Several realizations have come to me recently about the art and act of writing. They have been brought on by my latest efforts to write myself. Six very specific points break the surface, and in my mind, separate the men from the boys when it comes to effective, moving writing.
This came up yesterday while I was writing a post to my blog, THE LAST SHIKSA RETURNS: Or Can a 58 Year Old Woman Lose Weight? The title of the post –The Night The Wifi Went Out. I will use it as an example to illustrate my thoughts.
The degree of detail to which a writer is willing to go is everything to the reader. How else may the reader see in their mind’s eye what the writer sees? I know this sounds obvious. But I’ve had this observation in several of the audiobooks I’ve recorded. Example: Clearly a writing teacher somewhere – and probably many of them – have suggested describing what the characters wear, as well as what they look like, is the first moment to sculpt a scene or situation in the reader’s mind. Many writers take heed – but to what degree? This exercise, in many cases, winds up a perfunctory recitation rather than the embrace of an opportunity. The ‘blue shirt and the khaki slacks with trainers’ doesn’t really get the job done. We see the pants and shirt but we don’t see the person. Is the shirt polyester or linen? Is it clean or dirty? Is it rumpled? Is the collar buttoned or is the shirt open down the front? Are the cuffs rolled or are they edged in grime? With each of these details the writer has an opportunity to put one more stone in the wall of the character they are building. Clues that will help to explain – or in the case of a mystery, possibly throw off the scent – of why the characters do what they do in the story to come. And why others react to them the way they do.
In my most recent blog post, The Night The Wifi Went Out, I wrote of a voice that came to me one particular night. I struggle still with whether or not I was able to convey to the detail I had hoped what ‘the voice on my right shoulder’ sounded like at four in the morning that dark, dark night. Did I use enough detail?
Quite possibly the word ‘vocabulary’ could be substituted. Mundane is as mundane does. The idea here remains the same as in number one. The more unusual a word, the more descriptive it is, the more specific the image it conjures.
Now I agree with those who do not want to hold a dictionary in one hand and their current reading material in the other. I have a bone to pick (excuse the pun) with the current trend in new restaurants. The menu is so filled with terms and foods by their foreign labels, or obscure preparations, one cannot order a meal without an extensive primer from the waiter. But what I am seeing in many recent novels, is an error on the other side. More description is not needed if the description is creative, stunning, specific. This concept is so easily remedied with the aide of a thesaurus , it begs the question why all writers don’t take the time to really flesh out a scene, a character, a moment with fresh, electric, vocabulary.
I turn again to the same moment in The Night The Wifi Went Out. A blog is a blog is a blog and I don’t think it smells as sweet if it goes on and on and on. But I am concerned whether that night in question was sufficiently set up with my description. This begs a point I think might be a stumble for many new writers like myself. I was there, so I know what it felt like and looked like and tasted like and sounded like. When is enough description enough and when it is too little. I already no the emperor has no clothes. But will my reader? What is sufficient description for me may not be for my reader. I am still learning when enough is enough or too much or too little.
Oh, my gosh. Over and over and over I am thrilled when I discover I can cut. When I have said something more than once. When a piece is tight and taut it zings. More is way too much. Repetition is death, unless it is stylistic or plot or character driven.
In this regard, a blog must be so much easier to write than an entire book or story. *If I sit down to write when an idea comes to me, the thing almost writes itself. If I wait several days, filing the idea away, the final piece always takes hours. I understand I am still finding my way to work. I also think I worry my pieces. However, every draft usually provides an opportunity to cut OR
opportunity to move or reposition a paragraph in order to keep the forward motion.
This is key. Jumping around a story line does no one any favors. Zigzagging one’s way through a telling is confusing. It completely trashes any opportunity at building momentum to climax or emotional connection.
*I marvel at how my thoughts are in a straight line when I write immediately after getting an idea and how fractured they can be when I leave time between inception and execution.
It was several weeks between the idea for The Night The Wifi Went Out and the point at which I wrote it. It took 4 and half hours and at least eight drafts. It started at 1700 words and finished much closer to 1500. I wrote the beginning, then wrote the beginning again and had to cut it, then the end, then the middle then moved the middle to the end. I am grateful I do not struggle with wanting to hang on to every word. Being able to take off that creation cap and put on the surgical mask is essential. It is my duty to the reader AND the story.
This is my current hobbyhorse. I am fascinated with this point. How effortless writing can be if I acknowledge my ‘muse’ and get up and go write when the inspiration hits me. That is not always practical, I know. I believe I am only now beginning to understand the commitment of those who write for a living. I can already feel how writing everyday or at a regular time or in a regular aspect will keep the river flowing.
I make a point in The Night The Wifi Went Out about how hard it is to get back on the horse and write after a passage of time. I think it is because I am not a professional writer. I have not made the commitment on a daily basis to practice writing.
My appreciation for the writers who have asked me to read their words is deepening. What it must take from their lives, their families, to carve out a place to write these stories. I am in awe.
I need to go back to school. Using John Grisham as an example, as he was the subject of a past STORY FROM STORYTELLER, I am sure he has a battalion of editors and proofreaders, etc. I cringe at my every post, knowing it is probably chock full of comma mistakes and punctuation errors. I am not horrendous when it comes to grammar but I have read young writers who are. These two areas seem almost unforgivable. There are books and online classes. The written word should be free of flaws unless they are character driven. Certainly writing correctly must be the first responsibility of a writer, just as correct pronunciation is the first responsibility of the narrator.
Correction of the discovered error of grammar or punctuation – I find, as a narrator this is a tough subject. I would like to hear from independent authors – do you want your narrator to bring mistakes – or possible mistakes – to your attention? I know I am not always right – as mentioned regarding my blog posts. But I also desire not to insult my author. What is the best choice here?
In acting, I am continually impressed by the fact that the difference between good acting and great acting is a simple formula. It is the amount of work an actor is willing to do to make that character, their character, specific and completely unique; to the point that only they could play them. I don’t want to say it comes down to laziness, but that being said…. It might also be blamed on the world of celebrity. So many of our roles are given to faces because of who they are and a public that wants to watch them, not watch them ‘act.’
I know that my most striking reading, listening, and performance experiences were always designed by the patience, the care, and the detail with which the creator created. Rediscovering this lesson as I write, I will endeavor to apply these insights to my own work on the page, in front of the microphone, on the stage, and in front of the camera.