A Grumble on Suspenders & Belts

Subtitle: a mini-rant on redundancy. 

 Lately I’ve seen a lot of writing-related posts consigning repetitive description to the Bad Writing Dung Heap. Here’s my contrarian take on the topic: redundancy isn’t A Bad Thing.

Picture someone wearing tights, a peasant skirt, a kicky overskirt plus a belt and scarves. (Assume underwear.) This might look awful or spectacular depending on the viewer’s personal tastes, but no one would call it “redundant dressing.” Any one or two items on the list would cover all necessary parts,  but the selections together make a larger fashion statement.

The same principle applies to writing. No, really. It does. If someone’s story seems sluggish and cluttered, the writer might be doing a lousy job of saying what they mean. It might also be a bad match between my taste and the creator’s aims. Descriptive repetition and exuberant adjective use are not always villains.

Critiquing, workshopping, and developmental editing can all buff the rough spots off writing. The processes are all based on the same premise: making a story better equals increasing its appeal to more readers by applying proven presentation standards. That’s the justification for polishing out everything that does not “serve the story.”

Here’s the challenge: smooth isn’t always better, and better isn’t always right. Some writing is downright grotesque. Some stories are so full of wordy bumps that I can’t see a glint of the precious core within. Bad writing is ugly. Polishing off extraneous bits can reveal inner beauty.

Problem is, great writing can be ugly too, or seem so on first read. Think of all the brilliant writers (and musicians, artists, etc.)  who have the same backstory. They fought tooth and nail for the integrity of their work. Endured rejection after rejection. Pushed back against criticism after criticism delivered with all the best intentions. All the True Originals had to hold firm against a world that insisted their things needed changing, smoothing, and polishing until the originality was gone.

Here’s my reading litmus test for “is it me, or is it bad?”  If find myself thinking, “That was a rough read, but it improved as I went along,” I must conclude there was nothing wrong with the writing in the first place.  NOTHING.  The way it was written was a new experience. My brain had to work to learn a different story process. Once I got used to it, I stopped noticing.

I’m a critical reviewer who often reads clumsy, awkward, painfully hard-to-read writing.  I express my opinions.  If I’m critiquing a work before publication, I feel I have an obligation to point out lumps that don’t appeal to me. But the emphasis must always be on that qualifier. To me. I do not have the right to say, “The author needs to change the way they do this too much or that not enough.”  

(disclaimer: “this & that” refer to matters of structure, phrasing, dialogue, and so forth. Flaws like multiple spelling errors per chapter, basic grammar and punctuation mistakes,  factual inaccuracies…that’s a whole different ball of worms.)

The never-ending declarations of “This is bad, and I know what I’m talking about” get under my skin because we writers should know better. We know the creator alone decides if their work is broken or the product of a broken mold because we are creators.  No one had to express their ideas the way someone else likes to read them. It’s a simple principle.  In practice, as some people gain experience they become invested in their way being the best way. And so I read remarks like, “Well, sure, you can do it that way, I suppose, if you want,” All of them carry the powerful implication that only a fool would want to do the thing.

A lot of immensely popular, critically acclaimed writing leaves me cold. It sounds choppy and harsh in my head, and the predictable variations on the same old archetypes bore me. I like my prose to stand center stage with frills on, where it belts out an aria or two and does little dances. I like to build stories like Neuschwanstein Castle, all kitschy and mashed up. So that’s what I do.

Reading my books is like visiting The House On The Rock on a rainy Saturday in August. They’re crowded with weird distractions and full of unpleasant strangers who interact without introduction, and the signs never take you where you expect. The stories can be exhilarating or baffling, but they are never easy reads nor conventional ones. NO, I don’t think I’m brilliant. I don’t have the ego to believe myself A True Original. But I reserve the right to say, This weird prose? It is beautiful to me.

And that is why I am  careful about assigning value judgments to the creative choices of others. And why I rant about the phenomenon every so often. Like this.

Thanks for reading.

Wait. Write for who?

When I’m tempted to say, “Don’t worry about other people, just write for yourself” to someone I always stop and bite my tongue. Here’s why: the encouragement aspect doesn’t cross the pronoun barrier intact. It doesn’t mean what I want it to mean.

Writing for self is the ideal attitude when self-administered. “I write for myself,” I say, and that equals “I do this because it pleases me.”  Making stories is an endeavor that combines hard labor and creative joy, and pleasing others with the results is on my list of joys. But I don’t put in the hours of blood, sweat, and tears expecting anyone else’s approval.

The problem comes when, write-for-self  is issued as advice to someone else. That someone is usually feeling rudderless,  bloodied by criticism, or mired in self-doubt. And under those circumstances  the subtext of “just write for yourself,” is far less than ideal.

“You should write for yourself” can magically transform itself into little whispers of disdain. It begins to mean, “Stop whining and feeling lost/hurt/unwanted. Stop expecting anyone else to give a shit. You’re better off keeping your writing to yourself because one else wants it anyway. Shut up and go sit in the corner already. No one cares, no one wants to be bothered.”

Heard once, those whispers of interpretation are easily ignored. When over and over again, someone hears “just write for yourself, stop caring what other people think,” it  can become a slow dripping poison that etches holes in the ego and bruises the soul.

I don’t like briusing people unintentionally.  That acid mutation of meaning is why I don’t offer it as solace and why I loathe hearing it. As a confidence booster it has the opposite effect I think people intend. Or…well, let’s say I hope they don’t intend it as it sounds. Maybe they do.

Maybe they are trying to gently encourage me to go sit in the corner and stop sharing because they hate what I say and wish I would stop sharing it. I just don’t know. It could be read either way, and I’m not good with subtlety. Multiple meanings make it  easy to be discouraging with encouragement. Damned with faint praise, even.

Am I being too analytical and “overthinking” this? Maybe. Thing is,  I’ve learned that people who tell me I’m over-thinking things seldom have my best interests at heart. They usually want to undermine me without taking any blame for it.

So I’m more likely to believe my own bitter interpretation over the cheerier one. And that’s why I avoid offering it as encouragement. It isn’t encouraging.

Writing for myself is like breathing. It’s going to happen. I don’t go around telling other people they should breathe for themselves either. If I did, they would probably wonder if they were breathing too loudly and suspect I wished they would shut up. And that simply wouldn’t be true.

 

Don’t Lose That Lovin’ Feeling

If I ever become Queen of the World I shall require the following boxed disclaimer be posted above the “how to publish” advice on every site:

Warning: becoming a published author may suck all the joy out of writing. Proceed with caution. Take your protein pills and put your helmet on. This too shall pass. 

I don’t know if the barrage of cliches would work, but I’m forever glad I was given such a warning so I’m paying it forward. Forewarned is forearmed.

Once the first story hits the wide world, life changes forever. The irrevocable shift in identity from writer to author comes with big responsibilities attached, and learning to juggle all the new balls takes adjustment. The learning curve is especially steep for independent authors. To mix a few more metaphors into this stew, it takes a village to raise a book-baby, but many indies head into the adventure as armies of one.

I knew what to expect as much as anyone can be prepared for a new phase of life, but the experience still staggered me for two years. I clung to the following lifeline: it’s normal to be overwhelmed by major life changes. Know that and take solace in solidarity–you are not the first, you are not alone– but also know that knowing is only half the battle.

The good news is there’s no wrong way get through the adjustment. The bad news is there’s no one right way, and there’s no timetable. There’s more to the process than “giving it time,” but making the mistakes that lead to your right way does take time. Being me, I like to waste time wondering why does this happen?  So for today’s digression here’s my thinking on why publishing causes so much disruptive angst.

Before I published, my words and I were huddled together in a lonely bunker. I spent my time with my words. Alone. Publishing was the creative equivalent of stepping from that isolated defense zone into a constant assault of mental and emotional flack. The attacks never stop. From the dull tedium of promotion scheduling & social media maintenance to the distracting excitement of creative authoring tasks (editing, cover design, formatting etc)  maintenance of published books can take over every waking minute. Feeding the post-publication machine leaves little energy for working on new material, but neglecting published books to concentrate on creating leads to a different kind of guilt.

It’s a no-win situation for the author. The only way to win is to refuse the battle. Crawl back into the bunker as often as possible. Creativity thrives on quiet and focus. My time and my enthusiasm are fragile, defenseless non-combatants. Post-publication I fight to defend my inspiration from floating clouds of distraction shrapnel. (Even this blog can be its enemy. Navel-gazing is easy. Fiction is hard.)

All these authoring battles will leave new authors with little time or energy for creating. In many cases, even the original enthusiasm for the act of writing itself gets destroyed.

I was spared that last part because I had no love of writing to lose. At best I tolerate the process of forcing my thoughts into a linear progression of static letters. (True confession. 3 published novels, 2 more completed but waiting their turn and a bag full of finished novellas on the side, and not a single one is the product of joy.)

(Digression to the digression If you wonder why I spend so many thousands of hours engaged in an activity I loathe, I will answer: the stories in my head can’t be finished or shared without resorting to prose. I love the end result, and I don’t hate the process of making it. just like I don’t hate weeding. I like a tidy garden. I like a finished story.)

To return to the point: the writing gig will NOT be easier once the publishing happens.  Give up the dangerous hope of “when it’s done, it’s done,” and realize that birthing a book-baby means being its parent forever afterwards.

So.  Brace yourself for the worst: once you enter the public arena through the door marked PUBLISHED, your creativity will never be the same. It will become different and probably it will be better, but don’t expect the change to be easy. You’ll have to fight to find a new balance.

Here’s my list of ways to keep my groove as groovy as possible. (Nothing works universally or permanently.) As advice it’s worth exactly as much as you’re paying for it:

  • Be kind to yourself.
  • Try out different new productive habits until you find a good fit for the new normal.
  • Fight distraction and forgive yourself lapses.
  • Remember: change is disruptive. Even happy changes.
  • Remember: no storm lasts forever. The newness will pass.
  • If you don’t like your post-pub equilibirum, you can ALWAYS rock the boat again.

And there you have it. Here endeth the pontification.

Plus a reminder that I have a sale coming up.
Would you like to support it without paying a cent? You can!

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…and the story behind the post:
A writer asked a Facebook group for advice after publishing a first novel.  They missed the fun they’d once had,  wondered if anyone else ever felt that way and if so, did anyone know how they could recover their joy?  They conveniently identified all the usual suspects from bad reviews and concerns about the sequel living up to book one, to the time-sucks of promotion and social media maintenance. When my comment got all wordy and figurative, I decided it would do better here as a full-blown pretentious lecture.  Or helpful inspiration with a bit of humor and personal perspective. Whichever.