Do not let school interfere with your education. Formal education is important, but you do not need a college degree in English to write well. And, in my opinion, the intensity of useful education diminishes and the amount of political indoctrination increases as one advances through each grade level. Study because you are passionate about a topic, not because you are trying to achieve a better grade point average. Question every assertion until you have evaluated the facts to your own satisfaction. Do not believe just because others believe. Believe because you know it is true.
You may have noticed that I did not include such mundane advice as study English grammar or write every day or read the great books of the western world or write about what you know or keep a personal journal. Better authors have already covered these suggestions. My goal is to push you beyond the mechanics of writing to explore the deepest regions of personal expression. But a word of warning: when you finish, you may decide to become a jazz musician instead.
Before you read this step, I must share with you that last month was the five-year anniversary of my Stage 3A melanoma diagnosis. My oncologist, Dr. M., said that I had a 72% chance of surviving five years. I responded, "Cool, that's better odds than I thought I had before the cancer."
Embrace the variety of emotions. It is easy to bask in the pleasant warmth of happiness and to ignore suffering, but your fictional characters will not thrive in a reader’s mind unless you imbue them with a plausible range of emotions. And until you have examined your own experiences, from giddy joy to bored indifference to abject despair, you will have not the slightest idea of how to achieve this. When you meet a stranger in the waiting room of the hospital who is dying of cancer, do not be afraid to listen to their story or give them a hug. When friends have decided to divorce and each person reaches out to you for advice, offer compassion in equal measures. When you lose your job after years of faithful service, remain sanguine but allow yourself time to grieve. When you awaken from an unsettling dream, remember the feel of cold sweat. Plunge into the depths of your emotions with utter fearlessness, and you will find, with practice, that it is not too scary after all.
Although it might sound a bit tedious, it is important to listen when someone tells you a personal story. Although I've never recorded these stories in a journal, you may find it necessary to aid your memory. I actually like the way my brain has mashed the thousands of stories I've heard into a glorious mess when I'm ready to use them.
Collect the trivial stories of others. You cannot rely on your experiences alone to provide sufficient grist for a novel. To create a remarkable work you must sprinkle the small stories of others throughout. In my first novel, Toil Under the Sun, I included a variation of the story of a man who had served in the First Marine Division during the Korean War. He had evidently shoved a branch that looked like a shriveled hand up his sleeve and had sent a photo of the unfortunate spectacle to his mother. It only took him a few seconds to tell the story, but it provided me with over two pages of quirky material.
If you take a critical look at your writing style, you may discover that you often provide more details than necessary to adequately describe a character, action, or scene. I have also succumbed to this fault. Nonetheless, you will have a better chance to achieve this step If you always remember that your primary goal is to tell a good story to the reader: nothing more, nothing less.
Learn to discern essence. Accurate details are important, but a long narrative of endless details does not make for a good story. Instead, discern the fundamental essence of your point and use a few punchy details to reinforce it. If you are writing of a galloping horse, don’t use thousands of words to describe the twitch of each muscle and thereby bore the reader to tears. Instead, discern the essence of a galloping horse as you see it, and choose the details necessary to make this essence come alive in the reader’s mind.
Before you read this next step, I must confess that I've found it nearly impossible to follow. My trashy mind wanders around far to much to allow such focus. Maybe you will do better.
Use all of your senses all of the time. Too often, even though I cannot even see the eye chart without my glasses, I rely primarily on my eyes to understand my environment. Try this the next time you are gazing at a beautiful sunset: close your eyes and hear the sunset; push your fingers into your ears and smell the sunset; hold your breath and feel the sunset; open your mouth and taste the sunset. Or try this the next time you are walking up an exterior stairway on a luminous afternoon after a rainy morning: watch your shadow dance across the treads and railing posts; feel the roughness of the splintery handrail rasp against your palm; relish the painful burn in your thighs as you trudge up each step; listen to the rhythmic sound of your footfalls and the shimmer of the trees and the song of the birds; smell the pungent fragrance of the dewy shrubs and damp grass. Now, when you are about to write about a character watching a sunset or walking up stairs, you will be ready.
Now that you've had a few days to explore the first step (posted previously), you are ready to consider the second. This step is absolutely critical to your success as a writer. And before you decide that it is obvious and nothing to worry about, just remember the countless times you were oblivious to your surroundings.
Study the behaviors of living things. When attending a meeting, observe each person’s facial expressions, the blush of their cheeks, the gleam of their eyes, the tone of their voice, the curl of their lips. When strolling down a busy street, pay attention to the manner of each person’s gait, the swing of the arms, the movement of an impatient man through a crowd, the sounds of laughing children, the shape of a cat curled up on the entry mat of a townhouse, the feel of someone bumping against you. When sitting at a park bench on a sunny day, peruse the young couple holding hands, the old man shuffling along with the aid of a cane, the flash of a runner speeding by, the acrobatics of a squawking crow alighting on a branch, the homeless person snoring under a tree, the dog taking a crap. The possibilities for useful observation are boundless.
I know many of you dream of writing The Great American Novel, but just don’t know where to start. Since I have now written two, I believe I am qualified to give you a few ideas. So with that presumptuous introduction concluded, I offer the following first step for your consideration. I will provide additional steps in future blogs, but this should get you started.
Listen more than you talk. The primary reason for this advice is that you don’t want every character in your novel to sound like you, especially those of opposite gender. To achieve authentic dialogue, you must write from your experiences of authentic conversations. This should be an easy one because most people talk more than they listen, usually a lot more. The only time you may encounter difficulties is if you run into someone else who has also read this blog—an unlikely event, but possible.