So I’m not officially a writer, well, not a fiction writer anyway. (Yes yes, Sarah, I know, finish the bloody thing.)
I actually am a professional writer, some of you have even heard of me. I’m a journalist, which means over the last 20 years or so I’ve probably written as many words as most fiction writers, I just do it shorter.
I’ve also spent much of the last few years mentoring younger writers, trying to teach them a few things about the news business. I think some of these are applicable to fiction as well. So as Sarah and Kate have dragooned me into this post, I shall share a few.
First, writer’s block happens. It happens to fiction authors and it happens far more often to journalists on deadline — usually when there’s some pug ugly editor (I resemble that remark these days) standing over you checking his watch and tapping his foot demanding “where’s my copy” every five minutes.
Meanwhile you can’t figure out the lede (yes that’s spelled right, long story) let alone the body copy.
So here’s a hint: Write. Just write.
Most journalists, and I suspect fiction authors get stuck on the lede, that first part of the story, the catchy part that gets the reader’s attention. When you’re blocked forget the lede, write something boring that’s a place-holder and move on. I don’t care if you rewrite paragraphs three times or more. Bang away until something breaks, eventually the story will be done and you can go back and fix that boring lede. Writer’s block is a pain and it can cause you to panic and think the muse has left you — it hasn’t.
I don’t care what existential angst you think writers are supposed to have or how noble it is to suffer with block.
What you’re writing may be pure drek, but sooner or later the block will break and the words will flow again. This post is a prime example. I had no idea what I was going to write about when Sarah asked me, so I sat down and started writing. See, simple.
Lesson two — your words suck. Seriously.
Your writing is not perfect. Ever. Stephen King’s writing is not perfect. Sarah A. Hoyt, Kate Paulk, Tom Clancy, pick your favorite author. Their writing is not perfect. Someone had to edit it.
I’m not saying the reign of the gatekeepers is justified mind, but everyone needs an editor to look their stuff over, make sure the copy makes sense, that the story flows and is consistent, that there are no holes in the copy and that awkward constructions are cleaned up. And no, you can’t do this yourself.
The reason for this is actually fairly simple. You know what you meant to say. It makes sense to you. The problem is, no one else can understand it. That’s not really true, but you really DO need someone else to look your work over. Several someones in fact. By the time a story in my paper of say, 500 words — which is about 10 inches in the way we measure stuff in the newspaper business — a medium length story, hits print at least four sets of eyes have been over it.
So don’t you think a 180,000 word novel should have at least that many?
Which brings us to point three — don’t fall in love with your own words. Your editor is going to change them. If he’s good at what he does he won’t change your voice or meaning, but he will clean up your awkward constructions, your bad grammar, lousy punctuation and other foibles. That’s his job, same as yours was to write it. Let him do it.
Point four — write to a sixth grade audience. “Do what!?!”
No I’m not talking about dumbing down your writing. I’m not talking about writing “see Spot run.”
I’m talking about not writing over the heads of your audience. This entire post has been written using words that any sixth grader should be able to understand and yet I haven’t talked down to you once.
But a novel, or a newspaper article, is not the place to show off your command of obscure portions of the English language. That sort of mental masturbation is the province of scholarly papers on the mating habits of the Lesser Prairie Chicken where idiot academics compete to prove how big their PhDs are by the use of ever more arcane and florid language.
Save it for love poems to your sweet babboo, folks.
Keep your prose light and simple. Not stupid, but easily readable and understandable. The point is not to show how big your, er, vocabulary is, but rather to tell a story — to communicate. Florid prose gets in the way of that and should be disdained. (See what I did there?)
So that’s it in a nutshell folks.
Write, let others read it, accept editing and don’t write over your audience’s head.
Simple as pie.
Patrick Richardson is a 15 year veteran of the newspaper business and a well-known blogger on the national stage. He’s also an aspiring fiction writer who has several projects started but can never seem to finish one.
I want the long story. How does lead morph into lede and why?
It’s a clarity thing, for the same reason headline is hedline. Lead as in lead me somewhere can also be Lead as in the metal. Lede is clear to the editor and writer that you’re talking about the story lede, not a dog lead.
That makes sense. Good post. I took yesterday off after wrapping the novel, and did art, but today I will make words happen again. Need to decide what my daily wordcount will be during this semester.
It actually dates all the way back to the Civil War. When reporters were sending stories in by telegraph. The editor had to make sense of what was being sent hundreds of miles away. So a short hand was needed for clarity.
And the business types used code, because you were charged by the word when sending telegrams (and Unscrupulous Rivals might read your urgent buy order, too). I happened across a late 19th century codebook, and it is a font of unintentional hilarity. They had a six letter code that meant “all the sheep washed overboard in a storm and the captain is in jail for brawling, please advise.” I fully intend to use it as a story starter some day.
D’you have any idea why sometimes it’s easier to write nonfiction, and other times it’s easier to write fiction? ‘Cause I’ve been trying to figure out *that* one for years.
uh, um… no? Sarah or the others might have a better idea. I’m primarily a non-fic guy so…
I figured that since you’re like me in that you’ve written a lot of nonfiction and are now writing fiction also, you might have a handle on that.
I usually can write *something*, but it’s not always what I’d prefer to write. Still, something beats nothing . . . I’ll take it.
In my fiction I’m a scary pantser, I just write what comes to me…
Makes sense to me.
Fiction requires emotional involvement. if I’m too stressed out emotionally (say, someone close to me is very ill) I can’t even READ fiction. I still read, but I read non fic. Same with writing.
That makes good sense, Sarah. Thanks. 🙂
Not that I’m any sort of expert, but . . . I think sometimes your imagination needs a rest. It takes a different part of your imagination to write fiction versus nonfiction. Nonfiction gives you a framework to build on, depending on what you are writing (devotional, history, news article, technical guide, self-help book, what-have-it). Fiction requires more world building and character creation, again depending on what sort of fiction you’re doing. Some days I really need that framework, other days my mind roams free, as free as the wind . . . *cough* Sorry, been a long day.
TX Red, I appreciate your answer. Both you and Sarah have given me points to ponder, and I thank you. 🙂
Hi, Patrick–enjoyed the post. But if you plan to write fiction, remember the immortal words of Stella Gibbons:
“The life of the journalist is poor, nasty, brutish and short. So is his style. You, who are adept at the lovely polishing of every grave and lucent phrase, will realise the magnitude of the task which confronted me when I found, after ten years as a journalist, learning to say exactly what I meant in short sentences, that I must learn, if I was to achieve literature and favourable reviews, to write as though I were not quite sure about what I meant but was jolly well going to say something all the same in sentences as long as possible.”
Of course, if you don’t plan to achieve literature, you’ll do fine 🙂
Great piece, Patrick!
You are a journalist and claim to not write fiction? How does that work?