The Thing About Writing

The thing about writing is that it’s very, very easy to be a bad writer, and quite difficult to be a good one. There are so many individual skills that are required for good writing of any kind, but especially when writing fiction. There are the basics, of course: a story to tell, a sufficiently large vocabulary, proper spelling, and intimate familiarity with the rules of grammar and syntax. Without these, even the best storyteller is crap.

But once you move past that . . . then, other questions become important. Here are a few that I routinely struggle with every time I’ve written a piece:

Have I told the story I wanted/intended to tell?
Believe it or not, crafting a narrative takes work. Sometimes, things you want to tell can’t be told, and things that you never intended sneak themselves in there. Trying to keep a narrative on-track can also be ludicrously difficult if you don’t know exactly where your story is headed, if you’re trying to tell too much at once, or if you’ve lost focus of what is driving the scene/character/plot forward.

Have I told too much/not enough?
As I said—crafting a narrative takes work. You need enough words to tell the story, but if you get too wordy, you get something that is boring and stuffy. Not enough words, and you leave the reader unsatisfied and disgruntled, feeling as if they’ve been cheated.

Have I left something to the imagination?
Writing is a subtle art, and I frequently worry that my personality has got in the way of my ability to tell a story. It’s easy to want to tell the reader everything—every thought and feeling and motivation of every character, and snippet of detail in every setting, and what is going on at every moment. That impulse must be fought every time it raises its ugly head. If there is no mystery, no revelation, no secrets, then there is no suspense. Entire genres die with over-telling—murder mysteries and horror, for example. The lure in those is that readers want to know what is going on, and must keep reading to find out. Literary devices like foreshadowing rely on not telling the reader too much too soon. Everything needs to be revealed and told at the right time, and in the right way. I know, it’s scary to not “say” everything; it creates the worry that your readers will miss something. But most readers are smart cookies, and will follow the breadcrumbs left for them. They don’t need neon signs.

Have I followed the rule of Show & Tell?
A professor once told me that, when writing, the best thing to do is to show, not tell. Don’t tell your readers how a character is feeling—show it in their actions, their words and gestures. It’s more powerful that way.

Have I told it in the right order?
This one is always relevant, but especially so when dealing with a non-linear narrative. The reader needs things laid out in a way that makes sense; there should be some guiding principle to the order of scenes and actions. If there is not, even the best story will flop.

Did I make it breathe?
If the characters don’t come to life, I’ve done something wrong. Do they just “say” things, or does their tone of voice change? If it does, how does it change? What does it sound like? Do they have quirks? What are they? Do they live in their physical bodies, complete with trips and falls, blushes and smiles, the tilt of head and fall of hair, aches and pains and scars? How do they move?

Did I write humans?
Do they shower? Bleed? Sleep? Eat? Need to piss? The story shouldn’t read like a diary of events, but these things need to be considered, because they are routine parts of being human.

Did I make the reader feel?
To me, if the reader feels nothing by the end of my story, I have failed utterly in what I set out to do. If there was no hint of sympathy or sadness, anger or joy or tiredness or tension, then all I have done is set words on a page. I haven’t truly told a story.

I don’t know about other writers, but I know that I myself am a neurotic breed. And perhaps it’s presumption, but I feel like that neuroticism makes me a better writer—because if I’m wrestling with these questions, then it means I’m taking my writing seriously, that I’m concerned with the quality/standard of what I’m writing, and that I’m constantly trying to better that standard.

But I still get rather crazy when asking these questions. At some point, I always have a moment of sheer insane terror that I’ve written absolute crap and that I’m no good at this, and never will be. Ah, the dark side of neuroticism.

I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.

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