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!

click through for source

click through for source

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.

Dissecting ARIAH’s Opening Paragraph

Every couple of months, a new listicle pops up on my Facebook or Twitter feed rounding up the greatest opening lines in literature. Or there’s pitchmases. Or there are improve-your-writing articles about landing an agent by sharpening your opening sentences. Obviously the start of a story is important. I think, on that, we can all agree. Today I thought I’d walk you through the evolution of some of my opening lines.

This is the opening paragraph of my second novel, Ariah, which was released last week:

There are times I still have nightmares about that first day in Rabatha. I’d come from Ardijan, which is a small place built around the river and the factories. It’s a town that is mostly inhabited by the elves who work the factories with a smattering of Qin foremen and administrators. We outnumber them there. We’re still poor and overworked, we still get hassled, but there is a comfort in numbers. It was a comfort so deeply bred in me that stepping off the train in Rabatha was a harrowing experience. The train, a loud, violent thing that cloaked half the city in steam, plowed right into the center of the city and dropped me off only three streets away from the palace. Even with all the steam, I could see its spires and domes. Even with all the commotion, I could hear the barked orders and vicious slurs of the Qin enforcement agents.

In order to craft successful opening lines, you may need to take a step back and consider what you want them to do. This is your first interaction with your reader. These sentences have to set your tone, kick off your plot, introduce your setting and your characters—any number of things. Choose wisely. In the case of Ariah, I really needed to emphasize:

  • The story is told in retrospect
  • Ariah’s deep emotional sensitivity (he still has nightmares)
  • Ariah is an elf, which is an oppressed class in this world (there are slurs thrown at him when he arrives)
  • Create a sense of urgency and chaos in the reader

Ok, compare that to the opening of the first draft of Ariah*:

I honestly had no idea what to expect that day. I suppose that’s how most feel, though, when they first meet those who are supposed to take them on as apprentices. Then again, usually it’s already someone you know – someone from your town, someone that runs in the same circles with your parents. The kind of person whose children you played with growing up. So most probably at least knew what they were getting into. I didn’t. I was shipped off to the capital, a strange bustling city I’d never been to before, and told to go see someone whose name I’d only ever seen on the spines of books in my mother’s study. All I really knew was that I was terribly nervous. What if he didn’t like me? Would it be worse if he took me on as a pupil anyway or refused my parents’ request? What if I didn’t like him?

Clearly I rewrote this, which means I don’t think it’s that strong. I think this opening lacks urgency—it’s meandering where it should be gripping. It’s thoughtful where it should have some force to it. It’s more focused on Ariah’s unnamed mentor than on Ariah himself. It’s shot through with telling instead of showing: he says he’s nervous, but we, as readers, don’t feel that nervousness. We are not immersed in a situation that makes us feel nervous with him.

Most of my openings start like this in the first draft—bland, telling without the showing. They usually drastically improve in revisions. Often, simply because in the second draft I actually know the story I’m telling. For example, one reason the first draft opening is written about the mentor is because the story was originally supposed to be about the mentor. Ariah was only supposed to be a viewpoint character reflecting on the mentor, but then Ariah took on a life of his own and took over the narrative. He went rogue, and the opening lines became an artifact of a story that was never actually written.

In my writing, the opening lines of first drafts get written first—sloppily—simply because you have to write something. You have to start somewhere. The rest of the draft comes together, the writing tightens up as it does, you find your voice somewhere in the middle and get a cadence. By the end of the first draft you finally have figured out what the story is about. Then, you start rewriting. You fiddle with the first part, and you rewrite, and you rewrite, but those opening lines are actually the last thing to get seriously tweaked and polished precisely because they are the first thing everyone will actually see. Those lines are high-stakes, which makes them intimidating as shit, so you hold them off and perfect everything else, then you perfect them.

I am generally not a critical self-editor, except when it comes to the first paragraph and the last paragraph, these make-or-break-a-book lines. These are the ones that have to be just right. These are also the ones, though, that can be killed by too much fussing. You have to let them breathe; you have to resist the urge to over-write them. You have to trust your gut that you’ve finished them and done them as well as you have it in you to do them. You have to stop yourself from fiddling with them forever to stave off the terror of putting your work out there.

*Oh, man, showing you parts of a first draft is like showing you my messy bedroom. I know everyone has one, but it doesn’t make it any less embarrassing.