Sense and Sensibility

The Dollbabies House Rental
Last week, I rented a house with a group of wonderful women writers in Virginia Beach. This working-vacation, what’s called, “Dollbabies Week,”has been going on for about fifteen years. My friendship with the talented author Terri-Lynne DeFino scored me an invite seven years ago.
And, yeah, there is a meaning behind the name “Dollbabies.” But too much wine and too many heady trips around the sun have excised this obviously important fact from memory.
Basically, it’s a week of writing at the beach with a bunch of talented women who respect what it takes to write. It’s pretty damn awesome. During the day the loudest noises are the clicking of keyboards, and an occasional text squawk from Terri-Lynne’s phone followed by her shaking her head with a lovingly whispered, “Oh, Frankie D.”  Even without knowing what has transpired, the women in the room laugh. Seriously, there should be a book about Frankie D’s exploits. Actually, I think there kind of is. It’s called Finder.
This week was typical. In that we wrote quietly during the day and at night drank wine and laughed and made crafts and howled at the moon. Literally howled. And, of course, we did the occasional cartwheel.


On one of the days, I had set a goal for myself of 5000 words. I met the goal around ten at night. Wine had been opened. The group of us sat around on the brown leather couches framing the great room. I had my laptop open and was pseudo-paying attention to the conversation.
Geri (left), Me (right) pseudo paying attention.
Though I had very little left in the tank, I began to exceed my word-quota. That’s when I realized I wasn’t “writing” anymore. I was just throwing words onto the page, going off on tangents, and taking seedy alleyways to nowhere just to make sure I could fill up another page. I stopped myself with this thought, “Now, you’re just making stuff up.”
I shut my computer.
When I told the ladies my line, “Now, you’re just making stuff up”, they all laughed. And, sure, it’s funny. Because isn’t that what writers do—we make stuff up?
But here’s the interesting part, I meant what I said. And even though it wasn’t verbalized, I believe the ladies understood. You see, yes, writers make things up, but that doesn’t mean we just fling things willy-nilly at the page. For me at least– pardon my reach, Jane Austen–writing needs to combine sense and sensibility.
Sensibility would be the feeling of a story. That feeling of casting out a line and sensing, before even the first tug, the weight of having a fish on the line. It means that even when I’m making things up there is a thread that leads me through the story labyrinth.
Labyrinth is a good way to put it. Because there are a lot of places to get sidetracked, lost, stuck in story. And that’s where sense comes in.
Writing can’t be led by my ego–a place to dump, sort, and expose my mental trash or treasures. It’s a skill. For me, writing weaves conscious and creative with subconscious prompts. That place where knowledge combines with my internal and emotional guidance system.
The more I think about this, the more I realize this lack of sense and sensibility is the reason, more often than not, my earlier works sucked.
In my earliest attempts at writing, I had either been too much in my head. Too much into the mechanical, worried about how things appeared on the page, worried about my grasp of writing craft. I hadn’t incorporated these skills yet, so I was always flailing about, not allowing my sensibilities to feel the story. via GIPHY
Conversely in some instances I wasn’t in my head enough. I hadn’t learned the skills, so I didn’t realize they were missing. I wasn’t conscious of the fact that making things up, putting words on the page wasn’t writing for others. I thought because I “felt” the story, scene, the character, the setting or the theme that those things transferred automatically onto the page. Nope. For me, it doesn’t work that way.
For me communication is hard work. Writing is hard work. And expressing the ideas rolling around in my head requires a great balancing. Sense and sensibility. It requires knowledge of pacing and emotions and character, how words play to an audience, invoke ideas, or obscure them. It also requires knowing when to let go and let myself follow that tug on the end of the line. That’s the magic of writing.
So what I meant when I said “Now you’re just making stuff up” was that I had lost that interior thread of the story and in addition was no longer even using skill. I was throwing things willy-nilly at the page–unconcerned with if it contributed or was aligned with character, mattered to pacing or the story, or even made sense in the context of the story. But that isn’t writing that communicates. I can’t just make things up. I need to put form to made up things.  via GIPHY
 In case you’re wondering, I didn’t “make up” this idea about writing either. When I borrowed “sense and sensibility” from Jane Austen it was to express something I’d been taught. Although not in the same words, I’d been told about flow, juggling balls, and walking the line between craft and imagination in numerous ways by numerous writing teachers. I’d heard about these things, but back then I didn’t understand.
It wasn’t until I learned what I needed to know about craft, until I made mistakes, committed serious writing crimes, failed and failed again that I understood it. Once I understood it and had practiced what I needed to know about writing–enough that it became second nature–I could do it. Not as well as some people mind you. I constantly have things I work on, need to learn or relearn. But I can tell a story now. And, really, that’s what I set out to do. Not just make things up.
I’m happy to report that all this hard work balancing sense and sensibility has earned my latest novel, Warrior Women: The Fall of Justice a place as a finalist in the Daphne du Maurier Awards for excellence in Mystery/Suspense. Good luck to all my fellow finalists! The winners will be announced in San Diego during the Death by Chocolate ceremony. Num. Chocolate. Death. So. Good.

6 thoughts on “Sense and Sensibility

  1. This is FABULOUS! Everyone should read it and DIGEST it. I'm sharing. 🙂

    (Dollbabies is a Linda-ism. It's what her…I think it was first or second grade teacher called the children in her class. It was the year Linda realized that school wasn't a place to run away from, but run to with enthusiasm.)

  2. Congratulations on being a finalist! What good news. Isn't it hard to wait? I love this essay because I've been fighting that notion that some people have that writing is just getting it all out on the page so you can edit it later. I find it hard to get enthused about that kind of writing. Your approach makes more sense. Think first. Then write. Thank you. AND CONGRATS AGAIN!!!!

  3. Thanks, Linda! Yep. For me writing is balancing between thinking and feeling. Too much thinking and you get stuck. Too much feeling and the story will probably only make sense to yourself.

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