Over the years, I’ve observed the newbie writers who earnestly take notes, highlight key passages in their books on the writing craft, and ask questions of every working professional writer they meet. These individuals craft scenes and stories that follow the rules of writing technique, and they’re as devoid of life as a paint-by-numbers picture.
I’ve also encountered newbies who won’t be told a writing principle. They scoff at rules and bridle against changing one word they’ve written. They have what they think is a deep passion for writing, and they refuse to listen to anything an experienced, published writer might say. Such amateurs are often highly imaginative, but their stories are crazy, illogical, and always fall apart at the critical places.
Left-brained. Right-brained. The two extremes among people who have stories to share but can’t seem to get their ideas translated from their imaginations to the page.
The successful writer is someone who’s balanced between these polar opposites. A successful writer should know the principles of what makes stories work and what makes them appealing to readers. Above all, a successful writer needs the rules of the craft.
[If you were about to have a cavity filled, would you want a dentist who blew off her “Techniques of Drilling Tooth Enamel” class because she didn’t think it was important? Just wait until her drill hits that nerve!]
A successful writer must be willing to master the craft and then–only then–take risks with it. Taking risks is a key component to instilling verve in your copy.
During the last two weeks, I’ve been busy plotting a novel. Day after day, writing session after writing session, I’ve been carefully, methodically listing my story events in logical order from beginning to end.
With that in place, I’m now mentally laying the careful outline aside and taking down the safety chain. This morning, as I was lugging groceries from the garage into the utility room and pantry, I was thinking, Why not move Scene X forward to be the book’s opening? It’ll be a dark night, maybe raining, and the hero will come running from the shadows–half-naked–to collide with the heroine.
Immediately the old left hemisphere starts waving my outline. “Ahem!” it barks. “According to the plan, you should begin the book with the guy in anguish aboard the yacht.”
Right hemisphere screams in protest. “No, no, no! That’s so dull. The yacht incident is all internalization. It’s not exciting enough. He’s drinking Scotch and indulging in a pity party. Boring. Bad. Dull. Think instead of the night and all its mysteries; think of this man, running barefoot and bare-chested; think of the woman’s shock as she sees him partially clothed. (Shock mingled perhaps with feminine interest.) Soooo much better!”
“But the logical order of the story will be lost. You’ll have to write a flashback.”
Guess which section of my brain is going to win this argument?
You betcha! Right hemisphere takes the prize.
But only because the outline has been hammered out and I know how to pull it off without losing my story’s logic. Left hemisphere is already busily seeking a plausible motivation for the woman to be walking alone down a dangerous street at that hour.
Your imagination is going to feed you notions and glimmers and glimpses and rainbow bursts of what-ifs. Never shut it off, but learn instead how to judge these pinpoints of light sparkling in the dim mists of your brain. Evaluate which have merit and which won’t help your story read better.
Apply yourself to the mastery of your writing craft so that your imaginative leaps don’t drop you into a plot hole. Channel your creativity to make it useful.
And never be afraid to do something new. You may be slapped down. Your editor may not understand what you’re doing in a particular passage, but at least you will have tried. Or, your editor may say, “I love this section where the elephants dance under the jungle starlight. Let’s open Chapter Six with that.”
Risk taking for writers also includes a willingness to write an entire first novel on speculation, not knowing whether it will ever find a publisher. It also means a willingness to write an entire 45th novel on speculation after your literary agent has nixed it–just because you must.
Risk taking for writers means daring to reach deeper inside yourself and write to your truth, without looking over your shoulder in fear of what your granny or mom might say.
Risk taking for writers means crafting a fast, unpredictable plot. Or creating a slower novel with deeper characterization. It could mean changing your style to try a new setting or genre.
Risking taking for writers means trusting your story sense. First you have to learn to listen for it, to hear its small voice, and then you have to learn to listen to it.
Always, always do what it tells you to do.
Without question. Without fear. Without hesitation.
Even if everyone else in your writing critique group says otherwise.