No, not righting wrongs. I’ll leave that to the characters of our stories.
What I’m referring to is practicing the craft — but doing so, incorrectly.
We all know, a “writer writes” (both Billy and Danny say this in the movie), but what if what you write is wrong? Poor form? Grammatically, technically, logically, or structurally wrong?
If you practice and practice, but you’re doing so in a way that you will need to correct, perhaps severely, in the near future, then what you’re doing is learning bad habits.
Bad habits are hard to break.
I was a fool when I began. I dove straight in; the water was deep and dark and could take my plunge. Unbeknownst to me, there were snags and rocks and muck just beneath the surface — and boy did they hurt when struck.
I’d been an avid reader, effectively watching from the sidelines as authors plied their craft. “I can do this,” I thought. “Swish”, “Goal”, “Crack” — the sports analogies are many — fans feverishly following every movement of the hands and skills of expert players: “Sure looks easy from here.”
I’d have been better served by writing small pieces and having them tortuously shredded by an editor. I should have taken baby steps, careful, incremental progress. I’d have learned the right way to write. Instead, I created an unstable foundation the likes of which I’ve had to deconstruct and rebuild for years now. I’m explaining this in the hopes that some burgeoning, aspirational writer takes these cues and adjusts the arc of their career such that they build a solid foundation — first.
Here are some corner stones I’d wish I’d set early on.
- Grammar, specifically dialog-grammar. Proper use of the m-dash, semis and contractions.
- Active vs Passive. When you write “was” or “were” outside of dialog think, “Can I say this with more action?”
- Controlled use of dialog tags. “He said, she said…” Scale back such tags. Instead use a character’s actions to link spoken words to a character.
- Describe don’t explain (or show-don’t-tell for most). Adverbs tend to tell, that’s why they’re frowned upon. When you explain you insert a layer of distance between the story and a reader.
- Maintain proper POV. Oy! What a bother. Learn your POVs early. Subtle intrusions into the minds of characters — whose thoughts we should not be privy to — are a no-no.These next few are more style and nuance and are never fully learned, only slowly perfected.
- Consistency of voice, both of the story and of the characters. If you write over time, months or years, on a story, you’ll need to keep the voice of your characters in your mind as you sit, after a break, and begin afresh. That’s why may writers say “write the whole thing in a flurry.” Well, I can’t do that. So re-entering a character’s mind is critical.
- Story mechanics: time accounting, flashbacks, dreams, travel, world building consistency — these will help your story become complex and engaging. Time serial stories are boring. Screwy physics or mismatched abilities will break your reader’s suspension of disbelief.
- Cycles of conflict, action, resolution, reflection. This is my personal preference; frame your stories as a sine wave of varying activity.
- Character arc: hidden angst, emotion, motive, doubt, conflict, result. A more advanced subject here. Good stories have odd and conflicted characters.
- Plot design and tuning: allusion, foreshadowing, subplots, intra-themes. Complex stories force the reader to work — and a working reader is an engaged reader.
These are points of advice I’ve learned from many editors and writers, here and elsewhere. You know who you are.