This week’s post is about “Light Bulb Moments” by which I mean, moments when something about writing clicked for me, and I learned something. Sadly, I haven’t learned very much, so this will likely be a short post…
Here we go anyway.
Like most writers, I have learned quite a lot of the craft of writing by reading. I learned what I liked. What I didn’t like. The kind of writing I wanted to emulate, and the kind I wanted nothing to do with, and these moments of discovering what my taste was were certainly light bulb moments. For instance, even though I loved the Lord of the Rings, after reading it a few times, and then trying to read a lot of the folks who attempted to follow in JRR’s footsteps, I learned that I didn’t have the patience for epic fantasy. All the family trees and stories that took place over decades and sometimes centuries. It was too much work to read, and too much work to write. What I liked were stories about a guy, or a couple of guys, or a couple of girls, or one of each maybe, faced with an immediate problem which gave them a hell of a bad time all at once, but which they either solved – or failed to solve if it was a tragedy – in a few days. You know, stories like Romeo and Juliette, Ill Met in Lankhmar, or The Tell Tale Heart. Thrillers rather than epics, basically.
Another thing I discovered I liked while reading was sex. Sorry, I don’t mean sex while reading. You’d lose your place. What I mean is, I liked sex in the stories I read. And I don’t mean porn. I liked when people had complete lives. When the there were scenes in the book that didn’t take place either on the battlefield or the throne room. People in Tolkien and a lot of other sci-fi and fantasy books didn’t seem to have lives below the waist. They didn’t shit, piss, or fuck. So, grit was another thing I looked for, and apparently wanted to embrace. Realism, or at least a nod to it. Leiber, John D. MacDonald, George MacDonald Frasier, Phillip Jose Farmer, Michael Shae, etc.
So, that’s preferences taken care of. But when I actually started writing I found out a lot of things that reading along just didn’t prepare me for. For instance, did you know that writing a novel is impossible? It is. Completely. You can’t hold that much info in your head at one time, and I despaired of ever managing it, until I had the epiphany that, though it was impossible to write a novel, it was possible to write a chapter, and then another, and another, until, without knowing it, a novel had accreted around you.
Another thing I learned, which is connected to the whole chapter-by-chapter thing, is that structure is as powerful a tool as character, voice, theme or moral. If you’ve got the structure wrong, if the chapters don’t flow in a way the feels natural to the reader and carries them along, all those other things will fall flat. If you wait too long to reveal your protagonist’s character, you lose the reader. If you have no pacing, voice won’t save you, no matter how engaging. If you bury the theme or bungle the payoff at the end, the reader might miss the moral, or fail to feel the emotional punch you were hoping to bring him to tears with.
Hmmm. Are there any others? Oh, yeah! A big one! Proper channels don’t work. Sending unsolicited manuscripts to a publisher, writing cold query letters to agents, all a complete waste of time. For years I believed that I should let my writing do the talking, and that anything else was somehow cheating. I would write things, put them in the mail, and never hear anything forever and ever. On the other hand, once I actively made a point of meeting fellow writers, introducing myself to agents and publishers, stepping out of my ivory tower, and actually getting involved in the community I wanted to be a part of, things turned around, and that kind of reprehensible behavior has gotten me almost every job and sale I’ve ever had.
Okay, falling asleep now, so I guess that’s all you get. Sorry it’s more disjointed than usual. Maybe in a minute or two a light bulb will go off and I’ll realize that proper planning and time management are another key to success.
But probably not.