What I’m Legitimately Bad At

Well, for starters, I’m legitimately bad at allowing myself to use technically questionable grammar like that which appears in the title above – even when it would be appropriate in context (e.g. in the conversational tone of a blog), and is accurate to the jargon of the time (e.g. the phrase “what I’m legitimately bad at”).

But then again, when I first sat down to write this post, I was originally going to go with “My Struggles” or “Where I Struggle” or some variation thereon for the title – and obviously, no.  Just no.  No to any combination of I/me/mine and the noun or verb “struggle” anywhere in any title to any piece.  Ever.  (If the reason isn’t immediately clear to you, you may want to look up the translation of “my struggle” in German.)

The incomparable Herbert Lom, best known for playing Chief Inspector Dreyfus opposite Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau.

And besides, forcing myself to employ a technique that would typically make me twitch worse than Chief Inspector Dreyfus from the Pink Panther movies is actually very appropriate for this particular discussion.

Consequently, I’m going to make myself leave it there and move on (more on that later)…

So.  I just sent off a whole honkin’ big update to my beta readers, took care of some housekeeping (both literal and figurative), and now I can FINALLY carve out some time to update my blog before moving on to the next section in my manuscript.  Just as I said I would in my last post.

Of course, much to my frustration, I’m starting on it two months later than I promised…

Which got me to thinking on why it took me so much longer to get here.  Which led to what caused the delays in finishing the most recent draft.  Which brought me to this topic.

As a preface, I should mention that all my ramblings in this forum are meant only as one author’s opinions regarding, research on, and experiences of writing.  (Not counting the odd aside completely unrelated to the craft – no more of those for a while now, I promise.)  Sometimes I post updates on my own personal journey; sometimes my views on the business of publishing; sometimes biographical info I think relevant; sometimes analysis of my own prose; and sometimes the nitty gritty of my process.  Regardless of the subject matter, however, I try to be cognizant of the fact that everything I’m sharing is personal to me – which is to say a writer, and an individual, different from every other person in the world, including all those who may someday stumble upon this blog.  No matter how confident (or sarcastic) the tenor of my entries, I hope it’s therefore clear that any any advice I give should be read only as suggestions, and not as pronouncements of objective fact.  These are strategies that work for me, but when all is said and done, you need to do what works for you.

Remember this dude from an earlier post?  He was full of dos and don’ts about writing.  I tend to disagree with him a lot.

Lord knows, I’m certainly always wary of every other author who makes prescriptive statements about writing.

So, with that in mind, I thought I’d switch tacks.  Instead of offering insights into what’s worked for me, I thought I’d offer up examples of my own weaknesses:

First and foremost is a subject I’ve already covered in some detail in a previous post on my process:  my compulsive need to tinker with every phrase, paragraph, and page until it is perfect.  I can labor for hours to get the tiniest bit of language right – which I hope is responsible for (what I believe to be) the quality of the prose that I produce.  (Certainly, it is why I feel such disappointment when I realize that somehow a clunker has slipped by.)  But this approach also means that I can’t write through and come back – or at least I haven’t been able to do so to date.  I stare at the words before me, trying to get them right, and find it incredibly difficult to continue until they feel finished.  Something about knowing that a section I don’t love lies just past the scroll of the screen keeps drawing me back to the unfinished bit, preventing me from moving forward.  And as a result, my manuscripts tend to advance slowly.

Now, I know that this behavior is incredibly inefficient.  Not just because most other writers talk about laying down the first draft fully intending to treat it as no more than a rough framework to be perfected later; but also because my own experience has taught me that as I come back – either in my own ordinary-course revisions, or as a result of beta reader comments, or because of some new element I add to a different part of the story which necessitates changes to previously written chapters – I will frequently change the “perfect” language anyway.   Multiple times!

And yet, even so, still I struggle to move on.

Invariably, thinking about this issue puts me in mind of an episode from years ago, not long after I started the first pages of what would eventually become The Herald’s Dark Progress.  It occurred on a business trip to, I think, Grand Rapids, Michigan – or rather, in transit therefrom.

The figure of an old man in worn-out clothes
Behold!  Here we see the male writer as he appears in the wild, captured from the waist down. Note the characteristic identifying marks:  rumpled old jacket; shapeless pants; comfortable, well-worn shoes; and of course, the telltale stack of papers protruding from the pocket. (Umbrella optional.)

On the flight back to New York, I was in the middle seat, and next to me, on the aisle, was a gentleman wearing an extremely threadbare sports coat (which in retrospect probably should have been my first clue that he was a working writer).  Once the wheels were up and the captain had granted us permission to use our electronic devices, this gentleman produced a laptop from his bag and began typing.  Naturally, I could see what was on screen.  As crammed together as passengers are in modern air travel, it would have been difficult to avoid noticing his work, even if I wasn’t curious.  And I was curious.  I wasn’t enjoying the book I was reading – and more to the point, I wanted to know what he could possibly be drafting that didn’t require him to stop and think for more than a few seconds at a time.

As it turned out, the piece was a chapter in his own manuscript, a scene in a hospital waiting room.  And from a technical point of view (and in my opinion) it was bad.  The language was vanilla, the sentence structure unvaried, the interactions between the characters flat and lacking in drama… watching the words pour out, I couldn’t believe what I was reading.  But he kept typing and typing, and an hour and a half later, when the captain came back on the PA to ask us to stow our devices once more, he had finished upwards of five pages –  perhaps seven or eight.

In other words, figuring on average 300 words per page on a double-spaced Word doc with standard margins, he had completed over 2,000 words in the space of that one flight.

At the time, I didn’t think much further on the incident; the man and I went our separate ways, and I went back to my writing without taking any lesson from what I had witnessed on the plane.  It was only months later, as I was stuck on one particularly thorny passage in my own manuscript, revising it over and over during the course of an entire weekend, that I remembered the encounter – and realized I had likely been wrong:  the gentleman on the plane was very probably just banging out a first draft.  “Simply shoveling sand into a box so that later [he could] build castles” as the author Shannon Hale puts it.  (Which reminds me:  I still need to read her work.)

And again, he’d completed 2,000 words in 90 minutes.

Of course, I don’t know for certain how long he’d need to revise that text on the next go-’round, and frankly, I don’t know who he was, so I have no way of knowing if, in the end, the revisions came out any better than the first draft.  But think about it:  this is the kind of guy who tweets out “Good day today:  5K words!  #amwriting” – which drives slowpokes like me absolutely nuts.  I mean, even if he only gets down those 2,000 words per day, he’d still finish an average-length first draft in under two months.  Figure half that time for the next pass, and then 25-50% less for each subsequent draft…  This, my friends, is how you complete 2-3 novels per year.

portrait of man standing back in casuals
Pant●ser / ॑pæntsər/ ▸ n.  One who composes fiction organically, while in the act of writing (rather than following an outline developed in advance).

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to approach quite that pace – in part because I tend to be more of a pantser than a plotter, and the narrative needs an opportunity to marinate.  Also, I do think you probably need to spend a little more time with the words than he did (even taking into account multiple subsequent re-writes) to produce truly elegant prose.*  (And, as you know if you’ve read past entries on this blog, I am a big advocate of taking the time to make your writing as beautiful as possible.)

But there’s also no question that devoting a full weekend to a single passage (which – you guessed it! – I wound up subsequently revising anyway) is waaaay too slow.

So, in recent weeks, taking the good gentleman as my inspiration, this is the behavior I’ve been most focused on trying to change:  doing my best to resist my need to get it right the first time before moving on.  And I’m pleased to report that I’ve made some strides.  When I received the first batch of notes on the update I mentioned at the top of this post, I inserted them into the narrative and… *gasp* simply left them there, without doing any editing to address the points my beta reader had raised.  In addition, speaking of notes, for the first time I’ve actually laid down notes on my upcoming chapters, organizing them in order, rather than leaving them on my phone/in my notebook to be used whenever (if ever).  And most importantly, as I approach an hour or so to go in my day of writing, I force myself to get to three pages of new material if I haven’t yet reached that point already (which I almost never have).

Meaning, of course, that the next session invariably starts with a detailed review of those rushed words at the end of the previous, trying to make them perfect.  But so long as I then make sure to get out those three new pages at the end, it works.  Hey – I may never be the guy who trumpets 5,000 words complete on Twitter, but at least I’m now up near 1,000 per day.  Progress!

Okay, this next issue is a weird one.  Ready?

I am really finicky about the shapes of my paragraphs.

Screen Shot 2017-07-13 at 10.53.04 AM
There are two different paragraph breaks here, and neither of them is immediately visible at first glance.  Oh, the  horror!

Seriously.  I hate the way a paragraph looks when it ends near the last space of the last line, such that, on the right margin, it appears as if there hasn’t been a break at all.  And I also hate it when a paragraph ends with the last several lines moving further and further from that same margin, such that it creates a big swath of negative space on that side of the page.  Believe it or not, these “problems” bother me so much that I will actually rewrite sentences so as to eliminate them – which, let’s face it, is a pretty goofy way to make your choices about language, particularly for someone who is as particular about language as I am.**

The workaround I’ve developed for this quirk is not to fight it; I allow myself to indulge this odd behavioral tic in my writing throughout most of the process – and then try really, really hard to discipline myself to avoid it whenever I’m doing my final revisions.  Mostly, I succeed.  Mostly.  (Though obviously not in this case, because I’ve just added this parenthetical so that the blog doesn’t publish with a hanging line of text beneath the image on the left.)

Issue #3 is yet another obsession:  I can be dogmatic about not repeating words/wordings, except when done with specific purpose, and for effect.  Now, to be fair on this point, one hallmark of good writing (in my humble opinion) is diversity of vocabulary and lack of repetition, so this one falls into the category of the “great being the enemy of the good” or “too much of a good thing” (or some other cliché about overdoing what, in a vacuum, would typically be considered a plus).  And to a degree, you could say it is simply one element of the larger “need to make language perfect/can’t move on” problem I’ve already covered, above.  But I feel that it stands on its own, because often this hangup isn’t about a passage being imperfect on its face; rather it’s about feeling compelled to change an otherwise good bit of writing for the sole reason that I’ve already used something similar somewhere close by in the narrative.

Yes, you want to vary your writing to keep it from feeling stale, or worse, becoming so noticeably redundant that it yanks the reader from the flow, making them unduly conscious of the technical choices you’ve made (leaving a lasting impression of how well you crafted a certain sentence = good; “wait, didn’t he just use that identical phrase three times on the last page?” = bad).  And from a more positive perspective, you want to find new ways of saying things, challenging yourself, and providing the reader with new experiences of the language.  But twisting your phrasing into knots to avoid repetition, is buying yourself a first class ticket on the 8:15 to Clunkytown.  [There ya go, an example of taking a risk, trying to find a new way of saying something, done a bit sillier than my usual style.  Didja like it?]

Furthermore, there are quite a few instances where it is not only legitimate, but advisable, to repeat words, in particular to provide clarity/avoid confusion.

Think of character names.  If you don’t mention them in dialogue, especially in scenes where there are more than two speakers, how will the reader know who’s saying what?  (I know that there are some authors who are dogmatic about their hatred of dialogue tags, but this is one issue I don’t have.  Obviously, you never want to overdo them, but they are necessary and can be useful in adding tone/color/cadence to speech.)  It’s much the same with action scenes:  if A, B, and C are all running about the room causing chaos, you’ll find it awfully difficult to make clear to the reader that it was A who did X and B who did Y, rather than the other way ’round, if you don’t use their names.  And then of course, there are the common words that simply don’t have good synonyms.  For example, consider the word I just used, “room”:  the only exact parallel in English (when used to mean “a portion of space within a building or other structure, separated by walls or partitions from other parts”) is “chamber”, which carries heavy overtones of formality and/or antiquity – and which therefore, in many instances, would feel significantly more out of place than simply repeating the more familiar “room”.

flexible businessman with doubtful face isolated on white
Finally, I decided that allowing myself a bit of repetition was more desirable than… well, this.

Finally and most important, is the subject of the piece:  obviously, if I’m writing on the topic of repetition and I refuse to repeat the word “repetition” itself odds are very, very slim that I will be able to make it work, right?

Thus, as a result of the frequency with which these four compelling situations arise, over the years I’ve learned to make an uneasy peace with the use of repeated words.  I can’t deny that I still try to structure my writing so as to avoid excessive repetition whenever possible (e.g. “ran to the far wall” rather than “ran across the room”), but I no longer contort my language to eliminate their occurrence entirely, as I once did.  There are authors I follow and admire who have moved beyond even this stance, at least in regard to certain specific use cases (e.g. I’ve seen Pat Rothfuss tweet advice [can’t find the tweet now] to the effect of “just use the word ‘said’ when structuring your dialogue; readers’ minds are trained to gloss over that word, anyway”), but I doubt I’ll ever grow as comfortable with repetition as they have.  Oh well.  At least I’ve grown sufficiently comfortable with the idea that if I’m writing about the subject of repetition, then dammit, I’m going to repeat the word “repetition” in the text.

[FYI, some version of “repeat” or “repetition” occurs thirteen times in the past five paragraphs; fourteen, if you count the caption to the image.]

Next:  the topic of innovations in language.  Ooh, this is a tough one for me.  I am a big proponent of accommodating new and different viewpoints. Moreover, I understand (and am fascinated by) the fact that language is constantly evolving.  But by definition, anything new and different is far more likely to strike a discordant note to the majority of ears, and my focus when writing is to write something interesting/beautiful/enthralling, not to pedantically impose new usages on the English-speaking population.  Thus, I try to wait until an innovation no longer makes my own ears perk up before I’ll use it.  Which is admittedly a subjective bar – and likely a high one, given how much of my education I devoted to the classics.  Unfortunately, I’m not certain how else to proceed.

[By the way, a few paragraphs back I conducted an experiment on this point with you.  (Hope you don’t mind!)  Did you perchance happen to notice my use of the singular “them” in the middle of “…yanks the reader from the flow, making them unduly conscious…”, above?  In 2015, the American Dialect Society proclaimed the gender neutral singular “they” as word of the year.  And frankly, it’s about time, as English has long been deficient for its lack of a pronoun that could refer to either, or any, gender.***  Unfortunately, to date, I’ve found it difficult to put this innovation into use; growing up, the rule was beaten into my head that “they” as the singular was bad grammar.  So, what do you think?  Did it bug you when you read it?  (Does it bug you now that I’ve pointed it out…?)  I’m still not to the point where I can use it in my prose; let’s see where I am in a few more years.]

Watch out for this little fella…

Research rabbit holes are dastardly little devils aren’t they?  You start out looking up a simple fact on the length of a giant squid’s tentacles, and an hour later, there you are, five articles deep, reading up on the basic principles of submarine combat.  If I had a nickle for every time something similar has happened to me… well, I’d still be doing what I’m doing, I’d be doing it in a big house with a super awesome writing nook.

“Just unplug,” people will tell you.  But as I’ve stated elsewhere, these days, the internet is home to nearly every last research tool we fiction writers employ; unplugging is not an option, at least not completely.  Okay… so how about limiting your time online?  Y’know, take notes, write on, and then do all your research together, all at one time.  Sounds like a good idea, right?  Come.  On.  Did you not read my number one issue above?  I have more trouble with moving on than I do with distractions!  That’d never work for me.  (Besides, more practically speaking, the answers you need will frequently impact a lot more than just the segment you’re currently writing; if for example, you’ve just started work on a fantasy thriller about a string of vampire murders set in a New York City police station, it makes no sense to wait until after you’ve finished a day’s writing to research the layout of the typical NYC precinct building…)

So, what should one do to avoid these pitfalls?

Uh, I’m not 100% sure.  This is my post on the stuff I’m legitimately bad at, remember?

In all seriousness, what I do is dive right in – but try to keep my wits about me.  I’ve accepted the fact that staying away from the internet is not an option for me, and so I allow myself to go ahead and flit around.  Occasionally.  I just do my best to be aware that I am on a diversion, and to hustle back to the narrative before too long.  It can be especially difficult when you discover some new treasure trove (e.g. Wikipedia’s comprehensive Lists of Legendary Creatures), or on trade deadline days in the major professional sports, or when the world is melting down in real time around us (okay, okay, I did promise I’d stick to the subject of writing in this one), but for the most part I think I manage to limit it to single-digit minutes out of every hour.  Not ideal, but it works for me.

And now, to end, appropriately enough:

My blog posts, especially those about writing, tend to be way too long.  (Which is in part why I don’t post nearly as much as I’d like).  Take this one here:  it’s over 3,800 words.  Using the same conversion metric I mentioned in the story of the threadbare first-drafter, that’s twelve-plus pages I could’ve completed in my current manuscript over the same time.  And that’s nothing!  My post on querying is almost twice that length.  Sigh.  I really should try to limit them to between 500 and 1,000 words like most normal, sensible authors…

Aha!  But with my new “must complete at least three pages per day” policy, I got this one done in under a week, while also moving my manuscript forward.  In excess of 1,000 words per day and switching between projects?

Now that’s real progress!

For me, anyway.


*You know what, I should probably amend this:  I don’t think *I* could produce the kind of prose that *I* would consider beautiful by starting this way.  After all, who am I to criticize Mr. Writer-on-the-Plane’s process?  Haven’t I gone on at length about how different people have different methodologies and how you should just take my comments as suggestions?  My apologies to him.

**Double usage of both “particular” and “language” in this sentence are both purposeful, by the way.  (See how particular I am about language?)  This is what I meant by “repetition for effect” later in the post.  [Yes, I did it again.  Yes, it was on purpose.  Again.]

***As always, this is one writer’s opinion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s