Thursday, November 4, 2010

Moments of Clarity - and What to Do With Them

Been a long time since I did the newsletter stroll. We've been trapped in writing workshops for weeks now. We're still in one now in fact. I'm stealing a few moments to write this between screen writing exercises.

People often email me to tell me they're blocked. No such luxury here. The writers in this room with us are all writing to order. You get one hour, sometimes less, to write at least two pages of fiction that works.

You get blocked here and you're shown the door...

...and to think we applied for this gig!

We writers are a stubborn lot. Sometimes it can take us decades to learn a subtle truth about writing that forever changes us - and our writing - for the better.

At various stages in my writing career, more experienced writers and critics have said (in no particular order) watch your point of view switches, careful not to use the author's voice, learn format and punctuation assiduously, don't over justify your concepts, don't overuse adjectives or qualifiers, dump cliche and adverbs, be totally honest in your writing, know your characters inside out, make your motivations believable, write for the reader etc etc.

Each time I felt an inner resistance and fallen back on the age-old feeling of "I know what I'm doing - that's my style." Only to realize, sometimes years later, that my peers and critics were right - and that I should have listened to them, and immediately acted on their advice.

The interesting thing about the last two months of the intense writing workshops we've attended is that we have been bombarded daily with fabulous advice from working writers and industry professionals - not so much about writing technically - but about the effect of our writing on our others.

We have been encouraged to explore our ideas and concepts and deliberately find those that will connect with our potential audience - and reject those that might be good but have limited appeal.

Then, to hone those viable ideas into a form that will resonate with readers, agents, publishers, producers and people the world over.

Precision is the key.

We've learned that having a different effect on different people is actually not quite good enough. Our writing should be so clear, so meticulously transparent, that it has roughly the same effect - the one we desired - on almost everyone that reads it.

Look at it this way.

The job of a fiction writer is to elicit emotion in a reader. This is true of novels, short stories and screenplays, any fiction.

But the job of us professional writers is to elicit the precise emotion we intended - and at exactly the time we want. And we do this in a number of specific ways.

Being a student of human psychology can help. We have to know from experience what events and circumstances trigger certain emotions in others. But we need to do this in an objective way - so that we learn which emotions are triggered in general to the population at large.

Knowing ourselves too is vitally important.

The longer I live the more convinced I become that on some deep level we humans are all fundamentally the same. 99% of our DNA is similar to every other person on the planet. Simply put, we're made the same.

That's why, by relying on our own feelings and reactions to stimuli, we can get a pretty good handle on how others feel and would react given the same scenarios.

But what about originality? I hear you.

Uniqueness comes from the way we in particular process and describe the commonality of experience.

Genius is ascribed to us when we exactly personify that which others already know - but have perhaps been unable to exactly express themselves.

On a practical level, we need to be rigorous when plotting fiction.

You might take a character and say he does this then this then this. And you have to know why he does those things. It's not enough just to say 'yeah, well that makes sense to me'. You have to be sure that, based on empirical observation, that the character's motivations are logical and consistent to almost everyone that may later read your work.

That's what makes a fiction writer great. To be able to take the ordinary and mundane, even the extraordinary and fantastical, and make it shine with TRUTH.

Because, as I often say, fiction, at its best, is more true than real life. And basically, that's why we like it.

For most writers, moments of real clarity are few and far between. But when we're assailed by them, we must embrace them.

A while back I realized that, yes indeed, we are complete masters of our own destiny. That this was not some idle concept. No, it is absolutely true. And that revelation changed me forever.

Similarly, the last few weeks of writing workshops has convinced me beyond any doubt that unless writing connects with the reader in exactly the way the writer intended, it's not really working.

But the good news is that our real purpose as writers is to improve that one overarching aspect of our skill base.

We need to get better at eliciting exactly the emotion we intended, at exactly the time we intended.

That's the real reason why we need to improve our technique and constantly seek perfection.

Not to impress or shock or wow.

But simply to connect.

Keep writing!

Rob at Home
Your Success is My Concern
The Easy Way to Write


"A professional is a man who respects his trade, tries as hard as he can to perfect his work, and realizes that one failure isn’t the end of the world. Or two…or three." Nathaniel Benchley
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The Writing Academy

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