Just Another Post About Writing


I am a dazzled wanderer in this vast and dangerous world of words. I grapple vaguely with ideas that are far bigger than I am, and, generally, blunder about making a terrible hash of things. Nevertheless, writing is an important part of my regimen for maintaining mental and emotional health. Remove the splendid challenge and liberation of transforming thoughts into words, and something inside of me begins to shrivel.

Writers seem to be a fairly dissimilar set of folks with individual styles and methods, striving together to achieve excellence in a craft that is vulnerable to the whims and foibles of every reader. Personally, I'm terrified about this level of vulnerability and my hat goes off to any writer who is even trying. So far be it from me to press unsolicited advice upon my fellow scribblers (who are probably much more skilled than I am, anyway). However, if you're in the humor to waive my lack of authorly credentials in favor of hearing from someone who has a rather broad view of the general creative/crafting process, then read on!

In 2012 - 2013, I took a long hiatus from prose fiction. I did this for a number of reasons, most of them immature. I'm nonetheless glad that I did it. In some ways, my decision to stop writing novels was the best possible step in my journey toward writing better novels.

Because I wrote poetry, instead.

I wrote a lot of poetry. For a while, I wrote a poem every single day (many of them were awful). I set goals and completed self-imposed exercises. I analyzed the words I was using, searched for better ones, and shifted them all around until I was satisfied with the way they sounded. Thesaurus.com and I saw the beginning of a flourishing relationship.

At first glance, poetry has nothing to do with being a novelist (unless, of course, you're another Tolkien). But as I have pursued first one art form and then another, I have discovered that they are all, in some way, connected. Advancement in one usually means improvement in another, and that certainly proved to be true in the case of poetry and prose.

After a year of virtually steeping in poetry, I started reading prose again. It was painful.

I had devoted large amounts of time and energy to the development of succinct, graceful description. Apparently, many modern authors have not done the same. The critic in my head howled and raved, tearing apart the work of those writers who used three descriptive words when one would have sufficed. Even worse were those who included entire paragraphs that were completely unnecessary. There is now a part of my mind that must be tied down and gagged if I'm to enjoy reading anything other than exceptionally well-crafted prose.

This internal critic is an unpleasant reading companion, but has become a valuable resource for my own writing. No matter what I'm working on, the critic is scowling down at me. "Get rid of that word!" It scolds, "Switch those paragraphs around! That's the same word combination you typed two sentences ago. Why are you using 'quite' again?"

I will not say that doubling as a writer of both poetry and prose has made me into an excellent prose writer. I will assert that it has made me a better one. Since poetry has done so much to improve my own prose, I can't help but wonder how many other aspiring authors would benefit from exploration in the realm of poetry.* I'm aware that many people are less-than enthusiastic about poetry, though I suspect that this dislike may be attributable to faulty presentation more than to the poetry itself. I was never introduced to poetry in an official sense and, being allowed to find my own way, I wandered into a breathtaking world of cadent expression...and never left.

In the pursuit of my poetic endeavors, I've acquired an instinct for what works and what doesn't. Whether I'm using the wrong words to describe a sunset or trying to squeeze a character into a mold that just doesn't fit, the voice of instinct whispers, 'let's stop and re-think this.' In prose, it's easy to cover up your failings with excess words, but the rigorous test of poetic structure will reveal all.

I've also become a perambulating thesaurus.The ability to instantly access a multitude of words is convenient in a variety of contexts. If you write poetry, you'll constantly find yourself in situations where the crimson of the sunset was beautiful...but 'beautiful' doesn't fit the structure of the poem...so you head over to the thesaurus and discover that 'splendid' will also work...'splendid' is a nice word, so you do a happy dance because you've just written a good poem and discovered a great new word! Each time your poetry forces you to go through the word searching process, you will add to the collection of words at your disposal. Naturally, these words will also be useful in your prose writing. There's nothing more refreshing than reading the work of a writer who has a good grasp of their language. Honestly, there's no reason why you shouldn't have a grasp of language. You don't even need to own a dictionary or thesaurus. It's all online.

Poetry has helped me to craft more evocative, yet succinct descriptions. I'm not a fan of rambling poetry (sorry, Longfellow). I try to say exactly what I need to say and then allow folks to move on with their lives. This goal is hard to achieve. It's easy to say, "I want to streamline my descriptions." but oh-so difficult to erase those ten exciting words you just pulled from the thesaurus. In the end, though, it's much better to leave your sunset with the one or two words that express exactly what you have in mind. The other eight descriptions are certainly impressive, but chances are they'll end up distracting your reader from the very event you're trying to describe. By the time your reader has looked up the definitions of such words as 'effulgent' and 'scintillating', they'll have lost all interest in your sunset...and your plot.

Which brings me to this point: bigger isn't always better. Some of my favorite writers are those who use simple, ordinary words to craft breathtaking art. Words are there to serve your story. Which words will be most useful?

Use wisdom. Play with your words. Strip layers away until you've reached the skeleton of your original thought, then examine that skeleton from every angle and decide how you want to flesh it out. Experiment until you find what works for you. Recognize that this is will probably be as much of an ongoing process for you as it is for me.

Happy writing!

*By poetry, I mean something that's fairly structured; not necessarily rhyming, but with a definite cadence. Those 'free verse' poems, (basically short stories with weird spacing) do not count.**

**I think they have a place...somewhere. But not here.