It ain’t waterboarding, but writing is still torture


I’m reading Sol Stein’s Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies, a great instruction manual on the mechanics of good writing. (He doesn’t consider John Grisham’s The Firm to be good writing, I must add. Rather, he calls such novels transient bestsellers. Would that I had a transient bestseller, though.)

Anyway, something he mentions in the book answers a question I’ve been pondering since I first began attending the D/FW Writers’ Workshop. You see, during the reading-and-critique sessions, I noticed that most people read their work with very little inflection or character in their voice. Most of the time they read in a rather flat monotone, and I always thought, Wouldn’t your work have more punch if you were to inject more personality in your voice? Maybe vary the tone a bit? It would make sense, right?

Stein, however, points out — rightfully so — that the writers should rely solely on their words to tell the story. Otherwise, if you were to expect an actor to do that for you through gestures and intonation, you’re taking the reader outside of the story, the book. Your words alone should carry the story, convey the emotion, compel the reader to continue reading. After all, chances are, the reader isn’t going to have a Shakesperean actor reading the book out loud to her, and even if they did, bad writing is never going to be rescued by good acting. It just doesn’t work that way.

So writers can never use that as a fallback, whether you’re a screenwriter or a novelist or journalist or children’s storybook author. The words are all that matter. They’re all that should matter. Stein recommends having the worst actor in your group to read your story aloud, or barring that, read it aloud yourself with the flattest monotone you can conjure up. Then listen to the words and see if they still inspire a response, despite the delivery. If it does, you’re on the right track.

You can never be lazy in writing, expecting illustrations or your reputation or the talent of the actor chosen to play the lead role in your script to carry your work to success. I succumb to this more often than I care to admit, which is why I’m shopping around for a new dictionary. As much as I love playing with words, I’m human. I pull any random word out of the air, even knowing that it’s not exactly what I want to use, but I can’t be bothered to make the effort to actually find what will work best for the sentence I’m working on. I think to myself, Yeah, I’ll just fix that when I do the edits, but especially when I’m on deadline, that can be conveniently forgotten. Journalists with their relentless deadlines can be forgiven (?) for imperfect prose, but I’ve let that habit spill over into my novel-writing as well. Writers who’ve been practicing their craft for any substantial period of time will be very familiar with the exhilarating feeling that follows the creation of the elusive perfect sentence. Sometimes it flows like water out of you, but more often than not it takes some serious thought and meditation. (I almost wrote medication but caught myself in time. However, upon reflection perhaps that’s also an appropriate description of the many tools writers use to create!)

I don’t always want to invest that kind of time and energy. I’m a girl in a hurry half the time. But I know I must, even if the will isn’t always there. Otherwise, I’m just wasting not only my time, but that of my reader.