Writing goal: I want the line between prose and poetry to blur while never losing sight of the story or clarity of character.
How high have you set your bar as a writer?
I want to know if my writer friends and acquaintances have specific goals for the skill level they hope to reach with their writing. Here’s how I asked it on Twitter “Writers: do you have a style or a quality of writing you’re aiming for and do you think you’ll know it when you reach it?”
Some people said that they just try to always improve their work. Some said they aim to be the most “them” they can be. Some said they weren’t sure there was such a thing as a point at which they’d feel satisfied with their skill. Some were most concerned with rhythm and voice. Others have the goal of using the least amount of words necessary to be understood.
I realized after some discussion that while I was really loving the discussion my question sparked it wasn’t quite getting at the question I really meant. My curiosity remains unsatiated and maybe it’s for the best but I’m going to elaborate here at least to explain what sparked my curiosity in the first place.
But first let me make this clear- the question isn’t “how do your goals compare to mine?”.
It’s about your personal yardstick for what you think is great writing and do you have a mark on that yardstick you’re specifically aiming for? Clearly not all writers are. This question is a lot like “Are you a plotter or a winger?”
Barbara Cartland wrote romance novels and throughout her career all her books were pretty much the same quality. I loved them when I was 12 years old for a while but her writing and story telling skills couldn’t hold a candle to those of the other authors I was reading at the time like Scott O’Dell, Margaret L’Engle, C. S. Lewis, and Frances Hodgson Burnett. She wrote bodice rippers that were extremely popular, made herself a fantastic career writing what she wrote, and maybe that’s where she set her writing bar. Maybe that was the POINT of her writing. Maybe the difference between her and the other writers is that she recognized that she could write a certain kind of book that would sell really well and make her a living without having to work as hard at it. She developed formulas for stories that she followed again and again.
But did she never long to write deeper stories? Did she never dream of writing a book that made more beautiful use of language? Did she never want to break the formula to write a story she hadn’t already told 30 times before in almost the exact same way each time?
Did she just stop trying?
Was selling books the only bar she set for herself?
Like mine, her first stories had to have been as green and rough as all first stories are. She had to develop enough skill to get to the point she settled at, but then what happened?
But to ask these questions it is necessary to acknowledge that everyone has different tastes and different ideas of what great writing is. Writing is both a skill and an art and therefore judging it is highly subjective.
Even so, none of you can tell me you don’t recognize that Barbara Cartland’s books reach a much lower bar of writing skill than Barbara Kingsolver’s books do. Even if you despised both those authors you can’t tell me it isn’t obvious that Kingsolver chooses every word carefully and takes great pains to build characters whereas Cartland pumped those romance puppies out with little regard for craft.
So there IS, in spite of the subjective nature of writing, a discernible difference in levels of quality in the published world. I wouldn’t divide quality into genres as some would because I think there are high quality writing examples in all of them, not just in “literary”.
Not everyone writes for the same reasons and it’s perfectly fine if reaching a specific bar of quality isn’t among them. There’s no such thing as an invalid or dumb writing goal. Some writers’ whole goal is to tell great stories. Which is a fantastic writing goal.
But what does that mean to them? When they say that, surely they have an idea of how much skill it will take them to write “great stories” because in their taste for reading they’ve rated some books “great” and others not as great. I won’t believe they have no examples of authors or favorite books that inspired them to write, that represent for them the level of writing they want to achieve for themselves. THAT’S the thing I wonder about.
I’m rereading the first draft of my manuscript for book two in my Cricket and Grey series and it’s disheartening as all my first drafts are. It’s a far cry from the final draft of book one. I’m proud of my first novel. I reached a new skill level in finishing that book.
But it doesn’t reach the bar I’ve set for myself. I haven’t yet become a master at my own writing style.
My writing style and my writing skill are evolving together and I get impatient. I know exactly where I want my writing to be, what I want it to be, I’ve seen glimpses of it. I’m not setting out to write at a Pulitzer quality or even a literary one necessarily, but I want to write books that are rich with the minutiae that contribute to the best and the worst moments in life. The little details that act as shorthand in our minds to the larger events. Things like the spicy clean scent of sun-hot carnations in my mother’s garden that remind me how much easier it was to be part of my family when I stood on the outside looking in. Or like how the smell of stale sex on unwashed sheets reminds me of a friend’s slow letting go of dreams. I want to write at a skill level that my stories resonate with the minutiae but are never bogged down by it. It takes a lot of skill to use language evocatively and poetically without ending up sounding like a melodramatic word whore.
People tell me not to be hard on myself or suggest I write short stories for a while until I break free of the writer’s block I’ve experienced the whole time I’ve been working on book two. Or they say I should just let go and be free with my writing. Follow my muse.
How do you know my “muse” isn’t a dream-crushing sociopath trying to burn up all my words with a blow torch? How can you be sure she’s not a serial killer with a fetish for middle aged atheists who carry walnuts around with them everywhere they go?
I know my writer friends are trying to help me shake the burden I’ve put on myself and ease the frustration I express frequently.
But I don’t want to shake the burden.
I want to build the muscle to take it on and break it the fuck open.
One thing I’m not letting myself do is edit while I re-read the first draft because it’s not complete yet. When I get to the middle of the story where the first draft ends I have got to let myself get the rest of the first draft OUT. I know that I have to build a strong scaffolding first. Sure, the walls might be paper thin for a while but you edit that out later and build rooms with beautiful thick strong walls people can have sex behind without their children ever having to hear them in the middle of the night.
I want to become a master writer.
I think I’ve only just become a journeyman writer.