Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Obligingly Regurgitating Your Meal on the Grounds

The greedy school bus crept through the streets devouring clumps of children until its belly groaned with surfeit, then lumbered back to the schoolhouse where it obligingly regurgitated its meal onto the grounds. – Wendy Lawton

The above sentence stirs my feelings… especially ones of nausea and panic. Because for one brief second every time I read it, I realize the sentence was written by a respected author and literary agent.

Then I am suddenly calmed when I remember the author created it in order to evoke strong negative emotions in the judges of the Bulwer-Lytton terrible first sentence contest. It worked. In 1999, she took home the worst first sentence prize.

Which ironically, was nothing.

Which ironically, is the same thing you and I take home when we are too quick to devour clumps of writing advice until our bellies groan with surfeit, then lumber back to our writing desks where we obligingly regurgitate the advice onto our computer screens.

To put it bluntly: formulaic writing lacks emotion. And as Erynn said in her post yesterday, we want to create emotion in our characters, which creates emotion in our readers.

Don’t get me wrong. We need formula. But there’s something scary out there that agents and editors are only whispering about. They’re calling it the “workshopped to death” syndrome. In fact, I talked with an agent about it not long ago. She told me the proposals she’s getting are alike… as if they’re cut out of the same pattern.

The writers have followed the formula perfectly – but they’ve still missed the target. The book just doesn’t connect on the heart level.

It’s kind of like the amazing musician who has an incredible debut record. Then he moves to Nashville, gets a label, and starts a new sound. Except his new sound now sounds like everyone else.

He’s lost touch with the heart of his music.


What made you want to write in the first place? Was it to right an injustice? Was it to find healing? Was it to make people laugh? Was it to help others?

Come before God in this moment. Put away your workshop notes and books. Ask Him for HIS heart for this story and the people it will touch.

That emotion will now come out in your characters. That emotion in your characters will emote emotion in your readers.

Then creep through your computer files devouring clumps of formulaic writing until your belly groans with surfeit, and lumber back to the heart of the story and try not to obligingly regurgitate all the words you just deleted.


  1. I totally get what you're saying. There comes a time when studying just becomes another way to procrastinate. Progress, not procrastination! That's what I keep telling myself.

    Still, how do you pry the stacks of writing books out of your hands when you feel like you still have so much to learn?

  2. There's a balance, and you said it well, girl! There must somehow be a way to study and learn and grow in the technical aspects of craft, but not let said craft take over the story. It's a struggle for all writers, Christiana. Sometimes there is no set right or wrong way to do it, just do what feels right for you. If you start getting overwhelmed by too much knowledge, then you know its time to put the books down and just WRITE. Just FEEL. Just LIVE.

  3. Thanks, Erynn and CJ!

    Christiana, what Betsy said. (Betsy - how did you say that? It's exactly what I was thinking but you said it better.) Love your questions, Christiana. I feel like I have a lot to learn from you girls!