Throat Clearing in a Zombie Apocalypse
I’ve heard a good deal of good advice lately as it pertains to writing, editing, and the writing business. I feel that I should compile it here. I don’t know who originally said all of it, so I apologize in advance for not giving gold stars to everyone who deserves them, but they’ll live.
1. Ass in chair. (Nora Roberts)
2. Read a lot. Write a lot. (Stephen King)
3. On scenes: Get in, get out. (The 25, David Morrell)
4. Omit needless words. (Stephen King)
5. Avoid cliches.
6. Be the Edward Scissorhands of editing.
7. Language is an instrument. Find what tones yours makes.
8. Don’t submit unfinished work.
9. Be original.
Nine is a nice number, so we’ll stop there for now. There’s something of a lyrical quality to Nora Roberts’s advice at the beginning. Ass in chair. A certain ethereal profundity despite the blunt language. At the heart of it, that’s where writing (and reading) start much of the time. Start there.
Then do it a lot. Stephen King’s advice is only one of the many bits of wisdom I’ve taken to heart from him. If you’d like some no-nonsense thoughts on writing — and some stomach-heaving laughs and wheezes — I recommend his book. On Writing.
When it comes to writing scenes — and this is one of my pitfalls — get in, get out. Imagine you’re watching a zombie movie. Which scene is more effective? Scene A starts with dinner at the hideout, then the family goes for a walk. Partway along the river, a horde of new zombies begins chasing them. Scene B starts with an all-American family of four running by a river — and the camera pans out to show a horde of zombies behind them. Scene B is much more vivid and even has a touch of irony with it. Some people call it throat-clearing — the part of the scene where a writer sets the stage instead of simply drawing back the curtains.
I planned to use the advice “don’t use two words when you can use one,” but exchanged it. Omit needless words.
Buck the trend. Her blood boiled. Think of your own ways to say things. Keep it fresh. Cat got your tongue? Play with figurative language — let your comparisons flow instead of jumping from cliche to cliche.
Again I aim this at myself: approach your first or second (or third or fourth) draft like Edward Scissorhands. Or maybe Freddy Krueger. Rip it apart if you need to. Yes, it hurts. But if you know a part isn’t good, readers will know too. If you’re writing for an audience, try to look at it from their point of view. Does Bob McBobberson have more than two dimensions? Will readers think your storyline tramples through other people’s ruts? It’s not easy to be objective about your own work, but most people have that little honest voice within them that tells them something can be better. Make it better. Cut where you need to, flesh out other places. Your future editors will thank you for it.
I’ve always thought that language is like a musical instrument. You can make a piano or a guitar or a violin produce so many different sounds, so many different styles. The words are the notes you use. They set the tone. You can make your writing as musical, choppy, dark, exuberant, edgy, flippant, or earthy as you want. Be cognizant of the words you use and how they affect your tone and voice.
The second to last bit of advice sounds rather like common sense. “Duh. Why would I submit unfinished work?” Sadly, a lot of people do it, whether it’s out of sheer laziness, arrogance, or the idea that you should just get it out there and clean it up later once you have an agent/editor/publisher/etc. Once you think your work is finished, submit it to your networks to read. Those are the people who fill a variety of different niches in your life (which I discussed in some detail last month) and can offer you praise, encouragement, suggestions, and yes, criticism. Learn to love criticism. Learn to filter through it for truth and wisdom and weave it into yourself so you churn out a much cleaner tapestry next time, you little loom you. Sometimes it hurts, but if you take what critics say and use it to make you better, you’ll just be more like Obi Wan and less like Vader. “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can imagine….” Learn it. Love it. Come back stronger and write better.
The last bit is to be original. This fulfills today’s visit to The 25, quoted here:
It is perhaps ironic that the exercise I consider most useful to spur originality is one I borrowed from another writer (William S. Burroughs). Then again, the best advice I ever received on writing in general was Oakley Hall’s two-word bromide: Steal Wisely.
In truth, originality is like voice, an elusive quality that cannot be created; it exists or it doesn’t, all you can do is hone it. But we can also strive to look at our own world and work in a fresh way. If you’re in a rut, change something in your routine. Write in a different place; write longhand; dictate into a recorder; switch point of view; remove every modifier in your text and start over—something.
Or, try this: Print out a page of your writing, cut it into quarters and rearrange them. Retype the text in this quasi-jumbled state. Where before your logical brain laid things out in an orderly fashion, you’ll now see them in jump cuts and inexplicable juxtapositions. Return to your work and revise with the best of these angularities intact, to the point they serve the piece, without reordering them back into comfortable reasonableness. Honor the deeper, inherent logic of your work by allowing its quirks and hard edges to show.
Your voice, the tone of the work — those two things make it original before you ever start spinning away. You don’t have to say something New every time you open your mouth, but search deep for ways to say something Old in a fresh way. I’m sure everyone has experienced the worn and threadbare piece of advice “be yourself,” but when it comes to writing, it’s even more true. Your experience and life makes you qualified to offer your own take on things. There’s common themes we all share, but I can’t look through your eyes without an invasive surgical procedure, and even then, I wouldn’t have access to your brain. So use what you’ve got and say it your way.
Write a lot. Write well. Always improve.