The other day I desperately wanted to write a facebook post. Plenty of stuff in the news lately to go on a rant about, and I formulated a response that would have been pointed, snarky, insightful (if I do say so myself), and oh, so clever. Then I stopped. I did not make the post.
There’s a lesson to be learned here that can be applied not just to social media (and how I wish people on social media would show a little restraint) but to writing as well. I’ve been struggling for the past couple of weeks to write a short story, and having trouble pinpointing what’s going wrong. But I think it has to do with a similar desire to be clever.
Here’s what stopped me from posting that snark on the Book of Face: I had to think about what the point of it would be. Was I looking for agreement? I’m already confident in my beliefs – or at least I should be – so why do I need reassurance from others that I’m believing the right thing? Was I trying to start arguments? I certainly don’t need that, but arguments are probably what I’d start among certain friends and family. Was I simply looking for a stage on which I could demonstrate how clever I was? That’s really what it came down to, when I admitted it. I decided it really wasn’t worth the potential arguments, and it wasn’t worth contributing to the endless feedback loop that social media discussion so often becomes, just to show off how clever I was. Showing off is never attractive, anyway.
Once I realized this, I also had to realize that’s what was happening in this short story. I’m trying to revise a story I wrote a couple of years ago as a tie-in to my Gbahn and Archipelago books. (Okay, so linking to my books there is kind of showing off. But let’s call it “a promotional opportunity.”) I did a lot of research into ships and naval history to write these books, and I wanted to make as much use of that research as possible. So I stuffed a ton of ship trivia into the first draft of this story, far more than really fit in 8000 words.
I knew this was a problem when I sat down to revise the story. I knew I needed to take out the trivia and focus on the characters and the plot, only bringing in the ship stuff when it was appropriate, rather than focusing on it as worldbuilding. Short stories don’t have a lot of space for worldbuilding; that’s what novels are for. And yet I started the story in the exact same place as I had in the first draft – the narrator boarding a ship and talking about the experience of doing so. Wrong focus, wrong part of the story. The first paragraph of a short story needs to set up the plot and point toward where we’re going, straight away. You don’t have the space to shuffle around the scenery. Why was I doing it anyway? Because I was still clinging to the cleverness of it, still saying, “Look at me! Look at all this stuff I know!”
I’ve written before about the “rules of writing” and how I don’t generally believe in them. Writing should be about one thing first and foremost: the story. If your prologue or your adverbs or your said bookisms or whatever help your story, leave them in. If they get in the way of your story, take them out. That’s it. You can follow all the rules and write a crappy story. You can break all the rules and write a great story. Focus on the story and don’t get in its way. By focusing on being clever, I’m getting in my story’s way.
How I fix that is another question. I just hope I haven’t annoyed my characters enough that they’re not speaking to me now, and won’t tell me why they’re in this story and where they’re going. It’s almost as bad as if I’d made them unfriend me by posting something snarky for the sake of being clever.