Every writer has a work in progress, whether it’s something they’ve completed and are now revising, a partial manuscript, or an idea that’s just beginning to germinate like a small seed in the ground—you may not be able to see anything quite yet, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t busy growing and spreading and becoming. It could be said that a piece of writing is never quite finished. Many writers have a difficult time knowing when to stop. They continue tweaking, rearranging, cutting or adding; you hear stories of books that get altered between editions because the author simply had to change a few (or many) bits. But how does this process work? What, precisely, is a writer doing once the story has already been told?
I’ve been thinking a great deal about this stage of things, which is basically craft. After the story is written, plot holes plugged, motivations assured, pacing polished—the writer needs to take a good look at the actual writing. Are these the best words? Do sentence structures vary? Is this format really working for the subject matter (though this one you would—I hope—determine earlier in the process)? This stage, I believe, is where many writers lose patience. They skip it entirely, deem their manuscript ready to go out into the world, and then are surprised when no one beats down their door to publish it. A great story is important, but so is how you tell it. Otherwise, anyone with an idea could be a writer.
Bookstores are full of volumes that give writing advice. Many of them are basic, some of them are useless, but there are definitely books out there that can help you work on this phase of your craft. Some books focus on just one aspect of writing—such as characterizations—while others take a more soup-to-nuts approach. Even those geared toward beginners, if well written, will continue to offer advice to more skilled authors.
There are books I (and just about everyone else) always recommend: Stephen King’s On Writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer are excellent. I recently discovered Jeff Gerke’s Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction. But my favorite new find is The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long. Long tackles all those aspects of craft that are so important, and she does so by asking you to try new skills on bits of your current works in progress—rather than assigning writing prompts or exercises that have nothing to do with your own projects. This shows an understanding of the working writer’s schedule; not everyone can drop what they’re doing to work on something with no immediate practical application. The book is geared toward writers of creative nonfiction and shorter fiction, mostly because those examples were easiest for her to include in the text, but all the exercises and lessons can be applied to other forms of writing. The essay structures, in particular, are useful for anyone who blogs regularly. (Please note: I have no affiliation with any of these books or their authors.)
It goes without saying that you should also read other types of books—books in whatever genre you write, books that might be considered your competition, books for research, books to stretch your mind. But don’t gobble them up; take your time and really look at the words, sentences, structure. Read to learn what the author did (or didn’t do) to draw you in and make you feel, to put you into the world of the characters, to help you suspend your disbelief. Do the words set the mood? Does the rhythm of the sentences add to the story? Look at the pieces as well as the whole.
Writing is a wondrous activity because you never get to the end. This is not a static career, where you learn the steps and just keep doing them. It’s a constant challenge, with new ideas and skills around every corner. It is a work in progress with no deadline, and no completion.