When I went to journalism school back in the ‘70s, we were taught to be objective in our news reporting and writing. Objectivity was—and still should be—a crucial element of media integrity. We’ve lost it, though. Journalists have become celebrities displaying a lot of showmanship, but not much substance. They have made themselves the focus of the news. News agencies work off their own agendas to promote their particular causes or opinions. News has become one-sided and it doesn’t matter which side you’re talking about. I’ve lost respect for the profession I once loved so much. I much rather write fiction now. It’s a more honest way to make a living.
After I published my first book, an ex-friend felt she had to explain the perils of publishing to me. I’ve heard it before. She went on about all the books being published today and that most of them never sell and so on and so on. Doom and gloom. You’ve heard it before, too. She was trying to make a point that I’ve never make any money writing books. Then she asked me how I ever expected to sell my books in such a competitive market?
First of all, I told her, I don’t sell books, I write them. Maybe my books will sell, maybe they won’t. I hope they do. I hope I can make money writing books. But if I don’t, I can feel good about creating something that will outlive me and perhaps make a difference in someone’s life a hundred years from now.
“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”― Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country
When I’m writing, I feel good. When I’m writing good, I’m lost in a wild dream where the story, the words, and I travel freely across the universe on cloud 9. And sometimes, I’m so lost in my writing, I lose control of the words I’m writing. They laugh, sing, dance on the page, play hide and seek, musical chairs, ring around the rosy, somersault over sentences and across paragraphs, leaving me exhausted and exuberant and that’s when I know I’m doing my best writing.
“Success is a finished book, a stack of pages each of which is filled with words. If you reach that point, you have won a victory over yourself no less impressive than sailing single-handed around the world.”
— Tom Clancy
Authors ultimately measure their success in book sales. But I agree with Mr. Clancy. Just completing a book is a success. I’ve done a lot of things in my life just to say I can do this. I believe one of the reasons I started writing books was to prove to myself I could do it.
I’m not a best selling author. I’m not an award winning writer (though early in my career, I did win a few journalism awards). People aren’t clamoring to buy my books. Did you know that the great Bruce Lee never won a martial arts competition? He never held a belt. He didn’t compete. He was too busy improving his art and developing his own style of martial arts and becoming one of the greatest innovators the martial arts world has known. So I may never be an award winning, best selling author, but I will continue to write and improve on my writing and do my best to be an innovator of my own writing style.
Chuck Palahniuk is an American novelist and freelance journalist, who describes his work as transgressional fiction. He is best known for the award-winning novel Fight Club, which also was made into a feature film, as well as Choke, and Rant. He maintains homes in Oregon and Washington.
I recently found this great piece of advice from Palahniuk and knew I had to share it with my writing friends. His advice is concrete and specific, summing up everything my college creative writing professors said over and over. Is this advice practical or stylistic preference? What do you think? Let me know in the comments. Here it is:
In six seconds, you’ll hate me. But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.
From this point forward—at least for the next half year—you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.
The list should also include: Loves and Hates. And it should include: Is and Has, but we’ll get to those later.
Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write: Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”
Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like: “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”
Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.
Instead of saying: “Adam knew Gwen liked him.” You’ll have to say: “Between classes, Gwen had always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it. She’s roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume. The combination lock would still be warm from her butt. And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”
In short, no more short-cuts. Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.
Typically, writers use these “thought” verbs at the beginning of a paragraph (In this form, you can call them “Thesis Statements” and I’ll rail against those, later). In a way, they state the intention of the paragraph. And what follows, illustrates them.
For example:“Brenda knew she’d never make the deadline. Traffic was backed up from the bridge, past the first eight or nine exits. Her cell phone battery was dead. At home, the dogs would need to go out, or there would be a mess to clean up. Plus, she’d promised to water the plants for her neighbor…”
Do you see how the opening “thesis statement” steals the thunder of what follows? Don’t do it.
If nothing else, cut the opening sentence and place it after all the others. Better yet, transplant it and change it to: Brenda would never make the deadline.
Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating.
Don’t tell your reader: “Lisa hated Tom.”
Instead, make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail.
Present each piece of evidence. For example: “During roll call, in the breath after the teacher said Tom’s name, in that moment before he could answer, right then, Lisa would whisper-shout ‘Butt Wipe,’ just as Tom was saying, ‘Here’.”
One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone. Writing, you may be alone. Reading, your audience may be alone. But your character should spend very, very little time alone. Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.
For example: Waiting for the bus, Mark started to worry about how long the trip would take…”
A better break-down might be: “The schedule said the bus would come by at noon, but Mark’s watch said it was already 11:57. You could see all the way down the road, as far as the Mall, and not see a bus. No doubt, the driver was parked at the turn-around, the far end of the line, taking a nap. The driver was kicked back, asleep, and Mark was going to be late. Or worse, the driver was drinking, and he’d pull up drunk and charge Mark seventy-five cents for death in a fiery traffic accident…”
A character alone must lapse into fantasy or memory, but even then you can’t use “thought” verbs or any of their abstract relatives.
Oh, and you can just forget about using the verbs forget and remember.
No more transitions such as: “Wanda remembered how Nelson used to brush her hair.”
Instead: “Back in their sophomore year, Nelson used to brush her hair with smooth, long strokes of his hand.”
Again, Un-pack. Don’t take short-cuts.
Better yet, get your character with another character, fast. Get them together and get the action started. Let their actions and words show their thoughts. You—stay out of their heads.
And while you’re avoiding “thought” verbs, be very wary about using the bland verbs “is” and “have.”
For example: “Ann’s eyes are blue.”
“Ann has blue eyes.”
“Ann coughed and waved one hand past her face, clearing the cigarette smoke from her eyes, blue eyes, before she smiled…”
Instead of bland “is” and “has” statements, try burying your details of what a character has or is, in actions or gestures. At its most basic, this is showing your story instead of telling it.
And forever after, once you’ve learned to Un-pack your characters, you’ll hate the lazy writer who settles for: “Jim sat beside the telephone, wondering why Amanda didn’t call.”
Please. For now, hate me all you want, but don’t use thought verbs. After Christmas, go crazy, but I’d bet money you won’t.
For this month’s homework, pick through your writing and circle every “thought” verb. Then, find some way to eliminate it. Kill it by un-packing it.
Then, pick through some published fiction and do the same thing. Be ruthless.
“Marty imagined fish, jumping in the moonlight…”
“Nancy recalled the way the wine tasted…”
“Larry knew he was a dead man…”
Find them. After that, find a way to re-write them. Make them stronger.