On Reading Writers

I’ve hit one of those points in the writing process usually referred to as “Writer’s Block”, but more accurately described as, I think, “Writer’s Paralysis”. It isn’t that I don’t know what to write next, it’s that I don’t know how.

And the conventional wisdom is to just keep going, throw out those blocks of unhandy, bumpy, pedestrian prose in chunks and hope that by some weird alchemy, you will somehow (possibly in the editing process) be able to school it up into something that isn’t awful.

Now, those of you who know me are probably aware that I don’t take well to authority. I don’t like to be told “the rules”. Honey, I’ve been breaking better rules since well before you were born. Don’t go there.

So, instead of forcing the issue, I’ve been reading other authors. I’ve burned through some amazing stuff – books that just sing, books plotted so beautifully and paced so well that I have not noticed I was reading at all until I hit that last page.

I’ve also been reading some really egregious tripe, and, because of all those writers out there reading all those rules, I’ve drawn a line between the two, connected the advice dots to published product, and I feel a whole lot better about my current decision not to just grind out some filler and hope for the best.

Crap prose cannot be “fixed”. If you write some chunk of text that is little more than a shopping list of activities or choices your characters make simply in order to further the basics of the plot, then everything – EVERYTHING – you write afterward will be affected by that.

And you will have become so locked into the words you have that ripping it out whole will no longer be possible – it would mean that every single word written afterwards will have to change as well – and the choices are limited to either completely starting over again from that point (which begs the question of why did you do this at all?) or, as I suspect most writers decide, unconsciously, that what’s there is “okay” because they’ve tinkered with it and reread it so many times that they can neither see its intrinsic faults nor conceive of any other way the task could be accomplished.

I can tell exactly where the writer did this. Sometimes, it’s the very beginning: unimaginative yet overworded descriptive.prose that utterly fails to suck me in – and not merely the opening paragraph, but the entire first chapter. And that’s a real problem, because if it starts that way, I’m pretty sure it’s going to continue on.

But sometimes it’s later on. There are books I’ve never completed, because much as the first 75 pages enthralled me, I have sat up halfway through in the horrified realization that the rest of the book amounts to either the constant rehashing of the main (but rather thin) theme, illustrated by multiple events with different characters and scenery, replaying the identical problems in the hope of spinning what might have been a decent short story out into blockbuster novel territory, or that despite an interesting idea, the entire plot will meander through a boring set of cliches before wrapping up in the most predictable way possible.

And that – all that – could be all right, except because the writer has lost whatever it was that started them down this road: interest, curiosity, a brilliant idea, a compelling character, whatever; because they’ve lost sight of that in their race to the finish line, the part of the equation between reader and writer has been wholly forgotten.

You can write about anything and make it fascinating, illuminating, incredible, life-changing.

You can also make a nuclear disaster about as exciting as watching paint dry.

It’s in the words. It’s in the way you engage with your reader.

It’s like a dance. You cannot tango alone. But if you suddenly let go of your partner…maybe you aren’t dancing anymore.

If you are a writer…a real writer…here’s my advice: go for quality, not quantity. If you want to be a good writer, don’t ever sacrifice the writing, the words, the entire point of writing for speed, or bulk, and don’t ever, ever, ever lose your connection with the reader. Be the reader. There’s no point to writing without the reader.

Every word matters. Every word has rhythm and cadence and magic to it, and every word has a relationship to all the other words before and after it. If you can’t commit to something more than merely bulking out your original outline with some tinsel and popcorn chains, don’t cut down the goddamned tree at all.

Currently, I’ve given up on two books in succession, not managing to make it past page four, because I can just tell that the writer was more interested in having written than in writing.

It’s been instructive, anyway.

And maybe in a week or so, my ear and my heart and my imagination and my vocabulary will have gotten back into sync, and I’ll be able to move on in my own work.


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