Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Zette's Take: An important step in learning to write a story

For the last month or more I've been thinking about creativity and the production of stories.  I've been sorting through the maze, looking at the A to B to C steps.  Only that doesn't work.  There are too many paths and ways to get there.  None of us takes exactly the same twists and turns, and yet we each learn the same basics . . .  at least if we are willing to learn at all. 

Along the way we study how to make coherent sentences.  It may take some of us longer to master grammar and punctuation, but gradually even those mystical bits of knowledge start making sense.  We learn about POV and character creation.  We study how plots fall together to make a good story. 

But the truth is all the study in the world will not make you an author.  It is not until you actually write stories, from start to finish, that you can truly learn how to create a story and not just pieces of one.  A story is more than perfect sentences strung together.  It is more than creating a few good characters and putting them in a scene.  A story is a thing that lives in your head and which you must translate to the paper using the imperfect tool of words.  The first stories you write are not going to be as good as the later ones because, like any art, you will get better with practice.  It may take you a long time to find all the keys and bring all the knowledge you've collected together, but you can do it if you keep at the work. 

This doesn't mean you don't need to learn the other parts as well, of course.  I have assumed that every person who pursues the art of writing knows that learning the basics of grammar is the basis on which all storytelling rests.   I point them to some of my favorite helpful books like Grammatically Correct by Stilman (ISBN: 0-89879-776-4). You need to know those rules like you need to know how to boil water before you can learn to cook pasta.  They are the foundation of the work, but they won't make the meal.  Grammar rules alone cannot teach you how to create the stories you want to tell.  Sometimes a person learns to do both at the same time.  Many start writing stories long before they have figured out complex sentences or the esoteric art of semicolons.  Often you will go back and make corrections to older work as you learn to write better. 

Unfortunately, sometimes people think the rules of grammar and punctuation are all they need know and forget that creativity does not always conform even to those rules.  They focus on the rules and will write and rewrite little pieces of work looking for the perfection (and eventually may start changing words just to change them, rather than to make them better) , and never get to the heart of the story, let alone to the ending.

This doesn't mean people shouldn't linger over their work, testing ways to make a line better and a paragraph more striking.  Whether you do so in the first draft or in later editing doesn't matter.  The amount of time you take to finish the story doesn’t matter . . . as long as you actually finish.

The way I write will not work for you.  However, if you are someone who continually starts work and never finishes your stories, then it's time you start looking at a new plan.  There are things you need to realize:

1.       Writing is an art form, and like any other art, it takes practice.  You can do pieces and snippets to get a general feel for putting a few words together, but until you write an entire story, you are not going to learn how to get from the start to the finish.

2.      You cannot expect your first work to be perfect.  However, writers have the wonderful tool called The First Draft.  Accept it and you'll free yourself from the worries of perfection.  You can go back and rework your story as much as it needs. Don't use 'perfection' as an excuse not to finish the first draft.

3.      There is no excuse not to learn grammar, punctuation and spelling.  You cannot expect others to make those corrections for you. These tools are an important part of writing, but they are not the entire picture.  If they were, you could learn to write novels in high school English class and never have to study anything else.
4.      You do not need to write every day.  Many authors do because they love writing, but it's not necessary to become an author.   You don't have to write a lot of words, either.  You only have to focus on learning to write well and completing your story.  By the same token, don't dismiss goals and challenges.  These can be a way to nudge you into writing if that's what you need.  We all get complacent and take easy answers when we can, but sometimes a push makes the brain work a bit harder.  This is a good thing to happen.  A brain working harder provides more possible answers rather than the easy ones.  With that in mind, sometimes experiment and try different writing habits.

5.      It may be that you are at a level where you just haven't learned how to take the next steps to completing a story.  That's different from continually stalling and not trying to go any farther.  If you are willing to go on, you will learn what you need to know.  However, there are far too many people who tell me they always make it X number of words (or chapters) and the story dies.  Not once or twice but dozens of times and more.  They are not trying to go beyond that point. They're making the same mistakes each time and not attempting to see how to get around that dead end.

Are you playing with the idea of writing a story, but you stop yourself from finishing your work, using whatever excuse you can so you don't go on? 

Stop playing.  Figure out how to write the full story.  Study what you have written and learn now to make it better.  Then do another story and another.  You can do it because thousands of others have done so before you and thousand others will continue to write stories from start to finish. Some of those manuscripts will be so fantastically wonderful that the stories will astound you -- but those won't be any of your works until you write them, start to finish.

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