Writing a story or book sounds easy. Something you can do without a lot of effort, like walking or sitting. It's just a bunch of words strung one after the other, right? Yet the longer I write and the more I learn about writing (we never stop, not really), the more I've come to realize how HARD (yet fun!) it really is and how difficult it is for new writers to become conscious of that fact.
(image from Salon.com)
I've been doing this gig for a long time and I still turn in the occasional story to my critique group which then gets slashed to pieces. Usually happens to those I feel the most confident about too! I've also helped them with theirs and done some judging and am at times astounded at the mistakes I see. Yet the person who wrote it probably never saw them.
And it is a big stumbling block - being able to see what is wrong with our own work. It's one of the hardest parts of this gig, in my opinion. Worse though is our own lack of knowledge, especially at the beginning. If we don't understand how something works, how can we know it's wrong in the first place? But it's gotten any number of people into trouble and they never had a clue.
Easy stuff are grammar and spelling (easy as in knowing we need it, not necessarily in the doing of it. Just saying! :P). Most people know these things are somehow involved in the process. But there is so much MORE that is a part of writing. Some tangible, some intangible. All of it making for hard work.
What am I talking about? Here's a list:
(This list is not comprehensive by any means - so feel free to add some in the comments!)
1) Flow - What this is (and it may have a better technical term out there), is the ease, or flow of words as written on the page. When read out loud do the sentences move smoothly or do they sound choppy or make you feel like you've tripped over something? This one took me a long time to realize. When I did, it was an epiphany! I equate this to music, how the notes flows and merge into a cohesive whole.
2) Hook - a sentence or paragraph (which can be a little longer for novels - though that's changing too!) to grab the reader by the throat and make them read. Some say to start in the middle of action for your hook but this can be a pitfall if you push the beginning of the story too far in.
3) Speech Tags - the proper ways to set up dialogue and the tags that go with them. 'Said' is the auto default; most others are frowned upon. But even 'said' can be used too much (I know some say 'said' is invisible to readers, but I disagree with that. Bugs the heck out of me when I see it too often). There are other ways to let the reader know who is talking - by movements, expressions, and action.
4) Who? - a lot of beginners clump actions or speech together without letting the reader know who is actually doing these things or mix several people in the same paragraph. On the same vein though, you can tell us who too often, which will also disrupt the flow. 'He' and 'she' are great ways to not use the characters' names too much, but if used too liberally (especially when more than two people are involved) can be just as confusing to the reader. So you have to have balance. See how this is work? lol.
5) Talking Heads - Dialogue followed by more dialogue and even more dialogue. Action will break these up and not necessarily action as in fighting. Hand gestures, facial expressions, feelings, all these can break apart chunks of dialogue into easier, more digestible bits. It will also help with not making too many speech tags and even give insights into the characters' habits and quirks.
6) Location (of people and things) - If Mary is at the front door, but she's suddenly seeing something that's happening in the bathroom that's in the back of the house, this is a problem with location. Or reaching for a cup in the cupboard when you're in the living room. (Yes, these are exaggerated examples, but you get what I mean.) Kate slapping Mary though earlier it was mentioned that John was between Mary and Kate. If you're in a small wooden ship's cabin, five or six people and their luggage and pets won't all actually fit in and be able to move around comfortably in there. Ways around this are to make a map in your mind or even on paper. See where people are and where things are in relation to them to get the actions to make sense. But don't fall into the trap of explaining every little movement or placement either. Authors must often walk a fine line between too much and too little!
7) Info Dump - Giant blocks of information all dumped at once on the reader. Whether the information is needed or not isn't normally the trouble. The problem stems on how it's dumped out in giant buckets disrupting flow and pacing. Info should be seeded in small doses. Broken up by other things so it is integrated with the whole without seemingly being there. Dialogue can help here too, but beware of 'As You Know, Bob' syndrome, where you regurgitate info for the reader in a conversation when it is actually something already known to the other party and would never actually need to be said - not good.
8) Beginning/Middle/End - The most basic of rules for a story or novel, yet you'd be surprised how many miss the mark on this one. One main road for the story. In novels you can have some side roads tie to the whole, but the final structure must still have the three stages to make sense.
9) Conflict - Conflict is tenuous and can take many forms, but it is an integral part of any tale. Without conflict (internal, external, or both) there's no room for the characters to grow or change. There must be stakes, things which can be lost or goals that won't be achieved if conflict is not overcome.
10) Theme - This one is hard to explain. It's like a uniting thread or melody within the novel or story. A message behind the words. Sometimes we know what we want it to be before we ever start the work, at others we discover it during the writing itself then make sure to weave it throughout. Themes can give extra depth to the work, even a unique flavor. Not good to force it, but good to have.
Hopefully this illustrates what I am talking about. Never underestimate the work that goes into writing! lol. This stuff is hard! (One of the main reasons I am a BIG backer of beta readers, critique groups, edits, and editors!)
Any other bits on what makes writing hard that you've come across or wondered about? Do you think I'm full of it? What mistakes do you see being made out there? Would love to hear your thoughts.