Writing about Writing

I’ve noticed that every time I post a blob/g about writing, I get a few likes and maybe even a follower. This doesn’t seem to happen with my other assorted mumblings. Because I’m tiptoeing back into the fiction-writing maelstrom, maybe I should turn this into a fiction-writing blog.

“April 23: Wrote another 1,800 words!” Zzzzz. Maybe not.

I do think the process of writing fiction is interesting, and worth conversing about with other writers. On the other hand, I’m leery of discussing a work-in-progress. Early on, while reading how-to-write-fiction books (this was in the 1980s), I ran into the observation that if you talk about the story you’re writing, your unconscious mind equates the talking — sharing the story with other people — with writing. Your unconscious will start to think you’ve already told the story, so why bother to write it down? That advice stuck with me.

Also, I’m nervous about looking foolish if I talk about a project and then don’t finish it for whatever reason (like, the plot sinks like a lead coffin to the bottom of the pond, and can’t be lifted out even with grappling hooks).

On the other hand, I love it when I read what other writers say about writing. Holly Black offers some great advice in her blog, for example.

To oil the hinges, here’s a bit of advice for aspiring (or struggling) writers.

While working on my first novel (Walk the Moons Road, long out of print), I had a 3×5 card thumb-tacked to the wall above the typewriter. (Remember typewriters?) The card had two admonitions: (1) Tell a good story. (2) Put the reader in the scene.

That’s the whole secret. If you can do that, you may well have a publishable novel. You’ll certainly have a novel you can be proud of. What constitutes a “good story” — well, that’s a topic for another time.

Putting the reader in the scene is, first and foremost, about remembering to include sensory detail. To do that, you need to immerse yourself in the scene, while writing, deeply enough that you notice those details. Picking the right details, the ones that will evoke the emotion you want the scene to convey, is of course vital.

On a purely mechanical level, if you’re writing a long dialog, and especially a dialog scene where more than two characters are present, it can also mean inserting bits of “stage business” in and around the dialog. If you fail to do this, readers will get confused about who is talking. My rule of thumb is, a minimum of one dialog tag or bit of stage business for every three or four dialog paragraphs. If the dialog paragraphs are short and the characters are arguing, I might stretch to five or six paragraphs, because the attentive reader should certainly be able to pick up which character is arguing what. But if they’re in a heated discussion, they’ll be doing or experiencing things — the fist pounding the table, the grimace of distaste, the sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach. Tell the reader about those things! That’s what puts the reader in the scene.

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