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I like to think of writing fiction as a difficult and intricate kind of magic.
Magic = skills + art.
You need to learn a rather stunning array of skills, whether it’s the rules of decent grammar or the principles of storytelling, and then you need to transform them into something your own. The dancer becomes the dance. You don’t see the plot points, you only experience story.
So I love to read books and articles about how to write fiction. I think of it as writer’s porn. Recently I read three very good books on the subject.
Each book will inspire its own post.
Today I want to say that Alan Watt’s THE 90 DAY NOVEL effectively changed my approach to first-drafting through stressing the spirit of inquiry.
Instead of trying to control the narrative, you shape it through…asking questions. Asking and answering questions about the characters helps you create the conflict which helps you create the major plot points.
(Watt guides you through this process in a series of letters that speak to the heart of who we are and what we do.)
Then you write your way from plot point to plot point, with no revision or backtracking allowed – the important thing is to get the damn thing done.
(Besides, you can’t do the heavy lifting until you see how the ending illuminates the beginning and all that falls between.)
Questions are powerful tools. By choosing what to ask and how to ask it, you frame – or reframe – what you’re looking at. Questions open up new avenues in the material. They focus — and expand — your attention. They get your mind moving (since the brain has a compulsive itch to answer any question you put to it).
We get trapped in habitual ways of thinking and doing, including how we perceive our material. It could be the project we are working on or the raw stuff of life that we’re working with. The brain seeks out patterns, and then runs along those patterns. (Often when we think we’re thinking, we’re not really thinking. We’re moving in the grooves.) It evolved this way to survive, to make sense of the world, to organize the constant bombardment of incoming stimuli as efficiently as possible. The more it can put on automatic pilot, the more space it frees up to focus on other things (or maybe just loaf around).
But it means that we have to make a conscious effort to step outside of those patterns. To shake things up. To see the things we’re not seeing, or connect them in new ways.
Questions don’t allow us to take things for granted.
This spirit of inquiry also allows for the mystery of the creative process while still creating enough of a structure to give it shape and purpose.
Stephen King once compared novel-writing to an archaeological dig. Bit by bit, you travel down through the layers and unearth the thing. It’s as if the novel already exists and your job is to reach into that murky space and bring it up into the light.
This takes some of the pressure off. You’re not expected to know all the answers, but simply to discover them, one by one by one. You state your intentions, ask your questions, and see what happens next.
That’s your end of the bargain.
You don’t need to be great.
You only need to be curious.
“Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king.”
- Alan Watts
Hey you. Check out the 90 Day Novel Online. But before you do that, please sign up for my list! Because it makes the world a better place. Swear.