3 Lessons Learned From Assignments I Hated

For some writers, we’re able to make some type of writing our day job. So long as this much writing doesn’t “kill your creativity,” as Kerri Majors says in This is Not A Writing Manual, it can be great. But no matter how great it is, you’ll probably get stuck with an assignment that makes you want to claw your eyes out. After years as a writing student, a blogger, a journalist, a public relations writer, and now a tourism marketing writer, I’ve begrudgingly had to acknowledge how some of these assignments I hated came in handy.

1. IMITATIONS OF STYLE

Lesson taught: senior year of high school, various fiction and creative nonfiction classes in college

“Imitations of Style” was a pain for everyone. You take the piece of writing you want to imitate, and you type out the whole thing verbatim. Many of my classmates copied and pasted from the internet to save themselves from a little tedium. After the whole thing is copied, you write your own imitation piece. Depending on the class, you either wrote an original piece in the other author’s style, or you rewrote the author’s piece in an alternative style.

From E.B. White’s Once More To The Lake, I wrote a memoir piece titled “Lost and Unlost.” From Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, I wrote the short story “A Rose of Success.” There are half a dozen more imitations on my computer. One of those pieces reached publication, but otherwise there were no benefits.

Lesson learned: working in public relations

In PR, my duties varied widely. When writing press releases, everything had to be in the company’s branded voice. For certain individuals, I had to draft their quotes for press releases, blog posts, and responses to emails. Every blog post had to have the brand’s voice, but different from the press releases.

There was no manual on how to do any of that, let alone what distinguishes each voice. I had an assignment and an immediate deadline. So I did the first thing that popped in my head: pull up old press releases/articles where person X is quoted/blog posts, and retype them. Doing this gave me a feel for the voices I needed to write in—cadence, sentence structure and length, type of vocabulary, and what sort of information they wanted to highlight. Once I picked it up and practiced, it got difficult to pick out which parts I wrote from the rest.

Always smiling, no matter what. Image via IMDB.

2. FRAME EVERYTHING TO SOUND POSITIVE

Lesson taught: working in public relations

This was always a pet peeve of mine. I would receive edits on blog posts that said to make everything sound more positive. Make it more peppy and upbeat. A coworker used to do this by adding puns and snappy final lines while I continued banging my head against a wall. Everything had to sound like the best thing since macaroni married cheese.

Lesson learned: working in tourism marketing

While writing a brief guide to beaches in the area, I had to include some of the most important rules visitors should know. Some beaches allow dogs or alcohol while others don’t. Several prohibit glass containers of any kind, and violators face huge fines. But one beach has more rules than the others. My first few drafts sounded like, “This beach does not allow fun of any sort between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., but it’s here if you’re into that sort of thing.”

It took some finesse, but I described the beach as the ideal location for people who just want to swim or relax in the sun without having to worry about getting hit by a frisbee. Thankfully, I managed to do so without a single pun.

3. TRANSCRIBE THE WHOLE INTERVIEW

Lesson taught: high school and college journalism

At my college journalism job, a writer desperately needed help editing her article. I asked for her interview notes and transcription and was shocked to see that she hadn’t taken any notes during the interview. Worse, though, was her transcription. Instead of typing out what her source had said, she made bullet points and summarized what she felt had been important. The worst was that she had made up the majority of quotes she’d used in her article.

With our deadline upon us—hers to finish writing the article, and mine to edit and post it online—there wasn’t much I could do besides take over. I put on her headphones and transcribed every word her source said. After pulling all the information the article needed and the best quotes, it took 20 minutes to complete the article. It has always been my method to write articles this way, but I do so because it works for me.

Lesson learned: working in tourism marketing

During my time in PR, sometimes there wasn’t time to record and transcribe a whole interview or presentation. I relied only on my notes. During an interview for one of my first articles, I got my source comfortable by asking him about the history of the building he owned. The first 45 minutes of our recorded interview was full of the building’s history, some personal anecdotes, and several first- and second-hand accounts of ghost sightings. This is Savannah, after all.

That put all the facts I needed for my article in the last 15 minutes of our conversation. It took me about four hours to transcribe the interview. Maybe I could have saved time by skipping past the ghost parts. Part of me wondered if there might be some place for those stories in my article. In the end, I transcribed them because I thought they were amazing. When I related some of the ghost stories to a coworker, she was ecstatic. Local ghost stories are perfect for our publications.

Ending the first novel in a series

As I near finishing draft five of The Thieves of Traska, the ending is a problem child again. How do you end the first novel in a series when the story isn’t yet over? The end is supposed to tie up all those pesky loose ends and satisfy the reader. But now it also has to entice the reader to obtain the next book and continue the adventure. Yikes!

Just about every how-to I’ve looked at says the end of book one should feel resolved, but still have a few loose ends. That way the reader can be satisfied, even if they don’t go on to the next book. In theory, that makes perfect sense. In the trenches of novel-writing, however, it doesn’t offer much direction. Which part is supposed to be resolved? Which part isn’t? Does that mean I have to do a cliffhanger?

I’m of the opinion that the ending of the first book should not be a cliffhanger. Leave readers wanting to know what happens next? Yes. Introduce a new, life-changing problem at the end and make the reader wait through a whole other book to resolve it? That’s better suited for book two. So let’s take a look at what to close and what to leave open at the end of book one.

Resolve: What brought your character into the story?

Your inciting incident gets your hero involved in the events of the story. It might relate to the overall plot, but it’s also personal to the hero. Why else does he leave his old life behind? I refer to this as the character’s selfish goal.

Why “selfish” and not just “personal,” like so many others call it? It’s a simple goal ignoring the reality of the character’s situation, and how it affects others. Your character has three ways to resolve their selfish goal:

  • Achieve. One option is to have the hero get what he was after in the first place. It resolves the main conflict of this installment, but not the series plot (winning the battle as opposed to the war). For an ending, it’s the point where the hero could stop and still be satisfied with their accomplishment (just like the reader). But there is still much to do, and the hero has made the big problem his problem.
  • Abandon. Another way to resolve the hero’s selfish goal is to have him abandon it. The person/thing he’s been searching for is dead/destroyed. He decides not to take his revenge. Like the previous option, the hero’s main conflict is resolved and the series conflict remains for the later installments. He lost the battle, but the war is still ongoing.
  • Postpone. At first glance, this resembles the previous options. As far as the reader knows, the hero has either achieved or abandoned his selfish goal. But they are in for a surprise. That person isn’t really dead! It was stolen, not destroyed! He had it with him all along! They caught the wrong culprit! But all that happens after book one.

Leave open: What keeps your character in the story?

Remember, the ending of book one is where the hero got (or thinks he got) what he wanted. He could turn away from the greater conflict, but then there’d be no need for a sequel or two. This is where he declares his heroic goal. It’s the daunting, nebulous task the hero chooses to take on.

Just because I call it “heroic” doesn’t mean that goal has to be saving the world. If you’re working with an anti-hero, the heroic goal could involve revenge or something equally not so goody-goody. It could be a broader selfish goal, like rising in power or conquering an enemy.

Whether your hero decides to do something good, bad, or a bit of both, he should have some vague idea of what that thing is. The “why” should already be answered by the events of book one. The “how” is the plot of the rest of the series.

This declaration is an invitation to the reader to proceed to the next book. The ending answers most of the questions, so the reader could stop there. There are just enough unanswered questions — about how the hero will reach his heroic goal — to interest readers in the next installment.

What are your hero’s selfish and heroic goals?

Well #?^% XXVIII: A writing rule I can’t stand

At a world-building workshop for fiction writers I attended last Friday, a familiar writing “rule” came up. It’s not one I like and following it has never worked for me. For whatever reason, hearing it taught as an absolute part of the process made me angry—at least angry enough to doodle some angry faces around that part in my notes. The rule:

“Figure out as much about the world you’re creating before you start writing the story. Don’t build as you go, or else you’ll end up painting yourself into a corner.”

I’ll break down the three elements of this so-called rule that bother me.

Bianca's weird face
The doodles weren’t worth uploading, so here’s Bianca making the sort of face I made internally at hearing that “rule.”

Rule: Figure it out before you start writing

Some people have to plan out every little element before they can write a single word. Others like to run with an idea as soon as it hits them and see where it goes. I’m in the middle camp. Once I have a character, a conflict, and what makes the situation unique, I start writing.

There is a lot that goes into a made-up world. Depending on how far the story will go, you may need to only develop the culture and people in one city. Or maybe you’ll need to work out a few cities, or even different countries. If it’s all going to be plot-relevant, of course you’re going to need to fit all that information in. But you’re not going to write about it until the relevant moment. That moment might be as simple as someone using a deity’s name as a swear word. You don’t need to know every step in the traditional dance used every third Tuesday to honor that deity before a character can say the name.

Rule: Don’t build as you go

It’s silly to think you will not deviate from your carefully constructed plan even a little. What if you’re writing, and it suddenly occurs to you that a minor conflict between two characters should be a little deeper than mere dislike? To add depth, you decide that it’s really about the fact that their grandparents were on opposite sides of a war. Now you need to figure out all the details of that war.

In the next draft—remember, there will always be another draft—you can sprinkle in more allusions to that war to further flesh out your world. You didn’t have to have that figured out before you started the first draft. You built it when you found a need for it.

You will build as you go. You will rebuild as you go. You will demolish things you built in the first draft. Don’t worry about it.

Rule: You’ll paint yourself into a corner

I’m not sure if you knew, but you can edit and revise what you write. A first draft is not a final draft. You are not limited to only moving forward; you can go back and fix whatever mess you made at any point. You could chug along and go all the way to the end of the draft before you start fixing. Or you could figure out a solution the moment you find the problem, fix it in what you already wrote, and carry on.

I do that all the time. You aren’t limited to one try to get everything in the story right. The writing adage I agree with the most is, “You learn to write by writing.” And if you’re going to create a fully immersive fantasy world, you’re going to learn everything you need to know as you write about it.

I don’t agree with every piece of writing advice, but I understand the value in it. Not everything works for everyone. Maybe building your world first is what you need to do to make what you want.

Book two, chapter one: A messy first draft

I wish I could say the prolonged silence on my blog for the last few weeks was due to some intense writing on the first draft of the next project— the kind where I neglect a meal or a shower here and there because the muse is stranded in my head with a flat tire. I’d also like to say that I’m rolling in a mixture of glee and self-loathing after receiving all the comments from my beta readers. But I’m actually stuck.

This is no surprise. After sending out The Thieves of Traska, I forced myself to take a step back from the story. That lasted maybe a week before I realized that I could start working on its sequel, The Raiders of Vaskegon. Same cast, different story — that still counts as taking a step back, right?

Well, in the eight weeks since I started the first draft, I’ve already restarted numerous times. The first chapter alone is in its fifth revision. I thought there would be progress when I finally put a couple pages into chapter two, but I stalled when I realized the foundation of the first chapter still wasn’t stable. Why? Because I’m making mistakes that, by this point, I ought to know how to avoid.

(Non)obligatory summary of book one

Yep, I went there first. What if a new reader gets to book two before book one? What if people who read book one have to wait months or years before getting book two? They’ve got to be caught up on the story so far!

If the events of book one could enjoyably be covered in the span of a few paragraphs, I wouldn’t have written over 50,000 words on it already. Book two has a job to do: continue the story, not retell it.

Reintroducing familiar characters by ignoring stages of development

Did that, too. Book two starts a few days after the end of book one, yet the familiar characters had apparently gone through months’ worth of development while no one was looking. They almost have to be different people to handle the new problems ahead of them — why not start them over with the new book?

Let’s refer back to book two’s job: continue the story, not restart it.

Forget everything else and charge full speed ahead into the plot

I’m getting closer, but this still isn’t the way to go. Readers of the first book won’t get annoyed with boring recaps of stuff they’ve already read, and newcomers will just have to go get book one if they want to figure out what’s going on. We’re continuing the story here, right? So let’s introduce seven new characters in two pages and go from there.

Book two still has to be a book with structure to its narrative. Right now, it’s a crazy mess. But it’s also a first draft.

While I have received some feedback from my beta readers — with lots of positive comments! — I haven’t gone back to work on The Thieves of Traska yet. If anything, I’m reading it and letting myself fall in love with the characters as if they were someone else’s. I’m thinking about that feeling when you finally get the next book and it’s like you’re seeing an old friend again. It’s a tall order, but I’m up to the challenge of filling it.

Skipping time in your story

Whether you’re writing a short story or a novel, you might come to a point where you want to skip ahead to the next thing that happens. This can be a great way to keep the momentum going for your readers if the “down time” between events drags the story down. It could be a little jump of hours or days, or a huge jump of months or even years. So how do you gloss over that time?

Short Jumps

Hours

This one is really easy; you’re not taking the reader too far from where they’ve been, so they won’t miss much. The transition can be as simple as starting a new paragraph with “later” or “after.”

Later in the evening, Molly found an unexpected package by her front door.

After finishing the morning chores, Tom bathed and dressed for a trip into town.

We’re not sure what exactly happened in those hours between the last time we saw Molly and when she found the package, but we trust that it wasn’t important to the story. It might have been interesting to read about Tom’s morning chores, but his trip into town is what we’re really waiting for.

Summarize what the reader doesn’t need to spend a lot of time on. Idle conversations, studying, training, eating, working… Whatever your reader probably won’t be thrilled to read can be skipped over this way.

Days

You can easily skip a day or two to keep the story going. It’s still not a huge jump, so your reader won’t be jarred if one paragraph ends on Tuesday and the next opens on Wednesday. Even if you jump ahead to Saturday, it’s unlikely you’ll cause some waves.

The week passed annoyingly slowly, as if it it were determined to make Martha wait that much longer until she could see Andrew again.

Remember: you’re skipping this time because nothing crucial to the story happens here. If your character is supposed to see/find/do something important, that’s not something you want your readers to miss. But if there’s important information you want to cover without going through days of scenes, just use summary:

He’d spent days going over witnesses’ statements, calling them to double-check some of the information. Of course, their stories changed a little. Day by day, the murder got a bit fuzzier to them. By the end of the week, it looked like their suspects drove a “dark” SUV with Indiana—maybe Illinois—plates.

Long Jumps

Months

Here’s were it can get tricky; if a month or two has passed since the last event, you’re going to need to go over some of the things your reader missed. A lot can happen in a month. Even if nothing critical happens, the lack of events can be a great way to build tension for your characters.

Leo didn’t leave work until well after dark most days. He didn’t notice at first, what with October seeming to roll right into December and the sun set by 4:00. At some point, Kara had yelled at him for forgetting the kids’ Christmas presents, then forgetting Christmas altogether. The house had gotten a lot quieter since then, not that Leo noticed.

While you’re writing the same person as before, something about their attitude has to be different. Are they stressed? Has obsession driven your character’s loved ones away? Have they forgotten tragedy in the face of something wonderful they’ve been waiting for?

Years

At this point, your character might be a very different person than the last time your reader saw them. Maybe the differences are small, but they cannot be completely unchanged. They could be wiser, more mature, more focused on their goal. They could be more foolish, childish, and highly distracted. Whatever the last event was before you jumped ahead, it should be some sort of pivotal moment that instills change in your character. A jump this big should be used for showing the stark changes between who the character was and who they are now, with the reader sometimes thinking about how the old character might have responded differently.

Cate liked having money; it took care of everything. Floors dirty? Hire a maid. Too tired to make dinner? Hire a cook. Lonely? You could hire anyone to keep you company for as long as you wanted. It certainly could have taken care of her brother’s debt and the wedding he’d put off for two years, but he always chose the worst times to ask if she’d remembered her promises. She couldn’t very well talk of giving loans while entertaining guests! What might her new friends think?

If you are skipping forward in time, remember that the story is told from that point forward. Don’t tell your reader it’s three months from the last time they saw the main character, then write the scene for the day after that time three months ago. It will disorient your reader and make them wonder why you couldn’t just skip ahead three months from the next day.

Something’s not right: The opening of a story

The beginning of a story is a pretty terrifying place. All you’ve got is a blank page in front of you and maybe a couple of scenes you want to write, but don’t belong on the first page. Some people like to write out those parts and work around them; I do it in my notebook so I can include dozens of notes to myself about what needs to lead up to that scene.

I get lost in my own thought process and end up writing commentary on my ideas.

But that scene might not ever make it to the page. Maybe, as you’ve been writing the things that come before it, the characters have no logical reason for entering that scene. Or they’ve developed differently than you expected and they wouldn’t handle the situation quite the same way. For whatever reason, your initial piece of the puzzle just doesn’t fit. You can either rework it or accept that it didn’t make the cut. Don’t force a scene into the story if it has no business being there.

When starting at the very beginning, though, it’s easy to get caught in a cycle of distracting thoughts. Am I starting it with the right scene? Should I start earlier, or later? I’ve really got to hook people with the first sentence — what the heck am I going to write?! Does it even matter what I write now, since I’m going to edit it anyway?

In all the various novels I’ve drafted over the years, not one has kept its original opening perfectly intact past the second draft. In fact, I end up cutting most of if not the entire first chapter. Writing it all out — even though I know I’m going to get rid of it — is still a necessary part of the process. How else do you expect to find the right voice for the story?

As for how to open the story, you already know there’s no single right way to do so. There’s a right way for your story to open, and you’re the one who has to figure that out. Trial and error, my friends. You’ll write a lot, cut a lot, and eventually find something that makes you happy.

My goal for an opening line: either something has gone wrong, or it’s about to. Some examples from my own work:

No one was fast enough to catch her once she started running.

This wasn’t the kind of silence Colin wanted from his wife.

The unintelligible words of a murmured dirge hung like a dense fog over the villagers clustered before the gallows.

The first one makes us wonder who is running after the girl and why. The second makes it clear that Colin probably did something to upset his wife. The third is a gloomy and poetic image of villagers gathered to watch a hanging.

It’s important that the opening line establishes some kind of situation that will make your readers question what’s going on and why. That’s how you get them to keep reading.

The Subtle Shift: Developing a character

“The character didn’t really change by the end of the story, so I’m not sure what the point was.”

That statement and its variations cropped up in nearly every writing workshop I’ve been a part of. We sit through 10 pages or so of a character’s struggle, wait to see how he’s affected by it, and then get disappointed when nothing has changed. While it’s possible to write a great story with that sort of ending, you’d want more of a “How can he possibly go back to his old life after all that?!” than a “Well, that was pointless.”

At the other end of the spectrum, you don’t want to give your character a growth spurt that reads like you’ve thrown in a totally new person.

And then the Stepford wives moved into your story. Image source

Unless you’ve got some mind-control thing revealed later on, your readers will be skeptical of a character going from average citizen to unapologetic killing machine without blinking.

The Subtle Shift

There’s the expression “old habits die hard,” and it applies to fictional characters. As they mature, they aren’t going to completely abandon their way of life. How they go about it, however, will be different.

I’ll use The Thieves of Traska as an example. Claire is a little paranoid and sometimes lists possible — and often unlikely — outcomes. Compare this scene:

There were so many possibilities now, she could feel each one bearing down on her. She could be arrested, or hanged. Reed could find her and drag her back to their pathetic shack. A pack of wolves might eat them. The man climbing off his cart further down the road to chase off a herd of sheep might kill them for their money. Anything could happen.

And this one:

Underneath all her bruises and hallucinations, some part of her was conscious enough to be paranoid. Maybe it wasn’t really Lina she heard. Maybe someone was listening out of sight. Maybe Lina wasn’t even with the Coterie. It could be a spy with a fake mark, or maybe Claire just imagined that she’d seen it, just as she imagined the voice whispering to her, calling her Ghost.

The first clip comes from chapter three and the second comes from chapter twelve. She still considers the negative possibilities, but you can see the difference in what they are. At first, really anything could go wrong, whether it’s related to the situation or not. Later on, her paranoia is focused on relevant possibilities. If she hadn’t grown by chapter twelve, Claire would have been thinking about more than just not giving up Coterie secrets.

It’s a little thing, but it signals a much bigger development with the character. What used to be a hindering fear of possibility is now a useful assessment of potential dangers. So when a reader sees Claire prepared to handle a variety of setbacks, they know she isn’t perfectly prepared for everything. She’s just constantly thinking about what could go wrong.

Now take a look at your own character. Are there some habits that might change as he or she matures?