Welcome friends and subscribers to the WBF e-zine.
For this issue I've selected two pieces.
Hope you enjoy this month's selection. For comments and questions you can reach me at Richard@write-better-fiction.com. I'd love to hear from you.
- "My Children" - a short lament to the written word
- "You Can't Write Like a Reader" - an article about - well, I think the title says it all.
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In next month's e-zine I'm publishing a short series on the changing state of the publishing industry as well as an article called, "The Book Must Sell Itself" - a must read for anyone considering self-publishing.
My words are my children; who’s names I murmur in the late hours of the night.
I feel the pain and frustration of birthing them onto each page, of grooming and nurturing them as best I know how; both anticipating and dreading the day they might be strong enough to walk out into the world under the power of their own metaphors – away from me forever.
Will these children of mine evoke laughter or praise? Will their voice ring true with nouns and verbs marching proudly across the published page to assume a life of their own or will they come back home through some postal passage, with hopes canceled, all dog-eared and scuffed, to sit on the corner of my desk, participles dangling, with their failure stuffed in manila brown pockets?
But as frustrating and hopeless as it seems from time to time, I can never forsake them. They are flesh of my flesh and blood of my blood and though I might cry over their shortcomings I can never disown them - for they are my children.
What keeps me laboring is the hope that someday I might experience their triumph; the flame of understanding kindled in the eye of a stranger. Out of that hope I feed and nurture them that they might yet live and walk and breathe and somehow touch a life and scatter the seeds of my waking dreams into a tomorrow that I will never know.
Grow strong and brave my children, walk tall upon the page - for without you I am nothing and leave no sign of ever having passed this way.
You Can’t Write
Aspiring writers approach writing as readers.
Like a Reader
This causes confusion. This confused me for the longest time.
The problem is that everyone learns to read first. Then they try to learn how to write.
They start as an avid reader and then they try to write a story the way a reader would read it – from start to finish.
But that is NOT the way to construct a story.
What the neophyte writer fails to recognize is that the story he is reading has already been constructed. It is already finished from beginning to end before he turns to page one and reads the first paragraph.
That whole page and in fact the entire contents of the first chapter “fits in” with the remainder of the book.
Not understanding this the aspiring writer feels that the way to write a story is the same way one would read one – start at page one and just write out each successive sentence, paragraph, page, scene and chapter.
But a story can’t be built that way – believe me I’ve tried.
It just won’t work.
At each specific point in the story the writer has numerous choices to make, each of which has to align with the choices that have come before and the choices that will follow. A story by definition has its own logic and that logic is sequential.
One can’t possibly decide what needs to happen in act one if act three is completely unknown.
Think of it like building a house.
Does the carpenter start by building a roof and then the walls and then the foundation? Heavens no!
If we tried to build houses that way then we would all be living in caves because houses would never get built. You must start with a foundation, then the walls and then you have something to put the roof on.
A story is a logical sequence of minor incidents that collectively add up to one overarching event.
Everything that happens is connected. Every detail has a purpose. Nothing is extraneous; it contributes to the whole or it doesn’t belong.
How then does one decide what to put in and what to leave out?
You must start with the premise.
With a firm premise in mind then you can decide upon an event that illustrates that premise.
This event has a beginning, middle and an end. Each of these is a “movement”. Now with these three movements in mind one can determine a logical way to start the story. The “start of the story” can consume a few sentences, or a whole chapter – this is called “the set up”. It is the “before the beginning” part of the story proper.
But just like a house must be designed before it can be built, likewise a story must be designed or “set up” before it can be told.
One would not consider giving guided tours through a house before the foundation was laid or the first brick placed. And yet the aspiring writer tries to walk his audience through a complex world of people, places and events, before that world is even created – somehow he thinks that this is the way it is done. You just start at Chapter 1, page 1, paragraph 1, and wing it. He thinks you can just make it up as you go.
I’m here to flatly state that it can’t be done, and that you will slowly or not so slowly go mad trying.
What seems to disprove this methodology is the occasional first time writer who seemingly “just sat down and wrote a book”. This usually occurs when he has told and retold the story many, many times, at least in his own mind over a period of years. The results of this “throw it together” style are one of two things. This is his first and his last book (because he can’t repeat the process), he’s a one-shot wonder. Or his next book is so bad that if it even gets published, it dies a miserable death.
The point here is how we get the idea that you can just “start” and figure it out as you go.
The idea is bred into our subconscious mind by the reading of lots of stories.
As a reader we just start. We open the book, turn to chapter 1, page 1, paragraph 1 and just start reading.
And everything just seems to work out.
But reading a story and writing a story; are not the same things.
Any more than living in a house is the same as building one.
When you live in a house everything just seems to go together, so much so that we never even bother to consider why a given door swings a certain direction, or that there is a door there at all. It just seems right. It fits.
But what we fail to realize is that someone had to decide to put a door there, what size to make it, which way to have it swing, what material to make it out of. Someone even had to decide what room to have on the other side of that door.
Every detail of the house was figured out BEFORE the contractor started building it.
If houses were not created this way – they would be terrible things to live in even if we managed to get a few of them built from time to time. And so it is with novels.
There are actually several phases to this “writing” business rather than just one.
- Working drawings
- The tour
If one wants to write fast and well then you must understand and utilize a logical approach.
What do you want to build, a castle or a chicken coop. It isn’t that any one story is "better" than the other, they each have their purpose in this world. And they each have their audience. But one must start with some idea of what the story is about.
One major problem for writers is that they often try to make a story out of a mere circumstance when what is needed is a premise.
This is the overall, bright idea, of how to illustrate that premise. It is just a general idea, concept, an overview. It may contain a number of specific details or only a few at this point. But it is an overall concept of what the story is going to do and how it's going to do it.
3. Working Drawings
This is where you lay out the skeleton of the structure. It can take many forms and it can be as detailed or lacking in detail as you like. The specific form or level of detail is not important. What is important is that there is a working idea of the sequence of incidents that lead to the main event.
Decisions will be made here that limit future decisions. And this is a good thing. Too many choices cause a paralysis of indecision.
For example if the protagonist is going to be a girl this would eliminate situations, conversations, etc., that an old woman might confront or a middle aged steel worker.
Each decision presents itself as a fork in the road. But none of it is cast in stone. This isn’t even the first draft. Experiment, take a fork and see what situations suggest themselves. You can always retrace and start over. It’s just a few notes on scratch paper at this point. It is considerably easier to cross out a few lines at this point and start over than it is to throw away several hundred pages of perfectly good prose representing a month’s work because you suddenly realized that you went down the wrong track.
This is also the point where you get to figure out some of the details. Not all of them but a few that come immediately to mind. They become like anchor points in you story. They are substations, milestones, along the path you have set.
Once you get these in place you now have a skeleton. You have a premise, (the point you’re trying to illustrate), which suggests a spine, (the beginning, middle and end), and you have a few ribs in place.
Now you can move on to laying in a few more details. You are figuring out or inventing the story; the who, what, where, where, how and why. Once you know what the story is, you can then decide how you want to tell that story.
Understand that these phases are not cleanly divided they all overlap and comingle into a process that can be quite different for each writer.
But you can be assured of at least one thing.
You must figure out to some degree what the story is before you can start telling it.
How detailed you want to work out the design before you start the telling is a matter of personal taste.
But if you keep working down this line you will eventually reach a point where the lights come on and you know where you want to start the story and you probably have at least some vague idea of where it ends.
Now you can start telling the story because you know what the story is. You know at least in abstract terms “what happens”.
4. The Telling
Now you start “writing” the story.
You enter a kind of dream state where you are in the dream, and you are directing the dream at the same time. You are staring in the movie, directing the movie, writing the screen play, and watching the movie simultaneously.
And you flicker back and forth from hat to hat, being God and creating something, and then in the next moment experiencing what God has created, and then asking, “what happens next?”
Now, I have to be perfectly honest with you.
I don’t like to work out too much detail in my skeletons. It ruins the fun. For me there is a good deal of excitement that goes with the composition phase of story creation. There are little surprises and leaps of intuition, situations that present themselves, and insights into my characters that need exploring.
If I dive down in the story creation phase suddenly these little episodes start playing and all the surprise can become exhausted, all the spontaneity can be drained out and then what I’m confronted with is a dry old chapter that I feel obligated to write, but it’s like a term paper. I may need it for the grade but there is no heart in it.
I think there is a great deal to be said for maintaining as high a level of surprise in the writing as one can tolerate and still get good chapters written quickly.
Therein is where the balance lies.
The ideal is to be truly entertained and enthralled when composing while knowing just enough to make the writing flow quickly without hesitation or anguish over “what should I have this character do or say right now”.
If you have a skeleton, a framework, to hang your prose on then each chapter suggest itself as a natural extension of the detail of where you are coming from (all that has preceded this moment), and the general destination towards which you’re going.
This creates a sort of tension between you and the telling of the story. You know your characters intimately, you know intuitively what they would say and do in each given situation. And their attempted resolution of any given situation suggest possibilities for further complicating that situation, for raising the tension, calming things down, changing the pace, etc. All those things that we as writers love to do with our stories.
Each writer must find their own balance between I have no idea what comes next and I know exactly what comes next.
Find that sweet spot, and ride it for all it’s worth. This is what being a writer is all about.
Ok, so now you have a good working first draft.
The bones are all fleshed out. You now know all the details. The story and how it is to be told is all worked out. And you have hundreds of pages of perfectly good prose.
Now it’s time to prune.
You can’t prune a rose bush that doesn’t exist. You can’t edit a story that hasn’t been written.
But how do you go back and improve your story.
What yard stick, measuring devise, or criteria do you use to decide what should stay and what should go. What should be simplified, what should be elaborated upon? How do you know when it’s good enough?
This plagued me for years until I started creating the story before trying to tell (compose) it.
The premise is your guide.
The story exists to make a point. In fact, if there is no point you don’t have a story at all. You may have something, but it’s not a “story”.
When you have a premise you can go back and read though every page and see immediately what contributes to that premise and what is a side note.
What rings and what doesn’t. If it rings, keep it. If it doesn’t cut it out.
This may leave holes in the story. And you will have to re-write segments to fill in those holes, but when you are done the story will be tight, and true to itself.
And “truth” is what you are going for. The story must ring true. The characters must be “in character”. Every chapter must have a purpose; which is to say, it must contribute to the premise, otherwise it has no purpose in the story and the reader will sense it and feel lost, bored or confused. If that happens, you’ve lost them and they may never come back.
Once you have pruned all your story movements for alignment (these are the major points of the story) and they all align and contribute to illustrating the premise, now you can go deeper.
Look at each page; paragraph by paragraph and make it simpler.
Look at each sentence as though you were paying the reader or publisher $5 for every word you use.
I know this is a strange viewpoint.
It was hard for me to adapt to it until I realized one day at a writers group after listening for many months to one writer’s very trickily written prose that there was something about it that I really didn’t like.
What I realized is that his prose was getting in the way of the story. I was constantly distracted from the story by his very telling of the story.
It was like he was jumping up and down on the stage shouting “look at me, look at me, see how clever I am.” I found it very annoying.
And when I thought about this a little further I realized that he was putting all his attention on clever wordsmithing but no attention on creating a decent story.
Events should frighten, intrigue, surprise, and delight, us as readers. Not the “writer”. The writer should disappear. He should become invisible.
The convention of the writer starting off his volume with words like “And now dear reader I will tell you this story”, went out of fashion shortly after the printing press was invented.
How many times have we seen a play where the main character interrupts act 2, dons an apron and walks up the isle selling popcorn? It never happens – and for good reason. Audiences hate having the writer break their willing suspension of disbelief to hear “a word from our sponsor.” Don’t do it.
The reader wants to believe he is experiencing the story first hand. Not only should the writer disappear from the reader’s mind but the very words on the page should disappear. The images, pictures, emotions, characters, action, sights, sounds, THE STORY IN ITS ENTIRETY should appear in the mind of the reader as if my magic.
The reader should be completely unaware of how this is happening. How the scribbles on the pages before his eyes become this movie playing in his mind.
The writer should work hard not to construct flowery speech, and catchy wordsmithing but rather conveying the most with the least.
Prune and polish from this standpoint. Cut excessive verbiage. Shorten and simplify sentences.
Because the simpler you write, the faster the reader can read, the more immersed they will become in your world, and the less inclined they will be to leave it.
And when you have your house of words all built, polished and painted. Now and only now can you invite the reader inside - to Take the Tour of your world.
Richard A McCullough
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