Days Writing: 12 New Words: 3,069 New Chapters: 0.75
Total Word-count: 83,150 Total Chapters: 22.75
My goal for July was to incrementally improve on my performance in June. In June I wrote and edited 2,893 words through 10 days of work, so for June I wanted to work at least 11 days and write and edit at least 3,000 words.
And I’m pleased to say that I met both goals! As you can see I worked during 12 days and wrote 3,069 words. Given how close those numbers are to my goals, you might assume that I made a special push at the end of the month just to hit them, and you’d be absolutely right! But I suppose that’s one of the purposes of goals, to motivate you when you realize you’re in danger of missing the mark.
And I’ll keep the same “small incremental improvement” goal for August. I’ll try for 13 days of working and 3,200 words written and edited, which is a very doable goal.
I also had a happy realization this last month. When I first finished the outline for my novel I estimated that it would run for 32 chapters. But while writing I have removed and condensed some segments, but I never updated my estimates until just recently. Now my expectation is that my last chapter will be either number 28 or 29. That might not seem very significant of a change, but just knowing I’m about 6 chapters from the end of my first draft, instead of 9, is extremely encouraging!
I’ll let you know how things went in August one month from now, and here’s a small piece from the material that I wrote in July.
The hairs on the back of Clara’s neck stand on end and she wrings her hands. What is she supposed to do? She’s already doing everything that she can, but this is beyond her.
“Mother, please be alright!” she kisses Eleanor’s hand. “I’m going to get father. I have to. Please be alright!” She presses her lips against the hand once more, then turns and dashes out of the cottage.
She hurries along the trail as fast as her feet can carry her, legs whipped by the tall grass as she cleaves through it. Her fear gives her an amazing clarity. Any distraction that would normally occupy her mind is banished before it can enter. She doesn’t even allow herself to be deterred by any fears: not of hidden creatures lurking in the grass, and not of her mother alone at the camp. What Eleanor needs right now is swiftness, not worry.
Though not too much swiftness. With her enhanced clarity of mind, Clara realizes that if she keeps running flat-out, she won’t be able to keep up the pace all the way to William. The fastest way to get help for her mother is to run only at the highest speed she can maintain all the way from start to finish. So she slows her feet, but only a little, trusting that she will push herself beyond her normal capabilities.
As for the trip back, she gives no thought to it. She will expend all the energy that she has just to get to William, and then it will be up to him to take things from there.
At the start of June I mentioned the new schedule that I was making for myself, and threw out some pretty bold predictions for how many words I’d be able to write! And, well, obviously that’s not how things went for June. My numbers are better than they were in May, so that’s nice, but only a third of the potential I had been talking about.
Am I too shocked? No. Let’s face it, I’ve had a lot of plans to shake things up, and they’ve only ever brought temporary, moderate success. I’m glad that I keep trying new things, and I want to constantly experiment with my process and find new improvements, but perhaps I need to be a bit more realistic in my approach.
Which leads me to yet another new experiment to try! As I mentioned, June was an incremental improvement over May, and my goal for July is to make it an incremental improvement over June. Rather than looking for the miracle plan that triples my output all at once, I’m going to look for more gradual advancements.
In June I wrote 2,893 words over 10 days, so for July I’m just looking to do 3,000 words over 11 days. That seems very doable, and if I do succeed at that then I’ll raise the bar a little higher for August.
Come back next month to see how things went, and in the meantime, here’s a small piece that I wrote during June.
And by this he discovers the third great problem. In all of these three hours he has not even toppled three hundred stalks, less than a tenth of the field’s total. That alone would be of little consequence, if all he had to do was fell the cane he could have the task done within a week, but stalks of sugarcane is not what is sold back on the mainland, sugar is. And he cannot put the sheathed cane into the crusher, so the outer layers must be stripped off first, and these bind very tightly to the stalk indeed.
Stripping them back is a long and arduous process. Either he must grip their tips with his fingers and peel them back, one small piece at a time, or else he must slash the length of the stalk with his cutlass, wasting whatever chunks of inner cane come off with the leaves. If cutting the cane down had seemed a slow process, it is nothing compared to this! He dedicates five full hours to the task, and in that time he barely cleans fifty of the cane. A quick arithmetic tells him that if he were to work for ten hours at this current rate he could cut down and strip only eighty-five stalks of cane! Further arithmetic informs him that the entire field of three thousand cane would therefore take him three-hundred-and-fifty-hours of labor, or two weeks of working night and day without a moment’s relief.
And he is very sure of those calculations, for he has an immensity of time to double-check and triple-check them as he slowly strips the outer leaves from his hopes and dreams.
I have finished reviewing The Storm and have made note of the changes it requires. Now I will go through it piece-by-piece, correcting things as I go. I won’t take the time to detail every wayward comma and misspelling that I come across, but I will give a general description for the changes I am making.
To start off with, I had some problems right at the very beginning of the story. It contains a lot of details that are clunky and awkward, and I want to cut out a lot of these opening statements to focus instead on building atmosphere.
Oscar regarded the endless sea behind him. The muted gray of the water below was almost perfectly matched to that of the unbroken clouds overhead, and these were further blended by the distant wall of rain that bridged the gap between. It created the illusion that there were no separate bodies, but one massive ocean, and Oscar and his trawler were at this moment scurrying from that raised ocean’s advance, seeking to make land before the rain-wall did.
The storm had not been expected until later that evening, and Oscar had had to cut his excursion short without so much as a minnow to show for his effort. Fuel and time spent, but nothing gained. Oscar wasn’t surprised by that, though. Not anymore. Some days just turned out that way.
Most of the time the ocean would yield just enough for the sailors to pay their way, but from time-to-time it cut them short. “The ocean giveth and the ocean taketh,” one might say, but also “it taketh slightly more than it giveth,” so that a men grew a penny poorer each year for trying to live by it.
But also sometimes it was more than just a penny. Oscar knew better than most that in sudden, greedy moments the ocean took more than it ought. More than could ever be excused.
Oscar shook his head at the cold wall of gray and settled his focus back on the docks ahead. He was less than a quarter-mile out and he’d be moored and warming his boots in Lenny’s Tavern within the hour.
That is my new and improved opening. I’m not going to take up the space to copy-and-paste the original version here, but if you want to compare the two here is the link. You will notice that this new version in considerably shorter, 262 words compared to 390! Very little of substance was removed, though, I just tightened up the commentary about how the ocean exacted a slow toll out of the men.
And even with so much fewer words I was also able to add in some new content: that opening paragraph which paints the picture of the distant storm. In my original post the description was literally “the mounting storm” and nothing else!
I’m feeling quite pleased with this second draft. After I get through the whole thing I’ll read it all again and continue revising it, but for now I think I’m ready to move on. Next we have the conversation between Sam and Oscar, and the decision to go out and see what has happened to Harry.
That you, Oscar?
Oscar fumbled for the mouthpiece of his radio. “Yeah, Sam, it’s me.” Oscar looked to the edge of the pier where the red-and-white lighthouse cast its broad light into the gray. Sam was their lighthouse keeper, their watchful guardian who never lost tally of each man’s going and coming.
Sorry to hear that, Oscar.
“It’s just how it goes. Everyone else in already?”
All in but Harry.
Oscar’s radio crackled static, signifying that Sam had released the mic. Signifying that Sam would say nothing more until Oscar spoke first. Oscar sighed heavily, dropping his eyes from the lighthouse to the long pier where each of the local sailors had their permanent station. On the far left was his own berth, and as far away as possible on the right was Harry’s. Both empty. Oscar grabbed the mic.
“Do you know which way he went?”
Went for mackerel, around the cape, came the ready response. Probably why I haven’t been able to raise him.
“He woulda seen the storm coming even so.”
“He shoulda made it far by now that we’d see him.”
Crackling static again.
Sam wouldn’t say it. He wasn’t the sort to try and tell people what they ought to do. He was the sort to let them decide it do it themselves. And what if Oscar said no? What if he said Harry was a fool for having gone around the cape when there was any storm warning at all, and that if he was caught in a gale now that was his own affair? If Oscar said that Sam probably wouldn’t even hold it against him. Sam would know as well as anyone that Oscar had reason enough for it. But then Sam would go out himself. And he would be that much more delayed, that much more imperiled by the storm.
Oscar swiveled his head around the spot and surveyed the horizon. No ship in sight.
“I suppose I better go after him,” Oscar rasped into the mic.
If you think that’s best, Sam approved. I won’t blink an eye until the two of you get back.
“I know you won’t, Sam.”
I still like this exchange between Oscar and Sam a great deal and I changed very little about it. I tightened up the description of Sam and I inserted the bit about Oscar looking at the empty berths for him and Harry. It provided an awkward gap before he acknowledges the problem that Sam has brought up, and it also provides a symbolism of unfinished business remaining between the two men.
I also inserted the bit about how Sam would come out to find Harry if Oscar didn’t go. I felt it was awkward to switch from saying that Oscar had enough reasons to not check on Harry to suddenly him volunteering to do exactly that. Whatever happened to those reasons? I think this small addition provides a reason, though intentionally a weak one. It is enough to get Oscar out where I need him to be.
Come back next week as I’ll continue with the next section of the story, cleaning as I go.
I’m continuing to review my short story The Storm, making note of all the areas I wish to improve on as I go.
There is a line I just came across that has me utterly baffled.
This put him at a slant to the waves, and now they were beating like Poseidon’s drum against his hull
I honestly have no idea how I came up with the expression “beating like Poseidon’s drum.” I am not familiar of any legend that associates Poseidon with the instrument, and a quick Google search cannot find any either. It seems very irregular that I would have made it up out of nothing, but I don’t know what other conclusion to make. I’ll certainly be cutting that out.
There’s also a disorienting bit when Oscar starts having a conversation with himself. Its too melodramatic and the references to his tragedy are too obscure. They’ll most likely just confuse the reader. I’ll cut this out as well.
Let’s call out something positive, though. I don’t remember where I got the idea to have two boats tethered together, pushing their way through a storm, but it presents a very striking visual, one that I’m not aware of in any other story, and it is an excellent symbolism for the drama between my characters. I think this is the single strongest element of my entire story.
Another bit I feel quite positive about is Harry’s confession. His admission reads well and I like how it is interspersed with scenes of Oscar losing control of the wheel. There is some tidy-up to do, but this is a very promising scene. Given that it is the climax of the entire tale its a good thing that it works so well. I think that I could lean into it a bit better, though. I want to add a small piece to the plot right before. The storm will be beating down hard and the two men will stop making progress forward. It will be a hopeless situation, which will finally bring Harry to make his confession. He is divulging the truth to try and convince Oscar to just let him go and save himself.
I currently have things so that Oscar unconsciously puts his hand over the controls, as if to drop the line to Harry’s boat, and he is surprised when he sees it there. I want to rework that part so it isn’t just a subconscious accident. I want him to fully contemplate disconnecting the other sailor, heavily weighing the option, frozen by the choice until he is saved by the beam of the lighthouse falling on his vessel.
I need to fill out the final homestretch a little bit. The story needs more about how they rush the rest of the way to the beach. And then I need to add some more after that, too. I like the idea of the men going off to talk to Sam at the end, unsure of what the future holds but heading that way together. Right now, though, I’m reaching that conclusion too abruptly, and I need to provide some space for it to breathe.
And that brings us to the end of my read-through! To tell you the truth, when I first selected this story I didn’t think there would be much to change in it. I had very fond memories of writing it and felt it was already pretty close to its ideal form. I am now considerably humbled to see how many parts of it I actually have a problem with!
But I do feel that there is still a very good story to be found inside of there. It’s been compromised by awkward phrases, uneven pacing, and silly typos, but it is in there nonetheless. I caught glimpses of it as I read along and I’m excited to bring it out fully. Let me see if I can give a general description of what that ideal story looks like, and the main points that need to be changed to realize it.
This is a story about two men dealing with incredible loss and anger. The setting and the occupation are meant to reflect how they have been weathered down and turned salty over the years. They might appear slow-going on the surface, but there are many layers of dramatic depth beneath, all of which are going to force their way out in the eye of a violent storm.
It is a story that should be full of rich imagery. I need to practice the art of capturing a complex visual in a few, well-chosen words. It should be a story that transports the reader right onto the windswept deck, and I want the audience to feel as exhausted at the end as my characters are. I could see the ideal story being quite a bit longer than its current form, or at the very least feeling quite a bit longer. I want to hone in on that sense of gripping at the wheel for hours, holding on for dear life.
But having a great deal of rich imagery is not the same as an excess of poorly-written drivel! There are a lot of bits where I am trying to explain the way things are when you’re an old sea dog, something that I know absolutely nothing about! This is an allegory, not an actual job description and I should keep my focus where it belongs.
There is very little that I feel need to change from a structural point of view, though. All the main story beats should remain the same, just with each moment being enhanced or trimmed as mentioned above, all of its splintered edges sanded down and polished to an even shine.
And that is what I will start working on one week from now. Come back then to see how it goes!
Here we are at the first post of my new series: The Editor’s Bench! Here I will select one of my short stories and take it from its first draft stage to something worthy of commercial publication. I will be focusing exclusively on the short stories that are my favorite, the ones that I feel showed the greatest potential, and I will be working on them for as long as the process requires. I may be overhauling a piece for a very long while if I feel that that is what is needed for it.
These are the steps that I intend to take in my revising process, but I will likely modify them as I gain more experience at it:
Read through the current story. Summarize what it would look like in its ideal form and how it differs from that now.
Cut, refactor, and add scenes until the story is generally in the desired shape.
Make multiple passes to correct misspellings, grammar mistakes, and awkward phrases.
Repeat the above three steps until the story is in its ideal form.
I have decided to do the first of these revisions on my short story The Storm. I have chosen it because it is a shorter, simpler piece, one that I hope will let me gently ease into this editor’s role.
So without further ado, here are my notes from reading through the story.
The first thing that stood out to me was the awkwardness of my story’s introduction. I mention my main character Oscar, give a very slight description of his setting, go off on the philosophy of the old seamen in this hamlet, and finally pull everything back to the present moment when I introduce the story’s central problem. I believe that my intention was to reflect Oscar’s free-associative mind and how it drifts from one thought to the next. Actually reading through it, though, is a bit disorienting. I’ll want to revise this beginning to be a bit more structured, and to make sure than any transitions from one topic to another are clear.
Another element that is standing out to me is the ways that I am trying to add flavor to the story, such as when I talk about how the sea slowly wears down the lives of those that live by it, how the gains and the losses even out in time, and how the lighthouse keeper is sustained by a portion of all the sailors’ profits. Some of these details do contribute to the overall atmosphere, but others feel a bit forced. I’ll lean into the ones that work well and cut the ones that don’t.
I do want to call out one thing that I think works really well, though. I really like this exchange between Oscar and Sam:
“Do you know which way he went?” Went for mackerel, around the cape. Probably why I haven’t been able to raise him. “He woulda seen the storm coming even so.” He woulda. “He shoulda made it back far enough already that we’d see him now.” He shoulda.
There is a lot implied by those two-word agreements from Sam. He never tells Oscar that he ought to go out and search of his fellow seaman, but the way he emphasizes the “would” and “should” makes clear that he feels something is wrong and ought to be looked into.
I also like the occasional one-liners that keep signaling to the reader that there is some history between Oscar and Harry, a history that is going to be unveiled in due time. You see that in lines such as these:
It wasn’t the first time things had gone wrong in a storm for Harry.
One thing that I’ve been noticing even since the beginning is how I need to lean into my description of the sea itself. This, admittedly, is a weak area of mine. I usually skirt around set descriptions, rushing headlong into dialogue and action instead. Before I may have had the excuse of a tight deadline, but now it’s time to get down to business and dress this piece up properly!
I’m also noticing that I ought to reference the storm in gentler terms at the start of the story. It feels like it’s already pretty heavy as Oscar goes around the cape for the first time, which lessens the sense of escalation as the story progresses. I’ve got to improve that sense of gradual, rising tension.
I’m also going to make note of the fact that I have a fair number of awkward phrases and basic typos to correct. As I’ve tried to wax lyrical with my prose I’ve run into some silly, unnecessary descriptions, such as:
All at once the crackle of static changed to a small voice, timid and broken, yet tinged now with fresh hope.
“Yet tinged now with fresh hope” tacked onto the end like that doesn’t flow very well, now does it?
I’ve just reached the point where Oscar throws Harry the line and the description of that event is unnecessarily complex. Relating the details of physical events can quickly become unwieldy, better to find a couple short sentences that give the reader the gist of what happens and they can work out the rest for themselves.
Here’s an example of how I extended myself too far and made a phrase worse for it:
“Don’t mention it.” It wasn’t a polite deference. It was an order, and Oscar surprised himself at how much of a growl it came out with.
It’s almost a good line, but I dragged it out for one statement too many. Drop the “and Oscar surprised himself at how much of a growl it came out with” and it becomes much better. A classic example of less being more.
Alright, I’m going to call it good there. Next week I’ll give my analysis of the second half, and then we’ll actually start making some changes. See you then!
Here we are approaching the end of The Favored Son: Alternate. It’s been a long road, and there’s been a great deal learned along the way. I want to pause and do a review on those lessons, because while it is important for me to practice my writing, my improvement accelerates when I then critique that practice and learn from it. There’s a lot to go over, so I’m going to have to split this review into two posts: this one today and another in a week. Now let’s get started.
The whole thing began with a post about the struggle of humanity’s reach exceeding their grasp. Like Frankenstein I wanted to try an experiment that I had never attempted before: to take the same foundation from an earlier story and construct an entirely different experience on top it.
Last week I took a look at what I’ve written so far and decided that the answer to that question was yes. The two versions of The Favored Son are very different from one another, not only in the events that occur within them, but in style, themes, and message. As I shared before, this second version of the story hews much more closely to my original vision. In fact, the title “The Favored Son” really makes a lot more sense in this second take than it ever did in the first attempt.
That being said, I found myself starting to drift again during the writing of this second tale, too. Towards the center of it I had Tharol uncovering Reis’s plot in a way that was weak and unimaginative. This revelation was supposed to be a hinge of the entire tale, but it just came off as a cheap coincidence. I struggled for a little while to find a better way forward, but eventually an idea suggested itself to me, which improved the rest of the story. Things transpire much more organically now, and that has meant the final product is much lengthier than I had expected, but it is also more complete.
There were smaller course corrections as well. Early on I mentioned that I was feeling bored when writing a certain piece, and realized that the audience would probably be bored when reading it as well. I saw an opportunity to introduce a small bit of inventiveness to the tale, which led me to create the “statue lady” who is trying to buy her way through the city gate.
While she has not been featured very much in the tale, she is absolutely essential to the entire thing, and I’ve realized that taking the time to give her distinctive qualities should have always been my plan. We’re about to see a lot more of her in these final two chapters, and I’ve realized that her stone nature is going to be a prominent piece in how the final action plays out. I sure am glad I acted on my boredom and breathed this new life into the tale!
Shortly after that sequence I came to yet another trouble area. My initial action scene felt a bit lacking, and given that I intended to write several more of those over the course of the story I figured I ought to do some research on the form. Ever since then I have tried to incorporate the lessons I learned of rapid, yet evocative sentences for every scene of combat. Some of these have come out better than others, but overall I am quite pleased with the result.
But while I was improving my technique in writing action scenes, I then stumbled into another issue of how to transition from them into more conversational pieces. I paused to examine the awkwardness in those scene changes, identified the conditions that led to them, and found a way to do smooth them over.
Last of all, I was dissatisfied with a sequence that showed the leader of the district as a clichéd villain. I wrote about why it is so easy to slip into using tired clichés rather than come up with more thoughtful solutions to our stories. Fortunately I paused and found a more creative way to vilify Lord Amathur, a way that will lead into the broader theme I intend to conclude this story with. In these last posts I am trying to make clear that Tharol exists in a much larger world than he realized, one that has politics and ideologies that he was unaware of, one that is torn between competing ideas and agendas that he doesn’t know his own side of.
This theme of uncovering a broader world was not part of my original vision for this story. It was an element I only discovered while writing out the first version of The Favored Son. It has become the binding theme between the two of them.
One way I will emphasize this theme is in my use of the “statue lady.” In my next post she and her forces will be presented in an extremely antagonistic light. But in the post following that we will see signs that she may not be as evil as we have thus far assumed. In a larger tale she might even have even become the hero.
Writing stories is one of the best ways to get better at writing stories. Direct practice leads to better performance over time. However, there is another crucial practice that is necessary to more fully improve, and that is to take regular inventory of your work.
If all you do is write, then you will become more refined in the path that you are following, but you will not be able to correct any misalignments in that path. Your later work might be better than your first, but it will also be plowed deeper into your own personal rut.
Every one of us is going to have a personal rut in our work. We will have some tendency that is just wrong, an inherent weakness in our form. It is like running with an incorrect posture, and the more one practices running in that flawed way, the more entrenched in it they will become, the harder it will be to break the posture later on.
Sometimes the path forward requires taking a step back, then, and that is exactly what I intend to do now. I am going to take a step back from my work on Raise the Black Sun, assess its strengths and weaknesses, and consider how I would expand on it, if I were to turn it into a full-sized novel.
The Shape of It)
The main stand-out is the overall flow of my story, specifically the fact that its shape is so lopsided. The outline of the story can be summed up as follows: our main character is hired for a doomed venture, he embarks on a journey which is beset by numerous dangers, then arrives at a strange land and spends some time becoming familiar with the locals, he becomes enchanted with a young woman there, and finally witnesses the tragic destruction of his entire world.
Just from that description, it seems that this story wants to be an epic, a story of a long trek that takes the hero far from his home, both literally and in terms of character development. Readers should reach the end, and then look back at the beginning and be amazed at just how far they’ve come.
Given this, the correct balance would be that the bulk of the story (at least half) to take place in the journey that is beset by numerous dangers. Many changes of setting, many rises and falls in tension, and many hurdles to be overcome. Reaching the end should feel exhausting, allowing for a tapering tail until the climatic finish.
This is not the balance that I struck in my story, though. My story, when finished, will be eleven posts, each about two thousand words long, and for those eleven posts the layout is as follows.
Introduction: 1 post
Journey: 2.5 posts
Exploring the secrets of the Coventry: 3.5 posts
Conversation with Mira: 2 posts
Conclusion: 2 posts
As you can see, the journey portion, which should be the bulk of the story, is less than a quarter of the entire work! Now I’m not too surprised about this. When I was writing those portions I wasn’t expecting the scenes at the scenery to take more than another post or two. But I wanted to let things breathe as much as they wanted, and so the imbalance occurred.
This is a natural effect of writing a story without a clear structure in place. I don’t regret it, I enjoyed discovering the tale firsthand alongside my main character, but if I were ever to turn this into a full-sized novel I would now go back and expand the journey portion through more twists and turns until the balance was correct.
Let’s get a little more specific about this, though.
If I did decide to do a second draft of this story, then before anything else I would get my outline sorted out. I would write a brief summary of the story as it exists now, and then balance it out on that blueprint level, enhancing and expanding the journey section of this story. And I do believe the story is structured in a way that it could support a great deal of development there. We’ve already seen a few strange and fantastic things, and there could surely be more.
There is one thing that gets in the way of that, though, which is the fact that our Treksmen spend the majority of their journey unconscious. I like the idea of them surrendering to the Job’s Mind and becoming automatons, and I would still want to keep that to some degree, but they would just have to lose their foreman and awaken back to full consciousness aware far sooner in their journey. Like Frodo taking the ring to Mordor, I would want the audience to be keenly aware of where the party was in their world, and where they had yet to go.
Then comes the matter of how I would actually disrupt their journey. For this I would take note of the classic epic Odysseus, which laid a template for distraction and diversion that is still widely used today. As in that story, my journeyers would be pulled off on winding detours for every step forward they tried to take. Each of these diversions would be a self-contained adventure, leaving the main path, winding about, and then returning to it for the greater narrative to proceed. Sometimes my Treksmen would be returned closer to their destination than where they left it, and sometimes farther away.
And all this would play into the suspense of dwindling numbers among the Treksmen. Every side route would claim another soul or two. We would know more of these wanderer’s names, and as we said farewell to one after another, we would start to wonder if the company would make it to the end at all.
And that would establish the main theme of the journey: that the entire world was opposed to this small band, yet fate required them to prevail. The earth itself would be aware that these men were pushing to Armageddon, and would be a constant friction to stop them, but the undeniable pull of destiny would see Graye through to the end.
And finally I would want their journey to accomplish more than just provide scrying sticks to confirm what the Coventry members already know. As the story stands now, the end of the world would have still come, even if they had never arrived. I would want to change things so that the final sacrifice required their presence, and thus they would truly be the bearers of all destruction.
So that’s how I would rewrite this story if I were to rewrite it, but do I intend to ever do so? Honestly, I would love to, but I can’t find the time for it right now. I’m already working on another novel on the side, with a few more ideas already queued up behind that.
And I don’t want to stop experimenting with new short stories here on my blog to instead do an even longer-form production. But maybe I should? I don’t know. I like sowing new seeds to see what I like, but then I also want to take the good ones to fully maturity. I’m still trying to find the right balance between my creative desires and my time constraints, but perhaps for right now it is enough to know what I would do if I could. What do you think?
Well, here we are in a new series. Usually I try to make each series distinct from the one before, and thus avoid building off of any prior ideas. This is going to be the exception, though, because last series I made a post that I have a bit more to say on. Specifically it was my post just a week ago about how every author seems to have a distinctive style. In that post I suggested that if each writer were to examine their own style they would probably find that it had naturally emerged as an extension of their own personality.
I still agree with those thoughts, but realized that many authors are actively trying to change their style. Perhaps they want to branch out and try new things, or they want to be more marketable, or maybe they want the prestige of being a versatile author.
Personally I do think it can be very positive to spread one’s wings and expand, though not necessarily for all of those reasons listed above. In fact I think authors can run the risk of killing their passion for writing if they push themselves too hard to change and for the wrong reasons.
I’m concerned that the most common motivation people have for changing up their craft is a fear of what other people think of them. This fear can manifest in couple of ways. Perhaps the author feels that writers who shift effortlessly between many different styles are more impressive than one who only writes in one, or perhaps they think their work will sell better if it is in a different genre. With these fears an author can feel pressured to redefine themselves over and over, changing with every shift of society.
Holding ourselves to such expectations can never be healthy. It’s exhausting and will inevitable lead sooner or later into writing things that we really don’t care about. With this mentality writing truly becomes just a “job” and not a work of passion. And what of the outcome? Perhaps one can learn to write something different, but that does not inherently mean that it is better.
Even a dream can be made into a drudgery, and nothing is more dulling than slaving away over a script you don’t care for. I’m all for writing things out of your comfort zone as an exercise, and even for emulating an entirely different voice in a new novel. But if you’re going to be dedicating a significant portion of your life to doing this work, you had better make sure it will be in a genre that you love.
But what if it’s not about pleasing a crowd? What if it’s sincerely just trying to become the best author one can be? What if the author is afraid that they have stopped growing and they want to take their craft to the next level?
Well, to be clear, experimentation and exploration are obviously essential to becoming a confident author. Every person who wants to author a story needs to be expanding their scope every day. They need to practice and exercise their skills, making sure every tool in already in their belt is kept sharp, and trying to add new tools wherever they can. I think most people would say that developing one’s skillset is the single most important thing one can do to become a professional writer.
I, however, would say it is only the second most important. It’s a very big second, but still second.
First and foremost comes living a full and complete life. Extensive skills, fancy prose, hours of writing prompts… these are ways of putting those tools into your belt. But tools do not craft a masterpiece, the artist that wields them does. More than these you need to find things in life you are deeply moved by, so that you will know by experience how to touch a reader’s heart. You need to experience the full depth of real-life relationships, so that you will know how to write a convincing relationship. You need to go through a soul-crushing disappointment, so you will know how to pen a heartbreaking tragedy.
One of the classic elements I love most in a good martial arts film is that raw talent is only of use after one is grounded and centered. You see this in The Karate Kid, Ip Man, and even Cinderella Man. Other warriors in those stories might have greater raw strength, but the heroes triumph because their foundation is based on living a life that matters.
If you want to be the best author you can be, then you need to find out what real love is, what real loss is, what hopes and dreams and doubts and failures are made up of. You need to hurt, and you need to be healed. You need to understand yourself, and then you need to be mystified by yourself.
No author should want to stay the same for their entire career, but they needn’t worry about that if they are living a deep and meaningful life. Part of living life to the fullest means constantly changing and improving. It means not sitting back in complacent idleness, but rather growing and expanding as a person.
As I mentioned in my earlier post, my own particular style has changed as my patterns of life naturally evolved through education, physical exercise, and spiritual searching. I didn’t have to try to alter my form of storytelling, it just did so naturally as an extension of who I am.
When growth as a writer is based first on personal development and second on developing skill, I think you’ll find your improvement will outstrip any other method. This has certainly been the case for me.
Whenever I want to take my writing to the next level, my first question is “what can I do to improve myself as a person?” And if I successfully become a person that I respect more, then I always find that my writing is more satisfying as well.
A Real-Life Example)
Obviously many life changes come unexpectedly, and it is impossible to tell exactly how they will color our writing style. This means that while we hope to improve in our craft, we may not know in which way we will do so.
When Brunelleschi lost the commission to design the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery in 1401 he also lost any future as a sculptor in Florence. His entire trajectory had been crushed in a moment, and he knew it was time for some deep soul-searching. So he went away to Rome, and there among the marvels of antiquity he found an abiding fascination in the ancient ruins that he found there. He started uncovering principles of architecture that had been forgotten to the ages, secrets of a bygone era, and even found ways to improve on them.
Eventually Brunelleschi did return to Florence, but not as a sculptor. Instead of crafting a pair of mere doors, he was commissioned to erect an architectural masterpiece. His dome on the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral showcased principles of balance and support that were entirely unheard of, and the structure still stands today as a prominent figure of the Florentine skyline.
The important thing, though, is that while his shift in life was quite radical, it was not a brash reaction to public opinion. Perhaps it was losing a commission that began his journey of self-discovery, but he dedicated 39 years of honing his craft between that failure and his later monumental success. This was no brief flight of fancy, this was a man improving himself over a lifetime of effort. As best we know, Brunelleschi died a content man. A man who had lived richly, and then created beautifully.
By all means each of us should test the limits of our comfort zone regularly. These exercises will expand our skillset, and may even lead to discovering new passions, such as architecture to Brunelleschi.
Generally, though, I always like to approach these sorts of exercises without any expectation, I simply allow the experience to be what it will be, take the good that it offers me, and move on with my work. And that’s exactly what I am going to be doing with my next project. On Thursday I will post the first part of a story that is intentionally as far removed from my usual style as possible. Where normally I fall into the pattern of slow and fantastical allegory, here I am going to strive for a realistic setting, some biting cynicism, and a chatty-conversational narrator. Come back then to see how it turns out.
So here we are at the start of a new series. Each time I finish a session of stories I am well aware of all the shortcomings in my work, but they don’t bother me too much. The fact is that three days is a very quick sprint to bring a story from initial concept to polished conclusion, no matter how short it may be. Almost every Thursday morning finds me setting aside a long list of improvements for my story, just so that I can meet my deadline. Not every creative effort has to be targeting perfection, after all, and its never been my ambition for this blog to produce top-quality narratives that are ready for publishing. Really I just wanted this blog to be a constant stream of ideas and experience, knowing full well that for every nugget of gold there’s going to be a lots of dirt clods along the way.
But not all of my work is meant for practice, I do also write other stories that I am trying to polish and mold into their best possible forms. In these situations I have to seriously weigh every shortcoming and flaw that I see in my work, and even open myself up to asking others what problems they see in it as well. Opening up one’s work for critique is a very vulnerable thing to do, and it’s hard to not get emotionally wounded by the criticisms that inevitably follow. I don’t really want to focus on the proper way to receive those critiques, though, I feel there are plenty of resources available that cover that end of the exchange. Instead I’d rather take some time for the other side of things, discussing how to give helpful and nurturing feedback if ever you are asked your opinion on a piece.
We’ll begin by looking at the wrong method for providing critique. Unfortunately, it is the more common method, our culture has developed a trend for sharp and cynical put-downs whenever evaluating other people’s creative efforts. We even provide this “service” to the creator when they never even asked for our feedback. The title of “critic” is all too accurate, and many who carry this title seek nothing more than to cut stories apart for the entertainment of others. Indeed at times it seems that professional critics view themselves as performers, whose purpose has more to do with amusing the audience with their biting wit, instead of actually providing a fair and meaningful dissection of a work. With the advent of social media and a “comments sections” at the bottom of most internet articles we’ve even taken the meta a step further with the audience critiquing the work of that critic.
In addition to this penchant for snark, our culture is also very competitive. Our main method for appraising a work is to compare it to another and see which is better. Art schools and creative industries have very little patience for any but the top two percent, and cuts from the programs are quick and severe. Perhaps these methods really are the best for producing revenue, I don’t know, but I have a hard time believing that they are ideal for cultivating happy and creative people.
I actually spent a short stint of college in one of those art programs, and quite frankly I did amazing. That’s not to say that I “succeeded” in the program, quite frankly I was in the bottom half of each class I took and I never had a prayer of progressing to the more specialized projects. But I say that I did amazing simply because I developed and improved. I listened to the instruction that was given and I went from drawing shapeless lumps to recognizable figures. I don’t care that no one was ever going to pay me for this stuff, I was better than before and that was enough for me.
I think that’s a fair and honest critique of myself. It doesn’t make my work out to be something more than it was, but it also doesn’t discredit the good that was accomplished. So can we develop a method for a kinder form of honest critique like this? I believe so. Really it all comes down to intent, intent of the author and intent of the reader. When we have these sorted out, nurturing feedback will follow naturally.
Appreciating the intent of the author has two branches, the first of which has to do with understanding their intent in even writing the story. When we provide feedback for a story our default metric seems to be “well do I like it.” But we all know that “liking” something is often subjective, and that there are many things which we do not like but which we can still acknowledge were well made and which seem to have accurately captured the author’s intent. Perhaps the author’s intent was even to make something which, by nature, was unlikable. Should we say they did a poor job because they succeeded in the very thing they set out to do?
Another question we should ask ourselves is what was the author’s intent in even seeking our critique? The simple truth is that not all people that request critique really want it. When my three-year-old son shows me his latest drawing he does not really want to know what I think of his picture, he just wants to know what I think of him. You might be tempted to say well that is a three-year-old and a grown adult is a very different thing. I’m afraid I would disagree. We may have learned how to be more subtle with our years of experience, but we very often play the same games we employed as children. To be clear, I am not advocating that you coddle others or give them disingenuous praise for their work, I am merely suggesting that you reflect on what their true intentions are and then use your own wisdom in choosing how to respond.
But now let’s assume a scenario where the author truly is looking for constructive criticism. More than anything they want to improve so that their work can be the best it can be, and you could do them a great favor in helping them to hone their craft. How can we do this in a way that doesn’t come at the expense of kindness?
As I’ve tried to find a way to express this sort of positive critique my mind settled on mathematics of all things. In order to provide any review you first have to identify three values related to it. We have to know the value of what was written, we’ll call that value 1. Next we must know the value of the ideal, or the potential of what could have been written, we’ll call that value 3. And finally we have to know the difference between those two values, obviously that is 2. Now with these three values there are two ways we can express their relations to one another. The first way follows the pattern of “This is what you should have done (3), but these are all the things you did wrong (2), and this is what we were left with as a result (1).”
3 – 2 = 1
The is the pattern of the cynical and competitive methods mentioned above. You can recognize it in a review by the abundance of that middle term “these are all the things you did wrong” in all its various forms. As the mathematical equation suggests, this sort of critique is literally a negative perspective, one that pulls a work down to a lower term.
But now for that other way of expressing these values. You could instead use the pattern of “This is what you’ve already accomplished (1), and by incorporating these other elements into that foundation (2), this is what you your work could become (3).”
1 + 2 = 3
This sort of approach is literally a positive perspective, one that looks to lift the author to a higher term. Please note that all the same information has been conveyed with this approach, we haven’t had to leave out any of our recommended improvements by expressing things more kindly. I think we sometimes forget that brutal honesty is not the only kind of honesty, and it is not a more honest form of honesty because of its brutality. Uplifting honesty is just as honest, and greatly more helpful.
I want to stress here the importance of the first term “this is what you have already accomplished.” In either form of critique we need to establish a base metric, so why not do that with the good the author has already accomplished? A truly fair analysis of a work should be willing to give equal attention both to what is good and what is lacking, not solely focused on the negative. I think you’ll find you are far less likely to convince anyone of how they can grow in their work until you first convince them that you see the work which has already occurred.
For the second term, notice how in the positive form we are stressing a relationship between what they have done and what they could do to improve. Incorporate these elements into your foundation. We are suggesting that this better form of writing belongs in their story, whereas the negative approach suggests that all those good things are apart from their story which makes their situation seem hopeless.
And of course in the third term we leave them with a vision, an invigorating glimpse of what they can become. In the negative approach we leave them at the lowest positive value of the equation. It all comes down to the direction you want your critique to flow it, are you going to use it to drag them to the lowest possible point or uplift them to the highest?
I sincerely feel that the thoughtful critique of creative work does so much more than improve the work in question, it has the potential to improve the very soul who authored it. As writers, we of all people should understand that our words can have great power, both to break and to build, it is our obligation and privilege to do the latter.
On Thursday I’d like to present a short story on which I will immediately provide a quick analysis. I will try to do so in a way that is honest and fair, which takes into account all of its flaws and shortcomings, but which presents them in a way that is kind and encouraging. Obviously that all sounds quite self-serving, but you know something? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that! Feel free to come back then if you want to see me be nice to myself 🙂