Connecting the Dots

BY Cindy Maguire

Writing is like solving a puzzle. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy it so much. I was one of those kids who loved jumbo puzzle books; the ones that looked like colouring books but were filled with crosswords, mazes, word searches and connect the dots. I’ve always liked jigsaw puzzles too; the 1000 piece ones that take weeks to put together.

I write the same way I solve puzzles. I lay the pieces of my experience on the table, study them and move them about until I begin to see connections. A story emerges in this fitting together process. But like any puzzle, there are unexpected twists and turns and places where I get stuck. Becoming unstuck is easier with input from writing friends.

I’ve always liked solving my puzzles on my own, but I’ve learned that collaboration is helpful. It’s impossible to be wholly objective about your own work. You are too close to it. Fortunately, I recently participated in a series of intensive workshops with a small group of Sister Writers and I came away with options for getting out of the muck.

Eleven of us submitted stories to be read by the entire group. It was scary and exhilirating to have my story read closely and carefully by this many writers. The resulting feedback and discussion, opened my story up-that’s the best way I can describe it. A light was shone on the writing and the holes were exposed. There were parts of the story that needed extra pieces fitted in.

Some of the holes were a result of me rushing the writing because I was nervous about going deeper. My initial draft had tapped into powerful emotions that I wasn’t sure I wanted to explore; loneliness was one. The group feedback made me realize the depths of the main character’s loneliness. This was something I needed to dive into during the revision process.

Other characters in the story, also needed fleshing out. I knew details that could illuminate their actions. Adding some of these details could make my story stronger. In the workshop sessions we discussed other tips for strengthening our stories.

Verbs and nouns should do most of the work. Lauren Kirshner suggested not using adjectives unless they really propel the writing. For example, in my story, I described one man punching another with a “stone-hard balled fist”. The feedback was, that the action of a fist hitting flesh is impactful on its own. The words, “stone-hard balled” are unnecessary.

Natalie Goldberg, in Wild Mind, talks about concrete nouns that create pictures. Practice coming up with strong nouns that describe something in an unconventional way. Here’s how she takes the stock phrase, “ the rose smells sweet” and reworks it using the noun “liver.”

“This rose smells like liver sizzling in a frying pan. The smell shoots through my nose and breaks open my lungs like a plaster wall collapsing under a wrecking ball.”

All the images come from nouns and verbs.

Poet Hoa Nguyen, one of our guest workshop leaders, reminded us that verbs are what give sentences their “muscle.” Reworking a sentence by replacing everday verbs like- is, has, was- with a more interesting word can add zip to a paragraph.

Hoa also pointed out that a story that lacks this zip or energy, may need to be reordered:

“Don’t get wedded to the order you wrote the first time.”

Read your story from last word to first. Where is the fire? If it’s smoldering in the middle, then maybe you should be starting there. When you are writing fiction you don’t have to start at the beginning. You can jump right in, anywhere you like.

You also have permission to cut out any boring bits. If you aren’t excited about what you’ve written, no one else will be either. Sometimes a passage is boring because it is full of unnecessary details that slow things down.

On the other hand, we want to know details about character’s thoughts and emotions. We read stories to feel connected to each other; to be able to say, “I’ve felt like that.” Or to feel what it’s like to be in an unfamiliar situation.

Don’t be timid. Push past your fears and write the truth without judgment. I felt vulnerable and exposed after my story was discussed. But I also felt acknowledged as a writer. This is the gift of a writing community. We are all trying to solve our own puzzles. The only solution, as Hoa Nguyen says, is to “keep showing up and doing the work.”

Editing and revision can feel more arduous than exciting; there is not the adrenaline rush that comes with writing a first draft. But it is empowering to recognize the holes in your story and satisfying to puzzle out the solutions.

Here are some additional editing tips from Lauren:

  • Are you exaggerating or overstating your character’s emotions in order to make your story seem more dramatic? If so, consider letting the material speak for itself. Strong material, with a centrifugal force of its own, will speak for itself. Remember Tolstoy’s adage: “If you want to make the reader feel more, be colder.”
  • Are you writing in the active voice? For example: “Jill flirted with Mike” vs. “Mike was flirted with by Jill” (the passive voice). *Sometimes writers use the passive voice intentionally to show a character being acted upon. But this deliberate.
  • Watch for self-indulgence. If you are too in love with your characters or story ideas or relationships, you risk using “purple prose.” Make sure you are not getting too attached to writing that doesn’t move the story forward. Edit ruthlessly!
  • Check for clarity. Does your plot obey the logic of your story? Are the actions of the characters understandable? Are your sentences coherent?
  • Read your work out loud; this will make it easier to detect things that are not working.
  • Revise and repeat. After an initial edit, put the story aside for a few days. Come back and go through the editing process again. Take another breather, then do another edit. Repeat until you feel satisfied with the piece.

Til next time, keep writing.