Some great lessons on self-publishing here. Definitely worth the read.
In music, the hardest thing to play are the rests. Likewise, the hardest things to write are those which must remain unwritten.
A large portion of a novel, and an even greater part of a short story, should remain unwritten by the author. An author may perform a great deal of research in order to craft a believable world or plot, or to learn about their characters’ professions. However, the majority of that information will not be needed by the reader. The same is true of a character’s backstory, most of which remains unexpressed or hinted at throughout a novel.
But there are additional elements of a novel that are best left unwritten, some of which I have outlined below.
What Should Remain Unwritten?
As I stated above, a character’s backstory should be one of those elements that remains mostly unexplored upon the pages of the novel.
Backstory is the character’s past–whatever happened before the story you’re writing. Like your main character’s (MC’s) childhood, or even the yesterday before the opening chapter of your book. That’s all backstory which, without good reason pertaining to plot or character development, should not enter the story.
This history can and should be hinted at throughout the pages of the novel, but only that which explicitly pertains to the story at hand should be related or discussed in the pages of a novel.
Practice this: Write a 500-word scene heavy in backstory. Now go back through and delete all the backstory. Reread it, and add back in only that which is absolutely necessary. Reread it again, or give it to someone else to read. Now how important was that backstory after all?
Subtext, according to Oxford Dictionaries is “An underlying and often distinct theme in a piece of writing or conversation.”
Personally, I don’t care for that definition as it pertains to a novel. A more apt definition of subtext is: reading between the lines. In real life, a conversation between two people may, to an outsider listening in, be about one thing but mean something completely different to those two conversing.
Most commonly this happens between couples, or roommates, or those in a close quarters relationship. In a marriage, for example, an argument about closing the toilet seat may actually be about how John was flirting with the waitress at dinner that evening.
In a novel, the subtext would be leaving the true reason for Jane’s anger at John unspoken between them. Perhaps the scene is written in all dialogue, where the two argue about the toilet seat being open. The reader reads the argument like a tennis volley, back-forth, back-forth, as John and Jane spit words at one another, then Jane leaves the house in a huff, never to come back.
Subtext is what creates the tension in that scene. Maybe Jane never tells John what she’s really upset about, but says something like, “This is just like you–you never care about anyone but yourself. I’ve had it, I’m gone.”
If the author is employing subtext, the real issue(s) should never be explicit, but hinted upon.
Subtext can also be the underlying emotion in a scene that a character doesn’t express, most often anger or love. Perhaps Jane is in love with John but doesn’t know how to tell him. “I enjoy watching you paint,” she says instead of, “I’m in love with you and I don’t know how to tell you.”
Practice this: Using the last thing you were angry at your significant other (or roommate or sibling) over, write a scene where a little thing sets you and him/her into an explosive argument–leaving the true reason unsaid.
A beginning writer (and many more practiced writers, myself included) will often use phrases such as “John walked in the room,” or “Jane stood up and looked at John.”
The above phrases are tiresome, boring writing which are called “stage direction.” Think of stage direction as those instructions you see in a Shakespeare play: “Enter Romeo,” or “To Juliet.”
Stage direction in itself is plain writing, and there are much betters way to insert the same information. “John burst into the room, his eyes ablaze with the fire of passion.” Or “Jane rose, brushing the crumbs of her lunch from her lap and lifted her gaze to John.” The verbs I use here are only a bit more sophisticated, but interspersed as they are with description and setting, they become less stage direction and more description.
Common verbs found in stage direction are: looked, saw, gazed, stood, walked, sighed, entered, said, etc.
So leave the stage directions for the plays, and weave description into your sentences. Your reader will be thankful for it.
Practice this: Take a page from your WIP first draft and rewrite all the “looked,” “saw,” “gazed,” etc. out of it by inserting stronger verbs and more description (or dialogue which portrays more than the weak verbs).
One more Silence…
Every period, every comma, every semi-colon, every colon, every exclamation point, every question mark, every quotation mark, every italic, every capitalization has a different sort of emphasis.
Think about it. How did you read the last paragraph? Breathlessly? How about the next sentence (Think about it.)? Did it give you a break? What about all these questions? Are they exhausting you?
Every writer uses punctuation differently.
One of my writing teachers has made it a point to give his students lessons of passages from books with all punctuation and capitalization removed. Some students hate these exercises, but I see the value in them. First of all, I realize that there is no “right” answer for these exercises. My punctuating of these passages will give different emphasis based on how I read a jumble of train-of-thought words. Every person reads the text different, and no two answers are going to be identical.
Every writer is unique to themselves, and as such will never ever write a passage the exact same way as another author–even with the exact same words.
Use your own special silences. Learn when to stay silent and when to speak.
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Lately I’ve read a couple of articles, some pro- and some con-writer’s block, both of which have led me to consider the “myth” that is writer’s block.
Writers as a whole are an interesting group. Writers are allowed to be weird, unpredictable, rude, and generally different. There are few other professions where you can say you’re not inspired to complete your job today and not report to work. Perhaps only in the arts…
That’s the anti-writer’s block comment: writer’s have created an excuse to avoid work. But there’s the continuing belief (or should I say “legend?”) that writer’s block is a real thing, and I tend to think there always will be this myth.
Because writers must be so self-motivated, usually working outside of a 9 to 5 job, they never truly have to report to work. Sure, they may have deadlines mounting, but you are essentially running your own business–if you aren’t self-motivated to get the work done despite all distractions, you won’t have a paycheck.
According to Wikipedia, Writer’s block is defined as this:
a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown. The condition ranges in difficulty from coming up with original ideas to being unable to produce a work for years. Throughout history, writer’s block has been a documented problem.
So where does a writer’s belief in writer’s block fit in? How can writers justify a type of block that prevents them from doing what writers do: write?
I think there is a perfectionist tendency in artistic, creative people. We each have our ideal creation in our mind, and rarely does our finished product seem to fulfill the initial surge of creativity. Especially with novel writers and creators of longer pieces of art, it is easy to lose to the vision we first had for the piece, or to become distracted by another work, or simply to lose our passion for the piece by the end.
Is this writer’s block? Those days when we sit down to work on our novel and cannot muster the passion or the words to put to paper?
I’m not entirely convinced it is. After all, the only cure for writer’s block is to write.
Whether or not the words are perfect, or even ideal, writing is the only way they will ever enter the world. There is no solution to writer’s block. It’s essentially apathy for a writer’s job. Every person feels apathy for their job on some days. There will, eventually, be a day where you don’t want to work. But it’s the people who continue to go to work on the uninspired and uninspiring days that eventually become what they envisioned they would.
A writer writes. It’s that simple.
Don’t let writer’s block convince you that you’ve lost your passion, or even that you’re not a real writer. Just sit down and write–especially if it’s not perfect.
Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.
But writing the story is just the beginning.
If you’re like many writers, by the time you get to the end of your “fast” draft, it may not look anything like the rough draft you had in mind, or even the outline on which you spent many painstaking hours. Indeed, it may have taken so many rabbit trails it looks like the underbrush of the forest filled with game trails. Some paths may lay abandoned, half forged, grown over, some may be trod down to rock and dust.
Having a novel that doesn’t look anything like you anticipated is not a bad thing. It can be beneficial, for you could have realized your plot was tired, your characters uninteresting, and made the proper changes during your fast draft. Or you could have indulged those rabbit trails too much and ended up with a meandering novel that requires extensive use of the delete button.
Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.
There are endless different methods of writing, but I believe there are two main categories of first draft writers: the ones who end up with an extra long manuscript that requires much deleting, and those with a sparse manuscript that requires the addition of many details in order to make the reader see what the writer intended to convey. Neither one is wrong; both require revision.
But now that you’ve written your first draft, typed all the way to “the end,” it’s time to choose your editing path.
There are two main approaches to editing your novel:
1. Many writers recommend setting your novel aside for a month or two and focusing on a different project while you let this WIP “rest.” (If not months, at least a week, or several days at bare minimum.)
2. Other writers want to immediately revisit their WIP and begin redrafting before the ink has dried on “the end.”
So which one is right?
Personally, I find that I work best after giving my novel a week or two, maybe a month, where I don’t start on any big new project, but allow myself to ponder my first draft and some rabbit trails I wish I had taken/thought of while writing.
During that rest time, I often find myself planning new scenes in my mind and spending my time rereading editing books and books on writing craft or plotting. This time off allows me to recharge and also gives my brain the freedom to think up new plot twists and characters and realize the flaws in my novel as I work through those thoughts.
Nearly as soon as I finish a novel, my mind is clear on what doesn’t work for the plot–sometimes before I really know the plot itself. (I’m horrible at identifying the plot of my own stories, to be honest.)
But I’ve also found that I so often deviate from my outline during the first draft (or if I didn’t outline, my intentions for the first draft), that I need to go back to the drawing board and plot from square one. I will be spending more time on my current outlining and editing methods in later posts on this blog.
I’ve found the above method to be working for me now, in the hopes that when I return to my second draft, I am able to spend less time meandering down rabbit trails and instead forging ahead to the top of the hill in a straight line, and then find the quickest way down the other side. Outlining will allow me to do that, and with a young child at home, writing time is as sparse as a Bigfoot sighting.
It’s important to remember, however, that what works for me may not work for you. What works for J.K. Rowling or Neil Gaiman may not work for you. What worked for Ernest Hemingway or Charles Dickens may not work for you. So don’t be afraid to experiment. After all–what’s the worst that could happen?
Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.
Sources you might find helpful:
K.M. Weiland’s http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com
Writer’s Digest: Write Your Book Four Times
I love being in bookstores. Who doesn’t agree?
While I was in our local Barnes & Noble the other day, I randomly opened a book and found this gem:
To pursue the impossible is madness: and it is impossible for bad men not to act in character.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
I guess this spoke to me because I have had self-publishing on my mind a lot. Some days, the idea of it feels impossible. Why bother? Who is going to read my books? How are they going to stand out amongst millions of others? How will I find the time to promote them?
It takes a lot of self-persuasion to convince me that self-publishing is not impossible, in fact it’s completely doable. So as I ponder this quote, I reflect upon what, exactly, remains impossible.