Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Note On Craft

So after an MFA in fiction, and more workshops and how-to books than I care to count, I think I've narrowed down the telling, the crafting, of story as follows:

- The decision to act
- The action
- The consequences of the action

Stories contain characters, the protagonist in particular, who struggle, make choices, act, and ultimately change.

Great stories also contain compassion and surprise.

The idea of conflict, the protagonist's struggle, in stories has been quite problematic for me. For years, I made the mistake of thinking that conflict had to be something big, dramatic. A mistake that resulted in overwriting. Now if I approach story thinking of trouble, rather than conflict, I do better.

At Mills College, Victor LaValle said that writers needed to know their weaknesses and write against them.

The weaknesses I'm aware of in my own writing are:

- overwriting*
- slow beginnings
- failing to deliver a satisfying story arc
- allowing my own self-doubts and inner critic to limit my creativity

*I received a very helpful rejection recently. The editor pointed out the following about my story:

- You're trying way too hard
- Select modifiers carefully
- Choose adjectives and adverbs that evoke rather than describe
- Choose the one noun or verb in your sentence that you want to illuminate
- Less is more

I returned to the story and revised it accordingly, and am so much happier with it. It's advice I plan to apply to all my work.

At the moment, I feel sad and frustrated because I so want to be a better writer. I'm fighting the urge to wallow, telling myself that all I can do is keep writing, keep trying. I might never get as good as I'd like to be. I might never get to tell all the great stories I'd so love to give the world. But with writing, as with all things, practice can only help.

Happy writing and living all.


  1. Victor scared the crap out of me, but in the end, I did take away one thing from him -- the will to delete. If you truly believe the stories are in YOU, the genius is within, as it were, then you can find the chutzpah to keep revising.

    That being said, sometimes it's a real slog, trying and trying too hard.

    I'm intrigued by the idea of knowing one's weaknesses and writing against them. I'm finding now that I am overwriting emotional scenes -- still trying to scuttle, crablike, back into the crevasses of a scene, and pinch all the emotion back in there with me. Thus the character is never pathetic, never too stupid, hurt, or angry; never disrespects others, insults people, hates their mother...

    And then, I delete, delete, delete...

    Hang in there, babe.

  2. I used to be guilty of overwriting (and overstuffing); now, I think I'm guilty of underwriting. *Sigh* I'm with ya. Hang tough.

  3. Hi Tanita and Molly,

    Thanks so much for stopping by, and for reading and commenting. It really does help to know I'm not alone in all this.

    Here's to all of us *sighing* and trying.

  4. Good for you for being willing to find, admit to, and try to move beyond writing weaknesses. It takes a lot of strength. I'm not sure I'm even anywhere near that point...I'm so much better at wallowing! :)

  5. you are far from alone, ethel. and i really admire your grace in accepting and applying tough criticism that others might have ignored, begrudged or interpreted as a definitive conclusion of failure. you do lovely things with words. keep doing those lovely things, ok? you know where to find me if you need a reminder ...

  6. hmm. the first third of this note is lovely--we lose sight of the simple energy of narrative tension, the stuff that generates pleasure in a reader. but I've been thinking about "craft" a lot lately, and I have a lot of suspicions about technique-based advice, which is, I think, sometimes an opportunity to avoid talking about the story. In essence, the editor gave you the same advice 5 ways, when what he/she should have done (and this is me blowing hard without knowing anything about the piece) is to say 'trim this by 500 words'. You are a terrifically skilled writer, and I find it difficult to believe that the power of a story can be isolated to parts of speech.

  7. a.fortis, thanks for stopping by. You're too hard on yourself, my friend. Good luck again today!

    Lauren, "You do lovely things with words." Thank you so much for that! It means a lot. And right back at you.

    Laura, thanks so much for taking the time to stop by and share your thoughts. I agree, "the power of a story cannot be isolated to parts of speech." Thank you for underscoring that. As for "a terrifically skilled writer" I'll take that as high praise indeed coming from you, and am deeply touched.

    I feel inspired and encouraged by you all, and am very grateful.