Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Good News: Don’t Edit

I can feel people’s shoulders relax when they see they don’t have to edit. What a change of pace! But when is it acceptable not to edit? When you’re planning a story or working on your first draft. Experienced writers will say they do edit during these phases so as to save themselves work later. But it’s probably more accurate say that at these early stages they’re more careful about how and what they write. This approach can be beneficial because it can save time on later drafts. But for emerging writers, those who are working on a new project and those who are spreading their wings in a new genre or style, it’s still best to take your editing hat off, or more accurately, to shut off the right side of your brain during the early phases of the work. Consider this perspective from renowned editor and literary agent Betsy Lerner in The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers: “Writing demands that you keep at bay the demons insisting that you are not worthy or that your ideas are idiotic or that your command of the language is insufficient.” So, rather than be seized by doubt, seize the day, because time really is short.

The tip today is don’t edit, but do have a happy, healthy, blessed and restful Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Breakthrough: Writing Past the Doubt

Ever work on a story and know in your gut it’s not working. Of course, everybody feels that way sometime, but what if the feeling won’t go away?

The same happened to me, and will happen again, with the novel I’m writing. Weeks passed, and I couldn’t shake the sense that the story wasn’t working. Then it hit me—my plot was one-dimensional, and for a story to be worthwhile it had to be three-dimensional—the difference between a human being and a paper cutout.

If you’ve experienced the same unease, some will try to console by saying it may not be as bad as you think. But if it is, and feelings like this are visceral, it’s important to understand why the story isn’t working. I love that question of “why.” It’s a great drill-down you can keep asking until you can’t ask anymore. Then you’ve usually arrived at the problem. To fix my one-dimensional plot, I started asking “what if,” what if this or that happened? Once I asked the question, several options arose.

For these situations, Michael Neff of Algonkian Writer Conferences suggests the prose description questionnaire to prompt writers to “imagine the difference between an object [or plot or character] that is foreign to you and one that is familiar.” If you keep in mind the difference and strive for the latter, the writing and the work will improve.

To put today's musing into action, check out the tip at the top of the list, and let me know how it goes.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Precision

Variety is the spice of life, so it’s been said. And it’s true. But when writers set out to laboriously vary word choices, the real meaning of a scene or story can be lost. Consider this from John Gardiner in The Art of Fiction: “Often the search for variety leads to another problem, the overloading of sentences and the loss of focus.”

That’s why it’s important to know exactly what you want to say, not just what sounds good, and to say it as precisely as possible. For people who recall the story of Goldilocks — a little girl looking for just the right everything — it’s important that the language of a story, especially description, not include too much detail or too little, but just enough. It also needs to be the right detail. Consider these two examples:
  • In a couple of weeks she would have another birthday, thirty, emerging from an odd number, twenty-nine, into a roundness, a fullness that seemed an unreachable, unbridgeable distance.
  • In two weeks she would be thirty, emerging into the fullness of womanhood, which seemed even now an unbridgeable distance.
To put today's musing into action, the writing tip at the top of the list is a bit more involved, since precision takes work. Take a look, and let me know how it goes.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Journaling: A Lost Art

My journalism teacher used to say, "Keep a journal. It'll get the garbage writing out." That mantra stuck with me because he was right — journaling frees you from the burden of thoughts that might be better left for your eyes only. But journaling is good for other reasons, too. It keeps your mind limber and keeps you in the habit of writing daily, or more often, if trends like Twitter are any example. Journaling also gets you in touch with who you are today, not yesterday or last year or ten years ago.

Maybe no writing is garbage writing — okay, some is — but some thoughts and emotions need a place, just not in your stories. Those are about others, unless yours is an autobiography. Journals give personal musings somewhere safe to go. And maybe they will become fodder for a story — the stuff memoirs are made of.

Journaling, like any discipline, also keeps your writing mind limber through regular use. The more we write, the easier, usually, writing is. Easier to start, easier to keep going and easier to see mistakes, provided we review what we've written.

Another perk of journaling is its ability to stop time, so that we can pause and reflect. Poet and professor John Leax said in his sabbatical journal, "I need to remind myself writing poetry is not a career … It is rather a vocation, a calling and a discipline." There's something about sitting down with whatever you use when you write for yourself — I usually use a pen and a spiral pad — you rediscover your life, who you are. And that's worth writing about.

To put today's musing into action, see the writing tip at the top of the list and let me know how it goes.