Writing Report April 20, 2019
How long does it take me to write a story?
As I posted here, I was thinking about / analyzing story structure waaaaay back when I was a preschooler, even if I wasn’t aware of what I was doing at the time.
As I grew older, I started reading about writing; my father at one time toyed with the idea of being a writer but to the best of my knowledge he never followed through on it (he did write news releases for the US Army during his second tour of duty, but writing a basic news release is one of the easiest and most formulaic forms of writing out there, and the ability to lay out information in an inverted pyramid style is not necessarily commiserate with creativity) and so we had a stack of old Writer’s Digest magazines and Jack Woodford’s On Writing laying about the house.*
Over the years I picked up a lot of information, some of it extremely useful, some of it particularly useful (either to me individually or to a type of story I was working on), some not so useful (again, at least to me), and some that was counter-productive if not crippling.
I don’t think about them all that much.
There’s an old Zen koan that the singer Donovan turned into a hit song back in the 1960s:
First there is a mountain
then there is no mountain
then there is**
In a nutshell, you see a mountain ahead of you, but when you’re climbing it you only see the rock and soil immediately in front of you. Once down the other side, you look back and see the mountain again.
You see the mountain as an idea, not a concrete reality.
As you climb it, you see it as all its component elements, but not as the whole.
Once past it, you see the mountain for what it really is -- a mountain -- but fully informed to the true nature of it.
That’s what writing is like for me:
First I saw stories, then I saw their component parts, now I see stories as stories again but also all the parts within them.
The thing is, I can’t be cognizant of the parts until the story is done.
I read (mostly bad) how-to-write books (especially aimed at the screenwriting crowd) and see formulaic crap: Make sure x happens no later than page y of the screenplay, give your protagonist a Noble Flaw to endear them to audiences, etc., etc., and of course, etc.
For me, writing is like jazz:
"If you have to ask
you'll never know."
The best jazz artists possess an extraordinary level of musicianship. They can (and often do) play all styles & schools of music equally well.
Check out Wynton Marsalis’ incredible dual career in jazz and classical music.
That’s what I strive for in my writing process:
To understand the component elements at an instinctual level so that when I’m writing I don’t have to run through a mental checklist.
The items will all be there when I’m done.
This is not the same thing as going back over a story and looking for weak points, or elements that need to be presented better, or to see connections one previously overlooked, but rather to have the story lay down straight and true from the moment you start telling it in earnest.
For me, if I have to think about it, I can’t write it.
In the last three weeks I’ve had a nice little burst of creative energy, finishing two short stories, getting one half-written, and a fourth started.
#4 is a writing prompt exercise we did at the writer’s group I attend. Those are always fun little creative exercises, even if the results are pieces of fluff (to keep the jazz analogy going, they’re like improvised jam sessions late at night after the club has closed and the customers have gone home).
That writing prompt trigger a slightly deeper look at the throwaway plot twist I dropped in, getting me to realize if I didn’t treat it as a throwaway but rather as germane to the story, it took the tale in a whole new (and more interesting) direction.
So that one’s started and waiting its turn on deck.
#3 is an old idea I think I’ve alluded before, if not here then on Facebook; it’s a silly take on a serious theme (and no, the theme is not obvious at the beginning; what you think is the theme is a misdirection).
I’m about halfway through it, but my writing was interrupted by Previously Scheduled Events and I have not had the necessary time to sit down and recapture my original mindset so that one needs to wait until I can give it the proper attention.***
The two stories I did complete are worthy of a little more time and attention than I have for this entry, so I’ll see you here next week.
© Buzz Dixon
* Woodford’s book and Dean Koontz’ How To Write Best Selling Fiction are arguably the two best ever nuts & bolts instructional books for writing popular / pulp fiction. There are other authors who write better about the art of writing (Lajos Egri’s classic The Art Of Dramatic Writing is an absolute must-read for everybody serious about their craft), but Woodford and Koontz know the hard slog all too well and share their well-earned wisdom.
** From a Buddhist saying originally formulated by Qingyuan Weixin, later translated by D.T. Suzuki: Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it's just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers.
*** Folks ask me, “When are you going to write another [favorite TV show] story?” and while I never say never, the truth is those shows we remember so fondly as creators and audience were products of a particular time and place, a unique cultural gestalt that at best can be revisited but never recaptured.