Learning how to write what you want to write
It’s nearly time for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which I’m participating in again. That means that I am encouraging (read: recruiting, nagging, pleading, conniving…) anyone that I can to take a shot at it. Last week I riffed on a quotation from Ray Bradbury, Overthinking is the enemy of creativity to talk about some of the most common ways we can self-sabotage creative efforts.
I dismissed one of the usual excuses, that what you write isn’t good enough, by pointing out that no first draft is perfect. Which is true, but incomplete. The only way that anyone can learn to be a better writer is to write. That means writing badly. A lot. Just like the only way a baby can learn to walk is to try, and fall down, then try again. It is a slow process of slowly getting less bad until we reach a point where we literally don’t remember what it was like not knowing how to walk.
When I said last time that humans are natural storytellers, that was also true and also incomplete. Yes, humans tell stories to ourselves and each other in order to make sense of the world, to communicate, to persuade, and to commiserate. You have years of experience doing that. But if you are a typical person, most of your experience is storytelling through the spoken word—usually face-to-face. Your narrative depends on a lot of nonverbal supplementary material. You sit down with friends and explain about your day, for instance. You may imitate the voice of one of the other people involved in your tale. You might gesture with your hands. Your facial expression changes to convey emotional context. Your tone of voice varies. You slow down at some points and speed up at others in order to draw out suspense of convey a sense of urgency. You will pause dramatically.
And you have none of those tricks available when you write.
What many people never fully grasp is that, while written language is based upon spoken language, they aren’t actually the same language. It’s because spoken language has all that non-verbal stuff going along with it. It has all those non-verbal communication tricks that we learned the same way a baby learns to walk: by observation followed by trial and error. Which means we do it without thinking. But we don’t know how to convey all that with words on screen or on paper.
That’s one of the things we have to learn in order to become a writer. How do we tell our story compellingly without those non-verbal bits? How does sentence length correspond to verbal pacing? Are compound-complex sentences the equivalent of a long aside, building up dramatic tension while providing hints of what is to come so that the listener anticipates where it it going, yet does not become impatient? And what of fragments?
All of that is hardly scratching the surface. It isn’t just about technique. It isn’t just about vocabulary. It isn’t just about structure, or theme, or scene setting, or characterization. It is all of those things, yes, but the whole is also more than merely the sum of the parts.
The only way to learn how to do that is the same as any other skill: observation followed by trial and error. That’s why you need to read as well as write. You can’t simply think about your story ideas. Or talk about them with other people. You have to sit down, just you and the blank page (and it doesn’t matter whether the page is paper or pixels), and write it. Then later, read what you wrote. And let someone else read what you wrote to see how they react to it. And read other stuff by other people. Then sit down again and write again. Revise, rewrite from scratch, write something else for a while to take your mind off of it. All of those things are part of the learning process.
What isn’t part of the learning process is explaining to other people why you don’t have time. What isn’t part of the learning process is playing video games because you aren’t feeling it just now (except when it is, but that’s another post for another time). What isn’t part of the learning process is whining to your friends that you don’t have any ideas.
It’s tough. I know. Though, full disclosure, I don’t really remember just how tough it is. I literally tried to write my first book when I was six years old. Which was 49 years ago. By the time I was ten I was in the habit, every month, of reading the new issue of The Writer magazine at the public library from cover to cover. I checked out books about writing. I copied out whole sections of the books and articles that made the most sense to me so I could re-read the bits later after I turned the books back in to the library. From the fourth grade on I spent so much time in my bedroom banging away on the typewriter writing short stories, attempting novels, and so on, that sometimes my father threatened to burn all my books and take the typewriter and all writing implements away so I would be forced to go be a “normal boy.”
Now I routinely sit down at the keyboard with only a vague notion of what I’d like to write about, and an hour or so later I have over 1,000 words of a relatively decent essay on learning to write by trial and error (that includes the time it took to find the Le Guin quote, open Affinity Designer, and create the graphic to go with this post). Or I sit down at the keyboard looking at a big hole in my plot, click the plus icon in Scrivener, and a few hours later I’ve written a new scene or three which have at least pushed the story forward. Yet, I still can’t write quite as well as I’d like. But I know I write better today than I did last week. And better last week than I did a year ago. A better last year than I did five years ago, and so on.
I got here the same way every writer does: I wrote, it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, so I wrote again.
You can do it, too. Don’t give in to the excuses or self-doubt. Don’t compare yourself to other writers. Just sit down, look at that blank page, and then fill it up!
All I can say is, it took me about ten years to learn how to write a story I knew was something like what I wanted to write. In the sixty years since then I’ve learned how to do some more of what I’d like to do. But never all.
—Ursula K. Le Guin