My Writing Is a Mess–and So Am I

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We interrupt this regularly-scheduled blog post to share a must-read from Lauren Sapala: “Writing Is Messy. That’s Just the Way It Is.” Lauren is the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide for introverts, as well as an autobiography, Between the Shadow and Lo. She is also a writing coach whose About Me page says her “blog is meant to nourish, heal, spark, and empower your creative flame,” and she does just that with blog posts such as “Why It’s No Coincidence So Many INFJs (and INFPs) Are Also Writers” and “Coping With Feeling Like You’re Never Good Enough.” How many people–writers or not–need to read that last one?

I had something different planned for a post today, but Lauren’s blog, in conjunction with various writer complaints about motivation and rejection I watched pop up this week on social media, made me feel as if I needed to share this. Right. Now.

First, let me say that I do not know Lauren in any way, short of following her blog for the past couple of months. I also didn’t share with her in advance that I was going to write this post because, well, read on.

In my very first blog post, I shared that I shelved my last attempt at a novel. If I weren’t head-over-heels in love with the current WIP (work-in-progress), I probably would have done the same with it a couple of months ago. I had reached a sticky point–I needed to go back and re-read, find the holes, discover where I was missing some clues, and gasp in horror that I changed the name of a character’s dog three times without ever noticing. (He also went from being a German Shepherd to a black Labrador Retriever in the same space.)

I could go on, but you really don’t want to know. Just ask my critique partner.

The key for me is that I believe in this novel. I believe in the story. I believe in the stories that will come from it. But if I didn’t, I could very easily have said forget it. I know that the writing process is just that–a process, yet mine seemed so very, well, unprofessional. Like I was just piecing things together. Or, as Lauren points out in her blog post: “Finally, I stitched all the pieces together and what I was left with resembled Frankenstein’s monster.”

I re-read, I made copious margin notes, and I started editing. I have finished the first third, which was my stopping point because of a big, gaping hole (and next on my list to write, right after this blog post).

So when Lauren’s glorious blog post arrived in my inbox this week, I read it with my jaw dropped the entire time. It was so incredibly spot on. It wasn’t just me. I wasn’t alone.

Writers–especially those of you who, like me, are unpublished, struggling, questioning yourselves–if you read only one thing today or even this week, please read Lauren’s blog post. She speaks the truth about just how messy writing can be, and how we don’t need to doubt ourselves: “…because I had never written a book before, the whole time I was going through this experience I assumed I was doing something seriously wrong…I chalked my struggles up to…being somehow vaguely ‘stupid’.” 

Isn’t it as if she were reading our minds?!?

Which leads me to why I didn’t contact her about this post: I believe that in this world of people trying to sell their services everywhere, it’s hard to ferret out a genuine compliment, a sincere nod of appreciation. I was so touched and empowered by her post that just sharing the link wasn’t enough–I had to share its impact in the hopes it would reach others as it did me. I’m positive that if you read it, it will do the same to you. Share your thoughts with me–and with Lauren!

Murder Your Darlings

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Earlier this week, I focused on the argument of editing while writing versus writing without stopping. Part of that struggle includes editing out pieces that you love but just don’t fit.

I first stumbled across that concept in Stephen King’s book On Writing: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

That phrase has been attributed to numerous writers over the years, from Eudora Welty to William Faulkner and, of course, Stephen King, but the true credit goes to one Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, an editor and writer, who presented a series of lectures in 1913-1914 at Cambridge University about writing (which Bartleby has lovingly preserved here). He said, “To begin with, let me plead that you have been told of one or two things which Style is not; which have little or nothing to do with Style, though sometimes vulgarly mistaken for it. Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament.”

In other words, just because something sounds fancy does not mean it’s good writing (or good reading). He continued with this snarky gem: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

I’d heard the concept, but I really hadn’t been forced to put it into practice until I signed up for a writing bootcamp. One of the comments from a published author and reputed agent on my writing:? “Too dense.” Dense as in too thick with those $5 words and crafted phrases. My darlings. I was immediately transported back to my sophomore year in college when my novels professor gave me my first (but not last) B on an essay. One word sat in red ink next to the offensive letter: “Wordy.” I had never received that kind of feedback, and the sting was palpable. My bootcamp mentor and novel prof were effectively saying what Mr. Quiller-Couch had: Write it how you want to write it, but then murder those darlings. Or, as legend Elmore Leonard put it, “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”

Don’t despair! You can always resurrect those murdered darlings. Cut and paste them all into one place so that, if you find you wished you hadn’t murdered one after all, you can bring it to life again. Mine now reside in a folder punnily named The Dead Files. That file made it so much easier to let go–because I wasn’t really letting go. Resurrection is right around the corner thanks to technology. (Doesn’t that just beg for a post about Battlestar Galactica?) 

Need some help on how to do away with those darlings? Ruthanne Reid shares lovely advice on The Write Practice.  (You should also read her post about Neil Gaiman’s rules of writing.)

Writers, is this your process too, or do you do something altogether different with those darlings when you cut swaths of your work? Comment and let me know!

Readers, have you ever wondered if a piece was cut from your favorite novel? Would you want to read those cut pieces? I’m toying with the idea of releasing some of mine here on the blog. Please comment if that’s something you’d like to see!

To get a free sneak-preview of my work-in-progress, The Devil Inside Me, please sign up for my mailing list here. Email subscribers will receive extras along the way! 

Should I Edit While Writing?

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First, can I give a shout out to my first followers? Thank you so much for taking the time to read my thoughts and for your kind words. I’d love to hear your comments here on the blog! If you’d like to read snippets of my work-in-progress, The Devil Inside Me, please sign up for my mailing list here. It’s not the same as subscribing to the blog itself–and you’ll get extra freebies along the way in addition to pieces of my novel!

On my last post, I spoke of giving ourselves permission to write–to try, to fail, to shelve that 60,000 words of a novel you faltered on. I also discussed giving ourselves permission to write in the genre that gets our blood pumping. That’s mystery for me–I mean, when your favorite book as a fourth-grader was Harriet the Spy, why would you deviate?

There was something else I had to give myself permission for. As an English teacher, wanting to proof and polish after every 500 words or so is in my nature, but not always conducive to getting my story on paper (or computer screen). Sometimes you just need to get those words down and worry about the grammar perfection and beautiful turns-of-phrase later. In my shelved novel, I would bold the items that needed more detail, or even write research questions right into my text. This resulted in some strange re-reads: Elena and Robert waited for a table at what restaurants are on the San Antonio riverwalk?

Sometimes, though, I felt that this created more work in the long run AND left me with holes in my storyline. (That certainly was not because I wasn’t sure where my storyline was headed…right?) Blogger and podcaster Ryan Pelton acknowledges that others may call him a “heretic” but editing as he goes is his go-to form of writing. In one post, he explains that not editing until the end meant his “motivation to edit went out the window.”

Of course, it’s different for everyone, and, while we’re at it, who wants to define editing? For me, if, when typing out a sentence, one of the resident voices-in-head screamed, “No! Use ELUCIDATE!” I listened. Sometimes the voices-in-head were having a philosophical conversation that was one part Mark Twain saying, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent one will do” and one part high school English teacher asking “What would Strunk and White say?” In those cases, I tried to highlight or bold the problem area and return to it later. Grammarian Liz Bureman says, “If you’re on a four-day creative bender, stopping to edit will slow your momentum and may leave you struggling to pick up where you left off.” Excellent advice for those days we are bogged down by perfection.

When NaNoWriMo time arrived last year–where the goal is to get down 50,000 in one month–I revisited Ms. Bureman’s advice and realized that some days I was just going to need to write for writing’s sake. For some of us, we must force the grammarian in us to allow the creative self to just be. Allow for stream-of-consciousness writing. Allow for mistakes. Allow for imperfections. Allow our creative selves to go where they want to go. The grammar minutiae can wait. And on the days when it can’t, edit as you go. Find what works for you–and that may be different on the daily.

Writers, how do you deal with your inner grammarian whilst writing? Comment (and sign up for my mailing list here) and receive my newest editing helper: The Punctuation Primer in addition to a snippet of The Devil Inside Me.

Readers, what are some things you wish writers would edit out? What do you consider “too much” when you’re reading? Is it dialog? Description? Comment (and sign up for my mailing list here) and receive my newest editing helper: The Punctuation Primer. Even if you aren’t writing a novel, my Punctuation Primer will help you look like grammar nobility in your emails and posts! You’ll also receive a snippet of The Devil Inside Me!