Below is an updated excerpt from a Q & A with a fellow writer who was looking to be inspired and to learn knew things for his own book. This was originally posted in April 2008; it came to mind again as I prepared for a presentation to a writers group. Sometimes, I need to be reminded of my own words, or take a refresher course in the basics of writing. Perhaps the lessons listed below might be of help to other writers, as well.
Q) What useful things have you learned about creative writing in general from writing a novel?
A) Though I've learned much from writing this book, I've also gleaned much from other sources. Below are a few things I've gathered along the journey.
I copyedited manuscripts for a publisher. My job was to find spelling, punctuation, usage, and subject/verb agreement errors--all the boring stuff--but I also found paragraphs that should be rearranged, or sentences that were awkwardly structured or misplaced. Once phrases or entire sentences were given new homes, the writing flowed. It read well.
LESSON ONE: The boring stuff matters. Who cares how creative your stories are if you can't tell them coherently?
I also edit manuscripts writers are preparing to send to agents or editors. Some writers have already been published, but for most this is their first manuscript to be sent out into the world. They want "the works" when it comes to editing/critiquing. From reading these manuscripts, I've often learned what not to do in my own writing.
If spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, dialogue, description, or some other basic element of storytelling makes you nervous, consult other writers, ask editors, or find resource materials (style books, online dictionaries, etc.).
LESSON TWO: Read someone else's manuscript. Sometimes we are blind to our own words, and need the mirror of others to see our mistakes.
LESSON THREE: The adage "show, don't tell" is valid. Sometimes, we need to tell the reader some information because we need to condense time or space on the page, and move on to the next scene. However, those times should be rare. Never miss an opportunity to dramatize the story, make it come to life. Don't report dialogue; let us hear it. Don't tell us how characters feel; show emotion in their actions, words, expressions, silences.
For more along this line, check out Rebecca Miller's blog for a discussion of Scene vs. Narrative.
LESSON FOUR: Silence is golden. Sometimes, we writers fall so in love with our own words that we disgorge them onto the page with abandon, without consideration to whether or not they belong there. If we subject the reader to long passages of poetic prose describing the countryside, he may give up on the story altogether, or he may skip ahead to the good stuff, to where something is actually happening. Interweave description with action. Learn when to shut up.
Learn what to leave out. There is power in a character's pause, in the implied words he never says, in the actions she almost takes. Go ahead, and lead the reader toward a certain conclusion, but also leave something to the reader's imagination; it will often be more powerful than any words we might use to fill the gap.
LESSON FIVE: Daydreaming is an active pursuit. To the untrained eye, you're lollygagging. You're sitting and staring at the ceiling, out the window, into oblivion. You're watching paint dry. No. Your mind is active. In your mind, warriors are scaling cliffs, serial killers are stalking their next victims, a lover is desperately trying to capture the girl's attention, the gunfight is about to commence. Writers need time apart and alone in which to daydream. That's part of telling the story.
LESSON SIX: Patience is also an active pursuit. Sometimes, the words won't arrive when we need them. Sometimes characters dig in their heels, stick out their chins, and refuse to cooperate. They say things that raise our eyebrows or do things that startle the rest of the fictional populace. When this happens, don't scrap the work. Stop. Reflect. Consider the alternatives. Go with it--see where this leads. Go backward--see if you took a wrong turn. Most often, I see where the new road takes me, and I am rarely sorry.
Sometimes, you realize you've taken on a task bigger than you expected. (That's what happened to me with this current project). It expands like some sort of alien goo. How are you going to tell a story that's so big you stagger under its weight?
You can only do what you can do. You start. Perhaps you produce a timeline so that you know what happens next, who enters the story and where. Perhaps you outline the plot--as a whole, or chapter by chapter, or scene by scene. Perhaps you just wing it (my most-used strategy), and you write about this group of characters and their problems and desires, then you bring in other groups or events, and so on, and weave the tangled threads as you go. Perhaps you adopt an eclectic approach: seat-of-the-pants mixed with a little outlining here and there, and sometimes a timeline to help orient yourself.
However you approach it, don't give up. I've been with the basic kernel of this story for about twelve years, wrote other stuff and tinkered with this one, but didn't get serious for a long time because it was hard work. The story, however, wouldn't let me go. January 1, 2008, the first manuscript in the cycle was completed, and now I'm three-fourths of the way through the second one. Patience is an active verb.
LESSON SEVEN: Be true to the story.
Don't let others write it for you. Sometimes, we ask for the opinions of other writers, and their version of an edit or a critique is to rewrite the story in their image. Help is one thing; control is another. A good editor will hunker down inside your story, get a feel for it, try to look at the story's world through your eyes, then help you tell that story and reveal that world as best as possible. He won't take over and turn the tale into something it was never intended to be.
Go ahead, have a theme, but don't turn your fiction into a pulpit. This goes back to Lessons Three and Four: "Show, don't tell" and "Silence is golden." You may want to dramatize a family breaking apart, or a person being lured into an abusive relationship, or maybe you're going for a broader effect, such as nations at war, the politics of poverty, and so on. Perhaps you have experienced something similar, and the idea about which you write is a personal thing. You have strong feelings about it, or strong beliefs. Tell us a story, but don't tell us what to think, believe, or feel. A reader's imagination, personal experiences, and beliefs will do that job. He may disagree. That's okay. But, if you do your job well, he may keep reading until the end. What more can a storyteller ask?
Lastly, don't let others tell you it can't be done, it won't sell, you'll never finish, it's no good, whatever. If you--the author--believe in your story, if it grabs you by the collar and drags you to the finish, then it must be written, even if it won't sell or it's not good. You need to ask yourself why you're writing it in the first place. Perhaps it's not intended for the world. Perhaps it's the thing you must write before you can write something else. Many bestselling authors have years of work hidden in a filing cabinet or a cardboard box, piles of pages, thousands of words, that the world will never see. Those are the training manuscripts. Don't be afraid to write a few.