I read a post over at The Write Practice today, and learned about the MacGuffin. It’s a terrible, ugly, sloppy thing that I’ve never known there was a name for. You’ve come across MacGuffins before. I know you have. We all have.
What is a MacGuffin?
You know those movies, TV shows, or stories where the plot revolves around a protagonist that is searching for something? And you know when that something isn’t really relevant to the rest of the plot? It could be replaced with another item and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.
Yeah, that’s a MacGuffin. Don’t fall into that trap. Make sure that if there’s an item a character in your story is seeking out, that character has some real, personal motivation behind their search. Do that, avoid the MacGuffin, and you’ll have a meaningful direction for your plot. Read more about the MacGuffin over at The Write Practice.
Before I write, a do a few things. I make a pot of coffee. I turn on some music. And I make a checklist. It’s usually a short checklist, no more than 5-10 items that I want to keep in mind as I write. Sometimes when I’m writing a genre that’s less familiar, the list will be longer. Here’s an example of my most recent checklist I made before writing a short story about a 40-something doctor who is counting his final days on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean.
- Show, don’t tell. Are the waves are crashing into the side of the lifeboat? Or does a surge of cold, unforgiving saltwater climb over the edge of the faded yellow raft, trying it’s best to guide the inflatable vessel to the bottom of the ocean.
- In a story revolving around one person, dialogue is ok. Would you talk to yourself if you were stranded in the middle of the god-damn Atlantic ocean? I would.
- Write, don’t ponder. The first draft should flow freely off the tip of your pen, not be forced out in fragments as you repeatedly diagnose yourself with writer’s block. Write now. Edit later.
- Drift from your outline. You cannot fully develop your characters, your story, whatever, until you find yourself in the heart of your own story. So don’t be afraid to explore alternate plot paths as you write your story. If it’s good, you’ll know it and you can keep it. If it’s bad, scratch it in editing.
- Details: if they come to you as you’re writing, that’s great. But don’t spend too much time visualizing a scene. Chances are, as you continue writing your story, you’ll form a clearer visualization of your story in your mind, Go back and add your details later, and they won’t seem so forced.
Creating a checklist like this ensures that you’re implementing the practices that you see in work that you enjoy. Does your favorite author have a tendency to write fragmented dialogue, or colorful action scenes? Emphasize that in your checklist.
And write on.
Let me start this post off saying that grammar is important. There are certain rules that you should pay attention to, edit for, and keep in mind when you’re writing a story. If you don’t know the basic rules of grammar, you will not succeed as a writer.
That being said, sometimes picking your spots and breaking those holy rules can make your writing clearer, more concise, and improve the flow of your work. Remember, writing is an art, and often times what feels natural isn’t going to always be grammatically correct. Here’s an example.
- “I thought we had something special, really special, but, you leave me to join the circus.”
- “I thought we had something special, but you left me to join the circus.”
- “I thought we had something special. But you left me to join the circus!”
Dialogue is probably the most appropriate part of writing where some grammar rules can be disregarded. But that’s not to say other rules still don’t apply. Read the first sentence above. It’s hard to get through. The verb tenses don’t match up, there’s no real flow to the sentence. It’s miserable, just like the poor bastard who was thrown to the curb for a circus career.
The second example is fine. It works, it’s concise, it reads well. But it could be better, right?
The third example breaks a rule that was engrained in me in my high-school English class. “Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.” It’s a simple rule, easy to understand, but why is it necessary. (It’s not.) Start a sentence with a conjunction if you want. They’re your words. Mrs. Holstein isn’t going to track you down and give you a B- on your short story because you started a sentence with ‘but’. In the third example above, the sentence reads well, has a nice hard pause for effect, and sounds the most natural out of the three.
So when it comes to rules, ask yourself: what rules do I break when I speak? There isn’t some universal list of rules that you can chalk up as unnecessary and make a mockery of with your writing. But if something sounds natural, it’s ok to take a chance with the grammar Gods and write what works.
So you’d like to start writing. It doesn’t really matter what you’d like to write about. You have to start somewhere. But if you want to write, you’ve already began the creative process.
I came across the Snowflake Method on a writing forum about a year ago. The basic idea is to start small and build your story from the ground up. The guy who came up with this method, Randy Ingermanson, is a novelist. But I think his advice applies to any writer looking to improve their structure, their flow, and their voice. There are several steps to his process, but I think the first is the most important.
- Write a one sentence summary of the story you’d like to tell. If you’re going to take one thing away from my blog, please have it be this: be concise in your writing. Nobody ever explained this to me as I was growing up. It’s such an important part of writing well, and it takes a lot of pressure off the reader. Being able to write an entire story idea in one sentence is a good way to get in a concise mindset. Can you summarize a 1,500 word piece, or an entire novel, into a single sentence? Sure you can. Focus on the story’s significance. Focus on why you’ve chosen to devote your time and energy into the piece. Really ask yourself: why should anyone care about what I have to say. And then say that.
If this made sense to you, check out the rest of the Snowflake Method here. Remember, this was designed to write fiction, but I think it can be applied to any piece of writing that relies on a story. And most writing does.
Write on, 432.
Writing is deceptively difficult. If you’re anything like me, you hear all of these words and ideas in your head, and you often struggle to get them onto paper. And when you finally do, they don’t look like they sounded in your mind. Why is that? Our inner-monologue is so natural, yet the words we write come out forced and fragmented.
There isn’t really an answer. There isn’t a single rule, a supplement, an exercise that’s going to solve all of your writing woes. But if you have ideas in your head, you should realize that those ideas are completely unique to you and you only. You have stories that only you can tell. That’s amazing to me, and it’s my biggest source of creativity.
If there’s one thing I wish I would have learned years ago, it’s this. Writing well can be really challenging. And like anything else, when you begin writing, you’re not going to be very good. The biggest challenge is overcoming your own shitty writing, accepting it, and getting better.
I’ve taken so many breaks from writing because of my disappointment in my own work. But you need to be realistic when you begin a creative process. It takes time to hone your skills, to do things naturally, and to be happy with your work.
All of these ideas are summed up nicely by Ira Glass in this two minute video. It’s my go-to writing inspiration, I think it can benefit anyone who’s experienced disappointment in their own work.
Until next time, write on.