Monday, June 8, 2015

Barbara Geiger on
the Secret of Good Writing

I asked Barbara if I could reprint this column on the secret to good writing because what she had to say resonated strongly with me as both a writer trying to fix my own novel, and as an editor trying to fix everyone else's. Words to live by folks.
It's really stupid, and I'm sure it's common knowledge to some, but it was hardwon for me. If you're asking someone to pay their after work and social obligations time and their after taxes and fixed expenses money, you're providing a service like any other person out there who has something and wants money for it. If that's the case, your story has to be worth something, and that something has to be as much entertainment as what that ten dollars and four hours *could* be doing.

Which means not only do you have to catch the attention of the pre-reader with the kind of character, problem and world that from page one is going to make the exhausted, underpaid and over-worked intern think that she wants her boss to come back from lunch so she could share this amazing ______, which doesn't have to be the best _______ out there, it has to just tell from the very beginning why it's going to be different from every other _____ out there. But then, after the amazing beginning, you need to leave a trail of bread crumbs, from about every 1000-1500 words that you can point out to your ideal reader and say *this. This part is going to tickle you*.

And then follow the formula where every single time you don't know what to do, or you find your main characters just leaning around and talking, you throw the worst possible thing at them. You need to have all the parts line up and it needs to say something about the world that when someone asks you what's it about, you can say "it's about overcoming your fate and crushing all those who oppose you" rather than "it's a girl who does stuff." And when all of *that* comes together (you know, just pluck the ace of spades out of a card deck eleven times in a row) you've got a great story.

Which is like saying...lose weight by diet and moving more. We all know *what* we have to do, but I've found ways of figuring out *how* to make sure all of those are done in a way that other people think I've accomplished the same goal. Which is the 90% of the problem I was talking about. I'd thought I knew all the cheats around so I didn't have to eat less and exercise more, but then I figured out for *me* at least, the best way to lose weight is to do the obvious things. Some people plunge into an ice pool and use SCUBA gear to breathe because being cold burns more energy. I don't know if that works just as well, but yeah. I figured out that the things people have been telling me since the beginning were, no fooling, the only way I figured out how to write after fifteen years. I'm not saying I'm the brightest person out there, but learning to know that you need to learn how to know to write is again, 90% of the battle.

And the how just do it. We talk about writing as though the answers are multiple choice and we just need to recognize the work when we see it. That's the lowest level of "knowing" how to do something. There are five or six, but it ends with synthesizing new things from what we know about two different things. So the "how" is to show your work that you know the rules of writing. Life is long answer format.

Start with a main character who has a problem. You don't need to know the iceberg level of the problem, you need to see what the tip the MC says. Characters who see the whole issue are like the AI characters in the Two Towers who were smart enough to look at the problem and run in the opposite direction. Big problems need big pay grades. Small problems need characters who just need to step out of their life momentarily.

Then as they figure out what the problem is, so do you. You're learning what they're learning, then as soon as you know what the iceberg problem is, in your rewrite you rewrite it like you knew what the whole problem was from the very beginning and as soon as you know what your character doesn't, it's really easy to provide the clues in the rewrite to the audience.

Another thing I see a lot as an editor is the talented youngster who fails to fulfill their promise. I like what Barbara has to say about that too:

I remember how absolutely sure I felt in my 20's that I was doing absolutely nothing wrong and that the last thing I needed to do was learn how to write. I thought I just needed to be discovered. Coming to the realization that what I was writing wasn't very good and that I had to learn how to write in my thirties was a major shock to the system. So many writers, like me, had started life just a little bit wiser than most--which makes you brilliant at 17 and so stupid at 27--if you've never had to learn that that little bit of extra you started with is just a drop in the pan to what's possible when you put your mind to it.

I can relate to that, only just add a few decades to the ages given. Just now starting to get a glimmer of maybe how to start writing stories that work--most of which I learnt by editing other people and then turning around and saying, "Oh wait, I screwed that up in exactly the same way!"

As Barbara would say, if you're not selling, learn to write better.

1 comment:

  1. I still remember the day I made the break-through. It was so hot in the room we were having the workshop and it was on the second day and twelve people who were all in the same writing group had basically the exact same thing to say about what was wrong with other people's stories, and yet were taking the exact same short cuts they were calling other people out for taking. For all my strengths, I'm terrible when I'm bored, and when I'm bored in a hot room and the thing that's boring me is going to go on for several more hours, I like to detach from the world and think. Realizing that if this short cut doesn't work for anyone, it's probably not going to work for me led to...I'm not a very good writer. I was no worse than anyone else. I could have critiqued my own piece and handed it to the person on the right. Writing 101 is all you need to know, but you need to know that the only rule that doesn't apply to you until you know why it doesn't apply to you is "there are no rules". But that one phrase stops more beginner writers from ever getting better than anything else. If "there are no rules" makes you think "good books aren't written, they're rewritten" *doesn't* apply to you you're in for a long, dusty hike through the good but not good enough valley.

    We *all* know what good writing is, but good writing is hard. It's like diving off a boat and swimming to the bottom of the ocean. The deeper you go down, the better quality of sea bottom you bring back up with you, but you know you can only burn exactly half of the air you need to get back up to the boat, so we set our boats over shallow water and wonder why we're bringing up the exact same pile of dirt as every other writer out there.

    Going to where the good, new ideas are and forcing them onto the page in whatever unsure or unfinished way and then going on to make even more hesitant mistakes is everything we teach writers not to do. But if what they have to say is said perfectly the first time, then they didn't dive down deep enough to bring back something new. What good writing *is* is obvious, but doing it is the hard thing. It's obviously hard to push down until your lungs are going to break. The most of the really deep stuff that you didn't get back to the boat in time is going to need to be fixed on the rewrite because it's unusable, but it can be fixed.

    But to tell a story in today's jaded audience, you have to surprise them to get them to produce dopamine, and today's reader has seen almost everything.