It wasn’t until I joined a local writer’s group that I began to understand the expression “You don’t know what you don’t know.” I had successfully written and published my first book, had always aced English class, and thought I was an accomplished writer. I even eschewed writing classes, fearing they would somehow taint my voice.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Over the years, I attended conference lectures on writing that served the standard advice fare: Write what you know. Show, don’t tell. How to hook your reader. Why you should plot. Why you should never plot…
I sat, laptop open, typing as fast as I could so I could capture those nuggets of wisdom that would unlock the magic of good writing. I learned a lot, and much of the advice was helpful, but much of it was also confusing. It took me a while to realize that what works for one writer is anathema to another, and that for every rule, there is a successful exception.
Then I discovered a writer’s haven called Write Yourself Free. Their approach to writing was different: Instead of hard-and-fast rules, they talked about the origin of storytelling, explaining why our brains are wired for stories, how we process them, and how a writer’s job is to be a natural storyteller. I would learn how to reconnect with my instincts and to feel as well as think my writing. These were small, intimate sessions, with five other writers sitting around a table discussing things like cognitive science, narrative structure, and finding the writer protagonist within. It was a place to learn, explore, and share our own work.
I still remember the first time I read my work aloud to the other writers in the eight-week writing intensive. My prose was florid and punctuated with rich, descriptive “ly” adverbs. It wasn’t until the third class that Patrick McCord, our teacher, pled with me to cut them (I had yet to read Stephen King’s On Writing). But how would I make my writing sing without all those pretty words? Wasn’t an impossibly blue angelfish a more vibrant description than simply a blue angelfish? It took me a while to learn that, like an exotic spice, a little description goes a long way.
I came back the next week with my narrative pruned, waiting for the pat on the back I deserved. The passage I read was dark and mysterious and the ending – what a cliffhanger! I was aghast when Patrick pointed out that since my point-of-view character was passed out and alone, there was no way he could know that “only the charred remains of the house were visible the next morning.” But didn’t the great writers of decades past write from the omniscient point-of-view, I cried? Yes, he said. But today – not so much. We went round and round over those next several weeks, continuing even into the next session, until I finally learned how much better my story was with a close, third-person POV filtered through one character at a time. To prove the point, here are examples of my piece before and after:
He studied himself in the mirror and frowned. His hand instinctively moved to trace the lines of the jagged scar running down the left side of his face. Coal black eyes returned his stare, and his lips curled in a sardonic smile. Deciding he had let the man wait long enough, he abruptly turned from the mirror and picked up the ornate walking stick. With measured steps, the man known only as the Maestro crossed the large bedroom and opened the heavy wooden door.
Dwarfed in an enormous wing chair, the visitor waited in dread anticipation. Despite the chill in the air, his hands were damp with sweat. His pulse quickened when he heard the Maestro approaching; the deliberate footsteps made a strange clicking sound on the marble floor, amplified by the tomb-like silence in the house. The visitor silently rehearsed the words over and over until they began to run together. He felt the blood pounding in his ears and a pervasive anxiety attach itself to him like a second skin. He knew in his heart there would be no escape but clung to a tiny spark of hope, like a drowning man bobbing up for his last breath.
The flaws here are numerous. It has a clichéd opening (a character looking at himself in the mirror), contains those dreaded “ly” adverbs, and depicts the antagonist in an overly dramatic, comic-bookish manner by using the term “Maestro” instead of a name. In the second paragraph, there is “head hopping” via the sudden change in point-of-view and a cliché in the last sentence.
He stopped before opening the door, pulled out his cell phone, and watched the man on the screen. Dwarfed by the enormous wing chair he sat in, the visitor waited. Despite the chill in the air, perspiration had discolored his thin white shirt, and beads of sweat glistened on his brow. He muttered, “We’ll find her sir. Not to worry. Not to worry.” His head bobbed as he repeated the mantra to himself over and over.
Damon frowned, put the phone in his pocket, and opened the door.
“So good of you to come.” Damon’s smooth, deep voice resonated in the room. “I trust you have good news for me?” He seated himself behind the large mahogany desk and looked at the visitor with pursed lips.
In the revised version, the POV stays consistent, there is “showing” rather than “telling” via the depiction of the shirt discoloration and the beads of sweat on the man’s brow, and the antagonist is given a real name and portrayed more realistically.
I spent the next two years under the weekly tutelage of McCord, who taught me how to sift through the writing advice handed out at conferences and lectures and keep only what worked for me. His teaching made sense, his advice improved my writing, and I trusted him to be my compass, guiding me to my own true north, away from a sea of conflicting, derailing advice. Perhaps my most valuable lesson, the one that brought everything together for me, was the simple truth that writing that moves others will always trump writing set out to impress.
The time spent at Write Yourself Free provided me with the tools I needed to finish the novel I had begun when I first started. I’ve since written two more and found amazing editors who have helped continue my education about story building, character development, and narrative tension. It was my fourth book, co-written with my sister, that landed our fantastic literary agent, Bernadette Baker-Baughman of Victoria Sanders & Associates, who sold the book in six days to HarperCollins.
My rookie mistakes led me to where I am today: A better writer, but one who also knows there is always room for improvement. I will continue to seek out those whose voices and instincts I trust to enlighten me in areas where I still don’t know what I don’t know. But I’ll be prudent and selective, now trusting my own voice to have the final say in what to let go and what to keep.
Lynne Constantine is a coffee-drinking, Twitter-addicted fiction author always working on her next book. She is the author of The Veritas Deception, the co-author of Circle Dance, and a monthly contributor to Suspense magazine. Lynne’s newest book, The Last Mrs. Parrish, will be published by HarperCollins in October 2017.
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