Jennifer's Journal


Sunday, April 30, 2006

Practice Makes Perfect

The average person seems to think the first piece of work produced by a writer should be a fully-formed example of their talent.  It must, so they think, be of such recognizable quality that it will instantly find acceptance in the marketplace.  By contrast, no one expects someone with musical talent to sit down at the piano and immediately create a symphony, nor are they critical of the first daubs of budding artists or less than perfect stitches from a person taking up needlework.  Strange, isn't it?
The fact is, any creative endeavor requires a learning stage.  Musicians practice constantly, singers do voice exercises every day of their lives.  People learning to knit, crochet or do needlepoint start out on small projects to develop their skills.  Painters take classes, copy the work of the masters, or paint in series to learn techniques and train their themselves to see differences in light, shadow and mood.  So it is with writers.
We must be allowed to study, to write gibberish, to learn by trial and error the art of capturing characters, settings, emotions and plots in words.  Writers should be allowed to write "starter" pieces, to begin stories and abandon them or toss pages of manuscript if they don't work. The people around us, and even we ourselves, need to accept that failing to place a manuscript with a publisher the first time out of the box doesn't mean we're no-talent failures.  It means we tried something that didn't work--and need to try something else that will.  It means we need to study books on writing, take workshops and, above all, to write something everyday.  It means we need to polish our writing skills with practice until they become of salable quality.


Blogger Jennifer Blake said...

Pity the poor adverb; it seems nobody loves him. I recently heard an authority on writing say they should never be used. Or at most, he said, quoting some well-known book on writing, they should be limited to one per book. Excuse me?

This is one of those rules that come from the Hemingway school of thought, I think. Brevity, the utmost in minimalist word usage, is its hallmark. It seems to go with the modernist 1920s, 30s and 40s preference for streamlined architecture and bare walls, a reaction against the fulsome language and cluttered exteriors and inner spaces of the previous age. It is, in essence, a peculiarly masculine idea, one aimed at being and doing instead of thinking and feeling. In the way of such things, it’s become old-fashioned, and yet its central idea, the abandonment of adverbs and adjectives in favor of active verbs and simple nouns, lingers on in the how-to literature on writing.

Okay, it’s entirely possible to overuse adverbs. Many adverbs do in fact weaken the verbs they are supposed to enhance. They should be used sparingly and with a definite effect in mind. And yet they have purpose. For example, take “softly”. Some declare that a phrase such as ‘Yes,” he said softly.’ can be always be changed for the better to ‘Yes,” he whispered.’ I don’t think so. “Softly,” in this case, can indicate controlled anger, resignation, acceptance, disbelief, doubt, fear, reverence, passion and a thousand other things depending on the mood of the scene. “Whispered,” on the other hand, is more limited. It requires much closer distance between characters in order to be heard. Heroic characters seldom whisper except in passion or extreme reverence; it takes a weaker character to whisper in fear, doubt, resignation or disbelief. In addition, the convolutions writers go to in order to avoid using an adverb (“Yes,” he said, his voice a mere husk of sound.” ) are often more distracting, and worse writing, than just typing one and getting on with the story.

Hard and fast rules about writing serve little purpose. Language is a fluid medium; its uses are infinite. What we need to do as writers is select words that say exactly what we mean to convey, describe exactly the scene we see in our minds, the conversations going on in our heads. Le mot juste, as the French say. That’s all that matters.

9:45 AM  
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11:36 PM  
Blogger Jennifer Blake said...

I’ve been reading books by a newly discovered author. She’s good—she has to be for me to read four or five of her stories in a row. To say her books are different from mine, however, would be an vast understatement. Her characters yell and scream, grunt and groan and curse, throw things and go from rage to passion in seconds. They say things without thinking, things that cause terrible pain for others and for which they are forced to apologize. They fly to pieces under stress, sobbing and screaming and making trouble for everyone in sight; they faint, fall down and up-chuck under its effects. Their language is graphic, as are the descriptions of sex, and a lot of wall-banging goes on in their love-making. It’s all high drama, high emotion.

By contrast, I’ve always felt, fictionally speaking, that controlled emotion is much more effective than letting it all hang out and suppressed emotion most effective of all. The things people don’t say can be more telling than those shouted to the world. What people do or say in order to avoid hurting others can sometimes be more devastating than an act or blurted truth with predictable and guilt-making consequences. The attempts shown to deal with stress, and the physical effects of that effort are usually more affecting than falling apart. A declaration of love made after long denial has more impact than one shouted out in the midst of coitus. And so on. The characters in my books tend to feel and act the same way. Amazing, isn’t it. 

I don’t mean to say the more melodramatic approach is necessarily wrong because is isn’t. Without doubt, many readers find it appropriate and even cathartic. The point is, writers create from their experience and their own personalities; it can be no other way. What readers find right and good also depends on how they view the world. It’s just interesting how different that can be.

10:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey lady, it's your cousin Christy. I was wondering if you had a myspace page(as tons of musicians and authors have one). I'm on there as well, please check me out!

Also, if you don't have one and you'd like me to show you the basics of it, just email me, k? When are you coming to Baton Rouge next?

3:13 PM  
Blogger Jennifer Blake said...

Hi Christy:
I don't have a page at, but may have to look into it. For now, it's all I can do to keep up with this one!

No plans for Baton Rouge at present--maybe when the next book comes out, ROGUE'S SALUTE, January 2007.

7:52 PM  
Blogger sue said...

Hi Jennifer
Just a note to say I'm back life seemed to get in my way for a while sure hope I got it under control now so I will see you again on this page
take care
a huge fan I can't wait for your new book and I love your books

10:24 AM  
Blogger Jennifer Blake said...

Thanks so much for the kind words, Sue. And welcome back!

7:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi - I am definitely happy to find this. Good job!

1:37 PM  

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