Many of the submissions Joe Ponepinto has turned down for his literary journal appeared to have everything going for them — tension, good characterization, an interesting premise — yet they just didn’t work. He had to reject stories that hit all the right buttons, but failed to resonate.
Writing as both an editor and author, he tells us what’s wrong with technically sound but lifeless submissions:
In short, the writer is present in every sentence, hunched over the reader’s shoulder, which is why so much in these stories sounds like explanation, like the writer worrying that readers won’t “get it” unless they lay out paragraphs of background info. As Elmore Leonard famously said, it sounds like writing.
How do you create writing that doesn’t sound like writing? Yes, you have to hit all the right buttons, including pacing, characterization, theme, plot points, tension, etc, but you have to do it without the reader seeing you do it. And you can only do that when you don’t think about those technicalities. As Ponepinto puts it, “You have to internalize the conventions of creative writing so that you know them without thinking about them.”
Or, as Ernest Hemingway advised, “Write drunk, edit sober.”
The goal is what the Japanese call zanshin, the state of total awareness made possible by unselfconscious mastery of your craft. There’s only way to get there, and that is to practice the techniques of your craft until they enter your subconscious. In karate class, we had to practice basic skills repeatedly until they became second nature. In a tournament (or, more urgently, a street fight) you cannot win if you obsess over methodology. (How did sensei tell me to block a low punch?)
Martial arts require unconscious mastery and total focus, attributes that are invaluable in every aspect of life, including writing. Here’s what Wannabe Bushcrafter counsels about mastering the sling:
Your mind must be completely clear. Try to not think about anything when slinging. Distracting thoughts absolutely kills accuracy. …
Now here is the hard part! You need to practice, A LOT. You need to practice every single day for hundreds of days. Practice until your arm and back are sore, practice until thick hard calluses form on your release fingers. Practice until your muscles, your eyes and your mind become one. Practice until you are able to consciously purge all thoughts from your mind at a moment’s notice.
For writers, that means we must read a lot and write a lot.