Thursday, December 20, 2007

Thoughts on Writing

[The following is an essay that I wrote tonight for myself, in response to the things I am currently thinking about as I try to jump-start my writing after a relatively bad year productivity-wise. These thoughts are a bit unordered as times, as I'm working through a number of craft issues in my head at present, but I thought that they might be of outside interest.]

One of the critical things about writing well is to do the unexpected. This means if the next scene seems obvious, or little more than a bridge to the scene after that, you probably shouldn’t be writing the scene in question. This means that your characters have to be unique, and have enough interesting attributes to keep the reader following them. In my case, this also means there has to be enough to keep the reader sympathetic to the main character(s). If there isn’t something admirable or unique about the character, they just seem like another everyman, or a prop in a play.

One key aspect of this is that the character must be strong enough to make his or her own decisions, despite where you (the author) think the story is going. This might mean that some smaller scenes won’t work or can’t play, or even that some whole scenes might have to go -- a romantic scene with Ender would have been disastrous, and would have completely killed parts of his character.

This means that certain conversations, which the author might wish to have proceed in a certain fashion in order to disseminate information in the most efficient manner, will instead go in an entirely other direction. This is how depth and complexity is created. I have a tendency to feel frustrated or flustered in such cases, because I feel like I’m not writing tightly enough in terms of plot -- but in reality, not every scene is going to advance the plot by light years. The best books have plot and character development interwoven in every scene, but in many cases the plot development is so slow as to be almost unnoticeable. The novel is book-length because the main plot is doled out in little bits, after all.

One big issue with my own writing is that scenes which are just filler, or scenes in which the protagonist is passive, tend to crop up too much in early drafts. Identifying those sooner than later and killing them is a good idea. I’ve gotten a lot better about the filler issue, but the passivity issue is a big problem. After all, I tend to model the characters after myself, and my general strategy in life is to accumulate knowledge/power until I have an assured positioning for victory, and then to strike the finishing blow all at once. This strategy is actually very effective in practice, but it doesn’t exactly make for the most riveting writing, as the build-up period is comparatively dull.

This means I will always be slightly out of my element when writing, if I want to remain interesting to my readers. I will always have to use the strategy of taking smaller actions early and often, still with an eye to that big finish, but without the painful comfort of doing little in the meantime. This is something that I’ve been forcing myself to do with my last two works, but it still isn’t something that is entirely comfortable to me.

Interestingly, my older works were often much less cautious, but also much less practiced. I’ve changed since then. I’ve learned patience and caution, at times at a rather steep price to myself. What I have to learn is that these virtues are not necessarily virtuous when it comes to the body of my writing itself -- but they are certainly helpful in weathering the creation process itself.

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