In Another Ten

Lots of writers, even unpublished ones, like to dispense writing advice. I know this because I’ve been actively seeking it out for the past six months and… yeah. There’s a lot of it. I’m guessing much of it is dubious, because many of these people seem to write more about writing than they do about anything else and with so much advice out there, for free, there can’t possibly be much of a market for all this. But, as with all advice, the more you hear the more likely you will hear something useful which is why I keep listening.

That said, I’m about to drop what might be construed as writing advice. Oh, I’ve taken great pains to disguise it as a series of personal revelations, but if you don’t see through it as a kind of redirected offering to other people, then you don’t really understand how this whole blogging thing works, do you? But whether you decide this counts as advice or a cautionary tale or just the inane ramblings of a madman with nothing better to do at five o’clock in the morning than type words and then follow them up with more words until they either make sense and I delete them or I get sick of them and post them online for the world to mock, well. That’s up to you.

Basically what I have here are a short(ish) series of revelations I’ve learned about writing in the last 34 years. They amount to precisely nothing because I have had nothing published and have received only a few pennies for my writing in all that time. But they serve to remind me that there is a process to writing and it is ongoing. It goes back, for me, a very long way.

Lesson #1: Surprise Is In The Context

When I was in fifth grade (I think), I wrote a story for school. Maybe it was for school, maybe it was for a project put on by the library? I’m not sure. In any case, we were supposed to write and illustrate a story and, unlike a lot of our other assigned creative writing projects, I remember this one being pretty open-ended. I wrote a story about a gallant knight named Sir Lightfoot. There was a princess and a dragon. I don’t remember much about the plot (although I believe the book still exists somewhere, I think I’ve seen it floating around in some box or chest or something since becoming an “adult”) but I do remember that at one point the dragon has the princess held captive and Sir Lightfoot shows up and says some intimidating things to the dragon. In response, the dragon breathes fire on the princess.

I think I intended for it to be funny, the way morbidity strikes a ten year-old boy with a weird imagination as amusing. But I recall a lot of people were pretty shocked by this turn of events in my story. At the time, I recall trying to explain to someone (maybe a teacher, maybe a parent) that it seemed pretty natural for the princess to get cooked because if I were the dragon and I’d already lured the knight I wanted to confront to my layer with the captured princess, her purpose had been served. Why, I wondered, did the bad guys always leave the bait lying around to come distract them at a later, often pivotal, moment when they didn’t need it anymore? So in my story, the dragon kills the princess straightaway.

Now, for a more sophisticated storyteller, this would be a pivotal, possibly even subversive plot decision. But for me it was just how the story ought to go. I didn’t expect people to be shocked. Finally (and this revelation may have come much later), I figured out that it wasn’t so much that people were surprised the princess didn’t live to the end of the story, it was that a ten year-old was—somewhat dimly—introducing a pretty dark ironic twist to an otherwise classic narrative. In other words, it wasn’t that the dragon killed the princess when he had the opportunity, it was that I killed the princess.

Later on, in high school, I wrote (longhand) a serial story just for kicks about a vampire lady who seduces a teenage boy. In it, the boy’s chaste and pleasant girlfriend dies in what I thought was an exceptionally clever twist. Someone I showed the story to read past that part without a pause. I asked them if they had been shocked by the death scene.

“Not really,” came the reply.

“Why not?”

“Well,” they said, “for one: it’s you. You always kill everybody. And also, it’s a vampire story, so I figured everyone was going to die anyway.”

A jack in the box may startle a child once, but after they know the “Monkey Chased the Weasel” song gets to the part about “POP!” the clown shoots out of the lid, they don’t get startled anymore, because the context is lost.

The lesson here is one M. Night Shyamalan really needs to learn.

Lesson #2: Writers May Be Lazy, But Lazy Writers Invite Disaster

When I was in high school, I worked (well, “worked”) on the school newspaper. I was more than a bit of a tool back then. Shocking, right? Anyway, I did a bunch of stuff in that class that I now look back on and think, “What? Who was that idiot? Me? Really? Gah.” For example, I was given the opportunity to work on the humor section, which our instructor said was to be satirical. Honestly, I had no idea how to write satire. Still, don’t for that matter. But if I had been smart, and not criminally lazy, I would have researched satire and read classic examples (Mark Twain, Jonathan Swift) to get a sense of it. In fact, that’s precisely what our teacher recommended. I ignored him.

Page 1 of 5 | Next page