“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”
I love this quote from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the ambiguity of meaning. On one level it seems to makes sense, on another, I have no idea what it means. Communicating your exact thoughts to another person is not always easy.
For the last 18 months, I have been a member of the critique site, Scribophile. The website is geared for critiquing the works of others. The help I have received from fellow writers has been invaluable.
Writing and critiquing is such a personal thing. Getting your message across, or understanding advice offered, can be difficult. I have discovered that we all speak a different writer’s language. One person’s goal is another person’s ‘want’, ‘need’, ‘agency’ or simply ‘I haven’t a clue what your character is about’. And where one person says conflict, another may say ‘obstacle’, ‘roadblock’, ‘problem’, or ‘not much seems to be happening.’
Several years ago, I completed an online class for writing romance which provided me with tools for creating character arc, conflict and tension. I remember reading a handout telling me a character has to want something, have a strong reason for wanting it and that something and had to struggle to get it. I nodded sagely at the computer screen. This advice resonated with me and almost immediately I found I was able to structure a better story. But only to a point. I had the tools, but didn’t know how to implement them.
“A character must drive the plot forwards,” the handout also said. Again, I nodded sagely because it seems to make sense, and I’ve read that same piece of advice many times since. But actually, I had no idea what it meant. How exactly does a character drive the action forwards, why do they need to and what happens if they don’t?
It took a long time for me to connect the dots and link the two pieces of advice together. To tell the story I was trying to tell, the character not only had to want something, and want it badly, she had to actively pursue it, face dilemmas and make decisions. The story or plot doesn’t happen to the character, it’s the character’s actions that make the story happen.
There are many writing books and articles out there, and we all strive to find the one that resonates and takes our stories in the direction we want it to go. Some may even say the same thing using a different language. But I realised that understanding the words wasn’t the same as knowing what they mean.
Writing advice, whether it comes from a book or critique partner, provides us with clues to be unravelled. A bit like solving a cryptic crossword clue, we may all follow a different path to come up with the same answer.
Which brings me back full circle. Crossword complier Alistair Ferguson Ritchie once said: “You need not mean what you say, but you must say what you mean.” Slowly, I am starting to make sense of the writing process. Or is the writing process making sense of me? Is there even any logic to that question? I’ve no idea, but then I’ve never solved a cryptic crossword clue in my life.