Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Writing is writing

I’ve been doing a lot of writing over the past week. Unfortunately, it’s not been for the novella I have due on June 1st nor for my new full-length novel. It’s copywriting for an important client and it’s got a much earlier due date, so write I must!

However, last night, completely fried after a work day in the salt mines that didn’t end until after nine (starting at 8 a.m., too!), I still had a spark of creative energy left, so I opened up the novella file and did some work.

And a curious thing happened.

Before continuing, I have a small confession to make. You see, for some reason, the first draft of nearly everything I’ve ever written contains what my good friend, editor Cheryl Freedman, calls “weasel words”. What she means by that term is that the way my characters speak and the way I describe things prevaricates. I don’t come right out and confidently state things. The evidence of this going on is when I use phrases like “it seemed”, “I think”, “it appeared as if” and too many others to list here. Occasionally, some of my weasel words are there for a very good reason, but more often than not, it’s an indicator that I’m not completely sure of what I’m trying to say. That may be because I haven’t completely worked something out in my story, or I’m not clear about who the character is, but the end result is that my writing comes across as if I’m waffling — which I guess I am. (See? I just weaseled in that last sentence.) Cheryl, a dear and generous thing for sure, always reads my mss as soon as I think I’m done. I phrase it that way because she always finds that I’m not as done as I believe I am. Her experienced eye picks up wherever I’m (still) “weaseling” and calls me on it. While it often frustrates me, I am certainly more than grateful for her eagle eye.

So there’s the back story.

Now the thing with advertising copy is that you always want to project confidence and knowledge in equal proportions. Readers must feel that you know what you’re talking about or you’ll lose them (and their money). You also can’t use a lot of words. Every single one has to have impact but appear artless at the same time. You can never reveal the “man behind the curtain” and make people feel as if they’re being manipulated — even though they are.

Last night, in bed with my journal on my lap, I began working on a new chapter. Because my publisher requires a written chapter summary beforehand, I knew what I needed to say. After glancing at the previous chapter written nearly a week earlier, I started in. An hour and a bit later, I was finished. (They’re short chapters in this format.) Before closing up for the night, I read through it, and I was astounded to see not one example of weaseling, even though I had only the barest of ideas about what I wanted to say. Every word of dialogue projected confidence on the part of each character which was especially surprising because one of them just “wandered” into the chapter unexpectedly — usually a place where weaseling is rampant.

Did I suddenly learn how to avoid my perennial problem? I don’t think so. I have to put it down to a week of hard work writing ad copy (and believe me that is very hard work).

Now I’m not suggesting every novelist take up writing advertising copy, but I am beginning to see the value of staring out the window or at the ceiling (or whatever you do when you’re concentrating) and working things out in greater detail before you pick up your writing implement or lay a finger on your computer keyboard. In other words, more reflection is needed. Normally, I just jump in and throw words around with abandon until I run out of gas, at which time I read through what I’ve created so haphazardly and am appalled at the sloppiness — even though the basic ideas are good.

You’re probably laughing at my coming to this conclusion at such a late date, but that’s the way these things work. The best way to learn is by working things out yourself — at least, that’s the best way for me.

The other thing that struck me was, “Dear Lord! You’re becoming one of those writers who outlines before writing!” That’s something I never thought I would espouse, but I seem to be heading down that path. I’m currently comforting myself by saying that I won’t actually write my thoughts down, but even if I only do them in my head, it amounts to the same thing, doesn’t it?

It also appears that you can teach an old dog new tricks…


Anonymous said...

I love this post. Nothing sharpens your writing like ad copy - the proverbial novel in 30-seconds, and that's after you cut 15 essential points the clients wanted.

I haven't resorted to outlining my creative projects, but they are usually written in my head long before they find their way to paper.


Rick Blechta said...

Yes! Clients often want you to throw in everything — including the kitchen sink. Then, after you're through, the poor designer has to try to fit it in. Living on both sides of the fence as I now do, I have some ability to control what is often a very "unhappy" thing (trying to squeeze in all the ad copy when you have to also produce an understandable and pleasing graphic design), but it's a battle.

With my fiction writing, I'm at least trying to build on my skill level and I'll take assistance from anyplace. You'll know I've gone off the deep end when one of my characters says, "But wait! There's more!" (the late, great Arthur Schiff's famous tagline)

Thanks for chiming in!