Off The Bookshelf: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Last year, I reached my first-ever Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of ten books, most of which were historical fiction. I’ve already covered Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen in my Off the Bookshelf segment, so today I’m switching over to another author whose novel I really enjoyed: The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde!

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

Summary

The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only novel written by Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. First published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in July 1890, the novel exists in three versions: the censored 13-chapter edition published in the magazine in 1890, the revised 20-chapter book edition published in 1891, and the uncensored 13-chapter edition submitted to the magazine with all of Wilde’s original material intact. The story follows the moral corruption and downfall of Dorian Gray, a handsome yet narcissistic young man whose vanity leads him to wish that a painting of himself will age in his stead. After his wish comes true, Dorian succumbs to a hedonistic lifestyle of vice and sin from which his insatiable desire for pleasure leaves him little chance to escape.

Review

If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that—for that—I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that! – Dorian Gray

A brief disclaimer: Because Wilde’s novel exists in three different forms, each one differs slightly from the others, in some cases affecting the plot. The version I read is the 1891 20-chapter book, so this is the edition that will be referenced throughout this review.

Movie poster for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

The Picture of Dorian Gray has often been compared to the Faust story, in which a dissatisfied scholar sells his soul to the Devil for unlimited knowledge and pleasure. Similarly, in a moment of weakness and newfound vanity, Dorian offers up his soul for the chance to remain young and handsome forever. In response to this wish, the painting becomes a mirror of Dorian’s soul and begins reflecting the effects of his actions that his body will now be spared. This inciting incident plays into the themes of valuing youth and beauty above all else and the consequences of choosing pleasure over virtue.

One of the most prominent themes in the book is the conflict between morality and pleasure. Although Dorian initially struggles with his new philosophy, his selfish desires ultimately overpower his guilt: after his romance with the young actress Sibyl Vane ends tragically, the subtle change in his portrait’s face proves his actions will have no visible consequence, as the painting will bear all the marks of his sins for him. After accepting Sibyl’s death as an artistic personification of tragedy, Dorian is free to pursue pleasure without risk and spends the next several years of his life indulging in various forms of gratification. Only in the final chapters of the story does he come to question if perpetual youth was worth the price of his soul.

Indeed, the fact that his artistic lifestyle costs him his soul is what makes Dorian Gray such an enigmatic character. Having given up his emotional depth, the protagonist’s true personality remains a mystery to the reader throughout the story. One detail of the novel that makes this evident is the heavy color motif. So many descriptions in the novel involve color in some way, and while at first I dismissed these vivid descriptions as the flowery writing of a poet, I later recognized their allusion to the main character’s internal conflict. The paradox of The Picture of Dorian Gray is that by giving up his soul for the pursuit of pleasure and the perpetuation of beauty, Dorian is no longer able to appreciate either—that is, in a world full of color and beauty, Dorian’s soulless existence is perpetually gray. Thus, Wilde’s novel—at least the revised version—supports the idea that art alone cannot bring happiness; one must have emotional depth in order to appreciate it.

From left to right: Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward (Dorian Gray, 2009)

Aside from Dorian, the story features two other important characters: Basil Hallward, the painter of the infamous picture, and Lord Henry Wotton, a witty aristocrat who advocates “New Hedonism”. Both are equally fascinated by Dorian’s beauty but stand at opposite ends of his moral spectrum: Basil represents conformity to moral standards while Lord Henry represents the temptation of sin. In this way, these two gentlemen play the roles of Dorian’s “shoulder angel and devil”, respectively, and personify the novel’s overarching conflict between virtue and hedonism: Basil sees only beauty in Dorian and encourages him to remain virtuous, while Lord Henry lauds his youth and persuades him to live for pleasure above all else. And although Dorian never escapes from the guilt the painter evokes in him, the fact that the story plays out far worse for Basil than for Lord Henry further supports the novel’s theme of beauty’s superiority over virtue.

Interestingly, The Picture of Dorian Gray presents an unusual example of an unscrupulous protagonist who repeatedly dodges moral justice. While Dorian influences several people to unfortunate ends throughout his life, he himself doesn’t get what he deserves for almost the entirety of the novel. While this may be an allusion to Wilde’s aesthetic beliefs, it’s more frequently interpreted as a comment on society’s superficiality and hypocrisy; although several rumors emerge about Dorian’s immoral exploits over the years, his peers nonetheless continue to accept him because he’s beautiful and, by all appearances, innocent. Yet as with any Faustian story, sin is ultimately punished in the end, thus completing the theme of eternal pleasure coming at an exceedingly high cost.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is an intriguing novel, a mix of Gothic horror with social and artistic commentary that never seems to settle on a single form. Even the moral of the story is not so black and white as its similarity to the Faust fable would suggest, as the main character doesn’t suffer the consequences of his actions until the very end, and even then justice is brought about by his own hands. Yet by all accounts, with its enigmatic themes, poetic motifs, and structure of an unusual moral fable, Wilde has created nothing less than an outstanding and fascinating work of art.

Inspiration

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. – Oscar Wilde

In a strange meta twist, the most fascinating aspect of The Picture of Dorian Gray may actually be the author’s preface in the book edition. When Oscar Wilde first submitted his manuscript for publication, the editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine censored the story, removing roughly 500 words without the author’s knowledge. Nevertheless, the novel was widely decried as a violation of public morality. A year later, upon publishing the revised book version, Wilde issued a preface to address these criticisms and defend his work, claiming in this artistic manifesto that the only point of art is to be beautiful, not to serve a moral purpose.

Dorian’s painting, before and after
(Image source: TV Tropes)

Yet in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the eponymous painting itself serves a moral purpose by shedding light on the high price of vanity. Despite the author’s advocacy of aestheticism, his novel suggests that art always contains some degree of meaning: though Dorian constantly tries to immerse himself in a purely artistic lifestyle, he can never escape the haunting lesson in the portrait that bares his corrupted soul. Thus, while he may not have written a truly aesthetic piece, Wilde has nonetheless created a stunning work of art that inspires a poetic theme: art and morality are perpetually intertwined.

As far as artistic inspiration, this novel certainly has its fair share of philosophy. One of the most intriguing aspects of the story is Lord Henry’s powerful influence over the naïve young Dorian. Although Lord Henry’s beliefs contrast heavily with the standards of his time, he speaks with such wit and persuasive language that one can’t help but be drawn to his ideas, however misguided they are. Indeed, the only character immune to these ideas is Basil, whose conventional mindset keeps him morally grounded but makes him utterly boring in the eyes of his impressionable muse. Reading Lord Henry’s speeches, I could easily understand how any weak-minded individual would embrace his poisonous philosophy, which thankfully is revealed to be shallow and impractical by the second half of the story. If anything, the novel is a cautionary tale about the consequences of trying to live such a hedonistic life: the pursuit of pleasure may satisfy the senses with each experience, but it still isn’t worth giving up one’s soul.

Overall, I found The Picture of Dorian Gray to be an enjoyable and intriguing read. Its themes of morality, superficiality, and artistic living make it a notable addition to literature’s vast collection of moral fables. Yet the fact that Wilde was such a strong proponent of aestheticism raises the ultimate question: if his philosophy was to create “art for art’s sake”, should we really put so much weight on the moral themes of his only novel, or take a step back to simply glimpse these undertones while admiring the beauty of his work?

What If? Writing Prompts: History VII

This past week saw yet another anniversary of the September 11 attacks as well as the destruction left in the wake of a record-breaking hurricane sweeping the Atlantic, the second to hit the U.S. in less than two weeks. Remembering watching the news in school 16 years ago and wondering how much more devastating the effects of climate change can become have gotten me thinking a lot about the past and future of our world, so this week I was inspired to share another set of “What If?” Writing Prompts in the theme of history. What sorts of stories about historical events can you create from these ideas? Good luck!

What if… global political leaders had started working to address climate change decades sooner?

What if… the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, had never happened?

What if… America had never started the Iraq War?

What if… Europe hadn’t begun to form what would eventually become the European Union after World War II?

What if… the Founding Fathers had established America as a direct democracy instead of an electoral college?

Enjoy writing more stories about history!

If you have any “What If?” writing prompt suggestions (for any theme), please feel free to share them in the comments below. Ideas I like may be featured in future “What If?” posts, with full credit and a link to your blog (if you have one)! Also, if you’ve written a piece based on an idea you’ve found here, be sure to link back to the respective “What If?” post. I would love to see what you’ve done with the prompt! Thank you!

The Perks of Being a Fiction Writer

Remember that post I shared last week about the hard truths of being a writer? Well, fear not; I promise you that was only half of the big picture. After all, why would anyone choose to write if it only ever brought misery? Being a writer can be just as rewarding as it is frustrating, and if you can power through its challenges, you’ll find an incredibly adventurous and fulfilling path ahead.

So for those of you who choose to follow this path, here are six perks of being a fiction writer that you can look forward to. Happy writing!

perks of being a fiction writer

Writing Perk #1: You have the power to create anything.

perks of being a fiction writer creativityIn a way, fiction writers make up their own class of superheroes. Some people have super strength, others are incredibly smart, and still others excel at almost everything they try. But writers? We have the ultimate gift: the power of creation.

While I envy visual artists for their ability to draw, I’d still favor being a writer any day. The ability to paint vivid images with language is a special form of art with its own challenges, and when done right, it can be even more effective. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but imagery through words alone is an exercise for the imagination.

Anyone who’s ever tried writing a novel—especially a fantasy or science fiction novel—is familiar with the concept of “world building”. There’s much more to storytelling than conflict; you must create characters and settings to bring that conflict to life. And in my experience, there’s nothing quite as thrilling as the power to create an entire universe and direct the fates of its inhabitants any way you want. Besides, at what other job can you openly say you kill people for a living? Writing may not be the highest paying job in the world, but it certainly has benefits you can’t get anywhere else!

Writing Perk #2: You regularly exercise your mind and imagination.

perks of being a fiction writer imaginationThere’s nothing like writing a story to get those creative juices flowing. It’s no secret that writing has several psychological benefits such as catharsis and improved learning, and writing fiction has the added benefit of exercising the imagination. Creativity is always a useful skill, so you can never have too much of it!

By regularly creating characters, settings, and plots, you exercise the ability to see situations from various perspectives and open your mind to all sorts of possibilities, as much in fiction as in real life. Practice with conflict resolution in fiction can also be surprisingly helpful when it comes to real-world problem-solving, as you’ll likely be able to foresee problems more easily and find better solutions. And if not, at least you’ll have another story to tell when everything’s said and done. Writing fiction provides plenty of benefits for your mind and spirit. Don’t let them go to waste!

Writing Perk #3: You have the best emotional release in the world.

perks of being a fiction writer emotional releaseThere’s a saying that goes, “Never wrong a writer. They get their revenge in print.” There’s another saying that goes, “If a writer falls in love with you, you can never die.” What do these sayings have in common? They prove that writers have the most powerful emotions in the world.

Being a writer, especially a fiction writer, takes a generous amount of vulnerability to pull off. Good fiction demands a fair share of emotion to resonate with the audience, and that means the writer must be an emotional being. We bleed our feelings onto the page and carefully craft our stories to evoke the empathy of our readers, and such an art form takes inspiration from real-life emotions. Fortunately, life provides emotional inspiration in spades.

As a writer, you should never be afraid to use your emotions in your work. When you’re happy, write motivational pieces with positive takeaways. If you fall in love, draw romantic stories or poetry from personal experience. Use a broken heart as the foundation of tragedies, and when someone infuriates you, adapt them into an expendable character and kill them off in the most satisfyingly painful way. In how many other jobs can you say your emotions are your most powerful tools? Use them to your advantage!

Writing Perk #4: You learn new things all the time.

perks of being a fiction writer learningThink of the last time you wrote a story about something you’ve never done before. Chances are you had to do a fair amount of research to get it right, and you probably learned something unexpected while you did. This is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing fiction: you learn something new every day!

Whether you write fantasy/sci-fi novels, historical fiction, or anything in between, at some point during writing, you’ll run into a detail that you’ll have to look up. While research can be tedious sometimes, you can also see it as an opportunity to learn something you never would have otherwise. From ancient mythology to medieval weaponry to space technology, the world is full of fascinating information just waiting to be turned into stories. With all the research it takes to be a fiction writer, we probably learn more doing what we do than all the other professionals out there combined!

Writing Perk #5: You get rewarded for being yourself.

perks of being a fiction writer being yourselfLet’s be honest: the absolute best writing always comes from the heart, and the only way to write from the heart is to be yourself. Hiding behind a mask of civility may get you ahead in the corporate world, but when it comes to writing fiction, imperfection is your greatest asset. No matter what genre you write in, it’s your original voice that will make it unique. You don’t have to be completely crazy (though eccentricity is definitely a plus); you just have to be relatable. And if you’re flawed—or in other words, human—you’ve already got that covered.

One of the most famous writing tips out there is “write what you know”, so when drawing inspiration from people for characters, the best person to start with is yourself. You know your own strengths and weaknesses, so you already have what it takes to create a well-rounded character. From there, work your way up to using other real people as inspiration for characters, and before you know it, you’ll be writing dozens of stories that readers will easily relate to.

Basically, if you’re only writing perfect characters who never deal with conflict in any way, you’re doing fiction wrong. Everyone has their flaws and problems, and if you can be open about yours, you can create meaningful and inspiring works of art, just by being yourself. How is that not the greatest job in the world?

Writing Perk #6: You can make a difference in the world.

perks of being a fiction writer make a differenceThere are few forms of writing that make an impact quite the way storytelling does. While nonfiction generally focuses on logic and rational thought, stories have the power to mix truth with emotion in a unique style that appeals to a reader’s entire character, thus making for much more influential writing.

By becoming a writer, you’ve already taken a major step toward making a difference in the world. You don’t even have to change the entire world; the chance to influence even one person’s life is already worth the effort. You may not realize it yet, but you have the power to make a real difference. So share your stories and show people they’re not alone. Inspire those around you and use your words to make life better for everyone. The world could always use more stories, so keep on writing!

Can you attest to any of these perks of being a fiction writer? What other benefits of writing fiction would you add to this list?

6 Hard Truths No One Tells You About Being a Writer

So you want to be a writer. Fantastic! But have you thought it through? Do you know what it really takes to be a writer? You might think you do, but if you’re only looking through rose-colored glasses at the glamour of being a famous author, you may be shocked to find some ugly bumps in the road. Writing is full of harsh reality checks, and if you’re not prepared for what lies ahead, those cold hard truths can tear you to shreds faster than you can say “unfinished manuscript”.

So before you head out on your grand writing journey, here are six hard truths about being a writer you should really be aware of. Proceed at your own discretion!

hard truths about writing

Hard Truth #1: Writing is not as easy as you think it is.

hard truth about writing not easyIf you’re thinking about pursuing writing because it’s an easy way to make a living right off the bat, then stop right there. Turn around and go back, because this is not the calling for you. Or if you insist, proceed and find out the hard way: writing is not as easy as you think. In fact, some would go as far as to say writing is one of the hardest things in the world to do. Tons of hard work for relatively little reward? Nothing easy about that.

Let me be clear about something: writing itself is easy. It’s hardly a skill; I mean, we learned how to do it in preschool. What’s hard is writing well. If being good at writing were easy, everyone would be making a living from it. Or maybe no one would because everyone could do it for themselves. Either way, a world where everyone’s a writer would be vastly different than the world of “aspiring artists” we know today.

Everyone starts somewhere, and more often than not, “somewhere” is not very good. What separates the wannabes and amateurs from the serious writers is a commitment to mastering the craft. The amateurs will give up at the first sign of adversity: a lack of inspiration, difficulty editing, a polite yet stern rejection letter. The serious writers, on the other hand, will tackle those challenges and use them as motivation to improve. You can’t appreciate inspiration until you’ve faced hours of writer’s block, you can’t know how to self-edit until you’ve practiced enough times to learn what works, and you can’t find publishing success unless you keep pitching your work to people who might give you a chance.

If you go into the world of writing thinking it’ll be easy, then you’d better brace yourself for a lot of slaps in the face. The writing journey is a marathon, not a sprint. Approach it with respect, and you’ll find that while it may not get much easier over time, it will be much more rewarding in the end.

Hard Truth #2: Writing is not for everyone.

hard truths about writing not for everyoneAfter dispelling the first myth about writing being easy, you may still want to pursue it for the sheer love of the craft. There’s nothing wrong with that; after all, a journey to becoming a writer should start with passion. But there’s more to being a writer than just writing.

You might think that you don’t need to worry about editing or publishing or marketing because those jobs can all be handed off to someone else. Editing is what editors are paid for. Publishing and marketing can be handled by big publishing houses. All you have to do is write, and others will take care of the rest.

Yet in today’s world, where everyone is screaming over each other for attention, writers must be so much more. Writers must also be editors and marketers and, in the case of “indies”, even publishers. You will have to edit your own manuscript before you send it to a professional editor, and again after you get it back (expect to repeat this process several times). You will either have to convince an agent or a publisher to sell your book or make the decision to publish it yourself. You will have to do much of the marketing for your own book, regardless of which publishing route you take. And you will have to accept feedback when people actually read it, both good and bad.

So if you’re not prepared to put in all the hard work, to endure long periods of writer’s block and loneliness, edit and re-edit, power through rejections or self-publishing, and deal with criticism from readers, you might as well stop right here, because you clearly don’t have what it takes to be a writer. Well, not a published one, anyway.

This doesn’t mean you should give up writing forever; just maybe keep practicing in private until you can fully commit to becoming an author. When you’re ready to share your stories with the world, the world will be ready to read them. Until then, writing (publicly) is probably not for you.

Hard Truth #3: Inspiration doesn’t strike whenever you want it to.

hard truths about writing inspirationWe all like to imagine artists as eccentric people in constant connection with the muses. Beauty is in everything, and even the most mundane details can be turned into a work of art in the mind of a creative person. Inspiration is anywhere and everywhere; you just have to know where to find it.

If this is your vision of writing, then prepare yourself for a world of disappointment. Much like money, inspiration doesn’t just grow on trees or fall out of the sky when you least expect it; you have to work hard to get it. The muses can be generous, but they’re also elusive. Sure, there will be plenty of times when inspiration strikes without warning, but most of the time, you will have to look for it yourself.

One of the hardest lessons you’ll learn about writing is that if you sit around waiting to write only when inspiration strikes you, you’ll never get any writing done. Many people assume that you have to get inspired to write, but believe it or not, it’s almost always the other way around: you have to write to get inspired.

Make time to create, even when you don’t feel like it. Put pen to paper or fingers to keys and start spilling words onto the page. If you don’t know where to start, use writing prompts, try writing exercises, or scribble random ideas in your notebook until something sticks. Just don’t be idle. Admit this to yourself once and for all: waiting for inspiration is nothing but a lame excuse to procrastinate. Stop waiting to be creative and just write already!

Hard Truth #4: Thick skin only comes with experience.

hard truths about writing thick skinPicture this: You’ve finally published that novel you’ve been working on for years. You’ve done everything you could to make it perfect; now you sit back and wait for the praise to start rolling in. And for a while, it does: first from friends and family, then from total strangers! Everyone is liking your book! You’re a success! But just when you finally start to shed that crippling self-doubt…

Gasp! What’s this? A bad review? Someone didn’t like your story! You’ve failed! All that doubt comes flooding back tenfold. And that’s why you’re now a tearstained mess, curled up on your bedroom floor and drowning yourself in chocolate for the third day in a row. Maybe you were never cut out for this writing stuff after all.

We see this advice in every publishing resource out there: if you want to be a writer, you have to have thick skin. But nobody tells you that thick skin isn’t something you magically get just because you wish for it. For most of us, the only way to learn how to brush off criticism is through brutal firsthand experience.

While it’s true that many people can dive headfirst into a profession without ever caring what people think, thick skin is especially hard for writers to develop because writing by nature requires vulnerability. As artists, we bear our souls on the page and show our emotions through our work, so when that work isn’t well received, we can’t help but take it personally. And why wouldn’t we? Our stories are our babies, and no one likes being told their baby is ugly!

No matter how much time you spend mentally preparing for bad reviews, your first one will probably hit you like a ton of bricks. Why? Because deep down, there’s a part of you that wants to believe it will never happen to you. Our fragile egos will us to believe that even though everyone has different tastes and opinions, somehow our work will be the exception that’s universally praised. And that kind of thinking is just as unrealistic as any fantasy story you’ve ever read.

The truth is no one—and I mean literally no one—is immune to criticism. Every author gets a bad review at some point; it comes with being published. J.K. Rowling still gets one-star reviews for her critically acclaimed Harry Potter series. Stephen King, world-famous author of over two hundred stories, has too many critics to count. Margaret Atwood, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Harper Lee all got scathing reviews for their classic novels when they first came out. And yet general consensus says they’re all great writers.

So don’t stress yourself out anticipating your first bad review. Instead, accept that it will come someday, tell yourself it’s okay to be upset when it does, and give yourself as much time and space as you need to move on from it. And above all, no matter how hard it seems in the moment, do not give up on writing. I promise the longer you stick with it, the easier it will get.

Hard Truth #5: Talent isn’t everything. Relationships are.

hard truths about writing talent relatoinshipsHave you ever read a well-known piece of writing—a novel, a short story, a poem—that was truly awful? Chances are you thought you could do way better. Maybe you can. Maybe you do. And maybe someday you’ll wonder why your name doesn’t appear next to those authors on the bestseller lists. Why should you have to struggle to be noticed while these writers get to enjoy fame they don’t deserve?

Because talent isn’t everything. That’s right, even in the world of art. Face it, even if you are extremely talented, so are thousands of other people who nobody knows or cares about. You may not be the only one reading this and thinking that your stories deserve more attention than such train wrecks as Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. So what makes all those terrible authors better than you? They have connections to the right people.

It takes a lot more than just being good at something to be rewarded for it. You have to know how to get your work out there, and that means building solid relationships and networks with people who can help you move forward. You need friendships with other writers who have been through the same struggles and can help you improve your writing. You need connections with editors who can polish your work and help you get it published. You need an audience of fans who will be the first to read your stories and spread the word to more potential readers.

Despite what you may think, writing is not a completely solitary endeavor. It’s more often who you know than what you know that matters. So never underestimate the power of networking, because the right person with the right connections could be the final piece of the puzzle to make your success. If you really want to be a writer, create more than stories; create meaningful, lasting relationships.

Hard Truth #6: No one chooses to write. Writing chooses you.

hard truths about writing chooses youIn Soviet Russia, book writes you! (You know I had to do it.)

After learning all these hard truths about being a writer, you might be feeling a bit discouraged. Maybe you’ve changed your mind about writing and you’re already thinking about all the other skills you can put to good use instead. If that’s the case, then I’m sorry to say you were probably never meant to be a writer in the first place. But if you’ve made it to the end of this blog post and are more determined than ever to be a writer, then congratulations: writing has chosen you!

The funny thing about being a writer is that there isn’t always rhyme or reason to pursuing the craft. We write because we have to. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked back on old stories and blog posts I’ve written and thought, “Wow, this really sucks. Why did I write this?” And then I remember, “Oh right, because I couldn’t not write it.” This is our reality: when an idea calls, we must answer.

It’s easy enough to say you want to write your whole life, but talk is cheap. Only by doing it can you truly call yourself a writer. And if all the hard truths and fears and roadblocks of writing can’t deter you from actually sitting down and churning out those stories, then the writing life may be for you after all. So what are you waiting for? Stop reading this and get writing!

Have you learned any of these truths about writing the hard way? What other hard truths would you add to this list?

3 Ways Being in Love Can Inspire Your Writing

There’s nothing quite like being in love, and for a writer who’s passionate about romance, it can be a gold mine of inspiration. I know that ever since I fell in love (most recently), I’ve found it much easier to write romantic stories and poetry, and even fiction in general. There’s plenty of creative inspiration to be found in love, so it’s only natural for artists to include so much of it in their art!

So for fun, today’s post is dedicated to a special someone who inspires much of my creative side. Here are three ways I’ve found that being in love can inspire your writing. Enjoy!

1) Being in love brings out the beauty in life.

As much as it sounds like a scene out of a cheesy romantic cartoon, being in love really does make the world around you more beautiful. And beauty is at the heart of so many of the most sincere and emotional works of art. Ever since falling in love, I’ve had a brighter outlook on life and a much deeper insight into the positive things in the world, and these have certainly manifested in my stories as romantic plots, satisfying conflict resolution, and happy endings.

If you are or have ever been mutually in love, chances are you too have seen the world become a little brighter for it. You may know it poetically as “rose-colored glasses”, “butterflies in your stomach”, or “head over heels”, and maybe it’s even gone as far as to make you want to dance or shout with joy. Don’t limit that light to your real-world experiences; let it guide your imagination too! Write about the fluttering of the heart in a moment of passion or how much more vivid colors become through the eyes of a person in love. If writers should write what they know, then why not write about the magic in your life? It can often make for the most beautiful works of art!

2) Being in love helps relieve stress and anxiety.

Sometimes I don’t even need to be writing romance to be inspired by love. As many writers well know, stress and anxiety can be real creativity killers depending on the kind of stories or poetry you’re trying to write. Unfortunately, the times we’re living in seem to be producing an overabundance of those bad feelings, which can translate into a severe lack of motivation for many of us. Maybe you can turn that anxiety into an aggressive streak of darker stories and poetry if that’s your style, but for writers like me, who favor romance and happy endings, it generally puts me out of the mood to create at all.

So whenever I’m feeling too stressed or anxious to write, I remind myself of how happy my significant other makes me and how good a place I’ve been in since we fell in love. Maybe it goes against the grain of the “tortured artist” stereotype, but I’m sure I do most of my best (or at least most productive) work when I feel emotionally fulfilled and free of tension. That’s not to say one should only ever use positive experiences in their fiction or poetry; after all, conflict is at the heart of every engaging story and many of the most interesting poems, and you absolutely should accept inspiration from your negative experiences too. But if you can, let real-life love motivate you to at least get those words out of your head. Not only is it one of the best treatments against stress and anxiety, it’s also a great cure for writer’s block!

3) Being in love can motivate you to be a better writer.

The great thing about love is that when you find it with the right person, you inspire each other to become better people. If nothing else, being in love gives me the motivation I need to be the best version of myself I can be. The amazing feeling of being loved by someone else pushes me to keep improving in the areas of my life that matter most, and few of those areas matter more to me than my passion for writing.

So I keep on giving it my all when I write, because if I deserve that special someone who works hard for both of us and does everything he can to support my passion, then he deserves someone who will work just as hard to help support him through her craft and keep coloring his life with all the art she creates. Relationships are all about teamwork, and if you’re really in love, you’ll want to put in the effort to make yours work. And if that includes being a better writer, then by all means let your love push you to keep reaching for those creative stars!

What about you? Have you ever been in love? How has that love inspired your writing?

6 Mistakes Every Beginning Fiction Writer Makes (and How to Fix Them)

So you’ve just started writing fiction, but you’re not sure you’ve got what it takes. You’re afraid you’ll fail, that you’ll make a ton of writing mistakes and you’ll never be that amazing artist you hope to be someday. Or worse, maybe you think you’ll kill it as soon as you start, and your writing will be so awesome right out of the gate that you’ll never have to practice and improve (only to wonder years down the road why no one ever reads your incredible stories). Whether you suffer from imposter syndrome or unfounded arrogance, your expectations of writing are unreal.

Because guess what? Every writer makes mistakes! That’s how we learn and get better at our craft. But if you want to avoid learning some lessons the hard way (and I don’t blame you), it never hurts to turn to writing resources for help. So for all you blossoming writers out there, here are six common writing mistakes you’re bound to make at least once. Keep an eye out for these the next time you sit down to write!

writing mistakes fiction writers

Writing Mistake #1: Stopping at the first draft (i.e. not editing)

The first draft of anything is sh*t. – Ernest Hemingway

writing mistakes fiction writers not editingLet’s get this one out of the way first. A common mistake many new fiction writers make (including me when I started) is to write a full story, then set it aside and never touch it again. An important rule of fiction writing: Every piece must go through editing before it’s finished. To be fair, this isn’t as big a deal with private writing, but it’s still good practice for when you’re ready to start sharing your work.

The truth is nothing you write is going to be perfect the first time around. Never assume you’ve created a masterpiece on your first try; even the greatest authors in the world need editors to help them shape their writing into publishable work. Heck, the blog post you’re reading now went through several rounds of revisions before I published it, and it still isn’t perfect!

So don’t stress about making something awesome right away. If anything, let this fact take away the pressure of having to write well all the time. Just write first, worry about making it publishable later. That’s what editing is for.

How to fix this writing mistake

Edit! Edit like your life depends on it, because your story’s life does. Readers don’t appreciate stories because they come out brilliant on the first try, but because the writer took the time to shape that first idea into a polished piece of art. Always make sure your work is worthy of publication before you share it. Need help? You don’t have to do it all alone; that’s what editors are paid for!

Writing Mistake #2: Using flowery language (i.e. purple prose)

Eschew surplusage. – Mark Twain, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” (1895)

writing mistakes fiction writers purple proseThere’s this myth among beginning writers that the best way to be taken seriously is to sound as smart as possible. Maybe you’re insecure about your limited knowledge and vocabulary, so you stuff your stories with fancy words and fluffy sentences, then pat yourself on the back for creating distinguished and eloquent prose. Surely now you’ve proven yourself a great writer, right?

Wrong. While you may think all that fancy writing will give you credibility, you’ve actually just exposed yourself as an amateur. This common writing mistake is known as purple prose, and it can kill your story before it even starts. Counterintuitive as it sounds, using “smart” words and flowery language actually has the opposite effect of driving readers away, because the only people who waste their time reading stories they can’t understand are high school students trying to pass English. Everyone else wants a good story, not a vocabulary lesson.

Purple prose comes in a variety of flavors:

  • big, difficult, pretentious words;
  • flowery detail;
  • too many adjectives and adverbs;
  • said bookisms (only using words other than “said” as dialogue tags); and
  • exaggerated sentiment (trying to “force” readers to feel certain emotions).

If you’re guilty of making any of these mistakes, stop and rewind. When you edit, make every effort to weed out the purple and strip your story down to the bare bones. You may have trouble getting used to this style, but in time you’ll find that concise and direct writing is the most effective form of storytelling.

How to fix this writing mistake

Replace big words and phrases with simpler ones, remove unnecessary adjectives, and cut out details that do nothing for your story. The idea is to sound as natural and direct as possible so you’ll connect with your readers. When in doubt, read your work out loud; if a word or phrase sounds strange, like something you’d never say in real life, delete it or replace it with a more common alternative.

Writing Mistake #3: Getting crazy with the punctuation!!!

Jake: Ok, I’m excited. I just don’t happen to like exclamation points.

Elaine: Well, you know, Jake, you should learn to use ’em! Like the way I’m talking right now, I would put exclamation points at the ends of all of these sentences! On this one! And on that one!

Seinfeld (Season 5, Episode 4 – The Sniffing Accountant)

writing mistakes fiction writers punctuationOf all the ridiculous situations in Seinfeld‘s nine-season run, few top the time Elaine screwed up her relationship over punctuation. The irony: her boyfriend was a writer whose book she was editing, and he was probably right not to use those exclamation points.

When writing fiction, punctuation is something you don’t want to mess up, because this mistake translates as lazy or incompetent writing. Trust me on this: As much as a scene calls for over-the-top excitement, you don’t need three exclamation points to get your point across. When you overuse punctuation, you’re conveying one of two messages to your reader:

  1. you don’t trust your writing enough to express emotion through words alone, or
  2. you don’t trust the reader to grasp the emotion in your words without help.

Either way, it doesn’t make you look good. Writers should always take care not to patronize their audience, and one of the easiest ways to do that is by using exclamation points and other punctuation marks where you don’t need them. That’s not to say you should avoid them altogether; you just shouldn’t use them as a crutch. Instead, trust your words to convey the right messages and emotion on their own. Remember that punctuation is simply an organizational tool; the focus should always be on your words.

How to fix this writing mistake

Stick to normal punctuation. Use exclamation points sparingly, avoid multiple punctuation, and know how to use commas, apostrophes, colons, semicolons, and hyphens correctly. When in doubt, turn your work over to a proofreader.

Writing Mistake #4: Writing dialogue that falls flat

writing mistakes fiction writers dialogueI confess: even after writing fiction for nearly my whole life, I still have trouble with dialogue. Maybe it’s because I’m shy and have little experience talking to people, but this seems to be my Achilles heel when it comes to writing stories. If you feel this is your weak point too, don’t worry, you’re not alone. In fact, dialogue is so hard to get right that this writing mistake could take up its own blog post, but for the sake of brevity, let’s focus on the main point.

In a nutshell, dialogue is difficult to write well because it’s not quite speech and not quite narrative, but instead constitutes a class of its own. We think differently when we speak than when we write, so it takes a lot of practice to master the balance between both. Writing good dialogue involves removing the boring parts of everyday speech—pauses, ums, stutters, etc.—and refining it to a form that reads naturally while still conveying information relevant to the story. And while this may sound simple on the surface, it can take years of practice to learn how to:

  • cut out the unnecessary parts of speech,
  • make characters sound natural,
  • give each character a distinct voice, and
  • use a conversation to move the story forward.

So don’t feel bad if you’ve been writing for a long time and still struggle with this technique. Just keep practicing, and you’ll be writing good dialogue before you know it.

How to fix this writing mistake

Read your dialogue out loud and see how believable it sounds. If a phrase or sentence sounds odd, try to rephrase it in a way that a real person with your character’s background would say it. If you find this difficult, start paying attention to how people talk and incorporate more of their speaking styles into your writing (but not too much!). Condense dialogue as much as possible and make sure it always moves the story forward.

Writing Mistake #5: Telling more than showing

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. – Anton Chekhov

writing mistakes fiction writers telling showingFrom creative writing courses to author blogs, we see this writing advice everywhere: show, don’t tell. This means that instead of outright stating a fact, you should give clues that help your readers figure the fact out for themselves. This technique is designed to create an immersive and engaging experience for your readers, and will often make the difference between a good narrative and a great story.

Granted, there will be times when telling is necessary because showing is impossible—such as telling exactly what a character is thinking or how an event has changed them internally—but conveying a simple idea or action in vivid imagery will add emotion and depth to your story. Instead of focusing on the idea itself, understand what makes that idea apparent and use those details to color the narrative. If a character is sad, describe the tears on her face or the way she hangs her head when someone talks to her. If it’s raining, describe your character hopping over puddles as he runs to the bus stop under a wet umbrella. Wherever possible, set the scene and let your audience fill in the blanks.

Good storytelling is not just telling people a story but bringing them on an emotional journey with you. So the next time you feel compelled to tell readers what’s going on, take a step back and assess how much you should tell and how much you can show instead. Master this balance and you’ll be one step closer to writing truly amazing stories!

How to fix this writing mistake

Read your story back and determine where the narrative falls flat. Highlight the passages that tell you something (e.g. “she was happy”, “it was a clear day”), then rewrite them in a way that will show you the same thing (e.g. “her laughter rose above the din”, “sunlight gleamed off the surface of the water”). Read through the story again and maintain the changes that make the narrative stronger.

Writing Mistake #6: Not writing!

writing mistakes fiction writers not writingYes, believe it or not, this is a common problem for beginning and advanced writers alike: not writing. Sounds counterintuitive, right? I mean, how can you be a writer if you don’t write?

That’s just it: you can’t. But too many writers get so caught up in brainstorming, researching, self-editing, and worrying their work isn’t good enough that they don’t set aside enough time to actually write. It should go without saying that writing is the most important part of… well, writing, but most of the time, it’s just not that easy. When you sit for too long without doing any work, you succumb to deep-seated fears of failure and rejection, and before you know it, you stop writing before you even start.

So if you find yourself stuck in writing limbo, do yourself a favor and close your mind off to all your fears. Don’t stress about any of the other aspects of writing; just sit down and write. I know this is much easier said than done (speaking from experience), but once you get those words flowing, everything else will start to fall into place. Remember, unless you actually write, all those other steps are just a waste of time. Don’t be an “aspiring writer”; get out there and write!

How to fix this writing mistake

Write! Don’t worry about researching or editing or publishing or dealing with criticism yet. Just write. The rest will follow.

What about you? Are you guilty of making these writing mistakes? What other mistakes would you add to this list?

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