Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Tip Tuesday: The Equation for a Story

As of this posting, there are 88 days until the release of my debut novel, Failstate. This has been a long road to walk, one that I talked about in a column over at Speculative Faith. But it's a road that I didn't walk alone. There are a lot of people who have walked the publication road before me. There are a lot who are following behind. And there are some who are just getting started, who have caught the dream and want to see a story that they created and wrote appear in print, for people to read and enjoy.

Only here's the thing. A lot of people have a distorted view of what it takes to be a writer. For instance:

Okay, granted, that's a joke, but the sad thing is, everything the ignorant bear said has been uttered or at least thought by would-be writers.

Now I'm hoping that no one that's reading this currently holds any of those ideas (if you have in the past, well, that's another story that you can keep to yourself). But maybe you're just getting started and you don't have any idea of what to do.

That's where this column will come in. Every week (hopefully), I'll be sharing some writing tips that I've picked up over the past decade or so. Now understand, I'm no expert. What I'm sharing is stuff that's worked for me in the past or advice that others have given me that makes a lot of sense. If any other writers want to contradict me, please do so. I'm always open to correction. If nothing else, consider this friendly advice from someone on the road.

In some ways, I'm a little nervous about writing articles like this. I don't want anyone to think that there's a magic formula to getting published. There's no "one size fits all" way of doing it. If you were to poll a hundred published writers, you would hear one hundred different stories of how they got where they got and what they thought was important. Simply put, if anyone tells you that there's one way and only one way to write good stories, they're either deluded or lying.

That said, I think there are some general, universal principles that can be codified into an easy to remember formula:

We'll spend the next few weeks expanding what each of those symbols mean, starting with the first "R." The first "R" stands for "reading." Or, to be more specific, reading fictional books.

I honestly don't know any successful writers who aren't also avid readers. A love of the written word means that we not only produce them, we devour them as well. When filling out the "Interests" section on Facebook, writers will usually include "Reading" somewhere toward the top of the list. To be blunt, if you don't read, you're not going to write. Imagine a person who claims to love doing needlepoint but doesn't own a single hoop thing. Imagine a self-professed car nut who doesn't spend any time in his or her garage. The same principle is at work here. If you're going to write, you're going to read as much as you possibly can.

Take me, for instance. I like to joke that my family was the terror of our local library when my siblings and I were children. We would check out two or three crates worth of books every couple of weeks, doubling or even tripling the staff's workload when we visited. And while we didn't read all of them, we read the majority. My first job was at said local library, and I usually left work with numerous books I found out in the stacks. When I was in school, I carried a novel with me wherever I went to read between classes.

Nowadays it's no different. This is my current to-be-read stack:

This is actually pretty deceptive. I forgot to include three library books we have in our basement. And on the very top of the left stack is my Kindle, which currently contains 34 books I've picked up over the last year or so. Yes, I've got a lot of reading to do, and I can't wait to tear through most of this.

So why do writers read? Well, there are three primary reasons. I've touched on the first: because we love stories and are driven to consume them.

Secondly, I think that reading stories help us produce more. It's sort of a "you are what you eat" type of thing. I don't know about other writers, but there have been periods where I haven't been able to read as much as I would like. When that happens, I notice it's more difficult to write new stories. I need a constant input of ideas and words and images to keep my own imagination flowing. As a matter of fact, I'll often try to juice my imagination before I begin a writing project by reading a bunch of books that I know I'll enjoy, just to give myself a high octane boost.

Thirdly, and most importantly, I think it's good for writers to read because it's a great way to learn what to do and not to do.

One thing I've noticed over the last few years is that when I read, I'm not just reading for enjoyment anymore. Oh, sure, I still love a good story, but I've been asking myself questions like, "Why did I enjoy this scene so much? What did the author do?" or "What made this book a flop to me and how can I avoid the same thing?" We can pick up techniques and ideas along the way, stuff that we can use in our own writing to improve our books.

For example, in Neil Gaiman's book Neverwhere, we're introduced to Richard Mayhew, a somewhat wimpy man with an over-domineering girlfriend named Jessica. Now Gaiman could have just told us that (sort of like I just did), but over one chapter, he paints such a clear picture of both Richard and Jessica that I wound up clearly on Richard's side and wanted nothing more than to see Jessica kicked to the curb.

Now I could have read a book about showing vs. telling (and there is one available. Take a look in the above picture). But by reading Gaiman's book, I found such a great example of that principle in action that it's stuck with me even though I read the book years ago.

The same thing can happen for you as well. Pay attention to what successful authors do. If you found something you really like, ask yourself how the author achieved that effect. If the story doesn't work, consider why it doesn't and ask yourself how to avoid a similar pitfall.

Now you might rightly ask yourself how to find the time to read. Well, it's all a matter of priorities. If writing matters to you, not only do you have to find time to do that, you should also find time to do the reading too. And there's plenty of time to read if you know where to look for it. Let me ask you this: when you go get your oil changed or see the doctor, what do you do in the waiting room? Do you read the moldy oldy magazines? Do you watch TV (if there is one)? Do you pull out a smart phone and commit avian acts of aggression against non-kosher enemies? Why not bring a book with you and spend the time there?

To put it simply, writers read. If you want to be a writer, you also have to be a reader.

Thanks for joining us. Next week, we'll take a look at the second "R" in the equation. Until then, happy writing!

No comments: