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Thoughts on Writing

Saturday, May 19th, 2007 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

On Showing Rather than Telling

I was planning to post on a writing topic today, and I see here that Eric Knight’s got another great one on Showing/Telling. It’s definitely worth your time to read. Then you should think about it. Then you should read it again.

On Learning Writing Lessons the Hard Way

I’ve been working on a novel for several years now. I knew it had some issues, and sent the most recent draft out to some loyal friends and colleagues for some fresh perspectives. They found more issues than I anticipated, and some of them left me shaking my head at my own processes. Had I really made THOSE mistakes? Indeed, I had.

So as I launch into the next revision I’ve been trying to figure out how I can avoid these same painful mistakes so that it doesn’t take me three MORE years to finish. I have other books to write, after all. 

I think I pretty much have point 1 licked, but then I’ve had that mentally posted to my head for 10 years and really do try to remind myself of it whenever I sit down to write. As for the rest: I realize that all writers have different strengths and weaknesses, so a lot of this may not apply to you. It’s a list I wrote for me, and the issues I’m dealing with in my novel-in-progress at this time. I’ll post it here in the hope someone else can find my hard lessons instructive. I hope that I have the wisdom to do so myself! 

1. Know what every character in the scene wants before you start writing.

2. Your longer works need DETAILED outlining. Always. You can work out plot problems, motivation, etc. in a rich outline so you don’t waste time writing, and rewriting, and rewriting just to get the structure right. As you’ve been doing… Have you noticed how painful that is yet?

3. If you have to start inventing scenes for a POV character you probably don’t NEED that POV character… refer to point 2, because if you’d outlined properly before writing you’d probably have noticed you had nothing for that POV character to do later on.

4. Remember how you’re supposed to give your story a clear through line? Really? Then write that way. The character HAS to have a driving goal that both she and the reader know. And it should be one that can be easily summarized: Indy’s looking for the headpiece to the staff of Ra so he can find the Ark of the Covenant.

5. Don’t coast. When revising, what was once the best scene in the earlier draft may not hold up any more. Look at it critically.

6. If you find a flaw and try to excuse it through character dialogue just so you can leave some scenes the way they are… you’re going to regret it. You need to look at that flaw from another angle. It will probably entail changing some scenes, threads, character arcs, or other painful things. Suck it up and make the changes.

7. Sometimes it is more important to spend all of a day’s writing time contemplating the story than worrying about how many words you get down – remembering this will help you overcome point 6. Quality, not quantity. You do NOT work best to set word counts. Remember that.

8. Remember those episodes of The Next Generation you hated because it felt like they would have a moment of character interaction that had NOTHING to do with the rest of the story? It drove you nuts that it wasn’t interwoven with the plot. NEVER do that. If you feel like the reader needs to know something about the character, don’t jam it in, just keep it in mind and it should come out, eventually, if your characters are well-envisioned. Refer again to point 2.

9. It’s great that you know what happened during the entire boring scene, but you can summarize it. More likely you’re doing number 8, though, which seems to be your new secret weakness, and means that the scene doesn’t need to be summarized so much as completely freakin’ REMOVED.

10. You tend to think that once you understand something that you’ve learned it. By this time you should know better. Continue to refer to this list, because if you’d really learned all this stuff you wouldn’t have had to write this list in the first place.

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