Craft Quote #9 – On Writing What You Mean

Since I’ve started writing more I’ve noticed that when I’m not confident about my writing or the direction a story is taking, I add filler words to doll up sentences. As if more words will make for a better story. It doesn’t, and usually it’ll make it worse.

Adding unnecessary sentences and words that don’t move the story forward is a common mistake a lot of new or unsure writers make while they’re still gaining understanding of what exactly it is they’re trying to say. They often think they’re following the lead of accomplished writers whose work is dipped in extended metaphor, but fail to see it’s purpose in moving the story forward. Extended metaphors and lyrical language are useful supports to the bare bones of narrative, but overuse (and misuse, with passive language) dull the impact of a story.

As fiction writers, we’ve done half the job when we’ve told a clear story in it’s most basic forms, without any extra words or events that don’t add to or move the story forward, but this is something a lot of writer’s, including myself, struggle to do. Here are some ways I avoid unnecessary language.

  • Since a lot of this is sparked from self-doubt, remind yourself that the first draft is exactly that, a draft – a preliminary version of a piece of writing – not a finished product. Use the first draft to tell the story from beginning to end, and use later drafts to add in all those bells and whistles of imagery and trim whatever other fat that can be spared.
  • Remember, a story is not primarily a place to demonstrate your literary prowess. It is also not primarily a place to explore character. Everything in a story should be there to teach the reader something important and push the plot along, not stagnate it for a few moments of your brilliance.
  • Ask yourself, what organically feels like part of the story and what stops or distracts from that flow? and Could I say this in less words?  when reading over your work.

I find that keeping these in mind while combing through my second and subsequent drafts helps bring out the core and most powerful parts of a story, and cuts out what doesn’t have that effect. I hope you find these helpful, too.

Have you got any tricks you use to make your writing more powerful? Do you struggle with writing what you mean? Who are some authors you enjoy that don’t mince words?

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Craft Quote #8 – Overcoming Writer’s Doubt

In keeping with receiving criticism and the writer’s super power of growing several layers of dragon scales for skin, is a quote that I read in On Writing by Stephen King. I highly recommend it to all writers, especially those in the early stages of writing and discovering their voice. Although this quote doesn’t necessarily relate to the writing process, it’s a regular occurrence for artists and can lead to self doubt and impostor syndrome – both of which negatively effect the ways we write.

A lot of us keep our writing in the closet (or our blogs) because of the reaction we get when we reveal to someone that you’re a writer and gasp plan to write full time for real money and no you’re not delusional. The general misconception that the only way to make money as a writer is by being a novelist with an absurd amount of luck, doesn’t help either.

Prior to saying this, King mentions a teacher scolding him for wasting his talents writing junk. I’m sure she went on to face palm herself into oblivion, but it goes to show how even someone who is now The Stephen King got more than a few sideways looks for spending his time writing short stories for fun and then for money. It takes confidence to be a writer and this doesn’t come quickly, especially when there can be a lot of having to justify why you’re doing it. I’m a nurse’s assistant and just recently started telling my co-workers that I stopped taking courses for nursing to pursue freelance writing instead, many of my co-workers are very supportive and want to read my blog, while others tell me to go back to nursing school because there’s no way to make a living as a writer. I used to run through a list of ways writers can make a living, but came to the realization that that was a real waste of my time.

Getting involved in the blogging community and indie writer community has been a great way for me to build confidence and “meet” other writers who are either exploring their voice or doing what I aim to do, which is a constant inspiration. Seeing writers do what so many consider impossible is motivation to carry on in your own work, and learn how to just (as the vernacularly challenged say) do you.

How do you cope with nay-sayers? Do you keep your writing online or are you vocal about it with people you know? Why do you think everyone and their mother has an opinion about you being a writer?

Craft Quote #7 – Why Perfectionism Killed Your Story

If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word. – Margaret Atwood

The first draft of anything is shit. – Ernest Hemingway

These quotes come at a time when I’m making several revisions to a short story from four or five months ago. Last week I was eager to edit. I got the story out of my desk, edited the first paragraph thirty-odd times, then stuffed the papers back in the drawer deciding my time would be best spent job hunting – I’d worked five months and produced excrement, and worst of all, at one point I’d actually thought it was good. I was suffering from two things all writers go through at one point or another; a disconnect from my work because so much time had passed since the last edit, and feeling stagnated because I was editing my story with the aim of perfecting it.

As writers, we’re all guilty of trying to make our stories perfect because we have a particular message we want to convey, but what is perfection anyway? When does refining become a vice?

Writing is art; personal and an expression of self, so is constantly evolving and is impossible to perfect, so why are so many of us aiming for the impossible? The idea of what makes a flawless story changes as often as our minds do. Constantly judging your writing in pursuit of perfection ends in frustration and chasing your creativity down a hole to writer’s block.

Perfectionism puts a wrench in your writing mojo so, why do we spend so many weeks, months, and years editing and re-editing, in pursuit of it? I think the greatest reason is fear. Writing is incredibly personal, even when you’re not writing about something personal. You write, edit, pour hours into a story and wonder what people will say when they read your work. What will my friends/family think? Will my editor like it? What if no one gets what I’m trying to do? All of these questions rise up and choke the life out of creativity.

Aiming to write a well though-out, clear, soul-filled story is a good thing, but writing for perfection is a hindrance on creativity and productivity, because you’ll be editing with no end in sight.

Some ways I deal with my occasionally overcritical eye are to

  • Try not judging work while in the middle of writing it. Save judgement for later drafts, the first one is just a place to get your ideas onto paper (or screen). Think of creating your story like painting; start with broader strokes and then go back to refine, not perfect.
  • Write first and foremost for you, not any potential readers you think may be out there.
  • Set realistic deadlines to complete work. If you like to keep track of projects in stages; set a deadline to complete your outline, then a first draft, and so on. Having a set time to finish leaves no space for endless edits.

Chasing perfection hurts the creative process, but is something all writers (even the ones you admire and can do no wrong) struggle with. Next time you find you’ve micro-edited a paragraph for the umpteenth time, take a break then come back to the work with a mindset of writing without judgement, and free of the worry that someone is looking over your shoulder.

Do you find yourself struggling for perfection, or leaning on any other vices that stop you from writing? How are some ways you combat the need to aim for perfect writing? How long do you work on a project before deciding enough is enough? Let me know in the comments!

Craft Quote #6 – Using Plot as a Device

While scrolling through my wordpress reader I came across Longreads Top 5 Longreads of the Week. Longreads is a blog that regularly posts excellent content for writers and this week they linked to a compilation of articles focused on how to plot a novel, in it is a fun article that provides an encyclopedia of every kind of literary plot (ever) including examples of books that use that specific device effectively and plot devices that used to work before the technological age took over. It offers plenty of useful links and is well worth the read if you’re interested in playing around with any of these plots for your own stories.

Here are a few author’s responses to whether they believe plot should be a center device in novels:

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Photo: Vulture.com

There are commandments that the storytelling community generally agree on; thou shalt write daily, thou shalt not plagiarize, thou shalt not use adverbs in vain, but there are many parts of the writing process that go disputed between it’s disciples. The decision of whether to use plot as a main story driver (rather than characters or the writing itself) depends on the individual, what they are writing, and who they are writing for.

While plot is necessary for certain types of genres like detective mysteries, other genres have more freedom when it comes to letting prose, character and emotion drive the story alongside minimal plot. I agree with Grace Paley (poet and short story writer) in that all stories have a plot that sets us in a time, place, and situation, but plot is best utilized when playing a small role in a story rather than a central part in it. I also agree with Bret Easton Ellis (author of American Psycho) when he says that without plot there still must be a banal entity “to keep it [the story] moving forward”. As a reader I enjoy stories that leave me in expectation, which can come from the right words, descriptions of place, and emotions. An example of a writer who does this very well is Cormac McCarthy. His stories are rarely more than a hero’s (or anti-hero’s) journey pushed to new levels because of descriptive writing that draws in readers. In the end you don’t care too much about what’s happening because you’re in it for everything else.

Do you lean towards plots or prose (or anything else) as a center of a story? Do you know of any authors who write this way that you enjoy or don’t enjoy reading?

Craft Quote #5 – Why Do We Write?

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Photo: Goodreads.com

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.
—George Orwell

George Orwell authored dystopian masterpieces Animal Farm and 1984, which are now required reading in many high-school English classes around the world, and still considered the process of novel writing to be a dire one.

So why did he do it? Why does any writer, famous, infamous, or aspiring, do it? Short stories and novellas are also a struggle to complete (in some aspects, even more so than a novel). Clearly there is some unknown entity that chases most of us writers. I, for one, have no idea why the strong urge to write has followed me through childhood and well into my twenties, even when I stifled art in pursuit of other careers it was only a temporary distraction and attempt at not being my mother’s worst nightmare. I may not understand what initially sparked my desire to write, write, write, but I have some idea of why I am doing it now; I love the empathetic perspective writing requires; there are endless cultures and lifestyles waiting to be explored and recreated; the rhythm and clarity of a well structured sentence is something truly wonderful; I’m a nerd for the emotions words create, and a sympathetic person that I also hate; there’s a story in me that needs to be written.

Why do you write? Do you remember the first time you picked up a book and thought I could do this!? Do you also remember how wrong you were about how easy it would be?

Craft Quote #4 – Good Writers Read [All] Books

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Photo: jennyhallart.com

Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.

– William Faulkner

Almost every writer can be quoted as saying something similar, but it does not quite hit home until a Nobel Prize winning novelist, short story author, and most influential American writer of the twentieth century marks it as good advice (especially for us aspiring writers). Read often, read outside of your comfort zone, read the unexpected.

What are you reading? What are the most influential books you’ve read? Who are some of your go-to authors for inspiration or just a good old lit fix?

Craft Quote #3 – To Outline Or Not To Outline?

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photo: haruki-murakami.com

When I start to write, I don’t have any plan at all. I just wait for the story to come. I don’t choose what kind of story it is or what’s going to happen. – Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is the author of international bestsellers, Norwegian WoodKafka on the Shore, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle known for experimental writing and narrators who deal with love, isolation, and fantastical experiences.

Murakami is not the only proclaimed writer to prefer little to no story planning, George R R Martin (author of A Song of Snow and Ice, later on released by HBO as series Game of Thrones) calls himself a writer of the gardener variety; one who has a general idea of the seed of the story, what genre it is, but let’s it grow mostly untamed and explored during growth. Architect writers are their opposites. They build a story knowing the blueprints of the plot, the family tree, flaws of each character, and a likely ending. Writers can typically be divided into two categories; those who outline and those who do not. I am in the latter group. For me, creativity flows more fluidly when it is not in the constraints of an outline and needing to know how the story is going to end. Multiple outlines for dystopian science fiction stories sit in my writing desk  drawer, and although they are great in theory, they have amounted to nothing more than hours spent note taking rather than writing the story. Opening a blank page of a word doc or notebook can be daunting, but writing without a plan or desired ending takes a lot of that pressure off and can end in much more productive writing sessions.

Do you write outlines or no? Why does this practice work for you?