Oooh. Talking craft is my favorite.
If you’re coming back for more writerly chat after my previous posts, welcome! If you’re popping in for the first time, please know that I’ll make every attempt not to be longwinded here–but, oh, man. Talking shop is my jam.
Molding descriptive passages from rough intellectual clay? Hand-picking the ripest, juiciest adjective to help illustrate exactly who your protagonist is and what they want? These challenges are the reason writers get out of bed in the morning. Offering readers a fully realized, nuanced, complex cast of characters, a setting one can almost step into, and posing questions about the universal human condition which will resonate long after the final page is turned? That’s our goal.
Granted, sometimes what you’re writing is more light and funny, a much-needed diversion from life’s harsh realities, not so much along the lines of GRAPES OF WRATH. (I mention Steinbeck, because he’s one of the first authors whose work inspired me to want to become much better–and drove home just how very far I have to go. Ditto Harper Lee. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Zora Neale Hurston. And more. My list of literary heroes is long, and I hope yours is, too.) But art, whether comedy, tragedy, or something in between, is nothing if you don’t at some point hit your audience in the feels. That’s where the connection lies, what all storytellers are subconsciously searching for: emotional, intellectual connection with other human beings.
Becoming a more effective writer is generally a long process, an act of sheer stubbornness bolstered by examples of the craft which inspire us, spurring us on to figure out how another author managed to move us in such a remarkable, unexpected way. There are also zillions of books, tutorials, master classes, websites, and–oh, crap–blog posts out there about how to do it all better, faster, easier. In the interest of expedience, I’ve distilled my advice today into four hard-and-fast craft rules to help demand more of your WIP–and yourself. I’ve learned these from listening to other authors, absorbing their advice, and tailoring it to fit my own style. And I have to remind myself of these EVERY time I write:
- Mindfulness: Make your plotting, characterization, and descriptive decisions as CONSCIOUS as possible. This means a reason for everything you present to the reader, right down to the make and model of your characters’ cars to the reason why Jane Doe chooses curly fries when she finally goes out to lunch with her love interest. You don’t need to include your reasons for everything in the book, of course; that would be superfluous to the story and bog your reader down with unnecessarily detail. But you must know it. The idea is that by making your decisions mindfully, you will come to know your protagonist and supporting cast better than anyone on the planet, and this should help to form a cohesive, consistent tale about people who feel real. Jane Doe chooses curly fries because it fits her character exactly; she’s not a straight-cut kind of person, from her hairdo right down to her shoes, and the breadcrumbs for this belief should be easily identifiable throughout the novel. You need to be able to justify your decisions, even if nobody ever ends up questioning them. “I don’t know,” or, “I just kind of threw that in there,” are no more acceptable explanations than they were in high school algebra. If you’re writing for publication, be prepared to defend your work.
- Write what you can’t let go of: I’ve read this phrased other ways, but the essence is this: go ahead and tackle that big, weird, seemingly impossible theme or idea that won’t leave you alone. The one that scares you; the one you don’t think you can write, don’t believe you’re good enough to do justice, or are embarrassed to have your grandmother read. Chances are, that idea holds a kernel of emotional truth which is not only compelling to you, but will resonate with others as well. Give it time to germinate; brainstorm it, if that’s your thing. I sometimes dash out every thought or possibility I have for a book into a blank document, no punctuation or caps, stream-of-consciousness style, and see where it takes me. Generally there’s still more weeks of mulling in store, but putting my overwhelming, intimidating idea down in words can make it somehow seem more concrete, more doable. Try talking it out with a trusted friend or loved one, another method which can shrink scary/exciting book ideas to a manageable size. Your sounding board person may have some suggestions on how you can tackle this thing. Don’t have a person like that in your life? Seek out online writer communities–there are MANY–where others like yourself are in search of critique partners or members to join a critique group.
- Kill Your Darlings: You’ve gotta do it. A turn of phrase which delighted you on Wednesday and seemed to tie all of Chapter 7 together? Rather ridiculous in the cold light of Thursday, if you give it a second look. You must try to be your own harshest editor before you send that book out into the world, and often that means cutting a lovely turn of phrase or witticism or exciting scene that doesn’t move the plot forward or doesn’t ring true to the characters. Generally your gut will speak up when you’ve done something like this, and your gut gets better at its job the more you write. Reward it with mint chocolate chip ice cream, then create a document where you can copy and paste any sections or phrases that you love too much to delete, but are too canny to leave in your book. You might be able recycle them in another book–or create an entire new book around one of your “darlings” someday.
- Writing a novel is not like digging a ditch: Yes, daily work is vital to completing a rough draft–butt in seat–but it’s not your work ethic you’re contending with to get this book done. You’re dealing with your IMAGINATION, the most sparkly and untamable of all rainbow unicorns. The human mind is a changeable thing, literally in a slightly different state throughout the course of every day (buy a mood ring–undeniable proof!) So many things affect our mood: sleep quality, emotional struggles, work and money stress, general fear caused by the state of our country and the world these days. Mood changes how we see our writing. Sometimes, your work will leave you feeling frustrated, resentful of your foggy perception and sloth like production, ready to dump your .doc in the recycling bin and savor that little crunching sound as you click “empty.” On rare days, it will leave you pumped like nothing else can, convinced of your status as a literary genius, and totally blind to all those “darlings” hidden like landmines in the seven pages you just whipped through. More often than not, you’ll be left feeling warily hopeful yet cautiously humble, just praying that you’ll have something you can work with when the whole emotional marathon of this draft is finally done. In short–your human fallibility will stand in the way of your writing. Every author who ever penned a sentence has had to overcome this. And it will be hard. Which is, as we’ve all learned, precisely what makes it worth doing.