Monday, January 24, 2011

The Most Important Thing I've Learned About Writing

This is based on the post Weronika did about a week ago. And hers is much better than mine, so this is really an excuse for me to link to her post. Given that I've learned so much in the time between starting this blog (Feb. 09) and now, I can still say there is one thing that is the most important.

As a technical thing. Not as an existential writing-made-me-discover-my-true-self thing.

[Write in scenes.] Highlight. Underline. Italicize. Bold. Put it in Helvetica and tattoo it on your forehead. Backwards, so you can read it in the mirror in the morning.

I don't know why I was such an idiot that this took me so long to figure out, but this should be the first thing new writers learn. I wasn't even a new writer; I was just incredibly slow on the uptake. I wrote in chapters. To an outsider, this may seem like a logical thing to do; after all, most books are divided into chapters. People don't just straight shoot all the way through a novel without dividers (well -- now, I write in one document without chapter dividers because I don't write in chapters anymore). I used to wonder what the word count should be for a novel. This all seems ridiculous to me now, because a) who cares, it's not like the reader is keeping a mental tally of words per chapter and b) they're all different in every book anyway. Just looking at what's on my nightstand -- Her Fearful Symmetry has super short chapters. The Subtle Knife has really long chapters comparatively.

Because it used to be extremely difficult for me to imagine writing an entire novel, each chapter was like a benchmark, and I used it to measure my progress. I also didn't read like a writer. If I had done that, I would've noticed that writers don't mark out the passage of time in explicit words. Repeat: It is unnecessary to document every single waking moment of the MC. 

If JK Rowling did that, each Harry Potter book would be unmanageable. None of us give a flying fuck about the days Harry wakes up, fails to brush his teeth, falls asleep in Potions, and then lounges around procrastinating on homework for the rest of the day. Replace Potions with Political Science, and you're basically living my life (Except, I brush my teeth, guise. I'm hygienic, I swear.) We care about the days he gets detention and has to go to the Forbidden Forest and see unicorns murdered and stuff. Other days? NOT IMPORTANT. And we're not massive dimwits. We don't need Jo writing in commentary like, "Then, two weeks and three days passed before this thing happened in Harry's life." No, we get it. This is fiction. We're not going to wonder what Harry was doing for those two weeks and three days. We're going to assume he spent it doing stupid, boring things. Even Chosen Ones have stupid, boring, bad hair days.

Not writing in scenes made me pack my novels with horrible filler. I was so afraid I wouldn't fill a scary word quota I created in my head. But you know what? Hannah Moskowitz writes first drafts that are 20,000 words. What the hell is a word quota? What gives me the idea that novels have to be exactly this--------long? And why are chapters going to get me there?

Scenes force you to be concise. You have to know why each scene is important. The scene has to have a beginning, middle, and end. It has to have a climax. It has to change something. If it doesn't do that, it has no right to exist. If you can write a great scene, consistently write great scenes, then you can write a good novel. 

It's only unfortunate that it took me over a year to learn this simple thing.


  1. It took me a long time to figure out that I conceptualize my novels in scenes. I used to get stuck on chapters and chapter division, but now I just try to make my chapters end on a tense moment to keep people reading.

    Scenes are the easy part for me, it's the transitions that are hard. Where to stop, how to flow to the next scene. I always overwrite my transitions. *sigh*

  2. I used to worry a lot about chapters and chapter division too, but I always wrote in scenes. My brain can't deal with things that extend for too long, but the problem now is transitions (just like Tere). I never know how they should connect.

  3. It took me much longer than a year to figure it out -- or, well, to perfect it -- with my own writing, so you're good, XiXi. :)

    Keep writing! Here's hoping we both find some success.

  4. Tere - I still haven't divided my manuscript into chapters yet, so that'll be another thing to tackle. For this novel, I just wrote in scenes in one long document, so the chapter thing will be interesting.

    Krispy - Bahhhh me too. Long chunks, I can't handle them. My scenes are relatively short.

    Weronika - I loved your other eleven things too and keep referring back to them! :)