Is your writing too clever?

ONEA woman who works in my office building puked twice- once in the hallway and once right outside the back entrance.

I think she did it on purpose. Not the throwing up itself, but the strategic placement of the reddish messes.

My brief encounters with her suggest she is a drama queen. The first puke in the hall I can understand. Maybe she couldn’t quite make it to the bathroom.

The second incident I saw with my own two eyes. She was literally three feet away from the trashcan.

My assessment may be uncharitable, but I believe this was her way of saying “Hey, everybody. I’m sick. Hey, look how sick I am! No discreet hacking in the private bathroom for me! By Odin’s beard, every man, woman, and child who walks through this building will know I am sick!”

Maybe you know someone like this, someone who likes to draw attention to himself or herself. Hopefully not to the extent I’ve described, but a guy or gal who must have the spotlight.

Sometimes our writing draws attention to itself. It says, “Look at me, look at me!”

 Is that a bad thing?

Almost always, unless you are writing metafiction.

 The goal of the writer is to achieve the “fictional dream”.

 John Gardner says, “…one of the chief mistakes a writer can make is allow or force the reader’s mind to be distracted, even momentarily, from the fictional dream.” In other words, you want the reader to be enthralled in your story and you don’t want them to be snapped out of it. As much as possible, they should forget they are reading a book. “Waking” them from the story of your book is a sin.

Sometimes breaking the fictional dream is accidental.

 Typos, confusing sentence structure, lapses in logic, continuity problems and other errors in technique draw the reader out of the story.

Sometimes breaking the fictional dream comes from a writer who is trying to be too clever.

 Here the writer makes a conscious and “clever” style choice that draws attention to the writing.

On style, Noah Lukeman says “Take a step back and ask yourself what’s more important: your writing or the story? Would you rather readers admire your writing, or become engrossed? If you answer the former, you must change your way of thinking. You must realize that when a reader gets lost in your story, turns pages rapidly and does not notice your writing, he is paying you the highest compliment.”

What are some examples of “too clever” writing?

 Using big vocabulary words when little words will work just as well.

Writing using only sentence fragments or only run-on sentences.

Trying to be ultra-minimalist, purposely leaving out all scene descriptions.

What if my clever stylistic choice is necessary for the story?

 If you told your story to a friend rather than writing it, would the telling be vastly different from your writing? If yes, then I would suggest you change your style.

Do some soul searching. Make absolutely sure your choices have nothing to do with ego and everything to do with the story. You don’t want to do the literary equivalent to drawing attention to your upchuck.

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