Monthly Archives: April 2015

Writing a Perfectly Imperfect World

I’ve worked with a lot of young writers. I’ve been one myself for a long time. And the big question people ask me all the time–or at least, they probably would if anybody actually asked me questions about writing, instead of acting all awkward as if I’m going to put everything they say into a book–is this: What’s the most common mistake you see young writers make?

It’s a mistake that comes from fear. I’ve talked a little before about how harmful fear is to a writer. Maybe not enough, but a little. It can lead to big mistakes. Exhibit A?

This is a mistake I’ve seen young writers make time and time again. It’s something I’ve made many times, and sometimes, continue to make myself. It’s a mistake I see everybody, not just artists, make. It’s the fear of being brutally honest.

Let’s be specific. What I’m talking about is writers who write about a world that’s so pristine and perfect that it can’t be the imperfect world we actually live in. I’m also talking about the writers who write about a world that’s way too dark to be the world we actually live in.

There’s certainly a market for both. One the one side we have cozies and romances, and on the other we have thrillers and horror. These are all genres that thrive on a lopsided perspective of the world spun for effect, not honesty.

If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll have heard me say this many times: it’s about balance. Like everything else in writing and in life there’s a balance to be found here.

Let’s get into this.

The World Isn’t Perfect

Life isn’t all sunshine and daisies. Even if you’ve lived a privileged, sheltered life (which I’m blessed enough to say I have), you know the world is still a hard and terrible place.

Bad things happen. People do bad things and bad things happen to people. People lie and steal and rape and kill. People are selfish, arrogant, prejudiced, greedy, promiscuous; they want what they want and they’ll do a lot to get it. The world is full of pain and hate.

People do unspeakable things, and depending on your belief system, there are certain taboos you think should be left unspoken. But most of the above things aren’t among them. You’ll make more people queasy with profanity and sex than with violence. I like the way George R.R. Martin puts it:

“I can describe an axe entering a human skull in great explicit detail and no one will blink twice at it. I provide a similar description, just as detailed, of a [let’s just say a sexual act; honesty has its place, and we’re getting to that. – Caleb], and I get letters about it and people swearing off. To my mind this is kind of frustrating, it’s madness.” – George R.R. Martin

Cut off heads, limbs, kill and kill and kill, fill your pages with all the blood and gore you want, but sex, that’s a no-no. Why is this? Similarly, why is a man in his underwear funny, but a woman showing too much skin has everybody up in arms? (I’m not touching these, not with a fifty foot pole; I’ll leave them to you. These are some heady questions and I hope you find some good answers.)

People want to avoid the uncomfortable and the controversial. As a writer sometimes it’s natural to want to do the same. Plenty of writers try too hard to sugarcoat the world.

That’s because we want a perfect world; reading about a perfect world makes reading an escape. Readers want to be transported to somewhere happier than the life they’re stuck with. But it’s just a lie.

The World Isn’t All Sh*t

On the other hand, some writers fill every page with gory violence, explicit sex, and profanity after profanity. And you know why? It sells–movies, television, and books of course, it’s everywhere now. Because it sells. This is the stuff we were told was wrong when we were young. We were forbidden to see it. It’s what our culture tried to sweep under the rug, and that feeling of getting what we shouldn’t have is a wonderful feeling. “Guilty pleasures” are all pleasure; there’s no guilt, that’s just excitement.

It’s sensational. Because these things are taboo, we feel like we’re doing something wrong when nobody’s looking. That’s thrilling.

On the one hand, it’s still a form of escapism; it’s not painting a perfect world, it’s painting a world that indulges all our darkest and most chaotic impulses.

On the other hand, you get the world that’s so dark and twisted and disgustingly wrong that it makes readers feel better about their own world. Readers like to be transported somewhere more miserable than the world they live in so they can feel better about it. “Maybe I hate my job or I’m lonely, but at least I didn’t lose my arm and my city didn’t blow up and my family didn’t die and I didn’t find the charred remains of my wife’s–oh holy **** that’s just wrong. I feel so good now.”

It’s like masochism I guess. And once again, it’s a lie.

The Balance

So here I think we’ve divined the secret: The best writers are the ones who aren’t afraid to get dirty in the process of doing their job properly, but they’re just as relieved as their readers when they can get home and take a nice clean shower. That’s the balance.

The best writers are honest. That has to be the one thing a writer is most concerned with. They have to deal with themselves, their characters, and their world honestly. They owe it to the reader to tell the truth–well, sort of. It’s still fiction, a made-up story; but the best made-up worlds connect to the real world in an honest way that reveals some kind of truth.

“The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.” That was Shakespeare who said that. Because life isn’t heaven and it’s not hell. It’s a balance. The good. The bad. The best. The worst. Readers want perfect worlds and messed up worlds alternatively, because that’s what life is like. Sometimes it’s perfect and sometimes it’s messed up.

Just to Clarify

I said already: Some people can be entirely successful writing about a lopsided world. Middle Earth sure didn’t look much like home. You can bet Lewis Caroll never used profanity. And Stephen King didn’t achieve success by writing about sunshine and daisies. And you don’t win a Pulitzer unless you write a pretty lifelike story that takes the bad with the good to make something great.

Point is, every writer is different. We all have certain strengths and certain weaknesses. Some writers are better at writing something more sugarcoated while some are better at cursing. Writers like me might do an especially good job writing cozies and children’s fantasy, but for heaven’s sake pray we never try to try our hands at horror.

However, I will also say this: I think any writer can be brutally honest if they train themselves to overcome the fear of telling it straight. We all have something to hide. And we can all learn to let it out frankly; that’s when we’ll have something great on our hands, friends.


What about you? What do you struggle to write about honestly? Open up!

Categories: Writing Passion | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Difference Between Showing and Telling

We’ve all heard it a hundred times: “Show, don’t tell.” I don’t like most rules – I’m a rebel – but I actually buy into this one. There are exceptions, and as with any rule a good writer can defy it, but it generally holds true that in many ways large and small a writer should not be telling a story as much as showing one. You are your reader’s guide in another world, showing them the way. You don’t leave your readers here and tell them about it after you get back.

But let’s look a little deeper at one of the meanings behind this “rule.” It goes deeper to the very heart of the art. The principle is the same, its importance is the same if not greater, but have you thought of it, and how many times have you forgotten it? I know I, personally, don’t always remember it. And yet it’s so simple; how do we forget it?

It’s really not complicated, mysterious, or surprising. The simple fact is that we, as writers, are observers, explorers, students of beauty and wonder; we take pictures of our findings, pictures made up of words, pictures of things nobody else has ever seen. But sometimes we forget that we’re students, not teachers–don’t we?

What I mean, in plain language, is this: It’s our job to show our readers what we see and what we think, but not to tell them what to think.

We’re fiction writers. We write about feelings, not facts: not tangible things that you can see and touch, but higher things, things that can’t necessarily be proven to exist but we know exist nonetheless. Sometimes these things are clearly visible in the everyday, if you look. But sometimes, we become so enthusiastic about what we’re seeing and what we’re showing our readers and what our story means to us, that we forget ourselves and start to tell our readers what to expect and what to think as we’re writing.

Art is in the eye of the beholder. What our readers see might not always be what we meant them to see; and that’s okay. That’s what art is all about. That’s the beautiful thing about it. If anything we should be trying to make the pictures we present clearer, if we want to guide interpretation by the strength of an artist’s sutlety; but we should not be telling people what to see in our art.


Categories: Imagining a Better World | 2 Comments

Short Story: The Soft Goodbye

I was lying on the floor, thinking about death. I was gazing vaguely out the window and all I could see was the sky, full of clouds, just fat with big puffy fluffy clouds, and I wondered if death was more like a cloud or more like lying on a floor that was a little dusty and apparently needed vacuuming. I sneezed.

by lucylu

Photo Credit: //lucylu via Compfight cc

Out another window there was nothing to see but trees. A leaf fell, and that was like death. You appear suddenly out of nowhere on the tree of life, pushed out to the outermost edge, and dangle, flimsy and helpless, and the wind blows you around and it’s all you can do to hold on to the branch until, someday, you fall.

I looked at the ray of light pouring through the window and a fleck of dust that blew up into the middle of it, passing in and out of sight in the shadows between the panes and then finally blowing out of the light into the darkness of the room, and that was like death.

There was a table beside me and there was a book on the table, and that was like death. Once it had been a part of something full of life and energy, a tree, a great whole. Then one day death had come to the whole and torn it apart; and some parts had gone on to become this book, something else entirely, something perhaps better.

I looked at the floor beside me and saw a spider and screamed. I jumped up, ran out of the room, and grabbed a tissue. I came back, kneeled beside the spider, looked away, and jammed the soft tissue down on the spider. I crumpled it up, squeezed it tight, and held it for a minute, looking at it between my fingers. That was like death. That was how life ends, not with a bang but a whimper. Strangely the whimper was mine and I wasn’t dying.

After a long time kneeling there I got up and went outside, I dug a little hole, I put the spider in the hole, and I buried it. Then I sat for another long while staring at the little freshly-pressed mound of earth.

“Goodbye,” I said softly.

The End


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Quoth Lao Tzu

I have my hands full trying to control myself, much less other people. I just want to master myself and leave everybody else to God – the only One who can deal with them.


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