Be Concise

Ever heard the phrase “brevity is the soul of wit”? Though William Shakespeare coined it four centuries ago, this proverb remains essential for writers.

Here’s a less fancy way of saying it: one can often do more by saying less. Here are some ways to do that with your writing.

Cut Redundant Actions

I tend to overpack my sentences with actions that don’t contribute much. For example, here’s an excerpt from a piece I’m working on now:

“‘Oh, yeah, absolutely.’ Watson smiled, nodded, and flashed her a thumbs up. ‘You’re the boss.'”

In this sentence, Watson performs three actions that express one idea: He approves of the plan. Three verbs make the sentence a tad jagged, not to mention longer than necessary. Let’s revise this to one action:

“‘Oh, yeah, absolutely.’ Watson smiled. ‘You’re the boss.'”

It’s a minor edit, but it makes a big difference.

Limit “Verb to Verb” Sentence Constructions

How many times have you heard a sentence like this: “She started to rise from the couch”? Or, “He began to collect all fifty two discarded cards”?

I’ve noticed this sentence structure in other people’s writing, as well as my own. It’s fine for emails, but otherwise clunky. But this mistake, like the last, has a simple solution: cut “started to” and “began to.” Get ’em outta here!

Of course, things get trickier when specifying timing. For example: “She started to rise from the couch when she heard a noise from the other room.” If it’s imperative to describe that timing, go for it. I’d just remember that such sentences are distracting and should be streamlined whenever possible.

Excise Adverbs!

Adverbs are words that modify verbs, usually ending in -ly. Quickly, widely, really, strongly, quietly, strangely. We all use them. While they shouldn’t be completely avoided (there’s one right there!), they’re best kept to a minimum.

Adverbs are like fat on a steak; They add weight to the cut, but they don’t have much nutritional value by themselves. Overusing adverbs slows a reader’s progress without adding anything nutritional.

For example, try this sentence, “Soley happily leapt after the bee as it carelessly flew on the softly-blowing breeze.”

This is one fatty sentence. Let’s trim it down a bit.

“Soley sprang after the bee as it glided on the summer breeze.”

The second sentence works far better than the first. The verb “sprang” hints at the happiness we mentioned in the original version, but here we get the same meaning from one word. The verb “glided” conjures up ease and grace. The summer breeze adds context to the scene while also providing subtle sensory details. This sentence now reads much more smoothly (whoops, sorry).

Like fat, adverbs are acceptable and even healthy in moderation. If you feel a particular sentence requires an adverb, use it. (Using them ironically is also encouraged.)

Since brevity is the theme of this post, I’ll keep my conclusion short. Let’s all write less!

For Writers, Distractions Are Essential

Writing with Distractions

Distractions. They’re impossible to avoid.

This is a fact I’ve learned to live with—especially when it comes to writing time. Whether it’s my cats getting into a fight, a fantasy football injury update, or even getting up for the bathroom, it’s all the same thing: distraction. It happens to the best of us. It happens to all of us.

If you’re a writer, you might fear distraction. You might wish you could sit down and write and not be bothered until you’re done. But distraction really isn’t that bad. In fact, it can actually be helpful. Here’s why:

Imagine you’ve sat down in your favorite chair in front of your computer, your notebook, or whatever it is that you write in or on. Imagine that between your butt and that seat, there’s a layer of super glue. And between the legs of the chair and the floor, there’s more superglue. You’re literally stuck there for the day. (I suppose you could keep pulling until your pants tear, but in this hypothetical situation, you’re wearing your favorite pair of pants. Would you really do that to your favorite pair of pants?)

Doesn’t this hypothetical sound horrible? This is what we’re doing when we say we’re not getting up or getting distracted—we’re gluing ourselves to our chairs, and therefore stifling our creativity without even knowing it.

Distractions boost creativity because they give us distance from our writing. We need that. When we work on the same project for too long, we eventually get tired of it. For writers, that’s especially bad because it’ll come through in our writing. If we’re bored by our own work, why should anyone else be excited by it?

Furthermore, when we step away from our writing, our unconscious mind works on it for us. That plot hole we just discovered might be filled by the time we return, without us consciously thinking about it. The mind is a powerful thing—especially when given a little rest.

But not too much rest, of course. Distractions must be used sparingly. Unless you’re a dedicated multitasker, it’s probably best not to listen to music while checking your Twitter feed while cooking dinner while also trying to write. Something bad is likely to happen.

So for writers, distractions aren’t that bad. Let’s concentrate on our work, but let’s not be afraid to step away from it every once in a while. You’ll be amazed at the results.

“It Wasn’t Like the Book”

Trending now: screen adaptations of popular speculative fiction novels. It started with HBO’s Game of Thronescontinued with SyFy’s The Expanse and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s TaleIt will continue to continue with the upcoming film adaptation of The Dark Tower. 

Notice a glaring omission from that list? Me too. I haven’t mentioned Starz’s adaptation of the greatest novel in the English language, American Gods

Okay, that might be an overstatement. But American Gods really is my favorite book, and as such, I was really excited about the series.

When adaptations are based on popular properties, expectations certainly run high. One thing I’ve noticed: In book to screen adaptations, people use one particular piece of criticism over and over: “It wasn’t like the book.”

I’ve always found that fascinating. The clear implication is that adaptations are best when they’re identical to the book—or pretty darn close. Just ask Harry Potter fans.

However, I’d like to offer a friendly counterpoint to the “it’s not like the book” argument. Sometimes, adaptations are best when they aren’t like the book.

Let’s start with Starz’s American Gods. This series has numerous obvious differences between it and its source material. But I think these differences make the show able to stand on its own.

For one, I love how the show expands upon side characters from the novel. Salim, for example, is a young Muslim man who appears in just one scene of the novel and has no influence on the main plot. In the show, however, he becomes a main character who drives the story forward (literally). Or Mad Sweeney, the gruff leprechaun who appears in just a hand full of scenes in the book. The series Sweeney becomes a main character and one of my absolute favorites. Or Laura Moon, resurrected corpse and former wife of Shadow, the story’s main character. The show devotes an entire episode to her backstory, showing how she and Shadow met. The series Laura has depth that even Laura from the novel did not have.

When I watch a series, I want a new experience. I would’ve been bored if everything played out exactly how it did in the book. I want to see characters I recognize, but I want to see them expanded upon. I want to see a story I recognize, only with different twists. After all, I’m watching American Gods the show, not reading American Gods the novel. If I wanted the same experience as the book, I’d just read the book!

On the other hand, adaptations must tread carefully when deviating from their source material. While the series version of American Gods alters and expands upon some events from the book, they all feel true to Neil Gaiman’s story—due in no small part to his involvement with the series. The challenge for the adapter is to produce a product that feels new while retaining the tastiest ingredients of the original.

When I watch a screen adaptation, I’m looking for a new experience. In that regard, American Gods has been a huge success. The series builds upon the foundation of the novel without simply reproducing the original. It isn’t like the book. And that’s a good thing.

Architect or Gardener: Which Kind of Writer Are You?

Writer

As a writer, I’m fascinated by other writers’ writing habits. There are infinite ways to construct a story, so it’s interesting to hear how others choose to do it.

George R.R. Martin, author of A Game of Thrones and its sequels, devised an excellent metaphor for writers and their processes. He divides them up into two loose categories: architects and gardeners.

What exactly does that mean? Let’s dig in.

Architects

Here’s how Martin defines them:

“The architect, as if designing a building, lays out the entire novel at a time. He knows how many rooms there will be or what a roof will be made of or how high it will be, or where the plumbing will run and where the electrical outlets will be in its room. All that before he drives the first nail. Everything is there in the blueprint.”

In other words, architects plan everything before writing it. They might work from a detailed outline or multi-page treatment. Architects often devise character bios or event timelines. If you’ve ever covered your wall in sticky notes, you’re probably an architect (or maybe a detective?).

When I did screenwriting in school, we were obligated to be architects; that is, we were required to write an outline for every script. Makes sense. With only a semester to write, it’s a unwise to choose a destination without a map.

However, spending time as an architect revealed some inherent weaknesses with the style. For one, characters might feel a bit less natural when they’re written to an outline. Characters come alive when they make organic decisions which align with their established traits. They can feel stiff when making decisions for the sake of an outline.

Of course, being an architect also has its advantages. For instance, architectural writing tends to feel more focused, especially on first drafts. Architects spend less time searching for their path since they’ve already built. All that’s left is to expand upon it—adorn it with some yellow bricks or something.

Gardeners

I’ll let Mr. Martin take over here:

“And then there’s the gardener who digs the hole in the ground, puts in the seed and waters it with his blood and sees what comes up. The gardener knows certain things. He’s not completely ignorant. He knows whether he planted an oak tree, or corn, or a cauliflower. He has some idea of the shape but a lot of it depends on the wind and the weather and how much blood he gives it and so forth.”

Gardeners plant the seed of an idea and watch it blossom. Unlike architects, they usually don’t have a blueprint for their stories. Instead, gardeners often begin with a particular thought, character, or scene, then work from there. Where it goes is anyone’s guess.

Although being a gardener is liberating, it also requires a lot of trial and error. Gardeners might start on a promising idea and spend weeks nurturing it. But what if it doesn’t grow? What if it doesn’t go anywhere? It’s discouraging to spend time on a particular piece only to realize you have no idea how it should develop.

The advantage of being a gardener (besides the fresh vegetables) is that such writing often feels spontaneous. Unlike architects, gardeners will often find surprises within their own work. Gardener characters also might feel less rigid than architect characters. Their actions will often shape the story since there is no predetermined path for them to follow.

Which Are You?

Here are Martin’s closing remarks on the subject:

“No one is purely an architect or a gardener in terms of a writer, but many writers tend to one side or the other. I’m very much more a gardener.”

As Martin wrote, most writers fall somewhere near the middle and lean toward one side or the other. So which are you closer to: an architect or a gardener?

I’m still figuring out which side I favor. In my screenwriting days, I had to be more of an architect. After graduating, I swung far (maybe too far) towards gardening. Now I’m shifting back toward an architect.

Whichever you are, keep building and keep planting. Keep writing!

When to Show and When to Tell

Show, don’t tell.

If you’ve ever taken a writing course of any kind, you’ve probably heard that phrase.

If you haven’t, the meaning is pretty simple: don’t come out and tell your readers everything they need to know. Instead, show them examples and specific situations that support what you’re trying to say. Doing so often solidifies your points a little better than straight telling.

I agree with this phrase to a certain extent. However, sometimes it’s best to understand when one should show and when one should tell.

Showing everything and telling nothing can slow a narrative to a crawl. In many instances, simply telling the reader what they need to know keeps the pace moving. For example, you don’t need to show that your main character has red hair. That can come off as silly, with some other character saying, “My, what red hair you have.” It disrupts the flow of your story and makes your characters sound like they’re explaining details to the reader. That’s a big no-no.

Instead, one might write, “Her hair was the same shade of red as fresh autumn leaves.” Here we’re telling the reader through the authorial voice, which feels more natural than one character explaining details about another.

One might also tell rather than show in an effort to avoid confusion. For example, let’s say that there’s a magical substance in your world that allows people to fly. To show this, you have a scene in which a character drinks the drink, and then flies away.

As a reader, I might not make the connection between the drink and the flight. I might think that the drink is just a drink, and that the character can fly at will. Without being explicit about the connection between the two, I might miss it.

Instead, let’s try telling the reader about the drink’s magical properties through narration. Show them how it feels to fly, sure, but tell them the essential information so it doesn’t get lost.

The moment the first drop touched her tongue, she felt herself  growing lighter. Another sip and she rose off the ground, rose higher, higher, higher still. She knew none of it would be possible without the drink. 

Showing and telling are both tools in the writer’s toolbox. Showing is the most valuable of the two, though it isn’t the only one we should use. When appropriate, we need to tell our readers what they need to know. Doing so could make a huge difference in our writing.

Pulp Fiction and the Advantages of Being Ambiguous

Pulp Fiction Logo

“The greater the ambiguity, the greater the pleasure.” – Milan Kundera

My fiancee and I just watched Pulp Fiction the other day, her for the first time and me for the hundredth, approximately.

If you haven’t seen it yet, go see it! And if you’ve seen it already, watch it again. Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you.

You good? Good.

I’ve got a question for you: what did you think of the briefcase? You know, the one Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) recover from those guys in that apartment. The one that shines golden light upon the face of everyone who opens it. The one that we never discover the contents of.

For me, that briefcase is the best part of the movie. It’s pretty much the center of Jules and Vincent’s storyline, yet we don’t even know exactly what’s so great about it. Isn’t that brilliant?

I mean, let’s imagine for a second what could’ve been inside. Money, maybe? Sure. But isn’t that exactly what you’d expect to see? In a mobster movie, there’s probably nothing used more than a suitcase full of neatly-stacked hundred dollar bills. Imagine how disappointing that would be.

Okay, then maybe it’s something a little less cliche. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino stated that in an earlier draft, the briefcase contained a whole lot of diamonds. Which works a little better than money, but pretty much means the same thing.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I like this idea: no matter what they might’ve shown us, nothing would’ve been as effective as showing us nothing at all.

Instead of being given an answer, we’re presented with a question. We as the audience are asked by the filmmaker to provide our own explanations. We can’t help but wonder what would leave Vince Vega momentarily speechless, or leave Tim Roth’s character so awed.

As a result, the briefcase has become one of the most hotly debated topics among fans of the film. There are all sorts of great theories on what might be inside, ranging from a nuclear warhead to Marsellus Wallace’s soul to the physical manifestation of violence itself. No matter how unlikely the theory, no one can really prove or disprove anything. That’s the power of ambiguity: it allows us to fill in the blanks with whatever we like best.

Of course, the challenge with ambiguity is using the proper amount. The briefcase only works because we know enough about it to speculate. It’s obviously something very important, something that people are positively enchanted by. There’s an eerie golden light emanating from within. And the lock combination is, famously, the number 666.

Come on. I know you have some theories of your own, here.

When ambiguity works, it works because the question is more interesting than any possible answers. That’s definitely the case with the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. 

Is All Art Really Quite Useless?

Oscar Wilde

In the forward to his novel The Picture of Dorian GrayOscar Wilde famously wrote, “All art is quite useless.” No question mark at the end.

This statement has always puzzled me. Why would an artist say that art is useless? Did he really believe that? You could interpret this statement as an introduction to the themes later explored in the novel, but I’m not sure I do.

Because when asked by a fan what this famous line meant, Wilde responded with a handwritten letter. In this letter, Wilde posited that art does not and should not inspire action in anyone. If it does, it ceases to be art and instead turns into didacticism. Therefore, if art cannot by its very nature inspire action, then it has no applicable use to anyone.

Oscar Wilde was a brilliant guy. I don’t claim to be smarter than him or a better writer than him. And I’m certainly not a better dresser (see above picture). But I’ll say this: I think art is quite useful.

Art is useful in the way that it moves us. If a work of art can stir emotion, whether it’s delight, sadness, anger, or even disgust, I’d say it’s done something quite significant. After all, if you cried when Bambi’s mom ate it (don’t deny it), you were crying for a cartoon animal that only ever existed as a series of drawings shown in rapid succession. What else but art has the power to make us care about things that don’t even exist?

Even art that serves merely as distraction, what Wilde describes as “sterile” art, can be useful. Because sometimes we really do need a distraction from reality. When times are tough, it’s cathartic to watch a TV show or read a book—to take a break from what’s going on around us. Art won’t necessarily present us with permanent solutions, but that’s alright. Oftentimes that brief respite gives us the strength we need to face tomorrow’s challenges.

Art helps us better understand each other, which is perhaps one of its most important uses. For example, numerous studies suggest that reading improves empathy. When we step into the minds of characters, their thoughts and feelings are described to us, which bridges a gap we otherwise can’t cross (excluding telepaths). If empathy is understanding how others feel, there’s no better way to develop it than by having those feelings explained to us.

So is all art really quite useless? Well, maybe some of it (the Transformers series of films come to mind). But certainly not all of it. If a particular piece of art moves you, or helps you get through a tough time, or shows you the world from a different perspective, then that piece of art is useful. Quite useful.