While there have always been explicit rules of grammar, punctuation, and other elements of writing, the general guidelines for compelling fiction are much more subjective, intuitive, and, well, squishy. Even some of the more traditional, hard fast principles of effective storytelling are becoming less rigid. Novelists and short story writers have to rely more on what feels right rather than what is right.
This notion became a discussion topic in workshop last week when one of my peers mentioned she was grappling with a sense of “not quite rightness.” Often we write a story or paragraph or even just a sentence, and we know something is amiss. We can’t always identify it ourselves from our intimate perspective (hence the need for workshops and editors), but we know something is not quite right. Unfortunately, with fewer and fewer writing “rules” to guide us, finding and fixing whatever it is that’s niggling us isn’t always easy.
Last night, for example, I was working on a coma scene. (I know…the cheery life I live is almost sinful.) I’m truly grateful to have absolutely no firsthand knowledge of injuries to the brain or nervous system, so I had to do some research. I learned all about the Glasgow Coma Scale and what the points on the index suggest in terms of recovery. I familiarized myself with some of the medical terminology used in dialogue about brain injury and comas and wrote what I felt was a believable hospital scene. Still, something about the passage was not quite right. It was factual, yes, but something about the order of events and interaction among the conscious characters troubled me.
For me, the fact that I can now read my fiction and have it trouble me is the victory. Two years ago, I would be less able to detect inconsistencies, ornamentation, timeline gaps, or POV shifts. I would be weakening my verbs with lovely and unnecessary adverbs and defending my darlings staunchly. Now I can read something I have written and really like, admire its stylistic or technical merits for a moment, and then highlight and delete it without too much angst. Like developing a nose for wine, honing a writer’s intuition takes practice, attention to subtle attributes, and engagement of all the senses – and possibly a few headaches.