The Writing Craft and Enjoying It


Warning: This is not an instructive post. If you’ve come to read about writing, getting better at it, and enjoying from a “how-to” standpoint, keep looking. This ain’t it.

I’ve learned a lot about writing in the last 48 hours or so. I’ve been trying to edit a manuscript so that it’s workable, readable, publishable maybe. It’s not an easy thing to do, at least not for me, and it’s left me in a lot of pain. I’ve gotten some incredible input from a couple of different sources, and they’re basically in line with one another. They’re also completely independent of one another, so I trust them to be accurate assessments.

Stephen King, I am told, says not to use adjectives when writing. This is, in my mind, a method that will weed out weak and strong writers. If King can write something without using adjectives, he’s even more a god than I imagined. I haven’t read one of his books for 20 years or more, so I wouldn’t know, but if that’s how he writes, I’m overwhelmed with admiration. So much so that I’m ready to give up trying to pursue the craft at all. I, for myself, cannot do that. I can’t tell someone about a majestic oak by saying “tree”. Doesn’t work. I can’t do it. Some of you writers might be able to, but that’s beyond my ability, period.

Trying to edit the document taught me a lot of things. I don’t know what words are excessive and unnecessary. If I did, I wouldn’t have used them in the first place. When I re-read part of the document in question, though, I found that there were a lot of unnecessary words. When I removed them, I was told the “mood” was taken out. They were important to the “setting”. And I was lost, confused. I don’t know how to identify “useless” or “unnecessary” words. I found one place where I used both the words “ancient” and “old” back-to-back to describe something. I missed it in my initial read-through after I wrote it. My proofreader (wife) missed it. A few folks online that read it missed it. But I found it when I re-read the document. I took the narrative section and pared down any words which seemed out of place or “excessive” and when I was finished, my wife said the “mood” was gone. I’d gone “too far.”

I can’t find a happy medium with this stupid thing. It’s pissing me off. If I take out the excess, the excess is being taken out, period. If that “goes too far” then I’m screwed, because I don’t know what constitutes “too much” and what’s “just enough” and what’s “not enough”. I can’t find it, and it’s making me yell and grit my teeth. Pounding my leg happens a lot too. But they don’t assist with getting the words out of my document.

Writing, someone told me, should be fun. The writer should like the “improvements” made during editing more than the original. If it’s not fun and the process is work, then it’s a chore. Well, I reached that stage the instant I put the final period in the document. It’s work now. It’s not fun. I don’t enjoy it. And I’m don’t know whether I’ve made any “improvements” or whether I like them more or less than the original. Probably less. I edit on the fly, during the writing itself as much as I can, so I tend to like what I’ve put out. If I don’t, I change it before another set of eyes ever see it.

Ghost Hunters started as an exercise in dialog. Practice. Yes, it’s not that anymore, but maybe it should be. Maybe it’s not worth trying to get it ready for publication. Maybe I’m not able to produce a document of publishable quality, because I don’t understand the nuances of writing well enough. I can’t find the balance between describing a setting to achieve “mood” and not using adjectives to do it. Stephen King is Stephen King for a reason. There is only one Stephen King, and I am not him.

I feel, at this point, the document probably isn’t worth trying to salvage. I don’t know if I’m willing to invest the effort necessary to get it there. I may as well just re-write it, without adjectives. It would probably end up like the Dick and Jane reading primers, but at least no one could say I used too many adjectives.

On another interesting point, I’m being praised for my dialog. Well, the reason I even started the dialog exercise was because I stink at it. I’m lousy at it. But no one wants me to change it. Not the few people I’ve gotten feedback from, at least. It’s the strength of the document, apparently, and is not subject to the same editing process as the rest of it.

This confounds me further. I am the same person who wrote both dialog and narrative. It’s my work. They’re my words. You can bullshit yourself all you want about how characters take on a life and personality all their own, how they come alive and speak for themselves, or whatever other load of crap you use to help you be creative. That’s fine, especially if it works for you. But the characters in a fictional manuscript are fictional, and are not real people that can “speak” or “act” in any way other than what is in your imagination as the author. Period. PERIOD. They’re imaginary. You make them up. You put words in their “mouths”, so to speak. Your imagination and nothing else. Deny this at your own peril — don’t lose touch with reality. If I’m the same author who can’t write his way out of a wet paper bag with narration, then I’m an author who has problems in writing dialog. The same parts of speech, tenses, cases, and structures are used whether we enclose those sentences in quotes to indicate speech or not. If I flop in my narrative, how can the dialog be “fine”?? That’s inconceivable. I’ve got weaknesses. They manifest in narrative. They will also manifest in dialog. Period. I don’t suddenly become another person with stronger abilities the instant a quotation mark is inserted. But I’m being told the dialog is good, don’t touch it. The narrative is weak. The dialog is good. The writer of both is the same person.

For one thing, I know that’s a load of crap because dialog is a weakness of mine. That’s why I wrote the stupid thing in the first place — to practice. If 1+1=2 in the narrative, then 1+1=2 in the dialog. If I use too many adjectives and descriptive terms, whatever they’re called grammatically, in narrative, then I do that in dialog too. “Oh, but that’s okay in dialog!” ARRRRGGHHHH!!! BULLSHIT!!! When did the rules of the English language change to be subjective based on what portion of a document we’re writing???

Deep breath … deep breath … calm down. Sorry, too many adjectives.

I don’t mind writing. I kind of like it. I’m just not very good at it. I know that now, so this was a valuable process. I don’t know if I’m actually going to edit the thing or not. In the end, it’s just a document. I think it would be easier to just start over than to try and “fix” 94,000+ words. By the time I remove the unnecessary ones — from both DIALOG AND NARRATIVE EQUALLY, because the rules of textual criticism apply equally to ALL PARTS OF A DOCUMENT — it’s only going to be about 70,000 or less anyway. And that’s not publishable.

For those that love the editing process, what do you do to make it more enjoyable? Does some of it come from knowing the first effort wasn’t the best one? Am I odd for trying to make it as well-crafted as I can from the outset? Or is it just that all of this is part of writing, and you love writing? I’m sure not every writer loves every aspect of the process, but what do you do to get through those initial editing stages? Do you have a trick or a technique to help you? Or maybe you just … like it?

I don’t think I do, and that’s pointing me toward the conclusion that I’m not a writer. I probably won’t be, because I can’t get my mental arms around this process. Thoughts? Opinions? What do you think, blogosphere?

-JDT-

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14 thoughts on “The Writing Craft and Enjoying It

  1. I don’t know how to say this, but in King’s book “On Writing” I’m pretty sure he stresses not using adverbs. I think you’re OK to use adjectives.

    And editing can very well suck. That’s why I never do it πŸ˜‰

  2. Oh, was it adverbs? Whew! What a relief. I guess I misquoted the person that quoted King to me. Thanks for the clarification, Bryce!

    Thanks for stopping by and talking, too. πŸ™‚

    Yep, I’m starting to see the benefit. Editing’s enough to put you off writing for good.

  3. Editing is and has always been the red-headed stepchild (love that term) of the writing family. It’s so hard when we lovingly type those two words THE END to know that our baby is not ready to leave the nest yet.

    The thing is, editing MUST be done. If you only write, but never go back, you can’t and won’t ever be a professional. Personally, I hate editing, but go to it with the plan that I’m making it BETTER, and that is in its own way equally as fun and exciting as the initial stages of creation.

    My recommendation for your current editing project is this. Set it aside. Stick it in a drawer (metaphorically speaking) and don’t look at it for six months. Or a year. Write something else. Give your brain time to stop mulling over it and focus on a new task. Then, in six months, come back to it and read through it. If you’ve been writing all this time, you’ve probably managed to become a better writer without realizing it. You may find your older work to read funny, stilted, or awkward. You may have ideas on how to fix it, how to bring it up to your current “standard.”

    Using myself as an example…Back in 2003 I wrote what I considered to be my magnum opus. It was an epic tale dealing with sixty years of history in a world not unlike our own but different enough that I had to create much of it from scratch. Three generations of characters. A cast of thousands. I finished it, did a cursory edit, and began submitting it to agents.

    After 140 rejections, I realized that maybe it really was crap. So I shelved it. Then I wrote something else. And something else after that. And something else after that. And last month, four years after I finished it, I opened it back up and read through it. It was stilted, funny-sounding, awkward, and pretentious. “I can fix this,” I thought to myself. And since then I’ve gone through it with (at times) a fine-tooth comb and (at other times) a blunt axe. I’ve lopped off huge chunks of my old tale and rewritten others. I estimate maybe half the original manuscript remains, albeit edited (sometimes heavily). I wrote a bunch of new parts that tie together what I cut out. I’m about finished with the rewrite, and I’m confident that I’ve put together a significantly better project – one much more likely to get the interest of an agent than the overblown garbage I wrote the first time around.

    I don’t know if this helps or not, but as a parent think about it like this: Writing the original manuscript is like the entire pregnancy from the initial fun of conception to the miracle of birth at the end. But if you send that baby out into the world without preparing her, she’s going to die. Give her time to grow and develop and the guidance (editing, yo!) she needs, and you’ll have raised a child worthy of great success.

    Ian

  4. Hey, Ian, good to see you again.

    Great, insightful comments, and sage advice too. There’s a lot to think about in there, and a lot to try and process. Sounds like you have a good handle on the editing process and a method that really is paying benefits for you. I’ll have to find one for myself so that this isn’t like scraping gums.

    Thanks again!

  5. Sweet, mysterious DarcKnyt. Have you any hair left? Or have you pulled it all out?

    I can alleviate your grief over one subject: dialogue vs. narration. They are not to be treated the same, because they each have a separate purpose. I’m trying right now to find a good web article on the subject.

    (http://www.google.com/search?q=dialogue+narrative&sourceid=navclient-ff&ie=UTF-8&rlz=1B3GGGL_enUS252US252 This search page has links to several articles by amateurs and pros, much good advice.)

    Something that helped me in the beginning was to ask myself if my prose “sounded bookish.” Did it sound like other books I’d read, and if not, why. Was it choppier, more stilted, etc. Not focusing on each word but my impression of whole sentences, paragraphs, sections. This method might not help a detail-oriented person like yourself, but it worked for me.

  6. Hey! I’m having “issues” right now and that’s why i haven’t been around.

    I also didn’t read all of this because I’m short on time and I will but what I wanted to say is I love your writing and if you for any reason think about giving it up I’m going to come kick your ass. With love of course. I don’t know or care about the “proper” way of writing. I read a story because it moves me in one way or another. Purely for entertainment and the love of reading. All I care about are typos and inconsistencies. I LOVE the way your write. Hell I got some sort of weird fan girl crush on Dillon! That tells me there’s talent there because that doesn’t happen to me, much. lol

    Also this could all be for nothing since I haven’t read the whole thing and I’m panicking for nothing. If that’s the case I’m embarrassed and will be sticking my head in the sand.

    Raga

  7. Sherri – Thank you so much for being so supportive and helpful. I’ll look your article over and glean what I can. Thank you. You’re a gem in my life, sweetie.

    Raga – I’m having issues too. I hope yours get better. Thank you for being such a wonderful cheerleader. I sure wish I could tell you what it means to me.

    God bless you all.

  8. Personally, I rarely proofread my own work because it would be quite a painful process. My writing can be hard to read sometimes. With regards to Stephen King, I think you have misquoted him. A piece of writing without any adjective would be too amateurish for a professional writer (which I’m not.) πŸ™‚

  9. UC – Even King says that he lets adverbs slip in from time to time, but in his book on writing he comes out and says “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

    But Mr.King isn’t the end-all-be-all of writing. That’s his style, and it’s very effective for what he does.

    J.K. Rowling uses them like they’re going out of style, and she obviously sells very well.

  10. Raga – Thank you sweetie. I appreciate your support.

    Bryce – More thanks for the clarity, bud. I should probably read that book at some point.

    UC – Thanks for coming by, and it’s becoming clear that Mr. King was indeed misquoted. I was quoting someone else and I hope this teaches me a lesson about playing post office. πŸ™‚

    God bless you all. πŸ™‚

  11. Peeking in on your blog and I thought I’d share some thoughts and, hopefully, a little encouragement as a result.

    Being a wordsmith is a tough craft with a boatload full of headaches that come with the territory, I’ve discovered, and no concrete rules to serve as foolproof guides. People have been able to break every rule in the system with some esoteric approach to the medium and others have been able to abide by the “rules” to a “T” and produce quality stories that way. Fundamentally speaking, what’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander, although the writing guides and memoirs are really helpful roadmarkers for those of us struggling to find our way.

    In other words: You and I, regardless of how much we love Stephen King, will never be him and weren’t meant to be him. We were meant to be us. Period. And to be the best damn wordsmiths you and I can be within our respective voices.

    That’s not to say people like Stephen King can’t or don’t have anything to teach us; or that we can forgive our shortcomings with the flippant brush of, “Well, that’s just how I do it.” But there’s a definitely line where we have to recognize the difference between us and them. Heed the advice while recognizing that there will always be points of disconnect between another writer and yourself.

    I’ve discovered some things about writing in the past few years that have been helpful to me. If it helps you any, or translates into your situation to some degree, then here they are:

    1. Grammar and punctuation are the only rules set in stone. And even then, there are exceptions. (Like Dillon’s speech, for instance. ;)) The rules like adverbs and no adverbs are helpful to know what not to OD on, but I, personally, like an adverb here and there.
    (Tho, I do agree too many of ’em gets cumbersome.)

    2. Every story has a pulse. It’s your job to find it and let it lead you from there. Finding the pulse helps you find the pace and determine how to interplay the narration and the dialogue.
    This gets easier to find the more you do it, but at times requires a whole crapload of rewrites. Am embroiled in that struggle currently myself.

    3. Writing is fun! NOT! Alright, there’s a distinct reason why we write and, by golly, we should and do have fun with it. But like anything else, if you want to be good at it, it requires work which is hard and, at times, hurts like a bitch. Think of this a lot like training for the Olympics. We’re training to be professionals and to reach the pinnacle, the same way an Olympian works hard to get to the Olympics. They, too, do it for a reason, but the road is littered with bruises, broken bones, tears, blood, sweat, fatigue, and lots and lots of work and sacrifice.

    4. Practice, practice! This is, truly, the only way we get any better at this thing. Writing as much as possible as often as possible for how long it takes for us to start being satisfied with our work. (Notice I said start. I don’t think we’re ever truly satisfied. ;))
    And it has paid off for you, I can tell you that from the start. I notice the improvement in your work from when you began Ghost Hunters to when you began Witch Hunt and that’s because you already had a book under your belt and probably learned some valuable lessons in the exercise alone.

    5. Trust your instincts while listening to critiques. When you sense something is wrong and someone else verifies it for you, it’s the best feeling in the world… because everything just came into alignment. You now know exactly what to fix! However, even when you don’t have that verification, your sniffer can usually tell when something’s off like bad fish. The good news: The more you write, the more confidence you get, and the easier it is for you to recognize the times when something really is rotten in the state of Denmark and it’s not just your self-doubt getting the best of you.

    6. Keep reading. Reading someone else’s prose is my classroom, because I learn more from seeing something executed than I do from reading a manual on it. Manuals are all well and good, but even the guys at Mythbusters notice that something that sounds swell “on paper” doesn’t always work out in the execution. Furthermore, if you’re stuggling in a certain area of your prose, reading someone else write “how you’d like to do it” helps you pick up on the nuances of what they did. Then you can add your own impression to it with your voice.

    Don’t be paralyzed by all of the areas where you feel like you’re falling short. You have the chops to be a professional writer and you are a natural storyteller. That’s 3/4 of the battle right there, because storytelling can’t be taught. It’s in the blood.
    You have the gift, brother. The rest will come in time, I promise you that. The first book I wrote took three rewrites to be “okay”, but each one’s gotten a bit easier (or challenging in a much more advanced manner… which is cool in the respect that you feel like you’re getting somewhere) from there. I’m a much better cheerleader than an editor, but I see Denise has been offering editorial help to you like she does me. She’s awesome. Don’t hesitate to lean on any of us for support or assistance.

    Press onward, writer! Your public demands it! πŸ˜‰
    Jules

  12. SG – Wow. I don’t know what to say, hon … just … wow. That’s an amazing comment. You’ve given me a lot of hope, a lot of insight, a lot of really terrific things to think about and to remember as I go through the process of being a writer. I especially like point number 3 there.

    In a way, it’s rather like being married. After all the romance passes and the disillusionment sets it, it’s about work.

    Writing being work doesn’t surprise me. I guess I just didn’t look forward to that part, and hoped to stay ooey-gooey with writing forever. Alas, it’s time for the relationship to move forward now and grow into something truly meaningful, or die right here because we just can’t make it work. Am I willing to work for it? Am I willing to choose to love the craft, whether it’s fun and rewarding or heart-breaking and agonizing?

    I read when I can. If I read too much, I don’t write, and the things I do make time to read don’t really contribute to my skills as a fiction writer. I tend to read things that I hope will ensure that my future isn’t like … this. I guess I still can’t count on the idea of writing being my future, and I’ve heard a lot of writers still work for a living even after being published. It’s not really your living until it grows enough to pay the bills, and plenty of authors are still out there teaching. I don’t know if they just like developing other writers, or if they’re making ends meet, but J.K. Rowling they ain’t, so … yeah. I need to balance things and make this a priority if I stick with it.

    I think the process of editing is a lot easier because, just by pure, dumb luck, I did things partially the right way. I’m working through my manuscript now because I want to finish it — really finish it — and move on to other things, but it’s not going as quickly as I want it to. It is more successful and better, though.

    I’m going to carry those things you told me through my efforts, Jules, as well as all the input I’ve gotten from great writers and good friends. Sherri, Ian, Bryce, Denise … they’ve all had great and helpful things to add, and your input, of course, is incredibly valuable. With the LOML sitting beside me and adding her own special insight, her own little love of the story that no one else (including me) shares, we will have something worth printing, worth sharing with the world. I’m getting more and more excited about that as time and editing progresses.

    I will soldier on, Jules. I will. At least for now, it’s still something I like doing.

    Thank you. I can’t tell you how inadequately those words express my gratitude to all of you, but that’s all I’ve got for now. Thank you.

    God bless you all.

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