The Patience of Writing an Onion

Writing a good onion, I mean story, takes time and I don’t just mean the time to think and type the first draft. Becoming and being a writer is an evolution, a process, and we need to be patient with ourselves as we learn the craft and apply it. But what does being patient mean and how can we apply it in a meaningful way? Here are three areas where I’ve learned to apply patience:

Creating the story
One day, I heard one writer critique a story. “Sheila is a patient writer,” he said. I was dumbfounded. What did he mean? I read Sheila’s piece and then looked more carefully at the author’s I liked. Slowly, I figure it out and my writing improved immensely.

Patience in your writing means taking your time to explain things where and when they need to be explained. For example, a story which starts with a lot of back story tells of an impatient writer. Knowing when to sprinkle in the details and saving some of them for later takes patience. It also means taking the time to explain things clearly when the opportunity presents. That can be with setting, character description, with action or dialogue. If you are clearly grounded, then the reader will be as well. Take time developing that scene. Show the situation, the feelings, and focus on the important points and explain them as clearly as needed. Don’t rush it unless there’s a good reason for doing so. If you over-write, you can edit it down later. If you are patient with characters you will make them memorable. If you are patient with your story, you will ground your readers and hold their interest.

Learning new skills
You can’t learn everything from a book, a workshop, a conference or a course. The secret, I’ve learned, is to take one thing that stuck with you and apply it to your story, scene or character. That one thing is usually an aha! moment and because of that it means you’ve become aware of something you never realized before. It’s another layer in writing the perfect onion. Apply that new understanding to your work and suddenly it’s transformed in ways you couldn’t have imagined. The truth is that how-to books are long and cumbersome and workshops are intensive because they try to cover enough points so that everyone will get something from it. So, take one thing and apply it.

Deciding which hat not to wear
The first draft can never be perfect – you’ve heard this before but what does it really mean? If you strive for a perfect first draft, your story will never be written and it’s an impossible feat. It’s impossible to wear both the creative hat and the editor’s hats. Yes, plural hat for the editors.

There are three editorial hats: conceptual where the larger elements of the story such as plot and structure are examined; line by line where every sentence and word are examined for clarity, word choice and content; and copy editing for grammar, spelling and punctuation. Then there’s the creative hat. Wearing four hats? Suddenly that sounds silly, doesn’t it?

Your first draft can be augmented by some planning (outlining) and your current writing skills. As you’ll write, you’ll learn more up skills along the way which makes new works cleaner and more cohesive. But that first draft will never be a perfect finished work. Every successful writer knows that. Don’t believe me? Check out their acknowledgements pages. First readers, proof readers, editors – they’re all thanked because they’re all there for a reason. Creativity needs its own hat to weave unexpected twists and unfetter your imagination. The weight of four hats will give you a headache and ultimately, writer’s block. So be patient. Wear your creative hat and come up with an exciting, moving story. The wear each editorial hat in turn. As you wear each one, that’s a good time to apply new skills or insights about the craft. A trick is to have cheat sheets with points or questions for each of the editors.

Patience can best be described as creating an onion rather than peeling it back. Layer upon layer must be built before the story is completed to our satisfaction. So perhaps the hat analogy doesn’t really work. The creative and editing processes are about layering the story to add density to the concept, the plot, to character, to our voice and mastery of the craft. An onion grows from a small seed and layer by layer with watering and patience, it forms a solid bulb and so too grows a story.

2 responses on “The Patience of Writing an Onion

  1. frank

    Great post! I love looking at it this way. I’m working on several projects right now so I’m getting used to switching hats more often than I usually do. It’s good practice and forcing me to really consider what my focus is at any given time. The result is more clarity and better results.

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