Wednesday, March 31, 2010

5 Things I Learned About Writing

by Rafael Figueroa

1. Blank pages are more intimidating than pages full of half-baked ideas.

While the writing process varies from author to author, they all start each new project with a blank page (be it paper or a computer screen). The first few times I ever wrote a creative story, I would stare at the blank page for a time, gathering my thoughts and trying to develop the `best' place to begin. More often than not, the page remained blank. There was something about the blinking cursor or the clean ruled lines of a notebook that just stared me down. On some level, the notion of befouling the virginal space with anything short of brilliance seemed wasteful.

As my confidence grew and I cultivated an approach to writing that worked with my personal strengths, I was able to forge ahead more often. However, the blank page remained an early obstacle to each endeavor. At some point, I discovered the fine art of editing and a new world opened up to me. Rather than find the right place to start, I started wherever I pleased and then revised my way to a satisfactory work. For example, this very article originally started with `thing number 2' and a much different example than the one you are reading now.

The moral of the story is to identify and eliminate the intimidation of the blank page by whatever means fits your way of thinking. For me, it was as simple as finding that editing my half-baked ideas was easier than waiting for the idea to fully form before starting. If you wait long enough for anything you run the risk of forgetting what you are waiting for.

2. The truth will set you free, but it can be a hindrance.

Early on, I wanted to have all the facts straight. I couldn't have my hero shooting fifteen rounds from his police issued 9mm Berretta pistol, if in all actuality, contemporary policemen were issued 6 round capacity .357 Magnum revolvers. When it came to mentioning what kind of gun the cop was using, I'd hit the books (or do a quick Google search). Sure enough, I'd get the information I needed to make the scene accurate, but the passion to write left me while I switched hats from author to researcher and back again.

Nowadays I write when the spirit moves me and research when I have writers block. I have accepted two core ideals. Firstly, that a compelling story defies the facts as long as what is presented is plausible. Secondly, anything that halts the creative process is a hindrance and will not make your writing better. While we don't want the medieval knight performing CPR on a fallen comrade, we don't necessarily have to stop writing our story to make sure that the Saxon blade was in common use in the 14th century. If you aren't sure, your readers probably aren't sure either… unless it is a critical matter that could pierce the suspension of disbelief, trust them not to Google it.

3. The moral of the story is… really not my job.

Some of my earlier writings were bad for a whole host of reasons, but one thing that was particularly dominant was my overarching need to tell people what I wanted them to take away from the story. If the moral was `drugs are bad,' I'd go at length to show how bad they were, tell you they are bad, and then tell you that I told you that they were bad. What this demonstrated, above and beyond the fact that I was a novice, was lack of trust. I didn't trust my reader to get my message, so I over-delivered it. I also feared that the reader might misinterpret misdirection as advocating.

At some point, I realized that it was OK. Whatever the reader takes away from your work, they took something away. It may not be what you intended, but that's fine. Don't sacrifice the flow or substance of your stories to get some lesson across. Put it there in a natural way and trust the reader to understand it.

4. Ego can be a problem… both having too much and too little.

I'm no Stephen King, but boy do I know how to run myself through the grinder. Guess what, there was a time when Stephen King was some unknown, workaday nobody who just happened to have a few screws loose. Just like us, he used the pen to tighten things up. He got famous. Good for him. Just because nobody on the face of the planet is clamoring for your next novel, it does not mean that such will always be the case. Conversely, just because everyone in your coffee clutch gives your work glowing reviews, it doesn't mean that those five editors that sent you those five rejection letters were wrong for doing so.

At the end of the day, we are all just folks. From the powerful to the powerless… if you prick us do we not call 1-800-LAWYERS? The key to finding my comfort level in writing was managing my ego. I write well, but so does the janitor at the Hazleton Wal-Mart. My story idea is better than the last movie I saw, but there are ideas better than mine that will never see print let alone be made into movies. In the end, I decided to write the stories that I would like to read, share a part of myself with whoever is willing to read. Any judgment about the quality of such is for the reader alone to decide. Getting so prideful as to scorn rejection/criticism is equally as self-destructive as having too little pride in my work to share it.

5. In the end there was the beginning.

As in art and film, great works of writing are never finished, only abandon. Early on, I never finished a story. I would write a significant portion of it, get the characters developed, set the plot in motion, and tighten the tension to the breaking point. Then I'd just walk away and find something else to write about. People hated me. It was like that TV show you found and loved that was cancelled midway through the first season, leaving you unfulfilled. It's not that I was sadistic… well I was sadistic but that had little to do with leaving my stories unfinished. I failed to finish many of my early stories because I was afraid.

I'm sure that we have all followed some book, TV show, or movie through to the end only feel as though our time had been wasted. A plot, laden with possibilities, must eventually give way to a conclusion in one final form. The joy of setting up the plot lies in tempting the imagination with those possibilities and the danger of resolving the plot is that the reader's imagination might be better than yours. I never learned how to pick the best ending; I only learned that ending the story was just the beginning. After I chose an ending, I was free to go back to the beginning and change anything or everything. The most important part of ending the story was that it was my ending.

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