Kristine Kathryn Rusch called part 6 of her series on “How Writers Fail” Words, so I am inclined to do the same. But the title there is deceiving. This one is about getting stuck in words. There’s something bigger here.
This post is part 6 in my ongoing series where I turn a self-directed critical eye in response to Kristine Rusch’s ongoing series as mentioned above. I am asking the question “why I am failing as a writer?” and using Kristine’s posts to guide me through some of those reasons. They don’t always land directly, but there is always something to learn in each. This post is about story telling vs the words.
And now for a brief interlude. Here are the links:
Kristine’s original post: Business Musings: How Writers Fail (Part 6) Words
Being a writer, be it novelist, journalist, essayist, or another kind, words are important. The entire job revolves around them. We pick words and place them along with other words to tell a story or put forth information. It is in and throughout everything that we do. Words are a tool, though. Albeit, the most important tool for a writer.
The point of what a writer is doing revolves in the type of work they are doing. For anything fiction, the goal is telling a story. Telling that story becomes the a priori goal for fiction. Words take a backseat — or at least they should.
There are many that would argue that grammar should remain as the primary rule that any writer should live by. Grammar is the law of words. Unfortunately, it is also obtuse in many ways. Those rules are often loose enough to bend, or even break, at the slightest pressure. Even then, many can’t quite agree on whether some rules are absolute or that they operate as mere suggestions. Still, knowing this doesn’t change some people’s ideas. This is one of many areas where editors come into play.
As I’ve stated before, I have a love-hate relationship with editors. I don’t find them necessary, but then again, I don’t find them wholly unnecessary. In journalism, essays, and other non-fiction styles, they can serve an important role. For starters, there might be some rules of the publication source that needs followed — such as how articles for the New York Times must be written. This is done such that there is some cohesion throughout the publication. Or they ensure that the writer they’ve contracted are telling stories that the publishing house want to publish — those that fit into their catalog. But for an indie writer?
I have more to say on editors, even despite my lack of direct experience with them.
Kristine notes there’s difference though with critical voice vs creative voice. Critical voice is similar to an editor. Critical voice focuses on the words. They focus on the trees rather than the forest. While some of those trees might be ugly when looked at on their own, zoom out far enough and one might not notice those trees at all.
For all too many years (well into this year even), I struggled with the ideas of editing — words and all that. Even when I think of a book I wrote and my then-girlfriend (now wife) loved, only to have her feel dissatisfied by the story after umpteen revisions because I felt the words weren’t right. Or no matter how often I write and give the middle finger to the idea of editing while secretly wishing that I had an editor — wishing that I could have someone help me make sure my book was good enough. Good enough for what?
It’s that voice of doubt and fear. That’s what critical voice is: doubt and fear. Two things I have tried to banish from my writing.
Creative voice is the voice of the story. It’s the artist’s/writer’s flow state. When I unleash it, I can hammer through words. Instead of 1,000 words in a single day (an arbitrary target I placed that was achievable in the hectic nature of daily life), I’ve had days where I hit over 4,000 words and had room to keep going. Yet I don’t… a topic that will be covered in part 9. Yes, Kristine published part 9 while I was still working through this post.
In truth, I am never happy with what I write. The caveat to that is that if I really consider it, it is a number of things: 1) I will never write tomorrow exactly the same way I write today. 2) Re-reading my own works often also spark another thread. 3) I read my stories with a critical eye rather than simply reading them. More can be ascribed to it, but they all point to the fact that I am letting my critical voice run wild. I focus on the trees rather than the forest. Sure, making certain that the story flows and that there aren’t any parts going off the rails might be needed at times, but those probably are small parts in the greater whole and can be cleaned up quickly.
OK, so like the last post on Money, Kristine listed out 7 things that focusing too closely to the words meant:
Writers who focus on words and grammar are letting other people dictate their stories. — to say that grammar isn’t important would be a lie. It would also be a lie to say that it is all important. In truth (and something that has taken me to only recently to truly understand), is that grammar is selectively important. Writing non-fiction? Well, then you should adhere a little more closely to the rules. Fiction though? Well, that’s a different. And trying to adhere to some rulebook with absolute resolution puts at risk shackling the story. Who’s rulebook is it?
Writers who hire developmental editors are really letting other people dictate their stories. — if your goal is to be a traditionally published author with X publishing house, then by all means, work with one of these folks to guide you to a story they accept and publish. Don’t expect it to be your story though. To repeat, I have no experience with editors, but of course I have a load of opinions about them. I am not saying they are bad… just unnecessary (says the indie-writer making no money — I know).
People who focus on words may have a great story to tell, but they tell it in a boring way. — I can see how this would be the case. I am certain we all can. That’s the kid in school who insisted to follow all the rules… to the letter. He/she didn’t have many friends. I can’t see such a writer having many readers. Then again, what rules do you follow?
People who focus on words rewrite. A lot. — Rewrites should be to make sure that the story is cohesive and makes sense. If the rest can be made a little better in the process, then by all means. It should not be a constant pursuit of perfection. My first book, “The Good Teacher,” suffered from the perpetual rewrite. There was always a better word. Always a better sentence. Always a better way to plot. I always found “something wrong.” Now, I am not at the stage where I can have minimal rewrites… or am I? Should I just go with that?
People who focus on words are too busy “perfecting” their fiction to learn all the other aspects to having a career. — I am torn on this one. On one hand, writing fiction as a craft is the most important thing. On the other, I would like to be able to have career as a fiction writer. It is exactly this though as to where my weakness is: I drag my feet learning the other things. All those things I need to make a career out of writing are those things I avoid the most. Yes, as a fiction writer and poet, I would love to simply play around with craft all day. That’s not a reasonable path forward, and that is why I tend to be on the failure side of writing. And Kristine notes that besides all these things on the business end, we should be learning how to tell a story — well, there we go! I got ahead of myself there.
People who focus on words ultimately learn how to write forgettable prose. — this is a not seeing the forest for the trees situation. This one sounds a lot like a reiteration of the 3rd one above. Adhering too rigidly to the rules here burns the writer. And one thing I am learning is that worrying so fucking much over this one sentence will (not might) take away from the other sentences. The work is a whole. I am trying to tell a story.
People who focus on the words forgot how to have fun. — oh, it gets that way. Once I stop having fun writing a story, I know I messed up somewhere. If I get sucked out of it, I was writing something wrong. Storytelling and writing isn’t easy. But it should be fun. Fun is an indication that something is working right. Well, maybe it isn’t exactly fun, but it certainly is something very similar. It’s somewhere in the gut, that amorphous sensation that we get. And we get that way when we as artists try too hard to reach for something we should not be reaching for.
Writing poetry for me is a good lesson in this. Now, following rhyming patterns or syllabic pacing can force a focus on specific words. That is a beautiful challenge of poetry. Poetry isn’t quite like fiction though, even though it can be employed as a method to tell fiction. Think songs and the old tales, such as “Beowulf”. Yet, I can often simply write out a poem in a matter of minutes when I am struck to describe an emotion or something I saw. It might not rhyme or have a pattern, but it took moments to form. They aren’t always good, but there have been many times I wrote something that knocked me on my ass when I looked back at it. I didn’t worry about the words; I just let them come to me.
Perhaps I should take her advice and allow myself to fall into the story… to write drunk, metaphorically speaking, and to let the story go. And to let the words fall where they may.