I organized some of my old writing notebooks yesterday, and reminisced about when I began this journey in earnest eight years ago with a shitty novel/script/thing. My writing improved by football-field lengths in six years (for comparison’s sake, the road to becoming a good writer starts in your room and ends on the moon). Hell, I’ve improved just between this time last year and now. The first short story that I posted on this website, “Broken Watch,” is dull and near unreadable to me now. Ironically, I brought that story to the blog because I thought it had an exciting and tense opening. Around the same time I wrote “Broken Watch,” I also penned “The College Station All-Male Feminist Union.” Though that story had more work done editing it than “Watch,” and that story has more drafts coming, I still like reading “Union” even to this day. And if that fact doesn’t astound you to your core, then you don’t know that many artists.
There are a lot of factors I can credit to that leap in quality. I grew as a writer when I learned to stop aping the creatives that inspired me.
I’ve talked about this before. I examined the novelization of Revenge of the Sith, the book that inspired me to be a writer, and noticed that the clarity issues in that book matched the clarity flaws in my writing. The problem goes beyond that. Some of you might remember Chuck Palahniuk’s fantastic essay, “Nuts and Bolts: ‘Thought’ Verbs.” Palahniuk challenges his readers to not use thought verbs (thinks, knows, understands, realizes, believes, wants, remembers, imagines, desires, etc.) for at least six months. When a writer robs herself of those options, they’re forced to unpack everything that’s going on, make the drama concrete, show instead of tell. I want to propose a change to this challenge. You’re not allowed to use “thought” verbs for six months. But the moment those six months end, you must go back to doing whatever you want.
You could divide my writing career into a pre- and post- “Palahniuk Essay” period. Every story of mine, I inputted those words in the search bar of Microsoft Word and eliminated them from the story unless the words were safe inside quotation marks. Hell, I’m going to do it again with the story I’m editing now. Yes, without a doubt, I became a better writer. I also wrote incomprehensible stories, populated by characters with unclear motives and unexplainable turns-of-phrase. In the same essay, Palahniuk decries writers who put “thesis statements” at the beginning of their paragraphs. Are those statements marks of an amateur? Of course. My writing at the time would’ve still benefitted from “thesis statements.” Sometimes, the story calls for you to spell out what’s going on. If you’re still shy about “telling,” then at least tell enough so that you can read the story a year later and know what the hell’s going on.
Here’s a question for everyone who has read that essay: have any of you read Palahniuk’s books? I didn’t start until last year. I love the twists in them, and I love how many cool, fun ideas found their way in each book. But Palahniuk’s writing style works best for the stories he wants to tell. You fellow readers (side note: what should I call you all? Spinners? Saladheads? Spuds?) noticed how much detail and complexity I plan for each character with my guide to making characters. Not all of their important qualities can be conveyed by action alone. Unpacking can bring about new discoveries, but it can also make a mess. I’m not laying blame on Palahniuk. A lot of my problems came from me still learning how to fly with my writing without crashing into treetops. And Palahniuk’s not the only so-good-it’s-bad influence on me.
Yahtzee Croshaw produced the zany, hilarious, insightful, and often silly video game review show Zero Punctuation for 9 years, and he doesn’t seem to be losing steam (or Steam games to talk about, har har attempt at humor followed by sudden sobbing). Yahtzee is the king of the strange, out there, and yet totally accurate metaphor. That is, he writes that way for Zero Punctuation. He’s not that over-the-top for his first two novels (and a third coming soon!). Yet I ended up following his lead on the aspect of his writing least suited to fiction.
Again, Yahtzee got me to push the limit of how I could tell a joke, have fun with metaphors, and really think about making sentences distinct and full. I wrote metaphors that felt right, even if they just felt right to me. Yet tell me if you notice anything in these pictures:
That’s right! They’re pictures!
In other words, when Yahtzee says something off-the-wall, he has a visual representation on hand. I don’t. I need to create whole worlds out of 26 letters and 10 digits. I also need to keep a consistent point-of-view when I, or a character of mine, make a comparison. So if Yahtzee suggests that a video game with an inconsistent tone “had nine different writers who spent the whole dev cycle locked in different toilet cubicles,” (one of his milder comparisons), it works great in a review. If placed in a work of fiction, even a comedic one, that comparison brings up a lot of questions. Are there literal toilet cubicles involved here? Why locked? How does that match the speaker and the world she’s in? Metaphors are supposed to simplify and narrow down, not complicate. Yahtzee’s metaphors will make you laugh, but they won’t teach you how to write well.
I encourage everyone to read Palahniuk’s novels and watch Yahtzee’s videos (and read his novels too). But, more than that, I want you writers to pen your stories in a style that serves each story. Don’t tell fairy tales like Chuck, don’t describe otherworldly elements like Croshaw. By all means, learn from their success, and be prepared to unlearn when the time comes.