Keep It Simple, Stupid!

For anyone who has ever set foot inside an English composition class, you are probably pretty familiar with the K.I.S.S. acronym.  Today I’d like to discuss the two extremes of this very misleading, and often misunderstood, writing tool.

On the far end of the extreme are those writers who take this acronym literally and think that simple everything is better:  simple plotline, simple sentences, simple characters, simply dialogue.  This is all well and fine…if you are writing childrens books.  If you are aiming for anyone with more than a 5th grade education, you are going to have to get out of the “See Jane run” mentality.  A manuscript written for someone above the age of thirteen should not sound like it was written by an 11 year old unless:

1.  it actually was written by an 11 year old

2.  you are Stephanie Meyer

3.  you intended for it to sound this way because it is based around the view-point of an 11 year old

Most English instructors make the very grave mistake of telling their students to write everything on a 5th grade level.  Okay, unless you are writing for an audience who is 12 years or younger, then anyone else is going to have more than a 5th grade education.  I have always said that I have more than a 5th grade education, I think on a level higher than a 5th grader, therefore I write subject matter and in a style that is meant for those with more than a 5th grade education.  Most adults who read something as simply written as the Twilight saga are often bored to tears.  (I know I sure was.) They want something that will challenge their minds, intrigue their imagination, and totally engross them in the storyline.  “Here comes Edward” just isn’t going to cut it for the majority of the adult population.  Don’t be afraid to use a large vocabulary if you have one.  You are not the only adult in the world to know big words.  Just be careful to not use too many at one time, try to use more common words that a lot of people would know instead of just a few doctors or lawyers or those with a much higher education, and always look for new, if somewhat simpler words, to use in place of always saying the same thing.

For instance, writing “He exited the building” sounds much better than “He left the building.”  While ‘exited’ isn’t exactly a big word, it gives the illusion of a much more sophisticated sound.  Remember that having a large vocabulary doesn’t just mean knowing a lot of different words;  knowing a lot of different words that mean the same thing is not only included in that vocabulary count, but as a writer, it will help you tremendously.  Other ways to write that same sentence include:

**He departed from the building.

**He headed off into the unknown, leaving the building behind.

**He disappeared out the door, leaving the building behind.  

**He vanished out the door and down the steps.

As you can see, there are many ways to write “He left the building.”  All of the above examples are fairly simply stated, but the way they are written spices things up, uses different words to keep the reader interested, and is not so simple that it would make the reader want to bang their head on their desk in frustration.  That is not to say that using something as simple as “He left the building” should never be used.  But if you are having to write the same scenario over and over, learning new ways to state the same thing keeps the reader interested and keeps the writer from falling into a rut.

On the other end of the spectrum are those writers who write so far above the regular Joe’s head that no one without a Ph. D. would be able to understand what was going on.  This, of course, is fine if the work in question was being written specifically for doctors.  However, if the work is supposed to be for regular, everyday people, it is only going to infuriate the reader and make them feel like an idiot.  Most people, myself included, have the mentality that people use big words to make themselves sound smarter than they actually are.  This means that you, by default, are not as smart as they.  And trust me, no one likes to feel like an idiot.  Not to mention that no one is going to continue to read something that requires them to look up the definition of every other word in a sentence.   

When it comes to writing, a very important first step is deciding who your target audience is.  If you are aiming for children, then you are naturally going to have to write in very simple terms.  If you are writing for adults, however, you are going to have to find a happy medium.  Write things too simply and your audience will die from boredom before they hit the second chapter.  Write too far above their heads and they will quickly tire of trying to figure out what all the fancy words mean.  No one really needs to know that you secretly have a vocabulary that rivals Merriam-Webster.  What does matter is that you can choose the correct words from your vast vocabulary that will appeal to the most people.

Why Try to Fit in When You were Born to Stand Out

A lot of today’s writers have forgotten some very basic words of wisdom when it comes to being a writer:  be the best writer that you can be.  Unfortunately, a lot of writers do not fully understand this concept.  Some are so busy chasing around someone else’s fabulous ideas or trying to figure out what ‘the next big thing’ is going to be in literature that they have forgotten that the best thing they can do as a writer is to forget what everyone else is doing, thinking, saying, and writing and just write like you.  A wise (and experienced) writer knows that the best way to get known is to not fit in with other literary greats, but to stand out from them.

I had pointed out that as a writer, you do not really want to be known as the next “insert famous-writer’s-name here.”  Do you really want to be hailed as the next “Stephanie Meyer?”  If you answered yes to this question, then you need to take a step back and have a really long, hard look at your writing style and efforts.  If you are being compared to an already well-known writer, then no one is going to pay attention to your name.  All they are going to see if the famous author’s name.  And if, by some miracle, they run out and purchase your work because they happen to be a fan of Stephanie Meyer’s, imagine their disappointment  when they read your words and discover that you do not write exactly like Stephanie Meyer.  After all, there is only one Stephanie Meyer.  No one will ever write exactly like her but, well, her.  Anyone else is going to be just a very poor imitation of her writing style.  So readers who took a chance on your words because critics were happily comparing your writing style to hers will be very quick (and very vocal) to point out that you are merely a poor imitation of Stephanie Meyer.  Do you honestly think that readers will want a poor replacement for their favorite author when they can just sit down and read the words directly from the horse’s mouth?

Where does that leave writers?  Think of your favorite authors and their writing styles.  The best thing you can do as a writer is forget how they write.  You are not trying to write their next great novel for them.  You must write the way that you feel comfortable with.  If that means run-on sentences and fragments from time to time, then embrace that style and own it.  If you prefer writing in absolutely perfect English that would make any English professor beam with pride, then do so with gusto.  Whatever your style of writing, you have to claim it as your own and run with it.  Stop trying to sound like other writers who you look up to.  Sounding like Anne Rice or Laurell K. Hamilton or Charlene Harris is not going to get you as far in the publishing world as you may think.  While it may seem like a good thing in the beginning, as a writer, you must have the ability to see past the edge of your nose and into the future.  What happens when 100 unhappy readers have told two dozen people apiece that you suck and sound nothing like Stephanie Meyer?  How long do you think it will take critics to turn against you and start calling you what your readers already know:  that you really are a poor imitation of an already famous author?

Great storytelling doesn’t mean dead-on perfect English.  There can be beauty in the flaws of your writing.  But only if you take your flaws and use them to your advantage.  Otherwise, you are just going to be known for imitating someone else’s words.

The Right Kind of Wrong: Clichés and Creative Writing

As I have said in previous blogs, most readers fall into two categories:  those who think that a novel is great because the plotline of the novel is great, and those who think a novel sucks because he thinks the plotline of the novel sucks.  If you are a writer who thinks this way as well, then I hate to burst your little bubble, but good writing and good plotlines do not go hand in hand.  I have read many books that had great plotlines behind them but the actual writing was atrocious.  Likewise, I have read some awesome books that really had a very weak plotline but I kept reading it anyway because it was so beautifully written.  As a writer, you will want to strive to have both a knockout plotline and be such a creative writer that people will want to read every word that you have written down.  And if you cannot do both, then you had better either be one hell of a writer or come up with such awesome plotlines that people don’t care that you are not that talented. 

‘Creative’ writing is subject to an individual’s own perspective.  In my opinion, being creative doesn’t just stop at coming up with a great plotline.  Often times writers get so hung up in trying to follow the rules of the English language and ‘proper’ writing ‘rules’ that they forget that writing is still an art form.  You are, in essence, trying to paint a picture, and words are the paint that you use to create that picture.  Creative writing isn’t about following rules and trying to sound like an English writing assignment.  It is about using the English language to create pictures in the mind’s eye of the reader.  For some, it comes natural.  For others, it’s like pulling teeth.  Ultimately, it is going to take practice, practice, practice.

I have read numerous articles and blogs regarding the use of clichés.  Most people know what a cliché is when it comes to single sentences or dialogue or even in some descriptions.  Basically, a cliché is something that has already been written about many, many times before.  For instance, if you have ever read about a grip that was  ‘vice-like’ then you have just read a clichéd description.  Big on romance?  Ever noticed that the man is often described as the clichéd tall, dark and handsome stranger?  Of course, I am guilty of this as well, but not because I want to use the cliché.  The men of my novels usually sound a lot like this simply because it is the type of man who I find extremely sexy, not because I can’t think of any other way for them to look.  Still, I have been accused of using this cliché to the extreme by a very outspoken critic.  What most readers do not understand is that often writers see their characters very clearly in their minds and cannot imagine the story without that character, or even imagine that character looking any other way.  Often times writers will get very emotionally attached to their characters and will not, or cannot, fathom the possibility of changing the way they look or act. 

If you are going to use this clichéd look for a character, then you will need to make him stand out in other ways.  Maybe he has a quirky personality trait or a scar or is blind in one eye or even missing a limb.  Whatever you do, don’t make your characters perfect, not even your vampires.  One of the points of writing is to create characters that seem real enough that your readers can relate to them.  If you have a novel full of absolute human perfection, your readers are going to get bored really quick.  Not to mention that we see enough ideals of ‘perfection’ on the covers of magazines.  No need for anorexic models in your reading material as well.

For the record, I will once again state my opinion that there is no right or wrong way to be a good writer.  Yes, there are things that you can do to polish your work and hammer out the kinks.  But the bottom line on using clichés will ultimately rest with the individual writer.  I myself use clichés all the time, to the extreme.  But I mix them up, change the traditional storyline around and add so many of my own unique twists that for some odd reason, all the clichés work for me rather than against me.  I, however, am not the norm for this.  I have been writing for twenty-eight years.  I have always written with the mentality of breaking every single writing rule that I possibly could.  Actually, I don’t just break them, I stomp all over them with a vengeful fury.  I have made it into an art form all its own.  For most writers, it simply is not going to work.  But I can give you some tips and tricks on why using them can actually work for you instead of against you.  Think of it as being a good writer in reverse.  Or as one writer so eloquently put it, ‘The right way to write wrong.’  This statement has been my motto for my entire writing career.

Using clichés isn’t about just ‘using’ them in your storyline, but putting your own twists on them to the point where they stop resembling tried and true clichés and become something very unique to the writer.  Let me also point out that sometimes when you write about something that has been done to death, like vampires, (cliché alert!  warning!) you are not going to be able to get around the cliché no matter how hard you try.  Take, for instance, the vampire’s ability to hypnotize his/her victim.  If you are going to have vampires that can do this, then be prepared to write about a cliché.  Glamourize, bespell, bedazzle…all clichéd words used to describe a vampire’s ability to hypnotize his victim and make him/her do what he wants. 

If you are going to write about a cliché, then be prepared to embrace it and make it your own.  In this case, writing the word in a story one or two times makes it a cliché.  Constantly bringing it up removes it from cliché status and makes it a very important part of the storyline.   But don’t overuse them.  The last thing you want is a novel full of nothing but predictable storyline clichés.

Which brings me to my next point.  If you are going to use clichés, then you are going to have to keep the reader interested in what you are writing, make them want to read every word that you have written.  How?  By coming up with your own unique and interesting twists to the storyline and, inevitably, the cliché in question.

How can you keep a reader interested?  There are lots of ways, but the easiest way is to surprise them.  And that surprise doesn’t have to be scary, just unexpected.  For instance, a common description cliché would be a storyline that has a female walking the streets, at night, all alone.  There would be no moon, maybe even lightning and thunder in the distance.  Perhaps the night would go quiet all of a sudden and then…well, you already know what happens.  She gets attacked.  Doesn’t matter by what or who, the reader knows she is going to get attacked because the writer used a very cliché description.  But what if you went through all that trouble of building up that suspense, really got into describing her emotions of how scared she is, how dark and ominous everything is…only to release that tension by having the character break her high-heeled stiletto and fall face first in a big mud puddle?  Skip the whole ‘she gets attacked’ crap right then.  You can have her get attacked further down the storyline, like after she gets home and is whining about the ruined dress.  The trick is to release that tension that you built up, let the reader get a good laugh, let the reader realize that what they thought was going to happen didn’t, and give them a false sense of calm and then…WHAM!  Let the attack come out of left field.   The writer used the cliché to his advantage and still surprised his reader.  Now that is creative writing.

Another type of cliché is where you begin writing something that is so standard and so done to death that the reader figures out what is going on, what is going to happen, and, if it’s a mystery of some kind, the who-done-it before the first chapter is over.  Let’s take for example the classic vampire novel.  If you are writing the standard clichéd vampire plotline, you know that there is going to be some biting, some bloodsucking, a main character and the love interest, a nice romance and maybe even some sex to spice things up.  But if this is all that the plotline entails then congratulations.  You just wrote yourself a huge clichéd novel destined to get you a giant “REJECTED” stamp on the front of your manuscript.  Now if you want to save this sinking Titanic of a novel, you had better start pumping it full of unique ideas and plot twists.  Have aliens invade, set the plotline in an apocalyptic world or on some distant planet, hell set the damn plotline on the Titanic if you have to…anything to set the clichéd plotline apart from all the other clichéd novels out there.

Can clichés work to your advantage?  Yes.  But only if you can add your own unique twist to the standard cliché.  You are going to have to be extremely creative, think and write outside the box, and not be afraid to take chances.  If you think a story would be best told by killing off the main character then do it.  If you are wanting a tragedy but are afraid that your readers will turn against you if you write some huge tragic novel, then you are writing for all the wrong reasons.  But don’t off your character because you can’t think of anything else to write.  Taking advantage of a cliché and using it to your advantage is an art form all its own.  It is not going to work for everyone.  Most people would be better off if they avoided clichés like they were Michael Myers because chances are they are going to murder your novel before it ever gets started (see how I worked that cliché in there?).  Although if you are going to insist upon using them, be prepared to make those clichés your bi-och.  If you don’t own them and make them uniquely your own, then you are just another clichéd writer in a sea of mediocrity.

Another Type of Criticism

For me, there is a little known third category of criticism that exists somewhere between constructive criticism and deconstructive criticism.

I have already said that constructive criticism is basically designed as an honest opinion to help the writer clear up things that the reader did not understand or thought would make the story better in their eyes.  Deconstructive criticism, on the other hand, is designed to make the writer feel bad about their ability to write, to openly bash a piece of work, and seldom has any value or bearing on what the story is actually about.  I consider people who give negative feedback based solely on their dislike of the theme to be giving deconstructive criticism because it does not help the author in any way.  Not everyone is going to like a particular theme or storyline, so feedback based solely on such opinions is useless.

The third type of criticism is criticism at first glance.  It can be constructive criticism that, at first glance, sounds like deconstructive criticism.  It can even be criticism that you are not sure if it was meant to be helpful or if it is a sarcastic comment that is meant to make the author look like a fool for not getting facts straight.  It is often the result of a reader not really reading the story, not paying close attention to what is being written, or not fully understanding what is going on in the story.  I had this happen to me recently with the latest published installment of The Red Fang. 

Here is the excerpt in question:

…..” It is common vampiric knowledge that a human who ingests enough human blood over a long enough period would eventually die. There is a legend among our kind. A vampire named Tao came across a young girl named Addalynne. When he found her, she was mortally wounded. The legend has changed as time has changed. She was attacked; she was raped and left for dead; she was discovered in a car wreck on the side of the road. But the names have remained unchanged over the centuries.”…..Copyright 2010 Nicola Matthews.  All Rights Reserved.

I received this comment regarding this portion of the story:

“You are writing about an old legend where some girl is found raped in a CAR WRECK. Cars (that you can get into) were first made in the late 19th century.  Kind of a short time for a tale to turn into a legend… Unless your world is set like 8 centuries in the future.  I would really leave out the car wreck part or change it a bit.”

At first glance, you may not know if this is meant to be constructive criticism or a sarcastic comment meant to make me look like a fool.  In one aspect, it IS trying to be helpful by letting me know that having a ‘legend’ that has a girl found in a car wreck is a bit far-fetched and tends to make me look foolish.  On the other hand, the first lines of the comment almost sound sarcastic and could be interpreted as a stab at making me look foolish for not having facts straight as opposed to trying to keep me from  looking foolish by pointing out an discrepancy.  Either way, it doesn’t matter because it is the READER who is in the wrong.  The person making this comment misunderstood what the story actually said.  That passage does not state that the girl of legend was found raped in a car wreck.  What it DOES state is that the legend has changed over the years.  Her being found on the side of the road is one version of the legend, her being found attacked was another version, her being found raped and left for dead a third version, and her being found on the side of the road yet another version.  

At first glance I was not really sure what the reader was talking about, if they were sincere or trying to be sarcastic, and or if the comment had any bearing on the storyline at all.  I kept running the story over and over in my mind, wondering if I had really made such a blaring oversight in my story.  Had I made the legend specifically stating that she was found in a car wreck, and this legend had been passed down for centuries, then there would have definitely been egg on my face.  I had to go back and read the excerpt in question to fully understand what the reader was talking about and realized that, thankfully, it was the reader who had misunderstood what I had written.

It is up to the author to try to decipher if the criticism is worth investing any time in.  Is it helpful to the storyline?  Would taking the advice change the storyline to the point that you feel it would not work?  Do you just like the way you wrote the story regardless of what others think?  In the end, it is left up to the author and the individual story in question to determine whether or not to listen to the criticism at hand.