The Reality of Writing

by csfriedman on July 29, 2012 in Essays

People often ask me what writing professionally is like…or how to go about writing a publishable book…or some other question that involves the writing process. Well, here’s the answer:

This morning I’m working on a chapter in my book where my characters are finally getting a few important things explained to them. Yes, the dreaded “E” word. An author usually avoids explanations like the plague, and writing one from the author’s POV is on the top ten list of unforgivable sins in fiction. But sometimes you get to a place in your story when one character needs to explain something to another, and then you have to figure out how to make that happen without slowing down the story… or making it seem like you’re trying to sneak in the author-POV thing.

Today’s an editing day.

I had 5400 words when I quit last night. The tail end of it is pretty messy. So the first thing I have to do is a basic clean-up, making sure that everything I want to say is getting said, and that it’s all written well enough for my readers to understand it.

Half an hour later, I’ve got is a scene that ends in a well-written, comprehensible Explanation. The first part of the scene is interesting and well-paced; now I have to make sure the second half is also. That’s easier said than done. Explanation scenes are by their very nature slow and static; that’s why they’re second on my list of “things I hate to write.” (First on my list are Traveling scenes: those terrible parts of a book where you have to deal with your characters traveling from point A to point B,and *some* kind of description is needed, but you know nothing really important is going to happen until they reach their destination.)

So the first thing I do is make sure I’ve got the strongest possible POV, so that my main character is filtering every word of the Explanation through her own hopes and fears. That will help give the scene some emotional energy. And I make sure other characters are responding to it as well as well. Nothing’s less compelling to a reader than an Explanation which isn’t compelling to your characters.

It’s still a little longer than I’d like, so I look for any places where I can reduce conversation to summary form. i.e., “After we vomited up the poison, he explained to us why Triffids were so scary.” Summaries are dangerous, as they can compromise the emotional intensity of a piece, but when you really need to tighten your pacing, they’re a valuable part of the toolkit.

Then I cut out a whole bunch of words that I decide don’t really need to be there.

Then I cut out a section that really does need to be there, but not as much as I need this scene to be tightened up. So I move a few valuable concepts into other paragraphs, grit my teeth, and hit the Delete key.

Wow, that one hurt.

The last thing I decide to do is cut out is a major piece of information. It’s important, but it’s not important *enough*, so it’s going to have to wait until later. I want the list of ‘things being explained’ to be as short as possible, so that each fact has maximum impact.

And now I reread my finished chapter. And it’s beautiful. It flows seamlessly from one idea into another. We can feel the emotional turmoil of the antagonist as she absorbs all this new information, and we sympathize with her. And there are hidden transitions that will lead the reader into the next scene, hints of plot elements that will show up later, and even a few ominous turns of phrase which, like the shark theme in Jaws, help keep the reader on edge. In short, it’s a damned good chapter.

It’s also 5100 words.

So there you go, my readers: the Reality of Writing in a nutshell. Putting words on a page is easy. Recognizing when they need to be thrown out is the hard part. And seeing a reduced word count as the sign of a productive day is…well it’s actually kind of insane, when you stop to think about it.

But no one ever said that professional writers were sane.

This essay is copyright by C. S. Friedman, and may not be copied, disseminated, or linked to without written permission that specifically cites this work. Seriously. No exceptions.

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  • Jae Holt

    Thank you so much for this post, I feel much better now about having to edit my own writing ^_^

  • Nikari Steve Miller

    Brilliant! Thank you for sharing one of the simple, yet brutal, truths of story-crafting!! I’ve just launched into a re-read of the Azea-Braxi books to examine pacing and character, searching for what it is that keeps drawing me into those stories; hoping to find inspiration for my own work. (To me, you can’t write if you can’t read good writing.) I stumbled on your site moments ago and rapidly fell upon this post (no, not in the impaling-upon-swords fashion… in a good way. -grin-) Keep up the great work as well as the insanity of creative progress. :) … and, sorry, copyright aside, I have to admit this post got copied to my personal Words of Wisdom file, with attribution, to remind me that I’m not the only one who has ‘those’ days with writing.

    • Celia S. Friedman

      LOL you have my official permission to keep a copy on your computer for your personal reading.
      I think that falls under “fair use” anyway


  • Jae Xerrano

    I have never posted before, but I just wanted to tell you how wonderful this insight was into your process. It makes me feel better about my pain when trying to shore up a paragraph and thin out an over expository chapter. Thank you for this.

  • Sarah Hansen

    Two years back while feeling dismayed at needing rewrite my first manuscript for the third time I picked up “In Conquest Born” at a local secondhand book store. Your writing and advice has been so incredibly helpful! I am now planning to mail out my first (and, I believe, gleaming) manuscript this fall. Knowing the difficulty I look forward to the future challenges. Thank you for all your hard work!