The Challenges of Writing Part 2; or, Why Did I Ever Decide to Do This? (The Reckoning)
Okay, hyperbolic titles aside (for now), the last few weeks have seen me mired in pages of rough draft material in need of either a red pen or an X-ACTO knife (for when something has really got to go). The above picture is illustrative of the plight of the poor author. The story, which I had originally written a few years ago as a “writing exercise” in a creative writing class, is called “Fiction.” Before I took my red pen to it, the story focused on a technique called “framing,” which ask.com defines as “the usage of the identical distinct action, scene, event, setting or any element of significance at both the beginning and end of a creative, musical or literary work.”
In the case of “Fiction,” the framing technique makes use of an unfinished short story to drive the main narrative in the real story forward. I borrowed the idea from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in which Captain Walton creates a narrative frame through the use of his letters, which itself is called epistolary form. Seeking to add my own unique twist to the framing technique was only obvious, and I feel as if I pulled it off convincingly enough.
The red ink you see in the picture comes from the lack of good characters and a sensible plot within the narrative. And that was the main problem with “Fiction.” It didn’t have believable or interesting characters. I’ll be uploading the finished version of this series of rough drafts (I completed three, each with less red ink than the one before) to my fiction blog “Fictional Heuristics” soon.
I have a love/hate relationship with the editing process. I love writing, from putting the words on the page to making a polished final product. I hate that I have a compulsion to seek perfection in a work. There’s always one more thing that can be tweaked. One more sentence that can be improved. I’ve worked over the years to let it go, and I’m getting better at declaring a story finished. Still, the novel-writing process has stirred new concerns in my editor’s soul.
I was recently making notes for a review I’ll write eventually about Jacqueline E. Smith’s debut novel “Cemetery Tours.” I was jotting notes about writing and narrative style when I realized that one of the constructive criticisms I had made applied to a recent draft of the prologue of my novel.
This isn’t that unusual. Editing your own material is hard work, and I don’t often spot my own mistakes in style. One of the traps that writers fall into is becoming complacent with their word use. Things like beginning multiple sentences in a row with the same word, or using so-called telling words instead of properly describing a scene. In the case of my novel, I was using the word “she” too many times, and didn’t even realize how often I had used the generic word “smiled” at various points in the eight page, 2,500-word prologue.
There are a few ways to catch things like this in your writing. To avoid the repetition of words, keep a list of commonly used words like “some,” “said,” or different kinds of pronouns at the start of sentences, and within sentences. It’s a lot of work, but it really does help reveal how often you use certain words.
Describing a scene properly usually involves avoiding to be verbs like “is,” “was,” and “are” in any tense. For instance, a sentence like “He was concerned about his friend” has the effect of dragging the reader out of a narrative because you’re just passing on information. Keep the reader grounded in the narrative by changing that sentence to something like, “He pursed his lips and swallowed hard as his friend recounted…” By showing the emotion, and not just telling the reader “he was concerned,” you keep them grounded in the novel and allow them to empathize with the character.
Of course, describing the emotion and trying to avoid labeling it is hard work, especially because we often just associate facial cues with the emotion without describing what’s happening to the face. When someone is “angry” you have a pretty good idea about what they look like. If you write about how “his face, red and contorted, threatened violence” you might need more context for the reader to understand the emotion you’re trying to convey.
Another issue that comes up fairly often is the lack of grounding in the setting. You’re creating a world, full of exciting characters and challenging problems and…you forget to keep the reader in that world by neglecting to describe it or forgetting to use the setting after you’ve set it. There’s a world of difference between “She looked him in the eye, tears streaming down her face” as the whole sentence, and grounding the characters in their setting: “Her gaze met his, and he was unable to hear her whimper over the noise of the cappuccino machine and a customer dropping loose change.”
So maybe that’s not the best example, but it illustrates the point well. Your characters live in a world. Use it.
So what’s the point of doing all of that extra work? It’s arduous, thankless, and more than once it’s driven me to consider taking up the noble art of smashing things with hammers.
I believe that the ability to look back and see your evolution as a writer is paramount in the ongoing struggle to constantly improve your writing. Keep the rough drafts with all of the red ink, and keep the lists of words and the notes you’ve made about your mistakes and stylistic shortcomings.
Don’t let a passion for writing and telling stories decay into lazy sentences. Make your characters vibrant with adjectives, make their emotions empathetical by describing them instead of labeling them, and bring your world to life by constantly grounding the reader in it. Holding your own feet to the fire is a constant challenge, and sometimes writing something just the right way can distract from ultimately telling the story, but a reader will appreciate the extra work.
And in the end, you’ll see your skills improve.
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A Rushed Joke by Joshua Derke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.