Learning Restraint

I generally hate articles and books geared toward the “how to” writing crowd. I firmly believe that writing isn’t that perfect of a science, and that being successful at it is more capturing lightning in a bottle than some scientific formula. Chances are, even if you were able to combine all the literary advice—contradictions and all—into a single novel, it would probably be as likely (or unlikely) to succeed as any. The truth of the matter is that fiction catches on for different reason. Michael Crichton was succesful because he had great concepts. Even though his writing was drier than Boise, Idaho, he had overwhelming success because he could concept with the best of them. There are others who so beautifully use human languages, that it really doesn’t matter what they write. It will feel good getting there (or nowhere as the case may be).

The point I’m trying to make, I guess is that there’s roughly no right or wrong way to write, so take what I’m about to say with the finest grain of Pink Himalyan salt that you can…

If there was one thing I would explain to talented new writers—not authors—is restraint. First, let me explain the distinction in this example. To me, an author is someone whose skill set is naturally geared toward getting a book done. They don’t waste a whole bunch of time fidgeting with the form, function of each blasted word making sure the sentence has a flow and a correct feel about it, or take painstaking efforts to make sure each sentence is vivid and colourful. They know to let the reader’s imagination handle most the heavy lifting. The writing is so perfectly functional (which is not to say boring). I am not one of these people.

A talented writer on the other hand (and what an unfortunate lot) are the types that are fascinated by words, and technique and form, and haunted by the imperfection of word pairs. These types are so skilled (or at least determined to make each sentence sound as good, and flow as well as possible, sometimes at the expense of the information being passed). They want the word choice to be as emotional as the scenes they make up. I am one of these people. I have cut sentences that are supremely well written because they weren’t short enough and caused a paragraph to no longer “flow.”

What I’m proposing here goes out to those people (and yes, you can be both, at times)….

Learn restraint. I’ve spent enough time under the red pen to have figured out that sometimes you just need to shut your yap and move things along. To worry less about how something “flows” and just worry about telling the story part of your story. This might seem like common sense to most, but for some (especially us reformed poets) it’s painstaking.

As I tend to write in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, it’s amazing where my brain takes me. I can write the most beautiful passages sometimes. The most florid, vivid detail about things like the inside of a night club. Right down to the individual emotions felt on each stoke of Sharpee of bathroom graffiti. The problem is that it’s so indulgently granular that it serves no true purpose. Sure, a reader might think, “oh, wow, that was so ridiculously well written,” and there’s merit in that, flexing your skill even when not necessary. There are even lots of reader (myself included) who would rather read those types of books. The overwritten, but expertly done explorations of fiction.

I’m not saying don’t be that writer. Merely, learn restraint. Learn to be tougher on your own writing. Be willing to cut sentences or paragraphs even if they are some of the best you’ve ever done. Don’t leave things around because they’re pretty. There are no trophy wives/husbands in fiction.

I’m not even saying learn to write with more restraint. Don’t. Just learn to come back later and edit with more restraint. On the second pass come through and hack away the beautiful even if you’re really attracted to it. I find a lot of it really isn’t more than self-congratulation anyway. Like, “look how well I write. I’m impressed, aren’t you?” It’s that kind of stuff that goes, and trust me, if you’re more restrained and less protective of each word, it’s easy to spot which is valid and which isn’t.

So, write as florid as you want, just be calm, restrained and willing to divorce yourself from some of it later. Don’t necessarily leave it for editors and publishers to suggest a word cut. They will anyway. No matter how minimalist, or extravagant your words are.

One last bit before I hop off this unnecessary soapbox, don’t ever completely delete your prose. Any of it. You never know if you at your most self-congratulatory or indulgent will catch on. Your words might just be deep and rich enough for some. People do love dark chocolate cheesecake after all.

I’d actually love someday to see the concept of “Author’s Cut” fiction where a work is re-released post editor and publisher with some of the words put back in, in the way that the author felt most comfortable, but would never have normally seen print. Just something I’ve pondered.

2 thoughts on “Learning Restraint

  1. I read plenty of stories writers send me to read and evaluate as for some really weird reason they seem to think I know what I’m doing when it comes to writing. I send them back a thousand words discussing characterization, dialog, style and structure. They ignore all that because there’s only one thing they want to know…”Yes, but how does it flow?”

  2. Heh… yeah. Flow to me seems kinda like this unnecessary buzzword, that if their “writing flows” they will somehow be successful and circumvent all the rest of the issues.


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