Writing Recipe, Part One (Theory Thursday)

Quill Pen and Ink

No, this isn’t a post about how I’m so much cooler than you because I write with a quill pen, or a fountain pen, or a manual typewriter.  I’m using a cheap netbook … about as glamorous as a quill pen was back in 1799.

This is the first of my articles on “writing theory.”  Now, I’m not speaking as somebody who has “made it.”  I haven’t.  I have neither fame and fortune (of which I have none), nor a level of skill that makes me feel I’ve “arrived.”

That said, I’m a much better writer than I was five (or even three) years ago.  I’ve learned a lot, both from writers who have made it, and from “doing” writing (not rewriting, but actual writing.  I’ve written more unique words in the last three years than in the previous thirty, without a doubt).

Unfortunately, rewriting doesn’t count.  It doesn’t make you a better writer, and it often doesn’t even make the piece you’re working on better.  Unless you’re already a skilled and experienced editor, you’re as likely to make it worse as you are to make it better.  Of course you should fix the typos and misspellings, but that’s about as far as it should go as a general rule.  But don’t listen to me, check out Dean Wesley Smith’s Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing.  Smith’s been making a living in this business for almost as long as I’ve been alive, and he’s weathered all kinds of changes.

So here I am, talking about the “Writing Recipe,” not as someone who’s made it, but as someone who’s still struggling on the margins, another indie outsider, like some of you who are reading this.  Maybe sharing our struggles will make us feel more encouraged, more supported, and less alone.

So here we go.  I’ll start with the cake, and deal with the icing next Thursday:

There are so many factors that go into good writing, it’s sometimes hard to keep them straight. First and foremost, you’re telling a story, so you need a good plot and engaging characters.

The characters don’t necessarily have to be likable per se, but they need to be engaging, active, and at least somewhat relatable. Ellie, the protagonist of S.D. Redling’s Flowertown isn’t exactly likable – she’s a mean-spirited stoner, to be honest.  But she’s always engaging, always resisting the corporate suits who run the containment zone (nicknamed Flowertown for the sickly-sweet smell of the decontaminants), even if it’s only in petty, self-destructive ways.  It’s not easy to like her, at least at first, but you certainly can’t ignore her.

The characters need to take action, to do things.  There are few things more frustrating than reading a story where things just happen to the characters.  I want the characters to drive the action.  Sure, a lot of times characters get thrust into ugly situations (The Walking Dead, several of Stephen King’s novels, including my personal favorite, Desperation), but they eventually take initiative and make things happen.  That’s almost a necessity.

Writing characters that take initiative and make things happen is easier said than done.  I’ve struggled with it, and I think I’ve mostly gotten a grip on things.  Sometimes being reactionary can be a sign of stagnation: Benedict had become so set in his role as executioner of dangerous vampires that he’d basically stopped trying to get ahead of his Vampire-Lord brother.  Granted, he’d had 900 years of bloody stalemates with Augustine to make him jaded.  But it didn’t change the fact that he did far too much reacting for his own good.  Overcoming that is part of his story arc.

In The Red Lands, Garrett has a “quest” of sorts from the very beginning.  He’s going west, to face the master of the Red Lands.  At first, he hopes to save his ex-girlfriend’s life, but as the story progresses, he learns that the stakes may be much higher.  The Red Lands was written after Blood for Blood, so I had time to learn from Benedict’s issues, and then take what I’d learned and apply it to Benedict’s next two books.

The plot, of course, has to be engaging.  It also has to move quickly enough to keep the reader going, but not so fast that it seems more like an outline than a story.  I think I’m getting better at that with each story I write, but I’m well aware that I’m not at the level of the real masters of storytelling yet.

It also helps to have some kind of premise in mind when telling the story. After all, every work of fiction will deliver a message of some sort, whether you want it to or not. I think everyone’s better off if you (as the author) consciously control that message rather than leaving it to chance.  I learned that the hard way, and continue to struggle with it.  Being the “one in charge” of your own writing is vitally important, but it’s not nearly as easy as it sounds.

So there it is, my take on the broad strokes of writing.  But as they say, “the devil’s in the details,” so next week, I’ll look at smaller-scale things.  If this was the cake, they’ll be the icing: character voice, readability, sensory details, and so on.

 

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A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: A Memoir and One of the Best Books About Writing I’ve Ever Read

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been writing about The Three Best Books on Writing I’ve Ever Read, starting with my post on Dean Wesley Smith’s electronically publishedKilling the Sacred Cows of Publishing, and then blogging about Algis Budrys’s classic Writing to the Point.

The third and final member of this triad is a bit different, in that it is only partially a book about writing, by a relatively young writer who had great success with some books and not-so-great success with others.  While the first two books were (rightly) by experienced professionals, long-time writers and publishers (both Dean Wesley Smith and Algis Budrys have been involved in “both sides” of the writing experience), the third is a powerful, personal book about the nature of narrative, and finding the storyline within your life.

It’s called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, and it’s written by Don Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz and Through Painted Deserts.  Miller is an openly Christian writer (the first printing title of Through Painted Deserts was Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance), and while I find that a plus, some of you may not.  I ask you to bear with me, and bear with him.  The exploration of the nature of story and narrative in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is worth reading even if you have an abiding disregard for Christianity.

Through A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Miller walks through the shadowlands of minor celebrity, writer’s block, and the fear that nothing he writes will ever be as good as or as successful as Blue Like Jazz – taking us on a first-person journey through the realities of what Dean Wesley Smith called the myth of ‘If I can ____, then I’ve made it.

Don Miller taught me to expect more of my characters, to make them deeper, and to make their narratives have meaning to them and to me.  I’m also trying to learn a few things about living my own life (my New Year’s Resolutions have survived into February, though they’re a bit ragged, so that’s something, at least).

Miller has also helped correct one weakness I sort of “took away” from Algis Budrys’s work (not Budrys’s fault, I’m sure): the tendency to make the main character somewhat passive, or at least reactive, coming into action only when a problem happens to him (or her). Miller’s description of story, “a character who wants something and overcomes obstacles to get it,” is at once the most succinct and powerful description I have ever read.

Again, I strongly recommend you check out A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.  It’s very different from the other two books I’ve recommended, but no less valuable.

The Three Best Books on Writing I’ve Ever Read, Part Two

This week I’ll talk about a book I heard about in a discussion on Dean Wesley Smith’s website, the late Algis Budrys’s, Writing to the Point.  I’d always had a tremendous difficulty in putting together good plots, especially endings, until I read Writing to the Point.  Budrys lays out the basics of plotting, with incredibly clear examples, and does it in all of 64 pages.  Seriously, this is the author’s Book of Five Rings.

It sounds ridiculous, a writer who isn’t good at plotting, like a drummer who can’t keep rhythm or a skater with poor balance.  But I was there, and I think a lot of new writers spend time in that dark valley: you’re bursting with ideas, characters, and themes, but without a plot, you don’t have a story.  Without an internalized plot that you understand, you don’t have direction, and your writing goes in circles, wandering in the wilderness for forty revisions (well, yours might not, but mine did).  King Solomon said, “Without a vision, the people perish.”  Well, without a vision, my writing perished.

Combined with my buying into the myth of endless rewriting, this sucked me into an endless series of rewrites and revisions, and every time I finished one pass, I realized I had even more work to do on the next pass.  No matter how hard I pressed the gas, I always got further from my destination.  It seems like that would be an obvious sign that I’m going in the wrong direction, doesn’t it?

Writing to the Point was road map, GPS, and a passenger-seat navigator all rolled into one.  Within the first couple of chapters, Algis Budrys laid bare everything I’d been doing wrong, and showed me how to start doing it right.

I don’t think I’ll get in too much trouble if I give the basic seven-point story structure Budrys describes.  I’ve even heard online that it predates him, but you know how (un)reliable blogs and forums are. J

1) A character (or characters).

2) In a setting or context

3) With a problem (or a goal)

4) Basic attempts to solve the problem/achieve the goal (calling the police, or realizing the police aren’t equipped to deal with a zombiepocalypse, for example.  This is mostly there so the readers know the characters aren’t carrying the idiot ball).  Clearly, this can’t work, or you don’t have much of a story.

5) Two or three escalating attempts to solve the problem/achieve the goal.  Of course, these have to fail to resolve the problem, but they don’t have to be ‘failures’ in the sense of nothing getting accomplished or the protagonists being defeated.

6) The climax of the story.  Budrys calls this “Victory or Death,” and it’s the time when the main characters either stand or fall.

7) The denouement.  Budry calls this “Affirmation.”  Essentially, the reader needs to be assured that the conflict is over.  The goal has been achieved, the problem has been solved, or the character has failed utterly.  It’s done.

I’ve found this outline useful for writing everything from short stories to novels.  I’ve not yet written a novel with a single 7-step structures, but both Blood for Blood and Blood Guilt are composed of several of these story-structures with an overarching theme and timeline.

Part of being a writer is actually writing successfully, and plotting is absolutely foundational.  I can hardly express how helpful Writing to the Point has been for me on this point.  I think every writer, especially new and beginning writers, should read this book.

PS – On a related note, Writing to the Point is allegedly out of print, and people are trying to sell it on Amazon.com for $45, which is better than the $200 they were charging a year ago.  Even though the advice is well worth the price, don’t pay $200, or even $45 for a used copy: Action Publishing has new editions for $10.50.