Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What I've Learned About Writing

Next week I will be speaking to a local HS Writer's Club. I am looking forward to sharing my knowledge about what I have learned about writing. The assignment got me wondering about just some of the things I've learned recently.
#1)  Writing is a craft as much as an art.  It is more like sculpting than pottery.  We chisel away at the story more often than we take mud and form one. 

#2)  Inspiration for "stories" come unhindered and are often discarded, forgotten or "archived."  They rarely see the screen of our computers or the paper of our journals.  They exist in our minds.  And I am glad, because many of them need to stay right there in our own private novel sanctuaries.

#3)  Writing journals are as much a tool for finding our voice as they are a way to express ourselves.  When we write thinking of ourselves as our only audience, we learn to write what impacts us (this is mostly stream-of-consciousness, but effective, none-the-less).  Writing unfettered like this, we find the pace and the style that defines us as writers.  Our "voice" is commonly our inner selves leaking out into the pace, structure, content and tableau of our story.  A good writing journal challenges us to tap into this dynamic.

#4)  Writers are a jumpy bunch.  As I read comments on agent's and publisher's blogs, writer's websites and writer's groups, it becomes very plain that writer's have a fair store of anxiety about their writing.  Much of this anxiety can be attributed to their high degree of concern for their careers.  However, I can also sense why publishing has become such a competitive atmosphere.  You can read on internet sites like this one all day.  Thousands of words are produced each second, 90% of which is FREE.  The "competition for eyeballs" as Nathan Bransford, a literary agent, puts it, has become intense.  This creates agony, bewilderment and concern for anyone tied to making a living from the words they can type, the stories they can tell, the information they wish to broker.

#5)  Telling stories is part wonder, part science, part art, part systematic, and part i don't know what.  That's alot of parts, but if we assume we know the formula, I think then we have lost our way.  To every individual the beauty of a story is defined differently.  If I ask my son Seth, a very exacting literary critic to be sure, what he liked about Of Mice and Men, his comeback is "It was cool."  Well, cool notwithstanding, stories need to grab us in a very personal way.  And since we are all individually made up of different stuff and every story is a complicated sophistication--even stories as simple as Where the Wild Things Are--then that "grab" is different for every person and every story.  As writer's, the magic compilation is one that grabs the most hearts, touches the most lives, resonates within the most imaginations. 

The Harry Potter phenomenon is used as an example of this.  Stripped away of all its magic, dragons, evil wizards and Quidditch (which are all setting and important in their place), Rowlings' popular series is a chronicle of an orphaned boy coming of age and the tests, trials and wonderment of the loyalty found in friendship.  The Star Wars saga is similar.  Ignoring the lasers, the light sabers, the space ships, Wookies, Ewoks, Twileks and bounty hunters, and even the sophomoric romance plots, black caped conflicted bad guys, and Pod Races, we find an elementary story that resonates with thousands:  an epic clash of good versus evil, our proclivity as a race to define ourselves as either servants of the common good or machievellian machinists.

These books as well as thousands of others take us to other worlds, or within our own.  They transport us and this escape is what we demand when we pick up a book and from the first sentence determine that we are willingly going to suspend disbelief until the author fails us in some way.  Setting, backdrop, place, time, landscape, these things all help take us to those places of escape we desire.  But, it is the unfailing core of the story that we often love, whether we realize it or not.  We may remember the light saber battle, the assault on Helm's Hold, the line "you killed my father; prepare to die" or the white-washed fence of Tom Sawyer but it is the elemental conflicts within the story that shape its success.  That is why publishers, agents, writers, marketers and editors have such a problem determining what will "work."