The Under Ground Writing Project

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Dumb Books

Posted by Ali on February 27, 2013 at 6:45 PM Comments comments (2)

I live by the principle that life is too short to waste time with books I don't like. I'm quick to abandon books after readying a chapter or two because the tone doesn't work for me, I'm not invested in the characters, it's just too easy to put down, or, as in the case of a recent book, it's getting on my nerves.

Recently, I stumbled on a book while I was searching for another and read the synopsis out of curiosity. I'm not going to name the book or author, because that would be mean, but here's the overview: Historical fiction. A woman who's heartbroken after a broken engagement becomes a mail-order-bride and goes off to marry a widower and look after his kids. The marriage is supposed to be symbolic rather than romantic, but then they grow to care for each other. But, what about the bad secret in the woman's past? Will it threaten their burgeoning affection?

Based on the synopsis, I thought, "Sure, it could be interesting." After a few pages, my impression quickly changed to, "What? That's obnoxious. This book is dumb." I read two whole chapters, then tossed it aside with a feeling like I'd accidentally put my hand in something wet and sticky. I mean, seriously, ick. So, here's what went wrong.

1. Flashbacks.

Chapter one starts with two paragraphs in the "present" then leaps backwards in time. Two paragraphs is too little time to actually get anchored in the first scene before getting tossed around. The trend continues throughout the chapter, a few paragraphs here, a few paragraphs here, and by the time I read three pages, I had whiplash. Done right, flashbacks can be wonderful, but in this book, they were melodramatic, irrelevant, and distracting. I jump from the heroine on a train to her fighting with her parents, to back on the train, to back home again, to back on the train, to... Flashbacks are not an adequate substitute for good writing. In this case, I was annoyed, not intrigued.



2. Incoherent/nonsensical motivation.

Our heroine had her heart broken by some cad, so she answers a wife advertisement and immediately heads off to marry a stranger. During the flashback argument with mom and dad, it is revealed that our heroine comes from a moneyed family and is dropping out of university to become a mail-order-bride because of the security the marriage offers. Um, what? Since when do rich girls marry poor farmers for "security"?  Puh-lease.

She also tells her parents that, even though she has never met this man's children, she already loves them and must go be their hero-mommy! Ugh, gag me with a spoon. So, at this point, instead of thinking the heroine to be a noble gal who's following through with a hard decision because she's honorable, I just think she's an over-emotional idiot. I mean, clearly, she did not think this through. Maybe, if she was marrying the guy because she had fallen in love with hiim through his letters, I'd buy it. But, the author explicitly points out that love is NOT the point of this union. The point is that he needs help and she wants to get away from her heartbreak. Okay, but why does that require marriage? Have these people never heard of people hiring other people to help on the farm? Why does she have to go off and be his wife when she could just be his housekeeper? The more the author/character tries to justify the action, the more alienated I became.

3. Artificial conflict.

Our heroine gets off the train to meet her betrothed. She has purposely never asked him for a photo (didn't want to be superficial and find out if she actually thought the man she swore to marry was good looking), and he has never asked her for one. So, now they have to find each other without knowing who they're looking for. I was unimpressed by this contrivance, and grew less amused as the author tries to milk it for drama. Could that be him? No! He's not coming over to her. That guy sure is cute, though. But, who cares, her betrothed clearly isn't here. He's abandoned her. She must buy a ticket back. Oh no! The ticket guy was mildly rude to her. Ack! The world is ending! Oh dear, the cute guy is coming over here. Uh oh, awkward moment. Oh, wait, this hottie is really her intended! What a revelation!

Come on all of this nonsense when all she had to do was keep an eye out for a single guy, and say, "Hey, are you Bob?" People do this on blind dates all the time. It's not a crisis, really. Or, you know, the characters could have had half a brain between them and one of them figure out that it's easier to meet someone at the train if you have an inkling of what they actually look like. Yeesh. The characters are dumb and the conflict is prolonged to the point of eye rolling.

4. The Mary Sue effect.

Our rich, noble, and smart (well, she's supposed to be, even if her actions convince me of the opposite) heroine thinks to herself how she's never thought herself pretty, despite the way men are interested in her. Because, surely, having men flirt with her can't possibly mean she's pretty, because she has to be humble, right? Of course, as soon as we get a second in the POV of her betrothed, all he can think of is how gorgeous she is. Another gag me moment. So, our heroine is clearly Miss Perfect in every way. She's a victim of unfortunate consequences that are not her fault at all. Now, here she is, having made a poorly thought-out decision, but she's landed a total hottie who's also very sweet.

Put it all together and you end up with a book I had to write a whole blog post about because I honestly think it is just that awful. I'll skip the part where I wonder how this book even got published, because I think this saccharine stuff definitely has a niche, and go straight to the point where I tell you that it's okay to abandon books. Some published books are bad. Some books that sell a ton of copies are bad. Some books, my friend, just aren't worth your time. So, please remember: Life is too short for bad books.

Now, please tell me - have you abandoned any books lately? What writing crimes have made you abandon books in the past?

Writer's Blah, Part 3

Posted by Ali on February 7, 2013 at 7:00 PM Comments comments (1)

This post is going to wrap up a series on writer's blah, aka, writer's block. This is my sum-uption post and it has some links in case you're sick of hearing what I have to say about all of this and want to see if other people are smarter than me. (They are. Some of them.)

I started out with a block, and ended up with a completed story. It's roughly inspired by the Duchess of Bathory (beware before you Google, it's a grisly story) and the working title is "The Virgin Problem."

Working through my writer's block has helped me realize that the root cause of my wall was, as explained in Writer's Block: The 12-Step Cure, trying too hard to be a genius. I was having a hard time, because I was putting so much pressure on myself to BE BRILLIANT! The key solution, as outlined in the post, was to let go of the pressure. #1 in the list: #1: Don’t be married to results. It's not about writing something that will astonish and amaze your readers, it's just about writing something. If, at the end, it's not something you'd publicly claim, then that's fine. Call it a warm up and move on.

For TVP, I was stuck on plot, so I started mentally listed possible "what happens next?" ideas, along with "what's the worst that can happen? ideas. Then, I picked a combo and went with it. Maybe there was a more clever way to do it, but the main thing was, something happened next.

There are some good tips over at the Grammar Girl website in Overcoming Writer's Block. One of the tips I like a lot, and often use, is #7: If you are blocked in your usual writing place, try a new place. I call this Out of the House Pages. You can get bonus points if you go someplace else and write using media you don't usually use - i.e. write longhand instead of bringing your laptop. For TVP, I ended up writing 80% of it while sitting on someone else's couch.

I also really like Grammar Girl's #9: Get someone to ask you questions about your story. This happens a lot in our critique group, and it's great. One of the questions that comes up from time to time is, "Why today?" It's an infuriating, but important question. Why is today the day the character professes his unrequited love? He's kept it a secret for three years, why is this specific day different from all the others? This question also speaks to the idea of the inciting event. You need one, even in a short story.

Writer's Digest has a great article, 10 Creative Ways to Beat Writer's Block, that has some great ideas. My favorites, at the moment, are #4: Creating an Atmosphere and #5 Enriching Your Descriptions. When I have a solid idea, these are two areas where I'm not as strong. I get caught up in this happens, then this, then this... and I speed through. More than one person has said my style reminds them of TV/movie writing because there are a lot of things that actors and a stage would fill in that I've left incomplete. Filling in these things is something I'm continuously trying to improve on.

Interestingly, I find that when I'm goofing around and I'm working on a writing prompt that starts from atmosphere, or describing something specific, the more I delve into that process, the more readily a story evolves from it. For me, when I start describing a secret high-stakes poker game, I start wondering about things. Who plays a game like this? Why does it have to be secret? How high are the stakes? Money's boring, but if the loser dies... and so it goes. The story behind the setting starts to evolve.

Another tip, not specifically nabbed from a website, is to write an explanation of your story to yourself. When you get stuck, write yourself a letter explaining your goals/vision for the story. This is a way of thinking out what you're doing and the more you explain it, the easier it is to figure out your snags. Let's say you want to have your character experience a loss. By spelling out your intentions, it can lead you where you need to go.

"Dear self, I'm trying to figure out what Susie needs to lose. She has to experience a loss so she'll be in the right state of mind to pick a fight with Bob over something minor. They need to have the fight, because that leads to the climax. If her loss is too major, then Bob's going to be sympathetic instead of combative, so that won't work. So, I can't have Susie's mother die. Or her dog. Okay, no death at all. But, it can't be too minor, either..."

Now, my final link for you is 13 Famous Writers on Overcoming Writer's Block. The collection is very cool and diverse. Also, it has Neil Gaiman in it!

*If you completely disagree with any of this advice, or think I've missed something vital, I'd love to hear it! Seriously, leave a comment. (Alternately, if you think I'm brilliant and have just solved all of your writer's block problems, that's cool too.) If you've ever overcome writer's block, please tell us how.

Condensing and Consolidating

Posted by John Ridge on August 17, 2012 at 11:20 AM Comments comments (1)

It happens to all of us.

You're sitting in a place with no access to your writing materials, and the most brilliant thought ever arrives into your stream of consciousness. Without thinking, you either write it on your hand, a Post-It note, a drugstore receipt, or anything that will hold ink long enough for you to get it home. This treasured piece gets thrown in a pile along with the other scraps of detritus tattooed with your other brilliant thoughts. This pile sits next to the little notebook you bought specifically for writing down brilliant thoughts, but you forgot about in your haste to get to work.

You say, "I'll get to you in a minute," and then you sit at the computer, to sort out the mess you've made of your WikidPad file. The links you created aren't jumping to the file you want it to, the tree isn't looking right, or it's cluttered and inefficient, and that's a problem. No matter how many times you re-read the instructions, it just doesn't look the same as Wikipedia. Forget about adding pictures.

After twenty minutes of this, you cross-reference the Wikidpad file with the Word and Excel files you created before you ever heard of WikidPad. You realize that there are now three brilliant-but-contradictory stories regarding something that happened in your protagonist's childhood. They're all so brilliant you just can't bear to kill any of them, and you spend the next ten minutes seriously considering the possibility of breaking your protagonist apart into a set triplets instead of just one person.

Once all that is settled, and you've checked your usual websites for baby names, you now have your Triplet-Protagonists all named and their particular pieces of the original arc divided equally among them. That's when you look at the note you wrote earlier in the day, and realized that the brilliant idea can't work unless the antagonist's perspective is articulated far more completely. Your brilliant mind realizes that this scenario includes a potential use for one of the previous stories given to one of the newly made triplets. Specifically the one named "Grover," which is the one name you weren't sold on in the first place, but his brothers are already named "Grant" and "Greg," therefore it would look really weird if you named him "Wally."

So you brilliantly kill off "Grover" in the first hour of his imaginary life. This makes you feel a little strange, and something nags at you, so you look at the stack of critiques from the previous draft and the one most common criticism was that "you tried too hard to be brilliant all the time, and you overuse the word 'brilliant'." You trust everyone, especially when they all come to the same conclusion by themselves. They are also a bunch of bri...geniuses.

Your cursory thesaurus check doesn't give you the anticipated synonyms for "brilliant," which makes your eyes tired, so you rub them profusely like the tortured artist you are. Then you look around at the stack of handwritten notes, partially filled-out notebooks, stacks of critiqued drafts, mentally inventory the files on your desktop that are older than the ones on your laptop, remember that some things are written in that cool sticky notes thing in Windows 7, remind yourself about the two apps on your phone that contain notes which you only use when you remember they exist, and run through the stuff in your brain you wanted to do, but have yet to put down into words, and then, only then, you finally admit to yourself:

"Maybe I should condense some of this stuff. At some point there's writing to be done."

It happens to all of us. But it happens to me no longer. Today, everything's on hardcopy, three-hole punched, and tucked inside a three-ring binder. Makes me feel effulgent, or even astute.

Now, quit reading this and go write something.

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