In the comments of my guest post last month, a number of people wanted to know what techniques allowed me to dig deep and find the crunchier stories I had to tell, so I thought I’d tackle that subject for my First Official Post here at Writer Unboxed.
However, as I’ve thought about it over the last few weeks, something became clear to me: there is not a single technique or even a handful of them, but rather a long, multi-year process full of steps and stages.
Going deeper involves exposing oneself, but by degrees rather than all at once. A sense of peeling back a little skin, one layer at a time, seeing how much it stings, acclimating, then doing the whole thing over again and revealing a little more. Like those sunburns you used to get as a kid or of a snake, shedding his skin.
In order to do that, we have to be willing to explore our self—what are our issues? No really. The ones we don’t like to face or talk about. The ones that make us squirm, or we’re reluctant to admit even to our therapist. I hate to be the one to tell you, but those are where some of our most powerful writing will spring from. It’s not only a matter of following your weird, but looking even deeper than that to why you are weird in the first place. What need or hole is that weirdness/quirkiness/avant garde-ness filling? Yeah, you have to look there. Then you have to find a way to get some of that rawness into the story itself.
We need to fail. Gloriously. Aim high, swing big, and then let yourself fall flat on your face. (It’s okay, no one will see!) Experiencing failure is simply part of the process. Our characters don’t change or grow unless they are forced to by the events of the story, and neither will we. Rejections, bad reviews, lackluster sales, painful critique feedback, are all necessary lumps on the road to our objective. Then we need to be humble enough to hear what that feedback is telling us. Sometimes the feedback won’t be the obvious kind—a rejection or editorial letter—but rather simply not making progress on our journey. Keep your eyes peeled for that kind of subtle hint the Universe likes to taunt us with.
Almost every successful writer I know gave up writing altogether at one point and walked away. It’s an important part of the process because giving up often provides the window for a breakthrough. Also? If you’re not pushing yourself hard enough that you sometimes feel like giving up, then maybe you’re not pushing yourself hard enough.
We need to accept that oftentimes the reason we started writing is probably not going to be the reason we continue writing. For some, doing something as daring as writing stories or becoming an author is a hard thing to admit to. We are shocked by our own audacity. So our creative self tells our more rational self the necessary lies that will get us moving in the right direction: I can make a lot of money writing books, I will be famous, I will be respected, (I warned you they were lies!) I can write a better book that this one I just paid $10 for, and on and on and on. Eventually though, that hunger to be published should morph into something else. A love affair with writing, a personal quest, a creative outlet, a way to keep sane, a simple joy, or the thrill of finally—finally—capturing the wonderfulness of the idea on the page.
For those of you who want something more immediate and concrete than that, here are some actual techniques that I’ve found most helpful. (Be warned–they’re still not particularly quick.)
- Be willing to produce a lot of material that won’t make the final cut. It can be in the form of multiple drafts as you get to know your character, or story journals (I have about six story journals for each published book I produce AND I never do less than seven drafts) or exploratory scenes or simply note taking. Monday, Keith Cronin talked about how writing is similar to carving an elephant. But here’s the thing: we writers don’t have so much as a block of marble or lump of clay or even paints with which to create. Writers are required to produce the material from which they will then craft the book. So recognize that your early drafts and story journaling are essentially creating the material, rather than writing the story you will be telling.
- Don’t rush. Don’t rush. Don’t rush. Not the ten thousand hours part and absolutely not the submitting your work part. Give all your manuscripts time to percolate, stew, and ferment. If you do this, you will be surprised by three things: How much more easily you recognize your own work’s flaws, how cleverly your subconscious has solved some of the issues for you while you weren’t looking, and you will be delighted when you go back to make changes and find the lovely trail of breadcrumbs your muse left to lead you to your true story, as if she knew you’d get there all along.
- Getting words on the page is not as important as getting the right words on the page. Don’t get so caught up in meeting word goals that you don’t give yourself enough time to think about the story you want to tell, play with it, explore it, day dream about it.
- Revising is not polishing. Revising is being willing to take the whole thing apart and put it back together again in an entirely different way. Or start all over again, from scratch. Put in the work that the story requires. Demands.
- It’s all about the arc. Think archetype rather than stereotype. One touches on the very roots of the human experience and the other is flat.
- Put something vital of your self into each of your protagonists. Take at least one core emotion or defining characteristic that is yours, if not now, then back in the distant murky past and give it to your character. That’s not to say that each character is us; far from it. But we need a point of entry, a point of access, like the opening in a glove through which we can slip our hand, allowing us to enter, not only their world, but their very skin. It is pretty much that simple, but it is far from easy. Not to mention terrifying. Which is why it is sometimes easiest to pretend no one is ever going to see it.
- Try writing by hand. I know in this day of iPads, laptops, netbooks, and Voice Recognition Software, that can seem SO old school. But when we write by hand, we access and utilize a completely different section of our brain than when we use a keyboard. So try it—you might be surprised by what that part of your brain has to say.
Sadly, none of these things listed here is something you can sit down and do in a week. They all take time and are part of the long, glorious apprenticeship that writing demands. But it’s important to remember that life isn’t about finding what comes easily to you; it’s about finding what you love enough to work really, really hard at.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s Stephen A. Wolfe