Thursday, May 03, 2012

Keep Making It Better

 This writing thing can be a first-class b--ch as well as heaven on earth. Writers grow in stages, many falling by the wayside when they ignore the fact they have to pay a few dues.

Just deciding to write is not easy. Not when faced with a job, family, and other pre-existing obligations. But you go ahead and decide, and you feel all cozy about yourself. Good. It's the first step on a long journey, but you took it. Yay you!

But no new writer writes well. Your family and friends might like your work. They do not count . . . at all. You must educate yourself through formal education, an endless assortment of self-help and how-to efforts, and mentors. You must hone grammar, syntax, story arc development, dialogue, setting, and characterization--not just know what it is. You must be able to recognize writing that has a good grasp of each topic, then you practice it until you hate it. Then you practice it again. Then you practice it again. You practice it so many times you have to remind yourself why you're being so anal about it. You almost want to quit. You think nobody will appreciate going the extra mile.

You want total strangers to like your work. Strangers who know how to write, edit, and make a living with words.That means you have a voice and know how to use it. If you aren't sure what your voice is, you haven't found it. So keep practicing, learning, writing, tossing, deleting, and rewriting. Enter contests, join critique groups, hire editors.

A journalist friend ate lunch with me recently, and she mentioned how hard she was trying to learn how to write fiction. I asked what she'd done. She hadn't written a word. Instead, she was studying how to outline, how to flesh out characters, how to do a story arc, and so on. She was researching and setting herself up, getting all her tools in place to get started. Not writing. I looked her in the eye and said, "Just write. Pick a good scene and start the book."

"I know," she said, but we'd had this conversation before, so I wasn't sure she really did know.

"Write that story," I said. "Then when you get to chapter 33 or whatever the final chapter is, read the book over. You'll realize it stinks. Throw it away."

Her eyes flew wide. "Oh, I could never do that."

"Why not? By the time you get to that final chapter, especially on a first time novel, your writing will have grown so far that chapter one is nowhere near the caliber of that last chapter. You'll do major rewrites anyway. Keep a hard copy for posterity, but start over with nothing more than an outline. You'll realize after the next rewrite that you've once again outgrown chapter one. You may not throw it away then, but you do some serious cutting and readjustment. Over and over . . . until you realize a voice has surfaced and chapter one isn't much different than the last one. And you do from beginning to end as many times as it takes, exorcising all the silly little demons in your work."

She winced, scrunched her nose and shook her head again. "Nope, I'll never throw it away."

I sighed.

When you cook, you wash each utensil and bowl thoroughly, because to leave a remnant of an ingredient behind could be what destroys your next recipe. Culling the crap is necessary. You don't season it with sugar or salt to make it palatable or sprinkle almond extract or lemon oil on it to reduce the stink. You throw it away.

Vow to be great, however long it takes. You will so love yourself more. Vow to be superb.


Sioux Roslawski said...

My son came into town for the weekend. I made him french toast--for the second morning in a row. This time, I got the first two batches too brown. I thought about scraping the burned parts off with the end of a sharp knife, but discarded the idea and instead, threw them away. Eight pieces of bread in the trash...

Yep, you gotta throw away or slash and and transform and recycle.

Lyn Fairchild Hawks said...

I'm good and bad at throwing away. True, I've tossed hundred of novel pages. But you have to overhaul, not tweak, the scenes you do keep. Last night, my writers' group questioned the logic of one of my precious darling oh-no-it-can't-go scenes. I heard myself defending its logic till I realized, get over your preciousness. Changes I've made to my story outline necessitate the overhaul, and also that I cut a whole backdrop of people and scenes. Family and friends love those scenes. But how many times will I hear, You have 2-3 books here? and still fight to keep them all? Scouring the pan must become my specialty.


Joy said...

Loved the alliteration of culling the crap. I can just see your friend wrinkling her nose.
Some people don't REALLY want to be writers, they just want to think and learn about writing. That is fine, but what writers do is write and yes, yes, yes, you do get better with practice. Keep practicing.

Yesenia said...

Ouch! I just wrote my first novel so this article struck me personally. But it's the truth. I know I've got to pretty much completely rewrite the thing. Good advice.

Suzanne Furness said...

I took about 18 months or so to write my first novel and of course I thought it was wonderful! When reality struck and I realised that it was far from publishable I was stung. Now a few years on I can see exactly what you are saying here and have moved on to hopefully bigger and better work. In fact I have completely changed the genre I write in! The secret is to keep on learning and build on every rejection and rewrite.

Hope Clark said...

Yes, itdoes sting, but in hindsight you are so proud of yourself and the advance you make in the quality of your writing.


Kasie Whitener said...

I'm really enjoying your style so I added you to my Liebster Award list.

Keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

My novel evolved over the course of 40 years. The title changed at least three times and I completely deleted four of the original characters as I learned about tightening my story and making the words work. As Suzanne Furness said above, "learn and build" from the input.