September 11, 2012

Growing Art

We all want to improve.  

I make that a blanket statement, because while there are those writers who already think their writing is as good as it gets, us saner folk still have days when we look at our work and think, "Oh goodness.  I really, really stink at this.  Did I write that?  That is so stupid.  Backspacebackspacebackspace...!" and daydream of a time when our writing is polished to perfection.  (At least, I do.  On rare and not terribly lucid occasions.)

Our desire to improve in the craft of writing is what drives us to read the self-help books and writing blogs dedicated to the subject.  We dig through all the posts on fight scenes or dialogue, hoping to glean something that will make our writing in those areas shine and stand out from the crowd.  We fret and sigh over cliches like "black as pitch" and practically rip our hair out over stray adverbs.  We chew our nails as we wonder if maybe our fantasy world isn't as original, after all, as Patricia McKillip's.  And on top of all that, as Christians we often stretch our brains to amazing lengths to find out how we can fit the Gospel or maybe just a prayer into the plot - because that's what we're supposed to do, right?

Now, some of you know already that I'm not a huge fan of self-help books.  I'm not going to denigrate them, though, because I know that they can hold very useful information and have helped numerous writers work out difficult parts of the writing process; I know that for myself, I frequently store away the tips on such blogs as Go Teen Writers, to be implemented at some later date.  Nothing beats an extensive library and broad tastes, but it is nonetheless helpful for us to see things broken down, the parts examined in detail and then put back together again. 

All things in moderation, however, for this approach can be overdone, and then nothing so thoroughly robs a story of its life.  This self-help business often - necessarily, even - looks at writing in a mechanistic fashion: take it apart, look at the cogs and gears and gerbils, then assemble it and voila! a story!  It can fail to recognize that a story is much less a machine than it is a living organism, needing to be nurtured, not to have its leaves and roots pulled out and inspected.  We simply end up trying too hard.

That is a difficult thing to say without sounding as though I'm implying that writing is an easy flow of words onto paper every single day with no agonies whatsoever.  But of course that is nothing more than a fantasy, and not even a pleasant one when you start to think carefully: what, after all, is writing without any work?  We do have to labor over our stories.  We do have to make the plant grow, and we do have to get rid of all the bugs and the fungus and the what-have-you that distort it.  The point is not to sit back and clear your mind of all the wisdom of other authors and readers. 

The point is to have the right mindset.

Writing is an art.  It isn't the same as putting together the parts of car until when you turn the key in the ignition, the engine comes to life.  It's an art, a work of creation, a tying together of a multitude of thought-threads into a story that feels - and in some ways is - alive.  That is not something that can be taught.  And because of this, we cannot go into self-help books and the like expecting to be shown how to write.  We can be shown how to polish our words.  We can be shown how to spruce up dialogue.  We can be shown when to leave a cliche and when to reinvent one.  But in all that, we cannot be shown how to write.

We can't be taught this, and yet I do believe we can learn it.  We learn it individually in the process of our writing, and also in the process of our living.  Because being a writer is not just an expression of what we do, but of something we are.  I don't know that it is essential and I won't run off on a philosophical rabbit trail; it is enough to realize that writing is a necessary part of who we are.  And I think that perhaps the process of improving our writing is not, after all, so much the process of polishing grammar and the like (however important that is).  It's a process of growing.


  1. *claps* BRAVO, ABIGAIL! BRAVO!!!

  2. Yes. I'm one of those try too hard-ers. I need to remember this, the process of growing.

    Thank you, Abigail. You are amazingness personified with more than a few dashes of wisdom on the side.

  3. Mirriam - Well, I'm glad you think so!

    Katie - Oh, dear, I'm a terrible try-too-hard-er. I really am. I agonize over just about every aspect of writing, and though I know it doesn't help, I still do it on a regular basis. I've been doing it these past few weeks. Isn't that typical? I wrote this quite as much for myself as for anyone else, really. We're all in the same leaky tub.

  4. Very good insights. Things we overachievers always need to keep in mind.

  5. Abigail,
    I adore this. I'm sure you here this all of the time but, you are such a great writer.
    I started to get serious about writing when I was 14, and I've left so many stories and novels unfinished. Now I'm 18, and I haven't gone back to my writing in awhile. I don't know what it is. I feel like that as the time goes on, my ideas just aren't good anymore. And then I give up.
    Do you have any more writing techniques or tips? I'd love to hear them!

    ~Kate @ in pursuit

  6. I needed this so much! I was just close to tears over my defects in writing not five minutes ago! Thanks Abigail!

  7. Great Scot, luv. This was something I needed to hear, after hashing down a real plot for Fly Away Home and agonizing over the LOCK format and convincing myself words were rubbish and I need to take a vow of silence and not even think for eight hours at least. Wonderful stuff. I think I will love this post forever.

  8. I seriously read through that first paragraph thinking, "she's!" Ack, I really really loved this post. And I am now rather inspired to write. :)

    Merci beaucoup!

  9. Wonderful. I must say, knowing that someone who can write a wonderful post like this still agonizes over her own writing is certainly comforting! :) I feel that my biggest struggle lately has been putting too much pressure on myself, and then feeling terribly guilty when I don't meet my own expectations.

    When it comes to self-help and how-to, I think I would drive myself crazy if I continued to read books on writing all the time. I read several good books and a lot of good blogs when I first got serious about writing, but I've scaled back on that now, except when I need help with something specific. I think you're right; one can definitely overdo it there. Just now, an inspirational post like this is worth much more to me than another reminder that I use too many adverbs.

  10. Bravo! I'm afraid I cringe a lot over my writing, and end up trying to get too technical in my revisions. Yet, my mind will tell me at the same time that, if I do that, my story won't be right.
    This is a good reminder to just let things grow. Thank you.

  11. This post was such an encouragement to me. Writing has been a struggle lately, and when I'm having a hard time hammering out my daily word count goal, I find myself turning to inspiring articles, how-to's, and even my favorite books for inspiration. But in the end, all I can really do is write. My style doesn't develop through a point-by-point outline; it is born and nurtured, and must be watered if it's ever to grow. I think that's what irritates me the most about formal literature and writing classes: they're all about the mechanics of books, as if you could follow a sterile format and automatically write a book to rival The Scarlet Pimpernel. When teachers pull literature into pieces like that, it loses a great deal of its charm and becomes almost . . . ordinary.

    Thank you for writing this post, Abigail! You summed up my emotions perfectly. I'm going to bookmark this page for future reference.

  12. I really needed this, Abigail. Seriously. Thank you so much! I've been struggling with my writing lately - just having a hard time getting the words onto the document, and being too critical with the stuff that's already been written.

    Thank you again, Abigail! You and your blog have been a source of encouragement to me. :-)

    A fellow writer,


  13. AMAZING post! This was definitely what I needed today. Thank you so much, Abigail! "We can't be taught this, yet I do believe we can learn it." I think I'm adding that one to my list of inspirational writing quotes. Bravissima!

  14. A lovely post, Abigail; I just agree with everybody... this post was so helpful and inspirational. Thank you for it!

  15. Goodness, I wasn't expecting such a response! But I'm glad all of you found this post encouraging. I much prefer hearing that I've encouraged someone to hearing that a post I wrote on characters or dialogue was helpful. And I don't know about you, but for me just getting all your comments was a bright spot in my day!

    Kate - That's a hard one. I know that when I was first starting out, I couldn't do more than dabble in (idiotic) stories here and there; sticking with anything was impossible. Although I expect I would have moved on eventually, I think I'd have to say that the most helpful thing for me was to have something like National Novel Writing Month to kickstart my story and get me past the horrible feelings of plotlessness or stupidity. (In case you haven't heard of it before, NaNo is a challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November.) I needed something that encouraged me to put aside my feelings about the story and just write, whether I wanted to or not. Of course I don't know if this would be helpful for you, but you might look into it.

    Beyond that, I truly believe that the most important trait a writer - or anyone, really - can possess is perseverance. Talent isn't what matters; practice and patience are what make us into better writers. That sometimes means ignoring the feeling that our ideas don't seem brilliant, or our characters are flat, or whatever the problem is. It's hard, and often discouraging. But if this is something we really want to do and to be, we have to push through all of that.

    For just plain practical advice, I would suggest trying short stories, if you haven't already. It might help you to work from a few ideas at a time, rather than trying all at once to bring a full novel together. This is not something I've tried myself, but it might help.

    Elisabeth Grace - Your comment perfectly summarizes why I don't like to read many how-to's of any sort. Thank you for putting it into better words than I could formulate on the topic!

    Elizabeth Rose - I've never enjoyed Literature classes for that very reason: they pick apart a brilliant novel as though it were a dead chicken, and then assume that if you stick all the feathers back together you'll have a live bird. What do they teach children at these schools?

  16. What a great post. I have seen my writing grow a lot over the years, and from novel to novel. It's a wonderful process to behold. I will admit to a love of writing craft books - they have taught me the basics and helped me improve on certain areas. But you're absolutely right - writing is an art, and that cannot be taught.


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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