I’ve just passed the one-year mark of my maiden voyage into the world of creative writing, and my perspective on the process has changed dramatically. A huge part of that evolution, obviously, is because I’ve cranked out about 160K words since then (and another ~250K in rewrites/revising). That is only part of what I’ve undertaken in the last year, however. I’ve also been an avid student of writing books, blogs and YouTube lectures almost every day for that year. A year’s worth of guerrilla education counts for something!
Some of the books covered good fundamentals, but for the most part every one of those resources sought to arm me with “tools” of the craft, to help me improve. Some were about pacing, some characterization and voice, others about conflict, or tension, or any of a hundred other things. I built up quite an arsenal over all those months.
And I’ve been using all these tools almost entirely wrong the whole time.
As a new writers, I fell into the trap of taking some of this advice too literally… or at least I put it to use too mechanically, the engineer within me shining through. For instance, consider Swain’s mantra of “scene-sequel.” This is held by many writers to be an absolutely fundamental means of forming paragraphs for optimal effect.
So when I sat down to write, I actually mapped out my chapters as a sequence of alternating scenes and sequels in advance. I stressed about the places where there were two scenes back to back, or when a chapter ended on a scene instead of a sequel, etc.
Another writing tool in my box is to vary sentence length in order to set the pacing of the story, speeding it and slowing it as necessary. Once again, I outlined the places where my pacing needed to change and set to work with a knife to shorten every sentence in those sections. Then I sprinkled in extra words in the slow section to further the contrast.
I’m sure you are starting to see the problem. I’ll just use one more example.
Somewhere else I learned that you should employ all five senses in your description, so in every chapter I made sure to include at least two non-visual senses in my descriptions, wherever I could find an opening.
…and with all that in tow, writing became a mechanical chore.
Not only that, but the output still didn’t feel right. So what is the solution? Throw out all the rulebooks and trail-blaze? Apply the rules in some moderation? Suck it up because this is how real writing works?
I think I have the answer, and it is none of the above. It turns out most of these rules and guidelines are really excellent tools for diagnosing issues in a scene, rather than creating the scene itself. I’ve come to think of them as the features of my debugger, rather than my compiler.
What do I mean by that?
What troubled me so much before was that I was thinking about all these guidelines and rules as if they would help me to generate a brand new story. I was trying to lay down words only after thinking through all the relevant rules that applied to the situation I was crafting. All these restrictions and signposts did not make the writing better. In fact, I am far more effective when I don’t worry about any of that and just rely on instinct. Granted my instinct is informed by the learning I have done, but the rules are implicit there — they aren’t considered specifically while crafting. I’ve come to understand that this is how it should be.
When it is time to write, use your instincts, and ditch the bag of tools at the door.
The right time to grab the rulebook is AFTER the first round of writing is complete. When I am going back and re-reading something, I may well find it isn’t working, and that is when I can open up my bag of tools and start looking for discrepancies.
If an exciting scene feels awkward, I can start framing it in terms of the guidelines to help me spot what might be wrong. Maybe I am missing a sequel-paragraph, which is making it awkward. And why wasn’t this character moment powerful? Well, the build up doesn’t invoke the character’s voice enough to stage the right emotions.
In this way, all these tools help in debugging the writing, where they failed in creating it.