[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]
I’ve talked a lot on this blog about the craft of writing fiction. About my five top rules for writing from “Get Black on White” and “NO CRITIC” to “Stick to What Works.” I’ve talked about “Grip,” about making your characters endure often painful conflict and metamorphosis and about writing what you love. But there’s a limit to what you can figure out about writing. What you can, alas, put into words. Some things in writing, you just have to let be, without explanation. I’ve felt this especially keenly lately. I feel I’ve learned a tremendous amount about writing fiction this year, especially about writing short stories. But I feel most of it is incommunicable. These things are hard to characterize, but they’re things like:
- Knowing you’re coming up against a word limit and writing to it. You just sense the story needs ending and you condense action to hit that limit.
- Writing a section of dialogue and just KNOWING it’s not right for that character or situation. And then deleting it.
- Getting a feeling that a story is getting off track. And then stopping. And putting it on the shelf for awhile or deleting the chapter(s) and starting over.
- Smiling when you know that a certain character’s turn-of-phrase or unspoken action is just spot on.
There are a million other things like that in writing. Times when I just feel like the right approach could be something different, something intuitive that I’ve missed, that just needs to be included. This usually happens when I’m caught up in a story, just floating down the surface of it, like some great river. I’m dodging all the rocks and whirlpools and just gunning down the chute to the end of the run. In such situations you can’t—or don’t—think. At moments like that the kayaker is completely immersed in the moment and making decisions naturally without the filter of rational thought breaking in.
It’s the same thing with writing. When the day’s going well, I’m making the decisions without thinking as I go. It’s only when my concentration is broken through—usually by a loud noise or some particularly clunky writing—that I fall out of the trance and start THINKING again. And thinking like that can ruin an entire day of great writing. So where am I going with this? What am I trying to say? That I learned a lot this year and I’m not sharing any of it? No. I would if I could. But this is beyond teaching and beyond knowing. It’s the pruning back of a jarring, clunky metaphor, it’s reining in some dialogue that got too long winded, it’s throwing the right detail in (even just the turn of a hand or a sigh) at the right moment, or ending a scene at just the right moment. Those things which, in the end, are the essence of Craft.
So, what to do, fellow writers? Despair? Fret? Give up? No. No. Never. Rather, persist. Pick up the pen again and take it to the blank page once more. For if I can not communicate what it is that will one day make you a master craftsman, I can assure you this: if you persist and if you have some God-given talent, you will win the contest. Experience alone must be your teacher. It may not be 5,000 words that gets you there. Or 50,000 or 100,000 or more. But if you keep going, persist, and write day-after-day, the Craft will come to you. You, too, will float along the river, gliding by, making decisions on the fly as everyone watches from the banks. And you will learn when the time is right for a character to be silent rather than speak, to act resolutely but too late, to have someone say it all with a half-seen, insignificant gesture.
All these things will come, but they require two things: talent and hard work. I wish I could say there was another path, but there never has been and never will be. That said, I hope I see you there, a little further down the road. I’ll be there, plodding along.
Good luck! And happy writing,