It Sounds Like Your Stuff

“It sounds like your stuff.”—Garry Trudeau, Doonesbury

I was talking to my friend M. Terry Green the other day about the extraordinary number of twentysomethings online in this virtual era, and she asked me, “Weren’t you too busy to blog in your twenties?”

I said, “I was too drunk to blog in my twenties.”

This is not entirely true, but it is true when I was in my twenties we didn’t take it as a given that everyone we knew owned an expensive piece of electronic equipment on which to create a magnum opus.

I won my first computer as a Computer Science scholarship from NCR—the cash register manufacturer.

In those days, we typed our fiction. If we couldn’t afford typewriters, we wrote it by hand. If we couldn’t afford pens and paper, we went to our parents and begged them to take us back home again. All of our parents owned pens and paper.

And occasionally we got drunk and tried to write great literature, and in the morning we found notebooks full of big, loopy scrawls that looked like very bad deconstructionist art.

Which brings us to another icon of my twenties, the fabulous Doonesbury character Duke, based as everyone knows upon Hunter S. Thompson, who according to Garry Trudeau had a tendency to take lots of drugs he shouldn’t right before his deadlines.

So when he turned in articles full of, “Wwkeodo djhsaklsadju sl;skfjkdlfsjkyh!!” and shrieked upon discovery, “Someone’s tampered with my brilliant writing!” his editor said, “I don’t know, Duke. It sounds like your stuff.”

This, my friends, is the writing life.

One day we’re in the thick of it, up to our knees in glory, drunk with brilliance, writing through the glow shining from behind our eyeballs, our characters so alive and pulsing and real we can’t imagine how we’re ever going to get this all down without hurting ourselves.

Eventually we’re depleted. It’s been too much. Our fire has scorched the earth, and we have collapsed in its devastating wake. But the gift we have given the world—it is so absolutely, totally, completely worth it.

And when we wake up and haul ourselves by the elbows to our manuscript for a glimpse of the unnerving, once-in-a-generation lightning that has flashed through us. . .we find, “Wwkeodo djhsaklsadju sl;skfjkdlfsjkyh!!”

Wow, that’s a rough day.

Because when we’re writing we simply do not see what the reader sees. The extraordinary words that come tumbling as if conjured out of our creative depths are not necessarily the words that will make the reader envision what we envision. A lot of the time we don’t even know what we want the reader to envision.

And when we do figure out exactly what we want the reader to envision, we don’t always know the many wonderful and varied techniques of the written word that have been developed over hundreds of years to bridge the chasm between the inside of our head and the inside of theirs.

There are so many fabulous craft techniques. I’m telling you, it’s a cornucopia.

There’s Point-of-View (which I’m discussing in the Writer Unboxed newsletter in June—thank you, Emily, for the question!). There’s the cause-&-effect of essential, internally-conflicting character needs. There’s the condensation and contrasting of characters. There’s structure, especially designing story holographically around climactic premises. There’s a whole toolbox of techniques specifically for dialog. There’s a-whole-nother toolbox for action scenes.

There’s telling detail and juxtaposition, haiku description, adroit elimination of transition, resonance, curiosity, push/pull rhythm, rollercoaster imbalance, and of course the many variations on exposition and knowing when and when not to use them. There’s the fine artistry of creating visceral, emotional response in the reader—invisibly! as though by sheer magic—through the order of our paragraphs, our sentences, our very words.

It’s a lifetime of learning. Nobody ever learns it all.

If we want to be good at what we do, we must dedicate ourselves, in all humility and heartfelt sincerity, to that lifetime.

No one else is going to do it for us.

Have an editing or craft question for Victoria? Contact her at victoria at victoriamixon dot com and she could be answering your question in her next post.

Image from charms and chimes.

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About Victoria Mixon

Victoria Mixon has been a professional writer and editor for thirty years and now works as an independent editor through her blog, A. Victoria Mixon, Editor. She is the author of The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner's Manual, and The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner's Manual, as well as co-author of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators. She also writes the "Ask Victoria" column for the Writer Unboxed newsletter. Always on the look-out for quality editing clients, she can be found on Google+ and Twitter.

Comments

  1. says

    Victoria,

    A lifetime? Sounds like a long time. I think I’d rather throw some stuff up on the wall and spend a few years with social media tools finding someone to read it. That way, I can still be a fashion designer if I fail at marketing…er…writing.

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  2. says

    Victoria,
    Thanks for these insights. Writers must be lifelong learners. Creativity and the vaunted muse can only take a writer so far. I like to keep my craft books close at hand and keep alcohol far away when I’m writing. We live in an age of plentiful resources on the craft of writing. But the one resource we really need, as you suggest, is another set of eyes to review our work. We don’t see our work the way others do. Thanks again.
    CG Blake´s last blog post ..Book Review: “Secret Graces,” by Kathryn Magendie

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    • says

      Oh, CG, yes. A friend once said to me, “Victoria, we’re poet drunks.” I said, “Except we’re not poets.”

      It’s a strange world, isn’t it—this unbelievable surfeit of writing advice and community? So different from twenty years ago, when we were all writing mostly in utter solitude.

      I used to wear a jean jacket on which I had embroidered in Courier Renegade Fiction. One day a young woman in SF followed me off a bus to ask if I was in a writer’s group she could join.

      In those days, we really were that desperate for community.
      Victoria Mixon´s last blog post ..The 2 Ways Writing Keeps You Off the Streets & Out of the Bars

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  3. Bernadette Phipps Lincke says

    “Discipline is the refining fire by which talent becomes ability.” I have this printed on a strip of paper pinned on my bulletin board. I pulled it in a fortune cookie one day in the throes of a writer’s block. Seriously. I later found out it was a quote from Roy L. Smith.

    ::dlldksjjlkdsj:: In my ‘twenties I believed that creativity oozed like an oil spill, and I could not control it, just enhance it by drinking lots of wine. My writing was hit and miss, subject to the whims of a mythical muse in those days, and eventually I put it on the back burner. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t pull it off simmer, until I realized, that to hone creativity, it takes a lot of hard work, and a lot less wine.

    Thank you for this wonderful article that underscores the truth I pulled out of my fortune cookie. Thank you for touching on the necessary techniques that must be practiced to master the craft aspect of writing. I look forward to your next column in the WU newsletter. I am learning so much, and still have so much left to learn.

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    • says

      Wow, Bernadette, I love whoever made your fortune cookie! Mine usually say things like, “Happy life, much big prosperity.”

      Someone asked me on Twitter the other day if there’s a Myers Briggs sort of test for writing creativity. I was a little stymied. Even if there were such a thing, what writer would be silly enough to depend upon it?

      I told them the only test for creativity I know is the evidence of hard work.

      I also told them I believe in the ability of all writers, of all manuscripts, to become great.
      Victoria Mixon´s last blog post ..4 Reasons My Cat Can’t Be a Writer

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  4. says

    It’s always so overwhelming when you open up that toolbox and have so many options. I guess the key is to just pick one or two and get really good at those before trying out the rest of the oeuvre.

    Great article!

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    • says

      Start with learning really well character and plot development, Bronson. Be practicing clean, clear writing as you do. Then you can play with all the great language techniques.

      Everything in storytelling grows from the overall cosmic picture down to the granularity of the quantum mechanics.
      Victoria Mixon´s last blog post ..Body of Kindness, by Stu Wakefield

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  5. Jeffrey Russell says

    You can spend a lifetime and never learn it all, huh? So true…

    I know I’ve told this story before so forgive me, but I couldn’t resist

    Three people are sitting together in the desert one night under a clear, starry sky. The first, a young boy of ten, says “Gee Dad, the sky at night is so cool. I’m glad I know the stars are actually other suns and planets, but really far away, and not just points of light!”

    The second person is his dad of course. He’d always been enthusiastic about science, aced every class in high school, and even took a few in college. He says “You’re right, son. It is cool. But there’s a lot more to it than you think.”

    The third person is Stephen Hawking. He says to the father “There’s a lot more to it than YOU think, too.”

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    • says

      :)

      I love that Stephen Hawking just happens to be sitting there with the father and son.

      I know we’ve talked about this in our work on your novels, Jeffrey. And now I’m reading a history and analysis of the mystery genre by the great British master Julian Symons—I do know a lot about mystery, but not as much as Symons did.
      Victoria Mixon´s last blog post ..Body of Kindness, by Stu Wakefield

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  6. says

    Agreed! In fact, the subtitle for my own blog is “Notes from an Unqualified Amateur” because of this sentiment. I could be published and wildly successful tomorrow, but I won’t be done learning. I won’t ever be done learning. Heck, five minutes ago I was happy because my current WIP’s first draft is a lot better than my last one, and two minutes ago I was fretting because I know how many revisions are still going to be needed. We’re in for a lifetime education here.
    Kristin Laughtin´s last blog post ..One at a time vs. all the things, all the time

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  7. Lisa says

    I’m actually relieved that there is a lifetime of learning. If you’ve ever taken up a hobby or bought a cross stitch kit or anything basically you can learn from a craft store the minute your project is done there is that silent lull. The “okay what now?” lull. I like the idea that I’ll never stop learning and there is always something more to write about. My head is never quiet. (I’m not schizophrenic or anything) Even when I’m going to sleep I’m thinking about my characters, plot lines and different scenerios where I can deconstruct and then reconstruct my character.
    Thanks to Victoria Mixon, my editor, I have learned through her books and working with her that as writers we learn something different every time and it that essentially is what makes a good writer – when we are open enough to grow.
    Thanks VM.xoxo
    Lisa

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  8. says

    Do you ever do that thing where you wake up in the night to write something just to get it the hell out of your head and in the morning you pick it up — surprised by its very existence — and there’s two paragraphs of something that’s touching and brilliant and you’re really a bit impressed with yourself… and then the third paragraph is ‘it’s time to release the aardvark from their bondage’. And you stare at it and think, ‘you put the aardvark in the what now?’ and ‘how do those things even connect?’ and ‘WHAT WAS SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN IN THE THIRD PARAGRAPH? BECAUSE I WANTED TO KNOW THAT’.
    Kandace Mavrick´s last blog post ..Slaughtering Your Word Children

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  9. Denise Willson says

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. No, really Victoria, I couldn’t have. Well done.

    “Sure, barboy, I’ll have another.” :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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