The Struggles of a Self-Conscious Writer

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Looking back on when I began writing and what I wish I had known, just one thing comes to mind: that it was okay to make mistakes.

Like I’ve said earlier on this blog, I was raised among avid writers and readers. My father, my aunt, my 2nd cousin, my grandmother, my great aunts, they are all very skilled and published authors. I grew up surrounded by people who constantly consumed and produced literature. Because of this, I quickly learned how to read and began devouring book after book. Attempting to write was just a part of the natural course. My family encouraged my creative efforts, always supplying praise and support with gentle instruction.

Unfortunately, I was a very self-conscious child. Every time my grandma put her red pen to my latest draft, I cringed, embarrassed and ashamed. At every mistake I thought, I should have known that. Why did I make such stupid mistakes?

So I self-imposed an unrealistically harsh standard for my writing very early on. If something didn’t meet my expectations, I trashed it. For many years, I wrote and compared and shredded most of my work. Slowly, my frustration and embarrassment manifested in my writing process.

I stopped showing anyone my works-in-progress. I gave finished products only – and a very specific selection of those. If anyone walked by while I was writing, I thought they might be able to see what I had written, and made it a habit to slouch over my paper and block the motion of my hand with my other arm, while checking on the people around me – to make sure they weren’t reading my work. That became exhausting and unproductive, so instead I wrote only if I was completely alone, without even the chance that I might be disturbed. Yet, even within this isolation, I continued to berate myself for my mistakes. At some point, I could no longer write freely. I stared at my paper or monitor composing and discarding and editing sentences in my head before daring to put them on the page.

I became so self-conscious of my failure that I almost stopped writing entirely.

During this time, I began writing poetry. I’m still not quite sure what it was about poetry, but I found I could write it without incurring the full weight of my criticism. Perhaps it was the inherent subjectivity of the medium, or the drastic structural differences between writing and poetry – whatever it was, poetry became the thread that kept me connected to writing. For the first time in nearly a decade, I was writing something I was proud of. It began as a tiny sliver of confidence that gradually grew strong enough to push me back into attempting creative writing.

I sometimes catch myself deleting things, even though I know they’re fine, allowing that glimmer of self-doubt back into control. As soon as that happens, I pause to collect myself, rewrite what I erased, then deliberately ignore it and move on to the next part. Sometimes, all it takes is the decision to move forward.

If any of you feel similarly about your writing, my advice is this: keep writing. It sounds simple, but I know it can be extraordinarily difficult. Don’t let that stop you. Write something, write anything. If a fragment of a scene is all you can do – that’s incredible. Write it, save it, and do it again.

Good luck,

Plutark

What kinds of things do you struggle with in writing? Let us know in the comments!

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Letting Go of Drafts

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The esteemed hostesses of this site have generously allowed me some of your time to blog about an important part of writing that often goes ignored: ERASURE and CUTTING. Arguably, a good deal over half of anything you write is not going to make it to the final cut. So here’s why it matters and why it’s important you get rid of it anyway.

First, some background: I just graduated with my M.A. in Creative Writing with a 267-page thesis that comprises part one of a planned four-part novel. I took a semester off to write what was supposed to be a 400-500 page novel-length piece. I wrote about 400 pages in the first three months. Two semesters later, and countless numbers of meetings with Cya and Plutark, 20 of these 400 pages remained intact enough to make it into the new draft. The rest of the new 267 pages were written anew, mining very minimally from previous drafts (a phrase here or there, some dialogue).

So how do you let go of the months spent on writing 400 pages? How do you let go of the FOUR HUNDRED PAGES themselves? Or, less personally: How do you let go of what gets cut? How do you leave a draft behind?

It is not simple. Pride plays a big role in writing. You have to be proud of what you write, generally – but the catch is also knowing when what you write is good but not good enough. The first draft of anything you write, I can guarantee, is not going to be publishable. It’s just not. And that is not a bad thing.

A classmate in a graduate fiction workshop once told our professor, visiting writer David Maine, “I never rewrite anything. I believe everything you write the first time comes out the way it’s supposed to be. Isn’t that part of the creative process? Total creation.” The rest of us sneaked looks at each other, trying not to be judgmental but screaming internally, not because her first draft was bad – it wasn’t – but because we couldn’t imagine letting any of our first drafts fly free into the world like that. You’re not birthing a baby where you thankfully only get one experience pushing it out. The great part about writing is that you have the opportunity to perfect something.

These days everyone fixates on immediate results and immediate fame. Some authors get their big break on their first try and that’s awesome. However, what none of us see are the years and drafts preceding their actual publication. All the drafts that no one outside your writing group sees matter, just not to your future reader. Rewriting and revising (subtly different from one another) matter only to you because they will make your final draft, the untouchable draft, everything that it could not be without all of that previous time and effort.

Many writers tell their fans, the unpublished and hopeful legions, that the key to being successful is writing every day. What they do not always elaborate on is that this is not just to keep a habit going or to finish quicker and thus get published; it is to improve your writing, slowly and steadily. All of the drafts that build up, even if they get removed and forgotten by all but you, improve your technique, your organization, your structure, your syntax, every little aspect. Every day that you sit down to write, the words come smoother, even if they come slowly. You build your style, you learn what works, and – the kicker – you can discard what doesn’t without consequences.

Yes, it is deeply, achingly painful to know that you could have finished a project sooner had you not discarded four hundred pages. But look back at those drafts – are they really what you wanted? Are they better than what you produced in the following drafts? Odds are, they pale in comparison to your current version. They were building blocks to your current success. But you wouldn’t have gotten to the more publishable draft without them. Keep building.

C. Kamei

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PS. To end, I’ve attached a short video that does a better job explaining all of this. The first part of the video is a brief summary of Leonardo Da Vinci’s early years building to his success. Many people skip over the sixteen-year gap of failure, practices, and revisions. All of the drawing and painting and techniques he practiced every day, many were not masterpieces and many go unrecognized by the majority, but they allowed him to come to fruition in his piece, The Last Supper.

The Long Game Part 2: The Missing Years http://vimeo.com/87448006

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Have you had to let go of a draft you loved? Let us know in the comments!

 

 

The Art of Speaking vs. Writing

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I thought a lot about where I should start my first “technical tips” post. I wanted to jump straight in to talking about prose and how/why/when we should analyze it, but realized that might be jumping a bit too quickly into the deep end. Instead, I am going to start with topics that will help you figure out what prose, style, and voice are and how you may use them in your writing. Here we go!

One thing I have often observed in beginning writers is a tendency to write as though they were speaking.

It is an understandable mistake, as speaking is a skill we develop fairly naturally as we grow, where writing is more foreign and requires intent, instruction, and practice to properly develop. So why wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) we write the way we speak?

The main thing to understand is that we, as humans, interpret information differently from each source.

When we speak, there are many verbal cues that we rely on to relay our messages to others. For example, when asking a question, we lift our voices up in pitch. When we want to communicate intensity or shock, we raise the volume of our voices, and we use silence to indicate breaks in thought. Beyond the audible aspects, there is a lot of flexibility in the order or structure of our speech. We can speak in slang, with variations in sentence organization, or with filler words or sounds (“umm”, “uh”).

But when we read, we can’t hear or listen, so we bridge that distance with formal structure, punctuation, and detail. We organize ideas into paragraphs and sentences to guide readers through our thoughts. To indicate pauses or breaks, we use commas and periods in place of silence, and follow a fairly rigid set of conventional formatting rules (grammar). Then, perhaps most importantly, we supplement the main content or plot with detail. Good writing will not simply tell you it is late at night, it will make you feel the nighttime chill and see the pale twinkling of the stars.

EXAMPLES

SPEECH: There was this boy, he looked maybe seventeen or eighteen-ish, anyway, he was out late at night trying to cross the street with his dog, when all of a sudden this crazy car came out of nowhere and almost hit him!

WRITING: It seemed especially dark that night. A young man was out walking his dog despite the late hour. He stopped at the end of the sidewalk, letting his dog roam the small patch of grass next to the fire hydrant. After a few minutes, the man tugged on the leash and stepped out into the crosswalk, his dog following loyally behind. He didn’t have a chance to register the sudden blazing headlights before a car sped past him, just barely missing him!

You might notice that the writing version is a lot longer. This is because we need to provide a larger amount of information when we write, to help immerse the reader into our story. The speech example is somewhat exaggerated so I could fit in some slang and unorganized thoughts, but would be perfectly acceptable in casual conversation.

Writing and speaking should differ from the moment we begin to construct it. If we try to write our speech, it comes across as unengaging, scattered, and confusing. If we speak the way we write, we can sound detached, repetitive, and slow. However, how you speak is often indicative of patterns and tones that may help you shape your writing voice. Think about yourself and those around you. You use mostly the same words and phrases as everyone else, yet each person has a distinct way of expressing them. Try listening to how you speak or how those around you speak, and think about what makes your speech different from those around you.

To any readers: how does your speaking voice differ from your writing voice? For me, I’m much wordier in writing, although whether that is a result of the difference in mediums or the fact that I’m a quiet person has yet to be established  🙂  Please leave your answer in the comments below!

-Plutark

Prompt #1 EDIT

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This was a very imaginative prompt fill. Unexpected setting, but very awesome. My edits are below in bold. I hope you find them and the accompanying commentary helpful 🙂

Note: My style is much more verbose than yours, Cya, so where I provide examples, don’t feel like you need to be as excessive in your word usage. Just follow the main principle I’m illustrating.

“You did a great job.” A thick mittened hand patted my back unexpectedly, pushing me forward into the cold, metal ladder. Instead of using “cold”, which is a very general descriptor, you could go into specific details about the ladder that help create a more vivid picture of the environment. “…metal ladder, [insert some detail].”

I mumbled [something incoherently] as I climbed up the side of the boat. It had been a grueling few months and winter was fast approaching. I was ready to go home. [ ]: Similar to my notes above, this was overly generic and missed out on an opportunity to give the reader a better look at the narrator. If you changed it to something such as: “…under my breath, my tired body unwilling to fully form the words, as…” We get a much clearer picture of the narrator’s condition and a glimpse into his/her character. In interest of space or word limits, you can shorten phrases to fit (“under my breath, tiredly”), but especially when dealing with word constraints, you want leave as much of an impact as possible, so try to avoid being too general.

Throwing the last of (unnecessary info) my equipment off of my back up before me (provides a better sense of space), I clambered onto the deck. [Something] I chuckled as I realized I looked like one of the Weddell seals I had been studying. [Something]: you need to draw a more direct comparison to the motion or action of the narrator and the seals. This was a good way to intro story information, but I’d like to see a more seamless connection. Right now, you are breaking the story flow. I understand what image you are trying to convey, but it was one I had to create independent of your content. So what is it about his “clambering onto the deck” that made him remember the seals? Did he slip on a ladder rung and have to sidle onto the deck, the ill-fitting winter layers burdening him/her with unaccustomed girth, resulting in a short bout of awkward flailing? Now, as we left, I hoped all the pups were doing well. You might consider moving this sentence further down. You’ve introduced the seals and given us context for our narrator’s current circumstance, which is perfect for this section. In having the narrator reflect here, you bring him/her out of it in the next paragraph, and then plunge him/her back in at the end. It would be more consistent and save word space to reorganize a bit.

The sun flashed a bright orange across my eyes. Could use a sense of direction here. Our narrator has just climbed onto the deck, which implies his/her back is facing the railing/the land from which he/she departed. In the next paragraph, the narrator views the sunset from the railing, looking out over the land. It had been a friendly presence these past few months, even if I couldn’t feel its warmth. With its slow descent, my exposition came to an end and I wasn’t sure if I was more happy or relieved that it was finally over. The long, cold days had been hard. , but it was the biting wind that was the worst.

The boat blew a loud note, signaling our departure. I walked slowly to the rail to look back at what had been my home these past months. [The stark Antarctic landscape was lit up in an array of colors. The bright yellow had turned into soft oranges that caressed the harsh ice, while the deep blue of the sky started to darken around the edges.] I think this section can be condensed some. You introduced the sun/sunset earlier, so you’ve got a bit of flexibility here. Example: “The sun’s bright yellow had dimmed into soft oranges that caressed the stark Antarctic landscape, while the deep blue of the sky started to darken around the edges.”

Seals watched my departure. They would stay through the long night, even as we left. Insert: I hoped all the pups were doing well and I hoped that one day, I would made it back to see them.

Others (might want to define who the others are) had joined me to say a farewell. There was only one sunset and one sunrise here every year. This sentence could be made relevant, but as is, should be taken out. Water started to well in my eyes.

Just for a moment, above the cold, unforgiving land, [there was a flash of pink]. Someone gasped from my side. Pride swelled in my chest as I witnessed the most beautiful sunset I had ever witnessed before.,It had been made all the more sweet by the desperation that came with living and researching here. Watch word repetition (witness). [flash of pink]: Instead of just stating this outright, consider going into a more sensory description of it. This can be achieved through something as simple as verb choice: “a flash of pink burst across the sky”.

With the sun finally gone for the year, we turned in, turning over our fate and safety to the experienced sailors. As I walked below deck, I turned, one final time, to look at the night sky. (repetitive word usage)

“I’ll come again,” I whispered into the dark, [letting] the wind carrying my promise through the salty air.

 

Great work!

-Plutark

Great Expectations of the Blog

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Hello, Plutark here to talk a little more about my background and my goals for this blog.

First, I would like to point out that the title for this post, and likely all to follow, was Cya’s “great” idea. She is prone to bad puns and corny jokes. Please don’t hold it against me 🙂

 

I was raised in a very rural area, where my main sources of entertainment were the outdoors, my imagination, and books. Relative to my older sister, I was incredibly untalented in physical activities, and instead of competing with what I perceived as the pinnacle of athletic ability, I gravitated towards what I was good at: reading. I started early and simply never stopped. By the time I was leaving elementary school, I had exhausted my school’s small library, as well as much of the combined collection of my immediate and extended family.

 
My first literary love was the classic adventure novel. Fueled by their stories, I wandered the mountains behind my house searching for abandoned train cars, leading scientific explorations through imaginary volcanic tubes, scouting the oceans for pirates from the tallest tree I could climb, and running with my ragtag band of orphans through the bustling streets of London.

 
Soon after, I discovered Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, which showed me just how beautiful written English could be. This set me on the path to reading as many great works of literature as I could find. In addition to entertaining plots and characters, I looked for and learned to examine the writer’s ability to construct elegantly complex prose and found my first voice through their teachings.

 

My interest in the structure of writing lent itself to great technical writing, but I found I struggled with the more creative aspects. As many members of my family were writing, I gained experience editing their projects and found that I enjoyed that process much more than I did attempting my own creative works. Editing allowed me to focus on the aspects of stories that I am most interested in. In general, I hope that through my edits, people will learn more about how the structural choices they make throughout their writing affect the product, beyond basic grammar.

 
I hope that my posts will be accessible to writers of many different skill levels, but I will be focusing much of my content towards topics I think will be most helpful to beginning writers. If you have any specific problems you are encountering in your writing, please feel free to let me know.

My next post will be about the differences between writing and speaking and how the two should influence and interact with each other.

 

Prompt: 500 words, A flash of pink above a streak of cold blue.

 

-Plutark