Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 34

by Laura Anne Gilman

Well.  This week in Practical Meerkat Land we had an earthquake, a hurricane (incoming) and a birthday.  It’s been busy times around here….

But the writing still goes on, as it does.  Though rain, snow, sleet and “what the hell, did the building just move?” the writer writes on…. and must juggle the moments of “I wrote that, that’s really good!” with the moments of “oh god I wrote that?  That sucks.”  And the urge is to keep the things that please us, and jettison the things that make us want to slit our wrists…. and then out of the darkness we may hear the dulcet tones of some long-ago writing professor intoning, “kill your darlings.”

Huh?  What?  I have to get rid of the things that make me cackle with delight, that prove to me, in the worst moments, that I really am as clever as Mummy told me?  No Fair! And yet, hey, the quote originated with William Faulkner, so he had to know something, right?

(Actually, I believe that the full quote is “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings,” and it comes to us via Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who was a character in his own right.)

I actually hate that quote.  Not because it’s untrue, but because it’s too easy.

Like most bits of “writing advice,” especially those repeated ad nauseum by writing courses and how-to books and People Who Know, I’ve found that it’s often more harmful than useful.  That is we as writers spend so much time contemplating how to obey the rule, we forget what it’s actually telling us.

The same applies, in my experience, to  ‘show don’t tell,” and “write what you know.”  Useful bits of shorthand, but “Write what you know” doesn’t mean write less, but LEARN MORE, and every book needs a careful balance of show and tell, to keep the action moving.  Strict obedience to the wording of rules runs the high risk of make a writer less effective in their craft

Rules are helpful, oh yes.  They’re incredibly useful.  But they’re tools, not masters.  Rules should be learned and internalized, not so that you can break them (another bit of oft-touted advice) but so that they become so much a part of your writing muscle that you adapt your work around them as you write.

That writing muscle is part of what I affectionately call the lizard brain, and it’s not something that comes naturally, but develops over time and hard work.  If you rely on the rules to guide you, you run the risk of stifling the development of that lizard brain, the good internal editor, the voice that says “yes, this works” or “no this doesn’t” and is painfully, brutally honest.

So no, please, do not go through your manuscript and slaughter every line that makes you gleeful with your own cleverness or skill because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Especially if its only crime is that it is, indeed, an exceptionally fine piece of craft.   But DO look at each line and think “is this for me?  For my readers?  Or is it for the story?”

And if the Good Voice whispers, “The story is not served,” then bring out the knife.

——————————

Coming up in Week 35:  “I can teach you everything except what’s essential”

Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently the urban fantasy PACK OF LIES, and WEIGHT OF STONE, Book 2 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy.  Her SF collection, DRAGON VIRUS, which SF Signal called “amazingly evocative….a potent ride through a changing future,” was published by Fairwood Press in June 2011.  For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman)  And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.

Share

About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at https://www.patreon.com/LAGilman Learn more at www.lauraannegilman.net, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.

Comments

Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 34 — 4 Comments

  1. Early on, I made myself look at each scene and decide the purpose of the scene. If my only reason for adding the sequence is to get the characters from here to there when nothing happens, or to show that the heroine is kind to stray animals, then it either has to go or develop a much better purpose.

    Clever twists of words I excise in the final copy edit before submission if they are only clever twists of words and have nothing to do with the story. Or maybe I can cut and paste to somewhere else where they make sense.

    I write ugly first drafts then revise heavily. Realizing that I will never be a 1 draft writer (does such a paragon of talent and virtue exist?) was one of the most liberating parts of my writing career. Revisions have a purpose, just like every scene and cute sentence.

  2. After many years of workshopping, I’ve discovered that learning which clever sentences are not clever to readers, only to the writer–and what really serves the story–is another skill that takes us a long time to learn.

    I’ve also discovered that those who post that New York is afraid of brilliance/cutting edge/true talent most often seem to complain that beta readers don’t like their prose, but instead of working on that prose, they lament that no one today understands elegance, complexity, originality, wit . . . yadda yadda.

    I’m in sympathy with wanting to protect one’s hard work, but learning self-editing really does require that one listen to what works and what doesn’t for those not emotionally invested.

  3. ‘And if the Good Voice whispers, “The story is not served,” then bring out the knife.’

    Great line. Better’n Faulkner’s.