But in the dream, no one would believe me. I’d describe how I was seeing whatever it was out of the corner of my eye. I’d see it, turn . . . and it wouldn’t be there.
Finally, in the logic of the dream, there was one—or possibly more—person I was trying to convince of my sanity, and I did this by standing under a street light in the middle of a sidewalk, screaming at them that I would show them!
And then, in the dream, I turned my back on my friend(s) and took a step.
It was Death who had been stalking me. Him I’d seen out of the corner of my eye.
It was a horrific dream. Probably the worst nightmare I’ve had in recent memory.
But what I remembered more than just the dream was that when I woke up, I wasn’t screaming. I didn’t yell. I didn’t cry out. I didn’t do any of that.
One, terrified whimper as I stepped into the chill of Death incarnate.
Now, being a budding writer, my first thought after reassuring myself that I was, in point of fact, not dead was, “This would make a great story.” I jotted down as much of the dream as I could remember.
I didn’t write the story right then, though. No, I wanted the story to be as perfect as possible, and the only way it could remain perfect was for me never to write it.
Logic. It’s a bitch.
I overcame that, eventually. After listening to an episode of the I Should Be Writing podcast (hosted by the multi-talented Mur Lafferty) in which Mur talked about having finally written her ‘inspired by a dream’ story that she had put off writing to make sure she never sullied it by actually trying to write it, I sat down and, in one sitting, wrote about 3000 words of the story. I had several false starts. What POV should I use? Where does the story start? How do I make that whimper scary? I eventually realized that to make it truly horrifying I needed to tell it from another POV than the protagonist. Enter the friend.
I wrote it, workshopped it past the Fountain Pen group, and then set it aside for a while.
Recently, I picked it back up, intent on making it better. So I edited it, making the dialog cleaner, cutting out unnecessary words, etc.
I ran it past the Lawrenceville Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers group (seriously, guys, we need a shorter name), and got a lot of very helpful commentary.
Part of that commentary was that the ending I had written just didn’t work for several people. I’d heard the same thing from the Fountain Pen group as well, but I was convinced I could force it to work.
During the critique, one or two people offered some ideas on how the ending could work better. And I really liked a couple of those.
Over the last couple of weeks, those have been percolating through my head. And last night while driving to the Fountain Pen meeting from work, a gruesome, horrible ending popped into my head—poing!—based on one that someone else had given me during their critique.
I think I finally have something that could work. That I could . . . submit?
All I have to do, now, is write it. Heh.
Now, what does this have to do with the title of this post?
Way back in 1916, a British author and literary critic named Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch published a book called On the Art of Writing. It was a collection of his lectures delivered at the University of Cambridge in 1913-1914. The twelfth and final lecture is called “On Style.” In it, he talks about first what style is not, and gives an example. Then he says the following:
Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings. [emphasis his]
We still quote this, today, although it’s often erroneously attributed to other writers. I hear it all the time.
The way it’s usually used is when an author has written a particularly clever turn of phrase or bon mot or whatever, they often will try to keep it during the editing/rewriting process because they like it and not because it serves the story. This ultimately hurts their writing.
So, “Murder your darlings.”
My darling in this story that I’ve preserved through all the edits has been that the protagonist turns and walks into Death with a whimper, and disappears. The guys in the Lawrenceville Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers (Pen-acles? The Write Stuff? Wordniks?) made me finally confront this, and I’m going to murder my darling.
<sharpens axe> Heeeere, darling! Come to papa! He has a present for youuuuu! <insert evil chuckle here>Writing Excuses. It is hosted by Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells. Their tagline says it best: “This is Writing Excuses: fifteen minutes long because you’re in a hurry and we’re not that smart.” (But they really are that smart, so it’s, like, irony.)
They occasionally have guests on the show to talk about various topics. The guests in the most recent episode (Season 5, Episode 28: E-Publishing) were Tracy Hickman and David Farland (a.k.a. Dave Wolverton).
All of that link soup is merely a lead-in to tell you the source of the quote I’m about to use from the podcast. It was one that stood out for me the first time I listened, so I restarted the podcast, listened to it again, and this time transcribed what Tracy Hickman said.
Dan (I think) asked Hickman what advice he would give for self-publishers to be successful. His answer was as follows.
Forget about the idea of mass audience. Get rid of the idea of mass audience and deal with individuals. You need to contact people individually, and that’s why things like virtual tours—virtual blog tours—are so important. You need to get in touch with the readership. You need to find the audience. And you find that through the gateway of people’s blogs and personal connection with them. I think that the old time of the old school book tour where you go and fly to some book store in San Francisco and sit there with ten people is done. I think people don’t do that anymore. And book stores—brick and mortar stores—are having enough trouble as it is. What is the case, though, is that you have to concentrate on reaching your audience one on one, and that means going on virtual book tours. That means having a website that is open to people communicating with you, and engaging your audience in a conversation. If you engage your audience—not in a sales conversation, but in an intimate, personal conversation—then they will read your words, and your words will come to life. Your words do not live or breathe until someone reads them and puts life to them and so you need to have the intimate, personal connection with them. So it’s not about mass audience. If there’s one piece of advice I’d give to anybody: it’s about you making a connection with every individual who is going to read your book—at some level—online. [Emphasis added]
And that’s a very good point. I can write and write and write and (I hope) get better and better . . . but until and unless someone gets2 to read my words, I might as well be shouting into a hurricane for all the good it’ll do me.
The “personal connection” thing I think I have. After all, I have this handy-dandy website right here just waiting for people to read it. I have samples of my work up for people to read, and I’m relatively easy to contact (or will be when I get the email for this site working like I want it). So there you go.
I just thought it was important to put those words in bold up there somewhere that I could find them to remind me why I write: because I think I have a story to tell that other people might find interesting.
Oh, and if you’re not already, do listen to the Writing Excuses podcast. If I had to recommend just one podcast for aspiring writers like myself, it would be that one. I’ve learned a lot from Brandon, Dan, and Howard.
- Where that number is 81, plus five new evaluations ongoing for “new” ones (to me). Of those 81, I’m “catching up” on 10 of those (i.e., I am downloading new episodes, but listening to them from episode 1, and I’m not up to current, yet). A good many are monthly or on indefinite hiatus at the moment. Of the full 86 (counting the five in evaluation), a whopping 26 deal with writing, reading, books, fiction, language, grammar, and the like. And that doesn’t even count a few that could have gone either way, so it’s probably closer to 30.
- “Gets” sounds like it’s a privilege, and some might consider that arrogant. I don’t mean it that way, though. Anyone who reads my blogs or any of my work does so because they chose to do so. I meant it as a stern reminder to myself that no one can choose to do so unless I choose to make them available.
One thing she said resonated with me, because once again, I think it’s something I don’t always do well, and it’s something I need to keep in mind when I’m writing.
She mentioned Plato’s Theory of Forms. Essentially, Plato hypothesized that objects in our reality exist as mere shadows of their perfect, ideal Forms which exist outside of reality. Thus, a table is merely a representation of a Table, which is the purest, most perfect representation of “tableness.”
I’m probably doing a horrible job of explaining it, but it’s really a tangent to her real point. You can read the Wikipedia entry if you want to know more than you ever thought possible about it.
Sherrilyn’s point was that when an author writes, “He picked up a pencil and began to write,” you don’t have to explain that a pencil is seven and a half inches long, wooden, painted yellow, hexagonal in cross-section, with one end sharpened to a point of compressed graphite/clay composite, and the other a soft, rubber nub fastened to the shaft of the pencil by a crimped, aluminum sheath.
Why? Because when a reader reads the word “pencil,” they already have almost a Platonic ‘form’ of it in their mind. They know what a pencil is. Some of them will picture it as I’ve described. Others may picture one that’s red, or one of those big, fat ones we used to use in Kindergarten that weren’t faceted. Still others might picture a carpenter’s pencil or a mechanical pencil. Some might see it as sharpened, while others unsharpened.
And her point was that all we, as writers, have to do is use the least number of words possible to describe something and let the reader’s own experience fill in the rest.
“He picked up a sharpened pencil and began to write.” That’s all we need. We don’t need to mention which hand he wrote with, either (unless it’s important to the story). How many of you who just read that pictured him picking it up in his right hand, and how many his left? I’m betting about 89% of you pictured right and 11% left, because that’s about the distribution of handedness.
You probably also pictured him leaning over and kind of “hunkering down” over the paper. Because that’s what you do when you write. So unless he’s doing something different, don’t bring it up. Let the reader fill in those gaps.
Ms. Kenyon says it amuses her when she reads a review about how descriptive her writing is, because she tries to keep it as bare as possible. Sometimes, she says she has to force herself to add a little detail here and there. It’s kind of like that old trick ‘psychics’ do with cold reading: say as little as possible and let the client fill in the rest. Later, they’ll remember that you told them everything when all you did was suggest, and let them do the hard work.
I get a little wordy from time to time, and not just during NaNoWriMo when every word counts. One of the most common things I see on works of mine after they’ve been critiqued is words and phrases crossed out, often with the notation “not needed” or “too wordy.” I tend to forget that the reader brings a lot to the table. Or the pencil, as it were.
Now I just have to figure out how to get the reader to picture a 12-tentacled, multi-eyed, trilaterally symmetrical, purple and green alien trying to pet a cat.
Made ya!her web site.)
She recently sent out a newsletter with advice that really hit home for me and underscored something I’ve been struggling with in my own writing.
She said that instead of building a huge world and then showing it to your readers in every sentence, we should build big . . . but only give the reader as much as they need to know to tell the story we want to tell. With her permission, I’m quoting a little bit of her newsletter here because this is the part that really struck me.
We humans do not live in the world. We live in whatever three square feet of space we’re occupying at the moment, and in order to care about the things going on in the larger world, first the world has to reach into our three square feet of space and touch us.
Think about some of the books you have read and enjoyed that had huge world-building. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit spring to mind easily. Tolkien had built an astounding world, rich with mythology, with a history, races of people, languages, and a gigantic, overarching arc of the world itself.
Yet, when he wrote The Hobbit, virtually none of this mountain of world-building was seen. He told a lovely story about a single, unimportant man (well, a Hobbit) who had adventure thrust upon him. The world did, indeed, reach into his space and touch him.
LotR begins the same way, focused on a small band of seemingly unimportant people who have the world impose itself into their lives. It’s only over the larger arc of the story that we learn what’s going on in the outside world. And even though there was a pile of other information Tolkien developed, he left it out of the story, because it would have been too much. That, of course, later became The Silmarillion, which took me years to get through. Probably precisely because it wasn’t about people but Peoples (elves, men, dwarves, orcs, ainur, etc.)
But even though he didn’t tell us all about Eru and the creation of the Ainur and of all the mythology, he knew it, and it informed everything he wrote. And so when the elves sang A Elbereth Gilthoniel, you caught a glimpse of something much deeper.
The Chronicles of Narnia has much the same feel. So much else was woven through these stories than I was even capable of realizing at age thirteen when I first read them and fell in love with them. But virtually none of it was there in those first couple of books. Later, of course, he wove in some of the universe(s) he developed.
Another that jumped quickly to mind was Babylon 5. The TV show. If you’ve never heard of it, go to NetFlix and watch them. All. The series’ creator, Joe Michael Straczynzski (JMS to fans) created a million-year history of the Universe and set the show into a particularly interesting five-year part. Hints of the whole history were dribbled and drabbled to us over the five-year run of the show, until we knew enough to glimpse the depth of his world-building. But he only revealed that which we needed to know to tell the story.
But when I look at the books that are being published, today . . . <sigh> It feels one of two ways, a lot.
Sometimes, it feels as though the writer has gone through all the pain and suffering of developing a world for his characters to inhabit, and he will by God tell you every word of that pile of world-building. Some people call these “map-quest” or “map exploration” stories. You know, ones where the author gives you a map of his world, and you end up exploring every square centimeter of it.
Other times, it feels as though there simply is no more there than the writer has chosen to show you. As though they simply made stuff up as they went along, or added something because it seemed like a good idea at the time. And I suppose if you’re writing a short story or a stand-alone novel, that’s okay. But if you want to sell more in that universe, you should probably have, you know . . . a universe. :)
I know of one author who pretty much did just that. I was reading her books and very much enjoying them, and I wrote her an email to tell her that, and asked how she came up with one of the most intriguing aspects of the world she had built. In her reply, she admitted to me with a winking smily that she had only tossed it in there because it seemed like a neat kind of thing to add, and then later had to go back and come up with a backstory to explain it.
Another couple of authors that do this kind of thing very well (in my humble opinion) are Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files series) and Terry Goodkind (The Sword of Truth series). The worlds they have developed are deep and wide, and full of rich histories and interesting people(s). Goodkind’s first book, Wizard’s First Rule, gave almost nothing of the depth of the world that he had created, focusing only on Richard and the immediate problems presented to him. Likewise, in Butcher’s first book, Storm Front, there are only glimpses of the huge amount of information that he will gradually give us over the course of the next dozen or so books.
This is one of the problem I have. I have done a decent amount of world-building, but I tend to want to sprinkle a bit too much of it into the story. Because I think it’s fascinating, I figure you will, as well. You want to know about the inner workings of time travel, right? Or how the tentacled alien species discovered space travel? Right?
And then I think of The Silmarillion and my ten-year struggle to read it. :)
So that’s what I’m struggling with right now. What to say and what not to say. How much detail to give, and how much to withhold. Ms. Lisle concluded her newsletter thusly, and it will be what I try to keep in mind as I am writing.
All the world you give your reader when you start your story is one moment. One place. And something that matters to pull us in.