Sunday, February 24, 2013

Writing: When It's Right to Do It Wrong

Ever since I can remember, I've had a knack for creating characters. (Actually, I think most three-year-olds do, and I was just lucky enough not to lose it.) By the time I was about nine I could write dialogue pretty well, and for the next ten years or so, I worked on the more difficult skills of description and narrative.

So that was all I needed, I thought. I'd just throw together some characters that didn't fit together (so they'd create enough conflict to produce a plot) and see where they took me. I'd write it all down, and the result would be a novel called The Birch Tree's Daughter.

It failed, of course, but I still think the premise was good. Maybe someday I'll write it again, only differently.

My failure to have any plot in mind - or to even understand the difference between a plot and a premise - was not the only reason it failed. I had read every piece of writing advice I could get my hands on, and almost every one had steered me wrong.

It wasn't really the fault of the people giving the advice - at least, not entirely. They made the mistake of assuming all inexperienced writers are alike, and I made the mistake of assuming their advice was meant for everyone, at all times and in all situations.

The advice was to write less - not to spend less time writing, or to write fewer books or anything like that, but to condense my writing. The message should be given to the reader in as few words as possible, they said. Any passages that don't propel your characters directly toward the end of the book should be cut out. Avoid all unnecessary scenes or descriptions.

The Birch Tree's Daughter turned out to be about 15,000 words, if I remember right, and contained none of the feeling I had tried to convey. Feeling, after all, would have required more words, would have required scenes and descriptions that didn't drive everybody directly to the end of the book, and that, the experts told me, was both unprofessional and unpublishable.
Of course, it was very good advice for the majority of writers. I know now that bloated ramblings are the norm, and most writers have to work very hard to contain the flood of words and produce a polished, concise manuscript. I just happen to have the opposite problem. If I didn't make the effort to 'write more,' this post would probably look something like this:
"I can write novels now because I learned from some bad writing advice in the past, and because I always plot out my books and don't write them sequentially."
Interesting, huh?

Those are the other things The Birch Tree's Daughter taught me: I need to have an outline, and I need to write the ending early. A novel, in my opinion, should end with fireworks, and Birch Tree ended when it finally ran out of the conflict that had brought it to life. I suppose the birch tree and its daughter lived happily ever after, but the story would have been a whole lot more interesting if you could have read it backwards.
And now I'm in the second draft of An Analysis of the Cardassian Language. The beginning is done, the final chapter is done, and I'm working on the homestretch. When that's done, I'll write the middle.

Next Sunday, I'll talk about preventing burnout as a writer. Yup, it's another rule I happily break.

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