Do You Ever Hate Writing?

Having written is pretty awesome. Unless you hate what you wrote.

Do you ever hate writing?

Sometimes, when we get to a writing exercise, a student will groan, “Ugh, I hate writing!” And while Dorothy Parker was being witty when she said it (when wasn’t she being witty?), the students who say this are deadly serious. They’re teenagers (so I’ll admit there’s probably some hyperbole involved), but at least some of them honestly and vehemently dislike writing.

As a professional writer, that’s a hard point of view for me to get my head around. Even when I’m having a bad writing day – when I have to struggle over an hour to get 100 words on the page or days when I use writer’s block as an excuse not to write – I don’t dislike writing that much. I definitely don’t hate it.

Thinking back, I’m not sure that I ever disliked any of my schoolwork as much as they seem to dislike writing. The closest I can think of are things that I was really bad at (or at least much worse at than my classmates). On the other hand, sometimes, I was perfectly ok with being really bad at them and thought it was funny (like home ec…).

Hmmm…

I can see that some of the students might be uncomfortable with writing, and that’s why they dislike it. Especially if they have a disorder that makes spelling things or reading difficult. But what about the students who are good at writing who claim they hate it? I’ve had at least 2 of those (that I know of), and they groaned and grumbled every time they had to write something. Then, they’d write something that was exceptional for their age. So what’s the deal?

  • Is it boring? (But what homework isn’t?)
  • Do they think they’re bad at it?
  • Is it simply “uncool” to like writing?

Come to think of it, “It’s boring” is usually the answer I get when a kid tries to explain why he or she hates reading (a tragedy!). But when I think something is boring, I shrug and say it doesn’t interest me. I wouldn’t say that I hate it. Also, when I suggest books with story lines that the kids are honestly interested in, they still don’t try to read any of them, which implies that there’s more to it, right?

So even if they are simply expressing themselves poorly and saying they dislike writing when they really mean that it’s boring (which is very possible), there might be more to the problem. I mean, they’d have to absolutely loathe being bored to hate something just because it’s boring – which is possible but sounds like more effort than most of these kids like to go to.

If I were being cynical, I’d say that’s the key: they don’t like to exert themselves for anything that doesn’t interest them. Which I get but doesn’t really help.

*sigh*

I wish I knew for sure how much they actually dislike writing, how much is wanting to be cool, how much they’re bored, or how much is honestly hatred. I don’t like to think it’s the last one (that’s pretty discouraging when you’re trying to teach them writing). I know I won’t get a straight answer out of the kids (good luck with that), so I guess I’m stuck wondering.

Unless you can explain it – got any insights you want to share with a poor, bewildered writer? Why would someone hate writing?

The Line Between Prose and Poetry

line between prose and poetryI got on facebook to reply to one invite and, predictably, spent the next hour distracted by various people’s posts. The one that finally inspired me enough to break the fb tunnel vision was a shared article about anxiety called “Anxiety Is an Invalid Excuse” from Just Cut the Bullshit. Besides the gripping illustration of a hard situation, the post caught my interest because it almost inexplicably blurs the line between prose and poetry.

Here’s the start:

   Anxiety is an invalid excuse. I just got back to my room after a failed attempt to go to class. I’m sitting here, writing this, trying to think of something to email my professor to sugarcoat what I’m feeling, to really drive home the point that class today was unbearable for me…

The first line (bolded here as it is in the original) repeats at the start of each new paragraph. Or perhaps each new stanza – it’s hard to tell. It acts as a refrain, driving home the author’s point, the message that is communicated over and over again to people with anxiety (explicitly or implicitly, verbally or nonverbally): “Anxiety is an invalid excuse.”

The lines following the refrain are written in a paragraph of sentences (with line breaks dictated by the browser rather than the artist’s will). At the same time, they have a rhythm, an emphasis on imagery, and an emotional appeal that lends a feel to the piece that is more like poetry than prose. It’s not hard to picture the piece being recited at a poetry slam, and yet, looking at the formatting and structure, my knee-jerk is to say that it’s prose.

Suddenly, the line between poetry and prose seems less easily defined (a pretty high compliment to the writer IMHO). From a writing standpoint, it’s also an intriguing puzzle for technique: how was it done and how can the effect be duplicated?

Is it the formatting? The lack of continuous line of thought between paragraphs? The intimate nature of the topic? Are those aspects combined with the imagery, rhythm, and use of refrain enough to sort of merge the genres of poetry and prose?

Or is there some detail, some technique that I’ve overlooked?

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not up-to-date on more recent poets and poetry techniques. It wouldn’t shock me at all if this has already been discussed, and I am simply late to the table; however, all I’ve been able to find when searching the topic is a discussion of how to define and categorize the two – nothing about how to create a piece that deliberately blurs those lines.

I can definitely see how the details and techniques that I’ve listed would help create the effect. What I’m most uncertain of is whether all those facets are needed, or would a combination of a few work? If it were a less emotional topic, but the other techniques remained, would it still feel like poetry? Or if the paragraphs were less separate or had a line of continuity, would that mar the effect?

I’m honestly not sure. I’m going to have to think about it some more. And probably experiment a bit.

What do you think? Am I simply off my rocker, or is the article poetic prose? (Prosaic poetry? [No]). If you agree with the effect, I’d be very curious to hear what you think the cause might be. Comment away.

A Little Phobia Goes a Long Way

comic guy panicking phobia

“Eek! A mouse!”

People are emotional creatures – they get caught up in things and act irrationally (and don’t realize it until later). If you’re having trouble working that into your writing, adding a phobia can help because even though phobias are irrational, they follow certain rules.

A Little Background on Phobias

A phobia is an irrational reaction of fear to something that is not dangerous (generally speaking). “Irrational” being the key word and the reason why they’re useful for having characters behave irrationally in believable ways.

Most people think that phobias start because of a traumatic experience – someone who has a near-death experience because of a fall becomes terrified of heights from that point on. And, yes, that can happen, but it’s actually less common. Many people are afraid of heights, spiders, or even the sight of blood with no real cause. It simply is, often for as long as a person can remember.

Interestingly enough, people who experience trauma may develop phobias that are completely unrelated to the trauma (true story). Which just underlines how completely illogical and irrational phobias really are.

Varying Degrees of Phobias

Any condition can have varying degrees – from mild to extreme, and the intensity of the person’s reaction is going to depend on how strong the phobia is. For a more mild phobia, a person might experience some discomfort dealing with it or become a little nervous. For an extreme phobia, the person could have a full breakdown and physically be unable to approach the object of the fear.

Both options and anything in between are completely plausible, but even though it is an irrational fear, it should follow rules. If someone has a complete meltdown from a little spider one day, he or she is not liable to get only slightly nervous because of a smaller one the next day. Unless given a reason to change, phobias are fairly consistent (or more likely to get worse than better).

Using Phobias in Your Writing

There are three basic steps to using phobias in your writing:

  1. Pick a phobia for a character.
  2. Set the rules
    • for what is included in the phobia
    • for how the character reacts to whatever he/she is afraid of
  3. Establish and follow the rules as you write.

Pick a Character & a Phobia

A phobia or discomfort with a topic/thing adds characterization and can make for interesting/different plot twists. If it’s a common phobia (public speaking, spiders, snakes, heights, etc.), then it can create empathy with the readers who have similar feelings.

Ron Weasley from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books is established early on as being afraid of spiders (which many of us can empathize with). This lends comic relief and motivates his actions off and on throughout the series. If you think about it, it also makes his actions even more brave (facing Aragog would be scary enough without the phobia).

If it’s a less common phobia (cats, kids, slobber, etc.), then it counts as a character quirk that makes the character stick out and seem less stereotypical. It’s also a useful way to humanize an overly tough character.

Lieutenant Eve Dallas from the J.D. Robb In Death series is a tough, no-nonsense cop who will bravely dive into just about any kind of fight you can imagine without a second thought. She’s also a bit phobic of socializing, children, heights/space travel, and a hairdresser named Trina. It makes for an interesting mix.

A person can be phobic about pretty much anything, so the field is wide open for what the characters can be afraid of. But if you need inspiration, here’s a vast list of phobias.

Set the Rules of the Phobia

Making a phobia believable is all about consistency about stimuli and reactions. That’s why it’s important to define what exactly makes the character feel the unreasonable fear, anxiety, or fight-or-flight response. And defining the stimuli means more than saying, “spiders.” There are a lot of different ways to interact with spiders (or not. Preferably not).

Here are some examples of what I mean by interaction.

  • Seeing one far away (Is seeing it enough to cause a panic?)
  • Seeing one within arm’s reach
  • Seeing a fake one
  • Seeing a picture / video
  • Thinking about it / Remembering it
  • Talking about it
  • Hearing someone talk about it
  • Touching one (if it’s a physical thing)
  • Performing the activity (if it’s an action)

As a rule, the more intimate or prolonged the contact with the object of fear, the stronger the reaction. So you’ll want to decide what level of interaction a character can deal with, what level makes him/her uncomfortable, and what level makes him/her freak out (that’s totally a scientific term).

For example, let’s say that Joe is afraid of going to the movies.

  • The thought of going makes him instantly tense although it fades quickly once he stops thinking about it.
  • Drawings of it don’t bother him (they don’t look real), but photos do because they make him picture himself there. He’ll get tense quickly and look away.
  • People trying to convince him to go with them makes his heart pound too fast and his mouth get dry. His muscles knot, and he’ll finally yell to change the subject or leave rudely because he doesn’t want to think about it. It takes a while to come down from that.
  • Passing one in a mall makes him shake in addition to those symptoms, and he picks which mall he goes to by the layout and whether he can avoid the movie theater.

See how that could affect the plot?

That’s why setting rules is really useful. They let you allow for a range of responses, and by setting them up in advance, you make the character more consistent, which in turn, makes the phobia more believable.

The responses you choose should also be fairly consistent – variations on a theme, as it were. If the character is prone to freeze and be unable to move, he/she is unlikely to suddenly get up and run away. On the other hand, if something only makes the character a bit edgy, it would be out of character to scream and run away.

If you research common symptoms for phobias, you’ll find that specific phobias have more typical symptoms. Some of the more universal ones are…

  • Hyperventilating
  • Shakes
  • Cold
  • High heart rate (or the feel of one – AKA an adrenaline spike)
  • Throat closing up
  • Screaming
  • Crying

The symptoms are generally uncomfortable, embarrassing, or both, so it’s no wonder most people try to avoid whatever their phobic of.

Establish & Follow the Rules

Like any other characterization, the phobia should be established early on – or at least the 1st time the stimulus is introduced. You don’t have to have a character confess to a strange phobia early on when nothing has brought up that topic (please, don’t). But a reader shouldn’t be able to look back and say, “Rita wasn’t afraid of dogs in Chapter Two…” or “But Rita was terrified of dogs two paragraphs ago!” unless there’s a reason for that.

I’ve blabbered on too long already to go into detail, but suffice to say that phobias don’t disappear quickly. They can weaken slowly over time (usually because of repeated exposure to the stimulus), they can stay the same, or they can suddenly get worse due to stress or other pressures (like slight nerves becoming a full-blown phobia).

Phobias are like fat: infuriatingly quick to put on and agonizingly slow to take off.

Fortunately for our characters, they’re made up. That means that we can subject them to these uncomfortable things for our convenience and amusement. If a character is being too logical or tough, we can throw in a little irrational behavior by giving them a phobia. Then, instead of having to try to get caught up enough to figure out what an overwrought person would do, we can simply follow the rules of the phobia – a little phobia goes a long way.

Convenient, yeah?

A City’s Character: More Writing Inspiration from Travel

urban city aerialA while back, I talked about how to make the most of travel delays with the people-watching writing prompt, but even if there are no (or few) people around, you can still find plenty of useful inspiration in your travels by considering a city’s character.

Places are like people. They have a certain look, a certain feel. They have their quirks, their strengths, and their flaws. They can be welcoming, or they can be hostile. Whatever size or density, places have plenty to draw from as a writer.

Here are some aspects you might want to consider when using a place for inspiration:

  • Worldbuilding: style, layout, laws, business, crime, attractions, sounds, weather, wildlife, landscape, etc. Anything that exists in a real place can be used to make your imagined place feel real, to add interest, or even for humor.
  • Mood: Atmosphere is a powerful tool, and one of the best ways to learn to build atmosphere is to experience and observe a specific atmosphere and analyze how it is created. Or simply use imagery as inspiration.
  • Pacing: Different places go at different speeds. This is especially noticeable if you go somewhere that moves at the opposite tempo you’re used to. If you have the time to sit and watch the world go by (preferably with a nice cup of tea), you can see how those speeds ebb and flow throughout the day and even how different people have different speeds within that pacing. You could even pattern your story arc after the ebbs and flows of a town (wouldn’t that be an interesting project?).
  • Food: Cultural differences bring food differences – not only through what people eat but also through how people treat their food. Is it something grabbed on the run? Is it something eaten at the table in a leisurely manner? Is it scarce or plentiful? Even if you already use food for worldbuilding or writing inspiration, seeing new foods or new customs can give you fresh perspectives and ideas.
  • Personification: Or should I say, “reverse personification”? (No, I shouldn’t.) Writers often describe places as people (arrogant old women, young charmers, etc.), but you could just as easily reverse that to build a character inspired by a place. Like the dryad that takes on characteristics of her tree, you could build a character who embodies the spirit of a place.
  • Structural Opportunities: Ok, this might seem a little weird at first glance (there’s probably a better word for it), but bear with me. What I’m talking about is the layout of traffic flow and living spaces, both on a large and small scale. How the city is laid out in relation to the landscape, how streets meet each other, how green space or exterior space is tied in, and even where windows are (or aren’t).
    1. These are all things you might think of with worldbuilding, but they can also be very useful for plotting. Like looking at a building and realizing how easy it would be to walk from one to the other. Or like the fact that only locals know that you have to take the highway exit that says “west” to go east… (true story).

There are more options (always). And if you’ve thought about it at all, you’ve already realized that 1. these “aspects” are all things you can apply to where you live (no travel required) and 2. a lot of them are applying other writing prompts to a different location…

You caught me.

Seriously, though, this prompt isn’t about an idea you can only use when you travel. There’s no such thing! It’s more about remembering to be observant and think about this stuff when you have the opportunity to see things you don’t get to see every day. That’s the point of travel, right? You get to experience a strange mix of familiar and different.

That’s a great mix for writing inspiration – but only if you look.

Build a Neighborhood Lending Library

Little Free Library

That’s one well-read bird…

“What is this thing?” you may ask. As well you should. “It looks like a birdhouse (a really big birdhouse), but there are books inside! I want to know more!” That was my exact response when I saw this while out for a walk. Then, I saw the little plaque on the front:

LittleFreeLibrary.org
Take a Book • Return a Book

How awesome is that! Someone built a little lending library and put it out for anyone to use. It was on the edge of a nice neighborhood right next to a little walking path, and whoever did it must have taken into account weather patterns because the books inside looked perfectly protected. What a nice way to encourage people to read!

So (being me) I took a picture and went to the site.

It turns out there are about 37 of these registered in the city where I live (woohoo!), and the website also has specific instructions for how to set one up. Plus, there are articles for dealing wth different issues and giving advice. Overall, it seems like a pretty nifty idea and a nice way to encourage reading. It’d definitely be a great community project for a kids group.

It kind of makes me want to build one. How about you?

Gender Guessers Are Handy for Writing

gender female maleA big part of writing believable stories is shaping believable characters, and when you’re trying to write a believable man or woman, questions of gender come up. How do you write convincingly from the opposite gender? How can you tell if you succeeded? That’s when gender guessers are handy for writing.

What Is a Gender Guesser?

Some people analyzed a bunch of writing by men and women for trends in word usage and grammar (To learn more about the that, check out “Do Women and Men Really Write Differently” by Elizabeth Barrette). Then, they plugged that information into an algorithm to scan text and say whether it is written in a more masculine or feminine style.

Now, algorithms like that are available online. Google “gender guesser” and you’ll get sites where you can paste in some writing, click a button, and get an analysis of the writing style.

Why Use a Gender Guesser?

Honestly, as a writer, I don’t really care what gender my normal voice is. I don’t care if my regular writing sounds more masculine or feminine. What does it matter? (Really) It wouldn’t even occur to me to think about it then.

Even with dialogue, that’s not my main concern. Yeah, it’s part of it, but if a character is a gruff, terse, guy with a soft heart, I’m going to focus on conveying those characteristics. Mainly because I define my characters more by their personalities than by their gender. So I focus more on “what would Sylvia say?” than “does this wording show that Sylvia’s a woman?” (The exception would be if I were writing some sort of femme fatale or overly masculine character where the gender is one of the defining characteristics.)

If you think about it, unless the character’s spouting a long monologue, there’s not usually enough words to really decisively convey whether the character is masculine or feminine. Realistic character-wise, a lot of lines could fit either gender, and it’s really the context and the non-dialogue writing that’s going to give the reader the biggest impression of the gender. To even use a gender guesser to check it, you’d have to copy out each line of that character’s dialogue, and it could take a while to get enough for a full analysis.

That’s why I worry about gender more when I’m writing from a character’s perspective, especially when I’m writing in first person. That’s a lot more text that’s supposedly coming from the character’s perspective, so there’s more pressure to be able to convey the character believably (IMHO).

Ever heard someone complaining that a male author writes unconvincing female characters? Or vice versa? Or how about the debate over whether anyone can really write convincingly from the opposite gender? I’ve heard variations on all that. And I think it’s a natural enough worry for a writer. That’s when gender guessers are handy for writing.

If you’re worried about conveying a specific gender, then test paragraphs of your writing in a gender guesser like Hacker Factor.

For example, in the last year as part of my writing experiment, I started Deathwalker, a first-person narrative from the point of view of a young man named Sephtis (Seph). Even though I picked first person with a male character deliberately to challenge myself (writing-wise), I was a bit intimidated. I’d never really written in first person before, and trying to give the impression of a different gender at the same time seemed… complicated. Could I really pull it off?

To make matters worse, Seph is not really the uber-masculine type. He’s often hesitant and unsure of himself, and most of the time, he’s more logical than testosterone-driven. In other words, he’s more of a real guy than the cock-sure, charge-forward stereotype; however, since that stereotype is a big part of how we define masculinity, how do you write a convincing male character that defies those rules?

I decided early on to concentrate on writing the character and hope it worked out. Recently, my brother told me about the gender guesser programs, and I plugged in the most recent chapter (including the dialogue from other characters). Here’s what I got.

deathwalker gender hacker analysis

That’s pretty good. I don’t really know how accurate it it, but it seems to match what I was aiming for. Especially since when I put in a different story with a female lead (of the gutsy, stubborn variety), I got a different answer.

Strong woman gender writing analysis

Again, it seems to match, which is reassuring. It tells me 1 of 2 things. Either 1. I’m doing pretty well at representing the gender of my characters or 2. both the gender guesser and I use the same rules for evaluating gender in writing. Since I have no real way to evaluate the accuracy of the gender guesser, I can’t really say whether options 1 and 2 overlap.

That said, if you’re interested in checking some of your writing, here’s one way to do it. The other way (the traditional method) is to have people read it and see if the characters are believable to them. Since the gender guesser is so easy to use, I see no reason not to do both.

Crime, Punishment, & Worldbuilding

George Takei Oh My Crime Punishment Worldbuilding

Sorry. I couldn’t resist.

Unless you’re a lawyer, judge, career criminal, or bdsm enthusiast, you probably don’t spend too much time thinking about crime and punishment. And why would you? It’s not something you study in school. It’s more like how we learn social cues – things you pick up over time through stories from family and friends, television and movies, and life experience (although you might try to avoid the last one). Since crime and punishment are integral parts of society’s rules, however, they’re also a key part of worldbuilding – as well as an often-overlooked opportunity.

What is a crime?

I’m not being a smart-aleck (this time). This is a serious question because the answer changes with the culture. Laws are different in different countries and different regions. And all those laws can change over time as the beliefs of the culture change. To really flesh-out your worldbuilding, you’re going to have to answer this question at least to some extent (not to the legalese minutia extent – Heaven forbid!).

Just to show you how the definition of a crime can change and how it can affect the worldbuilding, here are some examples of crimes from stories:

To my knowledge, none of those “crimes” are illegal in the U.S. In fact, laws against them wouldn’t make sense at all in the U.S., and trying to get most of them passed would meet strong opposition. In the context of the stories, however, they make perfect sense.

In addition to the usual worldbuilding ideas, here are some thoughts on how crime and punishment can play a role.

Using Crime & Punishment for Worldbuilding

Emotional Appeal: Make a Culture Likable

For the most part, we like what we know or understand. That goes for laws, too. To make a culture automatically likable, familiar, or even comforting, you can…

  1. Define major crimes the same. Murder, for example.
  2. Scatter in similar minor crimes. Traffic tickets and sound complaints can add humor and give the reader something to empathize with.
  3. Show improvements in laws. I don’t mean crime-less cultures because that’s hard to believe, but there are always unpopular laws and/or punishments. “Fixing” those in your made-up culture wins you automatic points with the people who’re against them (and loses you points with the other side. Just sayin’).
Emotional Unappeal: Make It Dislikable

It works the same in the other direction only this time you can either

  1. Imitate laws your culture finds offensive. Like some of Nazi Germany’s laws, for example.
  2. Reverse your own laws.

So… basically reverse everything under “Make It Likable.” Anything that goes against what your culture considers right will make most people feel instant disgust, anger, or at least dislike. And whether that emotion is directed towards the government or the country as a whole is dependent on whether the majority of the people in the country are shown to approve (or not).

Establish Cultural Values

This can be mixed with either of the emotional appeals. You can make a made-up culture feel a bit familiar by using some similar laws and then use other laws to show the differences in how the culture treats things like…

  • Gender roles: Is it legal for men and women to vote? Who can own property? How easy/hard is it to change genders? Are there more gender options than the traditional 2? (At least 1 sci fi book I can think of has used hemaphroditic and asexual people in a culture.)
  • Race: Are there different races? How are they defined (legally)? (Biology, country, skin color, scale color, birthplace, magic ability, etc.) Are legal rights different for different races?
  • Businesses: Do businesses have legal rights of their own? What kind of regulations are in place.
  • Arts: Are any of the arts illegal? Are they regulated? Are licenses required?

Etc. Anything really. And part of all of them will be answering the question of how much are the rules enforced by law and how much are they enforced by social norms. As a rule, laws usually reflect ideas that are most important to the society (or to whoever’s ruling it/making the laws).

Punishments are also very revealing of cultural values. If a culture is strongly against violence, then the punishments for severe crimes have to be peaceful. If a culture completely hates the mistreatment of women, then any crime in that category should have a really extreme sentence. The same if a culture despises lying. Or toenail polish.

It doesn’t have to make sense in our world – only in the story. Focus on the purpose of the laws:

  • To protect individuals, the society, the culture, etc.
  • To benefit a specific person/interest group: This could be fair or unfair, depending on how the laws were slanted beforehand and who’s in power.
  • To harm a specific person/interest group

Who makes the laws is important to all of that, too, but that’s a different problem.

Anyway, that’s enough to at least put a bug in your ear on the subject. As usual, I’m hoping my blabbering gives you a brilliant idea that leads to a wonderful story for me to read (I do like reading!). I’d also love to hear about any examples you can add – know any stories where the definition of crime has a big influence on the worldbuilding?