Blowing through some social media posts the other day, I came across one from a Fantasy writing site where the writer was discussing what NOT to do when you want to write well. The post mentioned the same things one hears quite often if you have been in the writing biz for a while (from book editor posts to craft workshops around the country): watch prep phrases, don’t use “that” and a variety of other suggestions that on the surface are… well… true and not true. Anyway, this post began to gnaw at me like some burrowing insect. All that day and then the next, it surfaced, popped its little head out, began burrowing once again. “Why does this bother me so much?” I continually asked. And then it hit me. The rules and the “do nots” are actually not really what this is all about. Yes, those technical choices can hinder the power of a story and undermine the craft, but something else is in the room, something in the corner demanding to be seen. What is that? Why does this post bother me so much?
Here’s why. Word craft (writing) is about placing one word next to another from left to right. It is sentence after sentence built into paragraphs stacked one upon the other. This is the art of writing. The outcome of such a thing creates scenes or characterization or plot points and setting and all the other elements of fiction…. It is highly complex, multiple chainsaws spinning in the air. BUT… all of what I just mentioned must be built by placing one word next the other from left to right. If that fails, the paragraph fails, and all the above tumbles into the canyon of bad art. This is what the novice storyteller does not understand. You did not choose an art form that tells stories with line, shadow and color (painting), with graphics and text (graphic novel), with sound (music or podcasts), or all of the above combined (film, theater). A writer is one who delights in the next word, thrives and obsesses over the choice of that next word, rubs the hands together with anticipation as the reader suddenly, blindly, stumbles on the the intentional reveal (like a cyclist with a headlamp on an unfamiliar country road in the mountains… at night) on the sentence level: Boom! This is what makes an artist a writer and not some other artist. We spend our days laying lines of intentional code that will be translated (like the old computer punch cards) by a processing reader.
And so, that is what bothered me about the social media post. Yeh, sure, on some basic level if you watch your subordinate conjunctions and mind your prepositional phrases and limit and strategically place your intransitive/transitive verbs, etc…. Of course that will help. Rules like this are simple reminders that writing is technical, and a word either works or has the effect you want or it does not. The more you understand how words work, the better the craftsperson. But that is not what true word craft/storytelling is really about. Jhumpa Lahiri once said in a New York Times article “For surely it is a magical thing when a handful of words, artfully arranged, stop time.”
Writing is mysterious, and the process akin to magic … and it all comes by intentionally placing individual words side-by-side on a page.