Saturday, December 29, 2012

3 Steps for Moving Beyond the Rules of Writing and Saying Something New

By popular demand (okay—one person requested it; to me, that qualifies as popular demand), here are some more thoughts on when to break the rules of writing and when not to.

When people become too concerned with the rules of writing, they seem to be focusing on the wrong things. Sure, rules are important and writers must know them well enough to know why they exist, when to break them, and when not to.

If you don’t know the rules, writing can seem like bumbling through a landmine: a single comma splice or POV shift can blow your story apart.

But too much concern about the rules can distract you from the deeper purposes of writing and inhibit you from exploring what your story is really about.

The deeper purposes—the questions you should focus on—are these: What are you saying and why are you saying it? Who will be reading your story? What do you want them to get out of it?

Writing a story is fundamentally not much different from writing a college research paper: You still have to narrow your topic, expand on what others have written about that topic, and say something new about it.

A lot of writers fall into trouble by simply regurgitating what’s already been said. Their story (or paper) adds nothing new or says nothing different. It aims at merely recapturing the experience the readers had in another and probably better story (or paper).

But readers want new experiences.

Don’t you?

Here are three steps for moving beyond the rules and saying something new:

Step 1:  Get the Reader to React

How can you say something new when everything has been said before? A good example can be found in the textbook The Writer’s Way by Jack Rawlins and Stephen Metzger.  One of the student essays in the book is a brilliant piece, “Lucy, You Have Some ‘Splainin’ to Do” by Nicole Benbow.

Benbow does what I like to call connecting the dots. She takes seemingly unrelated sources such as the 1950s television show I Love Lucy, the country band the Dixie Chicks, and Dove's 1990s "Evolution" commercial, finds their common ground, and weaves them into a compelling essay with an original point.

Her point (or thesis):

Classic television sitcoms tend to depict the same story over and over again. Women belong inside cooking, cleaning, sewing, etc., while men are supposed to be out working and bringing in the money. (336)

Why pick on I Love Lucy, one of the most beloved television shows of all time, one that is often considered ground-breaking for featuring an unconventional female lead in an unconventional mixed marriage, and whose comedy continues to hold up decades later?  

Without disputing any of Lucy's achievements, Benbow examines the content of the show: “What is unfortunate . . . is that when [Lucy and Ethel] try to go out and get a decent job they fail miserably. Once again the show was subtly hinting that women did not belong in the work force” (340). Think about the famous chocolate factory episode.

Is Benbow right? 

It depends on your point of view.

Is her thesis arguable? 


And that’s fundamentally what any research paper or story should do: Make an argument. State a case. Get the reader to think, feel, or react.

Step 2: Use Your Topic to Address the Reader's Present Concerns

If all Benbow did was challenge our perceptions of a beloved sitcom, she would have done her job. But she goes further by suggesting that modern TV shows aren't much different:  

On Desperate Housewives, Susan writes children’s books (note that her office is in the home). Lynette is a working mom, and there have been several episodes where she has taken the brunt from family, friends, and strangers for not taking enough care of her family and working too much. (337)

Such attitudes, Benbow argues, spill over into other expectations of women in the media. The scorn heaped by former fans upon the all-female Dixie Chicks serves as an example. After one of its members criticized President George W. Bush in 2003, the band became the target of hostile Internet postings. Benbow claims that such reactions show how our society still frowns upon women with strong opinions.

Instead our culture continues to favor images of women as homemakers and beautiful models, the latter idea challenged by the Dove commercial.

Step 3: Get Over the Notion that You Have to Say the Last Word

As I said, though, Benbow’s point is arguable. When I ask students to identify positive depictions of women in the media, they mention Oprah Winfrey, characters from the Law & Order franchise, and even Lara Croft, Tomb Raider as examples of strong, independent, and competent women.

None of these examples diminish Benbow’s argument. Rather, they highlight the fact that she doesn’t have to say the final word on the subject. All she has to do is get her audience thinking about how women are portrayed in the media. The reader can agree or disagree, but the reader must react in some way.

And that’s what you have to do as a writer of stories, as well.

Sounds easy enough, but it ain’t. In many ways it's easier to focus on rules instead. Errors are usually easy to spot and fix.

It’s much harder—and riskier—to think about how your readers will respond to your work. What if they don’t like it?  What if my point of view is wrong?

But writing soars when it takes those risks and gets the reader fully engaged in the work. Instead of walking through a minefield of rules, the author becomes like the Wright Brothers, boldly pioneering new and dangerous ideas . . . flying.

Work Cited

Benbow, Nicole. "Lucy, You Have Some 'Splainin' to Do." The Writer's Way by Jack Rawlins and Stephen Metzger. 7th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009. 336-41.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

When to Break the Rules of Writing and When Not to

There was a young student in one of my composition classes who insisted he didn’t need to cite and document sources.

He was a very intelligent young man who offered insightful comments during class discussions, yet, due to a combination of what seemed to be immaturity, arrogance, and rigidity, he was unwilling to learn what I tried to teach him.

Sometimes writers, like my student, get themselves into traps they can’t get out of. Part of the reason is because they hear the advice given by me and other writing teachers that it’s okay to break the rules of writing.

They assume we're giving them permission to break any rule at any time.

But breaking rules is risky, and breaking them successfully means knowing two things: 1) your audience and purpose, and 2) why a given rule exists in the first place.

Know Your Audience and Purpose

A good example of knowing your audience and purpose can be found in the movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. This story belongs to epic fantasy, a genre which usually requires a lot of characters, different locations, and a lengthy time span. Audiences of epic fantasy expect these elements to be present. 

But sometimes writers have to break certain rules to include them.

An Unexpected Journey, for example, is told through the eyes of Bilbo Baggins, as he recounts past events in a book to his nephew, Frodo. However, his narrative includes several scenes in which Bilbo himself was not present. He, therefore, cannot know precisely what happened or who said what. 

(Other characters may have filled Bilbo in later on, though this seems unlikely or impossible in certain cases.)

These scenes break the rules of point of view (or, rather, they adopt an episodically limited point of view). However, they work in the context of the story by allowing the reader to learn a lot of information in Bilbo's absence.

The writers get around this point-of-view shift by focusing on previously introduced characters such as Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield (and even the albino orc), whom we already care about or have strong feelings toward. As a result, the viewer never feels disconnected from Bilbo’s story.

(And no, I have not read the original book, though I started to once and never finished it. I don't know if Tolkein used the same device. But my point is the same: breaking rules is a good thing to do if it results in some easy-to-identify benefit to the story or audience.)

 Know Why Writing Rules Exist

Rules for writing were not invented just to make life complicated for writers. They exist for one simple reason: to facilitate communication between the writer and her audience. Communication becomes easier when writer and reader agree upon a set of rules.

If you and I agree that a red light means stop and a green light means go, we solve a lot of miscommunication problems (and avoid potential accidents).

four unuther xampel, eff i spill thes zentenz thes uay, u prolly haev Difikultie reedeen et. So, if you want to get creative in your spelling, do so at the risk of alienating the reader.

Likewise, understand and respect the conventions of the genre in which you are writing. If the convention calls for in-text citations and a works cited page, use in-text citations and a works cited page.

The Lord of the Rings movies, for all their freewheeling action and imaginative settings and characters, adhere to the conventions of fantasy. Wizards do certain things. Dwarves do certain things. Hobbits do other things. If Bilbo Baggins suddenly starts speaking magical spells and dwarves hide in plain sight, we have a problem.

. . . But Don’t Follow Rules Rigidly

Knowing when to follow rules and when to break them is a judgment call that involves risk. Before you break a rule, write down answers to the following questions: 1) What rule am I breaking, 2) what is the benefit (to story as well as audience) in breaking this rule, and 3) what are the possible consequences of breaking this rule?

If the benefits do not outweigh the risks, don't break the rule.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

THE POWER CLUB Now Available on Amazon Kindle

Well, it has been available for awhile . . . since December 9, to be precise.

I'm still trying to process all that's happened. I've published a book.

An actual book.

Okay, not a physical book . . . yet. I still need a complete cover so I can publish it as print-on-demand. But physical books may not even be an issue much longer.

We are raising a generation of readers for whom Kindle-like devices are second nature. One day, these readers won't pick up a book and flip through its pages. They may only pick up a phone-shaped device and scroll pages instead.

I have mixed feelings about all this. I'm of that in-between age where I can choose to appreciate the technology of the present or embrace the tools of the past. The past is more comforting. What's known always is. But we can't live in the past, no matter how much we may occasionally want to. The present is all we have.

And devices like Kindle and Nook have a lot of advantages. Neither they nor the books stored on them take up much room. They enable readers to control the font and size of the text to make the reading experience easier.

But physical books will always be with us (I hope). They are not as fragile as electronic devices. If you crease the pages or write in them, so what?  You can still read the book. In fact, some teachers encourage students to write in their books: the give-and-take responses of the reader are like having a conversation with the author. Such responses facilitate learning.

(I don't advise my students to write in their textbooks if they wish to sell them back at the end of the semester. However, I write extensively in mine.)

And, while I've never tried to cuddle up with a Kindle on a cold, wintry night, I can't imagine it's the same experience as warming up with a book.

Nevertheless, I'm proud to announce that my book, THE POWER CLUB, is now available on Amazon Kindle. If you have Kindle, you can read it before anyone else. If you don't have Kindle, you easily order it.

Let me know what you think. Drop me a line or leave a review on Amazon.  (Hey, that's how books move up in ranking.  And that's all part of the business of being a writer.)  This book is the culmination of two separate but intertwined journeys. The second and more recent journey began a little over two years ago when I first conceived the idea of THE POWER CLUB, started writing it, and then shared it with other writers during the Monday Night Group.

The first journey started when a 12-year-old me first dreamed of creating super-heroes and writing stories about them.

Some dreams take a long time to come true.

Those are the dreams that are worth the wait.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Lincoln, History, and Modern Angry Young Men

This post definitely falls under the category of "this 'n' that." It has nothing to do with writing and even less to do with super-heroes. 

I don’t know why a 20-year-old man walked into an elementary school in Connecticut yesterday and murdered 26 people, most of them children between the ages of five and 10.

I don’t know why a local Kansas City athlete recently murdered his girlfriend in front of her mother and then murdered himself in front of his coach.

I don’t know why a man with dyed hair shot people in a movie theater last summer.

I doubt anyone will ever truly know or be able to understand their motives.

Yet that doesn't stop others from speculating. The killers were “disturbed” or “mad,” some say. They wanted their 15 minutes of fame, say others. The education system failed them. Violent movies and video games influenced them.

Likewise, solutions to prevent further tragedies are the stuff of easy opinions. Better education. Stricter gun control laws. Beefed-up security at schools (and theaters and everywhere else). Bans on violent movies and games.

We are hurting as a nation and as a species.

When we hurt, we want easy answers.

Last night, I saw Lincoln—a vivid recreation of the struggle leading to the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States. It is sobering and frightening to think that slavery could only be abolished through the Civil War: a four-year, bloody conflict that claimed over 600,000 lives.

But aggression, no matter the intent, leads to further aggression. Another “disturbed” young man took it upon himself to punish Lincoln by assassinating him. But his actions only led to a harsh Reconstruction and resentment between North and South that lingered for decades.

John Wilkes Booth’s 15 minutes of fame solved nothing. He did not make anything right.

I often wonder if these other “disturbed” young men (and they are always young men) see themselves as setting things right. They appear to have given up on themselves and to feel so powerless that they exert whatever power they can muster against those who are weaker still: the innocent, the unsuspecting, the children.

They abandon reason for the momentary thrill of feeling all powerful.

People always ask, how could this happen? Perhaps the question we should be asking is, why doesn’t this happen more often?  What enables some people to adjust to life’s harshness, its complexity, its unfairness and not go around shooting others? What enables most of us to go about our lives without seeking the attention that comes (even posthumously) from hurting and killing others?

It is the hindsight of history that enables us to look upon the Civil War as necessary insofar as it resulted in positive changes in American society. Generations of African Americans were freed from slavery forever. The United States emerged as a stronger, more unified country.

But the movie brilliantly illustrates how contemporaries viewed Lincoln as someone who usurped authority, and how he and his operatives lied to, bullied, and bribed Representatives into voting for the amendment. There’s a moment in the film when Lincoln tells General Ulysses S. Grant that they enabled each other to do horrific acts, acts which, Lincoln suggests to others, were “for the greater good.”

One can see, of course, the gaping chasm between Lincoln’s motives of preserving the union and freeing the slaves and the apparently selfish motives of young men who shoot children. And the film shows that, for all his power as commander-in-chief, Lincoln had to work hard to get things done, to persuade others to agree with him, and to entrust the success of his mission to forces he could not control: namely, the free will of others.

Perhaps that’s what’s missing from young men who murder: a desire to work hard toward some positive end which benefits others instead of the self, and a willingness to place one’s faith in something outside oneself.

Perhaps age has something to do with it. The young men who lash out at others might, in another time, have been the young men who enlisted in the Union or Confederate armies, who channeled their aggression against clearly defined enemies “for the greater good.”

Perhaps these young men act violently because they don’t want to risk looking foolish or perhaps they take themselves too seriously. Yes, I know: someone who commits horrific acts is already a fool. But several times in the film, Lincoln shows the capacity for keeping others focused by using humor to lighten a dire situation. He never feels the need to put on airs and pretend he's something he's not. He discusses Euclid with a young engineer while admitting he had little formal schooling himself.

In any event, watching this movie on the heals of this latest senseless tragedy offers the depressing suggestion that some things haven’t changed in 160 years: young men still get violent and kill others.  However, the movie also shows us that, if our ancestors got through their struggles, we can get through ours.

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Saturday, December 8, 2012

Same Blog Time, Same Blog Channel

I hope you will permit me a moment of self-indulgence. This is my 100th post.


Cue the celebration!

100 posts . . . and, judging by the feed counter at the bottom of the page, I must be doing something right. This blog has grown in terms of page views, with last month racking up the most views so far.

So, what do I attribute to the success of The Semi-Great Gildersleeve?  Two things: the grace of God and hard work.

Grace Under Fire

I make no apologies about it, no equivocating, no qualifications. I believe in God. I am a Christian and I attend a Christian church. This belief is part of who I am. If that offends some (as it did an acquaintance earlier this year), too bad. Deal with it.

In an age when Muslims, Jews, atheists, and others rightly and openly celebrate who they are and deplore the unthinking prejudice thrown against them, Christians should not have to apologize for who they are and what they believe, either. 

Religion has become a hot-button topic in this politically charged year, with a lot of misrepresentations and stereotypes proliferating. Now, as we move into the holidays, a lot of posts on Facebook decry the so-called war on religion and bemoan how we are supposed to greet each other without offending those of different faiths.

To my thinking, those arguments obscure the meaning of faith.  

It is, simply, my belief in God which has led me to do what I do: to view writing as a calling and to rejoice in the fact that this activity, which is so pleasurable and meaningful to me, has value to others. Students shape their own worlds through writing, and writers of both fiction and non-fiction profoundly shape the worlds of their audience.

This ability to affect others in a positive way is surely a gift from God.

Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel

One thing I’ve learned while writing this blog is that nothing, not even a calling, happens by itself. Dreams require effort and education to bring them into the world.

Writers write, and writing involves discipline. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve published at least one post every week since starting the blog in March 2011. With few exceptions, each post has been published on Friday or Saturday morning.

Anyone who follows comics or watches TV knows the value of publishing a new issue or broadcasting a new episode at the same time on a regular basis. Your audience knows what to expect of you and when to expect it.

Education is also part of the hard work. Let’s face it: learning anything is hard. However, I’ve been blessed to learn from others who are doing what I’m doing. I’ve learned from their mistakes as well as their successes.

And education never ends. As our world changes, more and more tools become available to writers to get their work out there. Before starting this blog, I had never heard of SEO.

The Future’s so Bright . . .

There is still a lot to learn. The ads you see on your screen are supposed to generate revenue (a writer wanting to earn money from his words—whodathunkit?), but, so far, they haven’t. Very few readers, it seems, care to linger on the ads, much less click on them. 

I understand—I’ve never been fond of ads, either. But that’s how blogs make money, and learning to use them is part of this whole education thing we talked about.

Likewise, few posts have attracted comments. I’m still not sure why, as I’ve tried to model this site after the blogs of better established writers in terms of engaging readers. Perhaps it’s the fact that those writers are better established that leads to others wanting to leave comments. Or perhaps my audience is like the students who sit in the middle of the class, quietly absorbing lessons and acing the exams.

But comments or no, money or no, I couldn’t be happier with the success of The Semi-Great Gildersleeve. I’m grateful to all of you who have stopped by and continue to stop by. I hope you’ve gotten as much out of reading this blog as I’ve gotten out of writing it.

So, what does the future hold?

I certainly haven’t exhausted all I have to say about “writing, super-heroes, and this ‘n’ that,” and as I continue to learn more about writing and publishing books, I’ll share whatever bits of wisdom I glean.

However, I may scale back my posting just a tad, as I focus on a new blog I’m setting up. This blog will focus exclusively on my forthcoming novel, The Power Club  ; therein, you can read character sketches, insights into the writing of the book, and the odd story or two. When that blog is ready to launch, I’ll announce it here. Stay tuned  . . .

100 posts is only the beginning. As one of my ministers is fond of saying, “Straight ahead!”

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