Friday, July 4, 2014

You're Doing It All Wrong

I must have looked pathetic as I cycled up that hill—pedals on my touring bike revolving so slow I was barely moving—which was the only reason that came to mind for the SUV driver to roll down his window and start a conversation.

A conversation. . . .

I'd cycled 70 miles that day, in the heat and hills, and wanted nothing more than to cycle into town, slam down a Big Mac, cycle out and find a forest to get lost in for the night. The man leaned out his window and offered up a toothier than necessary smile. He raised his hand in the manner of a crossing-guard, and I came to an obligatory stop. I smiled, least that was the goal when I parted my lips and clinched my cheek muscles. As much road grime as I had on my face, my effort more than likely resulted in a leer ghostly enough to reside in a Stephen King novel. I swiped the salt sting from my eyes.

"You've got the wrong water bottles," he said.

I looked down at my Lipton Tea bottles in disbelief. They fit my holders perfectly. The man raised his voice and his words came loud and firm.

"Those are the wrong bottles."

A shameful heat warmed the back of my neck, and my disbelief morphed into disgust. Obviously 17,000 backpacking miles and 13,000 touring miles had taught me nothing about hydration systems.

"Live and learn." The man stretched his smile even farther.

I nodded, although I was only half listening. And who could blame me? I'd just been told I had no clue how to tour on a bicycle. Sighing, I allowed the heat and exhaustion to seep through me. What if I had guzzled from the wrong bottles my entire life? Could every misstep, every goofy screw-up be blamed on the wrong bottle? Perhaps it all started with my mother choosing a generic over Gerber, force-feeding me from a vessel destined to ruin me from beginning to end. My mouth went dry.

"The 'ong otter 'ottles?" I worked saliva onto my tongue. "I've got the wrong water bottles?"

"You've got to use two hands to drink from those. This is the kind you need." The man held up a bottle and said it had a pop-up top. Told me if I had the right bottles I could drink without stopping my bike.

"But I only paid a buck each for these—"

"You're talking to someone who has been on a long tour. I cycled the TransAm a few years ago."

I blinked a couple of times, tried to hide my annoyance. First the guy assumed I was ignorant because I used something other than the standard cyclist water bottle, then he attempted to put me in my place with his assertion he'd cycled the TransAmerica Trail. No doubt that is a cool ride, but it's only 4,232 miles long and hardly enough to qualify my self-appointed seer as a cycling savant. I didn't point out that I had triple his touring experience.

"Tried pop-up bottles," I said, "but I like to stop and take a break when I hydrate. Can't see paying for something I don't need."

The SUV rolled off, and I thought that was that until the brake lights came on and the man looked out at me one more time. The smile was gone.

"You've also got the wrong shoes," he said. "You need the kind that work with clipless pedals."

I was wearing Chacos—my favorite sandals—had made a choice thousands and thousands of miles ago not to go with the clipless pedal system. Yes, I knew the system would make me a more efficient cyclist, but I also knew there was an increased risk of injury because I might not detach from the bike if I was in a wreck. Given my experience last December, when a logging truck hit me from behind, slamming me to the grass and leaving me with a hematoma the size of a grapefruit on my thigh, I remained more than happy with my decision. If I'd been using clipless pedals, I would have broken my pelvis.

The man drove off, and I cycled onward with the wrong shoes and the wrong bottles. Wound up seeing 90 miles of Appalachian hill country that day. That night, as I stretched out in my tent, my mind wandered to my experiences as a budding writer.

I'd studied all the touted "how to" books, had the rules pounded into me while workshopping stories online, even worked with a professor who taught the craft at a local college. I dreamed about show don't tell, filtering, kill your darlings, POV, tense, characterization, dialogue, significant detail, engage the senses, in medias res, excise the adverbs, avoid passive verbs, and on and on and on and on. Some nights I woke up startled, feeling as though I was buried under such an avalanche of dos and don'ts that I couldn't breathe.

Turns out neither could my stories.

If you could call them that.

Sure, they looked like stories—starting near the action, tension building to a climax, then relaxing at the end—but they had no life to them, nothing to distinguish them from every other wannabe in the writing universe. Several years I wrote this way, not understanding why I couldn't write a story that lifted off the page, all the while polishing my manuscripts until the words gleamed like sun-shot snowflakes. Desperate to improve, I read more "how to" books and became even more entrenched in the rules. Whenever another workshop member wrote a story that stepped outside what I "knew," I stuffed my critique with so many John Gardner and Janet Burroway quotes the member inevitably hung his head and accepted his cattle-prod back to the corral.

In return, I received more of the same.

I was in lock-step with like-minded writers, arm in arm, plodding toward a horizon that grew more distant each passing year. Something had to change and that something was my approach to writing. I began to experiment—filtering here, telling there, eschewing the showy verb for the mundane—and a few months later completed another story. The gist of the critiques that came my way?

(You're doing it all wrong.)

The critical salvo hit me hard, but I shook it off because I had sensed something in the work that gave me hope. The story had layers and real characters, along with a voice, all attributes missing in my previous manuscripts. That's when I realized tamping down the technical fireworks had allowed the story to grow, to blossom, to become greater than the sum of its parts. Did my work magically ascend to a publishable level after that epiphany?


But my fiction at last began to improve and that's all a writer can ask of himself.

Tips for Beginning Writers 

  • An original voice gets an acquisition editor's attention. I cannot stress this enough. You must have a unique voice for an editor to read beyond the first couple of paragraphs. Unfortunately, I can't tell you how to find this voice, other than to write hundreds of thousands of words, but I can tell you that strictly adhering to the rules can polish your voice right off the page. Would A Confederacy of Dunces have won the Pulitzer Prize without all those wonderful descriptive dialogue tags? Or how about Raymond Carver and his tendency to steer away from showy verbs? Would his stories still have that deliciously awkward voice that made him famous? What about Flannery O'Connor's occasional wordiness? (I remember editing a few of her paragraphs as a young writer, an exercise in applying the rules indiscriminately, and the voice that appeared on the page was as lifeless as an old rag.) Read these writers and others, and compare the advice you find in "how to" books to published works. Study how legends break the rules, especially to create voice, and apply some of the same techniques to your own fiction. You'll be pleased with the results.             
  • Individuals make people nervous. Remember that man I met during my bicycle tour? My screw-top bottles and my odd footwear made him so uncomfortable he felt compelled to stop in the middle of the road to offer advice, an effort to align me with what he knew. Thing is, I had reasons for my digression from the norm and I suggest you approach your writing the same way. If you break the rules, know why, but most of all stay true to your vision, even when people tell you that you're doing it all wrong.
What about you?

What are your thoughts on voice? How long did you write before a consistent voice appeared on the page?  

Photo attribution: Derek Harper 


  1. With barriers to entry having collapsed, the more folk who queue up to be writers, the more calcified will become the rules, I think. What the rules don't tell them is that voice is a thing that can't be learned but must be earned.

    1. I love that there are less barriers to publishing than in the past--might be doing some of the do-it-yourself pubbing if my agent doesn't find a home for Talk Zone--but I also wonder if the ease of entry might hinder the development of the young writer. There's something to be said for the struggle in creative endeavors. Least it improved my writing, don't know what it's done for others.

  2. Finely written, T.J. As to voice in writing, I've always found it best to play by ear rather than rules. In regard to self-publishing, I'd agree that "ease of entry might hinder the development of the young writer." Remember those poor contestants on American Idol? Those poor souls who felt they had a shot, unaware even of their own inability to sing? Dreams, we all have them. Do dreams come true? Check the percentages on American Idol where not even the winner will enjoy much more than fifteen minutes of fame. Better to work hard than to dream at all, and to love what one does. Sorry to rattle on.

    1. Thanks for the post, Fredric. I've often thought about the parallels between young writers and the singers on Idol.


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