I was asked recently to give my observations about writing–particularly writing fiction. I decided to adapt my notes into an article aimed at those who are contemplating writing as a hobby or vocation. Let me begin by stating that I’m no expert. I have no significant credentials other than a couple of novels and several essays. But I believe my experience is not atypical when it comes to getting started as a writer.
What I know about writing I have learned mostly by doing it–and then re-doing it–and then changing it–and then hitting the delete key and starting over. I suspect that’s how most people do it. That is not to say I haven’t read a lot about writing, talked to other writers, attended workshops and endured many humbling critiques along the way, but that’s where to start–you write something.
Writing is a lot like other disciplines. It’s part art and part science. The thing that attracts us to writing–and to reading for that matter–is the art part. Art is creation, expression, style and voice.
I think part of what it means to be created in God’s image is that we have been equipped to create–on a much smaller scale, of course. Writing is one way to create. A story is a kind of creation. Even in non-fiction the writer is conveying some kind of story to the reader, whether it’s the biography of someone’s life or a roadmap to success in business. In fiction we might create a whole world and then create people to walk around in it. We create events and conversations. There is something naturally gratifying about that creative process, that art.
On the other hand, good writing has an element of science. By science, I mean that technical aspect we might refer to as skill. Talent may be innate, but skill is learned. I play the guitar a little. I was actually accused once of being a musician, but they never could come up with enough evidence to convict me. Nevertheless, I can listen to Eric Clapton play a blues song and then learn to play all the same notes, but it never sounds the same when I play it. I figured out why. It isn’t the notes he plays, it’s the way he transitions between them, how he starts and finishes the notes with a bend or vibrato–emphasizing some and blending others. It isn’t something that is really noticeable unless it’s missing. It’s a skill; it’s science added to his art. And it makes all the difference in the end result. Both the art and the science have to be developed. Those with natural talent may need to work more on the skill than on the art. Some are more technically proficient and need to work more on the creation than on the structure. But every writer has to address both.
One of the most important things a person must do if he or she wants to be a writer is to first be a reader. Reading is the best way to develop both the art and science of writing. Read–and then read some more. Why is reading so important? On the art side, reading helps us learn to recognize good writing–or bad. We read to “HEAR” how other people write. We read to get a feel for language use, description and dialog. Writers have a voice. Some, like Hemingway, are known for short sentences and terse dialog. Some, like Faulkner, are known for very long, descriptive sentences. Some are known for expressing detail or witty dialog. Reading other voices helps us recognize and develop our own.
On the science or skill side, we read to learn the subject matter, for research, for writing techniques and do’s and don’ts. We read for structure, grammar, vocabulary, use of active or passive voice, even punctuation. Read the rest of this entry »
It would be interesting to know how many novelists have tried their hand at writing a screenplay. Whether adapting a book or starting from scratch, a screenplay is a good way to strengthen writing. But wait, you say, novels are about words. Screenplays are about pictures. Actually, both are foremost about stories. They simply approach the story from very different perspectives. Learning the screenplay perspective can make you a better storyteller.
I am a fan of words. I like to knit them into warm phrases, string them together like elegant pearls (knit one, pearl two). The novelist has to write words that create a picture in the reader’s mind. The screenwriter has to transform the idea of specific pictures into words. That exercise, which reverses the process in effect, is a valuable tool for the novelist–especially for the writer who struggles with story and pace.
What is so different about a screenplay? It has action. It has dialog. It follows a story. All true, but where the novel has general guidelines for format, length and structure, the screenplay is a tightly structured, largely inflexible, standardized, length-restricted production tool. All that rigid structure forces the writer to focus on the visual story. Even the dialog has to be handled differently–more attention to how it sounds than how it reads.
Screenplays are an exercise in precision and concision. Each page of a screenplay is estimated to represent one minute of screen time. The target length for a screenplay is around 100 to 110 pages, roughly an hour and forty or fifty minutes. A 350 page novel has to be transformed into a document one-third its length and perhaps one half the number of words. “A travesty!” says the novelist. “A revelation,” say I. Remember, we are not replacing the book, we are re-imagining the story, thinking in sounds and pictures, leaving parts of the story to the comprehension of the viewer rather than the exposition of the writer. Read the rest of this entry »
Somewhere over Arizona, Grant announced their descent to San Diego International, Lindbergh Field. As they neared their destination, the steep approach from the east carried them over the verdant Balboa Park. The blue glitter of the San Diego Bay appeared on Matt’s left. He squinted into the bright afternoon sun to identify the gray Navy vessel steaming under the two-mile long Coronado Bridge. Near the airport he recognized a formation of Marine recruits below. They marched in unison at the training center that paralleled the single-runway airport. Most of what Matt knew and had experienced about San Diego revolved around the military in one way or another. He had spit out a lot of sand and swallowed a lot of seawater down there.
When the plane had rolled to a stop and Grant had finished his post-flight checklist, he walked back into the cabin and handed Matt a phone. “Mr. Porter would like to speak with you.”
Matt received an enthusiastic welcome from his young friend, along with instructions on picking up the sedan Jason had reserved for them. “I’ll be stuck in this conference for another hour or so, but you have rooms at the Del. I’ll catch you a little later.”
The Coronado Bridge curved and rose to a zenith of 200 feet above the San Diego Bay. The drive across the bridge was nearly as long as the drive from the airport to reach it. The iconic red cone-shaped roofs of the Victorian era Hotel del Coronado stood out against its gleaming white walls and the white beachfront. As the valet parked the car and a porter took charge of their luggage, Matt and Andie entered the wood-paneled lobby and seemed to step back in time.
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Just after nine, Matt walked the few blocks from his place to the Delta Club. The foot traffic on Beale was light, as was typical on a weekday night. The weather had warmed up in the afternoon, and a pleasant breeze carried the scent of barbeque and steaks from the surrounding restaurants and clubs. Live music ebbed and flowed around him with each entrance and exit of patrons.
Neon signs of all shapes and colors lined both sides of the street for two blocks. On one corner a young man stood next to an open guitar case. He played an upbeat blues song, singing to the streetlamp above him. On the next corner an old black man sat on a bent up folding chair. A dingy brown pork pie hat rested on the back of his head. He played an old Martin guitar that was probably worth more than his car, if he had a car. His song was slow and plaintive, strummed with his thumb. Matt stopped and listened to the gravelly voice and slow, rocking blues beat.
Do you still love me, Baby?
Just tell me yes or no.
Do you still love me, Baby?
Just tell me yes or no.
‘Cause the way you been actin’ lately,
You sho don’t let it show.
Matt dropped a few bills in the ragged guitar case and pushed through the painted door into the Delta Club.
The bouncer just inside the door recognized Matt and waved him through. The interior was dim. Most of the light came from the small stage at the far end of the room. A dozen small tables with dark red tablecloths were scattered between the stage and where he now stood. A pub-style bar stretched half the length of one side wall. The bartender nodded, snapped the cap off a bottle of beer and handed it to Fitzroy at the end of the bar. Matt walked over and sat down. “Who’s playing tonight?”
Fitzroy tipped his beer toward the bartender and nodded toward Matt. “A guy out of Byhalia. Plays lefty like Albert King and sounds like T-Bone Walker. The guy’s a classic. Plays a single coil ’67 Gibson Melody Maker through an old Fender Twin Reverb. It’s pure, man. You need to hear him.”
Matt accepted the beer and listened to Fitzroy talk about blues musicians and their equipment, the only subject Matt had ever heard Fitz talk expansively about. As more people came in and took seats at the bar, Fitzroy slid off the barstool and led Matt to a back table illuminated by a single blue-filtered light.
It took Matt no more than ten minutes to explain the situation and the information he needed. Fitzroy listened quietly, occasionally glancing toward the stage where the band was setting up. When Matt finished, Fitzroy nodded. “Okay. I got it. I’ll do a little research and should be able to go in tomorrow night.”
“Good. How do you plan to get in?”
Fitzroy shrugged. “Ignorance.”
Matt leaned closer to be sure he could see Fitzroy’s face. “Say again?”
“I have a way of getting people to ignore me. So, I use their ignorance.” Fitzroy’s straight face didn’t betray it, but Matt was sure he had once again been the victim of the man’s dry humor.