It’s 2016; content has long been our despotic monarch and it’s no longer news that a person can squeeze a multi-million-dollar film franchise bonanza out of the average PDF – sorry, eBook – they put up on the Kindle store. The age of the self-published writer-blogger-speaker-lifecoach-consultant-social-media-marketing-guru is here. Yet even though it is sort of my dream to become an authorpreneur™, I’m not without misgivings about what I might be enabled to output, given the chance: too much content without enough curation or critique from outside the community, perhaps.
I suspect this because I don’t always see improvement of one’s craft as the primary concern for the ‘Quit Your Job And Work From Home In Barbados While Sipping Margheritas And Earning Three Times Your Former Salary In Passive Income’ brigade – which includes many writers. The narrative seems to be about replacing your income (and then tripling it), potentially so you can work from your Caribbean holiday shack for six months of the year; you’re doing what you love, and providing for your family and retirement pot. That’s the definition of success, right? So improvement tips tend to be as much if not more about building your following so that you can replace that darn salary as about being any good.
As a teenager, I liked to amuse myself by writing stories. For the above reasons, it’s lucky for us all that I didn’t have access to the self-publishing community aged fifteen. If I’d done what I wanted, and been enabled to do so by a ready audience (assuming there was a ready audience!), I might not have gone to university or had a ‘real’ job, and might not have been in a position to learn that not everything it’s possible to do is worth doing, or that I actually wasn’t that great back then.
Illustrated by bad writing from my teenage self, similar examples of which can also be found in actual printed fiction as well as eBooks, here are some lessons to myself about what to avoid when writing, or how not to get yourself a film deal from your amateur efforts.
- Plagiarised tropes
- Conventional beauty standards and other social injustices
- Unoriginal structures
- Clichéd language
- Using characters as mouthpieces
I read a lot of 19th-century classics, and it showed, but I honestly don’t know any more whether I was unconsciously or deliberately imitating these books. I had one story begin with an orphaned girl beginning a new life far far away with mysterious relatives (straight from the Little White Horse); another story began with three sisters huddled around the fire talking about their life ambitions (Little Women), and incorporated an advantageous marriage blocked by an embarrassing family (Pride & Prej – more here):
I will come straight to the point. Though I know your expectant dreams may be destroyed and your hopeful feelings hurt by the following statement, I feel I must say it outright, to avoid further misunderstanding between us. Yesterday, you no doubt guessed, I was going to propose to you. However, my mind has been irrevocably changed. I now know I cannot marry you. I am exceedingly sorry to injure your feelings in any way, but I must make myself clear. As to the reason for my change of mind, it is that your relatives are simply too disgraceful.
LOL because Jane Austen’s no longer around to plead a plagiarism lawsuit #gotawaywithit
As Mr Bhaer tells Jo in Little Women, there’s no need to imitate what trashy genre-writers have already done just because the readers like it. You don’t need to write with a specific audience in mind; you don’t need to write ‘to’ a genre because it’s trending right now or even because you like it. Playing to the reader’s desires is a people-pleasing goal that suits our needy age of ‘community’ and ‘following’. Honesty and authenticity, on the other hand, are more likely to produce something artistically better (as discussed in a previous blog post).
In a similar vein, it’s easy to begin conforming to the ethical and aesthetic values these books evince if you have few other referents. Not all Regency romances need a conventionally beautiful heroine just as not all modern romances need a conventionally quirky one (yes, hipster can be boring) with the regulation multiple piercings, pixie hair and some kind of cute imperfection like a wonky tooth or crooked smile. Teenage me was already an ageist classist body-shamer,and I’m not sure what percentage of the blame goes to the books I was reading at the time:
how lucky was this girl to have a small waist
Already internalised the patriarchy and stuff #fatphobia
No matter what the weather, Mr Woodcroft was always overheated, due to the large amount of insulation on his person
she was a servant bred of servants
The chav gene is hereditary, y’all
Nessa turned nineteen, and regretted it. The flower of youth was passing already
I might have honestly thought that fourteen was the prime of life. All my heroines were about that age.
Every story needs a structure, and the most basic structure that suits us readers, who consume books as objects of enjoyment, is one that on a macro level encompasses rising intrigue, climax, and resolution. Resolution could as well take the form of a wedding as a death, and the ‘tying-up’ and immortalising of the fates of the characters: some will be punished (if the author presents a morally just world, the evil will be punished; if the author has created a corrupt or chaotic world, the good may be punished instead); some will be rewarded according to similar criteria; some may never change – often as a hipster way of disrupting the resolution and casting doubt over meaning and the possibility of change. These are universally pleasing structures to us; we like resolution because we would like to believe that we can attribute meaning retrospectively to our own lives too.
He now had a body as feeble as his will
Back in the day I loved a bit of poetic justice, and ‘punished’ the anti-hero of the story for abandoning his fiancée following her paralysis in a skiing accident, by subjecting him to a car crash, and, you guessed it, subsequent paralysis. I was going to call this really obvious, but to be fair the punishment-sin parallels in Dante’s Inferno read kind of similar, so …
But again, do we need to write for the reader? We can deal with the possibility that all is not resolved, that there is no justice – can’t we? – without needing to have these fears salved by overly neat ways of writing the world into a box.
Cliché is cringe-inducing is unoriginal – as I wrote previously, it’s a sign that the author is trying to use known linguistic methods to produce a pre-designed effect. A prime example:
The horse was black as the impending night, with a wild mane whipped up by the wind
Black as night, red as roses, white as milk are similes for lazy people. So is that alliteration. Just think of something more original for goodness’ sake, if only as a mental exercise. You get no prizes for the brain equivalent of a copy and paste.
Here’s another example:
It was a sight to assault the eyes and to scar the mind
I was obviously trying for a bit of poetic balance, but I’ve just repeated myself for the sake of making the sentence sound good (the good sound isn’t typically there for its own sake; it’s meant to enhance and add to a good meaning and guide our interpretation of said meaning). I just wasted five words; move on.
Teenage me was prone to this because I obviously had a problem speaking my mind. For example, I had one character object to going to an assembly ball, saying:
if I wished to see a lot of silly people capering about with each other, I would visit the zoo
This was a great outlet for my hatred of school discos, but no one wants to be preached at. At worst, you’re compromising the sense and representative possibilities of your own work by putting words into the mouths of characters who really, in the logic of your world, wouldn’t have said them. You have to be Dickens to pull off really obvious didacticism half-convincingly (yes, I mean half).
The aforementioned tale of three sisters was set in Regency Bath – precisely, at Number 1 Royal Crescent, which is an excellently-preserved house-museum that you should go and look around asap.
Now if the first words intoned by your characters are ‘It is so cold today!’ and ‘Tea anyone?’, you’re not giving your readers the impression that there’s anything more to come than stereotypical English banalia. Start as you mean to go on! But with fewer clichés!
If after all that you find novel-writing too difficult, start a blog instead. No pesky editors, probably no readers either, no one to hold you to account except yourself in six years. Ideal.