Monday, July 30, 2012

Streamlined Writing

I like streamlined things--most of the trains, planes and automobiles I love are streamlined designs. My favorite big cat is the cheetah, and even though I have a horrible fear of them, I'm in awe of the way sharks can cut through the water.

My writing, however, was anything but streamlined when I started--it was downright flabby. I could never resist the urge to write ten sentences when one would do--and my early writing was plagued with excessive narrative that didn't add a thing to the story.

I still struggle with it--and worse yet, I sometimes overcompensate and cut too much out of my writing because I'm terrified of loading my work down with flab.

Over time I've learned (well, I've almost learned) to take certain steps to keep my writing streamlined without overdoing it.

The first step was to understand what kind of writer I am--I'm not a 21st century male version of Jane Austen--and I'm happy to admit it. I want to write tight prose that hammers out the story with a bare minimum of language, and I'm learning to structure my writing that way right from the first draft. That was my early mistake; I overwrote my early first drafts, with the mistaken assumption that I could edit that bloated writing into a workable story or essay. It didn't work--and now I try to do just the opposite. Most of my rewriting now is adding details, and it seems to work better for me.

The second step is to use the dialogue in my story to its fullest extent to tell the story. I think many beginning writers are terrified of dialogue, but I think it's a misplaced fear. Characters can reveal essential elements of the story in a few sentences of dialogue that might be difficult, or even impossible to convey with less than a half page of narrative.  Don't get me wrong--I think narrative has its place, but too often the flab in a story can be found in the narrative. I know that's true for me.

The final step is to keep the story balanced. I described my method for achieving that in an earlier blog, and it really works well for me. I usually get too involved in character development, and it's a constant struggle to pare the character development back so it doesn't overwhelm every other aspect of the writing.

Every word in a story or essay must earn its keep, and I think that's the biggest challenge of all. Language is the writer's best friend, but it is a friend that needs to be reigned in constantly so the story can shine at full brilliance.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Spartan means--Arcadian writing, and in life

I've been overweight a good deal of my adult life. It kinda crept up on me, because I'd never had a weight problem as a kid or a teenager, but in my mid twenties I started creeping up in weight. By the time I hit forty I was resigned to being heavy. I won't sugar coat it--I gave up. I made excuses for my weight, I rationalized my bad behavior away, and I settled into a life of comfortable obesity.

But it wasn't very comfortable, and the extra weight became harder to bear with each passing year. Being heavy isn't any fun at all, and when I developed heart trouble it became apparent that the extra weight was (and is) literally trying to kill me.

For me it's simple--I either have to move or die, and I've decided to get up out of the chair and move. I'm exercising almost every day, and I'm trying very hard to control my lousy eating habits. I'm walking, and I've decided to carry a loaded backpack to help me work myself into shape.

I've mentioned before that Colin Fletcher is one of my writing heroes, and his book, "The Complete Walker" remains as a definitive guide for the serious backpacker. Any discussion of backpacking will sooner or later turn toward the subject of getting in shape to walk with a pack on your back, and Fletcher coined a phrase at the end of a section of the book dealing with getting in shape to hike that stuck with me over the years--and inspired the title of this blog post:

"I'm afraid all these strictures end up sounding ferociously austere. But Arcadian ends can justify Spartan means. Many a beautiful backpacking week or weekend has been ruined by crippled city-soft muscles--because their owners had failed to recognize the softness, or at any rate to remedy it." -- Colin Fletcher, writing in The Complete Walker

So my loaded backpack is my Spartan means, and living, and being healthy and in shape, will be my Arcadian ends. That's a deal I'm finally prepared to make.

I have to make the same sort of deal with my writing life--I'm finding too many ways to avoid writing. It's frustrating, because I'm not suffering from a case of writer's block. I'm not having a crisis of confidence. And I'm certainly not losing some ways my interest in writing is greater than it ever was. 

So what's the problem? 

In my case it's pretty simple. I don't manage my time well. That's a killer for me. I need to organize my days better. My writing cross is time management, and it is easily as heavy a load as that forty-pound pack I carry on my walks.

We all have a cross we carry--and the solution isn't to ignore it and hope it will go away. I'll gladly carry my writing cross, because I know that it, like the backpack, will feel lighter if I acclimate myself to the weight. Spartan means are justified by Arcadian ends, and I'm ready to pay the price to get the payoff. 

What's your writing cross? How do you deal with it?