Beautiful words are daunting.
Well, let me restate. Trying to write beautiful words is daunting. Beautiful words are beautiful— it’s the writing that gets hard.
Neil Gaiman. Laini Taylor. Patrick Rothfuss. These people have beautiful words flowing from their pens on every page. Maggie Stiefvater. Cornelia Funke. Miriam Joy. (Yes, I’m including her, because, guys, her book.) With all of these people, it seems like they roll out of bed spouting poetic prose. Even their headdesks are eloquent.
Then there’s me, who’s still trying to get his protagonist’s head on straight. I can maybe make one pretty word in a million, but a whole string of them? That makes me headdesk, and that just emphasizes the point: I am not naturally poetic. Those of you following the Teens Can Write, Too! blog might have noticed by now: John Hansen posted this exact complaint a couple days ago, about his own writing. We have this in common, I guess. Pretty writing is not natural to us. In his post, John affirms that it’s okay to use Orwellian prose (prose as a clear window to the story, not distracting), and your personal style is always better than copying someone else’s. He’s right.
Some of my favorite authors have very clear, Orwellian prose. Brandon Sanderson is the most notable; several times on Writing Excuses, he’s claimed— even boasted of— his non-poetic style. It’s true. He tells his story plainly, without any of the frills or vivid descriptions that often characterize fantasies. He writes what the story needs and no more, preferring to emphasize his setting, his plot, and his characters. Personally, I set more store in those three things than the style of a book. As long as the words are serviceable, I’m fine with them. I’m not going to dock points for plain prose.
Especially at the beginning of a writer’s learning curve, I’d rather have a coherent plot and good characters than pages of brilliant writing. Without purpose, those words are useless. It’s more important for a learning writer to gain skill at creating and developing a story than at obsessing over the Right Word.
If I agree with everyone, why am I writing this?
Brandon Sanderson told a story in the middle of a creative writing lecture he has on YouTube. He said that once, he wrote a paragraph of description and worked to get it as beautiful as it could be. He sent it off to his editor in the middle of a manuscript, and when the notes came back, his editor told him to tone down the poetry on that paragraph. Why? Paraphrased, “If you do it there, you’ll have to do it in the rest of the book.” So Sanderson dropped the poetry and went back to his serviceable prose.
First moral of the story: Your style has to be uniform across the story, varying slightly as necessary, but never standing out as far more or far less poetic than the rest. That’s when you run into trouble. Second moral (the one Sanderson didn’t intend): anyone can work to make their prose better, but it takes time. We saw this before with Patrick Rothfuss. What does this mean for Sanderson? It means, unfortunately, that he gave up.
Put down your pitchforks. Sanderson knows so much about the craft, and has worked so hard on producing amazing books, that it’s difficult to accuse him of giving up on anything. But that’s how I see it. If he wished, he (and his editor) could have stepped back and worked to make that book as poetic as possible, in the same way that they worked to make Warbreaker use humor as a devastating tool, or the way they worked to make Mistborn and sequels as twisty and surprising as they did. He’s no stranger to taking time to improve; but this time, he didn’t.
This problem— contentment— is a recurring problem with new (and experienced) writers. It’s important to learn the craft of storytelling before you tackle the extra things like beautiful prose, but don’t be content to sit on your pile of writing knowledge. Keep looking for new ways to make yourself better. When you take time once to make yourself excel, it will begin to come more and more easily. Even if you’re on top of the bestselling charts several times a year with brilliant, imaginative stories, you can still learn, and you should still learn. Giving up is not an option.
Mini-rant at one of the best authors in fantasy over, let’s get down to brass tacks. I just claimed that Brandon Sanderson gave up on a learning opportunity, but earlier in this post I asserted that poetic writing didn’t come naturally to me. Am I giving up too? I also asserted that John Hansen was right to say you should stick with your own style instead of copying someone else’s. Am I contradicting myself all over the place?
No. Poetry does not come naturally to me. It doesn’t come naturally. Neither does learning German, yet I’m doing it. Neither does writing, really, and here I am doing it. Neither does making friends, and yet I’ve become frighteningly good at it. (Frightening to myself, that is. Have a cookie.) Poetry doesn’t come naturally, but there’s a list as long as my arm of things I’m not naturally good at, but have conquered. Everyone is the same way in this respect. Everyone can learn.
Poetry can be learned. Just like character development, just like outlining, just like worldbuilding, poetry can be learned. Not only that, you don’t have to wait until you’ve conquered storytelling to learn poetry; you can multitask. What am I telling you? Here it is.
Write in your own style, like John Hansen said. By all means, write simply, like Brandon Sanderson says. But never sit on that state of being. It’s going to be difficult— learning always is— but you can learn to write as beautifully as all the authors I listed above. More beautifully, even, if you take the time to learn.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to teach you in this post. I promise you, the next post you see will be about poetry and how to improve it. If you put in the effort to learn, I’ll do my best to teach you what little I know about writing beautifully.