The Seven Year Perspective: Seven Things I Learned About Writing from Seven Years Ago

About ten years ago was when I started writing fiction with a serious intent that I might some day finish a book and get published, I set out on the journey with absolutely no experience. I started writing, but everything I did ended up being a personal essay or a journal-type entry or poetry. Writing fiction, with a real story, dialogue, characters that are whole and complete, with a storyline… that takes a skill set I didn’t yet have, but I sure had the burning desire. It seems strange to think of it now, but ten years ago, the internet wasn’t what it is today. In my small West Texas town where I used to live, cable internet was brand new and super slow (compared to now, but super fast compared to the phone!) I had a phone line that I would unplug from my phone and plug into my computer.

I remember when Call Wave was the big deal, so that I could see who was calling me while I was on the computer and didn’t have to turn off my call waiting or get kicked off when someone called. A lot has changed since then, and now, I work on a super high-speed internet connection – though not nearly as fast as the one I used to have back home, but that’s another story altogether – and the internet is an everyday waking, breathing, pulsing part of my life. I can’t imagine going back to where I’m only on a few hours in the evenings after the kids have gone to bed and no one would possibly be calling me.

Seven Year Itch

About seven years ago, I sat down and started to write my first novel. I had a lot of friends backing me up and helping me read it one chapter at a time. That’s a good way to do it too, since they will keep you writing, begging for more from you. I made it nearly 38K words into a novel, a novel with a great storyline that to this day I still love, and then life interrupted me. I moved away from writing for fiction and started freelancing, print and online, selling articles to make ends meet and pay the bills. My health took a turn for the worse, a relationship came into my life and then left and then another and then it left too, and my best friend at the time hooked up with a man and stopped talking to me (hate when women do that).

So my 38K-word novel languished in exile, cast away into the recesses of my computer box. I’ve had four new computers since that time and four new laptops and the Word document for that novel has somehow managed to make it with me through every computer change.

I opened the document up today and started reading, and I want to share a few things with you guys that I learned about writing, things you probably won’t believe me about until you too open up a document you wrote today seven years from now, but trust me on this; what I’m saying here is very true.

The Past Teaches About Writing: Seven Things I Learned from Seven Years Ago

1.) You’re not as good as you think you are.

No matter how good, or bad, you think you are, you’re wrong, and you’re right. While you might be really good today, I promise that if you keep up with your writing like you should, you’ll be even better seven years from now. There are some writers, published ones and unpublished ones, who forget to keep learning, though, and those writers will be worse seven years from now, especially the published ones. It seems some writers start to think they are really good, because they’ve sold well, and they don’t change with the times, grow with their writing and mature with their audiences.

For you, an unpublished or underpublished writer, you are reading and studying and researching and learning, and as good as you think you are — and you might very well be — I promise you you’ll be better in seven years than you are right now. If not, you probably should hang up the writing pen.

2.) When they say adverbs are to be avoided, they knew what they were talking about.

I used to say, “But if you don’t use adverbs, how can you tell someone HOW something is done or said? Adverbs are awesome! No, they aren’t. When I picked up my seven year old manuscript, I had people unceremoniously (I thought that was a grand word at the time!) doing, slyly grinning, wryly laughing, and uncharacteristically blahing. When I saw the way I used these adverbs compared to how I use them now, I finally ‘got’ it; it finally made sense to me! Adverbs aren’t bad, but using them repeatedly,abundantly, decidedly is. <—humor, sort of.

What I realize now is that adverbs are a lazy way to write something. Think of it this way: He can do something in an uncharacteristic manner. Or he can do something uncharacteristically. The former is better, stronger, more precise. Look at it this way:

He smiled shyly at her. ~OR~ He shyly smiled at her.

compared to:

He looked down at his feet and shuffled, a blush covering his cheeks. He glanced up at her, smiling, before his eyes shot back to look at his feet again. It wasn’t like him to be so shy.

I realize, sucky example, but the point is – the adverb is a shortcut for drawing out your word picture. Don’t rely on them to describe what you want your reader to experience.

3.) Quit ‘ing’ing; it’s tiring. (Ha! More sort of humor!)

In my novel, everyone was ‘ing’ing. They were running, going, dreaming, sleeping, speaking, loving, looking, moving, griping, complaining, seeing… they were ‘ing’ing! Wow, I was tired just watching all the ‘ing’ing while I read!

I finally realized, while reading my old novel, what the ing-fuss is all about. It’s tiring! Oh, wait, I mean: It made me tired! ‘ing’ing is sort of lazy writing too. I mean, sure, sometimes you’re going to ‘ing’ a word, but there is often a better way to write it than ‘ing’ing it.

He was sleeping on the couch.

compared to:

He slept on the couch.

There’s no doubt the second is stronger, more assured, more confident-sounding. I’m not saying to never use an ‘ing’ word, but when you see an ‘ing’ word in your writing, stop a moment and ask yourself if there’s not a stronger way to say that sentence to remove the ‘ing’ word.

He was walking to work. While walking to work, he tripped.

compared to:

He walked to work. While he walked to work, he tripped.

4.) Description is boring, no matter how flowery you write the prose.

I don’t care how many big words, fancy words, flowery words you use to describe something, description is boring. In my seven-year-old novel, I spent an entire paragraph in the first chapter describing the lead character. I spent an entire page describing a bedroom and bathroom in a house. Who cares about that? Give the reader enough information to let them form a picture in their head, try not to go back in time and alter that picture by throwing something out of place into it, and then let the reader build the image on their own. You don’t have to guide them. The story is what’s important, not the color of the tile in the bathroom, the size of the tub, or the fact the window let in sunlight.

Those of you who love to write description will likely argue that you’re setting the scene. Sorry, this doesn’t fly. In a novel, the reader sets the scenes; you set the tone and let the reader imagine it. If you want to set scenes, write scripts and direct them. If you want to write novels, describe only what’s necessary to further the plot, let the reader set the scene, and you show the reader the story. If the paragraphs and  sentences you’re writing aren’t furthering the plot, don’t write them.

PS: In the books I read for pleasure, I skip over large blocks of text with no action or dialogue in them. I don’t mean to do it. It just sorta happens. Description IS boring.

5.) If you’re not sure if something works or not, it doesn’t work.

Every single place in my manuscript from seven years ago where I struggled or doubted myself, I look at and read now and realize that, back then, I was right to question it. So I gave the manuscript to my Buffy to read, and she pinged on the exact same things. If you hit a place where you’re asking yourself, “Does this work?” if you have to ask the question, it doesn’t work. The reaction you should have after trying something interesting shouldn’t be ‘does this work?’ but rather: Wow, that worked beautifully! If you don’t feel that way about it, rewrite it.

6.) Your reader isn’t stupid.

At the time I was writing this story from seven years ago, I had just recently left a job in the criminal justice system. I was writing a crime and suspense novel, based on a few of the cases I’d been involved in when I worked in criminal justice. I assumed the readers couldn’t possibly know what I was talking about when I talked about technical stuff in the story, so I made a point of explaining everything to the reader. This pulls them (and me) out of the story. I mean, I’m not saying not to explain things to the readers, and you certainly don’t want to have your characters (who know better in their world) explaining things to each other just for your readers to learn it, so you have to skillfully find a way to make sure your readers understand what you’re saying or just write it knowing they already understand. You should not, however, step outside of the story and explain it to them.

This is going to be something any suspense story that uses ‘inside’ information in it. For example, if you’re a nurse and you’re writing a medical thriller and you know terminology maybe a layperson doesn’t know, you might be tempted to put that explanation in the story. Don’t.

You either have to assume your reader is smart enough to know it or look it up, or you need to write it in a different way so it makes sense even if they don’t look it up, but you should never talk down to your readers or explain things in the text.

Trust me, I’m a fan of legal thrillers, crime and suspense novels, etc, and I’ve often read books with legal terms, police codes, and other things that either I didn’t know and I just filled in the gaps that made sense for me or I actually took the time to look up and learned. Having the writer explain it to me in the text would have felt patronizing and condescending, like the writer thought I was too stupid to know any better or to look it up.

7.) Your reader might not be knowledgeable.

So, okay, you’re reader isn’t stupid, as we learned in #6, but your reader might not be as knowledgeable about things as you are, either from your life or work experience or from the research you’ve done. When writing, don’t keep the data so far above the readers’ heads that it’s unreachable for the reader. Your reader is going to look up a few words or terms, or let a few slip with the comprehension of what they are even if they don’t have the knowledge, but if you are constantly using strange terminology, odd words, obscure references to things only those in the field or who have researched it know, then you’re going to lose your reader. Readers don’t mind having a challenge when reading a novel, but mostly, readers want to be entertained. If you make them work too hard for it, they won’t continue reading.

Seven Lessons Well Learned

So there you have it: seven lessons about writing I learned from reading a seven-year-old manuscript from when I first started writing professionally. It was very eye opening, but in a good way. I learned that I wasn’t ‘bad’ back then, but I am so much better now. It gave me a boost of confidence, though I must admit, it made me wonder, “If I thought I was good back then, and now, seven years later I see I wasn’t, what will I think of my writing now seven years from now?”

That question makes me want to go take a nap.

Love and stuff,