Pitfalls of Writing Tight

We are constantly told to write tight. No unnecessary words. Story as iceberg. Kill our darlings. Et cetera. You know, the Elmore Leonard school of writing.

And this is something I’ve taken to heart as I’ve tried to further my craft over the years. I like to think I’ve developed a spare style for myself. Which also may have evolved out of my experience writing flash fiction in one of my early writing groups. Still, I try to write tight, no matter what project I’m working on.

But sometimes this hurts me.

A long time ago, I wrote a post on how I have to write in layers, starting with a skeleton of action and dialogue and layering in all that other stuff that makes for a coherent and satisfying story.

Once I have a sense for my story, I’m eager to get it all down on the page and move on. I know what my characters need to do, when, and how. And then try to convey that as efficiently as possible.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Because I’ve already figured out what happens, there’s not always enough of an intellectual challenge to flesh the story out. Another reason is that there’s always another story jumping up and down in the back of my brain, waiting for its turn to be written. I have to take care to manage both of these impulses since I’m writing for publication, which requires a higher level of storytelling from me than if I were writing for my own entertainment.

Writing tight is great for controlling a story’s pacing. But if I’m too thin on the details, the character insights, the scene setting, and so on, I often rob my story of its full potential. So I have to spend a significant amount of time lingering over my scenes to ensure they are fully realized without slowing things down. And I often rely on my CPs and trusted readers to figure out what the right balance is.

Plot complications are another area I have to watch out for. After all, why delay the inevitable? I already know what happens in my stories, and complications just muck that up. But it’s also those complications that ratchet up tension and make the story’s climax awesome (or at least they should contribute).

There’s a reason I’ve stayed away from writing mysteries and suspense novels. So many of those stories rely on misinformation and red herrings to carry the story until the real plot is revealed at the three-quarters mark. And it’s hard for me to justify spending so much time developing irrelevant plot threads, when there’s a real story to cover. But I guess that’s just another writerly flaw of mine.

So while my craft has definitely benefited from learning to write tight, there are some pitfalls:

  • Write too sparely, and you risk confusing your reader. 
  • Write too lean, and you rob your story of its full emotional impact. 
  • Write too tight, and you could ruin the journey for the reader.

How do you strike that balance between tight writing and fully realized stories? var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “google-analytics.com/ga.js’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}

Managing Critique

I’m a firm believer in the benefits of critique—regardless of what shape they take.

Since getting serious about writing, I’ve experienced a wide range of critiquing styles and formats:

Reading Work Aloud – On one end of the spectrum, there’s things like open mic nights where tepid applause or catcalls tells you how well you did. I’ve done this once, and although I didn’t crash and burn, I don’t want to repeat the experience. On the other end, I’ve been in groups where you read a predetermined number of pages aloud and then discuss them. Great for problem scenes or seeing if your story or chapter opener hooks readers.

Exchanging Work – I’ve done where an agreed upon number of pages (up to 10 pages, up to 1 chapter, first 50 etc.) are exchanged in advanced and then discussed in small groups. Great for fostering local connections and looking at stories more in-depth. I’ve also exchanged full and partial manuscripts with critique partners and other trusted readers, marking up the text and making micro and macro level comments. It’s a lot of work but it allows you to evaluate a work as a whole, and as we all know, good readers are priceless.

Contests – There’s a wide variety of these for both short and long form work. Things like Miss Snark’s First Victim provide a forum for novel openers to see if readers are hooked. Query contests also abound on blogs. Plus there are a wide variety of contests sponsored through local and national writing organizations. Contests can provide you with feedback if you are in a place were you don’t have a trusted reader in your corner, but beware contest fees as not all contests are created equal.

Then there’s writing workshops like Taos Toolbox, where a lot of feedback comes your way all at once.

And that can be overwhelming. Strike that. It is overwhelming.

So how do you incorporate it all?

Well, when I have the opportunity to collect feedback from a variety of sources all at once, I like to focus on macro-level issues first.

These are general vibes my CPs and trusted readers get from my story or, in the case of the critiques from Taos, what stands out most in my mind as people went around the table and told me what was wrong with my stories.

Based on those things, I do a revision pass. That way I’m proactively working through what I perceive as problems with my story.

Only after I’ve done my initial revisions do I go back through the more detailed individual crits. That way I find I’m less reactive to individual comments that can often lead to changes in my story that serve the critiquer, not necessarily the manuscript as a whole.

Granted this process won’t work for every project, but I like to use this model whenever I can. Besides, by tackling the “big” issues first, because usually by the time you get to the smaller nits, many of them have already been fixed or eliminated.

There’s also some caveats to critiquing more generally.

As Kristine Kathryn Rusch pointed out in her post Perfection:

Critiquers get the manuscript for free and they’re asked to criticize it. Of course, they will find something wrong with it. In that circumstance, we all will.

So remember, just because someone says there is a problem with your story, figure out if it’s because they’ve been asked to find a problem or if there really is something wrong.

It’s also worth noting that not all critiquing advice is equal. Some people may not understand your vision for your story or be unable to divorce themselves from what they would do in your stead.

Fellow Toolboxer Catherine Scaff-Stump in Technique versus Vision explains:

If you ask me to give you feedback on a story, my job is to talk to you about your technique, but it is not to suggest you move in a different direction. I am not going to ask you to compromise your vision. You know what you want to do.

Worse, why would I pass judgment on your vision? I can say, “Your piece isn’t very good.” Unpacked, that should mean that you are vague, or your characters are underdeveloped. There should be things I can do to help you with technique. But I shouldn’t be thinking that your piece isn’t very good because I don’t like it. Because it’s not my thing. Because it’s not my sub-genre. That’s besides the point. I should be focusing on your technique, not telling you to like what I like.

Another great resource for figuring out how to incorporate feedback comes from How to Tackle Critique Notes from Writer Unboxed.

What other tips and tricks have you learned from your own critique experiences?

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Asking For More

What struck me most about my Taos Toolbox experience, I think, was how straightforward the lectures were. That’s not to say I didn’t learn more in-depth tricks or benefit from discussing different story elements over an intense two weeks—I did and it helped crystallize a lot of concepts for me.

But I do think you reach a certain point with craft, where there’s really nothing more to say. You either know it and use it, or you don’t. We all know we need that balance between character, plot, and emotion. And we have scenes and grammar to fashion our stories. But at a certain point, it simply comes down to doing.

At Taos, I learned that I’m doing many right things in my writing, at a high level. I also learned that I need to be doing more of it. At the individual story level and across stories. As I was told in my consultation at the end of the workshop (paraphrasing), “You can write. You need to stretch yourself and see what hits.” In other words, I know the basics, even beyond, and it’s time to stop being precious about my individual projects and start producing.

Wait, you want more from me?

As guest Daniel Abraham told us, “Publishing is a casino,” and you never hit the jackpot if you aren’t showing up everyday plugging quarters into the slots.

Time for the big girl pants.

That’s a scary thought. I feel a little like Dorothy in that I’ve realized I’ve been able to write all along. But if that were true, I’d like to think I’d be a bit further along in my writing journey. So there must be something else I’m missing, some missing piece of the puzzle.

I do think part of it comes back to output. I’m not a fast writer. I like to stew over my stories ideas and get lost in the different worlds. I’ve gotten faster at writing in the last year and a half, and I’ve been pushing myself to get there, but still other writers can write three short stories in the time it takes me to write one.

I also don’t move onto new projects quickly enough. I like to tinker, I like to figure out how to make my stories the best they can be, and sometimes that means I’m holding onto a sinking ship expecting to be rescued when really I should have taken that life raft and be onto something new. But if I don’t care about my work, how can I expect editors/agents/readers to?

Kristine Kathryn Rusch had a recent post on “Perfection” — it’s worth a full read, but I want to focus on something she said:

Keep writing, keep learning, keep improving. But for god’s sake, don’t look backwards. Those books are done.

How do you know when a manuscript is done? That’s trickier. I think you should trust the process, fix the nits, and move to the next book. Writing is a subconscious art, not a conscious one. You heard your first story before you could speak, so your subconscious knows a lot more about writing than your conscious brain ever will.

Trust that.

Many writers don’t believe what I just wrote, and that’s fine. You need to define it for yourself. Set a limit on revisions, set a limit on drafts, set a time limit. (My book must be done in August, no matter what.) Then release your book on the unsuspecting public.

The book will never be perfect.

And that’s another hard thing for me. I want to write a perfect story. I want each of my stories to be perfect. And I work hard to revise them, chasing after some nebulous concept of perfection, when maybe I should be sending them out and moving on to the next story.

Of course, an exception to Rusch’s position is Andrew Porter, who wrote “Looking Back” for the latest Glimmer Train bulletin. An extensive revision of one of his older stories has gone onto being his most successful, wining him the Pushcart. He says:

I think most writers have a tendency to discount their early work, especially those pieces that were written when they were first starting out, when they were just figuring out how to write a short story in the first place.

In some cases, we’re probably right to discount those early efforts. I know, for me, there’s a certain cringe factor involved. Sometimes simply remembering the basic premise of one of those early stories is enough to make me shake my head and vow never to look back. Still, I’ve recently begun to wonder whether my own tendency to always look forward—to always believe that my best work lies before me, that the fiction I wrote five years ago isn’t nearly as good as the fiction I’m writing today—doesn’t prevent me from recognizing the potential value in some of those old unpublished stories that are just sitting there on my hard drive or collecting dust in a folder.

So writers should always be moving on to the next project, except when they shouldn’t. Hmm.

So what makes the difference? Fellow Toolboxer Catherine Scaff-Stump may have stumbled upon the answer in her post-workshop post on Technique versus Vision (also worth a full read). In it, she talks about how workshops can teach technique, but they can’t teach vision, and how the critique process can muddy the two.

I’m going to work my ass off regarding technique. And…so what if my vision is different? Different can be the next thing. If I find myself doubting my technique, I should. I can fix that. If I find myself doubting my vision, that’s the end of the story. That’s the death knoll for my writing, right there.

So maybe it’s not about writing lots just to write lots or revising things to death because you can’t bear to send something out less than perfect. Maybe it’s about finding your vision and finding ways to bring that vision to life. And if your older stories have solid vision, it’s about updating them craft-wise as your skills as a writer develop. That’s not stepping back; that’s bringing them to life.

I like to think I have vision with my stories. Now it’s just about making them come to life.

I guess no one ever said this whole writing thing was easy.

Happy writing!
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The Chasm between Intentions and Execution

We all intend to write the best we possibly can. In fact, we probably intend a lot of things with our stories.

Maybe we want to create the most nuanced yet relatable of characters or an innovative twist on x plot or a unique structure/voice/premise that will blow readers away. And yet once we finally finish our masterpiece we realize what we actually have is a two-dimensional protagonist, a plot that closely resembles two other books that came out this year alone, and a structure/voice/premise that leaves readers scratching their heads at best.

How did our stories fall so short of our intentions?

Skill Level

Sure we all want to be that author who writes the Great American Novel right out the gate. It’s normal to want to succeed so fantastically at something you work hard at. But what’s more realistic is that you tinker with a few story ideas, even write out some of them, and realize you have so much to learn. In this case, your skills as a writer are keeping you from writing the way you intend to.

Maybe you are still mastering ways to incorporate description without derailing story action. Maybe you are still trying to figure out how to go deeper into your character so they feel like real people. Maybe you have all these grand ideas for plot points, but you struggle to make them come about in a natural way in your story. If you keep writing, keep practicing, keep honing your craft, you’ll gradually see the gulf between your intentions and your writing ability narrow.

Competing Story Elements

This one is harder to generalize since it really depends on the individual story. However, maybe the reason your story falls short of your intentions is because some other aspect of your story got in the way. Perhaps this competing element distracted you from what you were trying to accomplish or perhaps it simply made it impossible.

If your story is derailed from what you intended, you must decide if that is a problem or not. Maybe you had the good fortune that your story actually improved. If not, you must ferret out where things started to go haywire and work your way back out. This is not easy work. But it is a useful process to go through, even if you don’t succeed.

Maturation

I’m a firm believer that some stories simply need more time to develop. I know that can be a discouraging thing to hear when you want that book deal/agent/career now now now. But some stories simply take longer to create and shape, so that they fulfill your intentions in writing it in the first place.

If you have a story that has disappointed you in how it has turned out, set it aside for a little while. Time away can show you flaws you couldn’t see before. It could also be you rushed into writing the story without thinking it through adequately enough before putting pen to paper. Story ideas need time to gel, coalesce, mature before they’re ready to be written. Knowing whether or not your story falls into this category comes with time and experience.

***

Along these lines, I’ve included part three (four in total) of Ira Glass’s talk On Storytelling, which is totally worth watching if you haven’t seen it already.

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Story Stew

There’s no such thing as writer’s block.
Write a little bit each day.
Butt in chair.

I’m sure we’ve all heard variations on these themes regurgitated online and in craft books and by cranky creative writing professors.

Writers write, right?

Yes, but sometimes such a pace is unsustainable. You don’t want to get so burned out you never want to pick up a pen again. You also don’t want to keep writing just for the sake of writing if there’s something fundamentally wrong with your story. Sometimes you just need to stop and have a think.

This doesn’t mean you have writer’s block or that you aren’t being productive, even if you’re not committing words to a page. Thinking through your story is always time well spent.

The prewriting stage of a project is the most familiar, most obvious, time you spend thinking about a story. Also before launching into a major revision. In both cases it makes sense to give yourself a few days, weeks, even months, depending on story scope, to think over what you want to accomplish, and how that tracks through the narrative.

Recently, particularly for my short stories, I will get a story idea, but wait until the point where I cannot stand not writing the story any longer. I stew and stew and stew, let my story ideas come to a simmer, then a roiling boil, and then and only then do I start to write. I’ve found this leads to more complete first drafts and a better sense of my characters and the overall story arc. High five.

There are also less obvious times when it makes sense to hit the brakes and think on what comes next. For me, I usually pause in my drafting when I approach a major tentpole scene. I also slow down my pace the closer I get to the end of my story. In both cases, I’m usually juggling a lot of characters and plot elements, and it can take time to work my way through these scenes even with an outline. A slow and steady pace, particularly with lots of time built in to stew about the possibilities, usually helps it all come together.

I’ve taken to addressing problem scenes this way too. I’ll take a break, stew a few days, and then come back re-energized to get the story back on track.

How do you stew?

Obligatory Arrested Development Reference (Source)

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