Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Never Ending Process

Good Question - I remember starting out writing because I loved reading and thinking -"I can do this."

Then things got complicated.

Funny thing is they still are - in some ways more than ever, because writing is not a multiple choice question - it's not even an essay question where you can swirl around, baffle the teacher with enough BS to get a grade. Fact of the matter is, there's no one right answer. You're never done learning, you're never "there", you're always on the journey. That's part of what makes it fun and part of what makes it painful.

But to answer the question with something helpful I'll explain how I got at least to where I am now.

In all my years at school I was a good student, in everything except English. I couldn't spell back in elementary school, I couldn't pass basic grammar comprehension in middle school. I couldn't stand reading all that depressing literature in high school. 1984 comes to mind. So naturally I decided to be a writer.

At first I thought all that mattered was the story. Tell a good story. As one of the characters in Get Shorty says "They'll find someone else to put in all the commas and question marks and the rest of that &#*@."

Turned out that wasn't true, so at age thirty I reluctantly tried to figure out grammar and punctuation and how to put a sentence together. I bought books on writing and style and read the really skinny ones and used the thick dictionary like ones to construct imaginary cities on my desk. Needless to say its a work in progress, but at least passable now.

Then I thought I was ready - but hold on. Story comes first, writing it in English comes second, telling it in a compelling style comes third - how on earth was I going to do that.

Turns out the old high school trick of cheating off someone else's paper when you don't know the answers was the most important thing I learned in my years of education. I went to the bookstore and looked at books I liked, I opened up novels I already owned, I studied how they did their dialogue and when they introduced the characters and how they described things. I broke down what I liked and what I skipped over and why. And then I realized I liked different things from different authors who were, well... totally different.

I love the way Lee Child describes things, he's absolutely brilliant at getting the right details out there the ones that matter and make something as simple as an empty road or a fallow field come to life. You can see these places and things when you read his writing. But I also loved the way other authors, described as little as possible, leaving it up to the reader to come up with those details. I heard Bryce Courtney give a keynote speech once and he insisted he describes nothing. He writes: "The sun rose over Africa." and lets the reader come up with what that looks like for them. Maybe its different in each persons mind, but I understood what he was talking about.

Since I liked both styles I tried to meld them in my own writing. A little Lee Child, a little Bryce Courtney. And a little of a dozen other writers whose work I admired, including Clive Cussler, Michael Crichton, James Rollins, Steve Berry. I studied how they built and revealed a plot. How they paced their chapters. How they worked the science I so loved into their books. And somehow through all this a style of my own formed. I'm not promising its great or even good but its my own, to whatever extent something you learned from others and amalgamated can be your own.

And then I began talking to other writers. Mostly asking dumb questions but occasionally getting good answers. I thought I was there. Story: check. Grammar: check. Style: check. And then someone I consider a good friend told me she didn't care about all those things. TO HER BOOKS WERE ABOUT CHARACTERS. WHAT?!?

So I asked and probed and thought and realized a new thing I needed to try and master: developing characters. And I went through the same process. And I'm still going through it today. I pick up new books all the time and when they wow me, I stop for a moment and think and study what I've read thinking; that's good how did X or Y do that? Why did it work so well?

Your own collection of books. This is the most masterful set of resources you can ever turn to because its all the stuff you love the best and nothing you don't like at all. If you want to play baseball you study other hitters and pitchers, if you want to be a cop, you learn what to do on the job from other cops. If you want to write, study other writers. I still do.

Now where is that Kelli Stanley book I was highlighting the other day?


Rebecca Cantrell said...

Oh no! You just made me realize that writing is all about cheating and stealing and lying.

And that's...good. I'm so confused.

Which, really, is what literature should do. Confuse and clarify.

Thanks for a great post!

Meredith Cole said...

Nice post, Graham! We can definitely learn from the writers we love. An old film school trick I learned was not to try to analyze the first time through--first read the book because you love it and can't wait to find out what happens. Then read it again and break it apart to see how they did it.