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Monday, October 02, 2006
I am honestly surprised by the disproportionate lack of attention paid to the mechanics of writing.
By "mechanics," you may immediately assume I'm talking about the very basics: spelling, grammar, syntax. While a case could be made that not enough attention is paid to these building blocks of writing, the type of craft I'm talking about is the middle ground between the elemental (words and sentences, spelling and syntax) and emotional (coming up with ideas, dealing with writers' block). The middle ground includes:
How to write believable dialog.
How to create suspense.
How to develop an effective plot twist.
How to work scene transitions.
How to build meaningful chapters and story sections.
All sound like program topics at writers conventions or class titles at the Learning Annex, but in my experience when writers/instructors deal with discussing these topics, the lessons go straight back to the emotional -- write what you know or pour out what's in your heart and edit later.
I imagine that a significant part of learning to be a doctor is developing the confidence to face a patient, the confidence to perform -- whether that means surgery or a simple routine examination. Still you wouldn't really expect to read a pre-med book on "finding your inner surgeon" or "unleashing the operation within you." Too often I've heard veteran writers, who have been "doing it" for so long their own process becomes transparent, not be able to explain the PROCESS OF CREATION in easy 1-2-3 steps. Or worse, they would have you believe that a large part of it is inspiration and you-just-need-to-feel-it malarky.
Writing is work, and work often means getting your hands dirty. If you can't stand the sight of blood, here's a news flash for ya: don't be a doctor. In fact, you might want to steer clear of the medical profession in general. I hear accounting is relatively blood-free, although the idea of a tax office stuffed with bloody accountants fills me with a cauldron of joy.
Writers should read every book a minimum of two times. A Pasconian truism: better to read fewer book multiple times than many books only once. Writing is not a cocktail party -- you don't get extra points for saying "I read that" if you don't understand HOW IT WAS DONE. This isn't elementary school -- you don't get extra points for doing a book report and knowing the names of the main characters and identifying the theme.
When a book makes you laugh, makes you gasp, makes your eyes well up -- figure out how the writer did it. It's all there, right on the page. You just need to dissect it.
For me, studying the anatomy of story involves stripping the emotional out of the equation and looking closely, clinically at the pieces. Makes lists. Pick a favorite book and write down all the adjectives in it, all the verbs, all the adverbs. Look at them collectively, like they are organs on a stainless steel table; study them in context and try to understand how they contribute to the live of the story organism.
Does your favorite writer use more metaphors or similies? Have no idea? Would you trust a nurse who didn't know if there were more bones or blood vessels in your body.
Writing IS a science, and writing IS magic. Like Houdini's craft, there are secret tricks. Also like Houdini, many writers (even those getting paid to TEACH) often guard these tricks very closely).
next up, I put my money where my mouth is and talk about one of my card tricks: the dialog study.
Labels: writers' tips
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