Monday, December 14, 2009

The Power Of Persuasion

As I become a better writer, I realize that I'm not picking up on more things I'm doing wrong. Instead, I'm learning to keep from persuading myself that something is right when I already know it isn't.

Here's a typical conversation I might have with myself:

"Okay, self, I know this scene doesn't exactly fit with the rest of the story. Adele really isn't staying in character when she collects ceramic rabbits. But, it is really neat that they all shatter when the Northridge quake hits, isn't it?"

"Wait, self! What if it is in character? What if the reason Adele collects ceramic rabbits is because rabbits symbolize fertility and Adele has always wanted to have a child--which is why she's so in love with Ivan, who is so much younger than her."

"Come on, self. Is that really in the story?"

"No, but one could interpret it that way if one really wanted. It still makes sense. So let's keep the rabbits. They become cool symbols!"

"Sounds good to me!"

"You're the best. I love you."

Maybe you aren't wrestling with rabbits. But, it could be anything: eels, monarchs, horses, steam engines, or even eels.

Writers tend to be smart people. For stories to work, a logical thread needs to exist that connects one idea to another, one scene to another. Often as we write, we are perfectly aware of that thread, and yet sometimes we deviate from it because we are excited about a particular new detail or a new scene. When we revise, chances are, we'll pick up on this deviation. And, in the best of times, we'll fix the problem. But, sometimes, our logic and our powers of persuasion take advantage of us--Our brain is actually having a civil war. On one side, it wants to tell that perfect, focused story. On the other side, it wants to keep the cool scenes, even if they don't really fit. Or, it's too lazy to fix a problem it knows exist; it would rather just present a logical "what if" scenario to justify the bad writing.

And, chances are, that argument will be persuasive. We really will be able to convince ourselves that a bad scene is actually acceptable. And, if someone in a critique group should bring it up as a problem, we are well armed with the arguments to justify our decision.

Problem solved, right? Right?...Self?

At the heart of good writing is our ability to tell a compelling story. And often, the excitement of that story presents itself in the earliest drafts of our projects. When we revise, our goal should be to dig back to that initial inspiration, to sort out the precious material from all the useless dirt, to cut and polish that material until it shines like a tourmaline. And, part of that process involves being able to overhear your brain when it's plotting to convince you to do something you shouldn't really do. That involves paying attention to your internal rationalization as you're making editorial decisions so that you really understand why you're arguing with yourself in the first place.

Are you able to keep from convincing yourself that bad writing is good?


  1. hahaha Davin, that's such a great example. In my case, I became aware of this when I was writing a short story in college. At the time I was going through a phase where I -u-s-e-d- abused cigarettes as a mood prop for my main characters. I had a health-nut character and suddenly in one scene, she was gesturing with a cigarette and thinking deep thoughts as she took drags.

    Hmm. I decided that she was a health-nut, precisely because she was a smoker. She knew that was unhealthy, felt convicted about it but unable to stop and so strived to be extra healthy in everything else she did.

    Yeah, my fiction writing classmates were not so keen on that interpretation. I was in college, so I was full of my own greatness and I pushed it through as is. Eventually, after the class was over, a pretty girl whom I respected told me it made no sense. I was in college and single, so I listened to her and understood what she meant.

    Swore I'd never do it again. I try to catch it now and kick myself in the stomach when I see it happening.

  2. As a newbie I am constantly revising. I want to keep everything, every scene every bit of dialogue because I think the reader won't understand what I'm trying to say. With the Lab's help I am learning to let go of what is not working. It's hard, so very hard because who want's to let go of a funny bit of dialogue, but if it doesn't move the story along, bye bye.

  3. Assuming I can even tell the difference between what’s serves the overall story or not...I liken it to the way I shop.

    I may pick out something I think is simply irresistible—even though deep down inside I probably know I don’t need it. I’ll carry it around the store for a while, and likely, by the time I’m ready to head for the checkout isle, my internal dialogue has exhausted me. Now that 'precious' item feels heavy and not worth the effort of standing in line. I put it back.

    Likewise, I’ll indulge myself with some bit of extraneous writing for a while, but in the end, I know it weighs down the story and I delete.

  4. "The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense." -- Tom Clancy

    I adore that quote because of the very reasons you elucidated here, Davin. It's especially hysterical when we create a character that could actually exist in real life, and then people say they don't believe it because they have numerous nonsensical qualities.

    Piggybacking on C.N.'s example, one of the things that's always surprised me is how many doctors and nurses are smokers. These are people who know full well the effects cigarette smoke can have on you, and yet they do it anyway.

    The internal conversation you mention is usually what triggers me to go back and see if there's some way I can establish that as a character tic earlier in the story, thus adding another dimension to the character.

    Woohoo for justification in action!

  5. Thought provoking insight.
    I'm in the middle of a big rewrite and am trying to look deeply to see what really needs to happen. I've found a few scenes that didn't fit with the intensity of the book but I liked them as they were and in the past just left them as they were. Finally I'm rewriting them, and am liking the results,and it feels so refreshing. The novel is deepening. I think it's becoming more authentic, more character driven.

  6. Your conversation with self sounds like the same talk I had with self this morning. DANG IT SELF. WHY MUST YOU TAUNT ME SO?

    And bad writing usually always leads to great writing. Because we make it that way. Usually!

    I find that usually (okay, I'm hung up on the word usually today)when a writer is revising, the threads all come together to make one nice, well-fitting sweater for the reader to cozy up in. In other words, the pieces all fall into place, because the writer is smart and realizes what needs to be done. Usually. *grin*

  7. Monarchs? Come on, Davin. Are you saying something to me? *wink*

    I'd like to unpersuade myself that the butterflies are working, but then I wouldn't have a book. See how well I've persuaded myself!

    Hehe about the eels. Scott, I think they work now, but the ultimate persuasion comes from you!

    Okay, personal notes aside. Davin, this is an excellent post. I do this all the time, but like you I'm getting better at seeing things for what they are. I've been working on a short Christmas story and I persuaded myself that most of the scenes I've put in there work. And they don't. It's a good thing I'm willing to admit that or I'd have a really bad Christmas story. I'd better get that finished before the holiday!

  8. I have the opposite problem, I think. I write through the initial burst of creativity (sometimes it's a slog), then go back and revise ad nauseaum. Thing is, when I revise and revise, eventually I don't like what I've written all that much any more. Even the pieces I've gotten published. Don't know why that is.

    So my problem isn't necessarily that I tend to over-rationalize, it's that I tend to over-critique. My self says things like, "Well, my critique group liked this a lot, but now that I read it again, I don't buy it. Will people really follow me through these transitions? Do these scenes even work? Is the story even worth telling?"

    Meh. That's why I have to stop editing after a while and just let the piece go free, see what the world has to say about it.

  9. So true, (and funny), these sophisticated justifications we come up with. It takes a special skill to detect and call them, and a certain mercilessness to get rid of 'em.

  10. Oh, I do this all the time, especially right after I get a crit back. But usually after my righteous indignation dies down and I review the passage in question, I stop trying to justify my every decision. Sometimes you just have to let go for the greater good of the story.

  11. ha ha! This post had me laughing out loud! Partly because, well, it's just *funny*! And partly because that's exactly the type of conversation I have with my Writing Self! (Husband gets quiet worried at times)

    Have you been following the great series by Zadie Smith on "What makes a good writer" over at this blog :

    Definitely worth a read for any wanna-be-a-better-writer!

  12. C. N., that's a great example! I'm glad someone was able to talk some sense into you, and that the someone was pretty.

    Piedmont Writer, it is very hard to let go of some things. I still don't let go of EVERYTHING, and at least for me that's okay. But, even if I do decide to keep something, I at least want to be honest with myself for my reasoning.

    jbchicoine, that's a great point! Yes, often with situations like this our own inner dialog reveals that it's not actually working. If it takes that much energy to persuade ourselves of a section of writing, there's probably something fishy going on.

    Matthew, I do think that going back into earlier versions in the story is one way to fix a problem with something like new information or a new character trait. I would just hope that, for my sake, working that hard to justify something doesn't result in more complication or too far a stray from what I originally wanted to write.

    Paul, your revision sound wonderful. I understand what you say about that lightness. I once cut about 30,000 words from a novel of mine in a matter of 3-4 days, and I remember feeling that lightness. It was great.

    Robyn, Yes...usually. :) The more I write, the more usual it becomes. I know when I was first writing a lot of my effort was spent on being able to defend what I had put down. Now, I don't feel that need to defend as much, I think because my writing is more able to hold up on its own.

    Michelle, LOL, no, I didn't mean anything by my examples except as a little joke. What I always found interesting was that I knew the bad writing was there, even when I was inexperienced. It was just a matter of being able to listen to myself better. Good luck with the Christmas story! It sounds fun! What are you going to do with it?

    Simon, this is the topic of another post. I understand it well because I'm exactly the same way. The day after I finished my nephew's novella, I started to be critical of it. I hate to say this, but I think some artists are just that way. John Lennon is an example. I don't fight it anymore. If I feel the need to revise something, I do it. But, I keep that separated from submitting and publication. Even if a story is published, I might still revise something. So, I view publication as a snapshot of an evolving piece of work. And now, about ten years into writing, I actually do have two short stories that I'm consistently happy with.

    Yat-Yee, mercilessness. Yes! I think that's another thing I've gotten better at. I'm more merciless with myself when I write.

    Tere, absolutely. And, it's hard, and some scenes are harder than others. But, thinking back, I don't remember ever regretting anything I've cut.

  13. For the most part, yes . . . but it sometimes takes a couple of revision stages to recognize that I persuaded myself to keep some bad stuff in, when I should have just deleted it in the first place.

    The only caution here: sometimes people do things totally out of character. In order for characters to be realistic, they must have flaws, and every now and then, they must do the unexpected . . . then again . . .

    Great post and definitely something to consider as I get ready to dive back into revision mode in the next few weeks. I really think we need to rely on our instinct, our initial impression of something, rather than try to convince ourselves that it's just fine and dandy. If, when reading, you suddenly go 'huh' - stop, don't think, and reread the passage. If you go 'huh' again . . . well, I think your instinct is telling you that there's something wrong and you should take a closer, very objective look at the scene.


  14. Don't knock the eels. I liked them.

    I'm no longer persuading myself about how great my book is. I have however successfully deluded myself that a lot of it is really good. There's this nagging sensation when I read the "slower" chapters that it needs fixin'.

    Best line of the post: "You're the best. I love you."

  15. I'm my worst critic I can hardly tolerate that gut feeling something is wrong. I probably rely a little too much on my internal editor.

  16. Ann, I have a feeling this type of conversation isn't too rare, at least among some of us. Thanks for the link suggestion! I'll check it out.

    Scott, great comments. Yeah, that initial response, even if you don't know why you got caught up with something is usually a great indicator that at least something is wrong with the writing. What you brought up about characters doing unexpected things is a great post topic. On one had, you are absolutely right. But, I often wrestle with whether or not literary characters can be that real. I'm not sure it works.

  17. Charlie, I love Scott's eels. I could eat them for dinner.
    It's great to hear that you like a lot of your writing. I think that's an important step in being successful.

    T. Anne, I feel like we all try to fine tune how loud our internal editor speaks. Hopefully you find a good volume!

  18. I'm so glad to hear that I'm not the only one who has these sorts of conversations w/ myself.

    And - I don't know the answer to your final question. Sometimes I can recognize the bumpy writing, but othertimes I think it is brilliant until someone points it out. That's why a good critique group/partner has always been so important to me.

  19. Davin, you're the best. I totally related to the rationalization for the rabbits--finding some psychobabble reasoning to add a scene or detail that ultimately detracts from the story.

    I think all the lit crit theory I read at work is having a negative impact. You hear a couple of scholars do a Freudian or Jungian or Kristevan analysis and it's like, "Whee! That looks fun! I gotta put some of that there symbolical stuff in my work. Yee-haw!"

    However...sometimes those psychobabble ideas ARE powerful and work. Testing with a wide audience--not just writers, but also deep readers--can help me discern when my rationalizations are too kooky.

  20. Davin: Rick Daley sent me an email about eels. What the hell? Am I "that eel guy" now?

    I think that what you're talking about in this post is an important part of the writer's work. We usually do know when something isn't working, but fear and laziness stop us from fixing them. Fear that either we can't actually fix the problem (because we don't know specifically what's wrong--we just know something is--or because we see exactly what's wrong but we don't know how to fix it) or that we can fix the problem but we'll lose some beautiful prose and we don't know if we'll ever write anything that good again. Laziness because, you know, writing is hard and fixing problems entails work and work is...well, not pleasant sometimes.

    I'm getting better about not letting things slide and not convincing myself that my failures are in fact successes. The thing is, recognizing a problem in a book means you can make the book better, so these moments are terrifically valuable.

    The whole "Kill your darlings" thing is very true, too. If you can write brilliant prose once, you can do it again in the future. I try to be a storyteller more than a prose-writer, to focus on character and not style. We'll see how that works out for the current book. Anyway, rambling now and must stop.

  21. I love finding out I'm not the only one who talks to myself. But I refuse to divulge my pet names. :)
    I find a good bad-writing tool is to listen to the little voice that says 'that passage is a little rough or a little slow but it's okay.' It's not okay and somebody down the line is going to tell me, so I may as well figure out how to fix it now. I just have to tell myself to listen to myself. Ha!

  22. Interesting post.

    I know I can rationalize just about anything. But, as a writer, I need to be aware that if I'm using my rationalization powers, it's probably because I know there's a problem.

  23. I work in sales and marketing, so this type of rationalization and justification is instinctual for me.

    I try to differentiate between the bad sections and the irrelevant's easy to have a scene that is one but not the other.

    I re-wrote a scene recently that was very necessary, but the first iteration was nearly unreadable and the revision was a slam-dunk (at least I think it was). I didn't change what was happening in the scene, just the words used to show it.

    At the end of the day, it all still depends on the execution. Here's a line from BLOOD MERIDIAN (I've been on a Cormac McCarthy kick since I read THE ROAD twice earlier this year):

    ...they rode with their faces averted form the rock wall and the bake-oven air which it rebated, the slant black shapes of the mounted men stenciled across the stone with a definition austere and implacable like shapes capable of violating their covenant with the flesh that authored them and continuing autonomous across the naked rock without reference to sun or man or god.

    To me the beauty of this piece is in the language itself as well as the image it evokes. Shadows breaking away from the men who cast them and riding away on their own has no bearing to the story on a real level, although symbolism could be inferred.

  24. Scott,

    You've been "that eel guy" for some time. Please get with the program.

  25. Tess, I can't always tell either. Sometimes, though, if I just give myself more time, I can pick up on something I didn't notice the first or second time around. I find that I'm relying less on outside readers these days--don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

    Laurel, great point. Similar to what Tess said about having outside readers. I have a poet friend who writes and explores the wanderings of the mind, so he often reads my work much more closely than others and is often more okay with things that drift off topic a bit.

    Scott, I feel like I'm getting better at it too. I find that I'm describing things more precisely, taking more time to choose the right words. Overall, I think it is making my writing better. And, you know you like being eel guy. Mighty Reader told me you've stitched the initials E. G. into your BVDs.

    Tricia, that's exactly it. Tell yourself to listen to yourself. That's what I feel like I've learned in the last year of writing.

    Dominique, exactly. And, I think we ARE pretty good at stuff like that, unfortunately.

  26. Rick, nice passage. It doesn't matter why a scene doesn't work. It could be because it's irrelevant (my example) or simply because it isn't well-written, as you suggest. I think if we are in tune to WHY we don't like something in our writing, we can fix it. Even if other people disagree, I think if you are true to yourself and what you want, it works.

  27. I've ended up cutting entire chapters because I did this. I let myself get dragged down the primrose path over and over again. One day I will be a more efficient writer. In some ways those diversions help me know the story more completely. I don't have to include them in the novel, but they create a more complete picture for me. Maybe someday I can have them as deleted scenes on a website when my book is published (hopeful thinking) or keep them buried because they are so bad.

  28. For me it definitely takes time away to see if what I've written is good or if it sucks. A good critique group helps too :)

  29. Awesome and hilarious. I like the quote in one comment about "fiction has to make sense."

    I figured the best way to make my main character "believable" was to give him a lot of my own quirks and mannerisms.

    Now, my readers (who know me) say "you wrote a story about yourself!" and start laughing.

    "No," I reply. "The main character is skinny. I'm fat!"

    Of course, who wouldn't "improve" themself a little in the story?

    **sigh** But great advice! I caught myself several times.

  30. My inner conversations are scarily similar.....

  31. I'm very careful with internal dialogue.

    I find when I'm in a situation as the example that it's a slippery slope. I can create a reason for x.

    To me the voice of doubt, the one that questions the presence of x, is the most powerful tool to avoid retention of things that don't fit.

    Notice I didn't say bad writing. Fit and writing quality are not mutually exclusive.

    But I digress.

    Doubt is a powerful tool if you ask the right questions. The wrong ones will always lead you to retaining x.

    A close ended question has a yes or no answer. Should Bo have blue eyes or is that cliche`?

    If the closed ended question is slippery, "why" is an avalanche. If you answer yes, then we do as we are trained to do- rationalize why the answer was yes. If you answer no... you get the picture.

    And opened ended question cannot be answered with yes or no. And even though it usually contains "why" or "how" it is more specific:

    Why do I have doubts?

    What is it about x that makes me unhappy/uncomfortable?

    Sometimes the answer isn't x but how its presented. And sometimes it is x.

    However knowing that x is wrong, doesn't make deleting it any easier.

  32. Too funny! I'm going to put eels in my book right now. Right now! :)


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