Podcast: FSoG Critique, chapter 1

Hey everyone!
As promised, here’s my podcast critique of the first chapter of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. Download link below:

Download it Here!!!

Sorry if it’s a little rough, this is my first time doing something like this. The quality gets a little better towards the end, but it is what it is. If you enjoy it, feel free to share the link.

Remember I do not own this book. This is only my opinion and is meant to use the text to teach and talk about writing. Feel free to read along with me and share your thoughts in comments. If you don’t have the book, you can buy it here.

Music courtesy of Piano Society. Seriously, check them out if you like classical music.

Let me know if you enjoy this or find it helpful/interesting. If you want me to keep going and do chapter 2 as well let me know, or if there’s another popular book you’d rather hear me talk about next.

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About Teaching and Writing

As most of you have probably noticed, most of the time I’ll write about writing on my blog. That’s because I love writing and I love talking about writing. However, as much time as I’ve spent doing it over the past few years, writing isn’t my area of expertise.

My degrees are in physics and education. By day I’m a teacher. It’s only by night that I’m a writer, at least for now. I love teaching just as much as I love writing. After all, I get paid to talk nonstop about a subject I really enjoy to kids who are required to sit and listen to me. What could be better than that?

With the school year fast approaching, I was thinking about my two passions, and I realized that it’s no coincidence I enjoy them both so much—they’re practically the same thing.

 

Here’s what I mean.

Writers as Teachers:

In order for us to enjoy a book, it has to be able to teach us. If you’re writing fiction, you’re creating a new world. This is true whether your book takes place in a distant galaxy, in a magical realm, or in downtown Detroit. When you write you create a setting that’s distinct from the everyday lives of your readers. It’s your job as the creator and writer to teach your readers how your world works. What does it look like? What are the rules (magical, societal, legal, it doesn’t matter where they come from)? What can we expect?

The same is true for your characters. They are obviously not real people, but you must teach your readers enough about them that we can forget this and think about them as people rather than constructs. You need to teach your readers about each character’s history and how it has shaped their present. You teach their quirks, their interests, their hopes and dreams, and if you’ve done your job right we know them as well as our own friends.

The better you are at teaching your readers about the worlds you create and the characters who inhabit it, the more lasting an impression your book will leave. What separates a good book from a great book is how much and how well a writer can teach his or her readers about the world they’ve created.

Teachers as Writers:

If you think a teacher’s job is to sit in front of a class all day and just spout facts and information, think back to your best and favorite teachers in school. Is that how they taught? Odds are it wasn’t.

If all it took to learn was exposure to knowledge, school would consist entirely of someone standing behind a podium reading an encyclopedia. But as anyone who’s ever tried to memorize an encyclopedia (just me?) can tell you, it’s not that easy.

That’s because facts devoid of context are boring, and boring things are harder to commit to memory. What we learn best are stories, so that’s what teachers have to create.

In order to teach effectively, you need to create a story out of your material. You need to reshape it so that it’s interesting and relevant to the lives of your students. It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching science, history, foreign language, or art, the best teachers weave their subject matter into a narrative that’s interesting and easy to follow.

Why this Matters:

Teaching and writing mesh together really well, and incorporating aspects of one into the other have made me better at both. I mentioned last week how my outlining process is the same for writing units and novels, but that’s not all the crossover I’ve seen. Teaching has made me more conscientious of my readers, always keeping in mind where they might be coming from, what they’re expecting to get out of a book and what they may want to see. Writing has made my units more cohesive, my classes more engaging. I’ve even reshaped my curriculum, straying from the traditional sequence to form a better and more compelling narrative.

So my question to all of you this week is this: How does your job relate to your hobbies? This could be writing, gardening, boxing, I don’t care. What might doing one teach you about the other? What aspects can be shared between them? Think about it and let me know. I’d be interested to hear from you.

About the Importance of Planning [a Novel]

Another post on writing, or my opinions thereof. As I get ready for school in a few weeks maybe I’ll write about education week. Let me know if that sounds interesting.

In terms of writing, and I suppose more generally life, there seem to be two schools of thought. One favors spontaneity and diving in head first while the other favors thinking and looking before taking the leap.

I’m talking, of course, about whether or not to outline a story.

Honestly, I’m not sure why there’s even a debate about this. My first attempt at a novel I wrote with unfortunately limited forethought. It was 130,000 words of absolute train wreck. On the upside I still take it out and read bits of it when I’m feeling down to remind myself that I used to be much, much worse. So at least I got something out of the process (aside from the experience).

Part of the reason I think it was so bad (sadly neither the fact that I was in college at the time or that most of it was written at three in the morning count as decent excuses) is that I didn’t take the time to plan it out properly.

Planning a novel, or even a short story, is the only consistent way to end up with a good product. At least in my experience. There are, of course, flukes and exceptions, but then someone has to win the lottery every once in a while. But more to the point, after I took the time to think about it, it’s the only way to write that actually makes sense to me.

Think about it. You don’t take a trip across the world without first booking yourself a place to stay. Painters don’t immediately put their brushes to the canvas but sketch out their vision in pencil. Architects make blueprints and models long before they break ground. That’s because all of these things—trips, paintings, buildings, and even novels—all represent huge investments of time and resources.

There are bound to be flaws in everything we do at first. As Hemmingway once said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” He’s right, and not just about writing. When we first conceive of something, it’s riddled with holes and inconsistencies, parts that are hazy and parts that are just bad and we don’t have the perspective yet to notice.

Often, writing a full draft on that first hazy idea is like building a model around a broken skeleton. Don’t be surprised when it can’t stand on its own.

Rather than that doomed draft, write an outline. That way, you’ll be able to see which parts aren’t working without investing the months (or, more realistically for a novel, years) it takes to write something only to find out it’s crap. It’s a sketching and diagnostic process where you enhance the parts that work well and cut out the parts that are dragging you down, just as an artist perfects his vision in malleable pencil before moving to paint and the architect first works with models before building the real thing.

You could argue that writing is far less permanent than a building, or even a painting, and you would be right. We can always go back and fix our mistakes (at least until it gets picked up and published, but that’s a different story), but do we really want to spend that time? Isn’t the whole point of the first draft to just get it on paper, even if it all ends up being unusable gibberish? Well, yeah, but it doesn’t have to be. It seems like a shame to waste that much time, especially important if you have to support yourself with something other than writing. For most of us, time to write can be hard to come by. I personally don’t want to waste it running in circles chasing my tail.

That said, the main argument against planning and outlining is that such forethought becomes constraining, inhibiting the naturally creative process of writing. If you ever find this to be true, then you’re not using your outline properly.

An outline should never constrict you. You’re the boss, you make the decisions. If you come up with a better idea while writing, then by all means go for it. It’s a guide, not a cast-iron contract. You’re always allowed to branch off, the outline is just there to keep you focused and heading in the right direction. You should never let any part of your writing control you, and that includes your outline.

Outlining novels has worked well for me since I started doing it, cutting down the number and severity of re-writes I’ve had to do and making the writing itself go quicker. I’d definitely recommend everyone at least try it. If it’s not for you then that’s fine. But I’ve found the process has helped me in more than just my writing—I plan weekly lessons and monthly units for my classes the exact same way I plot a novel. And now, I can’t really imagine doing it any other way.

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A little planning could keep this from happening to you.

What do you think? How do you prepare before you write? What’s worked for you? What hasn’t?

About Reading [Poorly Written Books]

Sometimes it makes you want to pull your hair out, but it's worth it...usually.

There are two ways to learn how to write: by reading and by writing. Both of them are equally important. All it takes to get experience writing is a pen and paper or a word processor and a laptop. As for reading, you read all the best books you can get your hands on. Isn’t that enough?

I don’t think so.

I think a flaw in the way we teach English in America, at least in terms of preparing students to write their own stories and novels, is that we have a bias toward good books. Think about it, what did you read and analyze in high school? Shakespeare? Moby-Dick? Huckleberry Finn? Catcher in the Rye? Chances are, you read nothing but classics. Even if you had a progressive teacher who had you reading current books, I’ll bet they were still award winning and well-written.

There’s nothing wrong with reading good books. That’s how we as budding writers begin to develop our own voices and styles. We read them to see how they did what they did, so that we can one day write like them. From the good books we read come our aspirations and inspiration.

But that’s only half of the picture that we, as aspiring writers, need to be successful. Watching a master dance effortlessly through a mine field might take your breath away and inspire you, but it won’t do anything to show you where the mines are buried. Maybe one rare genius may be able to follow in their footsteps exactly and not blow herself up. But for the rest of us it can more helpful to watch someone else step on a mine so that know where it’s buried.

That’s where poorly written books come in. Notice I don’t call them bad, because I believe a book can be at once both good and poorly written. To me, a bad book is one that fails to meet its own expectations. Books like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, despite being written with all the grammatical understanding of a gerbil, are, I would argue, good books. I certainly don’t enjoy reading them, but many, many people do. And that’s all those books want for themselves. They’re not meant to be literature, to withstand the test of time and be this generation’s Sound and the Fury. They’re meant to be the potato chips of the literary world, consumed quickly and without thought, and by anyone’s count they’ve certainly succeeded at this.

But they are still poorly written, earning their success in spite of their writing as opposed to because of it. Books like this can get away with being poorly written, but they don’t have to. And these authors all make a lot of the same mistakes.

So even though it can be painful, read them. Learn from their mistakes so you don’t make the same ones in your own writing. You may not enjoy yourself, but I think your writing will be better for the experience. After all, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

What do you think? What are some of the most poorly written books you’ve ever read and did you learn anything about how not to write from them? I’ll share some of my own experiences later. I’m even thinking of making a podcast reading and critiquing Fifty Shades if that would be something anyone is interested in (I’m certainly not looking forward to the idea but I think it’s worth doing).