Tag Archives: improvement

You think too much!

There’s a great quote from Montgomery Scott in “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock”:

The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.

It’s occurred to me lately that quote describes could explain what’s happened to my writing. Could it be there comes a point where thinking too much about your writing just gets in the way, makes writing harder than it should be, and kills the joy?

I recall hearing a few times about Tiger Woods taking time off from tournaments to “rebuild his swing”. There have been several celebrities who have retired, only to return a few years later. I’ve heard people declare that they intend to keep working at their job until it’s no longer fun.

So how do we strike a balance between enjoying our writing and continuing to improve? I’ve never been one to believe that the mere repetition of a task in itself will help you improve beyond a certain point. At some point we need to incorporate new information, new methods, new ways of thinking if we ‘re going to get any farther. Can we do that without losing the fun?

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, writing has become hard for me lately. While it may not explain all of it, I believe my own drive to improve may explain at least some of it. I think I may have gone too far, to the point that I was afraid to write something down unless I was sure it was better. I told myself I had to write these stories, even though they weren’t fun to write. I’m a professional, after all. I’m disciplined. I can make myself write.

Well, maybe not.

I recently picked up my last “trunk novel” to see if there was something I could do to improve it. As I read I was surprised at just how much I was enjoying it! My last impressions of that manuscript were that the plot was weak and the characters were bland. And that may still be true, but it wasn’t as true as I remembered, if that makes sense. There were differences between characters, and while the plot could perhaps be improved, it wasn’t bad. There’s a lot more to be pleased with, even with its problems, than I thought.

Most of all, I had fun reading it. And I remembered having fun writing it. Something changed between that project and the two other projects I struggled with all last year. I think I overthought the plumbing. Perhaps it’s time to go back and rework my swing.

I’m not saying we should only write when it’s fun, but if we’re not getting at least some satisfaction and enjoyment from what we do…why are we doing it?

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Free advice: worth everything you pay for it

There is a saying I’ve heard a few times: “Those who can, do. ThoseClark_Stanley's_Snake_Oil_Liniment who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach others to teach.” Now, as amusing as that may be, we all know it’s not entirely true. There are people out there who are quite successful in their fields who are also quite successful teachers.

Nevertheless, when it comes to writing, and learning to write from writers, it’s most definitely caveat emptor. It’s not necessarily because those offering advice don’t know how to write. It’s very clear that many do know how to write. But what they know is how they write. That doesn’t necessarily help them know the best way for you to write.

That’s not to say they don’t know a lot of things that are universally applicable. There are some standards in writing, such as character, description, plot structure, etc., that no writer can be successful without at least a basic understanding. But even then, there is no single correct way to create or develop a character, no “sweet spot” between too much and too little description. With most elements of writing a good writer can tell you what’s needed, but not necessarily how much.

And yet as writers it’s very hard to progress without someone giving us ideas as to what might help improve our work. So how do we apply the numerous bits of advice that are out there? Here are a few thoughts.

There is no one way. For every piece of advice out there from an author who has found success doing something a particular way, there is another author who has found success doing the opposite. As much as we’d love to believe that there is one easy way to success and we just have to find it, it’s just not so. So even if your favorite writer is telling you “do it this way,” you should be telling yourself “this is probably not the only way.”

Experiment, experiment, experiment. If something you hear sounds like it might be useful, try it. If it works for you, great! Use it! If it doesn’t work so well, take a closer look and see if there is still some part of the idea that works for you. For example, I once read a book on outlining that got me very excited about outlining. Until I tried it. I found I was outlining so deeply that I didn’t want to write the book itself because I felt like I’d already written it. However, I did find several pieces of that writer’s approach to be valuable, and I still apply them even though I’ve largely gone back to being a hybrid outliner/pantser. I “shifted the needle” farther toward outlining, but found I couldn’t go as far as that writer recommended.

Remember you are unique. No two writers are the same. One may love to research and will spend months exploring a topic and formulating ideas before ever putting words on page. Others know where they want to go and can’t wait to get started. They’ll only stop and go research when they reach a point where they need to know a particular detail or realize their experience is lacking in an area. Some revel in lush, extensive description, others give you just enough to let the reader fill in the details. While you can and should train yourself to do more than what you currently do in many areas, there’s no need to try to be some other writer. Be yourself–your best self, certainly, but find the balance that works for you.

Don’t forget writing is work. Remember Westley’s sage advice in The Princess Bride: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Anyone trying to teach you how to write best-selling novels in one easy lesson is probably hoping to be long gone with your money before you realize they lied.

I do some woodworking on the side. Early on in life I didn’t have many tools yet–I couldn’t afford them–so I made do with what I had. I was still able to finish my projects, but it was hard work and the results weren’t always as high quality as I would have liked. Over the years, however, I have acquired more tools. I can complete many projects much more quickly, and with better results. But it’s still work. Those tools have made the process require less work.

Which brings me to another point:

Acquire the tools that help the most. Whether from our own intuition or from reader feedback you may have an idea where our writing skills may lack. Those are the areas where learning from others may be the most helpful. If you’re already pretty solid with your description, but regularly feel your characters are missing something, it could be helpful to seek outside advice on characterization–and certainly time better spent than trying to squeeze more “umph” out of your descriptions. Shore up your weakest areas first rather than trying to improve in all areas at the same time, or working to improve areas where you’re already strong. Don’t know what areas those might be? It may be time to get some experienced readers to help you identify them.

I’m certainly not trying to tell you to ignore the advice of other writers. Far from it. Other writers can be excellent sources of information. Just remember that what works for them may not always work for you. As with medical issues, it’s best to get more than one opinion.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Looking back

look-backThey say you can never go back. They say you shouldn’t look back, even if you can. Focus only on the here and now, or perhaps only on where you’re headed. But perhaps that’s not always good advice.

I’ve been struggling with my writing lately. I’ve been bashing my head against idea after idea trying to get the beginnings of a story that grabs my attention and demands I write it all the way through. But nothing has worked, and I’ve ended up feeling like a terrible writer and as imaginative as a proverbial rock. I’ve been wondering if I should give it up and find an different hobby.

Even though I refused to let myself give in to that temptation, I still struggled. I had no desire to write. I just didn’t care about any of my stories any more. There just wasn’t any point.

And then, for some reason, I remembered an old “trunk novel” I wrote maybe ten years ago. It was fan-fic based on a war game I used to play, and written as serial  fiction for a game forum I frequented. I can’t remember what the response was from the other players, even, but I remember having a lot of fun writing it.

The problem was, I realized, that I wasn’t sure if I still had a copy of it. I’ve changed computers three times since then, and the forum is long gone. What if I’d forgotten to keep a copy?

After some frantic, desperate searching I found it. And, since I’d found it, I began to read it. And you know, it wasn’t bad! It could maybe even be considered good. And I remembered why I had so much fun writing it. All I cared about then was the characters and the story I wove around them. I didn’t worry about show-don’t-tell, dialogue tags, vivid description or any of the things I’ve since learned I should be paying attention to. I was just writing because I enjoyed writing the story.

Somehow that was enough. I found myself wanting to write again. I picked up the outline for one of my projects and have spent the past week reworking it so that it starts in a more interesting place and (hopefully) goes in more interesting directions from there. I’ll be ready to start writing again soon, and this time I am going to try really, really hard to not expect so much from myself. I think (among other things) the self-inflicted pressure to “get it right” has been killing my interest.

So if you’re struggling in a similar manner, I humbly suggest you go back and read something you wrote a long time ago–long enough ago that you don’t already know what it says, so that you can surprise yourself a little. If you do, I think one of two things will happen:

1 – You’ll realize you write pretty well after all, and that you enjoy reading your work. You may remember that you really enjoy writing and you’re not as bad as you think. That’s what happened to me in this case. But I’ve also had similar, opposite results in the past as well, namely:

2 – You’ll realize you used to be worse than you are now. Seeing you have actually improved can also be a great shot in the arm. If you have improved before, you should be able to continue to improve! So get back in there and keep going!

I’m by no means implying that in case #1 there isn’t room for improvement. But that was never my problem. I knew I needed to get better. The benefit came in realizing that, regardless of how far I still need to go, I didn’t exactly stink before. I could at least write stories I could enjoy.

In any case, if you find the climb overwhelming and your will to keep going diminishing, try digging out some trunk writing. You might be surprised–or more importantly, encouraged–by what you find. Sometimes looking back is not such a bad idea.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Taking your medicine

Rejection. It’s supposed to be as much a part of being a writer as macaroni and cheese, or bacon and eggs, or Penn and Teller. No one likes it, but it’s much easier to be philosophical about it when it’s not you. I’ve always thought that people should have thicker skins when dealing with rejection.

And then I got rejected.

Yeah, it stings a little. And I was luckier than most. I entered a contest where the judge guaranteed that everyone who entered would get at least a critique on their cover letter. Free feedback is always a good thing. And even my rejection came with a couple pages of feedback. It was better than most can expect from a rejection.

But I still didn’t win. And in spite of my telling myself the odds were against me, I still was kinda hoping this would be my break. So yeah, rejection stinks. And sometimes feedback does, too.

Fortunately I resisted the urge to get defensive. There was valuable information in the feedback I got. Even the comments I initially dismissed as subjective–just their personal tastes–contained some useful truth. And on further consideration, some of the comments, while not directly addressing them, confirmed some of the suspicions I’d had about the story when I sent it in.

So how do we take apparently negative feedback and use it to improve? I’m sure many of you can answer this question better than I can, but here are a few ideas I have. If any of you have other suggestions, please share!

  1. Check your ego at the door. I admit my first instinct was to dismiss much of the feedback I received. The judge was trying to get me to rewrite the story they way they would have written it! It would have been easy to chalk it up to “you can’t please everyone” and walk away. But that would have defeated the whole point of the exercise: getting feedback.
  2. Look for what they mean, not just what they say. Not all editors know how to explain what’s wrong with your story. They can certainly tell something’s wrong, but you may actually have to read between the lines to identify the true issue. Some of the comments I initially wanted to dismiss as personal taste did in fact point to a larger problem–I tried to tackle too much in my story. It was really more like the first chapter of a novel, and included far more than was needed to tell the story.
  3. Try it. You might like it. If someone gives you advice on how to rework you story, don’t just discard it. After some consideration, I decided to take their suggestions on how to rework the story and try rewriting it as they suggest. Now, you don’t always want to gut your story and start over every time someone gives you negative feedback, but in this case I think it would be a good exercise for me to give it a try.
  4. Don’t be afraid to disregard feedback. In the end it still has to be your story, and you have to be pleased with it. Not all feedback is valid, and in the end you still have to write the story you would like to read. It’s probably not wise to discount everything they tell you, but it’s also not necessary to accept everything they say blindly, either.
  5. Plan your next steps right away. Don’t dwell on the negatives. Don’t think of it as rejection. Don’t give up writing just because someone wasn’t thrilled with your work. Consider the feedback carefully, then move on. Plan your next project. Get right back in there and keep writing. Unless their feedback was “give it up!” they were probably wanting to help and encourage you, not make you quit. They wouldn’t give feedback if they didn’t think it would help.
  6. Remember, negative feedback is better than no feedback at all. As depressing as negative feedback can be, at least you know why the editor rejected you. or why your alpha reader wasn’t impressed. With at least some feedback you can get an idea of where to start to fix things. With no feedback at all…well, what can you really do with that? Never look gift feedback in the mouth.

There’s a few ideas I have. What do you learn from feedback and rejection? What helps you get back on that horse and keep riding/writing? Drop us a comment!

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…

Trying hitting the books!

I’ve heard from several authors that one of the best ways to learn to write is to study the writing of other authors, and that the best way to do that is to write out some of their writing. Copying, it’s said, will slow the progression of words down enough for you to actually notice the words themselves and how they are connected. I thought I would try this out and report on what I find. But since it would be hard for you to follow along, I’ll put the text up for you to see as well. I may as well, since I’ve got to copy it out anyway.

I’ve selected a section from “Burning Alexandria”, by Michael J. Sullivan:

He felt it unfair that he should die for lack of burnable fuel in a home filled with paper. He noticed a trade paperback sitting absently on top of the foremost tower, its title screaming out at him in three huge, condescending words: Overcoming Compulsive Hoarding – a Christmas gift from Jimmy. His brother thought that giving him a book would be like slipping a pill in a sick terrier’s hotdog. As much as his skin crawled at the thought of damaging any book, he could burn that.

Irwin tore pages out, crumpled them up and fed them to Audrey II, whose name he mentally changed to Audrey III for originality’s sake. The fire reawakened to its bright self once more spreading warmth and life in its glow. Feeding a page at a time, the book wasn’t consumed nearly as fast as the junk mail. He was only up to chapter five, “Applying Cognitive Strategies,” by the time the sun set. If he could make a short book last hours, how long could he survive on David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest? Not that he would burn that, but there had to be others he could sacrifice. In the immortal words of Spock, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

So, what did I notice in typing out this exercise? For one, that Mr. Sullivan and I have different ideas about when commas should be used. He’s got better proofreaders than I do (ie. he has one), so chances are I need to bone up on my comma usage.

What is revealed about Irwin, the protagonist, in these two paragraphs? He is a hoarder of books, looking on them as near-religious objects. He finds being classified as a hoarder “condescending”, however. He has a brother. He is up on pop culture outside of books, albeit somewhat nerdy pop culture.

Mr. Sullivan did a little research for this section, unless he already has “Overcoming Compulsive Hoarding” in his library. There is indeed a book by that title, and its chapter five bears that heading. Finding this out probably took no more than three minutes on Amazon.com, but lends an added layer of authenticity to the story above and beyond what would have been achieved by simply saying, “He noticed a trade paperback sitting absently on top of the foremost tower, a book his brother Jimmy had given him on overcoming compulsive hoarding.”

Description in general is neither overly abundant or sparse. It doesn’t call attention to itself, but it’s there. It’s a “trade paperback”, not just a book, and it sits absently. It’s title screams. It’s a Christmas gift, not just a gift. There’s imagery in the sentence about slipping a pill in a hot dog for a pet that also extends Irwin’s feeling toward his brother’s gift. He doesn’t just hate the idea of damaging a book, his skin crawls at the thought.

And note the cliché there! Skin crawling is a fairly common one, and yet Sullivan gets away with it.

Irwin crumples the paper and feeds it to the anthropomorphic fire rather than just dropping the pages in it. The fire reawakens, and is fed more pages.

We are shown Irwin’s thoughts without any direct device, such as italicizing or quotes. Perhaps“If a short book lasts hours, how long would ‘Infinite Jest’ last,” he wondered. Would work just as well, but he picks one primary mode of conveying the character’s thoughts, reserving the italicization to really emphasize strong thoughts. He keeps it consistent.

That’s just a short pass through a short passage of the short story, but it reveals much. From here I might select other sections of the same story and compare or contrast with this one. Or I might select a passage from an entirely different writer and compare them. I can’t say that this exercise has triggered an epiphany, but it does reveal something of Sullivan’s style and voice. Continuing this exercise, especially across a variety of writers, could be illuminating as to what each has in common as well as how they differ in their writing approach.

What do you see in that passage? Anything that stands out to you? Is there anything you saw differently from me? Let’s discuss! Leave your thoughts/insights in the comments.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom Stratton was born and raised in Idaho, and now lives in Utah with his Finnish wife, three amazing kids, three distinct cats, and a big, goofy dog. He works for a regional bank, and is part owner of a video game store. He enjoys writing, photography, war gaming, music, theater, building things, and reading. Though active in writing as a teen, he convinced himself it could never be a career. Decades later upon moving to Utah, where there’s something odd in the water, he has decided to get serious about writing. To date he has written five novels to be published posthumously by his greedy estate and is polishing a set of short stories to start submitting. Any day now…