What The Fudge?

In high school, my AP English teacher gave us the freedom to choose which book to read individually for our final paper. She tried to push Catcher in the Rye by adding “you’ll like it; there’s swearing in it.” (Despite what you may believe, based on the name of this blog, I did not choose Catcher. I had already read it, so I chose Lord of the Flies.) I remember she specifically added the “swearing” bit because when I had read it I didn’t even notice those words were there. I was too wrapped up in the ball of emotion that was Holden Caulfield and the journey through New York City to pay attention to things like that. If he swore at all, then it was as natural and as necessary as any other word.

We often talk about sex in YA, violence in video games, and other things that might not be “appropriate” for our nation’s youth. While the question of gratuitous language does come up, it’s discussed – on the whole – far less. I should mention that when I talk about “colorful” language in books, I’m not just talking about YA. If anything, teens use curse words way more than adults because, like drinking, adults learn when to hold back, when it’s appropriate, and when to indulge.

I bring this up because I was recently reading a manuscript – one that I was excited to begin – and I could not get over how many F-bombs were on the first page. Obviously this narrator was mad. But I didn’t know who he was, why I should care, if the person he was angry with really was a “bitch,” as he claimed, or even where he was. It felt like I was being bombarded with emotion that I wasn’t ready to take on as a reader. The narrator went on to drop this language into conversation, and every time it felt forced and unnatural. Eventually I had to give up on the story because it was so distracting to read.

Certain things are translated differently when they are on the page, which is why, as novelists, you need to be more conscious of the image you project. Writers like Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet don’t have to worry about that as much. (If you’re familiar with their work, you can probably guess why I chose them as examples.) They aren’t writing for the page. In the flash of a single image, their world, setting, and even character can be immediately established. As a result, their characters can say whatever the fuck they want.

Novelists don’t have that luxury. Yes, their characters can say whatever they want, but when they can say it matters a little bit more in books than it does in movies. It takes longer to introduce your character and establish a connection to your reader – especially if you’re writing in 3rd person. First-person narration might makes things easier since you’re establishing your main character’s voice right from the beginning. Even still, the reader needs to understand his or her POV before they’re forced into it. 

Now, lest you think I’m just being prudish about “the devil’s words,” I’ll admit that not all swear words are bad and no one needs to be sheltered from them. Sometimes they need to be added, not taken away. If your character finds himself in some seriously fucked up shit, then he better call it like he sees it. Even the mildest person in the world will let out a quiet “motherfucker!” when they stub their toe. It’s natural and sometimes a curse is the only word that can sum up events.

Whether you’re writing YA or adult fiction, treat swear words the same way you would any other word. Sometimes they need to get edited out, and sometimes they fit so perfectly that the reader barely notices them. If you’re ever in doubt about whether you’re being excessive or not excessive enough, just ask yourself two questions: Is this something my character would say? and Does this type of language fit the situation? Like with most things, there are exceptions to rules and ways to bend them, but in most situations, answering these two questions will suffice.

I’m of the mindset that almost everything can be appropriate for all ages if done properly. Why hold anything back if it will resonate with your audience and enrich your story? But make smart choices. Swear words are just words the same way sex and violence are just actions. They each have a slightly heavier weight than their counterparts, sure, but ultimately it’s up to you whether your story needs carry it.

Things You Didn’t Do

Writers who are ready to query can be overzealous sometimes. In their excitement and in their quest to have the “perfect” query, sometimes it’s the simplest things that make an agent scratch his or her head. While these things are rarely make-or-break for the query itself, you might want to re-think saying you did the following:

1) Enclose a SASE with your e-query. I’m sure you read all over the internet that agents won’t even respond to queries that don’t have a SASE enclosed. Going down your check list of what you need in a query, it makes perfect sense to remember your SASE – but remember which method you’re sending the query.

2) Write “(sign)” after your name as if you wrote your signature. You didn’t do this. We can see that you didn’t do this.

3) Write a fictional novel. Well, maybe you did. I mean, who hasn’t mapped out an entire novel in their minds? But you really shouldn’t query unless you put that idea down on paper.

4) Write a non-fiction novel. “Novel,” by definition, is a work of fiction.

5) Write a 10,000 word novel. This does not work in any genre or age group.

6) Write a 200,000 word MG. If you did, then chances are it’s actually a four-book series that you combined into one. Or you’re George R.R. Martin trying to mess with people.

7) Send a query letter to “Mr. Curtis Brown.” This one is specific to my agency, I know. But I see it all the time. Yes, there was a real Curtis Brown. No, he is not still alive. No, I am not “Mrs. Brown,” let alone Curtis himself.

Have any of you ever made any “common sense” mistakes you care to share?

How to Get an MFA in Five Steps

This week, GalleyCat promoted New York Writers Workshop’s free ebook of Portable MFA in Creative Writing. While I have nothing against the existence of this book as a writing guide (the people over at the New York Writers Workshop are successful, well-known, and respected in their fields), I was skeptical of it proclaiming to give writers the MFA experience. A GED does not have the same weight as a high school diploma, and a certificate from the University of Phoenix is not a college education. So how could a free ebook come close to substituting a Masters degree? [Note: I don’t think the writers of this book believe it can either. It’s just a catchy title. But, it’s one that implies “an MFA is too expensive, so buy this book instead.”]

I’ll be the first to admit that an MFA in creative writing is a luxury degree. No one needs it. That doesn’t mean that, even after my accumulated $60,000 debt, I regret getting one. I’d recommend an MFA program to anyone who’s serious about writing, but I can see why some might not think it’s worth the price of admission. The good news is there are ways to cut costs and achieve (relatively) the same results. You just need to be willing to put in the work, and realize it’s not going to come from one source or happen overnight.

So here goes – my MFA in Five (Not-Always-Easy) Steps:

1. Buy the following books:
On Writing by Stephen King
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass

There are a million writing guides all proclaiming to be the only one you need. Do you ever only need one book though? Besides, if you found this blog you’re already savvy enough to know the internet is full of free advice that comes directly from agents, editors, and published authors. The three books I mentioned, however, are what I consider “the best” of many, many books on writing. You want to pick them up, trust me. And hey, buy the Portable MFA while you’re at it (or download it for free!) because it sounds like they have some good people over there. (I realize that sounds sarcastic, but I promise I’m being sincere!)

2. Read Literary Fiction.
Rarely will you find an MFA program that teaches genre fiction, and the reason is not because it’s “looked down upon.” My former colleague Nathan Bransford summed up what he called “the reverse snobbery” of literary fiction quite nicely (here), and I could not agree more. There seems to have been a backlash against literary fiction – that it’s too high brow, that they want something “real,” and that it’s not accessible. The thing is, sometimes those things are true and sometimes none of those things are true. Like with every genre, the stereotypes attached to it give it a bad name.

“Accessible” literary fiction like Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, and Jonathan Lethem are what I tend to fall back on when I’m able to read for fun. We all have our favorite genres. But if you’re trying to give yourself an MFA-style education, you need to push yourself. That’s why they teach the uber-literary in MFA programs. Reading the same book you’d read while commuting or at the beach is not going to help you learn anything you don’t already know. So pick up something you’d never buy otherwise. Pynchon maybe? Nabokov that’s not Lolita? Personally, I’d recommend some post-modern Barthelme. Sometimes you need to read something that will make you scratch your head, stretch your mind, and remind yourself that you’re a scholar.

3. Go to readings at your local bookstore.
This is something all the advice in the world can’t replicate. Seeing established authors in person reading aloud from their published work. Then, if you’re lucky, speaking to them – whether in a Q&A session or during a quick handshake before they sign your book. Witness what writing is when it’s off the page.

4. Give yourself “in class” assignments.
Set a timer for 10 minutes and write as many words as you can. It doesn’t matter what the topic is or even that they make sense as a cohesive idea. Just move your pen. Or type – whatever your preference. The goal isn’t to develop a story, but just to see where your mind takes you.

Another favorite in-class assignment of mine was to take a famous writer, study their sentence structure, and then try to replicate it. You’d be amazed at how hard this is. Pick literary writers, or the classics, for this task. Stretch your limits and go beyond your comfort zone. I once had to mimic Proust and produced a long, lyrical sentence about Wal-Mart. Like with the previous assignment, the importance isn’t placed on what you write, but rather how you’re writing it. 

(Although once you deem yourself ready to graduate and want to focus on publishing your work, I recommend taking authors within your genre and studying their structures. While it won’t be as “artful,” it’s a good way to learn what they’re doing, how you’d compete, and what you’d add to the market.)

5. Join a writer’s group or take a creative writing class at a local college.
Again, physically being near other writers is something you can’t find in a book. The most important aspects of an education is experiencing, learning-by-doing, and meeting people. Specifically, meeting strangers. Cheat on your beta readers and workshop your manuscript with people you don’t know, and maybe aren’t even sure you can trust. Sit uncomfortably and optimistically while your classmates tell you every single thing that is wrong with your work directly to your face. It’s wonderful and horrifying and makes you a stronger person. Their word isn’t bond, but how you interpret their advice will make you a smarter, more prepared writer.

This Five-Step Program will not, and should not, take less than one year to complete. Diplomas will be awarded upon graduation, though I cannot guarantee they won’t just be photos of corgis in party hats.

Good forth and learn, you bright young things!