I’ve taken all I can take these last three weeks. Your emotional roller coaster is making me sick. Chill the heck out. You’re a writer. Writers write. And writers, if they’re smart, let trusted writers read their work and give them feedback. And if those writers are any help at all, they give you honest critique. Got it?
So they told you the book isn’t done. So they suggested more than a few little tweaks. Get over it. Stop this rush to worst case scenario. You are not a fake. You are not the worst writer in the world. You are not too stupid or too old to learn (though you just might be too stubborn). And you are not going to delete your blog, your Facebook page, and your Twitter account.
And, above all else, you are not going to throw this book out and start another one.
Get a grip. Quit your whining. Stop your bellyaching. Walk out on the pity party and lock the door behind you.
GET TO WORK.
You have a good story, but we’re about to make it fantastic. Got it? Okay. Let’s go.
Sometimes I read writing advice that irritates me. One blanket “rule” I read this morning, for the umpteenth time, is to never use up and down with verb forms of sit and stand. Never? Really. May I ask why?
Their answer would be because those words are redundant. Technically, I agree—although, of course, it’s possible to sit up or stand down. But for this rule, they’re referring to the use of up with forms of to stand and down with forms of to sit. (They also add that usage of these offending words marks your writing as amateur, which I don’t agree with, and I’ll show you why, later.)
I don’t follow that writing “rule”—or rather, I don’t follow it rigidly. I consider each usage separately. Sometimes I add up or down, and sometimes I don’t. I use whichever sounds right to me and/or provides clarity in that sentence.
I admit that when I first came across this “rule”, I uttered an oh-what-an-ignorant-writer-am-I “Uh-oh” and flagged every use of up and down I found in my WIP. Then, the phrase “she sat down” popped out at me in a Pulitzer-winning novel I was reading, so I checked the work of some other writers represented on my bookshelves to see if they observed this no up and down “rule”.
In case you’re wondering, note that Flannery O’Connor, Anne Tyler, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Richard Russo, Tim O’Brien, Stephen King, Annie Proulx, Barbara Kingsolver, and Tom Perrotta do write such “redundant” phrases as: stand up, stood up, stands up, sit down, sits down, and sat down. I could check more authors’ work, but I think that’s pretty strong company, don’t you?
My writing advice for today: Please evaluate writing advice. It doesn’t always apply to your writing. And even when it does, it may not apply all of the time.
This past week, I reached the dark woods, otherwise known as the dreaded middle of a novel in progress. I stumbled a bit. Suddenly, I hated my book. The writing seemed pedestrian. The language was too simple, the syntax too straightforward. This won’t do, I thought, I should start over and write like a real writer. And then …
I noticed, in my stats, that some visitor to my blog clicked on a category tag Literary Criticism. Really? I wrote a post on literary criticism? Of course, I clicked to see what I said, and I was glad I did. I wrote that post in 2009 while editing The Brevity of Roses. I came to a good conclusion then, and it’s still good now, so I’m sharing it with you. Enjoy.
Blue Toes and Good Writing
I apologize up front because I might step on some toes today. Just know that mine are black and blue too. I am in editing mode—again—and I’ve recently discovered John Gardner’s book On Becoming A Novelist. I shared a passage from that last week and will share another below. Gardner has been stomping all over my writing toes.
I confess I’ve been a “literary” wannabe. In editing my work, particularly the passages that haven’t changed since the first version, I find a tendency to overwrite, to use ten-dollar words or syntax that only complicates the reading, not deepens the meaning. Or, when writing in a poetic character’s point of view, to let myself get carried away with imagery. Possibly the line drawn between good writing and overwriting is quite fine. Or else, I just leapt right over it.
“… as a rule, the good novelist does not worry primarily about linguistic brilliance—at least not brilliance of the showy, immediately obvious kind—but instead worries about telling his story in a moving way, making the reader laugh or cry or endure suspense, whatever it is that this particular story, told at its best, will incline the reader to do.”
If you’ve been around this blog for long, you know that one of my favorite writers is Anne Tyler. I’ve always thought of her writing as beautiful, but when I examine it, I see that rarely does she call attention to her word choices or phrasing. By this, I mean, not often do I stop reading to admire her clever writing. I admire her talent at story telling, her fleshed out characters, her ability to draw me into her fictive dream, which means she’san excellent (Pulitzer Prize winning) writer, but she’s not a show-off.
I’ve read books in which it seems, as Gardner says, “the writer cares more for his language than for other elements of fiction.” I don’t enjoy those books as much and little of them stays with me. If those writers attempted to create a fictive dream, I’m too aware of their writing to fall into it. Obviously, there are people who read such books, literary critics generally love them, and creative writing classes teach them. I believed that I should aspire to become one of those “important” writers. But I’ve changed my mind.
I just want to tell the best stories I know how with beautiful, but understated, language to people who want, for a while, to dream of a different life, or place, or time.
Last week, a book I requested arrived at my library. I can’t remember who suggested the book, but I’m glad I paid attention. The book, Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing by Les Edgerton, has caused me to mentally shout YES! several times, and I’m only a third done reading it.
Because I haven’t read the whole book, I can’t say I’ll agree with all Edgerton has to say, but I want to share something that made me put the book down and start writing this post.
I used to rail against the writing rules a lot around here. As a newbie writer, I tried to obey most of them. With more experience, I learned to follow what worked for me and ignore what didn’t, but there was one rule I felt conflicted about every time I bucked it.
Ever since I decided to write seriously with the aim of publication, I’ve read one particular bit of writing advice consistently. Write fast. Get the story down. Don’t worry about it being a sh**ty first draft, you’ll fix it later.
That Fast First Draft advice has always horrified me. Truly. Horrified. It’s so at odds with my nature that I think I’d rather quit writing than write that way. So, I don’t write fast first drafts. That’s a Writing Rule I never obeyed, but the advice to do so is so prevalent, I questioned whether something was wrong with my brain.
Not so, says Edgerton. That advice doesn’t work for him either. He says:
All my instincts told me this was the wrong approach for my own prose. Rushing ahead, getting stuff down just felt wrong. What I wanted to do was find the perfect word for what I was trying to say before continuing. I had this uneasy feeling in my stomach that I’d forget to change it if I went on. Even if I marked it. I just wouldn’t be able to recapture what I was feeling or “seeing” then. I got a feeling I ignored, but one I should have paid attention to. I’ll bet you’ve experienced the same thing, at least occasionally. You know what you’re doing is “by the book”, but it just doesn’t feel right.
Trust those feelings! Your wonderful, smart, cool, learned mind is telling you something important. Pay attention to it.
EXACTLY! If I don’t get the sentence, the paragraph, the scene down at least 90% right the first time, it’s likely I’ll lose the “magic”. I know this because it happens nearly every time I leave myself a “fix this” note and push on.
The popularity of NaNoWriMo, in addition to most blogs and books for writers, tells me that Les Edgerton and I are in the minority on this, but that won’t nag me any longer. I’m relieved. There’s nothing wrong with my brain—at least, not in this instance. 🙂 I will hold my head up while I write in my slow and precise way. The only “wrong” way to write is the one that doesn’t work.
It goes without saying that when you’re as good a writer as I am, you don’t need writing advice. OMG, I could hardly type that for laughing so hard! Seriously, like most of you, I still have a lot to learn about writing. And I’m always looking for that bit of golden advice that will make everything fall into place, giving me the ability to write nothing but astounding fiction thereafter. So, of course, I read my share of advice for writers, but I have to do it sparingly.
In the March/April issue of Writer’s Digest an article by Steven James, titled “5 Story Mistakes Even Good Writers Make” caught my eye. He says, “Never let anything get between your story and your readers.” That’s solid advice and simple enough, right? Then he lists the five most common ways writers veer off-course.
Trying too hard
Failing to anticipate the readers’ response
Using a hook as a gimmick
Leaving readers hanging
Under each heading, he explains and gives examples of the mistake, and offers tips on how to avoid making it. I’m not going to quote too much for fear of copyright issues, so get a copy of the magazine if you can. I’ll talk a bit about one of his points.
Under #2, James writes, “There’s nothing less impressive than someone trying to be impressive. There’s nothing less funny than someone trying to be funny. Eloquence doesn’t impress anyone except for the person trying so hard to be eloquent. So look for places in your story where you were trying to be funny, clever or impressive, and change or remove them.” Remember, the heading is trying too hard, and here he’s talking about things like bolstering your dialogue with tags, such as adding “she joked” or “he mentioned in his fun-loving way” rather than making sure your dialogue is funny on it’s own.
Using excessive or inappropriate literary devices is another way writers try too hard. James says, “Believe it or not, you don’t want readers to admire your writing.” If you vehemently disagree with that statement, you probably write high-literaryfiction where the construct is foremost. For the rest of us, he says, we want our readers “to be so engaged in the story itself that they don’t notice the way you use words to shape it.”
Anytime you stop your readers with confusion, causing them to reread a passage or an earlier section to figure out something, or even to analyze your beautiful writing, you’ve failed. “You want your writing to be an invisible curtain between your readers and your story.”
I agree with all that. I even think I know and practice all that, and yet … every time I read advice like this, doubt creeps in, and I want to recheck everything I’ve written—even if published—to look for places where I’m guilty of bad writing. Of course, I don’t actually check. Well, maybe just one or two pieces. Or five. Okay, so you can see that if I didn’t pace myself in reading such advice, I might never be able to write anything new.