Thursday, December 9, 2010

Overthinking It

Yesterday I was reading a book, and I had a small epiphany. It amused me, and I thought I'd share.

I've been overthinking this writing thing in some ways.

See, I want my books to be WOW and DIFFERENT and SPARKLES OF GENIUS. I want people to read them and be blown away by their insight and depth. I want critics to weep at the beauty of my prose. Weep, I tell you.

So I sit down to write, and I have all those thoughts and hopes and aspirations piled in the back of my mind like a mountain of bricks. And I type, "The man entered the room and saw the bird."

I stop and examine this sentence. Will it make my readers WEEP WITH THE JOY OF ITS LYRICAL BEAUTY? Hmmm. Unlikely. Perhaps I should reword it. It's too plain, too frank, too straightforward, too boring. Readers don't want entered and birds! Too simple! Not enough descriptors!

Back to square one. The new sentence reads: "The young man stepped nervously into the blank-walled space and gazed at the canary." I stop again and read. Ack, I've used adverbs, adjectives! Is it purple prose? It looks pretty purple to me. Granted, it is more ... complicated. Will complicated make readers weep? (Maybe, but for all the wrong reasons?) The voice is weird. It sounds old. Is that how my writing voice sounds? Do I even know what my writing voice is? This one feels pretentious.

I consider the sentence. I have read that using one word instead of two strengthens the writing. I rewrite the sentence again. "The man tiptoed into the room and stared at the canary." Is this good enough?

It needs more. That is spare and brisk and good enough, but will. it. make. them. weep? I gnaw at my nails. I stare at the screen. I try again.

"The man ran into the room, gasping for breath. He scanned the room for the canary, freezing when he saw it."

"The man scrambled for the door, his gaze sweeping the room for the bird."

And really, this could go on and on, couldn't it? I could write this sentence a million different ways, with a million different shades of emotion and implication. I can become creatively paralyzed by it.

Imagine I spend thirty minutes on this sentence. Giving up in exhaustion, I put down my laptop and pick up a literary masterpiece that has awards plastered all over the cover. My eye falls on this sentence:

"The man entered the room and saw the bird."

* dies *

No, but really. I had a moment like that, and it occurred to me that I somehow, unconsciously, feel that I need to reach this unobtainable standard. I feel like every word has to SPARKLE and MAGIC and DAZZLE in some mystical way, like ordinary words just aren't good enough or something. I don't really know what I'm reaching for, but it isn't there. As I told my husband yesterday, in desperation, yelling loudly:

"All I have to tell this story with are WORDS! WORDS THAT TALK ABOUT THINGS! I need more than that!"

He had a good laugh.

Now, don't misunderstand me. I'm not trying to bash wordsmithing. I think there are better, clearer, stronger ways to word things. I think some words are a stronger choice than others. I think prose can be sloppy, or purple, or weak, or lazy. I think all telling and no showing is generally a mistake.

But at the same time, I'm trying to keep myself from becoming paralyzed when I write. I'm telling myself that I don't have to make every sentence a tiny kingdom of philosophical musings. It's okay to say things simply sometimes, because complexity in a story is not due merely to the structure of my sentences or the level of my vocabulary.

Just something I'm pondering.


  1. excellent, excellent post!
    one i really need to take to heart!
    they're just words.
    *deep breath*

  2. Very nice! I followed you from a link on TK Richardson's My Writing Masquerade blog, and I'm glad I did. Great post, and lovely header and background here.

    Yep, you have to ignore the potentially suckiness of your first words. Words are flexible! You can always add to them--or in my case, subtract a bunch of adjectives. LOL

  3. @aspiring_x Glad it helped! I was really laughing at myself when I came to this realization because it's so basic and yet I think newbie writers forget it all the time.

  4. @ Carol Glad to have you! Thanks for the kind words :-D

  5. Amen to that!!! I overthink all the time, sometimes simplicity is best for the story. And even a few gems make something sparkle.


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