Start Write HerePosted: April 10, 2013
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.
The hardest part about writing is getting started. There is a kind of inertia we have to overcome. I don’t think it is as much about procrastination as it is about reluctance. How in the world do I start? How could I ever hope to finish? That is often the first hurdle, but it isn’t a big hurdle. Just start writing.
When a writer writes something, it is typically called a first draft. That is because there will always be a second draft and probably a third and fourth and even a tenth. Every author who has completed a book, short story or article had to make many corrections and changes before that work ever got published. But they all had to do one thing first–they had to start writing.
The second hurdle is how to write what’s in your head–or maybe how to come up with something to write about. I hear people say “Oh, I’d like to write, but I don’t have a clue where to start.” If there is no idea rolling around in your head, just start observing. Take notes and start writing about what you see. What catches your eye? What catches your interest? There are stories everywhere. Generally, stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Anybody can tell a story. We tell and hear stories all the time. What if I were to say, “I was in the grocery store the other morning about 10 o’clock, and I saw a lady standing at the apple bin. She was wearing a black cocktail dress, pearls and red high heels. She didn’t have a shopping cart. She was just standing there rearranging the apples so that all the stems pointed in the same direction.”
That’s a story, right? I just told a story. But that’s really just part of a story. It’s the middle of a story that has a beginning somewhere else and an end to follow later. Why was the lady doing that? Why was she dressed like that? Where was she before she came to the store? Where was she going next? Fill in something interesting–give the story a beginning and an end. Most writing takes place in your head before it gets to paper.
I start with an idea–a WHAT IF. For my first book, The Falcon Dirk, the WHAT IF was based on an old trunk my dad found in an abandoned building when I was a kid. It had an old Civil War newspaper in it and some odds and ends, but I always thought WHAT IF it had contained some secret. I took that middle of the story–finding the trunk–and thought up a beginning and an end.
You’ll find that the seed of the idea that starts in your mind will take on a life of its own as you write. Things begin to happen almost automatically in response to one action you write. You just guide the events toward the end result. Characters start having conversations as if you’re just sitting there listening to them and writing it down. I don’t worry about knowing exactly what will happen next. I write through what I have thought out and then sit down to think about what happens as a result of that. I discover the particulars of the story as I go–not unlike the reader. I know essentially where I want the story to go, but I don’t quite know how it’s going to get there. That’s part of the fun of writing fiction. Thinking about the story is as much a part of writing as putting it on paper.
Once I have drafted a few chapters, usually the day after I write them, I’ll read through for things like typos, grammar, clarity, conciseness and inconsistencies and then make corrections. Editing is also very much a part of the writing process. That is where a large part of the science or skill comes in.
Elmore Leonard started out writing Westerns in the 1950’s before he took up crime fiction. He is one of the most respected writers of any genre. He was once asked to give some advice on writing, and he jotted down what have become known as his 10 Rules for Writing. He actually has an 11th rule that sums up the first 10 that says: If it sounds like writing, I re-write it. If writing is about being creators, good writing is also about accepting the fact that we are imperfect creators–especially in the beginning.
One of the hardest parts about writing is being able to lay that creation out for other people to poke, dissect, criticize, and reconstruct–all in the interest of improving it. But that is an indispensible part of the process. It’s how we learn to get it right. It’s like having a musician listen to my blues playing and say, “Nope. You need to slide into that A and bend it a half step before you play that next note or it won’t sound right.” I write for my own enjoyment, but I also write hoping others will read and enjoy it as well. I can’t see all my errors, all my inconsistencies as I write–or even as I re-read it. I tend to see from inside the story. I need someone who can see from the outside.
I put on my socks all by myself. But it might take someone else to point out–to my benefit–that one of my brown socks is actually navy blue. At that point I have two options: I can humbly accept the reality of my mistake and correct it, or I can ignore it and content myself with the fact that I have another pair just like it in the drawer at home–to heck with what other people might think. I learned early on that I need others–knowledgeable, skilled others–to read, comment, and suggest corrections before I can consider a manuscript to be ready. G.K. Chesterton rightly said, “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.”
Here is the bottom line: write because you want to–or maybe because you need to. Develop the art and learn the science. Do it first for yourself and secondly for others. If you want to write, just grab a pencil and get started. That’s the way everybody else has to do it.
There are some who write hoping for profit.
There are others who write seeking fame.
But the ones who write heedless of either
Are most likely the ones you can name.