There are moments that stick with me in my writing career, and they seem to happen about every half a million words. I’ll have a revelation, and my style will change suddenly and drastically, for better or worse.
I want to talk about something important today. Something I think about often, but might not appear immediately as writing advice. I assure you it is.
You see, as a writer, and I imagine as any kind of artist, there’s often a long learning curve riddled with self doubt, loneliness, and fear. Most artists of all caliber start their careers without thinking of them as a career. I remember writing some poetry in school, some rhetoric that got me in trouble, and the ten or fifteen times that I started writing a novel before I finally finished one. It was a release, not a career move.
There’s something that everyone can learn from that. The people that really hit the “go” button on their work have something in common. They keep doing it, either out of love, or passion, or a quiet retreat from the world around them. And that persistence, whatever the cause, sparks the kindle of creativity in their mind, and one the fire starts, it roars to life with new techniques and habits, sometimes the kinds that you’ll never learn in a classroom.
Writing is Voice
When it comes to writing styles, voice is everything, and it can take a long time to develop. Like any other creative process, you start by borrowing from what you know. You develop techniques to imitate the greats, and you usually end up failing miserably.
I remember the first edit on “Sword of Valhalla,” my first attempt at a novel, the first one that I actually finished the damn draft of. Through that process, I had drafted a novel in 57 days, and deciding that if I didn’t write every day, it wouldn’t get done. It was the first time I finished one, I had evolved as a writer. But I was also learning along the way, reading blogs kind of like this one, and doing whatever I had to do to finish. The first sentence floored me. It was overly wordy, as was the second, and the third. When I finished with the red pen, the manuscript had more red ink than black, and that was only 70,000 words later.
My sentence structure shortened. I started limiting my usage of needless adjectives. My writing went from a sad attempt at flowery prose to nice, tight, structured storytelling.
While working on CORP (my second attempt at a novel 3 years later) I went through a similar process, and started trying to evoke emotion from the person reading it. In fact, just about every time that I finish a major project, or sometimes after writing several smaller projects, I notice these little evolutionary changes in my prose.
The process of writing is the continual refinement and purification of language to achieve a desired result.
Yesterday, I had another one of these breakthroughs, but in this case the change was immediately evident. I was in the middle of thinking about a passage I love from Fight Club, as well as several other passages that struck me over the years. I added 4000 words to the end of one of my short stories that I’ve been putting on Amazon for 99 cents. It still needs editing, and a lot of revising before it goes live, but I think readers who have seen my work will notice the change. It seems that nothing going forward from this point will reflect my “old voice.” I like my new one so much better. It’s more like how I tried to write The Sword of Valhalla, except I feel like I’m pulling it off now. I posted a sample in my facebook flash fiction group for a little piece on daily motivation in story form.
This morning, I wrote the following on Facebook (yesterday by the time this post goes live):
A wind-blown seed that holds the sepals too tightly will go nowhere, and rot. ~Thought of the morning. Happy Mothers Day!
Now, in my defense, it was early morning and my eyes weren’t fully open. Sepal is probably not the best word for this context, but I didn’t feel like studying plant biology to figure out the name for what I wanted. Still. It evoked the emotion I wanted in a colorful way, and with minimal fluff (‘tightly’ can probably be eliminated or fixed by making the verb stronger). It looks like such a simple sentence, but loaded with descriptive information so as not to overpower the reader.
But how does this help me, Marty?
Okay, my examples maybe aren’t too impressive, especially to some of you with awesome words, but here’s the sticking point. This change in my writing, as all such changes, didn’t come on completely deliberately. I don’t set out to change my voice. It’s fine, and it gets the job done. But every couple of hundred-thousands words, my writing will get a little boost. Sometimes as an ah-ha moment like yesterday, and other times I’ll notice the change while editing, or the editing will provoke it.
My words might not hold within them the powers of the universe, or inspire people to transcend reality, but they are under constant improvement, and I see the same in other authors who I read. The words always get better. And no matter where you are with your writing, I’m going to give you the secret. It’s not a class. It isn’t digesting tons of advice and nitpicking the pieces that you want to follow. It’s all about getting words down.
I’m and advocate of the “write everyday” approach, as you know by now. But I usually shout it to people in order to provoke them to finish their damn book. Today I’m on a different mission. I have no formal education in English past high school, and as a Computer Science and Math guy (and later Physics), I wasn’t paying much attention. When I started finishing stories, my writing wasn’t much better than a Jr. High student. Your and You’re, its and it’s, all the common mistakes riddled my manuscript. Comma placement was a mystery to me. I was BAD.
Know I can actually write legibly and to the enjoyment of a handful of people, and I haven’t taken a single class. It took a million words on a page. Nothing else. If you’re worried about your “skill” at writing, just keep writing. Write all over everything. Start a journal. Get to a million words on paper or word processor (or wordpress 😉 ) and then compare where you are with where you were. Writing, like any art, improves in little bits and pieces. It can’t all be learned at once. Just fake it till you make it, till the words come easier, till they dance off the end of your fingertips. Keep improving, and you too will start noticing these incremental evolutions in your voice, or your singing, or sculpture, or paintings, or poems, or whatever your specific art is. Keep doing it. Never give up. Devote time daily. That’s the big secret of the pros.