Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What I've Learned The Hard Way

After just finishing up our taxes (we owed so no nice, big, fat tax refund to play with, boo-hoo) my mind is a little blotto, but I'm going to give this a try anyway. If I'm majorly incoherant, well, it's because the little guys in the back of my mind are screaming and running around frantically trying to think up ways to cover our tax bill.

So, what have I learned over the last, oh, say thirty years or so?

First (and this applies to any endeavor, but it most especially applies to writing) you have to know what you want to accomplish. This is not as easy as it sounds. I'll give you two examples from my work, one is writing-related, the other is my paying job-related. Just to confuse you, I'm going to do my paying job-related one first.

Back around 1987 or so, I was a first-time supervisor, a first-time project manager, and was pretty much the entire project team on a development project. The project wasn't exactly new, it was to develop a replacement computer system. The folks who had hired me had tried a couple of times before, failed, and now had really angry customers on their hands. In fact, their customers were in law enforcement so it was legal for them to carry guns on their job, which should have made my employers a little more success oriented.
At any rate, during our first meeting, these huge, burly guys filed into the room (I'm 5'4"), placed their sidearms on the table and said, "So, what is it that you think you're going to do for us?"
(I'm thinking, other than pee in my pants?) I replied, "I'm going to develop a replacement computer system for you. Now, what did you have in mind and what features do you need for this system?"

During the next 9 months, which was all the time I had to do this, I made a few false starts before I realized what people say isn't always what they mean. Sometimes you *think* you know what your goal is, but you're wrong because what your customer is telling you they want may not be what they need. What you must get at is their goal.

That sounds like a lot of gobbledy-gook, so here's what I mean, exactly. These customers said they didn't want to see wants-and-warrants listed on the dispatcher's screen when they called in during a stop, but they wanted to be able to click on some link and flip to the information. Well, maybe, but maybe not. Turns out, they desperately did need to see wants-and-warrants, first thing.

What I needed to find out was what it was they were going to do with the information and when they were going to need it because not immediately displaying it turned out to be the wrong decision. I had to ride with a few of them while they worked, question them about their procedures during a stop, find out what information they passed to the dispatcher, and what they needed in return. Turned out, the first thing they do is pass on the information for the dispatcher to do a search for wants-and-warrants and then the dispatcher needed to immediately pass any relevant information to the officer so s/he knows if s/he is dealing with a dangerous person. (Remember, this was back in the middle to late 1980's so the officers didn't have those cute little wireless devices in their vehicles to do their own searches.)

So I learned that getting someone's list of specifications doesn't necessarily get you to the right place. You need to understand what the underlying goal is and how that product is going to be used to meet that goal. You can then create the right end product.

Well, yeah, but what does that have to do with writing, or anything else for that matter?
Because with writing, painting, or just about any human endeavor, to be successful depends upon how clearly you understand both the goal and how you are going to meet that goal, and the goal may not be obvious.

When I first started writing (for the third time - I already had written three manuscripts at various intervals, but then I got really, really serious and wrote 8 more) I thought I understood this lesson from my paying job. I was going to write a romance, right? I read them, I understood the structure and thought I was ready.

Wrong. I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Sure, I did understand certain things, but there was a lot I didn't understand down to my bones. I thought each of my scenes pushed the story forward. I had conflict between the hero and heroine. However, there were still critical things missing because basically, like that first computer project, I had my specifications but I didn't understand the difference between just having bad things happen to good characters (plain specifications), and having events happen that are inevitable given who the characters are.

Now folks are probably already laughing up their sleeves at me, figuring I'm just a "plotter" who develops a plot and then just shoves their characters into the situations. Those authors who are character driven don't have this problem. Maybe, but I doubt it, because there is a lot more to this than just forcing characters willy-nilly into specific plot situations.

Remember that goal thing I was talking about? Well, part of this, part of the inevitability of events must also rest upon the underlying theme. Argh!!! I'm just writing commercial fiction for crying out loud! I'm not going to worry about a theme. Then don't, but don't come crying to me when your story doesn't gel, your characters seem cardboard, and it just doesn't work.

A theme is really that goal, that in-depth understanding of what you're trying to accomplish, and without that, you begin to lose the ability to do things like, oh, I don't know, like determine if each scene is really necessary and if it does what needs to get done or is just boring/repetitive/filler. It's what will create the gift for your reader at the end of the story, the thing that gives them that happy sigh of completion and fulfillment.

Of course, you also have to understand your character's goals for letting you drag them through this story, because you have to know why they are acting the way they are acting and doing what they are doing. Don't let them opt for the easy, "Oh, I kill people because I'm a raving madman" line. Make them tell you about all their little dark secrets, so you can understand them and write their actions with conviction, knowing that under the circumstances, the characters have to act they way they are acting because it is who they are. They have consciously or unconsciously made the choices that brought them to this place. Understand their choices. For example, just because a child is abused, doesn't mean they will inevitably turn out to be a mad-dog killer. Lots of people go through horrible abuse or terrifying ordeals and while they may have odd quirks as a result, they are kind, decent human beings.

Like I said, don't take the easy way out. Get to know the whys behind the character's actions.

Some writers are just so gifted that they can happily write without doing all this work of figuring out the theme or goals or anything else like that, so, well, good for them. If you're one of them, I applaud you and wish I was one of you. I'm not.

The more I write, the more critical I am of my own work and the more depth I crave, even though on the surface they are just light, fluffy little mystery stories with a touch of romance. My characters may be amusing and even crazy, but with each new manuscript, I'm trying a little harder to get them to tell me their whys. Why are they doing these things? Why do they act the way they act?

On a side, but related note, I've also finally realized that being funny for the sake of being funny doesn't make a story worth reading.

What do you think?

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