The idea of ideas, part 3

I’ve written about how having an “idea” is not as important to storytelling as many think, and why specific questions about “ideas” can be so misleading as well as off-putting. As at least one commenter pointed out that while those posts show that focusing on ideas is the wrong thing to do, I don’t explain what the right thing to do is.

Except I did.

I know you’ve heard it a thousand times before. But it’s true – hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice. If you don’t love something, then don’t do it.
—Ray Bradbury

In the first post I said that focusing on ideas is like a carpenter obsessing over a single nail instead of getting on with the task of building a house. And that analogy has the answer, if you just stop and ask, how does a carpenter learn how to build an entire house from scratch? The answer is that there isn’t a short simple answer. You have to learn about how the tools work. You have to learn about which building materials go where. You have to learn about foundations and framing and supports and seals and scores of other things. You have to practice. You have to have someone look over your work from time-to-time during your practice and tell you whether it seems to be working. You have to build little projects and then put them to the test—see if they do the job you intended them to do and how they hold up against the elements.

It’s not a simple process. No one, not even someone as awesome as Neil Gaiman nor as wise as Ray Bradbury, can tell you in only one or two sentences exactly, step-by-step, how to be a successful storyteller. We can tell you things that work for us. We can point you in the correct direction. We can offer encouragement.

We can give you truths in a nutshell, such as, “The way to be a writer is simply this: write.” But you have to understand that those sorts of truths are like zen koans. The answers come from you struggling with the simple statement and the unspoken complications within.

We can write articles and blog posts about our process. We can point you to excellent books on writing (Building Fiction by Jesse Lee Kercheval, The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft by Stephen King, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish, to name but a few). We can try to answer specific questions. But there are two very important things to remember about that. First, we’re humans trying to get along in life just like you, and time we spend giving advice to you is time that we aren’t writing or otherwise earning our own keep. Second, what any of us know took us years of trying, failing, trying again, and slowly learning how to fail less often, and you’re asking us to give you this hard-earned knowledge for free.

I got in trouble several years ago on a writer’s forum for stating one very important truth underlying all of this process. I haven’t mentioned it in a long time. That probably means its about time to bring it up: if there has never been a time in your life when you read voraciously—when getting to the end of a particular book was more important than sleeping or eating, when you rushed to get to the end of one book so you can start another, or when you read multiple dozens of books and even more short stories in a single year—then you can’t be a writer. You don’t have to read like that all of the time, but in order to understand stories you have to have been consumed by them, been enthralled by them, been so caught up with them that they seemed more real than you yourself.

There’s even neuroscience to back that up. Certain areas of the brain simply don’t fully develop if you don’t spend a lot of time reading for pleasure.

You also have to spend some time looking at some of the stories you love and analyzing how the author did it. You need to spend time looking at some stories you hate and analyzing why they don’t work for you.

You have to write. Get one word down after the other until you reach the end of the tale. Then you either set it aside (and start writing something else) for a while until you can pick it up, look at it objectively, see both the flaws and the good parts, and figure out how to do better. Doing better might by re-writing that story. Doing better might mean tossing that tale and moving on to others. You have to let readers read your stuff every now and then and find out whether it works. You have to learn which reader advice to ignore, and which to take to heart. You have to keep writing and trying to get better.

And by the way, when I said look at your work objectively, seeing both flaws and virtues, I mean exactly that. Too many look at their own work and see only flaws, and despair. Others look at their work and see no flaws at all, and think they have nothing to improve. Every work has some flaws, but every work has something in it that isn’t bad. If you can’t find both, you aren’t being objective.

This is as succinctly as I can put it without sounding like a platitude. And there is so much more I could say about each point. But all of this is really just me trying to unpack, just a little, a profound truth that that late, great Ray Bradbury like to say:

Jump, and you will find out how to unfold your wings as you fall.
—Ray Bradbury

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