Time Travel: DOs and DON’Ts

Travel writing? Why, yes, I’m fond of the sort. Evocative, painterly, introspective, resplendent. Taking my couch-planted duff off to places I’m not spending money to travel.

Oh, you’re talking time travel? Get in line.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Greetings Curator of Blog [designation Writing All Wrong]:

I am Citizen #306765899. You may list me as “Brent Staples.” I inquire after the state of time travel in the writings of YEAR 2012. Thank you.

—”Brent Staples,” City NA9083

Hey 306765899, perhaps I should be the one asking you about how things “are cracking” in 2086 or whenever. Is redheadedness a crime where you live? I do worry about that.

I’m going to forgo opinions and instead offer sorely-needed dos and don’ts for this round of time travel.

DON’T reinvent the wheel.

Science has proven that every writer has given at least one consideration to writing time travel fiction. And many have. You’re following in the sunken footsteps of many who’ve done this before: Wells’s The Time Machine, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and God’s The Bible. Don’t shoot for a better wheel. Just make a good one.

DO your research.

If you’re sending characters back in time, then you’d better give a proper picture of what it was like back in the day. I’m not falling for a wooden-toothed Washington or a dragon-less court of King Canute. Same goes for future travels. It’s not guesswork: find future editions of Popular Science or postdated tech blogs that cover the science of your target era.

DON’T delve too deep into how time travel works.

If you’re not strapping on the suspenders of disbelief, then you’re in the wrong business. It’s nice to have some working knowledge of the intricacies, sure, but I’m not reading your book to find out how the heck I can warp back to 2nd grade on my own and duck when that stupidface kid punched me. Unless you’re writing a fictional textbook. That’s an idea.

DO exaggerate.

“But you said—” I know what I said, but if I wanted a history book, I’d read that. Get the facts right (Abe Lincoln was the 16th President, Hitler was a Nazi) before you take the necessary liberties (Abe Lincoln whooped his debate opponents in fencing, Hitler had plans for a Jew-seeking missile [soon thwarted].)

DON’T go gimmick.

Time travel is a common fascination, but an uncommon art. Before you sit down to write time traveling fiction, make sure that this is the best possible idea you have. Avoid using time travel as a novelty. It’s like a rocket. Pretty nift in and of itself, but not when you’re buckling it to the roof of a car. I know you want to “drive faster,” but there’s a better way of going about it.

DO write a good story, no matter what.

Great fiction wins. When your book’s pages meet the fire, burned in punitive pyres of creative purgation, may its mourners not say “This was a good time travel story,but “This was a good story.”

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong).

You Are Nothing if Not Critical

Hello, dozen or so readers:

We’re back to the scheduled regularness. My second-written, first-to-be-offered novel—The Travels of Sir Michael Zazu—is off looking for a publisher. Wish it well for me. Thanks.

In the meantime, there’s still a lot of bad writing out there.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Hey, did you see this article: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2012/08/writers_and_readers_on_twitter_and_tumblr_we_need_more_criticism_less_liking_.html 

It’s almost like they read your blog, that is, if your blog were popular enough to read, LOL!

—Brad Millen, Akron, Ohio

I hate you. But I don’t hate the point you make.

But please, do give the article a read. It’s much more fun to read the same sort of material from someone more famous. (Done? Yay, great.)

It’s exactly why writing has become more of a sham than it deserves. Schools haven’t failed, creatives haven’t been squelched, and literacy hasn’t plummeted as much as people support.

It’s because writers are too nice. 

Nice to each other, nice to simpering fans, nice to anyone who will review for publicity, retweets, snacks, whatever. Amidst all the niceness, we’ve lost what makes writing better. You are nothing if not critical, and here’s why:

Too much niceness spoils the broth

“Oh, I love everything you do, write, and say! I love sticking @ mentions of you in my Tweets, and liking all your Facebooks and Google Plusses! I want to polygamously marry you and be wedded to your infinite goodness!”

Yeah, because that’s going to prompt good reading and/or writing. Love and hatred both falter when sharing the same blindfold.

Criticism ≠ hate

The social media honeypot abounds with sticky, sappy, gooeyness, but not enough bees. You are not a “hater” if you rightly point out a flimsy plot, stilted characters, or poor word choices across the board. You have a right to demand excellence, even if your favorite author and her fans won’t retweet it.

Fan of great writing, or fan of attention?

Which writer are you going to enjoy more: the one who acknowledges your measly existence from his lofty pedestal, or the one who writes well and couldn’t be bothered to reply to you?

Why are you a fan? No, seriously: ask that question. Don’t lie with a good answer. What about this author tickles you, makes you smile each day, enriches your life?

It’s the fact that they connect with you, isn’t it? It’s that you feel like you’re a part of their “community,” their fan base, yes? And you wouldn’t dare say an untoward thing about what they do, no? They might just—gasp—unfriend you.

I’m not saying that every popular author can’t write worth beans. But if popularity and “connectability” are the new standards of excellence, then we’ve got more going all wrong than just writing.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong).

Read Better, Write Better

You’re reading all wrong.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Dear Writing All Wrong,

I’d like some advice on the following:

Since I’ve been writing stories I’ve hardly picked up a book to read. Some people have frowned upon me for that. They believe that reading books of successful authors can help you become one yourself. I believe it will only cause me to copy the authors’ methods of success, instead of coming up with a style of my own.

Is it really necessary to read other people’s books to become a good writer?

“That crazy German girl”, Gun Barrel City, TX

For starters, “methods of success” ≠ writing style and voice. And there’s a world of difference between “successful” authors and good authors.

Reading and writing are a balance, if a curious one. Readers who always read, never writing, remain good readers. Whereas writers who always write, never reading, may not even exist.

Reading is an important part of the input/output continuum. Can’t understate that. But let’s stick to the question, poke holes in some myths here.

1) Reading books of “successful” authors will NOT help you become one yourself.

Most “successful” books are crap. Do you want to be known as the author whose books are ones you see in grocery stores? If that were the case, we’d have more “successful” authors, no? Eating a steady stream of Big Macs, McRibs, McChicken Sandwiches, and Land, Sea, and Air McBurgers isn’t getting you closer to profiting off of owning your own McDonalds. So it is with the consumption of any product of “success.”

2) Reading books of “successful” authors will NOT cause you to copy “success.”

At best, you’ll be copying stilted prose, thin plots, and sham characters. That kind of material, for worse or for worser, could influence your voice.

But is influence a bad thing? Not really, because:

3) Reading good books will influence your style for the better. Let it happen.

You derive your style from influences. Take a gander at artists’ Wikipedia profiles. Even comedians have blurbs as to their influences. And who they influenced. Nothing new under the sun; soak it up anyway.

You can derive your economy of style from Saramago, or your expansiveness from Henry James. You can delve into the magical from reading Marquez, or the whimsical from Twain. Set your bar of influence high, and your writing will do better to follow.

Be influenced by artistry, aesthetic merit in writing. Not just “success.”

4) Read other people’s books to be a good writer? No. Read better books to be a better writer.

It isn’t 100% necessary. But it’s worth the effort.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong).

On Writing Prompts

I was out shopping with the missus today, scouring cheery aisles of education supplies. To my surprise, I found an abundance of writing/literature/communication aids. Didn’t think they taught any of that, given today’s dismal educational climate.

Found boxes upon boxes of “writing prompts” in the mix. Really? We’re in that kind of shape these days, eh? Judging by the emails I’ve gotten (and ignored), it seems so. Can’t say it’s all bad. But there’s room to make them better.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Do you know of any good writing prompts?

—Meghan Simon, Bournemouth, England

Other than “Write. Write now!” or “Why are you wasting your life?” Not really.

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t much need writing prompts. Writing is borne of the imagination; it’s the genesis of inventiveness. How proud of yourself do you feel when you take someone else’s idea and write off of that? Or when you develop seeds you expect others to plant?

Fine. I realize it’s more of a recreational gimmick. But don’t go so much planting the seeds of others when you can create them yourself. That’s half the fun right there.

But for the sake of the post, here are some writing prompts for your enlightenment, if you must:

—A zombie suffers a traumatic brain injury and loses his craving for the brains of others. Does he find love among the mindless of his own kind or among the humans who fear him because he’s “different?”

—The future version of yourself has broken into your house, left everything in shambles, set your car afire, and eaten all of your Bacon Blast™ Doritos®.

—Instagram now offers a taste of your food and drink right when you photograph them. Your protagonist is blind. She only has a flip phone.

—A clockwork android befriends the wrong person: Leonardo da Vinci.

—Technological breakthrough allows for universal translation of the barks and thoughts of dogs. Animal rights groups campaign against dog ownership after it’s discovered that the vast majority of dogs hate being owned by humans. Shep just wants a toy.

—Bullying is banned in the United States. To enforce the bullying ban, the Dept. of Education has authorized local, student-led Anti-Bullying Task Teams to use whatever force necessary to combat bullying. With that kind of authority, there’s no way bullying ever happens in America again.

—Your apartment has been robbed, cleared of everything, save for a watch, a copy of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, and a bratwurst with a half-finished game of tic-tac-toe etched into it.

—A writer justifies his writer’s block by imagining it into a mental illness. And it’s contagious. Crap.

—A hip, young Los Angeles comedian wades through parties, afterparties, and after-afterparties chasing dreams, money, and love in a sea of affluence and popularity. JUST KILL THIS GUY ALREADY.

—A man walks a giraffe down the street.*

I actually wrote something brief from that last one. Did you have any good works come from a decent writing prompt?

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong).

How Many Words Should You Write in a Day?

“Whoever writes the most words in a day, wins!”

Is this what we’ve come to?

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

How many words should I write in a day? 

—Nathan Burt, Cantonment, Fla.

What? 

This isn’t NaNoWriMo. This isn’t a contest. This is writing. Art. Do or do not. There is no word count goal in life.

So what occasions this question? Oh, I know!

Writers. 

Writers who will toot the rusty trumpet of wordcount boasts by the 500s, 1000s, 1500s, and OMG I WROTE OVER 9000 WORDS TODAY. Writers who have slit throats and slain the “good writing goats” over the profane altars of “Most Words Wins.” Writers who forgot that writing isn’t probs, probes, stats, or maths. This isn’t a numbers game.

You misspelled quality. Looks like you wrote quantity instead. That’s your problem.

Is it OK to eke out some occasional hollow boasts of word count in your Tweets, posts, and braindumps? Can’t fine or arrest you for that. We’re all guilty. But don’t make it a habit.

Don’t be guilty of surfing with the popular crowds of crows, shouting out into the nothing about the numeric dent they’ve made in their #wip. Don’t strut like an ostrich on uppers after you write xxxx number of words in xxxx amount of time. You don’t see stenographers hop up and do the Dougie in the courtroom after they wrote “FIFTEEN THOUSAND WORDS IN A DAY, YEEEAH!” 

Heck, you could write “swag swag swag” over and over again for an hour and light the jorts off of most wordcount poseurs.

Just write. Write something. Make it good. One hundred hard-earned words well-written and kept quiet win out over the thousands who write for nothing more than the inevitable wordcountbrag fodder.

It’s the words that count, not the word count that counts.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong).

Writing the Best Chick Lit Ever

Chick lit. Back in my day, it was candy. Today? Money.

And even still, you’d be surprised how many well-meaning authors screw it all up.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Dear Writing All Wrong,

What advice do you have on writing good chick lit?

—Caroline Heidl, Germantown, Md.

Well. Uh. Yeah. Right, then. Good to see you’ve asked the expert on chick lit.

From what I’ve gathered, chick lit is like the literary version of Lifetime®, only better, and more intelligent. Of course, the same could be said of Caveman Legal thrillers, armpit slicks, and the occasional YA ghostpunk novel.  Here are some basics to getting these down, and getting them good (I think):

Don’t write about “man” stuff

Your chick lit shouldn’t contain any of the following:

-Chewing tobacco

-Eating pork rinds

-Losing an argument

-Being “OK” with someone pretending to listen

-Farting (or farting around) or burping (or burping around)

-Rounds of “chainsaw-jousting” while riding rocket-powered motorcycles 

Writing about the common traits found only among the man part of the human race will discredit your intent, sad to say. Even if it’s pretty cool when ladyfolk do that kind of stuff.

Write believable women

“Susan Sass is on top of the world, having purged herself of insecurities, trusting in her gift of good looks, and using her perfected charm and wit to win over anything and anyone she wants. But deep down inside—she’s the exact same winner as she is on the outside! And she gets along with everyone in life: ex-boyfriends, jealous co-workers, even her mother-in-law.”

That’s not believable. Flaws make for great stories. Throw a few in the mix. Instability. Calamity. Acne.

Renege on romance

Because exotic, spicy fairytales of farfetched flings are just that: lousy. Prince Charming isn’t a popular guest star in the chick lit kingdom. Neither is Prince Perfect-Abs. The lads of chick lit are more pauper than prince. That’s life.

Don’t keep your distance on the difference

Gender. It’s as much knowing what differentiates what “women want” and what “dudes do” when the circumstances could be the same. To put it lightheartedly:

Crisis: Severance of employment.

Chick: “How could this happen to me? I thought I was doing just fine here. Great, months of job hunting and flailing, here I come. (Cue more introspection)

Dude: “Sh*t, how’m I gonna pay up for my Ford, my beers, and my cigs this month?

Crisis: Relatives moving in.

Chick: “Oh. My. God. This was my house. And now it’s a courtroom where I’m being judged 24/7. Can’t somebody declare a mistrial?”

Dude: “We got an air mattress in the closet right? Ok, we’re good.”

Crisis: Pregnancy.

Chick: “Here begins a new chapter of life, written before I picked up the pen. Breathe. This happens all the time. There’s a book on this, right? Ok. I’m not sick yet. Why am I not sick yet?

Dude: “Wait, WHAT? How did I get pregnant? Man, all my bros are gonna flip.”

Come to think, I’m giving chick lit the win.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong).

Why I’m Not Reading Your Book

I dabble with the idea of having a Reading All Right week here, but I can’t quite make the stab. This post gets close.

Speaking of close, that reminds me: I tried reading a book the other day. Couldn’t do it. It was as if the writer beckoned me not to take him seriously, such was his degree of fail. And I’m not the only one. People won’t read what pains them to read right away.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

I want people to read my book. What should I do?

—Brandt Bassett, Cadillac, Mich. 

Sorry BranBass, the path to self-discovery is not given by one who is not oneself. While I won’t go into what keeps people reading your book, I’ll do you one better.

Here’s what’s going to close the door on people trying to read your book. Do these things in the first few pages, and you’re done. Book closed, back on the shelf.

Clichés

“Avoid clichés like the plague.” Truer words may have been spoken, but the truth of that little cliché doesn’t ring as loud as it should. They stick out of your first pages like cankers, cold sores, and zits. Kill them all.

Pet words and phrases

If you like an uncommon word or phrase, and you brandy it about like it’s a word of common use, your reader will notice. A discerning reader will notice long enough to slam shut the book and whip their wallets and time at the more deserving. Found a great word plaything? Good for you! Stop using it over and over again right up front. Specificity. Vis-a-vis. All but [whatever]. Sinecure. Shut up.

Mirrors

If you describe your character by having him/her/it looking into a mirror, I will not read your book. You can do better than that. If you settle for the gimmick, I will settle for another work besides yours.

Weather

If I wanted a weather report, I would watch the Weather Channel. Unless your novel is about a meteorologist or weather conspiracies, then there’s no use for elaborating on the weather, unless you want to show off your lack of skills in opening a novel.

Waking up

If you begin with your character waking up, he’d better be an insect, and you’d better be Franz Frickin’ Kafka. If “no” to both of the above, please rethink your tactic.

Stage setting

Yes, you must set some sort of stage eventually. But if I’m reading a story, and there’s no story—only a stage—then I’ll read something that is a story instead. Thank you.

Opening the opening

You know it when you see it. “Our story begins with a herped derp…” “This tale begins with some dumb something…” “Our narrative unfolds in a classic fairytale princess castle…” If you’re stating the obvious, I’m shutting the book, turning off the Kindle, or deleting the iBook then and there. Insult your reader’s ability at your own peril.

Please tell me you aren’t making these mistakes. If you’re going to make them, make them later on.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong).