Tuesday 30 April 2013

Zen And The Craft Of Writing

When I first started writing fiction I read a lot of books about how to write. How to write attention grabbing stories. How to engage emotionally with the reader. How to keep the story moving forward. The inciting incident. The danger of excessive adverbs. Why you should show instead of tell.

I’ve read widely enough to have a fairly well developed sense of taste. I know when something’s really good. I know when something’s bad. I know when it isn’t quite working. 

The difficult part though is knowing what needs to change, and how to change it.

Reading the ideas of great writers and teachers definitely helped. What they said made sense. Not that there is a fixed way to do anything, but it gave me a sense of the basics and a foundation to build on.

The other route to educating myself was to start critiquing other writers at a similar level to me, and getting my own efforts critiqued by them.

This improved my writing by leaps and bounds. Not only by getting feedback on my work (it can be quite the eye-opener when you realise the discrepancy between what you meant by something and how it was taken), but also by seeing how others do it and which parts have an impact and which parts leave me cold.

In fact, I would say reading the WIPs of others has been the greatest teacher I’ve had.

Initially I would stick to technical comments, grammar, better sense of setting, use of the five senses and so on. All of which are definitely useful. But I was reluctant to say whether I thought the idea was any good, if it held my attention or if I glazed over.

I didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, and in any case what difference did it make what I thought?  My thinking was: Look at what they’re trying to do, help them do it better.  Keep personal taste out of it.

But as all of these ideas about good writing became more ingrained inside me, a strange thing happened. I began to notice that a lot of the books that were successful did not necessarily follow these tenets.

Even books by writers famous for their thoughts on the writing process (Stephen King and Elmore Leonard both spring to mind) departed from their own advice in their own novels.

In addition, many of the books that were selling like gangbusters seemed to be be very poorly written and edited.

These were books repped by big agencies, distributed by major publishers. I’m not talking about some self-published hit which was then taken up as a money-making exercise. I’m talking about authors that passed all the strict requirements of agents, went through many drafts, got accepted by a big six publisher, were edited by the best in the business, and then released to the public.

And they were awful. But hugely successful.

What did it mean? How could it be so important to follow all these guidelines and jump through so many hoops when that didn’t seem to be important to the book buying public at all?

At this point my own writing was getting a fairly positive response from those who read it. Polished, formatted correctly, clear goals and characters. But something wasn’t quite working or connecting.

I began to realise that as I was afraid to tell people what I really thought about their work, so they were afraid to tell me. So I changed my approach. I started to tell people exactly where I lost interest, what I didn’t like, where I thought it felt like something was missing.

As you might imagine, some people did not take kindly to this. But some did. They were relieved to finally have someone treat their work seriously and hold it up to a standard they’d  actually like to reach.

And they also took it as permission to tell me what they really thought about my work and exactly which were the boring bits. 

And it was awesome. My writing really started to come together.

That’s not to say all the technical stuff wasn’t useful or important, but I had my priorities the wrong way round. First the story has to be something worth telling a story about. 

I know, hardly a staggering insight, but it's not just one of the things that needs to be in place, it's THE thing.

What that means in practice will vary from person to person, but it’s still the place to start. Everything else can be fixed or tweaked.

And it really helps to have someone just tell you if it grabbed them or not. Obviously it’s just an opinion, and different people will tell you different things, but developing a sense of judgement about how others respond is an integral part of the process too.

Does it still sting when someone tells me my new chapter seems superfluous? Of course. But I let it go. I remember how frustrating it was when everyone was telling me everything was great and I was getting nowhere. And then I write something better.

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Check out my latest stories for free on Wattpad. 


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That is the hardest part - telling someone the overall story isn't working or boring. But there are ways to do it in a positive manner. You're right - some won't like it, but the ones who appreciate the honesty will grow from it.

nutschell said...

Critiquing be difficult if you're doing it for the first time, but oh how it helps us become better writers! I love facilitating critique sessions and helping writers with constructive comments. i love getting my work critiqued as well and feel extremely satisfied even when they rip my manuscript to shreds:)

mooderino said...

@Alex - I think you also have to accept that different people like different things, and that's not their fault of yours.

@nutschell - I think once you learn to appreciate what a critique can do for your work you welcome a going over.

Anonymous said...

Honest critiquing can be tough, but is worth it. I have yet to see a story that didn't benefit from it.

Unknown said...

It doesn't bother me when someone tells me that something I wrote didn't do it for them now and then. I'll take their word for it and make any adjustments. Usually, if someone in my two groups tells me they didn't like something, that meant I didn't pay as much attention to that particular chapter as I'd done the previous.

Those are things I can fix when I'm re-editing later on. I may the notation and move on. :)

Al Diaz said...

I appreciate honesty even if it feels like a slap. And in regards of writing and receiving critic I always say don't fear to hurt my feelings. I have none.

Simply Sarah said...

I haven't critiqued anyone's work yet but I have a partner lined up for when we are both done with our initial revising. Thank you for the interesting article. Simply Sarah

Sharon Himsl said...

I hear you. I sometimes think I over edit based on comments and critiques. It's difficult to know when my instinct is enough or others are right. Should I rewrite this, dump and start over? But then, like you, I have read books that seem poorly edited and unpublishable. The thought is...I could do better than that, so go figure! Alas...I'm still learning the system. Congrats on finishing the A-Z race!!

Romance Book Haven said...

If someone does tell you that, then you have a duty to yourself to look at the points she made and see for yourself what could be changed.

All the best!


mooderino said...

@Patricia - hopefully you get back what you give out.

@Diane - usually it's pretty obvious once someone else points it out.

@Al Diaz - well, there are advantages to being a dragon.

@Sarah - you're very welcome.

@Sharon - we're all learning the system (doesn't help that they keep changing it).

@Nas - Absolutely. It's up to you.

mshatch said...

My writing took a turn for the better once I found a crit partner who really told me what was working and what wasn't.

mooderino said...

@MS - worth their weight in gold.

Sunny Smith said...

Great post. I found myself nodding along with what you were saying.

I love the comment you made about critique partners having the respect for their partner to hold them up to the standard they hope to achieve.

Keep up the good work!

Tammy Theriault said...

i totally agree about when you help others with their stuff, you become the biggest student of your own work! amen!!

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Part of growing as a writer is being able to handle constructive criticism

mooderino said...

@Sunny - I think when you expect more from people they're more likely to give it to you.

@Tammy - there's a kind of karma to it.

@Lynda - any kind of criticism can be useful if you can just see it for what it is, I think.

Unknown said...

"How could it be so important to follow all these guidelines and jump through so many hoops when that didn’t seem to be important to the book buying public at all?"
We're all asking ourselves that, too.

It's great you've found your betas and CPs to be helpful on big picture issues. I think that only works if you're lucky enough to know people who write your genre and have your tastes. I guess everyone's looking for that high concept story idea that will appeal to everyone. I sure haven't found one yet. :P

Melissa Sugar said...

As always, excellent advice. You are fortunate to have such great crit partners and beta readers.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Initially when I started critiquing, I too had the same problem, I was scared to tell people what I found wrong with their stories. But, now I have learned to say it tactfully and it has also improved my own writing, as I know which mistakes we tend to make.

Rachna Chhabria
Co-host IWSG
Rachna's Scriptorium

Cynthia said...

When I have something critical to say about someone's work, I try to remember to open it with something positive, and then I tell them what they could improve on, and I try to close it with something positive too. It's totally possible to give honest, constructive criticism in a manner that is respectful to the writer.

mooderino said...

@Lexa - I don't think you necessarily need someone with your tastes and into your genre. I use online critique sites which has all types of writers. I get plenty of good feedback from a range of people (and some pretty terrible feedback too).

@Melissa - if you ask enough people you'll eventually find something you can use, I find.

@Rachna - I tend to say it quickly and directly, but with specific examples.

@Cynthia - it tends to get easier to take the more you get it, and quicker if people just say it. Painful, yes, but it's like ripping off a plaster or being pushed into the water. You'll survive and you'll learn to swim, without all that drawn out toe-dipping.

Golden Eagle said...

Critiques sound like invaluable lessons. Someday I'll have to try finding a critique partner.

Charmaine Clancy said...

I love receiving critiques and I'm happy to assume I've still a lot to learn.

I really do need to make some time to check out this Wattpad and get reading!

Unknown said...

Your comments are spot on ... I've had a writing/critique partner for seven years. One of the biggest benefits is understanding when what I had in my mind does not appear on the page. I've also used beta readers, and given them specific questions that made it clear that I wanted critiques and suggestions, as well as positive comments. It was a terrific experience!

mooderino said...

@Golden - quite easy to do these days with the internets.

@charmaine - I'm still testing the waters with Wattpad. Might be better for YA sort of material.

mooderino said...

@Mary - it's a bit scary at first, but you need the rough more than the smooth.

cleemckenzie said...

I think reading writers who are stronger than you are is as important to improving your own writing as playing tennis with someone who plays that game better than you do. I also want crit partners who don't "love" my prose all the time, but can point out where I need to work on something.

Nate Wilson said...

Yeah, I'm not looking forward to when I finally let people read my stuff and they tell me what they really think... but then again, I am. That's the only way it'll get better.

As usual, you're spot on.

mooderino said...

@C. Lee - Even if you feel a little beat up afterwards. But next time you come back stronger.

@Nate - It only smarts for a bit.

Anonymous said...

I've become a better writer through critiquing and being critiqued. I've learned so much from my current critique group. These past few years I've received the best writing education.

mooderino said...

@Medeia - like most things the best way to learn is to throw yourself in.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

From reading some of your Wattpad work, I think that you definitely have tons of ideas that are just pouring out of you to be told. I'm glad you've decided to start pushing them out into the world, because you definitely know your craft.

mooderino said...

@Michael - thanks, Mike.

nill said...

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Unknown said...

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