How Writing a Story is like a Fencing Match

Swords on wallUnfortunately, I have never been to a fencing class. I always wanted to go, but there were no clubs where I grew up, and then, since I became an adult, I just never seem to find time. But, thanks to literature and television, I am basically an expert (not even close) at sword fighting and all of its intricacies. Just call me Inigo Montoya.

From observing numerous bouts of fencing on TV and in my head, I have come to liken it to writing, which I seem to do with just about everything else anyway, so it was inevitable. Confused? Me too, but let me explain:

Some of my stories take weeks, some take hours. Some stories take days, and some take years before even being typed out or written down. But it’s not because I am lazy, or haven’t had the desire to write them. It’s not even that I have forgotten about them or set them aside. What’s actually happening is an epic battle between me and whatever I am writing wherein one must become victorious. My stories like to fight me sometimes, and it takes a sharp mind and multiple levels of thought to wrestle them into submission.

The idea and I circle each other slowly, hands loose around our blades, but eyes sharp and muscles tingling. We smile, we bow, we even exchange a civil word or two. Until we realize that there is a hole between what I want to write and what the idea wants to become. We glare at each other, setting our feet and gripping our blades, palms hot with anticipation and breath sharp and eager.

I, brazen as always, see a glimmer of light shining in the plot and lunge, hoping to pierce it and make it my own. The idea slides away lazily—nothing is ever that easy. We dance carefully, whirling around each other, metal blades ringing sweetly. I jab when I think I see an opportunity, but the idea carefully sidesteps away. I take another chance, but the idea parries, and instead jabs, missing me by the tiniest of distances.

We’re angry at each other, this idea and me. Because I want the idea to become something, yet it has a plan of its own. I want to discover a plot and story line, but the idea just rolls and ducks and steps away, seemingly without effort. But ideas, if you keep thinking about them, tire quickly. And writers have more patience with their own minds than anyone else I know.

So, I wear it out. I keep working at it. I lunge and jab and parry and balance until the idea is out of breath. Pushing it and pushing it until its something that I can use. Then I gracelessly shove it in the chest with my forearm and watch it tumble to the ground. I’ve won. It might have taken a year or two or three, but I won. I hold out my hand, steady the idea, and we walk away together, as it leans on me.

This is the way it goes for me most times. I find that to really get the story to be how you want it to be, you have to fight it. You have to mold it and shape it and tame it until it’s something that you can understand. When you get ideas from something as simple as light falling on a flower petal, or that tangible thickness during a thunderstorm, what will make it into a story isn’t always apparent.

Sometimes stories fight to be written, other times they fight to be forgotten. Others, you get halfway through writing and then they want you to completely lose your motivation. You have to keep digging for it, parrying, sidestepping, lunging, and taking chances.

Only then does it become something that you can claim.

Is your process like this at all? If not, what do you do instead?

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Self-Editing: Constant Vigilance!

Self-Editing: Constant Vigilance!Of course, in self-editing, we are not battling the same dark wizards as Alastor Moody, but it would do well to take a little wisdom from his words.

Self-editing, often considered to be the bane of existence for writers of all genres, is a difficult undertaking. But, whether you are self-publishing, submitting work to a publisher, writing fiction or non-fiction, or even just writing a blog post, it’s an important part of being a writer, that we must all accept.

As an editor and a writer, I’ve learned a few things over the years that I hope will help some of you in turn. Wherever you are on your journey, it never hurts to get a little assistance when it comes to self-editing, even if just to get a glimpse at what the process is like for others. Some of the most important tips that I have gathered include:

Consistency: Check for consistency in names, dates, places, characters, descriptions, and spelling. This is extremely important as readers will notice mix-ups and mistakes right away, and it will pull them out of the story almost as successfully as being thrown outside in -40 in their skivvies. Your readers should never have to stop to question whether something is an error or not. Therefore, keep notes and look closely when looking over your work.

Fact Checking: Even fiction needs fact checking, since there are usually non-fictional ties that weave their way into the story. For example, if a character is riding a horse to a destination, the amount of time that it takes them should make sense based on the distance, the ease of travel, and the greater description of the world. These tedious details are of great importance, since lacking them can cause disinterest and annoyance.

Never Underestimate Your Reader: Your readers can likely put two and two together without you actually having to say that they equal four. If you treat your readers like they are less than intelligent, they will quickly lose patience with you. Try to find a balance between detail and assumption, but never assume that the reader can see inside of your head without a little help. Areas where you notice an abundance of detail or over-explanation should be flagged and reworked.

Break Your Own Heart: When examining your story arc, avoid letting attachment to a character keep you from doing what you know you should. It’s common for writers to love their characters like they would love their own child—they are children of our souls, after all. But don’t let your love for a character ruin a story. Good things don’t always happen to good people. Bad things happen to everyone. Maybe don’t go full on G.R.R.M. unless you really want to, but learn to let go. It”ll hurt, but your story will be better for it.

Own Your Mistakes: Never assume that your writing is perfect. It isn’t. I make mistakes all of the time, because I have a horrible habit of letting writing pour out of me like water from a pitcher, and then a lack of desire to look through it afterwards. I write and edit every day of the week, and when I am at work, another writer/editor and I exchange work multiple times a day. Both of us make mistakes. Sometimes we miss them over and over. Sometimes, even after a piece has been edited by three or four people there will still be a mistake in the finished product. It happens. It doesn’t mean you are a bad writer, it means that you are just like the rest of us.

But the assumption that your writing is perfect, and that you never make mistakes will likely lead to your downfall.

Break Bad Habits: If you have a habit of spelling a word incorrectly, or of using too many speech tags, break it. Writing improves over time, and a good part of the improvement takes place in altering the way that you do it.

Learn to Take Criticism: Relying on friends and other writers is a great way to find out where your work is failing. But, if you can’t accept what they have to say, what’s the point in having them read it? Say “farewell” to your ego and learn to appreciate feedback. Not every pointer has to be sugarcoated. Be comfortable enough in your work that you can be thankful for every suggestion. If you argue every point, no one will want to help you anymore.

Constant Vigilance

The most important part of self-editing is to maintain constant vigilance. Always seek improvement, always be willing to rework. The only way that we improve as writers is to learn from our own work and to figure out how to do better. Be on the look out for past mistakes and train your eyes to mark consistency in serial commas and ellipses points. Know not just your story, but your style, inside and out. That’s what makes a good writer.

What is your self-editing process like? What do you struggle with most?

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Everyone Wants to be an Author

Everyone Wants to be an AuthorI saw a piece of information in passing the other day, that said something like “a recent study finds majority of people in the UK would like to write a book”. I wasn’t really surprised, since the majority of people that I know also want to write a book someday.

I have friends who read, and friends who don’t. I have friends who are writers, and friends who are not. While writing is something that, I believe, is more intuitive than learned, I also believe that there is more to writing an entire book, or even a short story than most people realize.

Self-publishing has opened up a world of opportunities for those who always wanted to write a book but who either never got accepted by a publisher, or who just wanted to do it on their own. It has created possibilities for people who may have otherwise never been authors at all. And some of the books that come out of self-publishing are really well done. But some of them are not.

I think that reading and writing are two separate skills—just because you have read a lot of books doesn’t mean that you will make a good writer, and just because you are a good writer doesn’t mean that you read everything you can get your hands on. Often, the two go hand in hand, but not always.

A lot of the time, people link the two, and believe that because they read often and enjoy it, that they will be a good writer. And even if they are good at writing things like emails and letters to family, writing a book or a story is another kind of beast altogether. Creative writing is vastly different than writing a journal or a blog.

It takes more than an idea to write a good piece of fiction, because once you get into the meat of it, you find that you have to have a thesaurus stored in your brain, an active understanding of grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and a love of subtlety. It can take the longest time to write a simple passage, while a more detailed one could come with ease.

Writing isn’t just about telling a story, it’s how you tell it that matters. You don’t just need to find the words that explain what’s happening, you have to find the words that make it feel real and piece them together one by one until you have a sentence that sums up exactly what you are seeing in your mind.

To me, you shouldn’t write a story because you hope it will make you famous, you should write a story because it is dying to get out of your head. You should have respect for the craft, and for those who take it seriously. You should write because it’s what you love to do and because you put an effort into understanding its nuances. You should feel pride in perfecting every last phrase and sentence, because that is what makes the piece stand out.

I have had so many calls or emails from people who have an idea for a book, who I really don’t think should publish a thing. Many have had ideas for stories that were either unoriginal, or just wanted to write a book to check it off of their buckets lists. When did writing a book become such a casual fantasy? While I applaud self-publishing for giving everyone an opportunity to go public with whatever they choose, I can also see a downside to it.

With everyone wanting to publish a book, and having the ability to do so, I worry that many stories and books that deserve recognition will never be what they could have been because the slushpile is just too big. They get pushed aside because of too many poorly written books saturating the market.

Of course, even publishers put out terrible books, and good writing is subjective. This I know. I just feel that since so many people want to be authors, the writers out there, like many of you, who really try, who live and breathe it, may get swallowed up in the ever-growing pit of less-than-stellar self-published content.

How many people do you know that want to be authors? Would you go to a publisher before self-publishing? 

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