Tuesday, July 29, 2008

When Laziness Comes To Town

I got an abrupt and well needed awakening two weeks ago. I’ve joined a writing critique group near where I live now, and the group has been sharing pieces of novels in various stages of completion. So far I’ve shared the first two chapters of Wraith of Talera, my work in progress. After the first chapter, I got one comment something along the lines of: “Well, it’s a little wordy. There are a lot of “To be” verbs in it.”

Although I didn’t say a thing to defend myself during the critique session, which is exactly as it should be, my inner thoughts were not as sanguine. I thought to myself, “Wordy! I honed my chops on short stories, and I still write flash fiction where every single word counts, and I know good and well I’m not…wordy.”

News flash to Fortress Gramlich. I was wordy. I sat down that evening to go over the manuscript and a gradual and appalling silence fell over my thoughts. I shortened and tightened a sentence or two, recast a few more, and suddenly I began to see wordiness everywhere. What the hell had happened? The writing wasn’t tight at all. Oh, there was an occasional nice sentence, but I’d let those blind me to the general weakness in many others. I started a systematic reworking of the whole thing. I’d been at page 53, but by the time I finished weeding out material I was back at the 49 page mark. Man! Four pages of fat in a 53 page manuscript? When I shared chapter 2 with the group, a reworked chapter 2, the same person said: “Yes, whatever was wrong in chapter 1 you corrected here. It’s much tighter.”

Whew!

Somewhere along the line I’d let bad habits creep back in. I imagine part of it is due to a fairly long layoff in writing fiction. Part of it might even be due to blogging, where I tend to use a very free flowing approach. Ultimately, though, it was laziness on my part. Not physical laziness as much as mental laziness. I wasn’t “thinking” enough about the material.

It’s disheartening in a way to realize that you can “lose it” if you don’t “use it.” It would be nice to reach a certain skill level and never have to worry about backsliding. But that doesn’t appear to be the case. At least not for me. But it's also “heartening” to know that you can recover, that a misstep can be caught and corrected. I know now, and I appreciate the new group pointing it out, that I have to stay vigilant, even ruthless, with my own writing. Laziness is way too easy a trap to fall into, but it is a trap with an exit.

42 comments:

Miladysa said...

Alls well that ends well :-D

I am looking forward to reading Book Three 'Witch' on holiday next month.

H.E.Eigler said...

It's so hard to take a constructive look at one's own work. We become blind to it; it becomes 'familiar'. I am always amazed at what I can see once I've let a piece sit for a while.

Steve Malley said...

Thank you for this admonition. I needed it.

Lana Gramlich said...

I'm sure you're beating yourself up accordingly. <:\

Lucas Pederson said...

Lol! I've found the same thing happening to me as well. I recently re-started a novel I've had shoved on the back bruner for a while.

Without going through the old chapters I had wrote some five years ago, I just took up where I left off. Going over the first few chapters and what i recently wrote...lol, I found more laziness in what I wrote recently than I did from five years ago...go figure. Lol

Sidney said...

It is amazing what you can cut when you really start looking at things. In the newspaper business we were all about economy but it's easy to lapse back into wordiness. I'm doing it now, aren't I. Doh!

Travis said...

I did a search in my manuscript for passive voice words. I had my MS Word program find the words was, am, is, are, were, be, been, being and hi-lite them in italic bold red.

There's an awful lot of italic bold red in my manuscript.

**sigh**

Hey! I finished Wings Over Talera. Wow! It was non-stop action. I read the whole book on Sunday because I just couldn't put it down.

Sarah Hina said...

I agree with you about flash. I've been so consistently focused on that lately, because I feel like I'm going through a honing phase with my writing. And it makes you ruthless about word choices and space considerations.

But I know I could slip into my old tricks at the drop hat. You've reminded me that I'm not alone in the need to stay vigilant. :) Great post, Charles.

Marilyn Brant said...

Excellent post, although I fear you've been reading the first draft of my latest manuscript over my shoulder. I could've sworn I heard murmurs of "This is too wordy...too wordy..." :-).

writtenwyrdd said...

Well, you have more on your resume than I do, so I'll bow to your wisdom; but is it really laziness to have some fat in the early writing? I gather these were still drafts.

But (in any given area of expertise) it sure is easy to think things are what they patently aren't, or that we know a lot and thus are gods' gift. And thus rude awakenings are needful, lol.

Vwriter said...

I was reading your post to a young lady who the National Elite Sculling champion a few years back, and only missed being in the Olympics because of an unfortunate and untimely back injury (how's that for a wordy sentence?!). She has now decided to write non-fiction, so we were discussing your comments.

She had an interesting observation. Here's her exact quote, "No wonder. Writers don't adhere to a training schedule. They don't have demanding coaches pushing them harder than they would push themselves. And they don't really compete except in terms of sales and honorariums. They don't flat out go one on one with each other." Writer's get flabby when they don't train.

Although I could have contested her points, for once I thanked her for her input and didn't fire back. Now considering what she had to say on its own merits. Still kicking it around.

Heff said...

Relax. Blame it on beer.

Charles Gramlich said...

Miladysa, yes, a learning experience. I hope you enjoy “Witch.”

H. E. Eigler, I always hope to have at least a week to ten days between when I finish a piece and when I decide to go over it “one more time.” Time and distance really helps.

Steve Malley, I bet every writer does.

Lana, but, but, I deserve it this time!

Lucas Pederson, that’s why when I resubmit stuff from earlier in my career, even if it was published, I still go through and rewrite. I find it almost always helps tighten things up.

Sidney, I certainly get rather careless when I’m blogging and commenting. I don’t think it’s much of a problem here, but it may be if it carries over to our professional writing.

Travis, I try to do that myself. It really helps with that final draft. But I wish I could write tighter throughout and not have to depend on the machine to help catch me. I’m really glad you enjoyed “Wings Over Talera.” I definitely wanted to up the action quotient over the first one.

Sarah Hina, It doesn’t take much. At least not for me. Eternal vigilance. LOL. Sounds as if I’m defending Democracy or something.

Marilyn Brant, LOL. That’s just your internal editor, I imagine. He can be handy, although sometimes to get the story down you have to tell him/her/it to shut up.

Writtenwyrdd, oh it’s not a serious problem to have fat in early drafts, as long as you know the fat is there. I didn’t realize how much until I started giving the piece a hard look. And I like to try and polish as I go to save on later significant rewrites.

Vwriter: I think she’s got an important point. But I’d respond, too, that it’s much, much easier to be disciplined when you have someone looking over your shoulder, like a coach. It’s a lot harder when you have to discipline yourself, but in the end self-discipline is a much better commodity if you will. Because it’s earned strictly on your own, without the help of others.

X. Dell said...

(1) I find irony in the comment that describe's an author's work as "wordy."

(2) One of the problems with critiquing works in progress is that they're always directed at a first draft. First drafts are raw. That's why one rewrites and rewrites.

Given time, I'm fairly confident that you would have tightened this up on your own, and that you would see your weaknesses more keenly than others. Meanwhile, a suggestion could color your perception regarding all the prose you've written, and all the prose you're going to write.

I can understand critquing a second or third draft in this manner. I'm not quite sure about the wisdom of doing this for a first draft. And as someone who's read you, I think you know what you're doing.

Wil said...

"Fortress Gramlich", LOL!

Lisa said...

I think writing is like balance in yoga. You can have the most incredible balance yet if you miss a day or two of practice, you lose it. The good news is that it's not hard to get it right back again. I think if you've developed good writing habits, they come back quickly.

rubyshoe2 said...

Have you heard of the techniques "frosting," "Suessing," or "Being Monet"? Roy Williams in his book, Accidental Magic, has some interesting ideas about bringing your writing alive, cutting out the blacks words...it's been useful for my fiction.

Charles Gramlich said...

Heff, I've blamed too many things on beer already.

X-Dell, I think you make a good point. I wonder myself about the wisdom of some writers wanting feedback too early in the writing process. I think, though, that experienced writers can take the good out of that kind of experience and not get to the point of freezing up. I think the feedback I got probably helped me focus, and since I've actually made good progress since then I don't think it threw me off track. I do worry, though, about people who are just starting out. I think critiques could be very dangerous.

Wil, it's right next door to Insane Asylum Gramlich.

Lisa, I agree absolutely. It's important to get into the daily mode of writing, or at least regular mode.

Rubyshoe2, no, I haven't heard of those terms. Sounds interesting. Thanks for dropping by and commenting.

the walking man said...

I had a comment but X. Dell made it.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Charles:

What a great post and some excellent responses. I would add one thing to what everybody said:

This is why writing really is work.

It's wonderful, inspiring, creative work, but it's work. The classic yeah but it ain't digging ditches comes to mind.

Maybe not, but there is a relationship between the training comment, digging ditches and writing. They are all real, honest work, plain and simple. Work we are lucky, really blessed to be doing, but work all same.

Oh, and I'd add that new writing group to your list of things to be thankful for from your former post!

Keep on keeping on ...

Don @ Lilliput

Anndi said...

You deserve credit for accepting the criticism and working hard at it.

Better at this point then when you've almost finished, no?

Greg Schwartz said...

I've always found writers groups to be a lot of help. They tend to point out things that I overlook in my writing (consciously or not).

Glad you were able to tighten up those chapters!

Bernita said...

Agree with X.dell - you would have tightened it on your own, the comment just jump-started you earlier.

Charles Gramlich said...

Mark, how weird, I responded to your comment when I commented to X-dell. LOL.

Don at Untidy Hut, definitely. Good point. I've dug ditches, hauled hay, built fences, and while that work is certainly physically exhausting, I feel comfortable in including writing as work. Like you say, work that we enjoy doing, but I'm also exhausted when I finish a good day's writing.

Anndi, yes, and I rather enjoy revising anyway.

Greg Schwartz, I think some writers benefit from writers' groups more than others. Those that have a strong enough will to take the good and leave the bad. I've benefited from the groups I've been in, though.

Bernita, possibly, but, however it happened I'm glad I got a bit of an alarm clock moment.

Travis Erwin said...

It's admirable that you did recognize and correct the problem. Keep hammering away.

SzélsőFa said...

This post rang true with me as well: not there was anyone to criticize my writing, but the part about laziness and loosing *it*.
And I'm so glad there's a way out :)

Rachel said...

Yeah. I need to work on that.

Tom Evans said...

I'm wordy. And proud.

Danette Haworth said...

So true, Charles. And how excellent to have a group member who is brave enough to provide constructive comments.

Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Charles,

It's kind of weird when you realize you're doing something that you worked hard to stop doing. I tend toward needing to cut/add -- the whole nine yards. Nothing I write in first draft works very well.

JR's Thumbprints said...

You certainly nailed it here: If you don't "use it" then you "lose it." But also, sometimes when you "use it" the wrong way, then bad habits become the norm. I'm trying to break a few of my own right now.

BernardL said...

I like your wordiness; but if the critique helped you, all the better. :)

ChrisEldin said...

Oh, there was an occasional nice sentence, but I’d let those blind me to the general weakness in many others.

LOL---I can relate to that!!!
:-)

ivan said...

Charles,

You were lucky not to have been at Toronto's Ryerson U thirty years ago. Media writing prof would fail you if you used the copula verb to be in advertising copy. Always the action verb.
Her name, oddly was Macbeth.

And I got the doughnut for using "to be."

Hey.

But then another school suggests using all the polysyllabic words you can, and make sure your copy is really dense. Beat them into submission!

Hix
Nix
Stix
Pix.

That was a headline in a New York newspaper when some Hollywood types came to make a movie like Ma and Paw Kettle in Kentucky and the "hicks" didn't like it.

Ah Zippy Lood King.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Ah critique groups. I've had my fill. I would love to see other artist disciplines operate this way. Can you imagine a group of painters sitting around a circle offering up their work? "I like your use of yellow, but maybe you could, I don't know, give it more feeling?" or how about guitarists in a circle, each taking a turn with something they've written, listening to feedback. "Too many notes."

Erik Donald France said...

Thoughtful and pragmatic. I always try to inspiure students to do two contrary things -- compress wordiness but add specifics.

Tricky business, writing.

Cheers ;-?

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis Erwin, in the end, I think the writing is more important than the ego. At least I hope I'm not fooling myself.

Szelsofa, I think there's always a way out. Almost always anyway.

Rachel, probably most writers do.

Tom Evans, I saw your site. Doesn't look too wordy, to me.

Danette, it's very helpful to have such a group number.

Michelle, I know. I always have to do multiple multiple drafts.

JR, I think so too, and maybe blogging has contributed to some of those habits for me.

Bernardl, thanks. You always want to get better, though.

ChrisEldin, it may be a more common problem than it seems.

Ivan, Lana and I were talking tonight about the tendency of some writers to show out with the biggest words they can find. She read me some passages from a book she's reading.

Stewart, I was in a critique group when I first started getting serious about writing and it was extremely helpful. Then I was without one for a long time. I'm finding this one intersting but in many cases the comments don't really apply to the genre. Still, I like to hear 'em.

Erik, sounds like how Journals often respond. Cut this by 10 percent but expand the sections on a b and c.

Randy Johnson said...

The last thing I wrote that I was unsatisfied with was a post for the blog. I'd worked on it all week, tweaking here and there, and was satisfied.
Then the morning I was going to publish it, I read through one last time and was aghast. I spent the next two hours cutting and rewriting.
Sheesh!

L.A. Mitchell said...

I still like the idea of critique--it would be embarrassing to hang mistakes out there you couldn't see because everything was too familiar.

It's okay to be a little lazy in the summer, isn't it? Just blame it on the heat.

Merisi said...

I wished a were half (oh well, let's make five percent, would make me happy already!) as skilled as you are in correcting your own writing. I spend a lot of energy not losing the language itself, being trilingual is not really an advantage in that regard. Good luck with your future chapters! :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

Randy, that's always a bit disheartening when that happens. For the story I entered into that Clarity of Night contest I sent it off, then found two grammar errors and had to resend a corrected version to the guy. Then after it was posted I noticed another glaring error. I was beginning to despair of my ability to string two words together.

L. A. Mitchell, definitely. I've been somewhat lazy but I don't feel too bad about it. Ever since Katrina we were really playing catch up at school so I probably deserve a bit of a break. And yes it is hot. I went for a walk at like 7:00 last night and it was still so humid.

Tom Evans said...

I prefer the word 'verbose' in any event.