably stay there for a very long time.  That’s ok.  Not every story you start has to be finished.  And not every story you finish is going to be good.  In a way, that’s the beauty and the challenge of writing – even if you think you know where you’re going to go, you really don’t.  Enjoy the ride, and if it turns out to be a bumpy one, perhaps you’ll have smoother sailing next time around.

So that’s it.  No more proselytizing.  Every one of these tips I know to be valid, because I’ve made every one of these mistakes, more than once.  You can’t become a good writer overnight.  But you can stay a bad writer for a very long time if you keep making the same errors, again and again.  Make it your promise in the new year to try and avoid these pitfalls, and perhaps you’ll find yourself doing much more productive work in the future.

Good luck…

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Written by crfsanders

November 30, 2009 at 1:13 am

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