Ten Writing Beliefs

Copyright (c) FreeFoto.comOver at Velcro City Tourist Board, Paul has pos­ted an inter­est­ing art­icle on writ­ing tips. All writers are inter­ested, to an extent, in codi­fy­ing the prin­ciples of their craft (though some will claim that it breaks the spell to talk about it; I’m sure even these are aware of cer­tain and per­sist­ent shap­ing forces in their fic­tion). Learning to write is an ongo­ing pro­cess, and, as part of this, I’ll try to think up ten of my own. There is risk that this will be described as ‘intel­lec­tu­al­ising’; if that’s what you think this is, you haven’t seen some­thing suf­fi­ciently intel­lec­tu­al. I think I’d like to call these ‘beliefs’ because they aren’t neces­sar­ily what I would impose or teach. These are just hon­est state­ments about what I’ve learned from try­ing to write nov­el-length fic­tion (which I’ve been doing for about twelve years).

(1) Every story, scene, para­graph and sen­tence must have an iden­tity

The way a con­cep­tu­al story unit (like a sen­tence) should work is as a crew mem­ber pulling his or her weight. Every word with­in a sen­tence must con­trib­ute to the iden­tity of the sen­tence: What single thought does this sen­tence cap­ture? What is its tone? Does its iden­tity clash with the great­er iden­tity of the para­graph? If so, is this a good clash?

When you think of a good book, you prob­ably feel some­thing akin to a semant­ic thumb­nail impres­sion; a single sen­sa­tion that cap­tures what it is like to have read that book. That is the story-level iden­tity, and it is informed by the nes­ted iden­tit­ies with­in it.

(2) The effect of a good story should be great­er than the com­bined effects of its com­pon­ents

Crikey, that’s an undi­gest­ible sen­tence! By this, I mean that a story should oper­ate along the Gestalt prin­ciple of ‘the whole is great­er than the sum of its parts’. For example, you could look at a dis­em­bod­ied nose, an ear, and an iris, and they mean noth­ing to you in isol­a­tion; but when arranged into the mag­ni­fi­cent vis­age of President George Walker Bush, a new level of mean­ing erupts. Likewise, while the indi­vidu­al com­pon­ents of story — per­haps at the level of the sen­tence — may lack mean­ing or be plain ordin­ary, at the high­er levels of story, where they are com­bined, they can appear extraordin­ary. Thou art more lovely and more tem­per­ate is so-so, and the word ‘tem­per­ate’ here bor­ders on ugly. But placed with­in the struc­ture of Sonnet 18 by You Know Who, some form of magic is con­jured.

(3) The prin­ciples of story struc­ture are to be applied in reverse

George: “But Joseph Campbell was quite spe­cif­ic: At the begin­ning of the second act, intro­duce the green Muppet.”

This one is quite con­tro­ver­sial because (i) stor­ies do appear to have struc­tures and (ii) bad stor­ies appear to have struc­tur­al prob­lems. It seems straight­for­ward to con­clude that the applic­a­tion of cer­tain struc­tur­al con­cerns (a la The writer’s jour­ney or Story) will provide sup­port just as sound engin­eer­ing prin­ciples can ensure a build­ing will not topple. I don’t think these struc­tures can be applied ahead of time (i.e. while the shape is being draf­ted) because they arise, I think, from an inter­ac­tion of char­ac­ter, con­flict, momentum, etc. They are super­struc­tures that appear only when the jobs of lower levels are com­plete. Since I’m not try­ing to tell any­one how to write (and wouldn’t even if I could write bril­liantly myself), I won’t fill this para­graph with loads of caveats, but here’s one: This prin­ciple will be use­ful if you use an iter­at­ive approach to your fic­tion (what used to be called ‘draft­ing’). It’s pos­sible that you do your writ­ing in your head and only sit down when you’ve got an effect­ively fin­ished product. In that case, the story-level super­struc­ture might already be at work. A story begins with an ink­ing of its iden­tity; not a track with hurdles it must jump.

(4) A story is a place

Infocom’s text adven­ture, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: ‘I don’t know the word ‘shove the atom­ic vec­tor plot­ter up the game designer’s arse’. Do you mean ‘hang the gown on the hook’?’

When you write, you cross a bor­der into a new land. If you don’t do this, you won’t be able to write. You might need things to help you pass. The visa of a good piece of music or a pho­to­graph or a smell. When you are fully in the land of the story, you can appre­ci­ate its iden­tity and make appro­pri­ate decisions about its con­struc­tion. When you aren’t, your decisions might be wrong.

(5) Writing is an uncon­scious pro­cess

Britta: ‘Shhh. Ian’s writ­ing’

As a psy­cho­lo­gist with a cog­nit­ive bent, I try to be care­ful about how I use the word ‘uncon­scious’. Here, I do not intend to invoke Freudian or oth­er­wise psy­cho­dy­nam­ic (mis)conceptions. I’m talk­ing spe­cific­ally of pro­cesses that occur below one’s con­scious threshold. The sac­cade of an eye­ball to an inter­est­ing object is an uncon­scious pro­cess; as is basic read­ing. I believe that cre­at­ing a world — i.e. writ­ing a book — is one of those messy, intu­it­ive tasks not suited to the nar­row con­fines of the con­scious ‘wave crest’. Let your­self sleep on import­ant story decisions. Feel your way through dif­fi­culties. Wait for your uncon­scious mind to back­ground pro­cess a prob­lem until the solu­tion appears. Even the most dead-end of nar­rat­ives can be res­cued, because you’ll be think­ing about it all the time, because it’s bug­ging you, right? If it’s not bug­ging you…then you’re not in the land of the story.

And now for some more prac­tic­al beliefs.

(6) Writing is iter­at­ive

Kerouac not­with­stand­ing, you will not be in a pos­i­tion to tell a story as beau­ti­fully as pos­sible while writ­ing the first draft because at least some of your men­tal resources will be employed in main­tain­ing things like visu­al aware­ness, weath­er, loc­a­tion, the com­plex mat­rix of char­ac­ters’ inten­tions, and so on. Go back to the draft, identi­fy its prob­lems, then fix them until the draft is beau­ti­ful. Then wait. Then go back, find more prob­lems, then fix them. Repeat until you are com­pletely sick of the text, then repeat a few more times. If you still love the story after all that — even look for­ward to the next bout of edit­ing — you either have (i) a story that works or (ii) a con­di­tion that needs med­ic­al atten­tion. One inter­est­ing thing to note about edit­ing is that, often, an edit can improve parts of the draft but make oth­er parts worse (because of incon­sist­ency of fact or tone). What you’re per­form­ing is an evol­u­tion­ary pro­cess: sure, a par­tic­u­lar gene might be an improve­ment, but if it doesn’t jive with all the oth­er genes, you’re a dodo.

(7) Don’t use adverbs unless abso­lutely neces­sary

In my cur­rent nov­el, I’ve got about five adverbs. That’s five too many.

(8) Delete words from a giv­en sen­tence until the sen­tence breaks; then re-insert the min­im­um to fix it.

Self-explan­at­ory, I feel.

(9) They are not called char­ac­ters. They are called people

And they are respons­ible for everything that hap­pens in a work of fic­tion, not you.

(10) Set the dial on your qual­ity threshold to 11

The man from Havana — he say ‘Nooooo!’ And ‘Pass the horse radish, sweetie — this warthog is trifle ripe’

Nothing should be ‘good enough’. If it is weak, it is your job to strengthen it. Never say to your­self ‘I’m only an appren­tice writer, and this is accept­able’. Say to your­self ‘Would Ernest Hemingway/John Updike/Martin Amis put his name under­neath this para­graph?’ No? Why not? Fix it. If it can’t be fixed, des­troy it.

Wow, that was cath­artic. Mmmmm. What do oth­er people think?

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

12 thoughts on “Ten Writing Beliefs”

  1. #1 is of greatest import­ance to me, as it drives everything else. It’s the reas­on that TV writ­ing teams will ‘devel­op’ every epis­ode in full detail before someone writes a draft. Writing doesn’t hap­pen until the end, when every part of the story has an iden­tity.

    The down­side is how it ties in with the unconcious/subconcious part. If you’re work­ing alone, you just have to magic­ally mani­fest all these bril­liant story moments on your own. TV writers have the lux­ury of a writ­ing team to dis­cuss and devel­op ideas.

  2. Thanks for your com­ment, Eric. I find that, these days, if I have a cri­ti­cism of a piece of work — a TV show, nov­el, whatever — it often has more to do with it’s iden­tity. In oth­er words, it doesn’t have an over­all vis­ion; the dir­ect­or or head writer has to keep a strong sense of the story’s iden­tity and make sure the ele­ments aren’t ant­ag­on­ist­ic to it.

    I’d love to write as part of a team, bet it would be great fun.

  3. Great post, Ian. Strangely enough, read­ing it just led me to real­ise the solu­tion for the prob­lem that’s been plaguing me for the past month with my new nov­el. I owe you one.


  4. Hey, Aliya — thanks for stop­ping by. Glad to help! Let me know if you need an extra pairs of eyes for your nov­el…


  5. Hi Ian. I cer­tainly dis­like adverbs of the -ly vari­ety in fic­tion (espe­cially in dia­logue tags), and vague intens­i­fi­er adverbs (very, quite), but there are a great many “stealth” adverbs that are prac­tic­ally unavoid­able and aren’t dis­tract­ing in any case.

    For example, in “She still lives there,” ‘there’ is an adverb. In “He needed to get indoors before dark,” ‘before dark’ is an adverb. In “He nev­er arrives on time,” ‘nev­er’ is an adverb.

    I agree that adverbs of man­ner and intens­i­fi­er adverbs are usu­ally dis­tract­ing and mean you don’t have the right verb. But without all those little adverbs that only gram­mari­ans can identi­fy as adverbs–place, fre­quency, time, and pur­pose adverbs–I could nev­er write a nov­el. (Ooops. ‘Never’ is an adverb in that sen­tence.)

  6. A great post, Ian, thanks for shar­ing it. It’s giv­en me plenty to mull over.

    It seems to have been a good couple of weeks for genu­inely use­ful “how to write”-type posts!

  7. Thanks for your com­ment, David. You’re quite right to say that those adverbs are fairly (oops) cru­cial, and I’m sure my book is full them. I guess I don’t use ‘adverb’ to mean ‘any­thing that mod­i­fies a verb’ — which is just plain fool­ish­ness on my part. Those mod­i­fi­ers like ‘there’ and ‘nev­er’ feel dif­fer­ent because they seem to con­tex­tu­al­ise or re-dir­ect the energy of the verb, where­as ‘quickly’ and ‘hope­fully’ feel like after-the-fact fid­dling…

  8. Thanks for your com­ment, Shaun. I guess if there’s one thing every­one likes to do, it’s dis­pense advice…

  9. Hi, Ian

    Yes, indeed–and I know which adverbs you dis­like and why.

    The ques­tion is, Why isn’t there a more pre­cise name for the intrus­ive little bug­gers?

  10. Merrily we roll along, using adverbs all day long. I see noth­ing wrong with that. Why make rules?

  11. Very inter­est­ing. I espe­cially liked your com­ments about struc­ture: I’ve some, er, ‘issues’ with Hollywood’s love-affair with McKee and Campbell, (the recent dearth of innov­at­ive movies) and am dis­mayed to see the cult of Story tak­ing hold of nov­el­ists as well. (Go see ‘Adaptation’: insanely clev­er, the way it moves from exquis­ite to absurd as McKee’s prin­ciples are tacked onto the script.)

    I also dis­agree about adverbs, primar­ily because every begin­ner book and magazine art­icle I’ve ever read goes on about them, ad nauseam. They have their uses. Truly, madly, deeply.


  12. Thanks for your com­ment, Helen. Yes, I think it would improve a lot of stor­ies if more atten­tion was paid to intu­ition than intel­lect.

    I remain the enemy of adverbs! (Or at least the par­tic­u­lar sub­class of adverb that gets on my nerves…)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *