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?

The 5 Stages of Receiving Negative Criticism

A while ago, my creative writing professor said although he liked the first part of a story I had handed in to him, the last two parts seemed gimmicky. After five minutes of white noise and rapid eye blinking I thought, for a man who makes a living choosing the right words you’d think he’d come up with something a little less harsh. But harsh words or not, he was right, although it took me two weeks of grief to understand why.

Getting feedback on your work is essential to produce a good story. We like to think that we can take constructive criticism on the chin (especially when it’s positive), but when we’ve coddled a beloved story for months, edited, and tucked it in bed, it’s hard to deal with negative feedback. Seasoned writer or no, you’re likely to go through these stages when a story you’ve written isn’t received as well as you thought it would be.

Denial

you_stupid_writer_drunk_off_rhetoric

You don’t like my story? I know you’ve had years of training, write professionally for a living, and have published several novels, but you obviously have no idea what you’re talking about.

Anger

angry_writer_1_drunk_off_rhetoric

For every red mark you’ve left on my work, I will kill you.

Bargaining

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Okay, my story is kind of terrible. If I could just write one amazing book I promise to drink you once a day for eternity. That’s how all the good writers do it anyway, right?

Depression

how_to_take_feedback_Drunk_off_rhetoric

It’s true, I’m a phony with no talent. I’ll start looking for a real job as soon as I’m through wiping my tears with the pages of my unfinished novel.

Acceptance

dealing_with_criticism_drunk_off_rhetoric

Okay, I wrote a bad (really bad) story, so what? I’m going to take your feedback and those red marks all over my pages, and turn them into something awesome.

Sometimes things are best said in GIFs. I think I’d be more accepting of negative comments if they came in GIF form. 😀 When was the first time you had to deal with negative feedback on your work? How do you deal with the red mark of death?

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!