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 #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 #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?

Craft Quote #2 – Can Writing Talent Be Taught?

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Photo: literaryfictions.com

Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just like painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself. – Truman Capote

Since reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood I thought I’d stick with his wonderful way with words for this week’s craft quote. Seeing this quote, I wondered whether Capote considered himself one of the writers born with a natural talent, or whether he had to read, write, and rewrite his way to perfection.

Is writing craft mostly talent or practice? Personally, I think an innate seedling of writing should be present – but just a seedling, an “ear” for words. But the bulk of craft is practice, work-shopping, having your work read by infinite writers and friends, multiple drafts, criticism, being up to your eyes in books, et cetera. How do you play with writing rules? I play it relatively safe in terms of structure. I have yet to learn all of the rules of creative writing so have not figured out how to break them, but it is always great to read stories from those who have reached this point and seeing how it works for them.

Craft Quote #1 – Place and Emotion

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dorothyallison.net

“I cannot abide a story told to me by a numb, empty voice that never responds to anything that’s happening, that doesn’t express feelings in response to what it sees. Place is not just what your feet are crossing to get somewhere. Place is feeling, and feeling is something a character expresses. More, it is something the writer puts on the page- articulates with deliberate purpose. If you keep giving me these eyes that note all the details- if you tell me the lawn is manicured but you don’t tell me that it makes your character both deeply happy and slightly anxious- then I’m a little frustrated with you. I want a story that’ll pull me in. I want a story that makes me drunk. I want a story that feeds me glory. And most of all, I want a story I can trust. I want a story that is happening in a real place, which means a place that has meaning and that evokes emotions in the person who’s telling me the story. Place is emotion.” – Dorothy Allison, Craft Essays from Tin House

I’ve had a hard time writing and keeping up with my summer reading list (though I just finished a second book, watching everyone else’s progress has cemented my determination to finish all ten books by September!) after getting held up with a cold for one week, then camping in Monterey the following week, with my husband for our first year wedding anniversary. To combat this stunted period I thought I’d garner some inspiration for myself (and maybe some other writers slipping away from their work), by doing a brief weekly post called Craft Quotes – simply quotes I find helpful in explaining the writing craft, advice from talented authors and writers that expand new or seasoned minds in the creative writing process.

Dorothy Allison’s writing on ‘place’ is an entire chapter of lessons particularly useful for writers trying to give their work more substance and authenticity. When hitting a wall in your story’s plot try pulling back and focus on where the story is taking place. Why is this story taking place here? How does your character feel about this place? Why does he or she feel this way? Jotting down notes to questions like these help flesh out setting and a character’s connection to it, their motives and emotions. Even if none of this note taking ends up in the body of the story you gain greater understanding of realistic characters. Attaching real emotions to place allows the scene to grow from words on a page to tangible images and logic in a reader’s mind.

There are numerous layers needed to build a good story, and the fact that place is more than just where a story is happening goes largely ignored by writers and readers. I’m curious how other writers and readers deal with place. Do you incorporate setting into your writing or focus more on dialogue, characters, and/or plot? Do you feel that a lack of place sacrifices realism in a story? When reading, is a considerable understanding of place and how it relates to a character welcomed or a nuisance?