Thursday, March 7, 2013

Contradictions in My Learning: A Reflection

            I have been writing every day. It’s wonderful! I must admit, however, that all this solitary plotting is accentuating my personal oddity. It’s funny how overuse of your imagination helps heighten its production. For example, take dinner: My husband mentions some real-life situation. I reply, “Wouldn’t it be funny if X happened to them? And then maybe Y would happen too. And then, what if they did L and M?” And I laugh hysterically at the highly implausible tale . Fortunately, my husband has not yet concluded that I am insane.  

           In the last few months I have grown enormously as a writer (or so I, crouched over the keyboard with my Irish breakfast tea, think). I am still pondering two contradictory lessons that have caused my work to stretch and improve. The first lesson is to say much more. The second lesson is to say much less.

           In former years, I wrote stories that did not tell the readers much. I had to hold back all the key information because revealing it was my climax. Since then I have realized that the plots in these tales were insufficient to fill out an entire story or to support the characters' dialogues. Because it is easier to identify diseases than cures, I am still working on a solution. Sometimes complete stories pop up inside my mind, but most often they arrive piecemeal. My current strategy is to unveil most of my plot on the first few pages of a draft. By using up my idea and forcing myself to continue plotting, I am able to wring a larger, more layered plot out of my imagination. Instead of hauling the reader through an entire medieval feast and finally revealing that the disgruntled chieftain put the poison in the king’s cup, I demonstrate immediately that the disgruntled chieftain is toting poison—but who supplied the poison and manipulated him into using it? Who is the real villain behind this coup? Ah ha! Don't you want to know?

          Of course, success is not inevitable. Occasionally I find myself stymied, without ideas for the rest of a story and annoyed at the entire piece. I’m not yet sure whether I should push all of my plots through to a conclusion, or whether it is better to allow the occasional stillbirth. Hopefully, as I grow, I will become better at recognizing ahead of time which story ideas are truly viable for me.

           Even more importantly, I am also learning to say less. The strict word limits of flash fiction are a fantastic lesson in refining each sentence until it communicates a clearer idea with fewer words (I’ve heard that Professor Strunk, of Strunk and White, used to teach, “Omit needless words!” and followed his principles so well that he had to repeat each terse sentence three times in order to fill the time of his lectures). I am realizing that the shorter I can make a story, the better it is. There is an old journalistic maxim that promises an extra day of life for every word cut, and I am tempted to believe it, so long as the cutting is purposeful.

            I am learning so much, and not only about plotting and editing. Yet everything that I learn shows me how much more I need to know. Sometimes I complain to my husband that I want to be a great writer RIGHT NOW, and produce words of beauty and eternity with the click of my keyboard. Alas. Alack. As I continue to practice, I appreciate the time you take to read my work and the feedback you provide. I will dedicate a book to you all someday!


Introducing: The First Weekly "Name that Author" Challenge!

Every story reveals something about the mind of its author, 
but do you know the story of this photograph?  

The FIRST PERSON to e-mail me the name of the author above will receive a shout-out (bringing admiration from our loyal readers) next week. Include your own name as you would like it listed, and your blog/web site (if any). 


  1. I had a professor who passed on this dictum from his writing instructor: "Take a machete to it!" Useful advice.

    1. Absolutely! As long as you tidy up afterwards. :-)

  2. You bring up a lot of interesting points here, Anna. Pace being one of them. Do you stretch the idea to fill a whole book, or do you get it all out in as few words as possible and leave it there? Learning how to combine imagination and ideas with the skill of the storyteller is maybe what it's all about.

    1. Jane,

      I think you're right that learning how to juggle imagination, ideas, and skill is huge. Different people have different amounts of talent in those areas, and perhaps that influences which style of writing works for each person. The details and extra bits in books are often the most delightful, yet it is easy as an author to self-indulgently overwrite them. Ah, so much to learn!

  3. I've learned to write everything that readers need to know to understand the story within the first couple of chapters (or pages for a short work). As for plot, I sometimes tell my readers something that the characters don't know which supplies suspense, or I keep a few secrets from them to surprise them later on.

    As soon as I get an idea for a story, I grab a few sheets of paper and write down everything I know about the beginning and end (which is how my stories always come to me). Then I stay seated in that same spot until I figure out everything that can happen to link the two perfectly. Sometimes though, it's best to just let a story’s plot come out on its own either by writing what you have and seeing what happens when you reach the blank spaces, or leaving it alone until you do know.

    Good luck on your writing, Anna! I’m sorry it has taken me some time to come to your blog, but I'm here now! :)

    Chrys Fey from Write With Fey

  4. Thanks, Chrys, for coming over, and for your well-wishes! :-)


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