Practical posts covering the craft of writing and storytelling.

4 Writing Tips From Ray Bradbury

4 Writing Tips From Ray Bradbury

I stumbled over some of Ray Bradbury’s writing quotes today. His enthusiasm for writing shines through in his words — the man was so obviously a writer through and through. A handful of them caught my eye, so I figured I’d share a few that I liked (and also didn’t like).

Quantity creates quality:

The best hygiene for beginning writers or intermediate writers is to write a hell of a lot of short stories. If you can write one short story a week—it doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing, and at the end of the year you have 52 short stories, and I defy you to write 52 bad ones. Can’t be done. At the end of 30 weeks or 40 weeks or at the end of the year, all of a sudden a story will come that’s just wonderful.

I frequent a few writing-focused subreddits and noticed a bit of a trend with newer writers who post there: they um and ah over whether their idea is any good before they start writing. That’s not how you do it. You just sit down and write, you get it out however you can. Don’t get self-congratulatory when you finish either, because it will in fact be rubbish. But don’t despair, almost any successful author will tell you that that’s the first step to writing a good story — you write a bad one, and then you fix it. So go ahead and write 52 bad short stories next year, you’ll find it’s freeing, and you’ll have 52 opportunities to put out a good one.

Don’t write towards a moral:

[Trying to write a cautionary story] is fatal. You must never do that. A lot of lousy novels come from people who want to do good. The do-gooder novel. The ecological novel. And if you tell me you’re doing a novel or a film about how a woodsman spares a tree, I’m not going to go see it for a minute.

Oh god yes. In our current politically-charged society, you can’t read a paragraph without seeing something deliberately partisan shoe-horned in there. It doesn’t bring people around to your point of view, it just makes your writing worse. When was the last time you read a book or watched a film for the political message? Forget the politics and the moral; the story always comes first.

If it’s work, stop and do something else:

I want your loves to be multiple. I don’t want you to be a snob about anything. Anything you love, you do it. It’s got to be with a great sense of fun. Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun at it. Ignore the authors who say, oh my god, what work, oh Jesus Christ, you know. No, to hell with that. It is not work. If it’s work, stop it, and do something else.

This one I disagree with. Sure, making things up and writing them down can be more fun than a weekend Frasier marathon, but it can’t be all the time. Sometimes it’s difficult; sometimes you want to crawl back under the covers and give up; sometimes you want to slam your head repeatedly against the keyboard because you’re a fraud and even gibberish would be better than the crap you just wrote. That’s fine. It is a job after all, and no one is in love with their job all the time. Anyone who pretends to be is either lying to you or needs a physical because they’re not human. Writers who romanticise their craft to that level bother me (Bukowski is another one). Writing full-time isn’t an ideal, you need to turn up and do the work even when you don’t feel like it; in the words of Stephen King, “Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”

Read these three things every night:

What you’ve got to do from this night forward is stuff your head with more different things from various fields . . . I’ll give you a program to follow every night, very simple program. For the next thousand nights, before you go to bed every night, read one short story. That’ll take you ten minutes, 15 minutes. Okay, then read one poem a night from the vast history of poetry. Stay away from most modern poems. It’s crap. It’s not poetry! It’s not poetry. Now if you want to kid yourself and write lines that look like poems, go ahead and do it, but you’ll go nowhere. Read the great poets, go back and read Shakespeare, read Alexander Pope, read Robert Frost. But one poem a night, one short story a night, one essay a night, for the next 1,000 nights. From various fields: archaeology, zoology, biology, all the great philosophers of time, comparing them. Read the essays of Aldous Huxley, read Lauren Eisley, great anthropologist. . . I want you to read essays in every field. On politics, analyzing literature, pick your own. But that means that every night then, before you go to bed, you’re stuffing your head with one poem, one short story, one essay—at the end of a thousand nights, Jesus God, you’ll be full of stuff, won’t you?

Not sure most modern poems are crap, that’s a pretty broad stroke, but the idea is sound. I used to read short stories all the time, but as I started writing novels, I didn’t have as much time for short fiction. Well, I intend to pay Asimov or Philip K. Dick a visit tonight and, hopefully, pick up the daily habit of reading short stories again.

Image by James Vaughan licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The Power Of Editing: Passengers, Rearranged

The Power Of Editing: Passengers, Rearranged

I recently came across a video essay from Nerdwriter that asks the question ‘is it possible to make Passengers better with some minor changes?’

If you weren’t aware, Passengers is a 2016 sci-fi film about a spacecraft transporting thousands of people when a malfunction in its sleep chambers awakens two passengers 90 years early. It’s an interesting premise reminding me of another sci-fi film, Pandorum, which has crew waking up onboard a spaceship with no memory of their identity or mission.

The video essay discusses how Passengers writes itself into a corner with the original script, leaving the last act of the film without any real tension or suspense, even requiring a new plot device to keep things moving. However, rearranging the footage and changing the point of view character alters the dramatic structure, injecting intrigue and mystery right from the start. The essay argues that editing it this way creates a more engaging viewer experience as well as a less predictable story, and I found it difficult to disagree.

Video below. Spoilers ahead, obviously.

After seeing how a simple idea could have such a huge effect on the story of the film, I began questioning if a lot of my own writing could be improved by switching up the point of view character or reordering the events shown.

As a general rule I choose the point of view character by figuring out who has the most to lose. In the case of Passengers, you could make arguments for either character on that front, but what is clear is that each character’s point of view tells a different kind of story, even going so far as to switch up the genre of the work. So arguably, the decision then becomes even more important.

It’s an interesting concept to experiment with. Maybe that space opera story you’re writing becomes a romantic comedy when seen from another character’s perspective, or that coming of age story turns into a disquieting mystery thriller. Looking back over my own work, I quickly found the possibilities spiralling.

So next time you’re bored by a book or a film, try giving some thought as to whether the story could be better told from another character’s viewpoint. Like the video says, you can learn just as much from films that don’t work as those that do.

“PASSENGERS” image by Jennifer Lawrence Films licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0.

How To Fix Boring Protagonists

How To Fix Boring Protagonists

Over the last week I’ve been steadily planning out Zenith Rising, the final book in my Fielding Trilogy, and figuring out how to tie off all the previous books’ character arcs in satisfying ways. While I was doing this, I came to realise with some creeping dread that my protagonist is one of the least interesting characters in the series. This goes against not only most rules of storytelling but also common sense; if the reader doesn’t connect with the protagonist, there’s little chance of them hanging around for much of the story.

When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter how fantastic or interesting your story is unless you have a compelling, empathetic protagonist or two for the reader to experience it with. You could write the next Game of Thrones epic, but without your Jon Snows and Daenerys Targaryens to keep the plot surging forward, the Song of Ice and Fire is just a history lesson with dragons.

It’s a hard thing to admit I wrote something that was flawed in that respect, especially since I’m selling it as a product. But no book is perfect, and learning from mistakes is the only way to improve. Thankfully, my writing has improved after getting a few novels under my belt and I can now avoid this potential problem in future work. So developing my protagonists with more depth and conflict will be one of my key goals moving forward.

Character Development Resources

There are plenty of resources out there if you’re looking to learn more about this subject, here are a few I’ve found recently:

Chris Fox, Emergency Plot Surgery –

A quick ten minute video where Chris talks about feedback he received from his beta readers and how he used it to improve his protagonist by adding internal conflict, improving dialogue, and making the character more active.

TV Tropes, Character Development –

If you’ve never been to then be warned now: you will tumble into an internet rabbit hole, losing hours before you wake up and realise you spent all morning learning about applied phlebotinum, one-winged angels, and whether androids really do dream.

Writing Excuses Podcast, Three Pronged Character Development –

A legendary podcast for writers, this episode has Brandon Sanderson and company chat about a model for examining characters in which three primary attributes – Competence, Proactivity, and Sympathy – are contrasted.

“Game of Thrones–jon snow daenerys targaryen” image by AQ chu licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0.