Challenged to Write Better

I’d like to do a weekly write-up of writing techniques and tips learned from each “Liberty Hall”:http://www.libertyhallwriters.org challenge I take part in. That means I’m now two weeks behind, since I had intended to do a write-up for last week’s challenge and never got around to it. I touched briefly on some aspects of the creative writing process in my “goals”:http://open-dialogue.com/blog/2006/08/08/goals/ entry and in my “interview”:http://floodflashes.blogspot.com/2006/08/jim-stitzel-interview.html for “Flood”:http://floodflashes.blogspot.com. What I’d like to do now is be a bit more specific.

Flash Challenge #1 – Fervor (904 words)

Somehow, the trigger for my first challenge inspired visions of a cathedral and a bloodbath. Horror of the guts and gore variety is not generally my cup of tea; I usually tend toward a much more psychological brand of horror. But with only 90 minutes to write something, you don’t generally have the luxury to ruminate for long. So I went with it and did the best I could.

Probably the first thing I was reminded of in this challenge is the importance of having a specific viewpoint character. As it turns out I somehow missed this ‘little’ aspect of my story, and it suffered as a result. The perspective in the story was a very far removed third person. It was like looking down on the scene from somewhere far above through the eye of an impersonal camera. There was no connection with any of the characters, nothing at all to make the reader care what happened. The events might have been interesting to an extent, but if there is nothing to draw the reader in, then the outcome of the events is rendered meaningless. The reader can simply shrug when it’s all over, walk away, and promptly forget about what happened. The rewrite on this story will involve putting the perspective with one of the characters rather than the distant viewpoint I originally gave it.

It’s also very difficult to introduce story elements in the 90-minute time frame and give them proper explanation. I’ve discovered that most readers don’t really like having to fill in the gaps with their imaginations. Questions get raised, and they want answers before the story concludes. And in this challenge I raised far too many questions and provided far too few answers. So, something I want to focus on in future challenges is purposeful writing – if I introduce an element, I want to provide enough information that the reader will have his answers and understand better what is happening and why.

Over-description is also a weakness in my writing. The narrative part of story-telling has always been my strongest point, so much so that I use it much too heavily in my writing. Too many adjectives equals language that is too flowery and cumbersome to read. One thing I’ve always enjoyed about “Jason Evans'”:http://clarityofnight.blogspot.com writing contests is that the 250-word limit forces you to cut the unnecessary, to work on really polishing the content and maximizing the punch of the story in as few words as possible. It’s a technique that I think would also prove invaluable in writing longer stories. The problem for me is that when I have no set word limit, I get sloppy and let myself fall into a habit of just flinging words about willy-nilly. Heavy narrative means sloppy writing.

Flash Challenge #2 – These Dreams Shall Take You (1240 words)

This challenge was a dramatic improvement over the first, and I knew almost as soon as I submitted it. I actually felt good about the way it turned out, and I had ideas for expanding it into a longer story. The feedback received validated that.

The biggest goof I made in this story was trying to add a little character to my villian’s speech patterns – I overdid it. Suggestions included scaling the odd patterns back by at least half to make it easier to read her dialogue or eliminating them altogether. I’m probably going to go with scaling them back since most seemed to like the idea, just not the execution.

Once again, my over-descriptive narrative style found me, though it was much improved to the first challenge. Sometimes, simple words and light descriptions really are the best way to go.

Naturally, there were some unanswered questions and a couple of unclear plot points. Those will also get tidied up in the rewrite.

What may have been the most valuable bit of feedback I received was the suggestion, much like in challenge one, to make the narrative more personal. Again, I need to work on doing more showing, rather than telling, in my writing. This is something I have a very difficult time doing, in large part because a lot of my telling feels like showing to me. I’m not sure if the distinction between the two is really that difficult to see or if I’m still just that inexperienced in my writing to be able to consistently tell the difference. Hopefully, the more I write the more I’ll be able to see this naturally and easily and correct for this tendency.

On the upside, this writing challenge netted me three awards in my group – one for Best Setting Development, one for Best Story Arc, and a tie for Best Characterization. I missed by one vote the nomination for the Best of the Best vote. Improvement has been made, and I believe I also have the story for my August submission goal. A little polish here, a little expansion there, and then I will look for home for These Dreams.

We’ll see how that goes…

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