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This morning I got up, blinked the sleep out of my eyes, and read the newspaper. That's how I came across Colson Whitehead's whimsical piece for the New York Times. It inspired me to say a few words of my own about what I feel lies at the heart of good writing.
1. Show and tell
That's right, both. Generally we're told to show, not tell. It's funny, I've come across two writers in as many weeks who have said it's okay, sometimes, to tell. I can see their point. Sometimes you just want to say, "He was angry" rather than "His face turned red and he regarded me through narrowed eyes," or some such thing. At least sometimes telling is okay and can help speed up the pace of your writing.
2. Let the subject of your story find you
This is the point that made me think Colson Whitehead had recently done quite a bit of writing--or something--and was just a wee bit punchy when he wrote this wonderful, sparkling, unusual article. He writes:
Once your subject finds you, it’s like falling in love. It will be your constant companion. Shadowing you, peeping in your windows, calling you at all hours to leave messages like, “Only you understand me.” Your ideal subject should be like a stalker with limitless resources, living off the inheritance he received after the suspiciously sudden death of his father. He’s in your apartment pawing your stuff when you’re not around, using your toothbrush and cutting out all the really good synonyms from the thesaurus. Don’t be afraid: you have a best seller on your hands.In a way I know what he means. For me it's more like the characters are alive in you somewhere and they clamor for their story to be written. They don't just want to live inside you they want to do things. Preferably interesting things.
3. Get even and have fun doing it
Need fodder for creating an antagonist? Just dip into the well of memory and dredge up one of someone who made you wish you'd stayed in bed. There, you've got a nice blueprint for your villain, just change a few details to keep the legal department happy. Remember the mantra: I have no idea where my characters come from. Yea. That's right.
4. Clarity is king/don't be wordy/kill your darlings
These all come to the same thing, or are different ways of approaching it. A passage can't be clear if it's wordy and we must kill our darlings--those passages that sparkle with wit and showcase our potential as a writer (at least this is how one feels about them)--if they don't advance the story.
This is the number one 'rule' of writing. Or it would be if there were rules. You have no idea the casualties the above paragraph suffered, but I comfort myself that they, my dearest darlings, are at piece now.
5. Only say just enough to tell the story
I remember my first draft of Until Death. I'd asked a friend to read it and she came back looking as though someone was holding her feet to an open flame. After a few
Hemingway, from what I can remember, was skilled at this. Remember his short story, "Hills Like White Elephants"? That is a story anyone can understand, you don't need to be in an English class, or have the worlds best English teacher. But what it's about, what's going on, is never directly stated. If it were it would be a completely different story and I doubt it would be in the cannon of great American literature.
6. Have experiences
Or, as Colson Whitehead says, have adventures. Get out and see the world you're writing about. Even if your story is set in a mythical universe the grist for your mill comes from good old terra firma so it's a fabulous idea to leave your writing cave every once in a while and nose around.
7. Writing is revising
Not everyone believes this. If there were an award for being the most controversial rule-of-thumb, this point would receive it. I think there may be two kinds of writers, for some writing is revising and for others they've pretty much got it on the first draft.
For what it's worth, I'm a re-writer. I hope the idea I've gotten hold of, the heart of the story, comes out in the first draft, I hope that the soul of the story is exposed and I get a sense of the characters. For me the first draft is about getting to know my characters and orienting myself in the world they inhabit. The second draft is for details. Making sure all the clues are there and in the right place, making sure the story reads well, that my writing says what I want it to (sometimes I feel it's gossiping behind my back), that there are no errors of logic and so forth. Well, that's the second, third, fourth, ... , draft.
8. There are no rules
Writing is deeply personal and, ultimately, there are no rules. Write what you like and share it with whom you want or no one at all. I know there are a few stories of mine that won't be seeing the light of day any time soon. And not because they're horrible. One of them is, I think, the best work I've done, but it is about an intensely personal subject. Writing doesn't have to be shared. Although, scary as it is, sharing ones work really is the most fun.
To read Colson Whitehead's article, click here: How to Write
Do you have anything to add? Another rule to share? Or perhaps there's one rule too many here. Whatever the case I hope you're having a great day and that you find time for at least one great adventure and some writing. Cheers!
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