Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Other Advice for Writers

By David E. Sharp

My earliest "writings" were theatrical productions I would perform for my parents with stuffed animals portraying all the roles. Well, almost all the roles. I did enlist my brother for any parts that required a more dynamic performance than a stuffed monkey could offer, though the monkey was better at taking direction. Still, we got moderately good reviews and presented many repeat performances.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are proud
to present, "The Teddy Bear's Lament."

No flash photography, please.
While my early productions were childish and insubstantial, I explored deeper themes in college that dared to ask the big questions like, "What would happen if all the ovens exploded in a fancy restaurant and they had to cook five-star cuisine over a campfire?" and "How would an audience respond to another audience staring at them?" and "How would Count Dracula fare in an Italian restaurant?"

Commentators responded with such discerning feedback as, "What on Earth is the matter with you?" and "Where do you come up with this tripe?" and "Untie me at once! I can't watch anymore!"

Cut to 2017, I've had some projects pan out on a less theatrical frontier. I've learned the fine art of conveying an entire story with only ink on paper. There aren't as many unexpected ad-libs, and I can set a scene on a space ship without having to figure out how I'm going to build a space ship on a stage and with what I can bribe actors to wear Martian costumes. The depth of my writing has developed to such levels that readers regularly suggest I might benefit from some therapy.

So, is this it? Have I arrived? Am I now the crackpot writer I always dreamed I could be? Do I have insights I could place in a reverse time-capsule for that younger me to dig up back in the tail end of the 20th century? Yes. Yes, I do. Outside all the obvious advice we've heard so many times, here are the nuggets I've only been able to take hold of through personal experience.

This is the other advice:

Every critic is right for one hour

This is how long you've got
before I start throwing things.
No matter what somebody suggests about my work, or what their depth of expertise may be, or how I feel about them in any way, I will treat every comment as 100% true for one hour. This has allowed me to suppress my knee-jerk response to feedback and optimize the benefit I get from another point of view. I try to see the story from the vantage point of the other person and compare that version to my own. Sometimes, I see improvements I would have been blind to. Sometimes I don't, but at least I gave it an honest effort.

Once sixty minutes have passed, name-calling starts and I light up the effigies.

There is only now

It's easy to write a scene with a later pay-off in mind. But I can't stand scenes that are all build-up. I don't read a book so I can enjoy it tomorrow. When potential readers crack open my book, I want every page to be interesting enough on its own to draw them in. Besides, I don't want to be bored either. And, as the author, I'm going to spend significantly more time in these scenes than the readers. I do believe in delayed gratification, but there's no place for it in writing. If I'm not enjoying the book right now, then I'm not enjoying the book.

No stuffed monkeys

"Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

Eek. Eek."
Characters are the heart of a story. If your character can't do anything better than sit on a log and look cute, you're better off writing about the log. When I wrote scripts, every part had to be interesting enough to portray that I could convince the actors money is overrated. This lesson has carried over to my other writings too. Small roles are fine, but boring roles are intolerable. Characters can be tragic, comedic, heroic or psychotic; but they can't be dull.

You are not your characters' friend

In fact, the real antagonist is you. It is your job to rake these wonderful characters over the coals so they have a chance to rise and overcome... you! If your characters haven't imagined your death in fifty different ways, you're not doing your job. Story comes from conflict, and conflict doesn't come from sunshine and daisies. I'm not saying you can't have a happy ending, but that's where happiness belongs. In the ending. All the rest of the story is strife, strife, strife.

And you're the one who chose this profession. You sicko!

Writers are readers

What are these "chores" you speak of?
If you can't crack open a book, don't set out to write one. I've yet to find a successful storyteller who can't rattle off a long list of favorite books. Story is a language. You can't be fluent through a textbook alone. You're going to have to get into some conversations. The good news is there's no shortage of free "conversations" at your local library, many of which you can download digitally without even stepping into the building. And audiobooks aren't cheating no matter what your eighth-grade English teacher said.

I call it research. I'm much better at conducting research than I am at conducting laundry. If the dishes aren't done, it's because I'm so studious. A good series might keep me from vacuuming for weeks!


This list is not exhaustive. Writing is one of those disciplines you never stop learning. Maybe in twenty years, I'll tell you, "Don't listen to any garbage I told you twenty years ago!" Then I'll give you the real scoop. And you'll be so overcome with my honed wisdom, you'll finally forgive me for causing the llama stampede through your backyard that destroyed your begonias. The llama stampede hasn't happened yet, by the way. That's still in the future too. Sorry in advance.

But, hey! You're a bunch of writers. I'm sure you all have loads of unconventional advice to share. Let us know in the comments.

1 comment:

Laura Mahal said...

There are several things I adore about this blog post. I'll name two. For one thing, I honestly never thought about the fact that--as the author--I am the antagonist. I ensure the world my characters live in is a rough place. Alternatively, I get to follow along as they figure a way out of the maze. For another thing, "Story is a language," indeed. I'm going to add that to my writing resume. "Semi-fluent in story."

Thanks, as always, David, for entertaining me while secretly sneaking in some education.

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