Why-Wisdom for Fiction Writers

Notebook paper with pencil writing whyI was sitting in church the other day, listening to the sermon with my usual rapt attention, when I realized the minister was saying something about “why,” as in ultimate reasons. I suppose he was making a religious point of some kind, but my mind immediately leapt to fiction writing. Why, indeed, write fiction?

There are two bones to pick here, I think. The first is why you, dear reader, pursue the wordly way. The second is, why are you writing this particular piece of fiction?

Why Write?

To write, you’ve got to have the basic need to create. Not a longing or a hankering, but an itch you can never scratch enough. For a writer, this undeniable yen is fundamental; without it you’ll give out.

As for words, you may be instinctively drawn to the power of story and language like a yellow jacket to a picnic, just because of the way your DNA is wired. You may have a psychological need to write because of your life experience. Or maybe you just don’t have any place to paint, so you’re making do.

This first Why is the seed of your mission as a writer. Your raison d’écrire informs your choice of subject, your tone, the type of stories you choose – everything. If you know what it is, you can make those choices with more intelligence and better results. And when you get tired of the whole business, you can go back to Why #1 for a shot of ambition.

Why Write This?

The second Why, regarding why you are writing a particular piece, gets you to your theme. Theme is the thing you’re trying to demonstrate or prove in your novel. In a romantic comedy, that might be “love prevails, even for goofy people.” In something tragic, your theme might be “people can and will be noble, even when doomed.” If you really want to say something with a particular piece of fiction, that’s your theme, your second Why. Knowing the statement you want to make in your story is another thing that will keep you going when the batteries of enthusiasm run low.

Theme may not reveal itself to you right away. In my own case, I started writing Thin Spots because I thought the idea would be fun to develop into a novel. That’s no theme, though, and I may not figure out what it is until I’ve finished the first draft and re-read it. But that’s just the screwed-up method of a nascent novelist. You are far more clever than I, of course, and will figure out your theme, your Why for this particular piece, up front.

Why-dle Dum and Why-dle Dee

You may find that Why #1 and Why #2 influence each other. Writing a particular story may lead you to insights that change your overall reason for writing and, as I said earlier, your overall reason for writing is sure to influence the types of stories you choose.

Why Think About Why?

I suppose you could go your entire writing career without thinking about the Whys at all. Personally, though, I like living with as much awareness as I can, because that leads to better decisions. Knowing my Whys, as I’ve pointed out, also gives me additional resources to fall back on when my writing energies flag.

That’s all. I could write more, but I can’t think why.

Anniversary! And: Don’t Let Jerks Rob You of Writing

This post’s publishing date, November 14th, 2012, marks the one-year anniversary of Carson Craig, Nascent Novelist.

Many thanks to everybody who has stopped by to read a bit.

Special thanks to those of you who visit on a regular basis.

May your souls be in Heaven a half-hour before the devil knows you’re dead.

One more piece of business: I won’t be publishing the draft of the novel here anymore. You can still follow the developing story on wattpad.

And now, to the post!

Time and time again in this space, I return to the things that can keep you from writing, things like writing to please other people or not taking your time. The other day a bad memory popped into my head, as they are unfortunately wont to do, and I remembered something else you might have to overcome in your writing journey:

Jerks.

Which brings me to a story.

When I was a young man, I wanted to be a poet, or a fiction writer, or both. I had a good career as a college poet in that my poetry prof loved my work and I got a lot of my pieces published in the school’s annual literary review. After college, I spent about three years partying as much as humanly possible. Writing anything went out the window.

I discovered writing again when I stumbled into graduate school at an institution offering an MFA in Creative Writing. I started writing short fiction. The first thing I turned in, a “literary” piece, was well-received by the professor. Subsequent efforts, which were more in the lines of humor and fantasy (my favorites), not so much. Still, that first story stood out and provided the catalyst for subsequent events.

A term or two later, news arrived that a Great Literary Person (GLP) was to visit our campus and conduct a workshop. The GLP was the fiction editor of a famous magazine and was even bringing its spouse, a writer, we were told, of some note, although none of us had ever heard the name. Excitement reigned.

My excitement reigned particularly high, because my writing prof offered to submit that first literary story to the workshop. It would be read and then personally reviewed in a public forum by the GLP and spouse. Having always come out well in such situations before, I assumed this would be one more ego-fest.

Wrong!

As it turned out, my wonderful story wasn’t. The lead character’s traits mixed those of a young adult with a little kid, and so didn’t make sense. The church portrayed in the story didn’t conduct itself in a normal Episcopalian manner, so it wasn’t believable. The thing was too much like a Flannery O’Connor tale. The criticisms went on.

Nobody had ever reacted so negatively to my writing before, so I was crushed. But, looking back, it wasn’t so much the criticism itself, but the way it was delivered that squashed me.

The GLP was downright nasty, and the spouse wasn’t much better. The tone of voice they used was haughty. The words they used were loaded. They said nothing about how the work might be improved, or what merits it had, but focused exclusively on the faults. It was so bad that one of my teachers—not my writing professor, I’ll note—stood up to interrupt and defend me. I walked out of that room with my tail between my legs. Had the criticisms been leavened with some constructive advice, I think the results would have been different.

I had already slowed down my fiction writing, for reasons I won’t bore you with here, but that experience brought it to a complete halt. I allowed myself to be blown off the rails by…

Jerks.

The result was I didn’t write fiction again for many years. I made a couple of good starts that fizzled on the way to my current adventures in word-world, but really, the time between my being victimized by jerks and the happy writing practice I enjoy today is about thirty years.

Think about that.

Thirty years, never to be recovered.

Please, please, please, don’t let this happen to you! It is all too likely that you will run into jerks in your writing life who will try to run you down personally and as a writer. They’ll take great glee in ripping your work to shreds. If you can, find a way to shrug off this garbage and keep writing.

If you can’t shrug off the jerkiness, keep writing anyway. The pain will stay with you a while and you’ll feel like you’re no good, but keep writing anyway. Sooner or later, the pain will fade and what will remain is all those pages you’ve filled up—many of them pretty darn good, I’ll bet.

So, write for yourself. Write to see how the story turns out. Write for the joy of it.

Don’t lose more than half your lifetime to jerks.

Good News about Ideas

Galaxy“Where do your ideas come from?”

I understand that this is often a question writers who do workshops get asked when they are giving said workshops, but it seems to me a question asked by somebody who can’t think of anything else to say. Either that, or by someone who doesn’t get a lot of ideas.

There is nothing wrong with asking a question because you couldn’t think of anyting else—at least you’re participating. And there’s nothing wrong with not getting a lot of ideas—God made all kinds of people and fewer-idea people are usually much better suited to making the practical elements of the world succeed than us creative types.

I guess it seems like a silly idea to me because I have a brain that generates lots of ideas from out of nowhere. Quite often I can just sit down at the page, start to noodle around and something comes out that, with some work, will be a story idea.

I don’t read the papers or watch TV for ideas. I have never used writing prompts, except in a class. I don’t brainstorm or mind-map.

There’s no formal process I use. If I were to put it in physical terms, ideas seem to form in my brain stem and then work their way up into the frontal lobes. From there, they fall out onto a piece of paper.

I saw a show about guitarists the other day in which Jimmy Page said ideas just come from “the creative spark.” That’s a pretty good way of putting it.

Of course, I have had some advantages that have made me a good, idea-generating writer.

I had a lousy childhood that’s tremendously helpful, because it’s given me this odd neurotic psychological energy that transforms old pain into new ideas. The same goes for a difficult adolescence and early adulthood.

I have an introverted personality, so I don’t talk a lot, and yet I want to say many things, so a lot of that ends up in writing ideas and actual writing. Introverts also are comfortable doing the sort of staring into space that often gives birth to new notions.

I’m well into middle age, so I’ve gotten enough perspective and help by now to realize that every idea doesn’t have to be great or even good; that helps them flow more freely.

So, I’m neurotic, too quiet for most purposes and old. Who would have guessed all those things would have given me a better idea fountain and made me a better writer? Funny how all that stuff that might have been so bad has turned to good.

I am grateful to a beneficent universe. I think I’ll go stare into it for a while.

The Writer’s Abstract Feedback Loop

Feedback LoopWriters are legendary for trying to avoid sitting down to work, and once we’re there, keeping our butts in the seat is like being chained. When we’re done, we leap up like joyous gazelles (in my case, more of a joyous water buffalo, but you get the idea).

Murray, the news writer character on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, said something like “I like starting my writing, and I like finishing my writing, but I don’t like the writing part of my writing.” Lawrence Block gets into this, too, in Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, when he talks about how writers are the only artists who seem to have a level of, if not aversion, a sort of nagging unwillingness to do their work.

Not all writers are the same, of course, and I’m sure they vary widely in the level and manner in which they experience the phenomenon. Isaac Asimov would happily write from dawn to dusk, even on vacation, while Mr. Block, at the time of writing his book, stated his preferred stint at the keyboard was about three hours.

To paraphrase Block again, a musician will work all day in a studio, say, and then go out to play for free in a jazz combo for half the night. Visual artists are always picking up the brush, chisel, mouse or whatever, in their off hours. Performing artists like actors and dancers pick up extra work or take extra classes just for the sheer enjoyment of it.

So why aren’t writers more often the same way about plying their craft? I had an idea about this the other day, and having an idea for me is so rare a thing I thought I’d share it.

The other arts I mentioned all provide the practitioner with some kind of concrete object to work with. For example, when a visual artist is working, she first conceives the idea to, say, put a stroke of red paint on the canvas. At that point, the stroke is right in front of her, a concrete object. She can look at it and think, “That’s perfect,” or “That should be longer.” Musicians can hear their notes. Performers can get feedback from directors, fellow performers and audiences.

Writers, on the other hand, are never dealing with concrete objects. Instead, we are always dealing with symbols for objects (and everything else): words.

Let’s say a writer is composing a sentence describing a sunset.

  1. He starts with the sunset in his imagination. Nothing concrete there.
  2. He writes the sentence. Nothing concrete here, just a string of symbols. It has meaning, but it’s still just symbols.
  3. To react to the sentence the writer reads the symbols and reconstructs the sunset in his imagination from there.
  4. Once the written sunset is reconstructed, the writer compares it to the original, which is even less than symbols, a tissue woven of thought.
  5. The comparison results in an adjustment to the original imaginary image, the image symbolized by the words, or both.
  6. The writer adjusts the symbols (words) on the page to reflect the adjustments.
  7. Lather, rinse, repeat.

What the writer is doing here is recreating the object for herself, over and over, as many times as necessary, to get the desired results. Several of these reflections and reconstructions may take place in the span of a second, often not even perceived by the writer as they are taking place.

All this is stressful on the writer’s poor little noggin! The feedback loop, without anything concrete to support it, is simply tough to maintain. A rare few writers appear to do it without much effort, but most of us get near the keyboard and an unconscious alarm bell goes off: “Not that again!”

Is there anything to do about it? The only thing I can think of is to self-edit as little as possible while you’re drafting, but even then, the feedback loop is going on at a subconscious level—that’s my hypothesis, at least. Aside from that, just practice good work habits and give yourself every advantage you can. The stress of the abstract feedback loop comes with the territory. It’s the price we pay for creating worlds all our own.