The problem with learning to write is there’s no set program. No prospectus. No itinerary. Every writer has to create and follow their own learning schedule. “Just keep writing,” they say. No, I’m afraid that doesn’t work. Not really. You could beat the crap out of a golf ball or flail the brush with your fly line and never get any better at golfing or fishing. However, in both of those perfectly individualistic tasks, teachers, guides and videos are available to lead you through the micro-steps to better your skills. Writing? Nope. You’re on your own. (Yeah, there are tons of writer’s books, Great Writing, etc. But none of them actually propose a 1, 2, 3 step kind of thing.)
And therein lies the gap that you must fill — all by your lonesome.
“It reads alright to me.” Yeah, that’s the problem isn’t it. Refining your own tastes and critical opinions on what is good or not. Unfortunately, when you write it, it taints your bias. It came from your creative flow and therefore seems valid. But, lo-and-behold, it’s not. It may, in fact, suck.
What to do?
Of cousre, practice is on the table. But, practice what? Write what? Where are my Start Here and then do these next 100 things…? Such a thing does not exist. So you have to dream up your own steps.
Here’s a exercise I dreamed up last night that I’m going to bash my head against a time or three to see if it helps. And I think this general technique may help: Pick a venue, pick a specific writing mode or element or technical writing aspects and focus solely on those aspects you’ve selected.
Imagine two rocks. In a dry stream bed. They enter into a conversation. About the weather. The drought. How do you approach this? See, that’s the thing, learning to creep up on a fictional situation, a narrative opportunity and attack it with just-the-right technique — this is my Level Three.
Do you overtly describe the environment? No.
Do you explain the situation in any way? No.
Do you set the stage, lay a foundation, prepare the reader? NO!
You just dive in, let the rocks talk, let them allude to their predicament. Slip in a sentence or two about the bigger picture. But never bring attention to you the AUTHOR. Leave him/her out of the picture. Don’t step on your character’s toes by taking away from their emotion. Do, or don’t, break a dialog pattern into pieces — based on the impact you want to have on the reader. Drop the dialog tags when possible. Get into the details, early, but precise and not wandering.
All of that above is (essentially) from Phil Houston. Leveling up is not a passive activity. You MUST pick your next training topic and focus, focus, focus.
I’m going to focus on dialog adopting some of the burden of the environment. One character is going to be bitter, the other sanguine. But through the conversation, we’ll learn of the context and have the two switch places regarding the change coming. I’m consciously intending these aspects of this scene. It’s a training exercise. I’ve picked the intent and now will strive to implement it.
Red fumed at the sky. “I hate blue. Hate it.” Red sat wedged in the sand between a pair of grey granite dullards.
“I’ve got filaments of turquoise rivered through my core. Is that the blue you despise?” Azul posed the question fully aware of the bait he cast.
It hadn’t rained for a year. The stream bed had been blown full of sand from the arroyo that contained it. Red and Azul chipped away at each other in the heat and relentless beat of the sun.
“No, no. It’s that blue. That cobalt umbrella above that gives nothing, takes everything.”
Azul let Red’s answer linger, precarious like steps on saltpan mud. “Sunsets here make me think of what-if storms. I imagine the streaks of white slicing the night, the rumble and patter coming after.”
“Your foolish dreams are as dry as the grit against my ass.”
“Medicine is bitter. I embrace your medicine and twist it to suit me.” Azul sat a scant ant-crawl away, atop a slate spread which was part of the bedrock of the stream.
Red chafed at Azul’s romantic spin at everything he grouched. “That’s right, pray to your spirits. Their medicine won’t bring relief.”
“Hmm. Well, I’ve saved a special curse for you, when the time comes.” Azul would have lifted a defiant chin had he had one.
“A curse? Why would you curse me? I’m stuck. Welded into place like a concrete fossil. While you sit, your sides open to touch the breeze, as you may.”
“Some deserve curses. That’s just the way of it.”
“But, I’ve done nothing to deserve a curse. What have I done?”
“It’s not what you’ve done. It’s what you could have, but didn’t.”
Red sputtered. “For aeons we’ve lain here. Together. And you’ve never once mentioned…”
“You’re the reason we’re still here.” Azul had sensed Red’s vulnerability and drove home his advantage.
“Did you not hide that time, years ago, when the Wanderer stooped to build his atonement? Collecting elements that would hasten the Change?”
“I… How could I have known?”
“Typical. Your ignorance is your excuse. As always. Why I’ve let you bully me all these years…”
“I’m… I’m sorry. I never…”
“Of course you are.” Azul pressed his point. “But if you ever cared for me, for our tandem trip down this ancient course, you’ll do me one favor.”
“Yes, Blue, anything.”
“Next time, let the Wanderer find you.”
4 thoughts on “Writer’s Log: 1844 Level three”
Okay, but…look, you have a gift, no shit, for traditional children’s lit. You write like you did it in a past life. You freaking explain everything. Before you write another word I want you to read Hills Like White Elephants. We know who they are and how they feel by their tone of voice. Write it all, and as an exercise, whack EVERYTHING but the story. We don’t need the psychology, we know what who is doing to whom by their tone of voice. If you need a timing stall, okay. But I would love 5he rocks no less if you didn’t explain their character and motivation, because they’re bickering with backstory you should get a medal for sitting on and letting it get there, but all that other stuff, think about what you’re writing. You kick the lead us around by the nose and find some solid, quick rock body language, a distraction, a bird, a shadow a breeze and can the motivation attitude psychobabble and give us the pure characters you’ll be a lot happier.
Or forge ahead in your stylistic forte and simply explain less. You aren’t an iceberg guy. You don’t write grown up dystopia, you write pre and tweeny adventure like a duck takes to water, so work that. But still, whack EVERYTHING that isn’t story and add stuff back and you’ll be surprised how that one extra step of self editing will clean you up like Charmin on a baby’s butt.
I like the rocks. Until the motivation. Leave that to us and the let the story tell the story. I want to decide how Azul feels by the language and then get popped as it moves in on its own. See that. You got there, told us, without all the author directing traffic stuff on the way. We’ll get there, promise.
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I believe you had me read “Hills Like White Elephants” before. I suppose I’ll have to read it a few more times, to get the impact ingrained.
Isn’t that the core of leveling up? A writer has an emotion they want the reader to experience and, so early on, they pretty much come out and explain it. “Reader, you should now be feeling /this/.” (Because that was my intent.)
But that’s level one.
Level two is bringing some of that emotion out through the characters. But still feeling the need to couch the scene and as you say, lead the reader.
Moving to Level Three, is forgoing all of that overt context. (But, judiciously returning flavor to the scene without explanation.)
As my mother/editor says: Just keep swimming.
Per the YA dystopian pigeonhole, yeah, I’ve yet to write a “grown up” story. Frankly, I believe, it’s because all I’d have to say would be bitter angst against the machine and humanity in general.
“It may, in fact, suck.” Basically the crux of all my experiences with writing. Despite it all, I’m just going to keep on practicing, like you: setting up little challenges for myself and seeing what unfolds.
You must have done a good job here, because I’m pretty emotionally invested in those rocks.
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Funny. Thanks. I think specific, highly refined targets are what I’m lacking. The technical stuff is fairly straight forward, avoid adverbs, cliches, passive voice, telling, monologues, etc. But these next level skills, tough, those.
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