No lack of writing talent, but . . .

Fellow author Crow Johnson Evans and I met with a writers’ group in Bella Vista, Arkansas yesterday, speaking to them about how we established our writing careers, and answering questions.  Following this we had the great opportunity to hear each member of the group read examples of their own writing.

WOW, we heard some wonderful things. Most striking, I thought, was a lively article about wedding practices in Syria–the author had lived in Damascus for twenty years. This was certainly a timely topic. Other pieces (mostly non-fiction, spiced by one romance author’s chapter) were also very good.

But there was a big, publication-stopping problem, or rather, several problems.  Too many words, for the main one, sentences too long, spiced with adjectives and adverbs. Telling more than was needed to make the article or story sing.  There were other problems no editor would tolerate–improper formatting, bad punctuation, and more.  I don’t know how long each of the members has been writing, but huge talent was obvious. It was, therefore, heart breaking to see most of it buried in wordiness and writing mistakes. I wondered how each author had arrived at this point without actual knowledge of the business of writing.

What to do? I wrote to the group’s organizer/director today, and sent along a list of general interest writers’ conferences in this area, some of them free. At the meeting, Crow had already suggested various classes on line. Writing like we heard yesterday is too terrific to be hidden under problems that would deny it publication, but no one in the group commented about the problems I mention, and, as guests, Crow and I were reluctant to say much.

Sad fact–I have run into terrific talent before, but too often the writer(s) lacked the ooomph to do work needed to make it ready to submit to an agent, magazine or book editor. I have worked with (for example) a very good author who rarely read publisher’s guidelines before he submitted. In one instance he sent a (very good) story manuscript that was almost double the word count the publisher’s guidelines asked for, thinking, I suspect, his work was good enough to overcome that little problem, if he even had read the guidelines. After only a few rejections, this author gave up, stopped submitting, dropped out of our critique group, and may have stopped writing completely.

Too bad. It takes more than talent. May I suggest ooomph–or maybe “fire in the belly”, and a willingness to do the down and dirty detail work?  I guess I have this. At times I feel wildly frustrated and wish I could just WRITE.  But I sit in my desk chair and turn on the computer, not to write, but to do research and so much more.

Tell me–is my frustration noted here unrealistic? How do you feel?







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13 Responses to “No lack of writing talent, but . . .”

  1. Crow Says:

    Well said, Radine. It was an inspiring afternoon filled with fascinating people. With eight books, Radine, you understand self discipline without labeling correctable aspects of your writing as personal flaws. Not everyone has that perspective.

    I’m guilty of wanting to just write, feel-the-wind-under-my-wings, and dream–but I do get jolted back to the other side of my brain. This morning I spent hours “tweaking” (as in completely rewriting) a very short essay that I thought I’d finished a year ago. And what’s worse, I was “way proud” of it until I took a closer look today.

    There will be times for all of us who write when our talents seem unlimited and our ability to execute a simple paragraph disappears. And vice versa. I’m healthiest when embracing both the dreamer and the puzzle solver.

    Being part of a writers’ critique group (for me) is enormous. We like and respect each other, however, that has nothing to do with the work. It isn’t a social event. We keep it formal and get after the task with compassion and raw honesty. When no one person is declared the “teacher” we each dig deep to offer alternative ideas for the bits that are not quite working.

    Let’s face it. Getting better at something we enjoy doing is rewarding.
    The hard questions: Why do you feel compelled to write? What do you expect to happen as a result of your writing? What are your best case and worst case scenarios? Having answered these honestly, the only challenge is to get to work.

    Crow Johnson Evans

    • radine Says:

      It’s well said that we all must march to our own drummer. But, as cooking is an art that demands proper ingredients–even if some are startling until we taste the results, so is writing an art where the proof of value is in the result–the reading.

  2. shalanna Says:

    I agree that writers should follow guidelines and should definitely know their tools, which include punctuation and the rules of English grammar. However, I am disturbed that writers should have to dumb down their work by having (as it appears you’re saying) no long sentences, easier words, and so forth. Writers should tighten their work, but I also like to hear the individual voice in the piece, so I’m not one of the advocates of cutting everything out that might lend color. I also don’t object to adjectives and adverbs; your blog post might even contain a few of them, in fact. So perhaps the difficulty here is simply that these writers need to examine their intended audiences and determine whether they’re writing at too high a grade level to please that audience. An article intended for The Atlantic Monthly can be higher-level than one intended for Woman’s World. I should imagine a story about wedding practices in Syria would go over well with a more intellectual magazine or the Huffington Post, so maybe it is acceptable to have longer and even subordinated sentence structure. For popular fiction, the audience is different nowadays. An Updike or Cheever would never get started today, alas. It’s a matter of considering your audience and determining what you write best.

    • radine Says:

      Shalanna, I agree with what you said, and thanks for adding insight and thoughts to what I began. (Unfortunately, I am one of the wordy ones and need to be careful about writing blogs that are t o o o o long.)

      “Dumb down” your writing to appease some god of literature? Never.

      However, as you point out, writers often have to be conscious of the interests, abilities and needs of varying audiences. There can be surprises there. I have recently learned that my first published book, the non-fiction “DEAR EARTH: A Love Letter from Spring Hollow,” intended for adult readers, is appealing to literate children from age seven up. A happy surprise for me.

      • shalanna Says:

        DEAR EARTH sounds right up the alley of most school-aged children! I’ll have to go peek at it myself!

        I realize that just about anything can be tightened, but there’s such an emphasis on soundbites and flash fiction now that I think something is being lost. There is a place for more complex thought that requires complex writing. (Some would say “there is” must be banished, but it’s idiomatic in English and to eliminate it from the sentence will make the sentence weird . . . because I’m not simply saying that more complex thoughts require more complex writing, but that it has a place in the oeuvre.)

        What bugs me the most is an indie/self-published series or two that is completely unedited. The books read like first drafts. No one has told the writer, it seems. And readers are flocking to the work. How much better the work would be if someone would only run it through the critique filter! (LOL) A good beta reader or critique partner is invaluable.

        Cadenced prose and eloquence will never go out of style!

  3. Holli Castillo Says:

    Good post. I think too many writers are unwilling to take criticism and use it to their advantage. Maybe by the nature of the beast writers are just more sensitive than non-writers. It’s also a trick bag, because not all advice or criticism is good. It’s a matter of the writer culling the things he or she can use to improve the work, and being able to tell the difference between those things and the things that aren’t relevant or just not good advice. I think it’s important for writers to educate themselves, whether through books on the industry, online courses, articles, etc. If a writer breaks the rules, it should be intentional, not because he or she didn’t know them in the first place.

    • radine Says:

      Holli, YES, and I love especially your last sentence. I have broken rules, and even been told “No, you can’t do that–not by any book editor, however–and then the rule(s)I broke turned out to be so right in my context.

  4. sharonervin Says:

    I believe it’s called potential, those gifts you see in the wanna-be writers. The frustration comes in not being able to push them to exercise that talent. You remember that from parenting, right?

  5. radine Says:

    Shalanna, Thank you once more. Well said. And your comment about cadenced prose and eloquence is one reason I have loved writing essays and even sold poetry. In fact, I often say in writers’ groups that writing poetry is a wonderful introduction to other writing. It demands exactly what you say will never go out of style–and thank goodness for that.

  6. Marolyn Caldwell Says:

    My moment of truth came when I sent a second MS to the editor who had bought my first. It clocked in at around 100,000 words. “I’ll take it,” she said, “if you cut it to 80,000 words.” How do you eliminate 20,000 precious words and still have the story you want to tell? I did it. She bought it. Hardest thing I ever did–and the most valuable. It’s amazing how much editing can be done without changing the essence of the story.

    • radine Says:

      Oh yes, Marolyn. Many writers have learned this the hard way. Very educational, right?! By the way, look for an article about “Drawing the line–how real can fiction be” in an upcoming issue of CRIMESPREE magazine. Then let me know if it surprises you. I doubt that it will!

      Oh, how I miss “The Great Manhattan Mystery Conclave,” and you …. Radine

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