I’m starting to realise that writing is one of these ‘lifelong learning’ things, and that peskily, it’s something at which it’s always possible to improve. At the same time, it’s something most people will never perfect, not because they’re not talented, but because writing can never truly be perfected. Due to its very nature, and the subjective reality of its reception by readers, I don’t think there’ll ever be a piece of writing that is considered the definition of sublime accomplishment by every single person who comes across it.
In some ways, this is comforting. In others, it’s infuriating beyond measure.
The more of it you do – writing, that is – the better you get. At least, this is the slender hope upon which my existence hangs. This means that, while your chances of writing success are pretty poor at the beginning of your writing career, it’s possible to imagine that your best work is always ahead of you. There is, undeniably, something exciting about that.
I am learning, every day, what writing is all about. I’m learning that having an idea is a vastly different thing to making something out of it, and I’m finding out the truth of the maxim ‘an easy read is a difficult write.’
So. Here follows a short list of some of the things I’ve learned recently about writing, and how I do it, and what works for me.
Don’t be overly descriptive
This might seem strange, and wrong, and horrifying to some people, readers and writers alike. What makes a work come alive more keenly than acutely observed detail, you might say? What’s the point of reading a book if nothing is described? Would it be a book at all?
Well. Let’s think about it a bit more, shall we?
Descriptive language is something that can turn me off a book, without a doubt. I am all for describing just enough to give the reader a sense of something, and then letting their imaginations fill in any gaps. Books, in some ways, should be interactive: they shouldn’t be a closed system, complete in and of themselves, and completely sealed off from a reader. How alienating is that? I think a book should give a reader’s experience enough breathing room to bring a story to life, and overdoing description can kill that vitality in its tracks.
Also, it depends on what you’re writing. If your book is set on a distant planet seven centuries from now, then you’ll have to think carefully about your descriptions, and also about your comparisons. There’s no point in saying ‘her hair was the colour of a beautiful sunset’ in a book like that, for instance – while ‘a beautiful sunset’ might mean something to a present-day reader, it might mean nothing to a character in the year 2813. Do they live underground? Is the sky full of a steel-grey cloud from centuries of pollution? Do they even have eyes, or do they navigate their planet using sonar? Do people even have hair any more? You get the drift. If you describe something in terms that would be meaningless to your character, then you’re dragging your reader out of the world you’ve created and ruining the spell of your novel.
This is really easy to forget and all too easy to do, and it can be disastrous for your writing. Of course. Nothing in this game is ever easy.
Also, don’t describe everything in exhaustive detail, particularly not things which can safely be assumed to be familiar to a reader, like the smell of grass or the taste of a common foodstuff or the feeling of sand underfoot or whatever. There are things which need lots of elaboration, and things that don’t. If you describe everything to the nth degree, a reader’s eye will start to skip, and they’ll get bored. You don’t want that.
Don’t be overly proscriptive
This is the flip-side of the first point, in some ways. If you over-describe, then you close off a host of ways of thinking to your reader. Don’t prohibit your reader from bringing their own experience and reality to what you’ve written, and don’t deny them the ability to make it real for them, in their terms. Once you make a piece of writing public, you allow a reader to make what they want of it, no matter what it is you meant by it, or what your artistic vision intended.
Make clever use of dialogue and exposition
Something which irritates me in books is exposition which isn’t handled properly. This can happen when a character explains something to another character in a way which is clearly designed to do nothing but give information to the reader, or when a character simply addresses the reader to give them a Vital Plot Point. When I read dialogue between characters in which they tell one another things which they really shouldn’t have to – i.e. things that, in the world of the story, they should know without having to be told – it really makes me grind my teeth. This is clearly a ploy to bring the reader up to speed, and it should, where possible, be avoided. I also hate characters describing themselves to a reader by looking in a mirror or at a photograph of themselves and bemoaning their freckles/curly hair/straight hair/lack of teeth, or whatever the case may be; I’d much rather not know what a character is supposed to look like, and bring my own imagination to bear on the matter, than have it described to me like this.
Until yesterday, I had a whole chunk of clumsy exposition in ‘Tider’, at a point where our heroine is explaining to the reader what, exactly, her father does for a living (hint: it’s bad); it existed as a big monstrous lump of direct explanation, and it had always bothered me. Yesterday, I turned it into a piece of dialogue between our heroine and her best friend. Now, not only is there a hint of humour in there, but also a sense of the depth and importance of their friendship, and a subtle pointer towards the development of the best friend’s character, too – which came to me, naturally, as I wrote their dialogue. Conversations have a tendency to do that, I guess – develop organically, and go in all manner of unforeseen directions. This is why they’re brilliant, if they’re used properly in fiction. Make sure to have the characters ask one another questions which are sensible and intelligent, and which they wouldn’t already know the answers to; not only will this help to advance your plot, but it will also add another layer to your characters.
Oh, and – I managed to get as much information about my heroine’s father across in this piece of dialogue as I had done in the big, ugly, clunky, irritating paragraph that had been there before. It just looks and reads a whole lot better now.
As a writer, you’re always learning how to improve, and the beauty (and pain) of the job is there’s always improvin’ to be done. The only thing a person really needs to be aware of as they’re starting out in this wordsmithing game is that improving enough to please yourself can take a lifetime.