|I don't know why, but I think this owl has the inner voice of Steven Wright.|
I have attended some great workshops on how to find voice and build worlds, and neither of them contained the word "don't." This is important, because when you start don't-ing people all the time, it starts to feel like a "rule." And rules and art make for very strange bedfellows. I've seen too many good writers succumb to "the rules" in my time, and I've read too many books that display technical prowess while at the same time failing to do the #1 thing I think every single book out there should do: making me give a fuck. I don't care how pretty and interesting your sentences and settings are. If I don't give a fuck, I'm not reading. And inspiring readers to care is really where your artistic sense comes in. I don't want to stomp on your creativity. I want to give you a reason to celebrate it.
With that out there, I'm going to use the Five W's (the Who, What, When, Where, and Why) of fiction writing. Really, they're a series of questions you can ask yourself to help you write a well-rounded story. Some of the questions will look at your actual work, some of them will look at you as an author. That's because there isn't a whole lot of separateness between the art and the artist. This might not all come to you right away, but the more you write, the more it's going to seep in and change you, the way water changes the shape of rock over long periods of time, and eventually you're going to be aware of these things without even thinking. But even grizzled and jaded veterans can stand to learn something new, too, so er'body pay attention.
1. WHO are you writing about?
|Some of the best characters ever...|
I'm not saying you should spend page upon page on a person's background, but you damn sure better be ready include relevant information that informs a character's present actions and decisions. It takes time and patience to do this. You have to ask yourself a lot of questions about your character. Turn off that voice of your plot trying to hurry you along, because plot is an asshole who thinks it has a schedule to keep but is really just a loudmouthed narcissist that thinks it's more important than it actually is. Okay, sure, yes, get to your plot. You'll have to eventually. But more importantly, tell the story of your characters, paint in those fine details. Make them feel like real people, and no one will ever forget them. Spend a good bit of time learning who you are writing about and people will love your story.
2. WHAT do you write?
|Oh you had a unicorn astronaut erotica story in mind? I just wrote it...|
In other words, I try not to be so concerned about originality. People like to hem and haw about original ideas and things that are "derivative" (I hate that word. Every time I hear it, I punch an orphan--no lie). You know how many books and movies are out there about robots and vampires and dying kids and cheating husbands and murderers and wars? There are only so many ways to present conflict. There is nothing new under the sun... EXCEPT your own storytelling DNA, something that is unique to all of us. It's our voices and our "mannerisms" and our characteristic way of combining words into rhythms and sounds that no one else quite has. Joe Hill, for instance, may write horror and he may have some of his dad Stephen King's knack for capturing the surreal and macabre aspects of everyday life, but he is still very much Joe Hill. You sit both of these men down to write a story about a scary clown or a killer pandemic, and you will not get the same two stories. No one else could have written It or The Stand. And that's good to keep in mind if you have a scary clown or killer pandemic story to tell. Maybe this concept is REALLY speaking to you and all you have to do is open your skull and let the thing splat out of your forehead onto the paper (metaphorically, of course). But then you hear of another author who is kinda sorta telling the same story. Or you hear that nobody wants to read zombies and vampires anymore or that your concept was part of a fad that died out six months ago.
DON'T let this discourage you (oh crap, I said "don't", but when it comes to this I don't care)! Story ideas aren't unique, but you are. I can guarantee that as long as you aren't plagiarizing, your story is a special snowflake. All this is to say that if you're feeling that idea burning a bright flame in your head, WRITE IT. That story is going to be a hell of a lot better than some perfunctory thing you wrote because you wanted to cater to the fickle whims of the market in an effort to get your name out there. The What of it all is what's getting you off most at that moment. It's the mojo.
3. WHEN do you write?
|There's twiddling thumbs, and then there is this|
Neither of these things are wrong, precisely. However what's true of both of them is that if you're going to be a writer, you DO have to do the work. The shit doesn't write itself. I've gone sometimes two months without writing a word of fiction, particularly after I've just finished a big project, but I gave myself permission for that the same way someone gives themselves a little vacation once or twice a year. Writing is like any other job. You really should take breaks once in awhile. Do something else. Live a little. I need that time away to let the inspiration storage tanks in my brain refill. I need time to clear the old world out of my head so I can start something else with a blank slate. But the caveat is that I DO eventually have come back. It's not just some "okay I'll write whenever" kind of thing. It might be for someone who writes as a hobby, but this is my job. No one can do a job like that, I don't care if you're writing books or writing prescriptions. Do it long enough like that, and you're fired. I spoke recently about my mind being in kind of a fuzz and that I've been spinning my wheels a bit trying to get something done. The thing is, I still had to sit down and try to write. Didn't matter if it was working on a short story or one of the novels I have going. I couldn't just do nothing and cry about how nothing was turning out. I actually had to try. Some days it works, some days it doesn't, but at least I'm plugging away at something. Career writers should be writing every chance they get. But you should also not feel bad for taking a little step away to regain your perspective if the walls are closing in. The only thing that separates writers from dreamers is that writers write. I'm sure someone's coined that already, but whatever.
4. WHERE do you write?
|Step into my office...|
Now to address the family and friends of writers, because this is equally important: give the artist in your life a little space. If you're creating an environment that is toxic and not conducive to someone's creativity, please stop. Don't sit in a room and talk endlessly to someone who has a word document open and is clearly trying to type in it. Don't get mad when someone has to turn off their phone ringer for an hour or two a day so they can get some work done. Don't interrupt the process. We're not out to completely monopolize the time of everyone else, but all we are asking is a little breathing room and consideration for the monumental effort it sometimes takes to get into the zone. If you don't believe me, just ask Jack:
5. WHY are you writing? Or why AREN'T you?
|Sometimes internet cliches can be profound|
On the flip-side, say you've been wanting to write for a long time, but you haven't yet. Why? What's stopping you? Are you feeling overwhelmed by the commitment or the details involved in telling a story? Are you feeling a little guilty because you were raised to believe that telling stories is for little children and that you should be doing "real work?" Do you feel like there just aren't enough hours in the day, especially when you have kids or a day job or other things getting in the way of you giving yourself that time you need to do anything that brings you pleasure? Even if you're a regular writer who hasn't written for awhile, it's a good idea to assess why you don't want to write. Maybe the idea exhausts you. Burn out is for real and you should attend to it. Whatever the reason, it's a good idea to subject yourself to this sort of reflection every so often. Maybe you don't want to answer "why" because it could mean facing some truths about your present and future circumstances that you're not ready for yet. But eventually you're going to get miserable enough that you're not going to have much choice and the answer is going to be staring you right in the face. Either way, I hope the answers result in change for the better.
And that goes for all these questions. I hope they help you dig a little deeper.