Thursday, February 24, 2011

Put in the Good, Kick out the Bad

As writers, we all go through a long and arduous process of learning our strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, I discovered I hosted a whole lot more of the latter than the former.

Over the years, I devoured books and magazines on writing. I networked. I attended conferences. I finally learned that all writing is a mixture of good and bad. Even those writers who have best seller after best seller turn out sentences and ideas that are real stinkers.

I have a digital camera. I suppose in the last six years, I’ve taken a couple thousand shots. Most of them are insignificant as far as the art of photography is concerned.

A few, a very few, are pretty good. How did they come about? Beats me.

But, I think the explanation might be why professional photographers take so many shots. They’re looking for that single exposure that reflects the mood or concept for which they are striving.

Ansel Adams’ striking black and white photographs have no equal, but I’ve no doubt for each one with which he was satisfied, he snapped a thousand—well maybe a couple hundred.

Say you attend an art show. The finished product on the wall might have taken years to perfect, years struggling with mismatched highlights, lack of contrast, and half-a-dozen other artistic techniques of which I am in complete ignorance. How many times did the artist rip the canvas to shreds and start over?

Of course, you will always see those weird paintings that look like an eight-year-old dipped a chicken in a bucket of multi-colored paint and tossed it on a canvas. I’ve even seen published books like that. (to each his own, I suppose)

When each of us sit at that desk that very first time and begin our sojourn into the world of writing, we write bad sentences. Bad, bad sentences, but usually stuck back in that myriad of very forgettable prose will be one or two structures that are actually good.

Separate the good ones from the bad. Next figure out why some were keepers and others throwbacks. When you figure that out, keep the good ones and throw the others away.

How do you know what is good or bad? By writing and reading and writing and reading; by showing your writing. If you are ever so fortunate to discover an honest critic willing to read your stuff and be candid with you, cherish them; learn from their comments; buy them nice Christmas presents, grovel at their feet.

If you can’t find such a gem, learn by reading and critiquing good writers. Who is good? Ask a dozen folks and you’ll get a dozen different answers. You can find them.

No one, absolutely no one writes seventy thousand perfect words at the first sitting. No one. And you won’t, so don’t sweat it. Just keep plugging away.

But regardless of how fluid and graceful your words, unless there is a point to each sentence, to each paragraph, and to each scene, they are no more than fragile sand castles on the beach.

Search for those moments in your story that are most important. Explore them.
Pick important moments. Forget about the good guy hopping out of bed, showering and shaving, grabbing toast, and racing for the elevator just so you can get him from one place to the other.

Instead, put him at the operating table with a scalpel in his hand. Put him facing a deranged killer holding a child as hostage. Such conflict is much more riveting that grabbing a piece of burned toast.

Do all that, and I promise you, your writing will be noticed.


Sandy Cody said...

Interesting post, Kent. I've finally reached the point where I know I have to let the bad sentences flow in the first draft. Once I have the story down, I can tweak and polish away. I love this part of writing.

Carolyn Brown said...

Great post, Kent. You nailed it!

Beate Boeker said...

I enjoyed your post, Kent! It needed such an enouragement as I'm stuck in the dreadful middle of a new novel right now and think with every sentence that this is too boring. I'll plod on now and will focus on the gripping parts! Thank you!

Loretta C. Rogers said...

Great post, Kent. I remember my very first jewel. Perfect! Yep, that's what I thought. That story has never sold. Now that I have a little bit of writing wisdom, I could revise and spiffy it up. I've chosen to keep it as a reminder that no first drafts, and perhaps even the third still need those final magic touches.