Writing Tip: Figure Out Your Comfort Zone And Go From There

comfortzones1

Three domains for awesome reading: good characters, good plot, good prose.

I would contend that truly stellar writing excels in three domains: it has excellent characterization, the plot keeps you coming back for more, and the prose itself is to die for.1

I would also contend that generally writers tend to have a comfort zone–one of these three domains is easier to write and comes more naturally than the others.

When I was just starting to write, I got really hung up on trying to nail all three domains right out of the gate every single time. Because that’s what it took, right?

Well, yes and no. Yes, that what it takes for a finished piece of writing to succeed. But that will pretty much make it impossible for me, personally, to get through a first draft of anything. So, in order to have something to polish, something to finish in the first place, I had to stop overthinking it. I had to get that first draft done, get it out, on paper, all the way through.

The way I see it, you’re not going to get to what I call “optimal writing,” or that primo grade-A book-hangover read-until-way-past-your-bedtime stuff until the polished final draft anyway. By then, you already know what kind of book you’re writing. See how in that graphic up there the optimal writing is buried deep in the center? That’s because it’s hard to get to. You have to chart a path.

My advice is this: in the first draft, play to you strengths and write fast by starting in your comfort zone. In the second draft, when you have a better idea of what you’re actually doing with the piece, fill in the gaps with the thing you’re second best at. Save the hardest for last. That’s the the part you wait until the endgame for. That’s the polish. You do that third, very hard thing while you’ve really nailed down the other two. By then you know the book like the back of your hand. You’ve got the rhythm down, the themes laid out. You know what you’re doing with it. Your writing isn’t exploratory anymore, so with this last piece it’s more targeted revisions.

An Example: How I Wrote Ariah

Start with characters, take a sharp right at plots, just barly squeak into good writing. BAM! That's how I wrote ARIAH.

The B R Sanders: Start with characters, take a sharp right at plots, just barely squeak into good writing. BAM! That’s how I wrote ARIAH.

I’m a very character-driven writer. Virtually all my narratives start first with an idea of a character, then with a complication in the form of a relationship. The cast forms, radiating out from one or two key characters who I understand in minute, intricate detail. I often don’t even have notes about these central characters. I just know them. Ariah, Sorcha, Shayat–I never had to write anything down, or plan anything out, or keep anything straight. I just, weirdly, knew them.

But all the other characters in Ariah had dossiers as I started drafting the book, because they were fuzzier and needed filling in. They were less organically alive, less vibrant (which is maybe why it wasn’t their story) so I made those notes.

I didn’t really get the plot of Ariah right until the second draft. I didn’t really know what the book was about until then, but I sure as hell knew who was in it. I wrote it, let it sit for a while, and re-read it. I made notes to myself on the re-read about plot stuff. Again, it happened naturally–I think of the three domains plot building is my second best. And I outlined a better, stronger plot for the book, which I followed almost to the letter in the revisions.

And then there was description. Not my strong suit. I…punted. I do not consider myself a stylist. I would say I have a sturdy, workable prose style. I tend to read my own writing for grammar and comprehension. I do not fiddle with my sentence. That way, for me, lies madness. They will never be perfect enough. So, I made sure the draft was coherent (in that the action seemed descriptive enough, and the dialogue was easy to follow, as it had tags that told you who was speaking–things that my first draft lacked in places), and subbed the book. My truly excellent editor was wonderful at pointing out which places needed more description and which needed a little less. Where my writing hit the Optimal Writing Zone instead of lingering in the murky green good characterization/satisfying plot wilderness, she probably had a hand in.

Ok, So What Does This Mean For You?

The Raymond Chandler: You start with the plot (a wicked detailed outline, mayhaps?), then branch out into characters. Polish up that prose, then head straight to the promised land.

The Raymond Chandler: You start with the plot (a wicked detailed outline, mayhaps?), then branch out into characters. Polish up that prose, then head straight to the promised land.

But lo! That is just one way to get to the Optimal Writing Promised Land. Your route might be different. The technique–start where it’s easy, and push through to where it’s hardest–might be the same, but your starting point and ending point are likely different than mine. I’ve come up with a couple of alternatives in the graphics here, but really, the possibilities are endless.

The beauty of writing–of any art–is that there’s no one way to do it. There’s as many ways to get the art done as there are artists. But getting started is always hard. Writing a book is a daunting process. Breaking it down into those general steps–First Draft, Second Draft, Polish–makes it more manageable for me. And assigning a general skill to each one to focus on and get right in the draft–Characters, Plot, Description–helps make it even more manageable.

Ar you Anne Rice? You write very long descriptions of furniture before venturing into Prairie of Plot. You edge into Optimal Writing picking up characterization almost by accident.

The Anne Rice: You write very long descriptions of furniture before venturing into Prairie of Plot. You edge into Optimal Writing picking up characterization almost by accident.

It’s made me a better writer in the long run. I trust my characterization more with each first draft I crank out. I know, with certainty, that’s my great strength as a writer. I know I’m getting better at plotting: it’s easier to manage every time I do it. And I’m growing as a stylist, too. I’m getting a knack for knowing what to include and what not to include. I am sometimes impressed by my turns of phrase when I read my own first drafts. The reason I’m improving is because this system helps me write more–get to the finish line and cross it. It exercises all three skills, which means everything gets a little better every time.

~

1Your mileage may vary as to what each of these actually consists of, but good writing generally has all three present for it to work.


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Advice to New Writers: Remember To Add Conflict!

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The Garden of Eden only got interesting when Eve at that apple.

The Awl recently ran an lovely piece interrogating why utopian novels are, by and large, not all that readable. Noah Berlatsky cites a number of reasons in his analysis, but really it comes down to this: narratives need conflict, and utopias, by definition, don’t have substantial enough conflicts to keep us interested as readers. There are no real problems in these worlds; there is nothing to overcome. And, therefore, there is nothing for the reader to root for or relate to. It’s purely aspirational.

Utopias also echo a common weakness in the stories of new writers. Here’s an example from my own writing: I wrote a story1 where the beats were largely as follows:

  • boy and best friend go to a bar
  • boy watches best friend make his rounds; boy winds up playing bartender
  • boy gets hit on and gently passes on another boy
  • boy goes home alone, feeling fine with his life choices

Ok, in retrospect, that’s…not actually an interesting story. It’s not even a story. There were some nice moments in it, and some good turns of phrase, but on rereading it a year or so later I kept waiting for something to happen. For anything to happen. Like, why was I writing this night of this kid’s life? It was just a night, any night, a purely unremarkable night. There was no conflict. There was nothing driving the story.

This doesn’t mean that your protagonist has to Go On A Quest for there to be conflict. Conflict can be mined from everyday interactions. Here’s another story of mine2, written around the same time, featuring the same character, which actually does have a conflict and a resolution and this is an actual story:

  • girl and boy start hanging out
  • girl likes boy, doesn’t know if boy likes her back
  • girl kisses this boy. He giggles like a mad man. She is embarrassed.
  • boy gets his shit together and writes her a poem because he does actually like her back
  • girl and boy are happily for now

See? It’s not a grand, sweeping, world-altering conflict, but it’s a conflict! She is unsure! She took a risk! She doesn’t know what will happen! There is uncertainty! those are all signs of a conflict.

The truth is that if your story doesn’t have a conflict driving its characters forward, no matter how pretty your language is, your reader will probably disengage. A story without a conflict is essentially a story without a plot.

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1This story will probably never see the light of day, and we’re all better for it, trust me.

2While this story is marginally better than The One With No Conflict, you really don’t want to read this one either.

Advice for New Writers: Read Your Draft Out Loud

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When I first began dabbling in fiction, I would read my pitiful drafts out loud to my partner, Jon. “Can I read you this line? I think something’s wonky here.” He would say sure, and I would start to read my draft, voice wavering, blush rising, and I would hear that wrong word, that errant grammar, the same second he did.

After awhile, it became habit for me to read him finished scenes aloud. I am a terrible copy editor left to my own devices, and I found reading the draft out loud to him helped me suss out nearly all the typos and grammar errors. It also helped me work out the flow of the scene: this sentence is too long and complicated; this sentence is too short and choppy. This paragraph drags on forever. The dialogue here flowed way better in theory than in practice. Reading the written words aloud–while always a touch awkward–helped highlight weak spots I missed just by reading through the draft on my own. Often Jon wasn’t even paying attention. He was watching court TV or folding laundry or cooking dinner and murmuring sweet, supportive words of encouragement at neat, repetitive intervals. But it was good practice. I still do it with final drafts of short stories*, or with particularly difficult scenes in novels, only this time alone in my bedroom in a whisper.

The reason this trick works is because written language and spoken language are tied together. When people read, they do this thing called subvocalization: because we associate words with sounds so strongly, we mentally “speak” the words as we read them. People vary along the degree to which they are aware of which they do this, and apparently a big part of speed reading is investing in techniques to minimize one’s reliance on subvocalization to comprehend and process what you’re reading. Anyway, the gist of it is that when we talk about a writer’s ‘voice’ we are, to some extent, talking about a literal voice–so reading a draft of your work out loud to work out the kinks and zero in on what your writerly voice is when you’re getting started is not as kooky as it sounds.

Also, then, when you make it big you’ll totally have it down for your book readings.

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*I’m not as confident with short fiction as I am with long form fiction, so I tend to run the final draft through every test I can before sending it out for submissions. I trust my gut a bit more by now with novels because I’ve written more of them and have a better sense of what works with them.