Monday, July 1, 2013

The Writing vs. The Story

As writers, many of us think of ourselves as artists. We paint pictures with words; we obsess over sentence structure; we envy others’ carefully crafted metaphors. We cut and edit and rewrite and do it all over again. Every single word is scrutinized.

The result of all this work is definitely worth it. Many new writers produce work with a strong voice and good flow. Furthermore, this obsession to detail means a minimum of typos and grammatical errors.

As good as that writing is, however, it’s the story itself that is most important. No matter how beautiful and compelling your prose is, it will be overlooked if the plot points don’t logically build to a satisfying conclusion. (What is a plot point? It’s a point of action that furthers the plot. Jane breaking up with Ryan is a plot point. Jane getting a dog – unless the dog is the reason she breaks up with Ryan – is not.)

Many writers finish their first draft and begin their rewrite by concentrating on specific words. Either by printing out the manuscript and going over it with a red pen, or by utilizing “track changes” on the computer, they go through line by line, word by word.

Personally, I believe this is a mistake. After the first draft, the writer should concentrate on the story, not the writing. The story and the writing are not the same thing.

The writing is the writer’s voice, her word choice, her sentence structure and allusions. The story is the plot points that take the book from beginning to end.

Many new writers, in early drafts, do not create plot points that build naturally and lead to a satisfying conclusion. Rather that working as a stair case, these plot points are scattershot – they do not build on each other, or they can be rearranged without any impact on the novel’s conclusion. This is a catastrophic error that can ruin a book’s chances for professional publication, but many writers –too close to their own writing – cannot see what they’ve created. Or they spend too much time worrying about comma placement to see that certain events just don’t serve the story. Or they are overwhelmed by finishing the first draft of a 90,000 word novel, and the thought of digging back in and doing a major rewrite is just too much. Writers who write by the seat of their pants – going where the flow seems to take them – may be more prone to these problems than writers who plan out their stories.

Here are four ways around this problem:

1. After finishing your first draft, re-read the novel and make an outline of every plot point in the story. Examine them in their naked form, stripped of description and character. Do they make sense? Do they build on each other? Are there plot points that go nowhere?

2: Utilize beta readers early on in the process. Tell them not to worry about typos or the fact that you changed the spelling of the love interest’s name halfway through the book. Their job is to concentrate on plot and character only. Is the ending emotionally fulfilling? Do the plot points work toward the ending? Are the characters consistent while allowing for growth?

3: After reading your beta readers’ suggestions, pick up your book and read it again as fast as possible. If you must take notes, only take them on major points, not typos (don’t worry, you’ll get another chance to look at them again.) Keep your beta readers’ points in the back of your mind as you read. Do their suggestions make sense? And remember that sometimes a beta reader’s suggestion tries to solve a specific problem. Try to see the problem she’s trying to solve. There may be other ways to do it. When you’re done, write yourself a report on the major changes you need to do for your rewrite.

4. Lastly, trust your gut. With my last book, in the back of my mind I was afraid that certain very funny, well-written scenes would have to go because they just didn’t forward the plot. But I needed to hear that from someone else – a someone I wrote a big check to – before I made the necessary cuts. If I’d just listened to that nagging little voice, I might have saved myself some money.

While the writing must be polished, even the prettiest prose won’t make up for a deficient story. Before pulling out your red pen and brushing up on Strunk & White, make sure the plot is as strong as it can be.

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