Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Lightning or Lightning Bugs?

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” -- Mark Twain



Mark Twain said it best, doesn’t he usually? While the budding author often finds words falling unbidden and beautifully at first stroke, it takes editing, more editing and pounding of the head off unassuming objects to clean up that first stroke of genius. But then, there are those scenes which simply will not conform to the vision in your head.

Have you done this? Have you ever had the most gorgeous scenario flowing through your brain only to sit down at the keyboard and release complete and utter drivel? I have. I hate that. And this phrase of Twain’s encompasses it so completely. I know what the mood is, the setting, the character’s disposition, but try as I might the words fall short. The more I try to describe the scene accurately, the more it loses the luster of first inception...

With my own writing, I find the problem is often one of overwriting. Too much petty detail where one or two strong, evocative words would have accomplished the feat much more accurately and given the reader something more to ponder, or sink their teeth into. This all was brought to mind very vividly last week, when Nathan Bransford held a first line challenge which captivated a large portion of the online writing community.

I noticed a number of writers who simply could not keep their entries to one line. In a few instances, I think the second lines made the prose more effective. For the most part, though, whole paragraphs weren’t necessary for this particular writing contest. As I read through them, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the authors were suffering from the same lack of confidence which I find myself constantly fighting in my own writing.

Hello. My name is Merry, and I’m a spoon feeder.

I’ve learned enough about my process, my writing, and where I’d like my writing to evolve to know the reason that I spoon feed. It’s not because I underestimate the reader – though I think over explanation can come across as a lack of respect for the reader’s intelligence. Whenever I am over explaining in my writing, it’s a sure sign that I’m underestimating my own ability to accurately depict the story. Spoon feeding, for me, has little to do with anything but my own need to relay all of the information that I know, so I won’t be leaving my reader in the dark. In reality, I know the subtlety of the story is what makes it fun, it’s what makes it possible for the readers to experience the story and own my characters. And that, for me, is the point of good writing.

So back to Mr. Twain’s eloquent quote – a string of mediocre descriptions can never deliver what the perfect words can do. This phrase is going next to my monitor, right underneath my handwritten admonishment, “No Spoon Feeding”... I look at it often, I’m not sure it’s helping, but I’m still trying.

How about you? What’s your greatest writing challenge at this stage? Which ones have you gotten past, and what have you become great at?

18 comments:

Mary Witzl said...

Hello. My name is Mary and I'm a spoon feeder too. This horrible addiction runs in my family: I'm also a motor-mouth, and my children frequently tune me out because I talk too much.

I have precisely this problem of over-explaining, Merry. Nothing to do with underestimating my readers and everything to do with being too damned garrulous for my own good.

With the help of friends and a merciless husband (in this respect, I am blessed; wish he'd just pick up after himself), I am learning to deal with this problem. But it hasn't been easy.

Blogging really does help me cope. I can be as prolific as I like on my blog, then go back to my novel and look at it with a critical eye, paring off bits here and there.

I placed in the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook Novel Writing Competition a few months back and won a free critique of my synopsis and first ten thousand words. The reviewer told me what I really already knew: that 'Less is more' ought to be my new mantra.

Mary Witzl said...

See how talkative I am? Back already.

I can't say that I've become great at anything yet, but I have found a way to cope with my overuse of words: I've used a protaganist who is a self-confessed motor-mouth. This provides the perfect cover for my problem. Of course her utterances are too wordy: she's just admitted that she's a chatterbox!

Personally, I'm rather proud of this trick. Once I get my 100th rejection, I may have to rethink this strategy, of course...

Merry Jelinek said...

Hi Mary,

Congratulations on placing in the Writers and Artists Yearbook Novel Writing Competition!!! That's great!

I like your trick of making the protag a motor-mouth, that way you can get all of the excess mutterings out of your system in her dialog, while still checking yourself in other dialog and the narrative.

Let me know how it works out for you...

My need to spoon feed also erupted in the addition of too much back story, so I'm editing with a carving knife and re-entering the descriptions that I find meaningful... we'll see how that pans out.

Thanks for stopping in and sharing a bit of your process.

WordVixen said...

A large part of my problem has always been procrastination. Probably because of my fear of failure and my fear of success. There's a combination! The great thing about blogging though, is that I met so many excellent writers who also were actually completing WIPs. I really think that my latest bout of writing is a result of my embarrassment over not having progress to report.

My new problem is that my creativity flows best when hubby goes to bed- which is much earlier than I want to go to bed. I need to find a way to work on my WIP before lights out.

jjdebenedictis said...

I'm with WordVixen; my greatest problem is getting started.

I really don't know if I've gotten great at anything yet. :-/

silken said...

my over explaining comes out not in writing, since I'm no author, but in my family life, to my kids, husband, etc as mary said, they start to tune me out...maybe I need to try to write to get it all out of my system! (loved mary's idea of the chatterbox! clever!)

Jerseygirl89 said...

I'm with Wordvixen and jjdebenedictis, I am awful about getting started. Well, not started, exactly, more like past the first few pages/outlines. And the only thing I'm great at is editing other people's writing!

Merry Jelinek said...

Wordvixen,

Ah, I'll procrastinate tomorrow! Blogging is great for getting you in touch with other writers, which really helps in a lot of ways... on the other hand, for me it serves as procrastination in itself... I feel like I'm accomplishing something, but I could be accumulating word count, rather than blog posts and comments...

Oddly enough, when I'm getting work in on my fiction, I feel guilty for neglecting my blog.

By the way, I think fear of failure and fear of success are often intertwined... I have the same problem in getting more writing time in the wee hours because of hubby and kids and such - unfortunately, my best productive time is in the morning but I'm too busy getting them out the door and taking care of the daily stuff to get to my writing until I'm already a bit drained... it makes it slower going, but sometimes it's the best you can do.

Hi JJ,

Getting started can be hard - I'm having a harder time with revisions than I did on first draft, so maybe for me it's the home stretch rather than the first steps...

By the way, I'm an avid reader of your blog - there are a number of things you're great at, wit and voice being at the top.

Hi Jersey,

Editing other people's writing is no small thing!!! A good editor is worth their weight in gold, just ask us struggling writers.

If I were taking a poll, I'd guess procrastination to be at the top of the list of obstacles. Maybe we should all give each other a page count deadline for a swift kick in the pants - anyone game?

Merry Jelinek said...

Silken,

Writing it out can be great, even if you don't consider yourself a writer... I've been reading your blogs for an awful long time and I definitely consider you a writer.

I think kids are wired to tune you out, even if you're monosylabic... they hit a certain age and the 'ignore mom' switch gets flipped... at least for a little while. (I'm just being smart, I'm sure they're listening even if they don't say they are)

Mary Witzl said...

My teenagers tune me out all the time. But God forbid I should ever miss the tiniest detail of one of their monologues...

Merry Jelinek said...

Yeah, I'm not looking forward to that, Mary... my oldest will be ten next month but some days I swear she's more like fifteen.

I suppose they'll have to learn the same way we did, by trial and error.. but it'd be so much easier if they just took advice.

jjdebenedictis said...

I suppose they'll have to learn the same way we did, by trial and error.. but it'd be so much easier if they just took advice.

:-) That's the thing - there are some mistakes you have to make before you realize it was a mistake.

silken said...

thanks merry, I do a lot of writing (blogging), so I guess I can call myself a writer, at least in some places! :)

LOL mary, yes, those teens.... :)

Travis Erwin said...

I too am a spoonfeeder and it is not until my third or fouth draft that I can see what needs cut.

My biggest problem is seeing the story through the eyes of a reader and not how I envision it. All the good intentions in the world are for naught if readers do not get caught up in the tale.

Ello said...

Thank goodness for my writer's group and my knife wielding husband. They have cut out the worst of my overexplaining. Good post on this!

Merry Jelinek said...

Travis,

"All the good intentions in the world are for naught if readers do not get caught up in the tale." - Abso-friggin-lutely!!!

The best way I know to really, really get a fresh eye on my own work is to put it away for a while. But I can't cheat and check one page. I can't work on the query, or agent lists, or think about it at all... I have to move completely on and get wrapped up in another story, then when I go back I can see it fresh... though I don't know if I'll ever really see it in the same way another reader will.

Hi Ello,

Thanks for stopping in and it's great that your hubby and writer's group are so supportive.

I've cut out a good deal,too but then the balance is a little off - the prose are a little too stark for my natural voice so it sounds stilted... I'm still playing with it, obviously... Sorry, frustrating edits...

The Anti-Wife said...

I'm such a bottom line person that over-explaining has never been a problem. Under-explaining or not drawing enough of a picture is my problem.

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