Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Little Writer That Could

Whether writing children’s books, fantasy, mystery, or anything else, novelists agree about one thing: Writing is hard. Gadzooks, look at all the things a writer must worry about: a hook to start and end every chapter, complex plot and deep characterization, transitions and point of view. Then you have to put it all together so it sounds as if you accomplished it effortlessly, rather than slaving over every word the way you probably did. Whether the feedback comes from a writing partner, critique group, or you yourself, the goal might feel like climbing Mt. Everest.

In “Mind the Gap” from David Jauss’s Words Overflown by Stars, Betsy Sholl, former Poet Laureate from Maine, observes that, “It only takes one little stammer, one little break in the flow, to become aware of how speech negotiates between our private consciousness and social engagement.”

Writing is hard because it communicates a unique individual vision to someone receiving it through words alone. That’s a challenge. So every time even a single word falters, it’s a metaphorical “stutter” that readers detect immediately. And if writers are any good, they, too, can hear it. Sadly, the more carefully you read, and, of course, write, the more sensitive your ears to even the faintest hint of stammer.

What’s the antidote? You could train yourself to be more careless? Read faster. Write faster. In general, worry lots less about the burden of graceful “social engagement.”

You don’t want that? Quality is your goal? If you’re certain, begin by curtailing those brutal, ugly, and self-defeating messages about what you can’t do. For many, developing patience about one’s goals and weaknesses is a tall mountain to conquer. Most folks with high standards are not only harder on themselves than they need to be, but harder than they should be for optimal productivity and creativity. “Can’t” is as dirty a word as any four-letter one out there.

Replace defeatism with a healthy dose of realistic self-analysis.  Aside from relinquishing “I can’t,” many writers consider identifying strengths quite daunting. Wit? Elegant sentences? Enthralling plot? Dynamite scenario? Write down your assets. All of them.

Now for the mountain. What’s up there? Whatever you identify as your own personal “stutter.” Inorganic plot? Stereotypical characters? Dreary syntax?  All but the weakest writers know well in advance what’s needed to conquer that mountain of difficulties. You even know what you must do to reach its peak. Your peak.

Beautiful writing emerges from a merger of talent and technique. You can sit before your computer until your butt’s sore, but unless you believe in both your talent and ability to hone it with technique, maybe fiction isn’t the mountain for you to master. The best training in the world won’t help if with every sentence you’re thinking “I’ll never make it to the top, never revise the way I want. I can’t.”

Tip: “I think I can” isn’t age-specific, and works as well for writers as for everyone else.

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