Monday, November 28, 2016

Can everyone write a good story/novel?

The prompts are still here! Well over a thousand. I'm posting occasionally about writing to prevent the ads from taking over  less active blogs.

Can everyone write a good story/novel?

No. Some find writing a sentence more pain inducing than pulling out their own teeth. They won’t ever write a novel let alone a good one.

Can everyone who wants to write a good story/novel write one?

No. Some people are more in love with having written a book than they are in writing one.

Can everyone who enjoys writing and wants to write a good story/novel write one?

No. First, what do you mean by “good”. Good is a vague fill-in-the-blank word. Do you mean best seller? Literary? A book that will stand the test of time? Good enough for a publisher to publish? A book that people finish and say, “That was a good book”?

Second, there are several skills a writer must master to write stuff that other people enjoy reading. Stand-the-test-of-time writers master them all. Writers who get their books published may be stronger at some than others.

Good writers know grammar. They know punctuation and their [they’re, there] homophones. Their grammar doesn’t need to be perfect with every comma in place. It does, though, need to be good enough to be invisible.

Good writers write clearly. They can picture how readers might interpret their wording. As with your question’s wording, vague words won’t paint the same picture for everyone. A good writer can imagine their wording outside of their own context. They can ask, “What other ways could this sentence be interpreted? What other pictures does it paint?”

Good writers can tell a good story. This is the most important one. Much can be forgiven if someone can tell an engaging tale. They can create characters readers care about. They can create situations readers want to see resolved.

James Talbot, an editor who has written several books on writing, said writing is hard because it’s antisocial. That is in life we strive to decrease conflict. We want to say and do what makes our life easier. But in writing a story that pulls the reader along, the characters must make their situations worse. Characters must be pulled in two or more directions such that a solution that’s right for one problem creates another problem. For instance helping someone from an oppressed group puts their own family in danger. Pursuing a life-long dream means abandoning obligations. To create a tale that pulls the reader along characters must choose to create conflict as they pursue their goals.

Good writers know the difference between writing about a character and writing a story about a character. Someone said a story is about the worst time in a character’s life. They’re in a situation that forces them to question what they believe, forces them to make choices they would have avoided.

But some writers want to bring a character to life then experience life through that character. They create a tragic past then let life buffet the character. The character wants to be happy but doesn’t work towards that. They feel helpless against what life throws at them.

Such writing will never become a story and such writers will never become authors.

Good writers can paint pictures with their words. Some have a natural affinity for poetic writing. They make you feel and see and taste and experience. It will read effortlessly but a great deal of work will go into it. They both enjoy creating it and have an ear for it.

Anyone can get better at that with practice. Find books specifically on expression.

But it’s like running. Some don’t like it so won’t ever be good at it. Some enjoy it, will work at it but never be great because they lack the genes. Some enjoy it and with work will be Olympic athlete caliber.

In running rewards come for going far, fast, and efficiently without ever getting anywhere. Not so for a writer. If a writer wants others to read what they write, they must take the reader on a journey that leads somewhere. They need to tell a story that pulls the reader along, not just fill pages with pretty images.

Good writers have something they want to express through writing. It needn’t be deep but they crave putting a piece of themselves into words. They enjoy putting ideas into words.

Good writers get enough out of the process of writing in order to write. Writing can be painful. There are best selling authors who have said they don’t enjoy writing. But they have a novel in them that wants to get out so badly that they put up with the process of writing it.

“You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” — Red Smith

Note: Wanting to have written a novel is different from having a novel inside you that wants out. Just as there’s a difference between wanting a child and having a baby inside of you working its painful way out of you.

Good writers can find a balance between expressing themselves and writing for others. Good writers know there aren’t only two choices. Good writers know that if they want others to read what they write, they should write what they want to write AND keep the reader in mind. Writing a story without an awareness of what readers need to keep reading is like building a house with no windows or doors.

Good writers know the difference between a rough draft and a final manuscript. Even best selling and stand-the-test-of-time writers will write crappy first drafts. They know the first draft is a combination of notes and exploring an idea. A first draft is virtually unreadable. Good writers want to find the story hiding in the first draft. They want to rework it to make it something other people want to read.

What about creativity? It’s the least important aspect of writing a good story. The majority of stories don’t break any new ground. Only a tiny fraction have new twists and clever endings. The majority of stories are old with new characters, characters the reader cares about which makes the story feel fresh. Even Shakespeare reworked old stories. He brought a fresh perspective through his characters.

Can you master all that by continuing to write? A good writer wants to improve. But what a good — and bad — writer wants most is to write. The want to express what’s inside of themselves through writing whether it makes it into a bookstore or not. A painter needs to paint whether they sell anything or not. A runner needs to run whether they win medals or not. And writer needs to write.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

How do I make my story more engaging and interesting?

"How do I make my story more engaging and interesting?"

Tackling that question has been driving me for the past couple of years. I answered this particular question on Quora and thought I'd bring it over here.

A reader keeps reading because the writer puts in two things. First is a big want, need or desire for the character. Second is obstacles blocking his path to his desire. The reader keeps reading because they wonder:

"How is the character going to do that? X is in his way."
"How is she going to fix this? Y is in her way."
"How is he going to get that? Z is in his way."

For the reader to care about the character there must be something important at stake. If the character doesn't succeed,

What bad thing will happen?
What failure will he need to live with?
What regret must she live with?
How will he have failed his promise to himself?
How will she have hurt another?

For a character to be compelling, they must show drive. (Which comes from having high stakes.) They need to be actively tackling obstacles that feel insurmountable. By actively I mean, when something blocks their way, either they're

Gathering information for a plan, or
Acting on their plan.

What you don't want is a character who wishes his obstacles would go away. Or resigns himself to suffering.

In your story your character is content in his life. He's just going along where life carries him. There's nothing driving him to move out of his comfort zone. There's nothing at stake in the choices he makes.

He faces annoyances (rain, no map), not obstacles. But he doesn't tackle them. He sighs. He groans. He complains. Then others sweep them away (his father, the lady at school).

But even if they hadn't been swept away, they're annoyances rather than obstacles because 1) there's nothing at stake and 2) they don't feel insurmountable.

Readers read to see how characters tackle problems.
They don't want to read about characters drifting along as obstacles get swept away. They want characters actively tackling obstacles.

The characters may be tackling them badly. They may head towards what they want or what they "should" want rather than what they really need (in order to be better people, to be happier.) They may be screwing up others' lives as they move towards what they believe they should go after.

Don't write what you love to write. Write what you love to read.
That's not a rule. Just a heads up. Obviously don't write what you don't love. But be aware that for some writers, it's very satisfying to write about characters being buffeted about by life. It's fun to explore their emotional reactions to what happens to them.

Unfortunately, no matter how satisfying that feels, it won't ever be a story. For a reader it will be like reading the diary of someone who is letting life happen to them. For the reader, once they set a story like that down there's no feeling of needing to pick it back up since there's no sense there's a success or failure at stake.

So how do you do that?
The best way is to pay attention to how writers create that in books and movies.

As you read and watch, ask yourself:

What does the character want?
What's in his way?
What's at stake? What will be lost if she doesn't get this?
How is the character actively tackling what's in their way?

What can make a story compelling is when a character has two desires. His issue is that going after one means he can't have the other. Often one desire is for his physical goal. The other desire is to maintain his belief or strength that's really his flaw.

Examples: In the first Indiana Jones movie, Indy wanted to go after the Ark alone. But Marion won't give him the staff piece unless she goes along. Indy is fiercely independent. (Which is his strength AND his flaw.) Taking her with him puts his independence is at stake. Turning down her offer lets the Ark fall into Nazi hands, and more personally importantly, lets his rival get the credit for finding it first. So he's faced with either giving up what's central to his character or giving up the satisfaction and glory of finding the Ark.

Later, near the end, Indy is faced with choosing between Marion's life and the Ark. One decision puts the life of the woman he loves at stake. The other puts the Ark into the Nazis' hands.

No random obstacles.
A well done story doesn't throw random obstacles at a character. The author designs the obstacles to uniquely challenge this character's weaknesses. Getting out of bed is no challenge. Unless you have no limbs. Taking on a partner is no challenge. Unless you're fiercely independent. Going it alone is no challenge. Unless you've always had family, friends or partners for support.

The reader doesn't just want to see the obstacles overcome. They want to know how this character will overcome obstacles that are insurmountable challenges to him. They want to see how he tackles it being who he is, with the skills he has (and lacks).

Obstacles reveal and challenge character.
At the beginning of the story, the wants and obstacles will often be more character revealing than tied into the big want that drives them through the middle of the story.

For instance, in the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is going after a golden statue not the Ark. He doesn't even know the Ark's been located yet. It establishes what his character wants from life, what he's willing to do to get it, that he's a loner, and that he has a rival. Not much later in the movie, it's established that the Ark may have been located. The movie sticks with that all the way through.

But at the beginning of the original Star Wars Luke wants to go to the Academy to learn to fly. Though it reveals he's a budding pilot, it has nothing to do with the bulk of the movie. Even after his aunt and uncle are killed, he's not going after the Death Star. His goal is small, just to deliver the plans to help the rebels. He really doesn't know what the plans are just that they're somehow important to the rebellion. It's not until half way through the movie that he's set on destroying the Death Star.

First draft isn't final draft.
While you observe how writers present wants, obstacles and stakes, there's one important thing to be aware of. You're looking at a final product. That writer's first draft likely didn't have that captivating first paragraph. It may not have had the big want the character pursues through the middle of the book. It may not have had the character's big flaw. The writer may have written for several chapters before they discovered what makes their character tick and what would be so compelling that they'd face their deepest darkest fears and put what they most value at stake to go after it.

So you don't need to have it all figured out before you write. Just, as you're writing, look for:

a flaw that keeps him comfortable doing things his way,

what he could desire so much he'd be willing to step way outside his comfort zone, and

something he won't want to live without that you can put at stake.