Sunday, February 14, 2016

It's the story, stupid.

I've told this story before, but it was the beginning of my writing, and it is such a simple idea it's worth repeating.

When I was about 22 years old, I was living in a quad up by COCC. I'd always wanted to be a writer, but I could never figure out how to get started. Once in junior high, I'd been assigned a homework assignment to write a story about a picture torn out of Life Magazine. So I got into a feverish story that night in bed, all emotionally resonant and deep and complex.

Woke up the next morning, realized there was no way to write that story, tossed something off instead.

So remembering that experience, I told myself.  "All right, just tell a story to yourself. Don't worry about the words or anything, just tell the kind of story you'd like to read."

After a sleepless night, I had most of "Star Axe" written in my head. It took me five more years to finally complete the book, with lots of missteps and false turns. Turned out, I did have to learn how to write.

But eventually I went back to the original mantra of "just tell a story."

Almost instantly upon finishing the long arduous struggle of "Star Axe," I turned around and wrote "Snowcastles," just like that. I had a beginning line, and a sense of what I wanted, and I wrote it quick and I liked it.

So anyway, the point is, while I'd begun with the idea that writing was some kind of arcane art, complex and complicated and mysterious, I'd sidestepped that whole concept by telling myself a story.

I then struggled after that. Got too caught up in the idea of "serious art" and blocked myself pretty thoroughly. (It's still the magic formula for me to stop writing -- getting serious.) Then I spent 25 years making a living.

I came back with the original pure intention of story.

Many books later, and I'm on the fourth chapter of a new book, and I'm back to telling myself to "tell a story."

Simple as that. The writing, the technique, characterization and plot and grammar, the embellishment -- all that kind of stuff is handy to have, and I've learned a lot by doing it.

But it always just comes back to the story.

Funnily enough, that seems to be true for the reader too. I've gotten few negative comments on my actual writing (not that the writing couldn't be better). Instead, most people find fault with the premise or the story or the beginning or the middle or ending of the story. No one says, "Oh, he uses way too many adverbs" or something technical like that.

Not liking the story is something I can handle, because my stories are told the way I want them to be told. If I was getting more criticism about my actual writing, I'd probably be more defensive. Maybe people are thinking it and not saying it.

Doesn't matter. I did put a lot of work into learning to write -- taking classes, joining writer's groups, reading tons of books. Mostly, learning by doing, taking editor's advice to heart. But when it comes time to actually write the book, I concentrate solely on story.

Of course, I'm aware that the story works or doesn't work depending on the writing. That is, the story is the foundation, the technique is what makes it work.

But first and last, there is the story. Just the way you sit around with friends and tell a story. A novel is just a longer more refined version of that.

When you stray from that, you make a mistake.

Often, in writer's group, someone will read something that seems kind of stilted, or convoluted, or unclear. So you ask them what they meant. Every single time, the explanation is 100% better than the original writing. That is, if the writer reproduced that verbal explanation word for word, it would be much better.

That's the thing I try not to lose sight of.

The best writing is the writing that tells the story best.

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