Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Digging Deep Without Hitting the Gas Line

Sharon encouraged us to dig deep as writers. It amazes me how frequently my “fight or flight” instinct kicks in on behalf of my characters.
Over the years, I’ve gotten better (I hope) at recognizing those moments and steering into traffic instead of swerving to the curb. Here are three reasons and three techniques for digging deep in your writing.

1)   Speak to your reader. Reason one for digging deep as a writer is so that you can reach out to your reader and say what they need to hear. You can’t do that if you skim the surface, write tip-of-the-brain plots and scenes. It’s the difference between a chat around the water cooler, and a conversation that runs deep into the night.

       2) Stop lying to yourself. Last year, I wrote a blog post about how reading fiction brings us closer to our true experience as human beings. “Fiction is the story of you living a different life in order to be able to see yourself in a new way and make sense out of the life you are living.

You’re broken.
You’re hiding it.
And it’s making you crazy.
Fiction says, “Welcome home.’”

A writer will never truly become a writer until she can face her humanity full on and tell the truth without trying to justify it.

3) The more personal the pain, the more universal it is. That stuff you’re ashamed of? So are we. We all have those charred marbles rolling around in our souls, those broken off pieces, long dead yet still so powerfully able to bend us low. Those questions you have—more like doubts, really—yeah, we’ve all got them. The skilled writer takes the reader by the hand, walks her into the pain, and teaches how to stare it down. And don’t you want to be that kind of writer?

Here are three techniques for digging deep.

1)   Listen to the scene. You’re writing and things are flowing, then BANG, you hit a wall. The words dry up and you’re scrambling to push through to the end of the scene. Most often the reason your creative tap turned off is because you fudged a deep truth, a difficult reality in order to preserve your emotional distance from the scene. Go back and pin point where you hedged or skimmed when you knew the right thing to do was tell a stark truth. Likely, it will take the scene in a different direction (maybe even the story) then you intended, but your intentions don’t matter. The story matters.
2)   Read your work aloud. There are a million good reasons for doing this frequently: you spot typos, missing words, misspellings. You also will hear places where you’re lying to yourself. Say the words aloud and if they are true, you’ll hear that truth ringing clear. Fudged, shallow words? You’ll hear that too.
3)   Kill off the bad nouns. “Terror”, “horror”, “hysteria”—kill them all. I’ve read sentences like, “Her heart filled with dread.” Um. Gee. That’s too bad. Maybe she should look at getting that fixed. Now, before you jump on the “here’s how to show and not tell” bandwagon, let me stop you there. People’s hearts filling with dread is never the point. It’s too late by then. What’s important are the few seconds just before her heart filled with dread. What was going on then? What clues were in the room that let her in on the fact that dread was knocking on the door? Write that. No pat phrases, no emotional shorthand.

Here’s your Novel Matters Assignment, should you choose to accept it: Write/read through your WIP—as much as you dare—and follow these three techniques. I follow them and its made a huge difference in my storytelling. Share your additional ideas/experiences in the comments section!


Megan Sayer said...

Bonnie this is great. I love it, and I agree totally.
Here's a note from my own experience of this: write when you feel broken, or elated, or vulnerable, or confused...or any time when there's emotions that scare you that you can't really name. The first two drafts of my last book (I can say now with hindsight) DESCRIBED emotions, but until I could actually recall the emotions as I wrote them, my writing was limited and flat. I'm not a great journaller (never saw the point for me personally), so whenever I wrote it was always from a calm place. The day I sat on my kitchen floor and bawled because I felt so ripped apart and vulnerable...and then got my pen and notebook and wrote from that the day I discovered what depth my writing voice could have.
I should be grateful for that day, I guess.

Marian said...

Third draft coming up.

Bridgette said...

I agree with Megan - write from the emotional aspect whenever you can. I journal because it's the easiest way to say what I really think without offending someone. I never considered the writer's block coming from not digging deeper. Now I have to go back and look at some of my WIP to see if that's the problem! Thanks.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Bonnie! Yes! The moment leading up to the dread. THAT'S the place to notice.

I've found that, if I don't feel like I've stripped down to my skivvies, I haven't been true enough. Wow. What a job we have. What a wonderful, emotionally naked job.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

This post is equal parts terrifying and brilliant. I know this is true. And yet I know my family will read my books...gotta get past that in your head.

Bonnie Grove said...

Megan: I think writers forget that to describe emotion is to rob the reader of the experience of that emotion. They know what it is without being told.

Marian: Keep writing!

Bridgette: I'd be interested to learn what you discovered.

Bonnie Grove said...

Susie: Maybe writers are nudists in disguise.

Heather: You hit on an important point. If a writer fears what people around them might think of what they write, they aren't ready to publish. Too many writers create with one hand tied behind their back.

Lori Benton said...

Awesome Bonnie. Especially for me, point #3 (the first #3). Fiction is so awfully soul-bearing. I wonder sometimes, as I write, whether readers will think I struggle with this (when I don't) or that (when I do). It's taken a long while, but I'm learning to let that go and be brave about it. Like you said, we ALL have these struggles and we ALL are aware of imperfections. No sense lying to each other about it.

Bonnie Grove said...

Lori: No sense at all. Not if we hope to point the way for others, speak into our culture, or create lasting novels. Great encouragement!

Danie Marie said...

Wow Bonnie, I just finished reading and rewriting my final draft. Think I'll go back to those heartwrenching scenes and see if I can make them better. Write deeper still...

Blessings ~ Danie

Cherry Odelberg said...

Fudged, shallow words.
Thank you, Bonnie. This is most helpful.
That is precisely why I hit the wall.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Writing is practicing the emotions before I try them out on real people. Two people have had to stop reading my story because they found the emotions too personal. Good thing they live far away from me!

Bridgette said...

I think one of the biggest things I've discovered through journaling (and thereby diving deeper) is that God loves the word 'and' There are many times that He uses either or (either you follow me or you don't), but for most of the Bible there is 'and' (I am the Creator of the Universe and your friend). Those ands frighten me especially when there are truths that I cannot grasp, but it's part of the process of diving deeper into the faith. I'm learning that the deeper I dive into the faith, the darker it becomes and the more I must rely on that 'light unto my path' aspect. That's hard when I can't see a few steps beyond where I am.

Unknown said...

Cherry: Hope it helps a little.

Henrietta: Sounds like you've dug and struck gold.

Bridgette: Good words. Thanks for sharing that.