Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Writer Prepares

When corresponding with my legions of adoring fans,* the question I am most often asked is: “How do you write your books?”

OK, the actual #1 email question I get is: “Will you help a deposed Nigerian prince with a complicated international cash transfer?” But for the sake of this blog post, let's go with the other one.

The most truthful and complete answer is: I dunno.

If that's not long-winded and self-serving enough, allow me to go into more detail.

As many of you know, I dedicated my misspent youth to stage acting. Why? I guess I couldn't think of anything less germane** to our modern society.  I seemed to think I was an actor – if by “actor” one means “attention-seeking neurotic with a dubious grasp of reality.” As you are also aware, the chief occupation of actors is attending classes. Thus my B.A. in Theatre...***

In my short academic career, I attended a reasonable number of English Literature classes and feel that they, undoubtedly, made me a more sophisticated reader. They introduced me to the depth and breadth of literature already in existence and gave me the tools to better appreciate it. By and large, though, these classes taught me little about how to create new literature of my own.

For that, I had to go to the Theatre Department.

In a Literature class, written works are viewed as the final product of the author's artistic process. Each is self-contained and final – a closed system, a completed statement. 

In the Theatre – whether you're an actor, director, or designer – literature is the inspiration for the artistic process. Written works are treated as dynamic, open to investigation and interpretation. It was this “living” treatment of literature that taught me how to actually tell my own stories. Below is just some of what I learned:
  • Conflict is not optional. Neither is research.
  • The piece should have an overarching theme/concept. (which might or might not be apparent to the author before the story is complete.)
  • Each work inhabits a fictional universe, with it's own inviolate rules which must be established for the audience.
  • Each character needs an ultimate goal or “through-line” to motivate them through the piece.
  • In every scene you write, each character needs to have a desired outcome and should use varying tactics to achieve that goal.
  • The goals and tactics assigned to a character in any given situation must support that character's through-line.
  • Characters' goals, tactics, and through-lines need to be supported by the text and your research, and cannot violate the rules of the fictional universe.
  • All of the above must be interesting to your audience.
The process by which I create a character on paper is very similar to how an actor prepares for a role. In writing and populating a novel-length story, I liken my role more to that of a director. Like a director, I also rely on a crew of editors, proof-readers, etc. for valuable technical assistance.

I also depend on my audience, for your suspension of disbelief and – most importantly – your willingness to be witness to the stories I tell. My thanks to you all. I'm not just being glib when I say that I literally couldn't do it without you. (Pun semi-intended)

Today's lesson: There is only one way to know if I've achieved any of the above. Read Homecoming and Hometown. (And write a review, holding me to the above standards, if you're so inspired.) 

Next: Something less self-serving. (Yeah... prolly not...)

*Hi Mom.

**Until I decided to write literary fiction, that is. And have I mentioned my stint in public radio? Next career move: Learn VCR repair.

***Suitable for framing or for folding into a harisen for slapping one's self in the head while reading this: The 20 Best- and Worst-Paid College Majors (My thanks to Zonbi_Kira  for introducing me to harisen!)

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