Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Why Can’t My Writing Be More Subtle?

I dream about the day when I can go back and read one of my previously edited chapters and be reasonably happy with what I see. In reality, nothing depresses me more than returning to a chapter I thought was in good shape and finding a mess. And it happens all too often.

What are the biggest problems? The usual suspects—too much telling, not enough internal thoughts, clumsy sentences… You know the drill. These are issues I can fix for the most part.  All I need is some time and practice. But there’s still one problem I have yet to crack. I over-explain waaaay too much. Unfortunately, I think that trait is permanently hardwired into my brain.

 My problem, I suspect, has a lot to do with having developed most of my writing skills while writing scientific research reports, where over-explaining is to be admired and where keeping the reader entertained is a secondary consideration. Writing fiction is a completely different animal. When I write fiction, my process is to envision the scene in my mind as if I’m watching a movie, and then try to reproduce it on the page. I suspect many other writers work the same way, but in my case, I end up choreographing every move, every thought, every nuance, everything. Instead of a flowing narrative, my scenes are often bullet lists of events. If a character would turn his head in the movie, I make sure the readers know about it. If I want a scene to be humorous or scary or surprising, I beat the readers over the head with it, as if the only way they will get it is if I spell the emotion out for them. Not because I think the reader is an idiot, but because I don’t trust myself to be subtle.

I know subtlety works. I’ve gone back and re-read scenes from my favorite authors, scenes I remember as vivid and complicated, only to be shocked by how few sentences the authors needed to convey the scene. They didn’t explain every nuance. They left a few subtle hints and my imagination had filled in all the rest.

 Man, do I have a long way to go. I pity the lucky copy editor who gets to edit my stories.

6 comments:

  1. I've done a lot of technical writing, which leaves little room for feeling. My struggle is stiffness in my words because the sentence is technically correct. Real writing - and talking - is so different.
    At least you know your challenge and can work on it. Be worse not to know and just blindly continue writing thinking it was perfect.

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    1. Ah, yes. Technically correct, but stiff sentences. That's exactly the problem I need to overcome. Thanks for stopping by.

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  2. I have the opposite problem - I don't always tell enough. Luckily, my editor points this out and I fix it. Over time, I think I've gotten better, but I still rely on my editor to tell me what I missed. And character, getting more in their heads, remains one of my last passes. I'm sure you get what I mean by a pass. I hope it will eventually come more natural to me.

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    1. Maybe it doesn't come naturally, but based on what I've seen in your books, you sure seem to have it figured out. Thanks for the comment.

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  3. I'm a scientist too, so I sympathize with your issues. You definitely use a different part of your brain when writing fiction. Have you tried some writing prompts to help you 'warm up' your fiction muscles before you dive back into your story?

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    1. No writing prompts, although I do try to read passages from other books to get me in the proper frame of mind. Thanks for stopping by.

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