Being a Better Writer: Keeping it Simple

Alternative title: Don’t Bite Off More than You Can Chew.

Hello readers! Welcome back! How was your weekend? I trust it was enjoyable?

I hope I was able to help with that. Episode two of Fireteam Freelance dropped Saturday morning with a bang! More adventures with Adah, Ursa, Anvil, and Owl!

And … that’s all the time I’ve got for news today. And all the news, so it works out. So, let’s talk writing.

With a title like this some of you are probably wondering what the inspiration is. Well, as many of you know, I do a lot of reading. Not just books, but webcomics and even some fanfiction here and there as well. I’m also highly selective, especially with the last two, but I do notice a lot of trends. Trends that tie back into a lot of stuff I hear from novice writers (who frequently turn around and write fanfiction or webcomics).

In fact, I was actually tempted to share a synopsis I found for one new webcomic in this very post to illustrate my point today, but decided against it. It would have illustrated today’s point, or rather today’s issue we’re discussing pretty well … but I’d hate to have that creator find this post and feel personally put under a spotlight they didn’t ask for.

So let me give you a common hypothetical. An occurrence that happens to authors, or to teachers in creative writing courses, or even to random people who know someone bitten by the writing bug. They get cornered, and they’re given a synopsis of this new writer’s planned plot and story. And it’ll be something like this:

So the main character is an undead werewolf, right? And she’s trying to hide and survive this organization that’s hunting her, while trying to figure out what happened to her mother. Her mother was a powerful sorceress who might have discovered the cure for this deadly disease that’s wiping out the world, which she got from aliens. But the good aliens, not the bad ones. See, she was part of a secret organization that fought the bad aliens during World War I, who were using voodoo to try and manipulate the world and take over. They’re not related to the people hunting the main character—or maybe they are, I haven’t decided yet. Anyway, one of the people hunting her is secretly in love with her, but there’s a problem because they’re actually a vampire, part of a secret organization that’s working against everyone else to try and make the world eternally night by using the bad and good aliens. So we start out in this high school …

So, what do you think of my short story idea?

You might think I’m exaggerating … but I’m not. I’ve run across many new stories or new writing projects from people that are this convoluted. Now, looking at the above, does that seem like a “short story” at all?

No, Not in the slightest. By the time you successfully explained most of that, or even introduced it, you’d be most of the way through your word count. Any plot you attached onto it would likely be in the presentation of “Here’s what happened” rather than anything evolving out of the tangle you’d set up.

Of course, some might by thinking “Well that’s not a short. It’s clearly a novel.” And yes, that would give you more space to flesh things out and get a plot working within all these complicated narrative pieces … but at the end of the day it’s still a massive tangle of narrative pieces.

Does this mean it’s an unworkable idea. Of course not. As is commonly repeated by a lot of authors, there aren’t really bad ideas, just poor executions, and a good author and writer can take even a poor idea and make something engaging out of it.

However, just because this concept isn’t unworkable doesn’t mean that it should be someone’s first go at writing a story.

See, none of the elements of the idea are bad up there in that example. A girl searching for her mother, that’s a good basis for a lot of story. Undead werewolf? There’s definitely a story there, which rolls right into “being hunted by an organization.”

Really, all of the concepts in that initial pitch are, on their own, solid ideas one could make a story out of. The problem isn’t the ideas … it’s that there’s a dozen of them all mashed together for no real reason other than ‘I need to keep adding ingredients to this.’ It’s a giant tangle, a case of too many ideas and plots being explored. Or, at least, attempted to. Because when the novice writer starts trying to write this? They are absolutely going to be overwhelmed. With one of two likely results.

Either they’ll end up trying to explore each of these ideas in depth and find themselves vastly in over their heads (perhaps even on the first step), grow frustrated, and give up … Or they’ll truncate everything in an effort to keep it all together, blast through each idea with oversimplification, and then create something that both rushes by at a breakneck pace and keeps needing new, more grand concepts to keep rolling.

Neither of these is very good, as you might have gathered.

So, what causes this issue? Well … there’s a couple of things that I see being common threads behind it.

The first and most common one is excitement. The “writing bug” bites someone, and they have this “cool idea” they absolutely want to write about. But then they get another cool idea. And another. And another. Since they want to work on all of them, they just keep piling them in, like college students into a hatchback. “We’ve got space, baby! We can hold more!” They want to work on every one of these ideas, and they want to write their magnum opus, and they’re going to do it all and it’s going to be the best thing ever!

Basically, they’re too excited about any of their ideas to just pick one, so they throw them all in a blender thinking “Well, now I can write about all of it at once and save time! Plus, they’re awesome ideas, so they’ll obviously work together!”

To which I say that peach cobbler and ham-and-cheese sandwiches are both pretty good, but if you toss them both in a blender along with every other food you feel like eating, the result will quickly become something stomach churning.

Another common cause I see is overconfidence. Or, though it gives the same result, lack of understanding of the craft. Basically, someone who looks at writing and thinks “Well, this can’t be this hard” and overestimates their own ability to write. This is the person that sits down and plots out an entire book, and a sequel, and maybe a few spin-off novels while never having written a short story. They don’t understand how much work this project will actually be, and so they plan out something far beyond their grasp, tackling too many ideas at once because they don’t know or understand how much work they’re creating for themselves.

The result is fairly predictable. They sit down at a keyboard at long last, intent on writing out this grand story they’ve concocted, and very quickly discover how difficult writing a good story is and how out of their depth they are. They slam into their first or second idea like a four-door sedan trying to tackle a tough off-road track in Australia, grind to a halt, and throw their hands up in frustration, quitting and never coming back. Sometimes with an excuse as a salve for their ego like “It wasn’t that fun anyway” or “I got bored” but ultimately dropping because they took on too much too fast and their own skill level couldn’t keep up.

Still, one can be a properly confident writer with some experience and still run afoul of this as they write as well. Some writers start out with a story that’s within their grasp but then keep adding to it, constantly upping the “stakes” with more new ideas, more cool stuff” rather than building on what they began with. This is the story that starts out about the undead werewolf, but then adds each of the successive stack of insanity overload with each progressing chapter as the writer keeps wanting that rush of “new cool things” (and we’re actually going to have a future post about a similar topic here soon).

This is … Well, let’s go back to the kitchen example. This is someone who knows that you don’t mix peach cobbler and a ham-and-cheese in a blender, and knows some basics about cooking, but then gets too excited when working on a recipe. They’re adding the ingredients and then at some point think “You know, the cinnamon makes this pop, so what if I add some cilantro?” Followed by “Hey, garlic’s good too! I’ll add that!” Eventually they pass a point of no return, the basic components of the recipe still being good but the overall combination long-since oversaturated by the melange of ingredients they keep adding in their enthusiasm.

Okay, so these are all different ways wherein young or inexperienced writers bite off more than they can chew. So how can a new writer keep from doing this?

Well, it’s actually pretty simple. And that’s actually it. Keep it simple. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Learn to walk before you run. All those common sayings about starting out slow.

“Yes,” a new writer might say, “but I’m different—”

No. Prove it. Show the world that you’re ready to tackle fifteen wildly different ideas at one time in a single story by writing a single story that tackles one or two of them at most first.

Yes, they may have a grand pile of ideas that they want to explore. Don’t shove them all into one story. Pick one or two of them and write about that first. Learn the basics, learn how to juggle and explore in depth just one of these ideas. Resist the urge to pile new ideas in just to “keep it fresh” and explore what you started with. If someone thinks that the one idea isn’t enough to carry a story … Well, find out. Try anyway.

If you’ve already built a massive, overburdened collection of ideas, go back and start shaving some off. Trim the fat ideas—don’t throw them away, just put them in a folder for later—until you have one or two left and then write those. Keep at it until you can write them well.

Then add a new idea. Not a dozen. One. Expand your skill in handling larger scopes and greater-spreads of concept. Learn to “chew” more at one time. Work to develop each existing idea rather than simply adding new ones.

Eventually, you may get to the point where you could do the giant hodgepodge, but decide against it because you realize your work is much stronger in a more focused direction. Or you’ll pick half of them and make that into a story. Or spread it out over a series.

Point being you—or any young writer that’s gone through this process—will know the limits and what strengths they have to work with. Which, in turn, will produce greater and better works in the future, and let them really dig into their ideas with skill that readers will love and devour.

So good luck. Now get writing.

Don’t forget! Being a Better Writer exists thanks to the support of the following Patreon supporters: Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, tiwake, Taylor, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Grand General Luna, Miller, Hoopy McGee, Brown, and Lightwind. Special thanks to them for helping keep Unusual Things ad-free and Being a Better Writer articles coming!

If you’d like to be a supporter as well, then check out our Patreon Page, or if you’re particular to a one-time donation, why not purchase a book!

You can also share this post (and others on the site) online or via social media!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s