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- Over-dramatic prose to the exclusion of comprehension
- A staunch refusal to reorder events in a scene for fear of reducing the all-important IMPACT of one’s beautiful, beautiful words
- The most gratuitous use of hyperbole of all time!
- A narrator voice that would fit right into a 90’s movie trailer
So, I joined a writer’s forum this past week. This was a big move for me. A forum, after all, is a lurking spot for people. *Gulp* And not just any people. People who read things. And then respond to what they read. Often with generous use of the bold and font color options. You know, so you don’t miss the parts where they tell you all the things you did wrong in that scene you wrote and only posted because you thought it demonstrated the very best of your abilities, and wouldn’t it be nice if everyone instantly recognized you for the writing savant you are and just showered you with awe and envy so you’d know there was nothing else to learn and really you’d been kidding yourself with all this ridiculous modesty.
You know, that kind of forum.
Here’s what I posted. It’s a <200 word hook to a contemporary romance idea I had a while ago.
To New Yorkers, Naomi Henderson was a powerful, competent woman who should be listened to carefully and obeyed immediately. She knew that was the impression she gave, because she’d spent years perfecting her appearance and personality to portray just that. Every article of clothing and piece of jewelry she put on was critiqued as carefully as a line in a programmer’s code. Her facial expressions and voice were practiced with the same obsession an Olympic gymnast devoted to her routine. And her mind was kept sharp by filling every spare moment with researching everything from nanophysics to Roman history.
When she was asked a question, she had an answer. When a problem was brought to her attention, she had a solution. And when praise was given, she was politely gracious, letting none of her impatience for the gratuitous back-patting show.
To New Yorkers, Naomi Henderson was a person to respect.
To the inhabitants of the small town known as Evansville, Pennsylvania, Naomi was a useless cripple who couldn’t even manage to get through a door.
A week ago, I was so proud of it. Now I’m more . . . I don’t think cringy is actually a word, but it should be as of this moment.
I must say, the kind strangers who offered critiques were not harsh or cruel or anything like that. They were, in fact, very supportive and had every intention of being helpful with their commentary and criticisms. And knowing that did make me second guess my initial impulse to immediately close my account, burn my computer, and hunt down anything they might have ever written themselves and burn that, too.
This whole critiquing thing is new for me.
After a moment of aggressive cat petting (Leeloo did not complain), I convinced myself to step back onto the platform and let the crazy train go on to its destination without me. Then I reread everything, including my hook. “Okay, they might have something vaguely resembling what could be mistaken as a dulled point,” I thought to myself. But they were strangers. And I had no idea of their own credentials or intelligence or native languages. So I gave the hook to Bunny, my biggest fan and the smartest, most accomplished, most top-rated English speaker I know.
Bunny–who was mostly asleep because I wasn’t about to wait until the next morning to be vindicated–promptly repeated most of the critiques and, after a moment of deep thought–very deep, as I had to nudge him to break him out of his close-eyed introspection–he told me I might have a slight case of the Try-Hards.
Now I don’t always agree with him, especially when it comes to writing practices. But in this case. . . are you familiar with the subreddit /r/oddlysatisfying? It was that. It was so that. It just fit. And realizing it, I feel like I’ve been standing under a rainbow-colored waterfall of epiphanies ever since.
I’m trying too hard to get the words just right. To the exclusion of everything else! When, and here’s the kicker, the order of the words are unquestionably the least important part.
You might disagree. That’s okay. I should explain. For me, the order of the words are the least important part. They should be the last thing I focus on when writing unless I’m on, like, the 5th revision of a completed story. And here’s why. Technically, I know how to write. By that, I mean, I can write with technical competence. What I can’t do is tell a story with engaging characters and an interesting plot that ends in a satisfying conclusion. And no wonder. I’ll waste an hour on trying to get one sentence worded just the way I want. In my head, that sentence will be perfect. But give it to a reader, and the beautiful vocabulary and rhythmic flow means zilch because I’ve totally forgotten to give them any context. Or worse, it will be boring, because as pretty as that sentence is, it has no action associated with it.
Let’s go back to my hook.
First problem: There are a shit ton of New Yorkers in the world. Obviously, they don’t all know Naomi. But I wanted to be dramatic and show a contradiction between it and Evansville. That contradiction, though, is meaningless if it is inaccurate. It actually tells them nothing about the character, because it’s a bird’s eye view, and in writing, you always want to stay as close to your characters as possible. Characters are what people read for. They are the avatars that take them through the story, and if you can’t convince your reader to love/care about/root for your character, you’ve already failed from the outset.
Second problem: It’s all “telling.” All of it. Every little part of it. Soooo much telling. What is the first rule we learn as writers? Show, don’t tell! But again, I got sucked into my obsession with the words, leaving everything else by the wayside. Nothing actually happens, which means there’s nothing for the reader to engage in.
Third problem: Two back-to-back similes. Like, seriously? Simmer down, self.
Fourth problem: The POV is totally misleading. It is supposed to be Naomi’s POV, and she’s the one who thinks herself pathetic. In my head, that is crystal clear. Because the whole concept exists inside my head in its entirety. Readers have only what I tell them, and what I tell them is that Evansville inhabitants think she’s pathetic. So, I’ve not only failed to engage them, I’ve totally misled them into a false assumption!
Everything my nearly-flambeed critique-strangers told me was correct. Which shouldn’t surprise me. If a reader, of just about any skill level, tells you your writing is boring/confusing, that reader is 100% correct. You cannot debate someone out of their own boredom or confusion with solid facts or well-formed arguments. Those are pretty binary states of existence, and not typically subject to mistaken identity. Say, for comprehension and excitement.
So what should my hook actually be? It should have action, clear POV, a question that begs an answer, and a setting. As it so happens, I just have to go to the next couple paragraphs I wrote to find that!
“Fuck. Fuckity-fuck fuck fuck!” The metal door handle slipped off the tips of Naomi’s fingers and bumped the stirrup of her wheelchair before easing closed with a soft whump of displaced air and a muffled tinkling of bells. Again.
She was going to find out who had decided to put those goddamn bells on the diner’s door and make them eat the condescending things. Probably the same person who’d made the poor marketing decision to brag in garish chalk-paint that the Mountain Laurel Diner was celebrating its 100th year of business.
A century of success, celebrated with bubble-gum pink and smiley faces standing in for o’s. Ugh.
It occurred to her to give up. To just turn around and call a cab to take her home. Calling Claire wasn’t an option since it’d make her sister late for work. Not to mention, it would be embarrassing as all hell since Claire had only dropped her at the curb less than five minutes ago after Naomi had spent the entire morning ridiculing her sister’s concerns about leaving her alone all day at the local eatery.
I’m 30 years old and crippled, Claire. It’s not like I’m prime human-trafficking material. And when I get bored with hick-watching, I think I have the intelligence to find something else to amuse myself in this little town of yours.
Not perfect. Not by a long shot. And some of those sentences make me want to cancel my afternoon plans and have an unhealthy affair with the backspace button on my keyboard until I get them just right. But it does have all the things the first hook didn’t. Naomi is doing something, and you can take a guess at the type of person she is, her circumstances, and her setting, based on that action and her thoughts/dialogue. Improvement! Word refinement comes later. What’s most important is that it’s clear and conveys a character/situation that people might find interesting to learn more about.
This is my largest obstacle as a writer, I think. It’s why I can’t finish anything, even with a 30-page outline and arcs written in detail for each and every character. I’m trying to write how I think good writers write. But good writers write good stories. J.K. Rowling is not, in my opinion, a technically great writer. She’s kind of bland, in fact. But her stories and characters are amazing. The same can probably be said for most of the authors on the NYT’s bestseller list. Readers are very forgiving in that area, so long as you give them a story they want to live in for a short while.
Which brings us to . . .
- Don’t write pretty sentences. Write interesting characters.
- Don’t write for IMPACT. Write for reader engagement.
- Don’t worry about the details. Worry about what’s going to happen next in the story.