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.