Why is Writing Well so Difficult?

by Intermittent Rain ~ August 25th, 2015

Why is writing well so difficult?

It seems easy. When we talk, we don’t have difficulty communicating.

On the other hand, our appraisal of our chatter is not strict, not until we have to make a speech or a presentation. And when we speak face to face we receive feedback—discussion, questions, body language—to check how well our message is coming across.

Good writers make written communication seem natural, easy, almost invisible from a technical perspective. I find my writing (increasingly) cumbersome, clumsy, disorganized. Why does it require so much editing to get it right, or at least, better?

Maybe it’s useful to look at things that are a problem, figure out why they are a problem, and try to guess how they come about. Then, if we’re lucky, we can figure out a way of making it easier, and better earlier.


Sometimes the issue is a function of sentence or paragraph structure. Grouping and ordering the bits of information in the best sequence doesn’t always come the first time, especially if you rearrange sections and add material. In a critique I commented on a sentence which gave the time of day, the temperature, and the characters appearing on the scene, but the author said afternoon first, then told us riders on horseback, then mentioned the sweltering heat, then something else about the situation. I suggested putting the temperature and time together since they’re related, and keep the information about the characters with the situation, rather than time, riders, heat, situation, and the sentence could flow much better.

But you don’t always see those things as you write. You start with bits of information and add to it and don’t see how it might work better.

Another writer wrote about Mary sitting in her car waiting for it to heat up, rubbing her hands to warm them against the cold (using descriptive language and many more words in two compound sentences). If she’s in the car she’s probably sitting and if she’s rubbing her hands to warm them the car is probably not in motion and it’s probably cold inside and out. Could it be important that the car is running and not moving (carbon monoxide poisoning)? Maybe, but not to the author as the rest of the paragraph went into backstory. What I imagine here is the writer visualized the situation, devised bits of information, then put them together in sentences. Yes, give us details to make the scene real, but new information that adds something useful to our understanding, not repeated or obvious information (unless you’re writing a self-help book and repetition helps get your point across).

So maybe it is the process of revising, of changing to try to improve and adding to fill out and to build that leads us to dump in additional bits and bytes of information, and then it requires editing to find the new best structure.

What this implies to me is a willingness to be free with the structure as you insert, rework, and edit. You’ve got a nice couple of paragraphs but you realize you need more setting or more reaction from the character? Great, but be willing to toss all the pieces, new and old, into a pile. Look for duplicates and overlap. Look for bits that are obvious from other bits or that don’t add anything useful. Find the best order for presentation. Then, rewrite or re-weld from scratch. Remember the old days of doing research or analysis essays in college? Same plan. Don’t just think, Yes, I’ll add that bit of detail by stuffing a new sentence in.


What about the opposite; missing things? Not basics, like missing end quotation marks at the end of dialogue, but missing detail for realism, missing background for understanding character or situations, or larger scale items such as missing tension, or insufficient reason for the existence of a paragraph, scene, character, or chapter?

I tend to write concisely. There’s an aphorism that you write your first draft and cut out two thirds of what you’ve written in the second, but that doesn’t apply to my writing. Sure, there are phrases and words that don’t add anything, like in the story of Mary above, but generally the percentage that needs to be cut is small. On the other hand when a reviewer tells me “this needs to be twice as long,” sometimes I reword that to mean “give me more background, I don’t get enough story so that it works for me”. Now maybe it’s true; they really would like it to be twice as long, but sometimes it works better (imho) if I insert a description here, a sentence or paragraph of backstory there, a reaction to an existing situation that tells more about a character elsewhere. Tiny additions sprinkled throughout that define a character much clearer than before. Or on a larger scale a few moments of backstory or reflection or descriptive reaction, as opposed to another chapter.

Why were these not present earlier?


  • I was comfortable with the character being vague.
  • I didn’t see how much more powerful or understandable the story could be with a more clearly defined character.
  • I didn’t understand the character or the situation well asI was writing.
  • I still haven’t defined the character sharply enough in my mind, so when I read I don’t see what’s lacking.
  • I was reading things into the story that I haven’t written.
  • I’m not as good a reader as my reviewer.

Some of these things don’t come until review, or at least after first draft. Still, it doesn’t hurt to work toward being capable of seeing them earlier, to keep them in consideration in my own reading and early revising.

I guess the potential downside is losing some speed and flow in the first draft process. On the other hand, the improvements I’ve made over the years to my editing and sentence writing ability have not hampered my first draft writing, at least not that I’m aware of, but it has enabled me to write better sentences the first time, with fewer repeated words, fewer adverbs, better rhythm. (And I know that my expectations and hopes for the quality of my writing is higher, hence my ongoing failure in spite of my improvement.)

Sometimes some of the lack of detail and background is a natural difficulty of writing fiction. Like the liar, the fiction writer wasn’t actually there and so details, sensory information, emotional reactions and developments are imagined, faked. Lies. So the descriptions will easily be lacking key elements of a ‘truthful statement’.


Okay, what about plot and storyline?

Sometimes I enjoy the writing, the exploration, the creation of sentences and paragraphs, and end up with little or no plot. Why should a reader find what I have to say interesting? If I have no arc, if the character doesn’t evolve, if the action is random or not investigated, what’s the point?

I might be aiming for an investigation into a situation or a moment, a dramatic presentation of an event. But wouldn’t it be stronger and have more meaning with more context? If we understood more about the characters and why they act or react, more about the circumstances that drove this combination of elements to collide, would the reader not get more?

A vignette is a moment with valid artistic value, but a vignette has to evoke more than what is presented. It needs to encourage the reader to experience a mood, an emotion, or to reflect and consider the implications of the words beyond what is there on the page. Placed within a larger piece, a vignette might give the reader a deeper sense of one of the characters. It adds to our understanding of who this person is, and is the point of the writing.

But as a stand alone short piece, a vignette lacks the context that one within a novel will have, and needs to be more universal, both in its experience and in its application, thereby requiring less setting. Or, so powerful, so poetic or poignant in its expression that they have touched something through the words, and it was a worthwhile experience.

Or so I think, anyway.

This is something that I’m struggling with. In theory a lot of my short writing experiments could be considered vignettes because I’m trying to capture a moment in time, a slice of someone’s life, but they may not be poignant enough to be worth reading, unless you’re going to stand there and admire my writing, like I do.

In a larger piece, conflict, physical description, beats, anything outside dialogue or internal narrative can be lacking. When I feel my way through a chapter often there is one element that drives the writing. In a dramatic or conflict situation that driver could be dialogue. In a chapter build around a series of events it could be getting the characters from one setting or situation to the next. In a problem solving situation it could be all about the problem; setting it up, experiencing the blockage, finding the solution.

Anything that is not the driver could be left behind. In a dramatic situation the tension will be there, but I might miss opportunities to heighten conflict with smaller tensions, and I will definitely miss physical activity. In a series of events the movement will be key and I will miss description, conflict, and dialogue.

Lies, and Fiction

by Intermittent Rain ~ June 24th, 2015

Fiction is a lie, or at least an untruth. A good storyteller can make an untruth believable within the world or reality they construct.

To become a good storyteller perhaps one needs to be a good liar. To become a good liar perhaps the starting point is to avoid clues that you are lying.

# # #

If you Google “Forensic Statement Analysis” you find lots of garbage; courses and workshops you can sign up for (after paying a reasonable fee) to learn how to detect liars. These may or may not have elements of legitimacy. To me, they seem as likely to improve your life as the books about body language; some potential value, but it’s not the equivalent of X-ray vision or mind reading some make it out to be. Crime fiction writers may find it more useful than the rest of us.

One source I found is a book with a preview available on Google books:

Forensic Interviewing

Some of the author’s comments apply to writing fiction.


Information gaps, in victim or suspect statements:

  • “ … 1) the action was interrupted and if the statement is credible, the interruption should be described or 2) the writer is intentionally omitting time and information from their statement, indicating deception.”

If you leave out information, your statement becomes suspect. The same applies to the story you are fabricating. Don’t leave gaps in the logic, or skip events, or miss chunks of time, unless you do so intentionally to raise suspicions in your reader.


And sensory gaps:

  • “False statements provided by an alleged victim may reveal a lack of sensory details because the person could not perceive any sensory data from a fictitious account.”


  • “A statement written by a deceptive suspect may disclose the same lack of sensory details, but for different reasons — either to avoid providing a truthful account that would implicate the writer or to refrain from supplying detailed false information that a competent investigator could refute.”

Summarized, a truthful statement is more likely to include a variety of sensory elements (not just sight) than an untruthful one, and a deception will give less detail and volume of description to avoid offering some that might be challenged and found to be false.

Our fiction often lacks sufficient sensory details for the same reason as the lie; we weren’t actually there. To help convince the reader that we are telling the truth we need to include lots of sensory description, like an experienced liar might.


Writers know passive voice should be used carefully, for reasons I won’t rehash here, but also:

  • “The passive voice becomes significant in investigative statements when it is used to evade an issue.”


  • “An important point to know regarding passive voice/language in a statement is it is used to hide the identity of the actor of the story is a fabrication, and the writer uses the passive voice in order to not identify or give a name to the imaginary person he is writing about.”

“Jeff left the safe unlocked” raises questions about Jeff. Change it to passive voice; “the safe was left unlocked” and we remove the doer of the action, and hide Jeff.

It’s more distasteful to falsify events, to state an outright lie like, “Jeff did not leave the safe unlocked” or “I saw Jeff lock the safe” than to use passive voice and say “the safe was not locked” and shrug our shoulders when asked if we know who left it vulnerable. Passive voice allows us to (attempt to) avoid lying by telling an incomplete truth. But like cookie crumbs in the corner of a five year old’s mouth, using passive voice may raise suspicions that we’re not telling the whole story.


For criminal investigators, elements such as information gaps, sensory gaps, and passive voice are potential clues that a story is false or incomplete. All of us, including our readers, are vaguely aware that this makes sense. If we want to extend our readers’ suspension of disbelief, it helps to avoid the mistakes of inexperienced deluders.

Write your fiction as if you are a virtuoso con artist.

Writing Review: Nine Dragons and Burning Angel

by Intermittent Rain ~ February 24th, 2015

I’ve recently read (some of) two novels: a randomly selected detective novel, Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly, and a cop novel that came recommended, Burning Angel by James Lee Burke.

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First, Nine Dragons. Grammatically fine, but the writing is not much beyond high school. The internal monologue is probably the best part, but the dialogue is flat and colorless. Often there are long stretches of dialogue with no action, no gestures, no change in facial expression or vocal inflection, and little internal monologue or review of the developments. The only way we are aware that the characters might possibly be experiencing any emotion is when someone says something ‘curtly’ or ‘in a sulking voice’.

For example, after pages and pages of dialogue with no emotional clues,

Bosch was growing excited.

“Then, why don’t we do it?”

So at least we know he’s now feeling something.

And you also get writing like this:

“… If you think there is any danger involved in talking to us, then we can protect you.”

“Absolutely,” Chu chimed in.

“Chimed in” is not wrong, but it’s not good either. It’s something you’d expect in a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew novel.

“What is this?” Chang protested. “What I do?”

He had a strong accent.

In case you didn’t notice or thought there was a typo, Chang has a strong accent.

Contrast the writing with this, from Burning Angel:

He had been born to an exclusionary world of wealth and private schools, membership in the town’s one country club, and Christmas vacations in places the rest of us knew of only from books, but no one could accuse him of not having improved upon what he had been given.

I doubt that there is any sentence this length in Nine Dragons, though I can’t say for sure because I didn’t finish it. I was a third of the way through when my wife handed me Burning Angel.

A little further along in our introduction to the character above, we get this paragraph. A nice balance of a short sentence with a longer one, while we see more of the character, his manner, and the location.

We walked under the trees in his backyard. His face was cool and pleasant as he sipped his iced tea and looked at a motorboat and a water-skier hammering down the bayou on pillows of yellow foam.

Whereas Connelly says things like:

As the two women got closer Bosch saw that the younger woman was in her midthirties and attractive in an understated, hair-behind-the-ears sort of way. She was Asian. She was dressed in blue jeans and a white blouse. She walked a half step behind Mrs. Li with her eyes cast down on the floor. The initial impression Bosch got was that she was an employee. A maid pressed into services as a driver. But the deskman downstairs had said they were both named Li.

Here we’re getting what I think of as the faux-Chandler style of short, abrupt, incomplete sentences, used when a writer wants to represent a no-nonsense tough guy. (And note: three sentences in a row that begin with ‘She’). In the last two sentences in particular you can imagine a Bogart caricature; teeth clenched, dressed in a fedora and trench coat, maybe a toothpick dangling from the corner of his mouth.

Compare this with:

His race was a mystery, his biscuit-colored body almost hairless, his stomach a water-filled balloon, his pudgy arms and hands those of a boy who never grew out of adolescence. But his comic proportions had always been a deception. When he was seventeen a neighbor’s hog rooted up his mother’s vegetable garden. Sweet Pea picked up the hog, carried it squealing to the highway, and threw it headlong into the grille of a semi-truck.

This one is not even the most elegant of Lee Burke’s descriptions, but it’s from early in the novel and since I didn’t finish Nine Dragons I wanted to be comparing similar sections.

The difficulty I have with Lee Burke is his obtuseness. Often his characters are saying things that don’t make sense because the other character—and you the reader as well—are supposed to be reading between the lines. It’s part of the wise-guy, I’m-just-as-smart-and-tough-as-you attitude and everybody knows it, but it slows the reading down because you have to interpret as you read.

And the emotions of his protagonist are obtuse as well, particularly when he suddenly loses control and beats someone up. I guess the anger was there, veiled, but more than once I didn’t understand why he suddenly started smashing a glass pitcher or his fists into someone’s face. I’m not sure whether this abruptness is obtuseness, or the narrator didn’t want to give away the story by showing the building emotion, or whether the character has anger management issues and didn’t expect the violence himself, or whether the author doesn’t feel that the build up is missing.

And though the writing is lovely, sometimes it’s too descriptive and too much. Every new character has unusual physical traits, and every setting is described poetically.

Somehow because of this, though the mystery is large and has big implications, it has that slice of life feel that literary works sometimes have, though it’s a particularly large slice for a character that is not himself larger than life, like say a James Bond or a Jack Reacher. The story ends by petering out without explosions or violence that match the rest of the novel. Two principle characters are found dead after a non-violent murder/suicide. A mystery character reveals herself and is quickly dispatched by someone who received a phone tip. All the loose ends are tied up, but it feels as if the character and the author (and maybe the reader too) are worn out.

But it is nice to read a genre writer who likes words, who views writing as more than a plot, who writes about characters who are more than just an amalgamation of traits, and settings that are more than just city and street names with temperatures and the occasional leafy tree.