Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Keep Your Flavor

Shawna Williams' January 19th blog post was truly inspiring to me. She brought up a great point, one I wish I had thought of when I started my novel. I won't tell you, you can read it at the link below--just make sure you come back to read what I have to say about it.


Now, her post didn't just get me thinking about her subject matter, it got me thinking about her voice. Her writer's voice. Here, let me drop a bomb on you--Shawna is southern. And smart. And witty. Oh, what, after reading her blog you are not surprised?

Well, that is exactly what I'm talking about. She is distinctive. She adds a unique and captivating flavor to her writing. We have recently endeavored to critique each other's work, and I find myself stepping back sometimes before commenting on her prose, because the one thing I do not want to do is take away her style. Her writing needs to sound like Shawna--it's what makes it work so well.

She and I had a discussion about this just recently. Often, critique groups have at least one person who is so stuck on "writing rules" that they never learn to find their voice and write distinctively. They often try to make everyone else's work sound the same as well. I attended a critique group once where the conversation pretty much never got past whether or not it was acceptable to start a sentence with a word that ended in "-ing." And one guy rewrote everything for everyone else, and when they showed their lack of appreciation for that, he left.

Do not be that kind of writer. Don't get caught up in counting how many times you use "was" and "-ly" words. Yes, you must limit those, of course, but if that is all you think makes good writing, then you're not seeing the forest for the trees.

That same critique group got sidetracked on those points regarding a particular writer's chapter. But the chapter had much bigger issues--tremendously clunky sentences, out-of-date terminology for a teen novel, and confusing dialogue. Good writing will ultimately make the reader overlook an occasional was, -ly or -ing word, or other "no-no." And some of those things can add to your writing if used correctly.

For example, here is one of my pet peeves. Look at these two sentences:

"He walked across the room, and opened the door."

(Boring, yes, but I'm talking pure structure here). This sentence implies a beginning, middle, and end to the action with one word--walked. He started to walk, he covered the distance, and he stopped (at least the walking in the room).

Now here:

"He was walking along the side of the road when he spotted a shiny object."

Oh, no! A "was" and an "-ing" word! You must change that to "he walked." Right? NO! He was already walking before I started writing about him. He's in the MIDST of walking, in the middle of the action. It is a totally different idea than "he walked."

(Now, you could change that to "as he walked" but someone, somewhere, will gripe about using "as." Trust me.)

The point is, sometimes passive works better and sometimes fragments get your attention. Adjectives can be what bring descriptions to life, adverbs can ratchet the action, and dialect can definitely punch up writing.

Too much passive makes writing drag and too many fragments make writing choppy. Too many adjectives and adverbs bog down the descriptions and action, and too much dialect can make writing hard to read.

Let the rules guide your writing, rather than beating it into submission. Write in YOUR voice first and foremost, and then clean it up and tighten it down. Take into consideration whether comments refer to grammar or style before making changes.

Don't let someone take your flavor.


Shawna K. Williams said...

Ah shucks. Thanks Kat.

Your two examples are great. And they imply two different things. The first sentence suggests the character walked with the intention of shutting the door. It may be a neccessary action, but it doesn't move the story along.

The second example shows an interruption. The character was going somewhere and got sidetracked. Now the story may head in a whole other direction. Who knows! That shiny thing could be a interdimensional transportation device. I bet you'd keep reading to find out.

My point is, the 'ing' word was an effective tool.

You know what's funny. I was thinking about this very thing last night; rules. I plan to post a little more on the subject on my blog later this week. Strictly adhereing to all of these rules, at best, makes a writer's work bland, and worst, paralyzes the writer. And yes, I'm well aware that I just used an 'ly' and 'ing' word.

Anonymous said...

That was stunningly written, ladies. ;-)

Was, ing and ly, all in one sentence. As it should be (oops, did I start that with AS?).

Damn, where were you when I was taking English? I might have been a writer, too...if I'd have known it could be this fun and interesting.