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 #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?