Writing like a Control Freak

Two writers discussed the difference between books and and every other creative product:

When a musician plays, the audience has only to listen. When actors perform, viewers have only to watch, attention directed by the camera. After an artist paints or sculpts, people have only to look.

But readers have to put in effort, to imagine.

(As we are not obligated to dance to music, emotionally invest in film, or interpret visual art.) With books, the author and the reader must collaborate. When the book says “forest,” perhaps the species of trees are named and a squirrel runs along the canopy, but that and everything missing from the scene must be envisioned by the reader.

As a writer, I’m a ruler-wielding, bespectacled School Mistress of Pain

To describe air, I tell readers what it smells like, what the wind feels like, what it tastes like, show them the seeds and dust swirling in the breeze, the whistling sound it makes through crevices or the oceanic rush over rolling hills, and create a metaphor to make them think of that gasp between a baby’s cries, instilling particular emotions. Engaging all of the readers’ senses is important, but damn girl.

I’ll tell you exactly how high to jump, give you a trampoline, and whip out a fiery hoop

My mom would tell you that my bossiness comes naturally. My first fictions weren’t written. With three younger siblings, I used to create “stories” for us to enact. I would assign our characters, their motivations, outline the plot, and we’d play them out: medieval castle, rocket ship, sharks vs. mermaids, treasure hunt, superheroes, etc.

I choreograph the minutia of sex scenes and fighting sequences. To describe a sweeping kick, I catch myself describing the timing, the exact bend of the knee, the height the ankle reaches, the sound of contact. Even though I don’t leave room for the readers to color outside the lines, I demand excruciating vividness from their imaginations.

Reasons to be less of a control freak about writing:

  • Writing with demanding detail is taxing and probably contributes to the excessive word count issue I have.
  • It’s a jerky thing to do to readers, as if to grab them by the backs of their heads, tugging them by their hair this way and that to direct their attention.
  • Writing like a control freak is destined for failure. I could no more micromanage the stars or tame a leviathan.

Is there anything more unwieldy, more limitless, by definition, than human imagination? Once the books are out there, it’s not as if I can rap readers’ knuckles as they turn the pages.


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