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.

First name, last name, or both for characters?

Coming up with a name for characters can be one of the hardest tasks for a fiction writer. Once you’ve got the first name picked, do you stop there? Do your characters need to have last names? What about middle names? Names are one of the little writing speed bumps (they slow you down, but don’t stop you like writer’s block).

For me, a name is part of the holy trinity of elements I need before I can start drafting a story. The other two parts are the main character’s identity and what goal they have to accomplish. The name is usually the last part I come up with. It sets the tone for the character and his or her story. Because of that, I give all major and secondary characters first and last names. Minor people in the background tend to have one or the other, depending on how their reference in dialogue.

First name only

A character’s first name is probably going to get the most use. Friends and family will use this name in dialogue. It’s the name readers will forever associate with your story, for better or for worse. Best case: they name their pets after your character. Worst case: a red flag goes up in their head whenever they see or hear the name again. The latter might not happen if you use non-traditional names or make up your own.

Let’s say you visit an etymology website to find a real name. If you choose a first name based on its meaning, root word, or region of origin, those elements contribute to the character’s identity. It’s a little thing not every reader will search on their own. Those who do will feel like they’re part of an inside joke with the writer.

The Office inside joke meme; switzy thoughts first name blog
Source: Quickmeme.com

You might stop there. If it never makes sense for anyone to refer to your character by their last name — out of respect or derision — that could be a good idea. But before you move on, consider what else a last name could define about the character.

The lack of a last name could even be plot related. If your character is searching for their identity (for some form of catharsis, or to solve a story-relevant bout of amnesia), the revelation of a last name would be one of the pieces of the puzzle.

Last name only

Without tags or titles like Mr., Mrs., Dr., Duke, or Supreme Overlord, the lack of a character’s first name could be lost on readers. In and out of dialogue, using only the last name functions much the same as using the first name only.

If the character belongs to a famous or infamous family, their last name becomes name, identity, and reputation all at once. When other characters refer to this character by their family name, they assume he is just like the rest of them. It’s a good source of conflict if the character is the black sheep of the family, but a first name becomes almost necessary then. He’s not just a Lannister; he’s Tyrion Lannister.

The lack of a first name could also be part of the quest for identity I mentioned earlier. A character who is always referred to by their last name might search for something to set them apart. If the name comes from their occupation or station, the first name is how you pick out Jon and Ramsay from the rest of the bastards in the north.

leeroy jenkins, jon snow, battle of the bastards, game of thrones
The North (and the internet) will always remember. Source: Imgur

First and last names (middle optional)

Together, a first name and a last name create a unique title that refers only to your character. It also offers you an opportunity to characterize relationships by which name other characters use. Harry and Draco aren’t chummy, and it shows in the clipped way they call each other “Potter” and “Malfoy.” But Draco tends to use last names even for his friends.

Continuing the Harry Potter metaphor, I’ll point out that Draco’s use of last names only is different from the way most people refer to the Hogwarts staff by their last name. In conversation with the staff, students use the respectful title “professor” before the last name. In more casual conversation, they don’t use the first name because it’s not part of the identity they associate with their interactions with that person.

harry potter, minerva mcgonagall, hogwarts
Source: Wikipedia

If that sounds complicated, try thinking about your own teachers or college professors. Despite having a more personal/friendly relationship with some of my professors, it’s uncomfortable using their first names. I either use their last name, their full name, or — when talking to them directly — try to avoid using any name at all. When all else fails, I resort to simply calling them “professor.”

But that’s a real-life example of how a character’s use of another’s name defines the relationship. By giving a character a first name or last name only, you miss out on this layer in your writing.

Perhaps the most famous story to make use of the importance of both first and last name is Romeo and Juliet. Juliet’s not exactly subtle, either:

‘Tis but they name that is my enemy;

Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,

And for that name which is no part of thee

Take all myself.

[Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare. Act 2, Scene 2.]

How do you use a character’s first name and last name within your story?

Yo-yo characters: Back and forth in development

While backing up the current draft of The Thieves of Traska, I found the backups for some earlier drafts. I skimmed through, old scenes making me nostalgic and, sometimes, embarrassed. So much of the story and each character has changed. But I was surprised to find places where I’d gone back and forth on my revisions.

Mostly, I can’t seem to decide how friendly I want characters to be with one another. One character in particular, the Messenger, is getting whiplash from his revisions. He has always been mysterious and a little scary. Then I gave him some charming lines and he became a friend to Claire and a trustworthy superior.

In the fifth draft, he’s changing back to something closer to his original self. It suits his role as Claire’s superior; he is now someone she respects, but doesn’t always like. Their relationship is friendly when they agree, and professional when they don’t.

character quote-the messenger
He also now has the most popular quotes among those I’ve shared on Twitter.

Even though this change means I have to cut some scenes I loved, I think they were still necessary to write. Exploring the Messenger’s personal side and making him a friend to Claire showed me the parts of him that I like. He’s more than just an ominous figure that tends to deliver bad news.

Where did his sense of morality develop? What grey areas make him struggle between duty and desire, and why? I know everything he sacrificed to get to where he is now. Most of that backstory won’t make it back onto the page—at least not in this draft—but all of the Messenger’s actions reflect on it.

The Messenger isn’t the first character to sidetrack me with his personal story. Pages in my notebook hold detailed explorations of how certain characters met. I’ve scribbled some conversations that happen during the events of the book, but never make it to the reader. So many tangent scenes that reveal the depths of certain relationships have been cut.

So why go through all that effort if none of it ends up on the page? Because it all builds character.

Edited work: Not bad, but maybe not right

Having your work edited and critiqued can really suck. Time, brainpower, and a little bit of your soul went right into those pages currently getting eviscerated. Depending on how many changes you’re told to make, the experience can range from easy to unlikely recovery. It happens to all of us.

A short story or personal essay for class gets a lower grade than you hoped for. A press release for work needs to be entirely rewritten. The first three chapters of your novel should be cut. Ouch, ouch, ouch.

It’s easy to take that feedback and feel like you and your writing are inadequate. It can even make you reconsider this whole crazy writing thing. How good can my writing be if it needs this much work?

Edited short story
If you’re lucky, your edits might include fun doodles.

Your writing is not bad. It’s just not right for the situation.

Before you start a panicked search for what the “right” writing is or skim ahead for a handy definition, take a deep breath.

What is your goal? If it’s for class, you want the instructor to like it and give you a good grade. If it’s for work, your boss has to like it. In your book, your readers are going to have to like it. And what do all of those scenarios have in common?

You’re after a positive opinion.

You can’t identify and aim for the “right” piece because it’s a constantly moving target. Whoever you are trying to please, they’re only going to know exactly what the perfect, “right” result is when you’ve put it in front of them. You can’t control where the target is. The only thing you can control is the quality of the work you produce.

You’re a writer, and you know how to write. Make sure your writing is always good, and whoever edited it will help you make it right.

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.

From writer to writer: Are we crazy?

I had lunch earlier this week with a friend and former coworker. I was supposed to interview her for a story, but we spent the first hour of our conversation catching up on the last year. She had converted to the writing program from fashion and developed a keen interest in a conversational style of reporting. As we talked, she mentioned that one of my old professors talks about me in class from time to time. It’s weird to think about, but I’m an example of someone who went through the program, got a job in the field I studied for and continues to write outside of work.

My friend had many questions for me. How did I handle critiques? Did I ever struggle when critiquing someone’s nonfiction piece? Was I always good at writing? (Ha!) How the heck do I write a short story? When do I have time to work on my own writing? Am I still working on my book? Did I plan the whole thing out before I started writing?

That’s about as planned as I get.

I couldn’t help but filter my answers through the thought, “What do I wish someone had told me when I was in her shoes?” This didn’t change my answers, but it made it clear what she was really asking: “Am I crazy, or am I doing okay?”

That’s exactly what I ask myself all the time. Sometimes it’s right after deciding to spend $30 or more on a new art project (more on that in my next post), when I’m heading to the gym at 6 a.m. or 10 p.m., or when I realize I’m on chapter seven of The Raiders of Vaskegon just a few weeks after starting it. I wonder if I’m crazy when I haven’t worked on Raiders for two days, when I’ve put off doing laundry for another day, and every time I start writing a tweet (and usually backspace it all and go back to browsing Twitter instead of contributing to it).

But it’s gratifying when someone asks for my advice. How crazy can I be if they want to follow in my footsteps/steer clear of my missteps? Probably no more crazy than the person talking to me. We’re all a bunch of crazies, but we’re still doing okay.

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.