Conversations while I am copy editing:
Someone Who Is Remarkably Still Alive*: "Are you done yet?"
Me: "Am I still breathing?"
SWIRSA: "Does growling count?"
Me: "Then I’m not done."
SWIRSA: "I’m curious. You made all of this up, right?"
SWIRSA: "It’s your writing. You got to pick and choose what went in there."
SWIRSA: "So why didn’t you put only the stuff in that you wanted to keep the first time around and save yourself all of this trouble?"
Me: "Do you prefer burial or cremation?"
Writing comedy is a lot like stealing a car while on crack and with a couple of AKs in the back seat while you’re moseying on over to the police station to thumb your nose at the cops, just to see if you can get away with it.
There is no "easy" — no matter what the genre. Not if you’re reaching for the high bar. There’s comfort knowing other writers feel the same way.
Writing well, I’ve learned finally, isn’t some big, mysterious code to be broken, and there isn’t some aha! moment where all is revealed if you just click the tumblers to the right one more click. There are a lot of little truths writers pick up along the way and each writer’s application of those truths is what gives the writer his or her voice. Some of these I heard early on, but didn’t quite get them the way I do today, after years of practice. Some I wish I’d heard a lot earlier–I think I would have learned quicker.
Elmore Leonard has done this better, but here are a few basic little black dresses of truth:
story = character in conflict
I used to hear a lot of people saying story = character, but that leads to the misapprehension that a writer can go on at length about a character’s background or childhood, where we’re learning all about how the person became who they were, and we’re bored to tears (if we’ve gotten very far). Unless the conflict — the story that’s going to be resolved one way or another in this telling — starts in that childhood, cut to the conflict of the now.
This also means that each scene should have conflict. If it doesn’t, the story has stopped. Find the conflict, whether internal or external, and let it inform the action of the scene.
This is a personal choice, but I prefer active voice. Examples (caveat — it’s one a.m. and I am copy edit blind, so these aren’t great):
(passive) Joanne was running down the street.
(active, but flat) Joanne ran down the street.
(slightly better) Joanne sprinted down the street.
(more visual) Joanne’s tennis shoes slammed against the asphalt, faster than her heartbeat. (Feel free to chime in with better examples.)
Another point: commitment. Whatever type of story you’ve decided to write, commit to it. Don’t try to be all things to all people. It’ll never work. Expect to offend some, and be disliked by others. This is like choosing shoes to go with the outfit. (I have just lost every single guy who reads the blog.) The red ones may go or the black ones may go, but you’re gonna look pretty dumb if you wear one of each. And if you decide to pick the purple, then by God, work the purple and don’t be worried about whether or not purple is popular.
Be specific. You don’t appeal to a wider audience (generally) by being generic and appearing to write about Every Man (Woman), but by writing about a unique experience. Sci-Fi notwithstanding, this is generally about what it is to be a specific human facing a specific trial that matters in a very specific way.
Okay it’s your turn–what writing truth or preference do you keep on your mental checklist of things to do to improve your writing?
(*no, this wasn’t my spouse, who has way more sense and is very supportive)