A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

It’s spring—time to come out of hibernation and do as the bears do: stretch! This month’s challenge is to stretch outside your writing comfort zone. Here are some ideas:

  1. Use something other than words to tell a story.
  2. Learn a new skill. Choose something you want to do (not have to do).
  3. Start a daily practice in anything; use what you learn to inform your writing practice.
  4. Schedule time to write (be realistic) and keep your appointments.
  5. Buddy up with another writer; set a mutual time or word goal and keep each other accountable.
  6. Free up physical space to write. Get rid of something you don’t need/use anymore that’s cluttering up (the space that could be) your writing space.
  7. Free up mental space to write. Cross a postponed task that’s distracting you from focusing on your writing off your to-do list.
  8. Offer to read another writer’s work and give them feedback—without the expectation that they will reciprocate. Instead, see what you can learn from critiquing and apply it to your own work.
  9. Pay for a professional critique or edit of your work.
  10. Thank someone who gave you a critical review for reading your work.

Write What You Learn

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

I’m a dabbler. I have a lot of interests, and as time permits, I explore them. Singing, acting, science, random online classes, reading… A stopping point in the list is arbitrary. And I discovered something interesting. No matter how varied the list, I always end up finding things in everything I do that apply to my writing.

I don’t mean that the information ends up in my writing, though that also happens. I mean that  with many of  the techniques and skills I learn, I find some way to turn those techniques and skills into writing techniques and skills.

Write What You Learn

Background image: Katrina Br*?#*!@nd/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Acting, for example, has been particularly fruitful for character development. I’ve written several articles on how I’ve applied what I’ve learned in acting to writing (“Point of View: The Director’s Cut,” “See Through a Glass, Darkly: View Your Story Through Your Character’s Filters,” “Stage and Scene: Finding Writing Tips in Acting Techniques“). Even brief forays into graphic design have helped my writing skills–I am better able to write description using some of those principles (“Textured Descriptions: Or, How To Describe Details Without Describing Details“), and keeping an eye on the big picture while paying attention to the smaller details (“Stepping Back“). I’ve used science for plotting, playing with the energy of the story the same way I would if I were approaching a physics problem (“Struggling With Plots“). And reading, well, that’s a pretty obvious one–I’m always looking at what other authors do that I should, or even shouldn’t, do as I write my own stories. Right now, I’m taking an online course in social psychology. About halfway through the course, I started brainstorming ways to use some of the stuff I was learning in my writing. Anything can be applied to your writing!

Think about all the things that you do that you can use to think about the way you write in a different way. One of the cornerstones of innovation is the accidental collision of seemingly unrelated ideas. In the process, something new forms. A new approach. A new vision. Crash ideas from a completely different area of your life into some of your writing.

Do you play an instrument?

Apply some musical thinking to your story. Does it have movements, like a symphony? How related are they? What are the recurring themes? Where does it crescendo? What key is it in?

Do you knit or crochet?

Apply pattern thinking. How do the different threads of your story intertwine? What color will they be? What’s the final pattern producing? How intricate are the knots and stitches you use?

Do you play soccer?

You’re aiming for the goal. Who’s in your way? What’s the offensive strategy? How do you get around the goalie? Is your kick blocked? Are your teammates helping? Is that the end of the game, or can you try for another goal? Who won?

Are you a photographer?

Frame the story. What do you focus on? What levels of lighting do you need to achieve the effect you want? Do you need a spotlight? Where are the shadows? The close-ups? The panoramic views?

Are you addicted to cooking or baking?

Gather your fresh ingredients. How will you mix them together? Do you need to break some eggs into it so the whole dish will stay together and not fall apart? Should you add sugar? Salt? Pepper? How long do you need to let the mixture cook before shoving a fork into it?

Are you a gardener?

Plant the seeds of your story at the start. Are your growing plants getting the water and sunlight they need? Or do they have to fight for it under the shade of larger plants? Is anything trying to force its way through a sidewalk? Have you weeded out the irrelevant ideas in your story so the ideas you are tending can grow?

I did say anything. I meant it.

Spend all your day making LOLCat images?

That pithy label shows you the way to the heart of your idea. What other odd juxtapositions can add humor to your story? Is your underlying picture a cute cat? An angry cat? What are you overlaying on that basic picture? How will it all work together? And is Comic Sans the right font to use, or should you use Impact Bold to get the shape of your idea across?

I iz gud writr!

Just about anything you do, anything you learn, will have lessons that you can apply to your writing. You just have to look for them. Use all your tools, no matter what toolbox they originally came from.

Write what you learn, and with what you learn. No matter what you learn.

Final Poll Results

You Gotta Know Your Audience*

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

A while back at the forums, we got into a debate about what matters more: writing skills or storytelling ability. It all started when UVRAY said, “The critics are having an absolute field day with [Dan Brown’s] terrible writing skills” and Bellman replied, “This is why I say story-telling trumps writing. Every time. The majority of people will forgive a whole lot in the writing skills department if they like the story.”

Bellman wasn’t suggesting that writing skills are irrelevant, only that “[p]eople are more interested in a good story than in good writing. Both together is, of course, the best scenario, but if they have to choose between one or the other, they are far more likely to choose the good story + mediocre writing over the good writing + mediocre story.” While we had people come down on both sides of the skills/story debate, the majority seemed to agree that story trumped skill. KasaiYoukai said, “I can forgive mediocre writing for good story telling … I love Harry Potter, but [J.K. Rowling’s] writing isn’t what I would call superior.” Kenwood added, “The story is far more important than the writing. Don’t get me wrong, the writing can’t be terrible, but it can simply be good or decent and the story still be great. Not everyone will agree with that of course, but it’s a ‘truth’ I think too many people ignore.”

Where Kenwood said ‘people,’ I would say ‘writers.’ Why do writers ignore the importance of story? Because writers tend to evaluate writing from a writer’s perspective. For many writers, what excites them about writing is choosing the perfect word, constructing a melodious sentence, or coming up with a fresh metaphor. But the vast majority of readers are not writers. If the story moves them—if it makes them cry or laugh or smile in recognition, if it surprises them, or makes them sleep with the lights on, or spurs them to make a change in their life or a difference in the world—they are not going to fret over the author’s unsophisticated sentence structure, her pet phrases, or second-rate grammar skills. When readers discuss a book, they say things like “My favorite part was when so-and-so did such-and-such,” not “I really appreciated the craftsmanship in the fifth sentence on page 272.” To understand if a piece of writing works—and why—one needs to evaluate it as a reader, not as a writer.

Background Image: Emily|ebarney/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

On his blog, literary agent Nathan Bransford recently wrote, “In order to have a book published it doesn’t have to be literary literary literary, but the writer has to do something very well. While there is an insanely common sentiment … that so many books published are trash and oh well anyone can do it: that’s really not the case. You may not like it, but quite a few people along the way did in order for it to find its way to the bookshelf. Not every talented writer is a published author, but (nearly) every published author is talented. Even if you think they suck.” Dan Brown does not possess superior writing skills, but he clearly knows a bit about storytelling. No matter that I didn’t like The Da Vinci Code (after all, I’m a picky writer who can’t stop evaluating writing from a writer’s perspective—see above), millions of people did.

For a work to be great, of course the writer must possess writing skills as well as storytelling ability. But just because you have writing skills doesn’t mean your writing is automatically great. You first have to have something to say. That’s storytelling, and it’s the core of your work, the base that gives your writing skills something to embellish.

If story is the cake, writing skills are the frosting. Of course, cake with frosting is best, but cake without frosting is still good. Frosting without cake, on the other hand, is not. With cake, frosting is the finishing touch that makes the cake something special. Alone, it’s just unrelenting sweetness. We’re all familiar with the crash that inevitably follows a sugar high. Superior writing skills are admirable, but on their own they’re just so much sweetness: lovely sentence, lovely sentence, lovely sentence—and then? Oh, you mean that’s it? Crash. Writing skills need a story to support them, to make all those lovely sentences amount to something.

As Nathan Bransford recently said, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with artistic integrity and thinking deeply about the meaning in your book and writing books that are dense, weighty, and/or wildly experimental. But … the audience for novels where too little attention is paid to narrative and plot and storytelling was already small and seems to be shrinking by the moment.” Bransford added that, contrary to popular belief, modern literary novels “have plots. They are not impenetrable. The narratives are complex and they flow. Yes, the writing is beautiful and meaningful and there’s so much to take away, but [Marilynne] Robinson and [Ian] McEwan and [Junot] Diaz also not only prose artists, they are fantastic storytellers and craftsmen who keep their readers spellbound.”

In our “Dan Brown” discussion, I think we all agreed that writing skills and storytelling ability are not mutually exclusive. At the same time, I was struck by the number of people who seemed to hold the belief that such works are more a matter of personal style than conscious effort, and that it would be sacrificing one’s artistic integrity to deliberately adjust the skill/story balance in one’s own work. The perception is that true artists write from some inner impetus (that is perhaps unknown even to the writer) and only seek out readers once the work is complete. Only ‘sell-outs’ consider externalities like audience while they are writing.

But I contend that you should always consider your audience. Thinking about audience for me is not a marketing strategy; rather, it’s a way of keeping my writing moving in a direction that makes sense for the piece, and not losing sight of why I am writing.

I once wrote a short story with an 8-year-old narrator. In the first draft, the story was set in the present, although many of the details were scooped from my own childhood. After I got some feedback on the story, I realized that it was those details that resonated with readers. I decided to revise the story to set it definitively in the 1970s. That decision was influenced by recognizing that even though the narrator was eight, the audience for the story was not so much present-day 8-year-olds (although they might enjoy it), but reminiscing adults who remembered being eight. The original version might have been what was ‘in my head’ at the time of the initial writing but the conscious changes I made to the final version made it a better story.

Audience is the bridge between writing skills and storytelling. Saying “I write for myself” doesn’t excuse you from this. Even private writing has an audience: you. Your journal writing should be different than your fiction. But while your personal journals might be intended for an audience of one, fiction explicitly targets a larger audience. You might not be interested in Dan Brown’s readership, but if you write fiction, the intended audience is more than just yourself. And with each person added to your audience, your personal importance as a reader decreases. Even in an audience of 100—microscopic by Dan Brown standards—you make up only 1% of your readership. Failing to consider the rest of your audience is not artistic, it’s narcissistic. And ultimately, self-sabotaging.

For writers whose work doesn’t enjoy the same level of popularity as Dan Brown’s or J.K. Rowling’s (which is, let’s face it, most of us), it helps immensely to have what Kevin Kelly calls True Fans: people “who will purchase anything and everything you produce.” But true fans need to be nurtured; you’re not going to build a truefanbase by telling potential readers/fans—as some did during our discussion—that you have no purpose for writing aside from preventing your own crazy, that if your work says anything it’s completely unintentional, and that you don’t care whether readers take anything away from your work. As Sparky99 pointed out, this makes it sound like “the only reason you’re writing is for your own entertainment, your own release, your own therapy”—and, if that’s the case, why should anyone else be interested in reading your work?

Such declarations are generally made in the defense of one’s work as art, the purity of which is not be sullied by outside considerations. But writing that has nothing to say is not art. As Baker said, “I think most art is created as a statement by the artist. The creator of work has something to say and says it through the work. Otherwise, why create?” In an essay titled “Why I Write,” George Orwell argued that there are four motives for writing (aside from the need to earn a living): sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. All writers have these motives but in different proportions. Valuing writing skills to the neglect of story is too much aesthetic enthusiasm. Writing ‘for me’ without any other consideration is excessive egoism.

One of the things I’ve struggled with as a writer is finishing a novel. Inevitably, I’ve bogged down somewhere between the middle and the end. I have terrible trouble with resolution. Should the main character make this choice or that one? I try choice A. I try choice B. Maybe choice C? It all feels so arbitrary. Shouldn’t one feel more right than the others? Why can’t I decide? My frustration was compounded by the feeling I knew the answer (after all, I’ve finished plenty of other things, just not novels); I just couldn’t articulate it.

My “aha!” moment was realizing my novel-writing stalled when—caught up in the details of word, sentence, and paragraph (too much aesthetic enthusiasm!)—I lost track of the story, the big picture. I didn’t experience the same difficulty when writing in other genres because, in those cases, my purpose for writing and the intended audience were always implicitly clear, if not explicitly stated.

Good writing doesn’t just spontaneously happen. Without consciously thinking about why—and for whom—you are writing, your work will wander aimlessly. You’ll be unsatisfied, because the piece will never feel finished regardless of how long it gets. Thinking about who is going to read your work does not equate to sacrificing your artistic integrity; it’s a way of focusing what you have to say—and it transcends genre. Whatever your subject matter, the principle remains the same: how you approach your work depends on who your real or imagined audience is. Poet Sharon Olds has said: “Questions that interest me include: … For whom are you writing (the dead, the unborn, the woman in front of you at the checkout line in Safeway)?”

For whom are you writing?

With grateful thanks to everyone who participated in the “Dan Brown” thread.

*Credit for the title goes to Elaine Lui.

Final Poll Results