Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
May 2013

What You Think You're Good At

I recently led a writer's workshop for a local conference. There were six talented, aspiring writers in my group and I was impressed in different ways by each manuscript. But what interested me at this workshop was a conversation I had with a particular writer. I talked to her about what seemed like an excessive focus on beautiful language and how I felt it was getting in the way of the story itself. What she said was that she had always been given a lot of positive feedback for her beautiful language, so she didn't want to lose that. I have been thinking a lot about this ever since.

When I was a kid, I got a lot of positive feedback for the poetry I wrote. Here is a sample of one of my poems, written at age 8:

My dear little mother,
Was much like the others.
Though she was like them,
She didn't have lots of men,
No, she only had one,
Cause that one she won.
He is my dear father,
Named Evan of daughters.
At the beginning of the closing,
I want to say they had little clothing.
Now tis the end,
Of this little men.

Maybe I was better at writing poetry than all of the other eight year olds in my class. I don't know. But this poem is what I use as an adult to prove to people that bad writing as a child doesn't mean anything, and that you can grow up to become a professional writer whether or not you showed "talent" in writing at a young age.

Sometimes we as writers get feedback from those we love and trust about one area of writing that we succeed at. It may be description. Or great villains. Or incredible world-building. Or a great magic system. Or great scientific realism. Or a great main character. Or a perfect climax. Or anything. You get the idea.

Writers get little enough feedback that I suspect we are more likely to listen to and repeat it to ourselves than other people. And that can be a problem. If we hyper-focus on one area of writing to an extreme, it can cause us to believe that this one area of writing matters more than any other area.

When I was an aspiring author, I remember getting feedback on a particular manuscript about the beautiful language in it and when I revised that manuscript, I focused on the beautiful language, trying to make it even more perfect. The result was a manuscript that had almost no discernible plot and had language that was so overwrought I later purged it from my computer files in embarrassment.

Now I wish I hadn't done that, because I would love to be able to quote it now to show people what I mean when I talk about my tendency to over-write. It is so much easier to make fun of myself than to make fun of other people. I do remember one particular line from this manuscript, which was called "The Shepherdess' Daughter." The line went something like this: "She was a shepherdess without a single sheep." I was so in love with the alliteration in that line, and I liked so much the metaphysical idea of shepherding without actual sheep that I could not see the ridiculousness of it, nor the fact that I was taking myself too seriously.

I eventually gave up the manuscript and moved on to writing novels in which things actually happened and people weren't metaphors for anything, but simply real humans with flaws and virtues who regretted doing some things and had ambitions to do others. But the lesson remained with me, such that it bothers me to this day when reviewers or literary critics remark on my beautiful language. Even my publisher will occasionally market my books as having "lush language," and I twinge a little because I don't aim for lush language. I aim for what I think of as a transparent style, that is, a style in which the reader does not notice that there is a narrator, but experiences the story with as little intervention as possible. If there is beauty in my words, it is only because the story itself is at a beautiful point. But I do not want my language to get in the way of my story. I don't want readers to think that I am trying too hard to be beautiful.

But a hyper-focus on beautiful language is really only one example of an imbalanced writing style. I think all writers have to work to balance their writing in one degree or another, no matter what they originally excel at in terms of craft. Some writers I have known spend years and years doing meticulous research for a historical novel or a historical fantasy. And then struggle when the time comes to actually write the novel because they have learned so much information that they don't know how to figure out what parts will be the most salient to the plot or most interesting to the reader. By the same token, I have seen writers who outline to the point that their plots are great but their characters seem like cardboard cutouts, designed only to fill the role of the plot. And I have seen writers who spend months writing character sketches and back-stories for characters that will never see a page of print because it doesn't have to do with the story at hand.

Sadly, we can all end up discovering that our supposed talents are actually a stumbling block in the production of a story. If you have a particular talent that you think is sure to get you published, reconsider. Perhaps it is actually getting in the way of the story you are trying to tell. Or perhaps you are simply putting so much emphasis on it that you are not allowing yourself to learn other skills that are necessary to write a complete novel.

If you have rejection letters that praise one writing skill over and over again, but you aren't selling anything or aren't getting the agent you want, consider taking the advice that I gave to this writer at my recent workshop (and to myself, years ago). I told her that she needed to go home and rewrite the novel without any of her beautiful language at all and see if it was still worth writing. Were her characters interesting without the beautiful language? Was her plot still interesting? Was every scene still worth writing?

I will make a triathlon analogy, as I did at the writing workshop. It is often the case in triathlon that an athlete will come to the sport with expertise in one of the three disciplines: swimming, biking, or running. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, it is great to be able to rely on something that comes easily and "naturally" (or at least naturally now). On the other hand, there are many triathletes who begin as runners and continue to spend a disproportionate amount of time running rather than spending more time swimming and biking. This makes sense when you consider the positive feedback loop that comes with running. Since you feel good running, you have great technique, and you know you are good at it, why not keep running twice as much as you swim?

After all, swimming is so technique-heavy, and in many ways requires you to think while working out. Swimming motions are sometimes the opposite of running motions. And as for biking, it is so reliant on the right equipment, and uses different muscles. A sleek, running body isn't always the best body for biking. You need to develop larger thigh and quad muscles for biking than for running -- and surprise, surprise! -- your running may actually have to slow down in order for you to become a better cyclist. This is also true of swimming, which will build shoulder and arm muscles that aren't necessary for running and again, can slow you down.

But if you continue to train like a runner for a triathlon, you are never going to get any better at swimming and biking -- or you will only get better very, very slowly. In fact, what you probably need to do to become a better triathlete (an all-round athlete rather than a specialist) is to put much less time and energy into your running, which you are already good at, and divert twice as much time into learning to swim and bike. You may lose some of your running speed and feel while you are doing this. It may drive you crazy as you feel this happen. But if you don't do it, you will forever be hampered in your swim and your bike.

A novelist is an all-around athlete rather than a specialist like a poet. If you want to become better at things you aren't good at now, you may well have to stop doing the same things you have done for years that you are good at. You may get worse at them. You may have to spend twice as much time and energy getting good at other things. And yet you have to do this in order to balance your writing. You want to be good at character and plot. You want to be good at description and gripping scene writing. You want to write great beginnings and great endings. And that means spending equal time on all the areas. Don't let yourself become so good at one thing that you forget the others, because it will probably end up taking over your writing and giving you a writing "injury," where one muscle has become so imbalanced in size that you trip over yourself trying to get where you are going.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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