What’s Hard To Write

Yeah, I’m stymied. I’m at the bottom of a embankment in my work. It’s a bit of writing I’ve been wrestling with for a week or more. I’ve outlined it, I’ve written a draft or two of it already and proceeded to delete or type over a bunch of it—I’ve surveyed the turf and plotted my course. Still, stymied.

Sometimes, when this happens, I think about the writers and dramatists who say they just “skip the boring parts.” (It might’ve been Elmore Leonard or Alfred Hitchcock who said it most famously.) I do that sometimes—skip ahead and then see if I really need to come back and write the bit that got me stuck. Sometimes it works. Just skipping ahead helps me find a way to convey the beat I skipped without having to chart it precisely. The drive to the place is sometimes less interesting than what happens at the place.

This isn’t one of those times. This is exciting material I’m working with and, honestly, I don’t think that it’s the material being boring that’s holding me up. This material is important.

The problem is it’s just difficult. I keep thinking, “What I wrote today is okay but I’ll be sharper tomorrow and then I’ll revise and hone this stuff until it’s the best it can be.” Every day is some day’s tomorrow. Most days I am only as sharp as I usually am and so all these revisions and preparations and drafts aren’t getting the actual writing finished. So I’ve written this thing six or seven times now and it’s still not where I want it.

Sometimes I try to use the fact that something is hard to write well as an excuse to skip it and come back to it. That’s bending the old advice to “skip the boring parts” out of shape, though. Not every challenge is a fun puzzle to be solved. Some challenges are bent-knee trudges through dirty, weedy mires that leave your feet cold and your knuckles scraped to hell.

These are worthy challenges. Some of these must be overcome to get to the remote valleys and hidden temples. Don’t confuse what’s stymying for what’s boring.

I’m finding it tedious to not be good at this one thing that I’m writing but that just means it’s not fun right now. When I get good—at this scene, at this essay, at this character—things that might otherwise be boring can become intriguing,enticing, thrilling. In the hands of a great actor or storyteller, for example, the conversation in the car can be as captivating as the adventure at the destination.

In other words: Sucking at kung-fu sucks but get the moves down and I hear it’s fun to be a master.

Make the boring part a fun part worth reading, right? Even if it’s not easy.

Fewer Commas, I Think

Can we talk about commas for a minute?

Here’s something writerly (yay?) and brief (yay!). While I was out in South Carolina teaching creative writing a few years ago, I listened as a professor lamented the proliferation of needless commas in so much of the text he read from students and pros of all ages. I leaned back, happily skeptical. I thought about all the power and punch, mystery and mood that lay in the delicate pause of a cunningly placed comma. I thought about how it alters dialogue and how maybe all writing is essentially dialogue.

He was right. I was wrong. Too many commas.

Commas are great. I love commas. Commas, people, seriously.

Yet I’ve stopped installing them in so many sentences. I’ve stopped thinking of them as turn signals letting the reader know that an and or a but is coming up. Let the conjunctions do their jobs and let the reader find some of the rhythms on their own.

Sometimes, yes, sometimes commas add the right curve or swerve to a sentence, giving it that serpentine glide that entrances, that lures, that adds fatty coils, that gives the bedspread its menacing topography hinting at the asp beneath the sheets. Sometimes the comma is the venomous bite, sometimes the tangling constrictor.

That thing you’re writing now? That sentence you’re typing into the email you’re procrastinating even as you read this post? That tweet that needs just two more characters to go from molten gold to solid gold? Try scrubbing it free of commas. Put them back in the hopper for future use. See what happens when you trade in the twirling swordplay for a single jab with a sturdy spear. Sometimes it’s best to drive the point straight to the heart.

“One of the biggest, and possibly the biggest, obstacle to becoming a writer — I’ve said this from a slightly different angle in another answer — is learning to live with the fact that the wonderful story in your head is infinitely better, truer, more moving, more fascinating, more perceptive, than anything you’re going to manage to get down on paper. (And if you ever think otherwise, then you’ve turned into an arrogant self-satisfied prat, and should look for another job or another avocation or another weekend activity.) So you have to learn to live with the fact that you’re never going to write well enough. Of course that’s what keeps you trying — trying as hard as you can — which is a good thing. As I started off saying, writing takes practise.”

Robin McKinley, on advice to those who would like to be writers (via dinosaurjam)

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again… who doesn’t heart McKinley?

(via sarahreesbrennan)

theatlantic:

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Great Story

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Via Brainpickings/Reddit [Photo: AP]


This list. I go back to it, like, a lot. I sometimes disagree with parts of it, but I always go back to it.

theatlantic:

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Great Story

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Via Brainpickings/Reddit [Photo: AP]

This list. I go back to it, like, a lot. I sometimes disagree with parts of it, but I always go back to it.

On Writing Writing Advice

I set aside this space to put in some writing advice—maybe a quote from some famous novelist or long-dead playwright—but finding writing advice now would send me sailing across the open sea, from island to island, whiling hours on pre-whittled quotes and Wikipedia links hidden behind choking vines. Those hours spent trawling the Internet’s seas would be years off my characters’ lives, a decade of adventure traded for a bon mot on the shore. If you need me, I’ll be in the bar at port, plied with drinks and telling tales, for a writer at sea is safe but that’s not what writers were made for.