Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Zette's Take: Try New Things

The problem of being complacent

Writers can sometimes get into a kind of rut they don't even see. They are enthralled with one or two genres and a particular type of character. Titles and names change, but after a while they run the risk of retelling the same story in new clothing. This is especially true for those who have purposely tied themselves to a single series, reusing the same setting, characters, etc. Six books into the projected twenty volumes, and they're already reworking the same situations and getting vaguely worried about how to change things around.

You don't have to be writing several books in the same setting to find yourself faced with this problem. The problem can also be caused by a mindset which ties you too strongly to certain types of work.

Every writer should want to expand his or her storytelling arsenal. So what's the answer?


The first thing to read is fiction. Pick up new books or old favorites. Step away from your world for a while and look at what others are doing. No, you aren't going to steal from their plots, but you will be inspired by them. Movies and television shows can also be forms of inspiration at this point. However, I suggest reading first because you are working with words, and seeing how words work for others can help you refine your own abilities. Look at the material you like and study how the author creates the illusion of life.

I know many writers have trouble reading fiction after they begin to learn the tricks of writing good fiction and see how poorly written other books might be. This seems to be especially true of new and popular books. Instead of denigrating the author's writing ability and the intelligence of those who enjoy the books, make a real effort to find out what it is that drew people to the books. Study them in an attempt to learn to do better. Poor writing skills did not draw the reader, so what did?

Are there books you used to enjoy but don't now? What drew you to them? What did you see now that doesn't work as well for you? Almost always the last answer will be the writing style. As writers, we become more sophisticated in what we see and want from others. We start applying our style and knowledge to the work of others and judging it badly. Sometimes, though, you need to consider a shift in writing conventions. Jane Austen had different rules and expectations. So did Robert A. Heinlein. In both these cases, their books have lived past their respective ages because something strong still calls to people. This is the sort of thing you're looking for.

You might also look at reviews of books or set up questions for others to see what draws them to certain books.

And at the same time ask yourself what drew you to certain books, even if they no longer hold you the way they did when you were younger. Ask those questions especially of the books which drew you into writing the genres you now write in.

Read books on writing, try stuff

After authors have been working for a while and published a few things, they often stop bothering to look at any book, article or blog on how to write. I think this is a huge mistake. I think both new and old writers can benefit from reading about writing. This is for the same reason as I said above: we get complacent in what we do.

Reading books on writing can provide help in several ways. The first, of course, is to correct some problem. Newer writers might have specific needs, such as learning about POV (I would suggest Orson Scot Card's Character's and Viewpoint -  as a very good starting point) or correcting grammar problems (for which I suggest Anne Stilman's Grammatically Correct - ).

What can people who have mastered the basics learn? Perhaps they'll find a new idea on how to approach their old ideas. They might find the one little gem that sparks a whole new change, or they might find reinforcement for old habits that have gone lax.

Studying specific techniques on help change or improve in certain areas where you feel you might need more help. Description of actions, for instance, or creation of non-evil antagonists.

Don't just read these books, though. At the very least, do some practice writing based on things you discover. Create a character based on an archtype or make a list of four or five clues to a mystery and see how you could mislead readers away from the true answer.

Look at other genres

What? Other genres? I would never write (the genre of your choice)!

This may be true, but that doesn't mean you can't learn from some of the other genres. Let's look at the three most obvious: fantasy, mystery, and romance.

First, nearly every novel is a quest. The two main characters -- your protagonist and antagonist -- are after something which is going to put them into conflict. Just because it is the diary of a recently killed corporate executive does not make the essence of the quest any different than looking for the lost spell book of an ancient wizard.

This is made very clear in The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler (, who has adapted the work of Joseph Campbell into an outline of mythic storytelling for authors.

What about mystery? That's pretty obvious. Yes, there are often mysteries to be solved, even a book that isn't a mystery by genre. Learning how to plant clues and mislead readers may very well be the answer you need to strengthen a straightforward storyline. Who, why and how can be as critical to a thriller or even a horror novel as it is to a detective mystery.

And romance? There are many stories which had a romantic subplot but are not part of the romance genre as a whole. However, if you have trouble imagining romantic moments (which does not always mean sex), then look into how the genre devoted to those stories manages it.

Expand your storytelling ability

All of these suggestions are ways in which to expand your storytelling ability and create new ideas which will liven up the types of stories you want to tell. This isn't meant to set you on a career in a new genre, though if you find you have a story you want to tell, it doesn't hurt to try your hand at something entirely new. Be daring. And always remember that no one has to see it but you.

If you are not willing to explore and experiment with your work, then even you are likely to get tired of your own writing. Remember, there is no one right way to write -- there is only the right way which works for the story you're telling. Every story is different. Be willing to approach each one in a new way.

Get an attitude change; new is not bad

New is not evil. Change is good for the writer's soul. Try new techniques, read new material (even outside what you normally would) and be willing to open yourself to new writing experiences. You will be happier for it, and your readers will love you all the more.


Kelley said...

All good points. Being complacent is how one kills creativity.

Zette said...

Thank you for your comment!

I sometimes think writers are the hardest to convince to try something new!