What are you trying to say?


There was a moment when I finished doing the first revisions to my novel where I started to question the message of my book. To be perfectly honest I wasn’t sure what I was tying to say. Then I realized that it didn’t really matter. You’re not going to say anything that hasn’t already been said. All you can do is to try and say it differently. What I was trying to do was create compelling characters and an interesting world for them to live in. It occured to me that the ‘voice’ of my book wasn’t all that novel, my writing style not that compelling, and my story wasn’t all that unique. I let that eat away at me because we’re told as writers that you need to be different to stand out. There’s some truth in that, but it’s also true that you need to speak in a way that is common enough that your readers can understand what you’re saying.

I had a writing teacher who used to say that the reader and writer have a contract that binds them together. The reader has to trust that the writer is taking them to a place worth going and the writer has to have faith that the reader can figure out why it’s worth going to. There are a lot of times where I struggle with the meaning of my writing. I’m not sure it matters what you’re trying to say because readers are going to make up their own minds about that. Writing isn’t like law where intent is nine-tenths of the matter. What you intend to do in writing is oftentimes irrelevant. What matters is what you get across. What you get across depends a lot on your audience. You can’t choose your audience. Your audience chooses you. What you decide to do with the audience you have is about the only thing you have any real control over. The rest is a myth.

When I was doing my first pass after I finished the first draft of my novel I was downright confused in places about what I had written. My first drafts are always all over the place because I never know where a character or scene is going until I write it. I may have some vague idea in my mind when I start, perhaps I even have a destination that looked like it had potential in pre-writing, but I’m never certain of exactly where I’m going until everything has been laid out on the page. I can think of three types of chapters that I write. There’s the signpost chapter. This is plot heavy and meant to drive the readers’ attention toward what I want them to focus on. There are set pieces where the environment is shaping a characters attitude or decision-making process. Then there are what I call “workman” chapters. The only goal of a workman chapter is to get from one place in the plot to another. I can figure the rest out later. Most writing is re-writing anyway. Writing a shoddy chapter isn’t that bad. Writing a shoddy chapter that doesn’t do anything however is detrimental to what you’re trying to do as a writer and that is move the story forward. I always identify what kind of chapter I’m trying to write before I sit down and write it to try and avoid writing shoddy chapters don’t serve a purpose.

One of the things that still gets under my skin as I do re-writes is how much I still rely on crutch words in my writing. Crutch words are words like: “just” and “very.” I use those two words a lot in my writing because I’m either trying to making a qualifying statement or I’m trying to emphasize the drama of the situation. Both are cop outs. When I go through and revise I re-write those sentences so I convey the drama without telling the reader “hey, this is dramatic.” Some writers take issue with words ending in “ing” and “ly.” I take issue with those who actually make that an issue. Changing “she was going to the store” to “she was headed to the store” doesn’t tell the audience anything more and it doesn’t add any detail or background. Also, “ing” words can include very specific words that convey something unique to your audience. The word “manufacturing” for instance conveys a specific kind of building. How else do you say that? Well, you’d have to chage something like “they were manufacturing meth” into “they were involved in the manufacture of methamphetamine.” It’s a way of formalizing style in a way that is, in all likelihood, stylistally different from the way you write. Most of us down’t write so formally. “Write like you talk” is a better rule to me than trying to remove “ing” and “ly” words.

Sometimes when I’m writing a scene I’ll have a firm idea of what I’m trying to communicate in my mind. Oftentimes this is something I’m trying to convey through a characters words, but occassionally I try to say it through action. I’ve found that actions are the things in life that we spend the most time analyzing. I’d hard to remember the exact wording someone uses when they speak. If you’ve ever gotten into an argument where you’re saying to the other person: “but, you said this” and they say: “no, what I said was actually this and what I meant was really this” then you can see how speech can be problematic. We don’t always say what we mean, but we quite often act in a way that displays meaning. We’ve all been around someone who we’ve perceived as acting cold toward us. We may not be able to identify right away why they are acting cold, indeed they might not even know it themselves, but we are able to interpret their actions and infer the meaning behind them.

I’ve come to believe that it’s very important to know your strengths and weaknesses as an artist. As a writer, I’m quite good at dialogue and orchestrating a scene. I’m not as good at progressing scenes towards a conclusion. I tend to overwrite scenes of conflict because I want the conflict to produce something unexpected. That’s not always how conflict works though. Not every problem brings along with it a solution that makes the conflict worth going through, but it has to work that way in fiction. This creates its’ own set of problems for the writer. How do you turn even the smallest disagreements into teachable moments for your chartacters? The logical answer is to exagerate. This detracts from realism in fiction, which often leads to a scene, character, or action feeling “fake.” Well, of course it might seem fake. It seems fake because it is fake. The way you make those moments real is by adding on layers that give meaning to a character. These kinds of things can be simple from having a character get into a verbal alteraction with a loved one before they get into an auto accident that leaves them clinging to life (and this makes another character believe that they were responsible for what happened) to someone getting stung by a bee moments before they fall down a sewer. These moments aren’t that exciting in and of themselves. Accidents happen all the time, but when you add layers to these things all of a sudden there’s confict and consequences. Will the character who fell down the sewer be terrified of bees for the rest of their life? Will the person who was in the car accident ever forgive the person they got into a fight with? Indeed, will they ever get the opportunity to forgive? The addition of the unreal to the real makes a situation, person or event identifiable to an audience and when we can do that for a reader the fake part of the action becomes real.

All in all, what matters in writing is your ability to communicate. Writing is a form of communication and however you best communicate ideas is the best way for you to write. Those who claim there is only one way to do something do so because they lack the courage, ingenuity and integrity to try anything different. It’s easy to go through life if you never challenge anything, never stand up for anything, and never try anything that hasn’t already been tried. This is not the role of the artist however. The artist suffers for their craft. The artist challenges conventions and improves the way their art is understood and accepted across time. There is no honor among thieves and there is no method among artists that is correct or ensures success. To thine ownself be true.


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