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Tuesday, January 16, 2007


I wish I could write like you

Here's a fact to remember:

Every writer thinks their way is the wrong way.

You see, different writers are good at different things. Unless you're a genius, your strengths will help you write but your weaknesses will sometimes trip you up. You may be great at plot, but have difficulty making your characters plausible. Or perhaps you've got great psychological insight, but your prose style comes under endless criticism. Or maybe you can write beautifully, but you can't structure without endless banging of your head on walls.

Meanwhile, there's your writing friend Bob who comes round for coffee and a chat every Friday. When conversing with him, it goes like this:

'Oh, Bob, I'm really stuck,' you cry. 'I need to have my hero paint the wall pink, otherwise the plot will collapse, but I can't think of why anyone would do that!'

'Well,' says Bob, looking surprised at the simplicity of the question, 'it's your book, of course, but if I were writing him, I'd say it was because he was trying to resolve his issues with the giant tortoise. After all, that's his underlying motive, isn't it?' (Yes, it is, but you only realise it now that Bob says it.) 'Plus, stop me if you don't like this, but didn't he have an encounter with a jazz saxophonist and a jar of shaving cream when he was a child? It seems to me that if you changed the shaving cream to candy floss and had the saxophonist borrow his oboe for a few days, that would definitely motivate someone with your hero's personality. I mean, that's what I'd do, anyway.'

And of course, Bob's right. He's absolutely right; crushingly, terrifyingly, irrefutably right. He knows your character better than you. You don't understand people at all. You should just let Bob write your book for you.

Except that when you ask Bob how he's doing, it goes like this:

'Well,' says Bob anxiously, 'I've got a clear idea of my romantic leads. He's going to have a huge existential crisis over a misunderstanding they've had that'll involve a three-legged race and some heartbreak. And she's working fine, I know exactly what she'll say in every situation. But what could they have a misunderstanding over? I really can't work out how to make it happen.'

'Why Bob,' you say, seeing an obvious solution, 'wouldn't it work if you had him take the job at the chemist's after all, and then have her come in to buy a shower-cap in the colour she swore she hated? I mean, it's your call, of course, I'm just making a suggestion.'

And Bob looks at you like you've just discovered penicillin, then lays his head down among the biscuits, muttering, 'I can't write, I can't write, I can't write. I should just let you write my book.'

And here's the real kicker: both you and Bob would happily trade places with each other.

This is the natural state of most writers. The thing is, the nature of being good at something is that it seems easy to you. If you compare yourself with another writer who's good at something you find difficult, and imagine swapping places with them, then you can't picture whatever it is you're good at being difficult to them, because hey, that's the easy bit.

On top of this, you get to witness your own methods. You know their pitfalls. Hence, it's easy to assume other people's must be better. Bob writes faster than you? He's far more inventive and you're a dry well of ideas. Slower than you? He's a perfectionist, and you're just a sloppy hack. Longer books that you? More ability to create. Shorter books? He's succinct and you can't control your verbiage. He writes to a regular schedule and you don't? Man, you're undisciplined compared with a paragon like him. You write to a regular schedule and he doesn't? You're just a drudging machine and he's gets inspirations. There are infinite ways in which to beat yourself up. And if you think about if for a second, you'll realise that probably Bob is playing himself the exact same tune - only in reverse.

Possibly if we could meld every writer in the world into a big ionized super-writer, then nothing would be difficult. In the meantime, there's nothing to do but try and play to your strengths, help each other out wherever possible, and remember that really, the other guy may not be having it any easier than you.

Every three-legged race involves some heartbreak.

It is the cruellest of the school sports day events.
How about the javelin? You have to hold that sharp pointy bit right by your face.

The funny thing is that recently I decided I overwrite. This is the ninth step on the twelve-step-plan of WHY DOES NOBODY LOVE MY WRITING. No, really, I overwrite. So I've been going through things trying to make them leaner, learning how to spot the waffle. And today I was looking at some slush for a friend's magazine, and I thought, wow, this first paragraph is overwritten. Snip snip snip, there, that's better, send it back.

It's strange, this writing life.

But I'd definitely swap places with my friend Karen Dionne, who just sold her thriller to Berkley. Just for five minutes. Just to know how it feels!
Great post, this is just what I was thinking about today. With the New Year lots of people on the mailing lists have been talking and thinking about how they can take their writing to the next level (how to become publishable, what they feel holds their writing back and how they hope to move on to the next stage). You say everyone has different skills and that makes sense, but reading LJ and mail lists I am wondering if my problem is one that holds many new writers back. I can’t plan or plot. I can sit down to write and characters will always come out to play, generally they bring some good conflict with them and I can always get a vivid picture of their world. But writing this way the story lacks structure and resolution (these things tend to sort themselves out to some degree in novel length but attempts at short fiction are hopeless). I’m beginning to think that Poe is right, you need to know the end (at least to some degree) before you begin, but I simply can’t do it, the ideas are not there until they are sort of acted out by the writing/characters etc. Do you think there is any hope for such an unstructured/uncontrolled approach?
That is a tricky one, and I know that from experience! A few questions:

If you begin with characters, can you get your characters to play for a while, and then step back and try to sort out what kind of situation they've created - and from there, what a satisfying outcome would be? Say, you write a thousand words, then look at what's been said and done, identify which things are the key elements that need resolving, and then work out a way to tie them off?

The other thing you might want to consider is what kind of situation you place your characters in. Stories are about how personalities interact with their environment, and you need both personality and environment if you're going to create a plot. Does looking at how the world acts upon your characters give you ideas for what might be changed, in either the characters or the world, to give a good conclusion?

A rule of thumb I've heard script writers use is the question: what does this character want? The story is then about how they try to get it, and whether they succeed. This can be what they want from the world, or from each other, or from themselves, or anything, really. But a character's desire will drive a story forward. If your characters are vivid, hopefully you'll be able to picture what they want, which may give you a sense of what direction to push them.

And remember, there's no shame in brainstorming with other people. I do it all the time. Ask your friends what they think, take their suggestions, see if that helps you. It's doesn't mean the work isn't yours.

And don't say 'I can't plan or plot,' Soarway! It may not be your strongest point, but telling yourself you can't do something at all is bad self-conditioning. Your subconscious is listening. If it hears you say 'I can't do X' often enough, it may start to think, 'Well, if I can't do it, I guess there's no making suggestions.' It's good to have a clear sense of your relative strengths and weaknesses, but never assume you're incapable of something. If plots are difficult for you, that doesn't mean you can't do them: it just means they're the area you'll have to work hardest in. For other people, it'll be other areas. Don't shoot yourself down.
Thank you! These are very excellent suggestions, particularly as they are ones I can imagine using. The first being not to say ‘I can’t’! Second, I guess I am too impatient and panic when ideas don’t come unless I write. I will try to make the story wait so I can analyse it a bit (I’m a bit scared of that idea, analysis and instinct don’t seem to go together, but I think it is a very good idea all the same and this is about moving on). Third, I don’t think so much about how the characters are influenced by their environment, and of course they are, so that’s definitely another way forward. Fourth, looking hard for what the main character might want seems quite possible rather than letting characters just wander along lying, squabbling and smooching or whatever they might feel like. Perhaps they will agree to a bit of direction. Fifth, brainstorming, clearly an excellent idea; I am going to apply the above and think about my stalled short story. Many thanks!
Sounds like you're an organic writer. Many writers are. I am. Others are planners and outliners, people for whom writing an entire novel (or two) and then deciding what the plot is would be unthinkable. Each approach has its merits and its disadvantages, but trying to force yourself to be one when you're the other is a waste of energy. Which you are, to paraphrase Mrs Crupp, depends on how you had your original character formed.

Unfortunately, most writing advice is for the planners and outliners, simply because they're a lot easier to advise. What advice do you give someone who sits down and starts writing a short story about Romans with spaceships, and five years later has eight or nine novels in various stages of completion. no more spaceships, and a massive headache to boot? "You should have thought harder about it before you started." Yeah, thanks a lot.

You may not have a plot (yet) but somewhere in what you're writing is a story. It may only be half-formed, but trust me, it's there. Kit's advice, to establish character goals, is excellent--that's the focus. What do they want, what or who's stopping them getting it, and what are they going to do about it?

If plotting is problematic, then keep it simple to start with. Character A and Character B are at loggerheads. There's pages and pages of them fighting, but it hasn't got a focus. So, what might they be fighting about? Character A wants the ring (horse, castle, spellbook, education) her father promised her before he died, but Character B put himself in charge of dishing out the estate and has kept the ring for himself. That's the start--the inciting incident, if you like. The end of the story is Character A gets the ring (protag succeeds in attaining goal), Character A doesn't get the ring but decides it's better in the end for Character B to have it (protag compromises; achieves alternate goal of being happy without the desired item), Character A doesn't get the ring (protag fails to resolve problem), Character A gets the ring but loses everything else (price paid for attaining goal is too high).

In amongst all these bits of plot, you fit the writing you've already done. A series of stages you could use goes thus:

Inciting incident (B has A's ring)
Confrontation (A attempts to persuade/force B to hand ring over)
Escalation (A tries to steal ring and is caught/injured/arrested/banished)
Rally (A escapes and tries to decide what to do next)
Escalation (B brings conflict to A)

(note that you rinse and repeat Escalation as many times as the word count will stand)

I haven't seen a lot of writing advice about escalation, which is a shame, as it's very important. Screenwriters seem to get more help than novelists/short story writers, so it's worth checking out places like Script Secrets for advice. Bill Martell runs a daily tip and they're often very useful.

Next week: internal v external conflicts ;).

(oh, and it's okay to have those I CAN'T moments, provided you don't feel bound by them!)
'...analysis and instinct don’t seem to go together'

In a way they don't, but there's a difference between deathly logic and instinctive judgement. You can think a story out without losing your instincts: all you have to do is mentally try on every different scenario you can think of, until you hit one that feels instinctively correct. Think with your feelings.

Feeling and thought can both be used to evaluate, and pretty much all the decisions taken in writing are evaluations: I'll use this plot strand, because it's better than that one. You don't have to have an academic answer to anything - I find I can talk academe, but usually it's just rationalisation after the fact, when it was emotion or instinct I made the decision with. Equally, you can argue that instinct is just thought on a subconscious level: your mind runs through a sequence of thoughts so quickly that all your conscious mind gets is the conclusion, not the working-out.

Don't think something to death, but don't be afraid that an instinctive idea will die if you put it in the same room as a thought, is the short conclusion. Writing uses both your feelings and your intelligence, and they work together.

It's easy to panic, but you're not alone. I feel similar stuff all the time. Don't worry, it's just part of the business.

And listen to BuffySquirrel, her advice is excellent and much better organised than mine.

'Unfortunately, most writing advice is for the planners and outliners, simply because they're a lot easier to advise.'

A very succinct way of putting something I've often thought. :-)
Oy. Great thoughts going on here...not sure what I could add except...if you put every single writer in the world together, I think you'd have the biggest mental case ever. We've already got enough voices in our heads. Plus, do you know how much time it would use up to scan through all the Amazon critiques? That has to be spread out among at least a few separate authors, otherwise there'd be no time to write.

On a serious note, I think one of the wonderful things about writing are those times where you kind of fritter away on the edges, thinking everything is going sucky...up until that moment where you surprise yourself by actually latching onto just the right plot twist and breaking through to that next level of the story. It's a great feeling, almost like you've pulled one over on yourself.
“Unfortunately, most writing advice is for the planners and outliners, simply because they're a lot easier to advise.”

Buffy - I’ve never thought about it like this but it does make a lot of sense and relieves my paranoia somewhat:-).

Josh – you’re so right about those breakthroughs, you almost feel guilty as if such an outcome it is not deserved, but as Kit said your subconscious has put it all together.

Kit – thanks again. Your comments on mentally trying on every scenario, added to the idea of the subconscious sorting things out, fits really well and turns something I had thought of as a negative around. It’s also reassuring to know that successful writers wrestle with such matters if rather more productively :-).
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