Friday, January 25, 2013

How Much Do You Understand About Your Writing Process?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Before I dive into today's post, a quick heads up that I'm over at Writers in the Storm sharing an easy fix for crafting a tighter point of view. So come on over and take a peek when you're done here.

There's a joke I heard once that's become a staple in our house.

A little girl is helping her mother make a ham for dinner. Mom cuts the end off the ham and puts in in the pan.

"Why did you cut off the end?" the little girl asks.

"Because my mother always did it that way," replies Mom.

"But why?"

"I don't know, let's ask her."

So they call Grandma and ask her why she always cut the end off the ham. She says,

"Because my mother always did it that way."

So they call Great Grandma and ask her the very same thing. "Why do you cut the end off the ham?"

"Because," says Great Grandma, "my pan was too short."

What's great (and true) about this joke, is that things can become habits with no reason behind them. Maybe you write a certain way or use a certain literary device because you've always done it, or because others said you should. That it was the "right" way to write a novel so you went with it, even though you struggle with that technique or rule.

Maybe you're using first person because folks said most YA books are written in first, but it's never felt as easy to write as third. Maybe you're writing cliffhanger endings because you read once that all chapters need to end that way. Maybe you're contorting yourself to avoid all adverbs because someone said using any adverbs at all is bad.

You're cutting off the end of the ham without knowing why.

Think about the things you struggle with, but do anyway because advice told you to. What are your reasons for doing it? Are you:
  • Editing out adverbs because they're bad, or because they're weakening your prose and leading you into telling and not showing?
  • Putting in a goal--any goal--because that's how scenes are supposed to work, or because you want your protagonist actively driving the scene? 
  • Not putting in any backstory because an agent once said don't use any in the first 50 pages, or because you know the reader doesn't need to know that yet?
  • Starting a scene with action because you can't start with dialog, or using action because you find that a far more compelling way to open that particular scene?
  • Outlining because real writers plans their novels, or because that's the technique that best allows you to plan a novel?
  • Having characters fight because there needs to be conflict in even scene, or developing opposing character viewpoints to best illustrate the conflicts in your story for the most impact?

Sometimes knowing why you do something can help you pinpoint what it is you're trying to accomplish, or what you enjoy most about a story. Following good advice without understanding why that advice is helpful might be causing you to do things that hurt your writing instead of help it.

Try thinking about why you do what you do when you write. See if you're doing anything because the pan was too short.

Do you struggle with anything people say you have to do?


  1. Ha, I love that joke! You're absolutely right that we can slip into habits in writing without even realizing we're doing it. I'm going to follow your example and try to consider the writing choices I make a bit more closely.

    By the way, I'm halfway through The Shifter and really enjoying the story! I can't wait to see how it all turns out.

  2. Great advice!

    There's a similarly enlightening story I've heard about a foreign missionary who always found ways to park his old hard-to-start truck on a hill, even if it meant walking a long distance, so he could start it up by popping the clutch. He taught many others how to drive and start it too before someone realized all it needed was a single cable to be tightened.

    Oh the habits we fall into when we forget to stop and ask 'Why?'...


  3. Some good thoughts here. Personally, I just don't like that end of the ham. ;)

  4. @Atsiko:

    *gasp* What??!! That's the best part! *grin*

    @ everyone:

    You also want to consider giving your narrator and characters some habits like that and based in misconceptions. I have one who has panic attacks when she wears red because she associates it with Lolita, and she thinks "Lolita" means "teenage slut". (And she has reason to be freaked out by male attention.)

    When I catch myself doing something for no good reason, I like forcing myself to write in the opposite fashion.

    Unfortunately, all my attempts at organized planning just mess me up. I've found outlines work much better for me if I don't number them and keep just basic notes of scene setting and general content that may or may not ever be used, or may end up being combined with something else. If I'm doing it hard copy, I have to use 3x5 cards. If I'm working soft copy, I can use Scrivener's Outliner.

  5. Thanks, Anna! Hope you like the rest of it :)

    Great story, John. A good reminder that we sometimes go to great lengths to work around something that takes nothing to fix if we'd just check.

    Carradee, I used to used 3x5 cards myself, though I've gotten away from that now. Worked well when I was writing a multiple POV novel with all kinds of plotlines going.

  6. great post, Janice! Gosh, I haven't been here in ages! Sorry :( What's wrong with me!!!

    Very, very funny joke! And I'm certain that my current writing style is strongly based on beta reader comments of dos and don'ts over the years. The adverb one was definitely something that was pounded into my head and I do try to avoid them like the plague, but I don't think that's a bad thing and I'm not against using them discriminatorily when they really have a purpose. At this point, I think all the things I've been told, DON'T DO THIS NO MATTER WHAT, are all things that have really strengthened my writing in general. However, I do get a bit neurotic when it comes to certain "rules" in the writing of the query and the synopsis :D

  7. Melanie, well, welcome back! The rules might be more stringent in query and synopsis writing, though. It makes sense there. Those are more business focused than creative writing.

  8. My editor brutalized my ms and was especially vicious with the adverbs. I've been writing for 14 years and I still don't really understand the difference between showing and telling. And what's so bad about telling anyway?

  9. Thanks for the great post!!! My "end of the ham" has always been revision. When I first started writing, I read an article by a Real Writer that said you should revise in one pass. If it takes you longer, you're doing it wrong. It took a while for me to realize that I could take more than one pass, but even now, the pressure remains to get it right the first time when revising.

  10. It's so interesting sometimes to think about why we do or don't do certain things in writing then see a novel break the "guidelines" and become a ridiculous best seller.

    I try to remember that I want to have good writing while at the same time having a great story readers can enjoy.

  11. DA Cairns, telling isn't bad per se, and it's very common and acceptable in some genres. Third omniscient has a lot of telling by the nature of the POV. Literary novels tend to tell more than other genres. But telling frequently makes the scene feel static and detached, as if you're just watching it from the sidelines and not immersed in the story. It can also keep a reader from connecting to a character be because what the author might interpret as "she was angry" is different from what the reader assumes. You get a disconnect.

    Telling is basically anything that explains the motive or emotional state of a character instead of showing details that would let a reader understand that motive or emotion. "She was furious and reached out to strike him" tells the emotional state and what the character plans to do, but you don't actually see her being angry or striking out. The only real action is "reached out."

    Adverbs tend to falling into that telling vibe. She said angrily is a missed opportunity to flesh out a character and create emotion.

    Rebecca, egads! One pass??? I do tons and tons of passes. I'll do pass specifically for one thing, like tweaking a character's voice. Take as many passes as you need :)

    Angela, I think it's easy to get hung up on the technical aspect and forget the reason people read in the first place. Great stories. Readers are far less picky about writing than other writers. If the book grabs and entertains them they're happy with it.

  12. I've been thinking along these lines for some time, now.

    Each time I make a decision I think about the pros and cons of that decision.

    It's just common sense. But I never used to do it and I'd become so overwhelmed by all the facets that go into writing a novel that I'd get stuck.

    Now I can avoid problems up front and work though places when I get stuck in a more analytical way.

  13. It took me three stories to realize that I really do need to outline. I did it for my recent draft and it turned out way easier to write and likely a better manuscript too.

  14. Sam, that's great! Understanding your process makes everything easier :)

    Linds, glad you found a process that's working for you :) I'm a fan of the outline. Having that plan frees you up to just write.

  15. Thank you, Janice. I love this post. I'm (still) working on my first story and learning the rules of fiction as I go. I've been trying to change my style to match all the rules, but I'm discovering that if I go too far, my voice begins to disappear. I hope this story lets me find the proper balance.

  16. Great post. 'Avoid' doesn't = 'never.' Once we know the rules, we can decide when it's a good time to break them. ;)

  17. Ken, I hope so, too. That actually happened to me, so I'm glad to hear you figured it out already :) A unique voice will serve you far better than adherence to a rule.

    Melissa, exactly! They're just tools in your toolbox, and you can use them however they best serve the story.

  18. Great point! I tell ya, when I try to focus too much on all the "shoulds" I freeze up. I'm better off just writing, and then shaping.

  19. Julie, it can be overwhelming. I'm like you, I can write much better when I just get the draft down and worry about the technical stiff later.