The Traits of the Working Writer – Part 1: Reverence and Respect

June has already been pretty interesting. It’s been rife with me hanging out and talking with other writers, which I suppose is normal for me now. As is my gleaning things from those conversations that I always want to bring back here. Things like that, hey, maybe my protagonist is emo (which, of course, led to an instant freak out [prematurely though, as I remembered that no, Lethe is just really weird]).

But more constructive than that were the casual conversations that led to this series of posts about what I’m calling the Traits of the Working Writer. Now, I can’t tell you exactly which conversation the following ideas came from, but they were ingrained somewhere in the way Justine Manzano agreed that, yes, being an amateur Fantasy writer is brutally ousting. Or maybe it was the way another friend admitted she was down about working on a detail of her world that readers will never actually experience.

Either way, these Traits are what I believe are the foundation of any writer. Some of these come naturally, but some also have to be learned and (oh man, can I tell you) maintained. And although I don’t think it’s impossible to be a writer without having these Traits, I do think it’s harder to be a legitimately good, patient writer without them.

Here, we’ll start with just two (I was originally planning to do all six in one article, but it felt like I was glossing over too much). And we’re doing two because each pair of Traits balance each other out (because, for me, writing is slowly turning into a game of balances [and I’ll endeavor to explain why in the next few weeks, with these posts]).

For now, let’s start with Reverence for other writer’s work but Respect for your own.

Reverence for Other Writers’ Work…

We’re starting off easy here.

I’ve talked about this plenty of times on this site, but I can never say enough that one of the most important Traits of a good writer is Reverence for other writer’s work.

Which, of course, is funny for me to say, because if you knew me from anywhere between… oh… 1982 and 2013, you’d know that maaaaan was I the last person to respect other writer’s work. Actually, to be more accurate about it, I was the first person to complain about everything I watched, read or played.

Do you know that kind of person? You must know that kind of person; the kind who isn’t necessarily wrong when he or she says, “Oh, that scene in that one movie was so stupid!” but who always goes right in with those criticisms so quickly and so… so often that it kind of becomes their thing? You can’t watch a movie with them without being emotionally prepared to listen to a million reasons why it’s horrible or not on par with another movie that they like? And everyone else loves the movie / book / whatever that they’re criticizing regardless, so they eventually feel like they’re on a holy quest to correct everyone’s opinions about everything? Yes. I was that guy. And, in case you’ve never experienced that kind of person (and you’re a gamer) Egoraptor is the best example I can give you of that kind of person (don’t crucify me; I don’t hate him—he’s just immediately, damningly critical of games that are great regardless of their flaws).

And that’s the heart of the problem right there; being that kind of person… means that you’re incredibly, unforgivably critical of everything, no matter how awesome it is. That. Is. A horrible way to live. As a person in general (it’s miserable) and especially dangerous for a writer.

Because, for a writer, thinking like this, about everything, makes you the most close-minded person in the world. It makes it impossible for you to expand your concept of what works when it comes to creating or, at least, it seriously narrows your definition of “good” to “not [my personal definition of] terrible,” which is probably insanely strict.

And, of course, it’s not bad to have a discerning taste; I absolutely don’t want anyone to come away from this post thinking that. It’s just ridiculously bad for a writer’s only concept of “good” to be Lord of the Rings and “what I’m writing, because it’s like Lord of the Rings.”

I’ll end here by adding that this… is absolutely one of those Traits you have to maintain. At least it is for me; maybe it’s easier for other writers, but I grew up following this example, so, even though I’m way, way better now about being overly, needlessly critical of things, there are still cases where I just… can’t see the good in something (Avatar). And, that’s okay, but I suppose just remember to always at least acknowledge there is good in any creative endeavor. Try to train yourself to observe what works first. You’ll know you’ve made it when instead of saying, “This movie sucks,” you say, “I liked _______, but this just isn’t my kind of movie.”

Now, as an example (and being dangerously open about past critiques), in The Dark Knight, the Joker’s conversation with Harvey Dent in the hospital is amazing and probably one of my favorite Batman moments on film, ever. That was not hard… even though I definitely don’t think The Dark Knight is nearly as good as everyone said it was (at the very least, it’s very flawed). But that hospital conversation, and, actually, a bunch of other things in that movie were really awesome.

Okay, actually ending now, all I’ll add is, if you have any creative property that you hate, try looking at it and seeing the good in it—first. Especially if it’s extremely popular. Because, if it is really, really popular, realize the obvious: it’s doing something very, very right and, as a writer, you need to at least understand what that is, even if you don’t agree with it.

… But Respect for Your Own Work

Now, while all of this respecting other people’s work and learning from it and broadening your view of “good,” is awesome, there’s a really important counterpoint you have to keep in mind.

If you are not the hyper-critical type mentioned above, great. But if you’re a hyper-loving, super fan, you’re possibly adapting everyone else’s writing style. And that’s bad.

That’s actually… worse than being hyper-critical; because if you only consider one or a handful of things to be good and you mold yourself tightly around that one style, at least you have a composed style (you’re like Tolkien). But, assuming that you see the good in everyone’s work, there’s the possibility that you’ll start pulling ideas and themes and tones from absolutely everywhere and making your stories conflicted, tonal messes.

Now, if you aren’t this kind of person, great. But if you are… don’t freak out, because creating that tonal mess is just part of every writer’s struggle to find a voice. At least it was for me anyway.

I grew up mimicking a lot—borrowing a ton from other creative properties back in what I think of as the Note-Taking Days of my writing. A new movie would come out and I’d think it was cool and “make up” a new scene that was directly inspired by the one fight scene at the end of whatever movie (“And then, Burly Brawl comes on, and my protagonist grabs a candle stand or something and starts whipping it around like a staff!” … It hurt to write that, and I never actually wrote that as any part of any story I ever worked on… but no matter how hard I try, I can’t forget the countless other things I “wrote” that are way worse than that, so, yeah, my heart hurts. Can’t breathe; too much shame in my lungs). But doing that kind of thing is natural and healthy when you’re young.

But, again, when you’re young.

Because there comes a point when it’s essential to step back from everything else—every kind of influence—and consider the story you want to tell not as something you build with the pieces of someone else’s work… but as something that you build—just you—in whatever way you want with pieces that you can create, from scratch.

And, if this sounds strange to you, but there are many reasons why you might adapt from other writers’ work. Maybe it’s just love.

But maybe it’s because you don’t think that your ideas are good enough. Maybe you don’t have faith in your ability to tell a good story. Maybe you don’t respect your ability to write something awesome, even if you think that you do.

And, just in case you think you do respect your own style or maybe just in case you need a guideline to follow away from the adapting trend, just look at a scene in your story that’s just not working—or an event or idea that you just can’t hammer down—and ask yourself, “Is this my work?” Because… maybe it’s not actually part of that story you’re trying to tell; maybe the source material that inspired that scene is just too different in tone? Regardless, the point is, for whatever reason, you’ll feel it when something doesn’t work with your story. And, in direct contrast, even if you’re still in the Note-Taking Phase, you can stop, think of a moment that works perfectly… and see an idea that is beautifully and simply your own or perfectly and completely your story. You’ll know those ideas because they’ll have halos around them; you’ll feel the glow without even trying—the spark that you’ve probably felt for years now. As cheesy as it sounds, those moments will just feel “perfect” because they absolutely are for your story and your style.

That is your work. That is your voice. And that absolutely deserves your Respect. It is the story that you’ve wanted to tell for ages and it does, naturally (in my experience) have the tone and timber you need it to have if you’re just willing to acknowledge it, listen to it, and respect it. I am starting to sound just… dangerously metaphysical right now, but we’re talking about the theoretical ground zero of a writer’s world. Things are gonna be a little metaphysical.

At the very least, getting back to practicalities, you need to Respect your voice as a safe guard against other writers’ critiques. Because, maybe you already know this, but if you don’t, when Writer A reads Writer B’s work, their reflex is to suggest making Writer B’s work “better” by making it more like Writer A’s work. It’s just… natural, especially in a younger writer, to go that route with critiques and it’s equally likely for a younger writer to accept those kinds of critiques (I’ve definitely accepted, “This character should be funnier!” when I absolutely shouldn’t have).

Of course, that turns into a question of balancing critiques, which, in my mind, is ultimately synonymous with balancing these two character Traits in yourself (so metaphysical).

Finding the Balance

So, where do you draw the line between your admiration and Reverence for other writers and your Respect for your own work? This is one of those times when I can’t provide detailed instructions for how to do this (the same way I obviously can’t provide clear cut instructions on how to find your voice). I can tell you, in very simple, basic terms, not to reflexively copy other writer’s work, but I would add to definitely take inspiration from other writers. I can tell you not to automatically accept and adapt content suggestions that other writers make (like the above-mentioned “This character should be funnier!”), but sometimes, other, skilled writers and editors can absolutely make good content suggestions (the same way that, although they’re generally more acceptable, line suggestions [grammar and punctuation] can also absolutely be wrong and detrimental to your work and style).

So, what do I leave you with? A marker for future reference—a milestone that will make it clear that you’ve made it. Here it is:

You’ll know that you’re balancing Reverence and Respect correctly when you’re reading your favorite author’s work and you spot a really great detail that instantly makes you jealous. But then, because the tones don’t match or because your plot is more simple or for countless other possible reasons that you’re totally fine with, you smile, shake your head and say, “But that would never work in my story.”

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Thanks for reading and come back at the beginning of July when I talk about the next two Working Writer Traits, Drive and Decisiveness! If you want to be sure you don’t miss them, you could always… ya know… could Subscribe is all I’m sayin’. But regardless, thanks again and have a good one!

Louis Santiago’s Fantasy Story Stats – Week 3: Tone and Spirit

Welcome to Week 3 of my Fantasy Story Stats. This is another exciting Week as it’s another where I get to go on about one of my own Stats. And really, it’s the statiest of the Stats so far—Spirit. Spirit, which was actually the first of them and the reason these posts exist at all.

But anyway, enough pre-rant. Let’s get to it.

First…

Tone: The Overall Mood of your Work

As per usual with my posts, let’s start off with something familiar that you really don’t need to hear much about—Tone. The weird thing about Tone is that I’ve always heard people mention it, but… always just mention in; I’ve been taught about characterization and narration, plot and settings, but never tone. It was always just the word—Tone.

In part, it’s because it’s obvious. Question: what’s the tone of a story? Answer: it’s the tone of a story. Light, heavy, dark, gritty, tone is obvious within the first few pages of a book and the first few moments of a movie. The very first exchange between Waymar Royce and Gared of the Night’s Watch makes it clear that George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones is going to be serious; Will’s observations of Waymar’s armor make it clear that it’s going to be a realistic approach to a genre that often celebrates impractical armor and weapons. To polarize a bit, the intro to Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings boldly embraces the fantastic, establishing a much lighter, less realistic Tone. Each story defines their Tone early on and carries it for the whole book, assigning it an emotional weight that’s consistent throughout the entire story.

And, right there, that’s how I classify Tone: the consistent, emotional weight of a story (from Light to Heavy [but with an added, second classification of Fantastic to Realistic that usually coincides directly with Light to Heavy]). Light would be anything emotionally simple or literally light-hearted; something like a fun superhero comic, a more jovial or cool horror movie like The Cabin in the Woods, or a Terry Pratchett Discworld fantasy novel. On the other end of the spectrum, Heavy would be Watchmen, The Walking Dead, or Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

I believe the added classification of Fantastic to Realistic explains itself, but to quickly provide examples, a Light/Fantastic story would be Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, a Medium/Semi story would be Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, and a Heavy/Realistic story would be Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (by fantasy standards… at the beginning, anyway).

Finally, because I feel I have to say it, consistency is an incredibly important part of my definition for Tone. Because I’ve seen a story drastically shift from Medium to super, crazy Light in Tone and it was incredibly jarring. And I don’t usually do this, but (with a quick disclaimer that Stephen King is an established and skilled writer and I totally respect him) I will say that it was the Dreamcatcher movie. If you want a fantastic example of what not to do to your tone, you should watch Dreamcatcher. I don’t want to explain how, but it goes from emotional and personal to “Really!?” in the span of seconds.

Spirit: The Completely Subtle or Absolutely Obvious Playfulness of Your Work

Spirit is my concept and the fast way of describing it is to admit that I thought of it as “Camp” for a while. I felt I needed to change the name because camp has a pretty intensely bad connotation, but the idea persists; Spirit is the degree to which the author engages the reader. And that makes it sound incredibly unwieldy and obvious, doesn’t it? But no—it absolutely isn’t; Spirit can be subtle and silent or it can be ham-fisted and campy.

But to clarify, Spirit is a classification of playfulness. A story with High Spirit actively engages its readers through its elements, its dialogue, and its events.

A fantasy story with High Spirit Elements will feature a Millenial Fair where a kid gets special powers that only he/she can use to banish whatever evil is approaching from the north. In other words, there are elements that the reader knows and can trust that lead to moments a reader expects and welcomes subliminally. An old wizard/mentor will show up to guide the hero into the wild and teach him/ her about their powers, the hero will meet a special someone along the way, etc. And all of this is extremely comfortable for the reader because it’s so familiar.

A story with High Spirit Dialogue would be something written by Joss Whedon; obviously not exclusively, but if you’re a big fan of the Marvel Universe of movies, almost every other line of dialogue on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. so far has been a reference to previous movies or characters, often with those characters having no knowledge of those characters or their dialogue (“With great power comes a ton of weird crap,” spoken by Skye in the first episode is a fantastic example). This approach is inclusive—you’re in on the joke and you like it (or hate if you want to be like that). In other cases, the dialogue might simply be familiar with fantasy characters using one-liners or variants on Earth-Modern or Fantasy-fandom centric insults (“By Grog’s hairy balls!” or something like that, for example). At its most basic and simple, the ferocious dragon you expect only to breathe fire might instead turn out to be a female dragon who starts talking about how lonely she is, playing with the reader’s expectations and likely getting a laugh from them.

A story with High Spirit Events will follow a comforting plot structure. To put it simply, all sports underdog stories are High Spirit; you go in absolutely knowing that the Mighty Ducks (or whoever) are going to win. More relevantly, you always know that the young hero or heroine with the super rare and exclusive magical powers is absolutely going to kill that evil from the north in the end.

In contrast, stories with Low Spirit aren’t comforting. That’s the difference I want to make here; High Spirit isn’t “campy.” A story with High Spirit is not a bad thing, which I’ve tried to reflect in the examples I provided above. High Spirit stories are friendly. And engaging. And comforting. You enjoy them and they’re an easy choice when you don’t want to experience a completely unpredictable and often Heavy story.

Not to say that Low Spirit is bad either. By my definition, Jonathan Stranger & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark would be Low Spirit. So would Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard, and I enjoyed both of those books. They just had very non-standard, unpredictable elements and plots that were more challenging than comforting. The very fiber of those examples was doing something completely different to great effect.

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That said, I don’t think I can keep going here without running into next week’s stats, Novelty and Concept. If this is your first time reading and you’ve enjoyed, I’d appreciate a Like, Comment, or a Subscription. If you haven’t checked out my other Stats, you can find an introduction here, Week 1 here, and Week 2 here.

And, as always, here’s where I stand on my list of Stats:

War of Exiles

Genre… Fantasy

Subgenre… Dark Fantasy

Theme… Living with loss.

Focus… 1-Character, 2-Plot, 3-Setting

Tone… Medium/Semi

Spirit… Medium