I invited Scott Bury along to give some insights into writing styles. On his blog, Written Words, Scott has written several great posts that provide writing tips, and so I asked him if he would kindly give us all the benefit of his experience. This post will utlimately become part of my series “Killer Plan or Lady Luck?“ but for today, we’ve swapped posts, and I’ve written a post for his blog on the subject of “The Best and Worst of MarketingOnly the Innocent”. I recommend checking out his blog and scouring the archives for his words of wisdom!
When is writing an art?
Writing is a craft, sometimes an art, but it’s certainly not a spectator sport. Writing about the process of writing is sure to bore readers to death—or at least to clicking to another page. So I won’t tell you how, when I get stuck with an opening line, I find what works is to stare at the line printed on a page long enough that my mind starts to wander. I begin to get sleepy. When I snap awake again, I tell my mind “Stop drifting, dammit!”I look at the opening and that’s when the solution comes to me.
Nope, won’t tell you that. What I will tell you is about the art of deciding what to write and what NOT to write.
I’ve been reading a lot of indie fiction lately, and editing some, too (sometimes even at the request of the author). I’ve learned about my own writing and what distinguishes good writing from bad.
Part of the art of writing is deciding what to put in, and what to leave out, as Bob Seger said in “Against the Wind.” One thing you absolutely need to do this is a plan or an outline, whether you write fiction, non-fiction, long books or short articles. If you want your writing to achieve a goal, it has to have an outline. If you don’t want to achieve a goal, why bother writing?
One of the goals I had for The Bones of the Earth was to show my main character’s development as a person over a year. The setting is the sixth-century Roman Empire. I wrote a long chapter in which Javor, the main character, goes to a wedding and then another social event in Constantinople; I thought this would bring out the setting and make it more familiar to readers, but also was a good backdrop to show Javor’s growing ability to handle social situations, his greatest challenge.
It sounded great. I was happy with the chapter as a story. But it was long, made the book even longer, and I eventually had to admit that it did not move the story ahead. Javor had learned something about interacting in large groups, but he was still a fish out of water.
So, I cut the chapter, and now the book flows much better.
I also cut out another minor character. He was fun and he was great for the main character, but again, he was a distraction from the story. Excising this character and his family was a lot more work, however, as he appeared in several chapters. I had to go through the book carefully to take away any passing references to “Yosef,” his family and his little shop.
Don’t be clever. Tell the story.
Taking stuff out is harder than putting stuff in. New writers need to learn to take out not just the unnecessary stuff, the sections that don’t advance the story, but also everywhere they think they’ve written a particularly clever way to say something.
Like this: “Jarri smiled cruelly as he gave voice to exactly what Peter had been thinking.” “Gave voice” just sounds pretentious. Even just using the verb “Jarri voiced” would have been better, but better still would be “Jarri said aloud what Peter thought…”
“As anger torched her insides …” is just too clever. You can get away phrases like this once in a while, but filling your document with this kind of writing bogs down the story.
New writers also need to learn to tone down their description, such as the sections I bolded here:
“So you were born in Spain,” Pawlicki commented between giant bites of succulent roast beef. “I have always wanted to go there. Are you certain you will not be joining me? It seems such a waste for all this food and only one person to enjoy it.”
“How can it be a waste if it is for the enjoyment of a friend?” Huelvo falsely fawned back, carefully hiding his disgust at his guest’s blatant gluttony.
I have been guilty of that, too. I love to write descriptions. I think I’m good at it. And I try, often, to describe how emotions feel to the character. I have written about feeling an emptiness below one’s stomach as a way of trying to describe shock. I don’t know whether it works or not, but I think that writing “he was shocked” is too facile and doesn’t really bring the reader into the situation.
But it’s too easy to overdo it. Look at the lean writing styles of Chuck Palahniuk, Elmore Leonard and Cormac McCarthy. The description is spare, but you know exactly what’s going on.
I know I’m not there, yet. I hope to get better. But at the same time, I feel that I owe it to other independent and incipient writers to point out these things that I have noticed. You don’t need to describe every little detail. You don’t even need to describe what your characters look like (although I do that, too). Your readers are pretty smart. They understand what “shock” and “tasty” mean.
What do you leave in, what do you leave out? Go back to the beginning. What are you trying to achieve with your document? Whom are you writing for? What is the main point that you’re trying to make? If a word, or a phrase, sentence, paragraph or chapter are not helping you prove you main point to your audience and achieve your goal, then you don’t need it.
So don’t tell me about every movement of your character’s hands or every flutter of the young girl’s heart. Tell me the story. Strip away the clichés and the phrases you’ve heard or read somewhere else. Get close to your characters, get inside their heads and their hearts and move on with the story.
Scott Bury is a journalist, editor and author based in Ottawa, Canada. He writes about writing in his blog, Written Words (scottswrittenwords.blogspot.com). His first novel, The Bones of the Earth, is available from Amazon and Smashwords.