Writing: when good enough, isn’t

Writing’s like Boy Scouts.  My grandson, Tyler, belonged to one of the most wonderful Boy Scout troops anyone could hope for.  He learned SO much.  But one of his leaders signed every message she sent him with “Good enough–isn’t.”  Thank you, Mrs. Dirig!  That was pretty much the motto for their troop.  Don’t just try to get by.  Excel.

I belong to a writers’ group–one of the BEST writers’ groups–and I’ve looked at pages for lots of writers who’ve joined us and stayed with us.  I’ve read writers with lots of potential who had no sense of sequence or grammar.  Those things are something a writer can learn.   Everything’s something a writer can learn, but some things are harder than others.  Using active verbs instead of passive verbs is something we yap about on a regular basis–so often, in fact, it becomes a mantra for us.  We go on and on about opening hooks and inciting incidents, about the book’s big question.  We ask about the protagonist’s outer and inner motivaton, pacing, plotting, the book’s big showdown–it had better deliver, word choice…you name it.   And we learn from each other.

The hardest thing to critique, though, is when someone reads and the words flow, everything SEEMS right, we can’t find a flaw, but none of us are excited about the story.  Clean, but boring, is harder to work with.  It’s taken me a while, but when that happens now, I know it’s not what’s THERE, but what ISN’T that’s the problem.  And that’s even harder to explain to a newer writer.

Sometimes, the yawn factor happens because the author tells, instead of showing.  We’re not living the events with the protagonist.  We’re not holding our breath when he’s in danger.  We’re not feeling heart palpitations because the guy who’s hot looks our way.  We’re kept at a distance while the author TELLS us what happened.  But even after writers master the art of Show, Don’t Tell, their stories can be flat.  Then our group has to take a harder look at what’s NOT there.

Are the stakes high enough?  Does the protagonist care enough?  Is the story too pat?  Has it been done to death?  Is there an original slant to it?   Or is it so out there, we can’t relate to it?  We ask all those questions, but when we’ve exhausted everything else, sometimes it comes down to something even harder to put a finger on.  Is the story immediate enough?  Are we connected enough to the protagonist?

I’ve said it before in this blog, but a lot of readers read for emotional impact.  They want to laugh, cry, and despair with the story’s main character.  I used to have problems with this in my own writing.  I tended to be too private.  I was more of an idea writer than an emotional one.  I started with mysteries that were plot driven instead of character driven.  When I switched to urban fantasy, it was hard to add the internal dialogue and feelings that drive those stories.  But that’s one of urban fantasy’s strong points.  The characters’ emotions are what ground the magic and supernatural action in reality.

To start the writing year off right, I’m including a list of great sites about the craft of writing and marketing.  I hope you’re inspired in 2014.  Happy writing!

Lisa Gardner offers one heck of a feast of advice on her site:  http://lisagardner.com/writers-toolbox

When Les Edgerton gets down to the nitty-gritty, I always learn something: http://lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/2012/03/character-actions.html?spref=fb

I don’t just use Victory Crayne’s critique advice to look at other writers’ work.  I use it when I look at my own:  http://www.crayne.com/howcrit.html

While you’re at it, why not learn from one of the best?  http://winningedits.com/neil-gaiman-on-writing

And why not finish with one of my favorites?  http://www.ilona-andrews.com/category/articles

 

May the Muses bless you for the year ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Writing: when good enough, isn’t

  1. Really interesting point about being an ‘ideas’ writer rather than an emotional one. Speaking from my own experience, I think ideas can carry you pretty well through short stories, but a novel needs emotions… which I’m finding far harder. Have a huge fear of being sentimental or cliched or mawkish…

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    1. I started writing with short stories, and “ideas” could drive the entire story. I’m getting better at putting emotion in novels. I try to balance between internal dialogue and actions to show emotion. Actions can work really well, are sometimes stronger than internal dialogue. But I have the same worry you do. Emotions take a fine balance. When I read authors who do it really well, I still study how they do it.

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      1. I think ultimately (if this doesn’t sound massively pretentious) I adhere to what T.S. Eliot said about the objective correlative: ‘The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion’. (This site has good examples: http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Objective_Correlative.pdf ) But I suppose what it really boils down to, as always, is showing not telling 🙂

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  2. What it boiled down to, for me, was practice. But that’s been the bottom line for all of my writing. I can read how to do it, maybe even understand how to do it, but then…I just have to do it until I’m half way decent at it:) And I seem to be a SLOW learner.

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  3. Hey! This is Fazal – I came to the Scribes meeting today. It was great meeting you and the other writers. And I enjoyed the advice in this post, particularly the simple, inspiring message that “good enough – isn’t.” Hopefully I’ll grow as a writer and avoid being happy with putting in a “good enough” effort into my work.

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    1. It was great meeting you! Scribes is a good group for new writers. We love to watch new authors grow, and if we can answer any of your questions, we’ll give it our best shot. I have you down to read at our next meeting. Think of any questions you want to throw at us. And if you have a question before that, my e-mail’s on the list I gave you:)

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