Writing and Self Censorship

Adventures in novel writing.

This really applies across the entire spectrum of writing –blogging to novel writing and everything in between.

I wrote a post a few months ago called Writing Romance In the #MeToo Era. In summary, the post was about how we as writers need to be conscious of how we portray the development of a romance, not as semi-stalker behavior (guy chases girl until she finally gives in) but in a healthy way (still can be exciting). There is one thing that has been rattling around in the back of my head since I wrote that piece. An extension, if you will, of the idea that writers have responsibility to the reader. In the context of my previous post, I still believe that is true. But…

There is a difference between writing an uncomfortable theme into a story and glorifying it. I believe in making that distinction clear. Isn’t some of the most compelling fiction that which explores the most troubling aspects of human life: heartbreak, betrayal, injustice, psychosis, and even death? How much greater is the satisfaction at the end of a story when the characters successfully overcome what seem to be the most insurmountable odds? The direst of circumstances? The writer must plumb the depths to pull the hero from the mire. And the mire might be pretty revolting.

Nevertheless, in the way that writing about a serial killer doesn’t make you one, neither does writing about any other abhorrent behavior make you guilty of that particular sin. In this confusing atmosphere of political correctness, we may feel the heat of closer scrutiny. It is my personal feeling that even truly awful themes can be explored and written about with tact and style rather than shock and vulgarity. However, not every writer will have the same set of standards or comfort level. Fortunately, we each have the right to set our own. But as a reader and viewer, I always have the option to look away.

Time and Relativity

No it’s not a post on physics… But it is about relativity to the observer (either a character, or you, the reader).

Writing a story like Small Cuts, in which the tale is told from the perspectives of not one, not two but four different characters is a challenge. Not to mention that the scenes are not strictly chronological. There have been overlaps, some jumping ahead and some flashing back from the characters’ points of view. More than one of you has mentioned how difficult it must be to keep track of the details. And you would be correct!

One basic way I’ve organized the story as I write it, is to keep the sections as individual documents rather than writing one continuous manuscript. This allows me to have multiple documents open at the same time for quick reference as to what happened previously, both in the full narrative and in the individual character’s timeline.

The second tool I use is a timeline spreadsheet: a log of the major plot points and bits of dialogue that are crucial to the story. I started doing this while I wrote my first novel —a mystery with a progressive revealing of clues— and found it to be indispensable. For a shorter work like Small Cuts, which I think is going to end up as a long short story (under 30,000 words) I would usually not need one. However, the multiple points of view require a great deal of coordination so that it all melds seamlessly.

I’ll use the story to explain what I mean.

In the last section featuring James, I back up in time from what I had written for the other three characters. Oliver and Elaine have met at the Center City Hotel, Genevieve has left the house to see what Oliver is up to. James, however, is still in his driveway waiting to back out on to the street to leave for his golf outing. He sees Oliver drive past, Elaine is still upstairs in bed and Gen is at home in her fugue state. The critical issue in this section of the story —beginning when everyone gets up, to James following Oliver and Gen tracking him down, to Elaine meeting Oliver in the lobby and the emergency vehicles driving by— is making sure there is enough time for each of the characters to perform the actions they have taken in the order in which I’ve written them. Here’s a breakdown for you:

Genevieve is the first one to rise. She goes downstairs, makes coffee and then blacks out at the window while staring at the birds. She doesn’t realize Oliver has gone until she snaps out of it. We know he hasn’t been gone long because the shower is still steamy and his scent lingers. Gen takes a minute to check the news, look for Oliver using the phone app and dress and leave the house.

Oliver is up and out of the house just a little bit ahead of James at his own house. He drives past James as he is backing out of the driveway and then continues onto Center City where he parks in the hotel garage. Oliver is early for his meeting with Elaine so he goes for a walk around the park. Meanwhile, James has abandoned following Oliver and is now speeding toward his original destination: the golf course. He is delayed by getting lost and having to circle back into the city. This puts him on the same stretch of road at the same time as Genevieve.

Elaine is about half an hour behind the rest of them, having risen just after James leaves to shower and dress for her brunch date with Oliver. For reasons I have yet to explain, she has taken a different route into the city but arrives just as emergency vehicles are speeding past the hotel to an unknown crisis. (By now you all have figured it out but Ollie and Elaine are oblivious.)

I’m sure you can see what a mess this might have been if I’d neglected to include enough time for the various scenarios to play out. Ideally, this piece would be best mapped out with a chart with a line for each character as they carry out their actions. I wish I’d thought of it sooner, but this is one of the rare occasions that I am writing by the seat of my pants. *Note to self: buy huge whiteboard.* Nevertheless, I’ve made liberal use of my post-it notes for the details of my timeline. Thank goodness I buy them by the case! And at least they are moveable if I find myself with an inconsistency or a paradox of some kind.

Anyway, every writer does it just a little bit differently. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to organize your work. Unless of course, you don’t organize it at all… and run the risk of making enormous errors in the timeline!

Wishing you happy writing and productive editing!

The Way You Move…

Adventures in fiction writing.

There are many descriptors that a writer can use to convey the physical act of walking. For example:

  • Walk
  • Run
  • Pace
  • Shuffle
  • Amble
  • Trudge
  • Hurry
  • Scurry
  • Sidle
  • Tip toe
  • Stomp
  • Trot
  • Hike
  • Meander
  • Stroll

You get the idea… However, one of the mistakes I made in my early fiction pieces –fortunately one that I caught before publishing– is to over-describe a character’s movements within a scene. Let’s suppose we are writing a scene in which a couple at home is having a conversation, while cooking together in the kitchen.

Joni walked to the refrigerator and gathered all the ingredients for the salad. Then she walked to the counter and set them in front of Graham before hurrying back to the stove to stir the soup.

That’s just two sentences, but imagine that going on throughout a 300 page novel! Every time a character makes a move, the writer doesn’t need to describe it.

Joni gathered the salad ingredients from the refrigerator and set them in front of Graham, then returned to the stove to stir the soup.

The use of a variety of descriptors for movement helps us to visualize the scene. it is part of the concept of ‘show don’t tell’ in writing. Some scenes will require a lot of movement –a fight scene, or a foot chase, for example. A heated discussion might have a character agitated and pacing or wildly gesturing. In those instances, a detailed description of their moves would be appropriate. But in a routine setting like the one above, the reader doesn’t need to see every little move a character makes.

Happy writing and productive editing!

(Header image courtesy stpaul.gov Google images)