Last night I finished the second draft of my first novel, Worthy’s Cause. I have no idea if it’s any good. The story is something I really like and I think it is unique, but what I mean is I don’t know if the writing is any good. (I feel like every writer says that last bit so sorry for the cliche). Something I’ve long suffered with is the fact that I over-think things. Everything. But especially writing, I question, I prod, I poke, and I doubt more than anything else.
Since I’m a perfectionist and this is my first novel I’ve been spending a lot of time on this second draft with Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. And last night, while revising the final twenty or so pages, I spent much of my time reminding myself to write in the positive tense, use definite, specific, and concrete language. To create a picture and especially “make it feel lived in”. The last statement is my mantra, written in yellow highlighter on the folder that contains the printed out pages of the first draft. The Doubt came about when I made the mistake of reading the section “An Approach to Style” which had some good points and then: “Place yourself in the background”; “Do not overwrite” ; “Do not overstate” ; “do not affect a breezy manner” ; “do not inject opinion” ; “do not explain too much” ; “do not use dialect”. I flipped out.
Then I realized that if I removed those things and did them the way Strunk and White would have wanted me to, my characters would not be who they are, and more importantly I would not be who I am. These characters are angry, rough, childish, and sometimes inhuman and since most of the book is told in first person, dialect and rants are part of who that character is so to not do those things makes the character just a device to tell the story and not an actual person. That’s what I want more than anything else: I want this main character to be a person who does all of the things “An Approach to Style” says not to do. Because that’s what a person does. People over explain, they use slang, they overstate and go on and on and they inject themselves and their own personal experiences into just about any conversation. That’s what some people do—not all—but my main character is that kind of person.
So, this morning I was explaining my conundrum to my Dad when he said this and I realized that there are certain aspects of The Elements of Style that are good but, (like pirates) they’re really nothing more than guidelines. Sure they help but the second that they make you start doubting yourself—like they did last night—is the second you should walk away from Strunk and White. More than anything else it’s important to be confident, especially when you write. I like to think readers would rather be taken for a ride that is not their personal lives into the psyches and motivations of characters in a story. Inevitably you write what you know, and what you know is yourself so it’s impossible to “place yourself in the background”. When a writer doubts their ability to communicate what they want out of their writing it is important to stop doing the thing that makes them doubt themselves. That may be the entire work itself, if you don’t think you can tell the story you want to tell, you may want to stop or plow through and get better so you can tell that story. And I like to think that most writers will do ANYTHING to tell a story so you either get better so you can tell that story or you put it on the shelf and move onto something that you are confident you can tell.
But let’s be honest: everyone who has read The Elements of Style feels a twinge of self-doubt in their own abilities; it is not a book that exercises in confidence building. I’d rather take my readers on a fun story full of characters who are not them. I’m not trying to gain a higher literary understanding, or win prose awards I just want you to be entertained and make the entire experience feel lived in and that’s hard to do if you obey their rules of Style. Frankly, they shouldn’t have anything to do with the matter.