Thursday, August 12, 2010

Missing the story for the words.

Missing the story for the words.

Today I’m babbling –e r blogging – about something that has hit me many times while stuck in traffic going through LA (no offence you LA folks- but I usually go through LA, not TO it ;)).

There are a lot of things on the freeways we normally never see. You see them in LA because of the handy dandy "you ain’t going nowhere fast" reality there. You see the art work, planned and spontaneous. You see plants fighting through the concrete to live. We’ll ignore the trash you also get to see.

My point is that when the freeway is working as intended- we don’t notice this stuff. If you’re wiping by at 70 MPH you aren’t going to see the tiny weed blooming a flower. It’s only when the freeway isn’t working right, when it is being held to in-depth inspection, that the details are clear.

I know, I know what has this to do with writing?

Are we as writers doing something similar with our hyper-vigilance on the tiny details? When we edit our work, or edit someone else’s, we are looking at it in what could be construed as an “unnatural” manner.

We aren’t reading it as intended. We read like writers not readers. We focus on “show don’t tell”, “watch those commas”, “don’t start with the word “as”, “don’t for the love of god, use semi-colons!”.

Those aren’t things a reader would see. Those are the little bits of detail that are part of making the book (or freeway) work, but a reader isn’t going to be asking themselves why you have used the word “as” when EVERYONE knows it should never be used. A reader is there for the ride. They want the story. Now obviously if the details (aka bad craft) are so glaring that they interfere with the story, and pull that reader into an unintended off ramp or freeway (yes, I’m talking about LA again ;)) then there’s a problem.

But many times those details, the ones we as writers fret over, crit each other to death over….aren’t critical. I just finished reading a very fun book. The author had serious comma issues (and as a comma whore myself I know of what I speak :)). It bugged me for about a page. Then I was sucked into the story (the freeway started moving ;)) and I didn’t notice.
I think as writers we need to ask ourselves, are we obsessing over the wrong thing? Agents and editors all over agree on one thing- they want a great story. Are we thinking about the big picture when we read?

Now that doesn’t mean that we can forgo things like grammar, punctuation, strong word usage, however we can’t obsesses over those details at the expense of the BIG detail- the story.

Lets not miss the story for the words ;).


  1. Okay now I'm over wondering if my crit was hypercritical!!! LOL

    I think because we want to be published we have to worry about details especially at the beginning of the book because we're trying to find a publisher to "buy" the book.

    You get a limited time to get them involved in your book, or they'll never read the "story". Details are probably a little less important later on because if they're invested in the story, they'll proably keep reading in spite of commas... :)

    Great blog Marie!

    Lisa :)

  2. Lisa- oh no!

    LOL!!!! Not at all- it was just fine. This was just something that had struck me a while ago, then was reinforced when I thoroughly enjoyed a book that I probably would have said needed a fair amount of work had it come through for me to crit ;). Made me start thinking about the way we do things.

    I agree the beginning has to be tight- BUT the story has to be there. What I'm concerned about are writers who spend so much time obsessing over tiny details that they forget the story. Even a perfectly punctuated beginning won't grab an agent if the story doesn't.

  3. You are soooo right! After years and years of going to workshops and classes and conferences, I finally distilled this piece of advice:

    It doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to be compelling.

    Just! See how easy it is? :) I have to sweat the small stuff (because, despite my hard-won wisdom, I am still a hopeless perfectionist) but only after the big stuff.

    Great post, Marie.