Painting Yourself by Number

I like to watch people, and as both a cop and a storyteller it becomes a necessary part of my craft and trade.

As I was walking into the gym a couple days ago, I noticed a guy in front of me that I have seen many times. On first appearance, he is nothing remarkable, but the entertainment value of this man cannot be overstated.

When he got out of his car, he had a normal gait, but as he got close to the building his arms started drifting out from his body in what we meat-heads call “I-L-S” or “Invisible Lat Syndrome” – a common affliction among idiots, where they hold their arms away from their body, thinking it gives them the appearance of greater size, when in fact it only makes them look foolish. Or perhaps like they are trying to fly.

Once inside the gym he started chatting with the front-counter girls. He pitched his voice a couple of octaves lower than it should have been and tilted his chin up, drawing his words out and making broad gestures with his over-inflated posture. What he was trying to accomplish by this, I’m not entirely sure, but I hope he continues because I think it’s hilarious.

As I walked into the gym to start my workout, and got over the recently witnessed hilarity, I realized something: this man was trying desperately to be something that he obviously was not. He had crafted a personality out of attributes that he thought he should show people, as though he were filling in spaces on a ‘paint-by-numbers’ portrait.

Whether he actually believed in his carefully crafted facade, or he thought he was tricking everyone around him, I am entirely unsure. As Mark Twain said, “We Do not deal much in facts when we are contemplating ourselves.”

The same thing happens, I think, in our writing. I’ve noticed this especially with people who are starting out in the craft, or with folks who are reluctant to take criticizm because they believe they’ve already achieved mastery.

First, they try and write beyond their ability; they use a bunch of two dollar words when a nickle will do because they think no one will want to read their story unless they can drop “ubiquitous” or “sanctimony” somewhere into the prose. Anyone can flip through a thesaurus and pick out a word with five syllables, but that doesn’t mean you’re using it  right, or that it doesn’t look silly when it pops up in your narrative like a toadstool on a putting green.

Second, they write their story to suit a trend. Whether it be vampires, werewolves, dystopian teenagers who can kick your ass, or anythting else, they lose their individual voice – which is a thing of incomprable value – because they are trying to write someone else’s story. I’ve said it before, and I will say it several more times before someone convinces me to shut up about it: you have to write your story in your own, unique, awsome voice. When you do that, someone is going to want to read it.

Third – and just as important as using your own voice – some writers are unwilling to accept constructive criticism. (The operative word being ‘constructive’.)

I have been fortunate enough to have a dear friend who is a much better writer than me and loves me enough to give an honest appraisal of my work. The first novel I wrote absolutely sucked, and she told me so when she read it – although in slightly gentler terms. I didn’t want to hear it when she first told me, afflicted as I was with the belief that everything I produced was awesome, but I realized it was the truth. It was not until I was willing to accept the fact that my storytelling needed a great deal of work that I was able to improve it. It took a long time, and several hundred thousand words worth of stories that will never be published, but I got better – or at least I think I’m better, anyway.

When you are writing, just like when you’re going through your day, you don’t have to pretend to be something you are not. If you speak with your own voice, whether directly to people or to your readers through the page, the genuine value of it will quickly become apparent and someone is going to want to hear what you have to say.  

Mean what you say, both on the page and from between your teeth, and someone is going to hear it.

As always, thanks for reading.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Painting Yourself by Number

  1. I had a similar experience when I wrote my first novel length piece some 25 years ago. After listening for what seemed like hours, everything wrong with it, I started asking questions. My friend looked at me and smiled, “Congratulations, you’ve just crossed over from being a dilettante to a writer.” He’s still a friend, and the first person I send anything new to.

    Great post as well.

  2. Wonderful post and great advice! I like to refer back to a quote from Dr. Seuss which really sums this up. “Today you are You. That is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You!” If we all just remembered that, no matter what, our wonderful, amazing unique selves would come through in everything we say and do.

  3. That’s good advice, Tyner. Thanks for sharing that. You know, I hate it when writers start word-dropping. More often than not, all I do is trip over some of those fancy words. I hope you and yours are well, my friend. Have a good, safe week.

    -Jimmy

  4. Man, this post really struck home with me. My first novel (self-published) became an amazon best-seller in 3 categories and held that position for over 57 weeks. I actually made enough in royalties to pay my bills, month after month after month. “Wow!”, you say. “It must have been a really well-written piece of work!” Well, not so much. The writing wasn’t awful. On a scale of 1––10 (10 being superb) I think maybe it ranged somewhere between 4 and 7, depending on what particular aspect of the writing (sentence structure, paragraph structure, story arc, character development, chapter/scene transition, etc.) one might choose to analyze. So why did it sell so well?

    There was one main reason:
    The book came out in 2007 and the plot was entirely based on what had become a pop-culture phenomenon on a global scale: the coming end of the ancient Mayan calendar on December 12, 2012. When my book came out, there were scads of other “2012” books all ready on the market but they were all non-fiction. Mine, on the other hand, was a novel, a work of fiction. I think it might even have been the first novel to come out in which the 2012 phenomenon was a primary feature of the story. People who were interested in the 2012 phenomenon, but who were also looking for an entertaining novel, were snatching it up by the hundreds every month.

    But here’s the thing. The reviews were not just mixed, they were divided by a wide chasm. The chasm extended from 5 stars to 1 star with very few coming between those two extremes. With so many sales happening so fast, I never dreamed there would be any negative reviews. But, when those negative reviews started coming in, I was shocked. In fact, I went into a state of denial about what many of those reviewers had to say about the book even though, in the deep recesses of my mind, I suspected some of the negative comments were probably legitimate. I think it was a good year and a half before I was able to bring myself around to looking at those reviews with an objective eye. It turned out many of the negative comments were, in fact, spot on in their criticisms.

    That’s when I started delving into each of those criticisms with a vengeance. I was a man on a mission, determined that such criticisms would never beset my next attempt at a novel. That’s when the proclamation of Secolbert’s friend (see comment above) came into play: “Congratulations, you’ve just crossed over from being a dilettante to a writer.”

    It took me three years to write my latest novel (self plug – Ash: Return Of The Beast – http://www.garyvaltenuta.blogspot.com) and, so far, the reviews have been stellar. The few criticisms that have cropped up a couple of the reviews are more in the realm of the reviewers personal tastes rather than technical criticisms about the writing.

    I can’t, in good conscience, end this rambling comment without mentioning one more thing… or “person”, to be more accurate. The person is another indie author by the name of John C. Stipa (“No Greater Sacrifice” and “The Foiled Knight”). I had read John’s first novel, “No Greater Sacrifice” a few years ago (about the time I was starting work on “Ash”) and was so impressed with his writing that I asked him if he would be willing to read the first several chapters of my work-in-progress and would he please be brutally honest in his evaluation. He graciously accepted and he returned my Word doc with about a dozen detailed comments and critiques pertaining to specific elements of the writing. Those comments/critiques were invaluable assets to me as I continued to work on the story. Even though I thanked him for his brutal honesty and helpful suggestions, I often feel I can’t thank him enough. I’m sure he doesn’t realize it, but I consider him to be my mentor. That being the case, when “Ash” went live on amazon, I was thrilled to see his review contained this comment:

    “Tenuta has definitely stepped up his writing game since his 2007 novel, The Ezekiel Code. I enjoyed the plot twists and the race against time. Really great pacing. And kudos to Gary for not overdoing the relationship between the protagonists. Good character development, for both the good and bad guys, good scene descriptions, especially the mansion, and great action scenes. If you are a fan of Stephen King, you would like this occult thriller. ”

    So, bottom line: Take those criticisms and negative reviews to heart. They just might hold the hidden keys to your growth as a writer.

  5. Kathleen Ladislaus

    I always enjoy reading your blog. Always wise words. Now you’ve made me self-conscious about using the word sanctimonious. I always wanted to use that word in a novel. Words good enough Samuel Clemens always seemed like a safe bet until today. Damn it!

  6. Great post! I love the Mark Twain quote. Unfortunately, I’ve meet some of those writers along the way. Hopefully I haven’t been one.

  7. The thesaurus has been my friend only in that it has broadened my understanding. The richer the vocabulary, the deeper the grasp on nuance–the more sophisticated the capacity to think. Not to be sanctimonious about it or anything.

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