As you may or may not know (and if you don’t, it’s not like I’ve been quiet about it in any way), my writing journey has taken a sort of turn from the path I was on before, toward a new and exciting destination.
I no longer strive to be a better writer. While I want to continue my growth in prose and style, it’s not the primary focus of my learning anymore.
And, that’s led to some interesting discoveries and new challenges. But it’s also brought me to some of the same ol’ walls I’ve run into all my writing life.
Being a good “writer” is less important to me now than being a good storyteller. If you’d have asked me what the distinction was in 2008, I would not have been able to answer. In fact, arrogantly, I’d have claimed that, without strong prose, you can’t be a good storyteller, and the methods for delivering story were embedded in the language. I’d have to improve my prose to improve my storytelling.
Well, now I see things a little differently. Okay, a lot differently.
See, the art of storytelling isn’t always wrapped in beautiful prose. It ain’t.
Ever seen one of those books that sold like hotcakes, that garnered all sorts of great reviews, and when you opened it up you just couldn’t stomach all the broken rules of writing? Adverbs everywhere. Opens with dialog or description. Uses “Swifties” for speaker tags maybe. Whatever it is, you see problems (as a writer) all over the page, and yet, the books are selling. A lot, sometimes.
Well, read some of the reviews. What you’ll find is the readers are fond of the storytelling. They didn’t measure the book on its writing. In fact, they might even ding the book a star or two for bad prose, style, grammar, or whatever. But they like the characters and the story.
It’s that simple. And eye-opening when you figure it out.
With those things in mind, I set out to find a way to improve my writing craft as much as I could.
After this revelation, I wrote my last book. It had a lot of the elements I wanted in it – good tension, good ending, nice pacing, and even some subtext (I still need to learn more about this one). But I also realized I’d had some growth when, after being finished with that story for more than three months, I woke up last week while on my vacation with a few additions in my mind.
I discussed them with my wife, and she liked them. She thought they’d really strengthen the story. (There is, of course, every possibility that I was simply looking for a way to revisit my last victory, rather than going on to the next thing, which I’ll talk about in a minute.) They weren’t useless, pointless, or unnecessary. The book would have survived just fine without them, but adding them in makes it much stronger.
Well, the ending anyway.
But now, I’ve had a hard time moving forward. I wanted, very much, to rewrite (yet again) the introductory book in that series. (The book I finished is book two, just in case you haven’t been following along for the last six months or more.) But when I sat down to do so, several things happened.
These aren’t new things I’ve never encountered before, either. Some of them are old, familiar walls and obstacles.
First, I found when I tried to write or even think too much about the story, I’d get unbelievably sleepy. My wife actually commented on it. This happens almost every time I sit down to write, no matter what. It’s very familiar territory, I have no idea what it is, and now, I have an objective observer who says it’s “creepy.” So it’s not just me; it’s a thing.
Then I found I could hammer out a new version of the first few scenes – say five or six of them – but then I’d hit a wall again. I couldn’t push forward. I don’t love the product so far. I can’t find the hook, even though my trusted First Reader says it does grab, just by the characters. I can’t find the rhythm, the movement, of the story.
But the thing that really shook me was the realization there were no stakes involved for the protagonist. If I can plug someone else in the story in his spot, if he simply walked away, would there be a story? If so, the stakes are high or personal enough.
So I think I have that part worked out. I think. What I don’t have worked out is the way the real problem is revealed to the characters, and thus to the reader. And writing into the dark would mean I shouldn’t have that worked out; just let the creative process happen and the subconscious mind, the creative mind, will find the solutions as it goes.
Easier said than done. When I sit down to write I can’t even get started.
I may have started the book in the wrong place, or maybe I didn’t have the investment of the reader soon enough. But something feels off, and I can’t quite put my finger on the reason it’s off just yet.
The next wall is, perhaps I made the writing important.
Not important meaning this will be a lasting, valuable piece of literature. But that it’s important that I write this story next, get it finished, get it out of the way of this series so I can move on with it, and get started on the much more exciting book three. It’s important to my writing career. It’s important for the publication of the book I just finished, which can’t BE published until this one is.
And of course I’ve started yet another book in this series (a fourth), but can’t make that one work yet, either. Not sure why, but this seems to be linked to the inability to write this story. Because it’s important that I do.
When Dean Wesley Smith blogged last week about ways writers make the writing “important,” he listed several things. And I could tick off about six items on that list.
What happens when writing becomes important, for any reason, is the conscious mind overlays pressure on the subconscious, which is what’s doing the creating. The pressure kills the writing before it even starts.
Now, plenty of writers disagree with this, and believe wholeheartedly you can write on demand, whether you want to or not, whether you’re in “the mood” or not, whether you have any “ideas” or not. They outline for this reason. And they write to the outline. And there’s no fall-off in production or quality when they don’t feel like it. The productivity goes up when they do, maybe. But not the converse – they have a minimum amount of work they want to get done and they do it whenever they have to, whatever the conditions.
They maintain – rightly – that you can’t wait for some mystical “Muse” to strike. Inspiration is flaky and unreliable at best. So you write anyway. Having an outline makes that possible for them.
But, I’m having a very difficult time getting going. And I don’t dare outline this book, or it will be even harder to write.
Other factors, however, might be that I’ve taken the fun out of the writing process. Or at least, out of this story. For me to do figure out if this is the problem, I’ve found a wonderful article online which highlights different ways to make writing fun again. And I think with this particular story, I’m going to need all the help I can get.
Finally, it might just be that I’m tired of this story. I wrote it the first time in 2007. I edited a lot of it in 2008, then lost a bunch of that work when the flash drive I used died. (Note: Do NOT edit on a flash drive. Edit on your local drive and SAVE to the flash drive, if you must use a flash drive.) Then I started rewrites in 2009, and again in 2011, and so on. I’ve started the rework on this, a story my creative mind called finished eight years ago, no fewer than three times and perhaps as many as five.
I’ve actually lost count.
So I could work in another series, I guess. Or maybe write a different story altogether. Or perhaps just try Algis Budrys’s method of starting a story by coming up with a character and following him around for a while. See what s/he does, where s/he goes, who s/he meets, that sort of thing.
But for now, I’m looking for ways to make the writing fun again, and to move forward. But mostly to make it fun again.
I hope all of you in the US had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday. We sure did. I’ll see you next time, and hopefully I’ll have something to report!