I Can’t Write Until I Have Something Deep To Say


 I Can’t Write Until I Have Something Deep To Say

I think people sometimes believe that writers must have deep and important thoughts before they start writing. Shakespeare had all the poetry in his head, just bursting to get out. Jane Austen already knew the intricacies of the social dramas she so brilliantly portrayed.

Okay, obviously I can’t check with these guys to be sure, but that’s not my experience nor that of any writer I know or have heard speak of the writing process.

Bad news: can’t do deep to order

Setting out to be ‘deep’ seems a dubious way to start.

First, and importantly, it may stop you from writing at all because you haven’t yet acquired the ‘depth’ that you think you need to write.

Secondly, and equally important, the final product is almost guaranteed to be pretty boring. Earnest and worthy, perhaps. But not good reading.

This approach ups the chances that your characters are representations of your ideas (sincerity, truthfulness, whatever) rather than living breathing entities who can be both inspiring and despicable. In short, human.

Also, novels with an a priori message are prone to long passages where they figuratively hit the reader over the head with “this is my message—get it?” Most readers don’t like being preached at from a fiction pulpit.

Good news: don’t need to

But the good news is that a message is not required before starting to write.

With my first book, I realized what the book was about only near the end of the writing that . But I didn’t have time to redo it as I was committed to a publisher’s deadline. With the second book, I built in enough time to do a redraft which allowed the threads to become clearer. I would have liked to have done another draft to refine it but again, I needed to respect the publisher’s deadline.

What I am trying to say is that whatever depth I was able to demonstrate on the page was as a result of refining, elaborating, streamlining, and sometimes chopping. It did not appear as whole cloth the first time through.

The act of writing prompts the thinking and reflection. One idea flows to another and another. The thinking and writing grows from what it feeds on. And then you rewrite and rewrite to get it right.

So when you consider a book you admire for its insights and depth, recognize that you are seeing the result of the unseen struggles of the author to make his message clearer, more nuanced, and insightful. Don’t compare what you turn out the first time with the author’s finished product. It really is apples and oranges.

You do have something worth saying but you have to work at bringing out. The depth will come with the writing, rethinking, and rewriting.

How do I do it?

Rather than starting out with the intention of writing something deep and important, start out with a situation, or a character, or a moment in time, which feels as if it has meaning for you. A terrible injustice, a generous person, the bravery of a group.

Whatever it is, write the scene which renders that feeling without using the terms I just used (i.e. terrible, generous, bravery). Show the actions of the characters which will prompt in the reader the same feeling that you had/have without naming it. Then rewrite until the message comes across in a satisfying way.

So you can do deep—you just have to work at it.

Stories in a Frame


Stories in a Frame

What are stories in a frame? Typically, the novel opens with the story-teller/author, recounting events which occurred either to him or to someone else. The form is reminiscent of campfire tales. This phenomenon is also referred to as a story within a story.

The movie Titanic, starts with elderly woman, Rose, who is a survivor of the disaster. Rose tells the viewer of her ill-fated love affair with another passenger. Rose provides the frame to the movie.

Okay, so does anyone remember Rose when you think of the movie? I don’t. The ship, the special effects, the stars, yes. Rose, no.

Are frames needed?

Often, the answer is ‘no.’

Framed stories frequently start out that way because it is the writer’s sort of clearing her throat. Rather than jump right in, she may find it easier to use a proxy of herself through whom to tell the story. Don’t ask me why, but it seems an easier way into a story.

Would Titanic the movie lose steam (sorry) if we went straight into the story without Rose? Not a jot.

The disadvantage of a frame around a story is that it removes the reader one degree from the main action. You lose the power of seeing the story directly through the eyes of the protagonist. The format also makes it easier to slip into more telling than showing, which also lessens the power of the drama.

Avoiding a frame

Often, it is pretty easy to get rid of a frame. Just drop it. Start directly with the story.

Yes, you may have to do some fiddling throughout the story if you have allowed your story-teller to break into the action. Oh, if I had only known what was about to happen.

But that’s a good thing. Concentrating on the main character’s thoughts and feelings up the chances of a compelling portrayal.

When to use the story within a story technique

As usual, nothing is hard and fast in writing.

For example, Arabist Richard Francis Burton translated parts of One Thousand and One Nights which used the frame story of Scheherazade who must tell a new story every night to her husband, the king Shahryār, to keep alive. It is a way of linking basically unrelated stories into a cohesive whole.

Similarly, Hamlet hires a group of actors to perform a play. This play within the play is intended to flush out the guilt of his step-father for the killing of his father.

So, it’s not that stories in a frame can never be used. But you need to ask yourself why you need it. If the story within a story is intended to further the plot as in Hamlet, that makes perfect sense. But if it was just your way to get into the real tale, it might be worth dumping.

Explanation in Quotes


Explanation in Quotes

I have already talked about the problems caused by extensive blocks of explanation or exposition. Although a reader needs to know stuff for the plot or memoir to proceed, blocks of explanation can also slow down the action and often is more tell than show.

Some writers believe that they are getting around this problem by having one or more of the characters convey what they want to get across. Here is an example.

The doctor said, “I need to refer you to an ophthalmologist. Not an optometrist. An ophthalmologist is a physician specializing in injuries and diseases affecting the eye. He can do surgery, too. Not that you will necessarily need that but I want to check your field of vision. They have a test where you click on a clicker when you see a bright light. It determines that you have good peripheral vision. It only takes a few minutes.

“Now, I don’t want you to worry. It’s probably nothing but better safe than sorry.”

Actually, explanation in quotes often goes on for much longer but I’m trying to save your time and eyes.

What’s wrong with explanation in quotes (EIQ)?

EIQ differs from our old friend As-You-Know, Bob. If you remember, As-You-Know dialog communicates information to the reader by reminding a character (Bob, in this case) of it even though Bob already knows. But EIQ is communicating information which is news to the speaker’s audience. So, in that way, it could be seen as a step up or a lesser sin. And the problem is not so much an individual incident of EIQ but a multitude of them in a novel or memoir.

Multiple EIQs slow forward action. It is as if we are all poised to start the race and have to stop to listen to a lecture on sportsmanship. Even if we need to know the information, it delays action that the reader/runner was anticipating.

How to do explanation so it doesn’t slow things down

Cut it down to the pertinent facts.

First, you need to decide if this piece of information is critical to your story (e.g. protagonist is going blind) or incidental (e.g. she has hit her eye so she later misses a clue which she would have seen out of the corner of her eye).

If it isn’t critical, you can probably get away with something like:

The doctor said, “I want to refer you to a specialist in eyes. To check your field of vision. Now, I don’t want you to worry. It’s probably nothing but better safe than sorry.”

Break up the explanation

If the information is critical, then give it the prominence it deserves and make it part of the story.

The doctor said, “I’d like to refer you to an ophthalmologist.”

I sat up straighter. “What’s that?”

“Eye specialist. I’d like him to check your peripheral vision.”

“My vision? What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s probably nothing but better safe than sorry.”

“But then why the referral?”

You get across the main information while also communicating your protagonist’s concern/tension. A bonus.

Finding a way to dramatize critical information makes it more likely your reader will take it in and contribute to the forward action rather than slowing it down.

How to Write an Action Scene


How to Write an Action Scene

A high-speed, stunt-filled incident isn’t the only thing which qualifies as an action scene. It can be any point in the plot where you want the tension to ratchet up by way of some physical acts. A bitter argument between two characters might be tense but would not typically be seen as action unless/until one socks the other and they get into a punching/hitting fight.

But whether it’s getting out of the wizard’s lair or the hero fleeing from mafia types, you want your reader to be right with your protagonist, weaving and dodging with him towards his goal. The story itself will provide some of the fascination for the reader but there are some quite mechanical ways to heighten the enjoyment of your scene.

Ways to improve an action scene

I’m going to discuss a couple but I can’t emphasize enough that these techniques should be considered after you have written the scene. Don’t start writing with thoughts like “Right—short sentences.” If you do, you risk flattening your writing by focusing on following the rules rather than creating excitement.

Let the creative side run free and after the episode is written, consider the following.

Short sentences

Not: She was stymied by the locked door and didn’t know what to do.

Rather: The door was locked. She was stymied. What to do?

As much as possible, you want to create a kind of staccato effect in your writing. Sentences with more connecting words (e.g. and) are better in more reflective moments.

Action words

Obvious, but sometimes forgotten in the heat of the writing.

Not: She was totally unprepared by the hit of a fist on the side of her head.

Rather: His fist hit on the side of her head.

I think the ‘totally unprepared’ was intended to convey shock or surprise. You could add an adverb like ‘suddenly’ but I have already expressed my views on the overuse of adverbs. I would prefer an action like ‘She staggered.’

Limit internal dialogue

Think about when you have been in an urgent situation—your son has fallen down the stairs or you are in a car accident. Do you think, “Oh my god, what should I do?” Well, you might if you were Hamlet or some other famous ditherer. But more likely, you’d spring into action—checking for injury, calling 911, etc. Keep this in mind when writing these types of events. The characters are generally doing and not thinking about it.

If you want them to react, do it after the action is completed, for good or ill, not during.

Terse dialogue

In a TV show I saw, the spaceship was about to crash land and the pilot yells, “Lower the screens so I can see better.”

First of all this is a bit of an AYKB or an As-You-Know-Bob piece of dialogue intended to tell the reader something that all the characters in the scene already know. In our example, wouldn’t any crew worth its salt already know why the pilot needs the shields down even if you, the reader, may not?

In an emergency situation, the pilot is more likely to yell, “Lower the shields!”

This might seem like a niggle. But you need to remember that if you want your reader to feel the tension of the scene, the characters need to act tense. And this is often communicated through terse dialogue.

Alls to say, remember that people in urgent situations don’t use full sentences, don’t observe social niceties like please and thank you and don’t provide onlookers with background information. Neither should your characters.

Enhancing Character Growth


Enhancing Character Growth

Character growth—the Holy Grail of writing. Even in a largely plot-driven narrative, novels which also depict their characters evolving add a richness and depth to the story.

I’m not a big fan of knowing exactly how your protagonist will develop. Oh, you might have a vague idea—a story of redemption, for example. But I think it works best if you start with an opening scene—depicting a greedy and callous man, for example—and letting things flow from there.

But you knew that I’d say that, didn’t you, since I generally advocate a haphazard approach to writing?

So, it follows that enhancing character growth is a post-first draft activity. Naturally, you’ve already spent a good deal of time developing and growing your character while writing the novel. This post helps you enhance or highlight the development to strengthen the story.

Character growth questions

Isolate the scenes where your target character appears. I often create separate file with them. Then, answer these questions:

How do you feel about the protagonist?

Really, do you like him? Or, with a really dark character, do you want him to get his comeuppance? Because if you don’t care, how will readers? There has to be enough, even from the beginning, to keep the reader hanging in. If you don’t glom onto the protagonist (can we call him Ben to save me typing?) fairly early, identify scenes which would do this.

What are the critical scenes where Ben grows?

Is this the way you want him to grow?

  • If so, are there any scenes which need to be strengthened?
  • If not, how would you like Ben to grow?
  • Identify some new scenes which might show the intent better.

Is the growth credible?

If Ben goes from crotchety old man to the life of the party in six pages, we have a problem.

  • Do the scenes transition Ben gradually to the desired end state?
  • Does each move build on what came before? Say Ben rescues a puppy (I’m not saying it’s a good novel). If this scene happens early on, Ben might hide his good deed because he thinks it shows weakness. The next spurt of growth needs to develop naturally from that point. He might buy better food for the dog, while complaining about the price and threatening to send him to the pound.
  • What scenes do you need to add or modify so that the evolution is credible?

Is the growth consistent?

Surprisingly, the answer to this question can often be ‘no’ when you read just Ben’s scenes. You may need him to further the plot by punching a cop which doesn’t jive with where he is in his personal growth. If you allow the plot to dominate, you damage the credibility of Ben’s journey of self-discovery because he’ll be seen to be jumping back and forth erratically.

Although this isn’t easy, identify the scenes where Ben’s actions aren’t consistent with his personal growth and figure out how to change the scenes to credibly accommodate both plot and character development.

You can follow this procedure for any character, but it’s a lot of work so I usually stick to the protagonist and characters whose essence eludes me at the moment.

This process may seem a bit mechanical and honestly, it is. But remember, this is not about creating the character. That is all about imagination and inspiration. This is enhancing what you’ve written to strengthen your intent.