Feasting On Words

Girl on Writing

by Elizabeth Conte

If I wrote the way I spoke, I would be in big trouble! I over talk. Over explain. Over argue. So, it is no surprise that I overwrite. Writing to me is like eating donuts holes – little sugary balls of dough that you can’t stop stuffing into your mouth, one right after the other, until the two dozen are gone. I can’t stuff enough words into my novel. I stuff until there are no words left.

Let’s face it, if you are a fan of 20th century writers, overwriting was the model of great writing. Have you read D. H. Lawrence? Paul Bowles overwrote almost every thought, much to many reader’s dismay. But I am not here to discuss the merits of writers from the past. We all know in today’s publishing world, many of our beloved writers, who feasted on words, wouldn’t get past the query.

A Literary Girl Living In A Publishing World

Writers feast on praise. “We lean into what we’re good at, and we avoid our weaknesses,” says Julianne Boggett in her article, The Writerly Skills Test. But one of the hardest things to do as a writer is to face what we aren’t good at. My weakness is words. Lots and lots of words for the mere fact they are beautiful, poetic, and musical. It is why I became a writer. But writers are facing a new landscape.

The novel, in its quest to be published in today’s market, has undergone changes. To be competitive, meet the needs of the busy consumer, keep pace with the ever-changing society and digital age, and the downsizing/corporate takeovers of publishing companies with their diminished power of the purse, the novel, once a Gesamtkunstwerk, is now mere entertainment. The point of reading was the literary ride, not the destination. Words were to feast on, not just to glance upon to get to the end.

For Better or For Worse

When Stephan King proclaims, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops,” does any writer dare question the king? Advice is pounded into writers with a heavy stick. If it doesn’t build character, or advance your plot, edit it out. Edit. Edit again. Then edit again. It seems I spend more time cutting my novel than writing my novel. But what does this fast-paced, slimmed down version of novel writing mean for great literature?

If a person is to succeed in the writing business, he or she must adjust to the demands of the marketplace. For me, that meant facing my weakness, overwriting. I thought I could plow through the wall of rules with the high ideal that readers wanted the literary back in literature. I stood firmly in my writing and filled my novels with adverbs, dialogue tags, and lofty, beautiful descriptions that “didn’t move the plot along.” I had words to feast on! They were books D. H. Lawrence would be proud of (or so I imagined). But that is not what the publishing industry is seeking. Therefore, I have had to change my writing style to accommodate the demands.

Weak or Rebel

Oh, there are those that will insist that I am becoming a better writer. But by whose standard? Is the publishing world of today a better literary world? For all those who argue that I am discussing the merits of literary vs genre, I am doing neither. I am addressing the very real standards by which writers are being assessed, accepted, or rejected. There is an “in” style that is dominating the publishing world. To ignore it means failure, unless you are very, very lucky. Being unique or breaking the mold only works when you have made it. I realize that I have to adjust for the marketplace, if I am to fit in.

Am I betraying my artistry? I like to think that I am growing as a writer and learning new skills. I am taking a weakness and learning to broaden my writing abilities and hopefully will find my place in the publishing world.

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Elizabeth Conte

Elizabeth Conte

When I am not writing books, tormented with poetry, or inspiring others with my blog at Writerdeeva.com, you can find some of my work published in Lost Coast Review and PennWriters, and I am a regular editor/contributor to Industry News for Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA).

9 thoughts on “Feasting On Words

  1. Elizabeth, my dear friend from the Lake Forest Round Table, you will find this hard to believe! You’ll think I’m making it up, but I’m not. I went to O.C. Writers’ Facebook page this morning ready to post an experience that happened to me less than an hour ago. Hoping to find comfort there, I saw your link to this article opening with the exact question I was mulling over: “Is how we speak indicative of how we write?” Here’s what happened:
    A friend I walk with around the Back Bay just this morning said, “Well, good luck with your last two days of NaNoWriMo. Will you be finished by November 30th?”
    “No, I replied, I’ll have to edit and cut, cut, cut! I’m hoping I can finish by February.”
    He shook his head somewhat in disgust and, in very blunt language, added, “Yeah, it’s hard for me to see how someone who can’t finish a sentence or get to the point when speaking can write a novel.”
    It’s not new, his criticism. Everyone says the same thing to me, to my face, mind you, about not getting to the point when I talk. I LOVE the words! The comment this morning, though, crushed me and made me doubt whether I could make my first novel as “page-turning” as the world seems to want. I could spend the day wallowing in self-pity or open my mind, as you suggest, and say, “Well, they do have a point. Maybe I do write as I speak.”
    So I’m with you, Elizabeth, I’m going to “buck up” and take the criticism, probably not convinced that my writing will really be better or as beautiful, but nevertheless, hoping people might actually enjoy reading my more stream-lined book! However, I will forever believe that words like “knits up the raveled sleeve of care, the death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath, balm of hurt minds,” are worth 10 page-turning novels. I won’t stop striving though to write one measly sentence as beautiful as those words, but I’m also going to try hard not be a dinosaur in our fast-paced world.
    Maybe the ultimate solution to satisfying our yearning for beautiful words is to just take our “edit-outs”, our murdered darlings, modify them somehow, and then simply publish them as poetry!

    Great, thought-provoking article, Elizabeth!

  2. Funny, but I wrote this article before Scotland. After a four day writing retreat with two English literary authors, and a room full of literary skilled writers, I have come to a revised idea about my writing. Literary writers write for the love of prose. Listening to their words, it made me yearn for such ideals. But, as I stated above, that kind of appreciation is not commercial for today’s market. I realize that. Nor am I “good enough” to write literary. (But I can dream!) With that said, I am finding room in my writing to not give up completely on my style, nor my love of words. It may take me some time to find a happy medium, even longer for the marketplace to find an appreciation for that medium, but I will find it. I do not want to lose my love of words. After this retreat, I feel, nor should I! I walked away knowing a little more about myself as a writer, and accepting my style for the individuality I bring to the marketplace, and not changing because of it. What does that mean for my writing? The next book will only show. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  3. This is all very interesting. I have the exact opposite problem. I write too lean and pull out my hair hoping to get to my minimum 80,000 word count. I think it comes from article writing. I am a big fan of the analogy. The similes, metaphors and poetic phrases Billie mentioned aren’t overwriting in my mind. I believe a word-picture can be worth a 1,000 words.

    In defense of the King, adverbs are often used because a writer is too lazy to find the correct verb, or is stating the obvious. Examples: He walked bouncily. That’s just dumb. How about – He loped, or jigged, or danced? Or another: She whispered softly. Really?

    But adverbs are great if one of them avoids having to use three or four other words to say the same thing. Ex: He opened the door cautiously. I think that’s better than: He opened the door with extreme caution.

    I love words too, but I’m a solitaire diamond kind of girl. Not much for the big broaches piled with gems. I say find the right word and let it shine.

  4. You’re right, Greta. I agree. Beautiful words are not over-writing – case in point: “We shuffled into that room like geriatric ballroom dancers;” “I could hear the faint sound of waves throwing themselves against the cliff walls like they were seeking entrance. ” (from your “Margins of Lust) I love these words!
    I was hoping I could label my over-writing as beautiful similes and metaphors, but if I’m honest with myself, the things I need to cut are simply the result me droning on about things I’ve already said three times before in a piece. Geez, this writing thing is all about self-awareness, self-acceptance, and change. Drats!

  5. I’m an over-writer too, and I also love beautiful language, and yeah, I’m refusing to give either of those up just because someone said there was a rule. Bah humbug on rules. But I agree that you don’t want the *final* version to FEEL like it’s overwritten or flabby. My philosophy is to get all the words on the page, and then later I can figure out which ones are the best ones to keep. My eventual goal is to write books like the ones where I stop to reread a sentence or paragraph because it was too gorgeous not to savor — and ALSO perfectly added to the plot and character development. I’m nowhere near that yet, but hey, it’s good to have challenging goals.

  6. Hi Elizabeth: We are now living in Sacramento and I am working on my second book of poetry. I miss your unfailing support and hope circumstances will allow me to share the new work with you. My greetings to the Panera gang. Don Colson 4016 Hovnanian Dr., Sac 95834

    1. As I am missing your encouragement! I hope to see your new book soon. You are one of my favorite modern poets. Beauty and imaging flood me with emotion when reading your work! I am thrilled to hear you are working on a second one. The world needs your words. Good luck in finishing it, and thank you for keeping in touch. (I sent you an email…)

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