• Member Since 19th Mar, 2012
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Aragon


Quoth the raven: "CAW CAW CAW CAW CAW CAW CAW CAW CAW" (Patreon)

More Blog Posts255

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Jul
13th
2019

The Part of You that Never Sleeps · 11:56pm Jul 13th, 2019

If you’re like me, you’ve accepted the fact that writing is a constant exercise of forgetting and then re-learning the single most basic goddamn rules every time. Technical stuff is easy—hey, commas go here, semicolons go there, slap in the butt and go get ‘em, tiger—but conceptual stuff?

Pff, fuck me. 

So here’s the thing: there’s one basic lesson in particular that always gets forgotten, one with which every writer struggles. It’s the single most important piece of writing advice you’ll ever get, and it’s especially relevant if you haven’t been writing for a long time. 

Here’s how it goes. It’s worded like a question:

Are you writing boring bullshit?

Let’s find out why that scene you’ve been stuck on for the last two weeks isn’t goddamn working.

PART ONE: ARE YOU WRITING BORING BULLSHIT?

Sounds like an easy question, doesn’t it? And it sounds like I’m talking about the content of your story, about the plot. “Are you writing boring bullshit?” “No! I’m writing a thriller, where Lyra and Bon Bon fight crime together, and there’s a drug cartel that—”

Only, stop right there, cause I didn’t ask if your story is boring bullshit. I asked: are you writing, as in, right now, right this second, as we speak, are you writing boring bullshit?

Aaah, hahah. Harder to answer, isn’t it.

Here’s the thing: the term “boring bullshit,” as a term that I use, does not refer to anything related to the plot, or the hook, or the genre, or the characters of your story. It’s not about the macro stuff, the bigger picture. It’s not about the abstract concept of the story you’re writing or what happens in it.

It’s about the micro stuff. Think of the reason the audience is interested in this story. Is any of that happening right now? It better be. It better be present in the section you’re currently writing. Let me tell you a secret: if you describe a scene or chapter with the words “it gets better later”? Guess what. Boring bullshit.

Now, at this point, I know what you’re thinking: this advice sounds kind of basic. I’m literally just saying “Want your story to be interesting? Just don’t write stuff that isn’t interesting! I’m a genius!”

And, I am! Both a genius, and saying it. But also, gee,  of course this sounds basic. That’s the problem.

Look, stop me if you’ve heard this before: you’re trying to write a scene, and it just isn’t working. You’re stuck. At first you think it’s just about you being lazy, but soon enough you go oh fuck, shit, no. This is writer’s block isn’t it? I’m going through writer’s block. Oh, no.

And the words just don’t come out. You write a sentence, and it’s bad, and you delete it. You push through it, manage to write a paragraph, and you hate it. If you’re tough enough, you might even write the entire scene!

And then the very next day, you delete it! And start anew!

Rinse, repeat, I’ve written 9,000 words in the last three weeks, and I’ve deleted 9,300, why do I do this to myself.

Mate, here’s the hot tip: if you’re struggling with a scene or a story, if the words don’t seem to come out no matter how hard you try, it’s always because one of these two reasons:

  • You haven’t actually planned what’s happening in the scene in particular, so you literally don’t know what to write.
  • You’re writing boring bullshit.

 
That’s literally it. Do you have every point of your story planned to the tiniest little detail? You know exactly what Sunset will say when she opens the door to find Twilight’s eaten her brassiere? Bitchin’, congrats on your planning skills. If you’re still blocked, you’re writing boring bullshit. 

You might not realize you’re writing boring bullshit, at least not consciously—but your brain does, cause brains are generally smarter than their owners. It’s impossible to write boring bullshit without having the emotional equivalent of a seizure. It feels bad to write boring bullshit. You don’t have fun.

You shut down.

The boring bullshit bits are the scenes that you feel have to be there, but that have nothing to do with the plot and aren’t actually interesting to the reader. They’re Twilight making pancakes for 600 words. They’re Luna and Celestia having witty out of character dialogue for seven pages before the story kicks off. They’re Rarity narrating to the reader how she makes dresses for a living, and how much she loves making dresses for a living.

It’s the bits that you can skip on re-read. It’s not even filler, since filler can serve a purpose when it comes to pacing—it’s the stuff that’s just there. Setting up a scene that doesn’t need set up, padding out a chapter so the two big plot twists don’t happen in a row, jokes that go nowhere but take a long time to do so.

It’s useless chaff. The bits that make you go ‘holy shit, get to the point already, please’.

Why does this happen? How come we keep doing it? Because this happens to literally every writer out there—it’s why editing was invented.

That’s why I said it’s a problem, how it sounds so simple. Because it actually isn’t. To explain why boring bullshit happens, and how to avoid it, we need to go back to the basics. We need to rethink the things we give for granted.

We need to see how stories work.

PART TWO: AN EXERCISE IN FRUSTRATION

Let me present a thesis I’ve been defending for a while in my head, but that I’ve never really written down until this very moment: 

A good story is an exercise in frustration.

When you think of good storytelling, chances are ‘frustrating’ is not the main adjective that comes to mind--but in a way, that’s exactly what it does. A story’s first and most important job isn’t to teach you a lesson or entertain you, but rather, to make sure you read the whole thing. Every story is banking on the idea that you’ll reach the ending; nothing is ever constructed under the assumption that readers will leave halfway through.

But to make your audience reach the ending, you have to keep them engaged. There are many ways to do this, because stories come in many shapes and kinds, but the most basic, universal technique is to delay gratification. Meaning: you set up a thing, you make sure the audience wants it, and then you don’t give it to them immediately. You make them wait.

Every narrative asks a question to the reader, and then teases an answer. The question can be very broad (“what will happen next?” "How is this character going to evolve?") or very specific (“When will Twilight discover Sunset has been lying to her this whole time?” "Will Rainbow ever be happy?"), but it’s always there; it’s the hook, and it’s what keeps you glued to the page.

Readers are greedy, mind you. They’ll want the answer right away, they’ll demand you give it to them—and they’ll be frustrated when it doesn’t come. But you shouldn't care, because this time you buy by keeping them waiting? That's extremely valuable. That’s what you use to set up more stuff, to ask more questions, to tell the actual story.

Frustrating your readers is important, and they appreciate it, too. Catharsis feels better if you have to earn it. But there’s a catch: you can’t answer the question right away…

...but you can’t ignore it, either.

See, when a scene ignores the question, the hook, the reason why the audience is reading the story—that’s boring bullshit. That’s going to kill your momentum, and if you’re not careful enough, it’s going to kill your story too.

You can’t answer the question right away, but you need to keep moving towards it. Everything you write must either build up the anticipation for one of the answers you’re going to give, or it must shed a little bit of light on it. Everything you write matters. There’s a piece of advice that you might have heard before, saying that every line in a story must advance the plot or build character. This is related to that.

So as you can see, there’s a balance you need to achieve here. You have to keep your readers guessing, but you can’t waste their time. You have to frustrate them, but you can’t outright piss them off. You have to do this the right way.

This is why boring bullshit happens. This is why sometimes you spend hours wasting away at a scene, and sometimes they seem to come on their own without you even trying. Intentions are always good when boring bullshit arises; nobody goes out of their way to be tedious. It just so happens that, when you’re writing a story, you feel like you’re moving too fast. You feel like you need some extra scenes here or there that aren’t related to the plot, because that’s how good stories are structured, and if it worked for them, it probably should work for you too, right?

But it never works. Good stories never cross the line between frustrating and pointless. Boring bullshit is hard to write because it’s so fucking dull that even you, the writer, can’t remain engaged.

PART THREE: DON’T FIGHT A LOSING BATTLE

As a general rule of thumb, if you enjoy writing it, it’s not boring bullshit. Boring bullshit is actively repugnant to writers; it’s not an end result, it’s an obstacle in our way. So you gotta learn to jump over it. 

That’s not a metaphor, either—ninety percent of the time, the way to avoid a scene that’s boring bullshit is to literally skip it. Literally don’t fucking write it. Nothing of value will be lost.

Practical advice and practical example for the slow ones on the back row: scene breaks are a thing. If you’re reading this and going “wait, but this IS related to the plot, so I can’t skip it”, ask yourself—is the scene relevant to the plot because of what happens in it, or because of its consequences? 

Say two characters are playing cards, and the fact that Character A loses is a huge plot point. So, you write the entire game of cards—every hand, every deal, every round. 

If nothing else but the fact that Character A loses is relevant? Are there character beats, important moments, fun bits in the game? No? Everything is there just to serve the ending, where Character A loses?

Then the card game is boring bullshit. It doesn’t matter. Just skip it—have them sit down at the table and get the cards, and then scene break, hard cut to Character A going “What do you mean, I lose?” You lost nothing, the pacing is probably better, and nobody got bored today.

That’s kind of the gist of it, really. Earlier, I said that “It gets better later” is the worst thing you can say about your own story—and I stand by it. In fact, fuck it, let’s do the thing where I, like. Frame it. So it looks good.

“It gets better later” is the worst thing you can say about your own story

Yeah, that.

If it gets better later, it’s not good now. You need a setup for a later payoff? Make the setup itself enjoyable. You need to portray peace so war can feel horrible later? Make peace interesting, and ask questions the readers care about. A reader needs to be engaged at all times, or else they might leave; you can’t just drop the ball for a while and hope they don’t mind. Stories are an exercise in frustration—not in boredom.

PART FOUR: THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON

I said earlier that writing is about learning the same lessons a million times, and let me tell you—this one’s a constant struggle of mine.

Because of course, the obvious catch here is that you don’t really know what’s boring bullshit until it’s too late. And that old fear—wait, what if this is the one exception to the rule, what if this is a good scene and I’m just not good enough, what if I’m ruining the story—is always there. Literary imposter syndrome. Gotta love that.

So I suppose the real lesson we all have to learn is this: you gotta learn to trust your gut. Good writing is honest writing. If the writer is enjoying it, the readers will enjoy it too—and if the writer hates it, well, guess what. 

So go back to that scene you can’t write, and ask yourself: what’s the problem here? Is this necessary? Is this boring bullshit?

And if it is, don’t write it. Skip it, and write something else. Change the structure. Ask the right questions.

“Want your story to be interesting? Just don’t write stuff that isn’t interesting!

It’s the single most important piece of writing advice you’ll ever get. Make sure you don’t forget it.

Comments ( 25 )

Writing this blog was scary. I'm very rusty.

These are my Patreon supporters with a $5 tier or higher, and this is the special small-story shoutout I do for them.

  • The year was 1988, and we were in trouble. The terrorists had taken over the skyscraper, and  G.P. Prior and I were crawling down the air vents. G.P. Prior said, this isn’t looking good. There’s thirty of them. I said, don’t worry, I have a plan. You go down that vent and rally the hostages. I’ll go up the elevator shaft and have sexual intercourse with the dog we saw earlier. G.P Prior said, what? I said, it’s the only way. Good luck. G.P. Prior said w-what? Wait, don’t go just yet, we—hey. HEY. THAT’S OUR ONLY GUN. WHY ARE YOU LEAVING WITH OUR ONLY GUN IF ALL YOU’RE GOING TO DO IS FUCK A DOG. HEY. YOU PIECE OF SHIT.
  • I opened my chest cavity to reveal my purple, glowing, still-beating heart. Reach for it, I hissed, poison in my breath. Dare to claim what’s rightfully yours. Undome Tinwe said, uh, no. I hissed again, spitting teeth, and said, do it! Foolish mortal, you can’t deny your fate! If one of us is to live, the other shall die today! Undome said for the last fucking time, Aragón, I’m not going to consume your sacrilegious flesh to achieve immortality, just give me the twelve goddamn dollars you owe me. I said Eat my heart! Do it! Undome said dude I don’t care if you have a vore fetish, but stop trying to drag me into it. I said COME ON DUDE I HAVEN’T CUM IN YEARS.
  • I met with Octavia Harmony at the British Museum, and he took the file from my hands without saying a word. I said, the Nazis have stolen a statue containing our ciphers, agent Harmony, and if we want to win this war we need you to take it back. Octavia Harmony said um. Why is this a statue of you naked. Why does it look like this. I said because I enjoy art, agent Harmony, and now if you excuse me— And he said no I more mean, like. Why does it have so many nipples. This is an unnatural number of nipples. I said oh. Uh. That’s just an accurate representation of my—y’know, my mother always told me I had nothing to be ashamed of, so I assumed— And he said dude. Your mother lied. Your mother super lied.
  • Jeffb and I met up to feed the ducks by the riverside every Tuesday, and this unspoken agreement only became more important after the death of our respective wives. I still miss her, I said one day, throwing my last piece of bread at the river. Jeffb said, yeah, me too. He said, it’s especially bad in the mornings, waking up and seeing she’s not there. I said, yeah. I said, sometimes, when I think I can’t handle it, I’ll pick up her ashes and snort them a little. Jeffb said what. I said yeah, just like, grab some and snort them like you do with powdered milk? Jeffb said you don’t snort powdered milk. I said what? He said dude you mix it with cold water and drink it. I said what? You want me to drink my dead wife? and he said, wow. You deserve loneliness.
  • Emlyn Costilow was our coach during that last game, and by the fourth quarter we were losing 75 to 50. In our last time-out, I said, coach, there’s no way! They’re too good! Emlyn said, don’t you worry, guys. I think I know the way to win. I said, really? Emlyn said, yes, and then they opened the door to reveal a golden retriever on the other side. Emlyn said, its name is Air Bud. It’s the best basketball player I’ve ever seen. And I think it’s going to be the key to—Aragón what are you doing. I said hm? Emlyn said, why are you licking your lips every time you look at Air Bud. I said oh, you’re about to find out. Emlyn said what. What do you mean. Why are you pulling down your p—
  • As the alarms blared through the spaceship, Wishcometrue was the first to come to the bridge. They said, What is going on?! I said, Captain! We were hit by space debris, there’s a breach in the hull! Wishcometrue swore under their breath, and said, how bad is it? I said, worse than anything I’ve seen before, Captain. The entire structure of the ship has been compromised, and our oxygen is leaking. There’s not enough air for the whole crew. I moved to the airlock, and I said, it’s been a pleasure. Wishcometrue said wait. what? WAIT. WAIT NO. YOU’RE THE ONLY ENGINEER. YOU PIECE OF SHIT, YOU’RE THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN FIX THE—NO DON’T LAUNCH YOURSELF INTO SPACE. WHY ARE YOU FUCKING KILLING YOURSELF. THIS IS NOT HOW HULL BREACHES WORK. OH MY GOD. WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE.
  • I was watching a movie with Ross James in late September, when his three-month old baby sister, who was supposed to be sleeping, walked into the room smiled at us with a full set of adult teeth. It said, God cannot see me. Once I’m done, it won’t see you either. Ross James screamed, and said Aragón, what the fuck did you do. I said why do you always assume it’s my fault when a corrupted baby appears. The baby said, I will flay your soul out of your bodies. I will burn your eyes and eat your liver. I said oh, wow. Y-you’ll eat my liver, huh. That’s, phew. Y’know, Ross James, maybe you should run away and find help, I’ll stay here and, ehehe, I’m sure we’ll find a way to— Ross James said DUDE. MY SISTER HAS ADULT TEETH AND WANTS TO KILL US. CAN YOU PLEASE STOP THINKING WITH YOUR DICK. FOR ONCE. I said, hahah. No.
  • Alamandir walked into the Labyrinth, only to find my two halves blocking the way. One of us can only speak the truth, both halves of Aragón said. The other can only speak lies. You can ask one question to find the way home. Alamandir said wait hold on, but you both said that at the same time. So you obviously can say whatever, right? My one half said what. My other half said oh my God. My one half said are you kidding me. Are you fucking kidding me. I can say the truth? I’ve been able to say the truth all this time?! My other half said oh fuck the shit I’ve said to people. The shit I’ve—I want to die. I want to fucking die right now. My one half said I COULD SPEAK THE TRUTH ALL THIS TIME?! I’VE RUINED MY LIFE FOR NOTHING?! and Alamandir said Jesus Christ, I get why nobody wants to come to this fucking labyrinth now.
  • I was the first one to visit Pearple Prose once he finished moving in. He opened the door with a smile and I said hi! Welcome to the island! I brought you a gift. Pearple said oh, thank you very much! Everybody’s so nice in here. And you brought me a casket of eggs! I can make a mean omelette, if you want to stay for lunch? I said sure! It was right then that one of the eggs cracked, and a tiny Aragón came out. I said, whoops, and quickly crushed it under my hand. I said, sorry, I must have accidentally inseminated that one. The rest are fine to eat, though. Pearple Prose said, uh. Sure. Then he started working on the omelette, using my eggs. He said, you know, this better not, like. Awaken anything in you. I said ah, hahah. Nah. Nah, I’m sure that won’t happen. 

well then, that was a thing that happened

It’s impossible to write boring bullshit without having the emotional equivalent of a seizure. It feels bad to write boring bullshit. You don’t have fun.

You shut down.

Big Oof. This is a huge fucking mood for me.


Your patreon award stories are amazing. But just so you know, you aren’t supposed to feed ducks bread. It fucks up their digestive system. Instead, try:

  1. Corn (canned, frozen or fresh)
  2. Duck pellets (sold online and at pet stores)
  3. Lettuce, other greens (torn into small pieces)
  4. Frozen peas (defrosted)
  5. Oats (rolled or instant)
  6. Seeds (including birdseed or other varieties
PresentPerfect
Author Interviewer

God why is writing so hard

You know exactlywhat Sunset will say when she opens the door to find Twilight’s eaten her brassiere?

No, but you'd damn well better! I expect this story on my desk in the morning!

Yeah, I think I'm mostly in this for those short-story shoutouts at this point. I'm certainly not here for 90k words of forced OctaScratch hugging. (It was probably filled with the same proportional hilarity as everything else I've seen from you but c'mon dude, even your release notice admitted that releasing it all at once was insane)

Oh my god, I have been just slamming my head against like 6 different stories for something like weeks now and I feel like this is really helpful.

Why are the brilliant ones always so exceptionally weird?

Well this is super relatable, which is probably the point. edit: I mean it’s totally the point duh. Point is this came out at a good time thanks-

Story, Theme, Character, Atmosphere. If the sentence does not advance at least one of these things, it's not doing its job.

5088496

I am G.P.Prior and no way am I giving you the gun.

5088620

Because they'd be boring otherwise and that's no fun.

This is incredibly helpful for one story I've been struggling with, and will no doubt be just as helpful for others in the future. Thank you as always for your unique form of wisdom.

5088512
:twilightblush: "I'm sorry, were you saving it?"

5088620
The only difference between genius and insanity is whether reality happens to agree with you.

“Want your story to be interesting? Just don’t write stuff that isn’t interesting!”

This is pretty great advice... unless you like to pants.

I've found it's very easy and enjoyable to pants a dozen chapters that are dead interesting: defining the characters, shoving them together to see how they react, getting glimpses into their world, coming up with super keen amazing ideas for their culture, etc., etc. It's very easy to get swept away and holy hell is it INTERESTING!

But a dozen or so chapters in I suddenly realize that the story is going nowhere that I want to go. That it actually makes no sense for my protagonists to be romantically interested in one another. That the climax has already happened and now I'm just filling pages with words. And the thought of writing the next chapter(s) bores the hell out of me.:raritydespair:

5088516
That story wasn't planned or written with a weekly schedule in mind, but rather, to be read at whatever pace the reader chooses. I didn't want to force the reader to stop every week at whatever arbitrary point I'd chosen as the end of a chapter. When you buy a book you get the full package at once; I don't get why that's seen as a flaw here.

That said, I've no idea why you'd bring up a six-months-old story in a blog that has nothing to do with it, but I guess you had to get it off your chest or something. If you ask me, that's my best story to date--but then again, I say that about literally whatever big story I released last, so eh, who knows.


5088506

Who said I like ducks.

Majin Syeekoh
Moderator

5088757
I'm going to mail you excrement enchiladas

5088757
Fair enough, but it's almost literally two books. I'm amazed that you had time to write it, but I'm not sure I'll ever get around to reading it.

My account may be relatively recent, but the implication here is that I've been on Fimfic for far longer. This would in all seriousness be my first opportunity to mention it. (Also, I'm sure you know the feeling of having to say something just to get it out there, even though it's dumb)

Thank you! This advice is amazing! 💜

5088786
It is honestly the best thing I've read all year, if you can find the time it's not just Octavia and Vinyl hugging for an extended period of time. It is an important part of the story though.

This was actually very interesting to read. I've always wondered about possibly writing something on here at some point and this is a major help for that. Thanks a lot.

I've spouted off on Discord enough already but I'll repeat myself because it's late and it's finally cool enough to think almost straight:

I agree with all of this. All the best comments I've seen on my stories—and my happiest memories from writing them—are from places where I clearly remember having a great time while I was writing; or at the very least while I was riding a strong current from my brain to my keyboard. And, thanks to this, I'm thinking about restructuring a piece I've been super stuck on so I can have a little more fun with it as I go along. So, thanks!

As I've gotten older, I've kind of taken a dimmer and dimmer view of 'pantsing', which is a phrase I hate regardless because it's a kind of whimsical admittance that you're not putting any kind of forethought into your story which just strikes me as irresponsible.

It's okay for shorter stories, where all you really need is a vague idea to hammer something out, but for anything longer, it's almost a necessity that you know what you're doing before you actually sit down to write. Because when you just make shit up as you go, it shows.

What are your thoughts on the Lord of the Rings books and their Tom Bombadil scenes and pages of elf-song? A distinction should be made between scenes that are downright boring to read and scenes that do not directly serve the primary plot. The tight focus on the main story is a relatively recent convention for books.

Would you agree that one implication of “don’t write boring bull’s-shit” is “if you’re going to write a large digression from the main plot, it had better still be interesting as a stand-alone”?

5240398
Case in point: the show we all are ostensibly here to write fiction about.

This has been hugely revealing to me about a block I’ve had for a month now. Thank you so, so much.

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