Departure from Controlled Flight
By Cameron M. Smith
My hang-gliding instructor introduced me to the ominous term I’ve drafted for the title of this post; ‘DCF’. Not good. There are many ways to get there; trying too hard, not trying hard enough…equipment failure…Many ways to get to DCF.
I think the same of writing. In fact, considering how much there is to go wrong in writing, it’s a wonder it ever works at all.
Below, some advice for avoiding the DCF equivalent of writing. There is a lot to go wrong. These are some of the lessons I’ve learned in years of writing; I continue to make some, but at least I’m getting better at knowing when I’m doing it.
It can take years to learn these things. I’ve been lucky to have them reinforced, repeatedly, as a member of The Guttery.
Not all of these points apply to all writers, all kinds of writing, or even all stages of a writing career. Every point could be argued, this way and that, in a fun evening at the pub. I have my biases and preferences, and they’re obvious below; you should note that I write, largely, personal nonfiction narrative.
I’m sure all of this has been written before, but I don’t care; writing it out has been useful for me and may be useful to others.
Well; it all goes in the hopper.
* Writing Too Quickly: Deadlines can motivate, but they also lead to compromises. Stay organized with a writing calendar and schedule your work. Truck drivers, the old writers’ saw goes, are not allowed to have ‘Truck Drivers’ Block.’ On the other hand, writing well is not truck driving (however subtle good truck driving might be.) Writing well is like painting or drawing well, it is not easy. A good sentence can represent hours of work. “I sweat over every word,” Irwin Shaw said.
* Distraction: You cannot write well without full concentration. When it is time to write, people who wish to have contact with you must imagine that, as as Norman Mailer said, you’ve gone on a voyage to South America. You will not be back for some time, not even a little. Quarterbacks, airline pilots, mountain guides, train drivers, and other professionals do not engage with others while they’re working–they don’t take phone calls or answer the door–and at least some writers (like me) can’t, either. The most common woe I hear expressed by writers is being unable to find the time to write with a clear mind. You have to carve that out. How? Somehow.
* Writing for Money: Writing is a grinding, inefficient way to try to get your hands on money. Well-paying jobs are rare. The Authors’ Guild reports that 95% of American writers do not make their primary income from writing. Writing for money, like writing too quickly, leads to compromises. You’re normally writing for so little that you’re doing it for yourself, and you might as well have the self-respect to do it well. Keep your day job, then compartmentalize your writing time to eliminate all distraction so that you produce good work. Eventually, the money comes in because the work is good. Yes, crummy writing may sell, but is that what you want to do–sell crummy writing?
* Not Doing Your Research: If you want to tell the truth in writing, which you must do even in fiction, you have to know your topic. Even if you don’t directly use a single fact you learn about your topic, one false word or tone and your reader will rightly lose confidence in you. Know the material inside and out; it will come through in the writing–or, at least, ignorance won’t.
* Being Too Close or Too Distant: Writing too close to the reader can come off as ‘cutesy’ or taking liberties. Writing too far off, though, comes across as high-and-mighty. This is extremely delicate ground, though; some readers (like me) prefer some distance between author and reader, others want the author right there. Again, very thin ice, here. As Galadriel said in the The Lord of the Rings: “The quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail.”
* Tension: A reader can tell whether or not the author is relaxed. A written work can be tense, but that tension must be manufactured by the author. A genuinely tense author gushes, revealing too much about their own state. Before his writing on East of Eden on March 23, 1951, John Steinbeck–in his daily journal entry to his editor–ranted about the low quality of his pencils; “Points break and all hell breaks loose” he wrote. But by the end of the entry he wrote, “I have lost the sense of rush with which I started this [the day’s work] and that is exactly what I intended to do.”
* Looseness: A reader can tell whether or not the author is being loose with their words and therefore their thinking and therefore their attention to the reader. A loose author sounds inebriated, they write for self-indulgence and the reader is an afterthought. Pick material you care about, and focus on saying what you want to say, in your chosen form.
* Trying Not to Offend: Trying to please everyone leads to compromises with words–and you must use exactly the right word, no matter what–and facts, which are so easily blurred to fit your purposes. Naturally, a good author considers the audience, and there are conventions for some kinds of writing, but personal narratives in which everything is peachy-keen and everyone is filled with light come off, rightfully, as sickly-sweet. Honesty will gain the reader’s trust, which is everything. The reader doesn’t have to like you, but they do have to trust you. Above I wrote that writing was not truck driving. Then, to avoid offending any truck-drivers or friends whose relatives may be truck drivers (and so on), I Tried Not To Offend by adding this: “(however subtle good truck driving might be.)” I’ve kept this parenthetical only because it’s such a good illustration of a mistake. One more example; Anthony Bourdain, whom you may not like and who may actually exaggerate on occasion, writes very well and does not try to please everyone; in Kitchen Confidential he wrote, “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn.” I know at least one vegetarian who has laughed at that. You may not like Bourdain, but at least you know he’s not schmoozing you.
* Not Listening to Advice: While you mustn’t write-to-not-offend, you should listen to good advice from readers. A good writing group can be hard to find–members have to be able to give and take useful critique, which is a skill–but is important. A good writing group can help you, over a few years, to find your voice, and that is done by analyzing your writing time and again. Listen to readers and writers, determine what you’re willing to adjust, and then do it. Don’t forget that you will need some kind of armor. Not everybody has to see it, but you will need it. Be sure, in your writing group, to edit other writers’ work with complete attention; give them reason to be equally exacting about your work.
* Not Being in Love With the Subject: Whether or not passion is overt in the work, you have to be passionate about the subject to write well. Passion ultimately exposes truth, and good writing is about truth. Lack of passion will flavor the writing with weak, noncommittal wording and a depressing mediocrity. Don’t undertake a writing project unless you’re passionate about the material. The most dismal examples of passionless writing I have seen are in travel magazines, where the author is once again reviewing a ‘breathtaking sunrise’ or a ‘charming villa’. These unfortunate writers are exhausted. They are ‘calling in’ a performance and, arguably, wasting their own time and yours.
* Copying: Aspiring writers want to sound ‘just like X’ but everyone can tell if you copy another author; and do you want to be copying, anyway? A good author’s voice is distinctive, it is their own, though it can be well-informed by their attention to other writers. It can take years to work past copying, and even after this time, you must re-read your material to be sure you’re not copying subconsciously. Develop your own voice through years of diligent work and by taking to time to know who you are and what you have to bring to the world of readers.
* Exaggerations: In editing you may see that you’ve written an exaggeration, and that should remind you that you’re using a crutch. Things aren’t compelling enough without a side-show, and that’s a red flag to reconsider the whole work. For the reader, an exaggeration says that the writer might just make up anything…so why keep reading? Don’t exaggerate. Our own lives are more compelling than any movie, but we’re often too bedazzled by movies to remember it. Write about things that don’t need exaggeration. The horror of reality TV is that it is a lie posing as truth; fiction, although it might communicate great truth, at least doesn’t pretend to be truth. Pick a genre.
* Putting Yourself in the Work: Unless you are well-known to the world, nobody cares about your specific experience or troubles. The reader cares about what they can identify with, and that may well be your specific experiences or troubles, but they have to be told that way; the author is a vehicle. A story of hearbreak is excruciating to read unless it communicates some new insight (which the reader can learn from and apply to their own life) or reiterates an old lesson (which the reader can learn from and apply to their own life). A lot of an author’s personal writing should remain in a journal. Well enough for the author to write that, and in writing it understand themselves to improve the writing, but pouring it out for everyone can reveal too much. Ray Bradbury, in an interview in The Paris Review, addresses the issue when talking about his writing in a very general way: “I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember. The great religions are all metaphor. We appreciate things like Daniel and the lion’s den, and the Tower of Babel. People remember these metaphors because they are so vivid you can’t get free of them…” See? Even when Bradbury is talking about himself, he’s not really talking about himself.
Yep, it’s a lot to keep in mind, and these are only things that come to mind right now; emergencies come up, the wrong word can collapse a work in a moment! Alarm!
And if you don’t think a single word can do that, if you don’t feel that strongly about the writing, you’re not going to write well.
When you have cleared your mind to write, and sit down to do it, you may as well be climbing into a cockpit. To me, it’s that important to get it right.
There are many ways to induce Departure from Controlled Flight; avoiding them requires knowing what they are.