Another Way In

Sometimes writing books surprise you. I confess the only reason I bought The Art Of War for Writers was that gimmicky title. Then it arrived about three minutes before I left for a con, a couple of years ago. And then … I forgot it. It languished on a shelf for all these years, until I started culling books to donate/sell.

Most of these aren’t in my office. I’m keeping 90% of the books in my office, unless I have duplicates. (You’d be amazed. Sometimes it’s my “wonderful memory” striking. More often it’s my finding a book at a thrift store or a garage sale and going “so and so needs that.”) But the books in the office tend to drift around on a sort of unpredictable tide, and they were all piled in such a way I couldn’t find anything. So, I cleaned and sorted, and found The Art Of War.

It’s now become the bathroom book, read a chapter at a time whenever. (Bathroom books are interesting in a household of writers btw. My older son said “That book you have in the bathroom. He’s up a creek on plotting.” I said “What? The Art of War? I thought he was pretty solid so far.” “No, no, the other one, with the pink cover.” Turned out we had three how-to-write books in the bathroom and he read the first one that came up. It’s like your very own insane workshop all the time.) I’m on page ninety one and so far he seems well… a writer after my own heart.

Writers had different styles and approaches and it doesn’t matter how successful a writer is or how much you admire him, it doesn’t mean you can follow his advice. Sometimes reading an how to book by an author you really like can stop you completely.

For instance, from Heinlein’s biography, I’m very glad he never wrote a writing book. I’d have tried to follow it, and it would have ended in tears because how he approached writing – how he plunged into it – was completely different than my own process. His books were far more planned than mine, and he left a lot less to sudden inspiration from the subconscious. Perhaps that meant he was a more mature writer than I, but I don’t think so (I mean, yes, he was a better writer than I, but that’s not what I mean. I mean mature in the process of writing, meaning, if I write another ten years I’ll get that way.) I’ve done the plot every single step and the only thing that happens is that my subconscious veers off and adds on. The interesting thing is that afterwards, unless I look at the outline, I can’t tell which parts were added on on the spur of the moment. They often fit character and world far better than the ones I planned carefully and positioned with laser-like precision… Some of which end up having to be removed.

Mind you, the part where he lay on the sofa and moped because things weren’t write with the writing is exactly he same as mine, only I tend to stalk around the house obsessively cleaning and/or paint walls and, occasionally, growling at boys or cats.

Anyway, I found that the Art of War fits the way I think. (Possibly not surprisingly.)

Today’s lesson from page 91 gave me something that I’d been missing in the current plot. Oh, I know it. I just hadn’t brought it to bear on the current plot. And that was “Who does the Lead need to be at the end of the novel, in order to be whole.”

It occurred to me this provides yet another way into the plot for those of us like me who start from the character showing up. We know the character needs to grow in a certain way for the reader to be happy. We know that the character is broken. (Well, mine usually are. They show up with these gaping emotional wounds, usually.) In what way does it need to get fixed (or worsened) so that at the end of the novel the character isn’t fighting anymore and the reader is satisfied.

Figure that out, then figure out what needs to happen. Then trace it backwards.

BTW the page before says to keep track of action on two levels – I used to have trouble with this while doing my first novels – and I usually do, but he suggests the following framework to plot to:

Outer: action; Inner: reaction; Outer: Motion; Inner: emotion; outer: goal; Inner: growth; outer: attain; inner: become.

I confess I have never done this to that frame work and I wonder how it would work. Might be a little too precise for me. I suspect though that at this point I do it instinctively. (The hardest thing is keeping track of what you do without thinking at this point in your writing apprenticeship – and it’s always an apprenticeship.)

Anyway, until I finish the book I can’t say if I recommend it. But for now if you find yourself in a store with a few coins burning a hole in your pocket, go ahead and get it. Then tell me how it helped you, if it did.

I can’t say I’ve learned anything new, but I’ve reinforced stuff I’ve been doing for years that I didn’t have a name or a precise process for. (Like the plotting from the lead.)

And now I’m going to officeish and work.

5 thoughts on “Another Way In

  1. Might be because I’m writing serials, but I don’t WANT my lead whole at the end of the story. I want him/her to start broken, get that fixed, but in the process, break something else. So he has a reason to continue. Hook for the sequel. I guess.

    But then again, I am but an egg, and WTFDIK?

    M

  2. I bought this book a few months ago at a Borders store back when they were having their 50% off store closing sale. I picked it up because of the title, as I am a fan of the classic text on warfare by Sun Tzu. I figured that a book utilzing his teachings as applied to writing would be right up my alley. I haven’t read the whole thing yet, as I tend to pick these instructional books up every now and then, reading a little here and there. It’s funny you mention it in today’s blog because I hadn’t read it for several weeks, and yesterday found it under a stack of books on my coffee table and started going through it again. I like James Scott Bell’s style of writing in this book, and I have found a lot of helpful advice in it so far. It is broken up into a series of short lessons with tips and excercises which makes it easy to process through all the writing strategies he discusses.

  3. IIRC, Rex Stout reputedly sat down and composed his Nero Wolfe novels on the typewriter without editing or rewriting. I think ALL novelists should work that way (ummm, NO word processor gadgetry; manual Smith~Corona, three carbons) because it would POSSIBLY enable me to get caught up on my reading by greatly reducing the number of novels written and published … and might even help reduce the surplus population although family members forced to clean up after writers’ heads exploded probably wouldn’t think so.

    Should run-on sentencing carry the death penalty?

    I see NO REASONS (‘Cos there are no reasons, What reason do you need to die, die? Oh Oh Oh … I don’t like Mondays … uh, sorry, that always happens) to s’pose all writers should write in the same way, any more than I expect everybody to swing a baseball bat the same way; differences in experience and influence equate to differences in skeletal structure and musculature and mean everybody has to find their own unique method. The best you can do is find people whose methodology is similar and look for ways to adapt their techniques to one’s own circumstance — but in the end, the purpose of a swing is to bring the bat head through the strike zone and drive the ball and your stance doesn’t so much matter so long as you do that. Some people plot on paper, some in their heads, some by the seat of their pants and so long as the finished output is readable they should focus on developing the system that works for them.

    BTW, to further beat on the bat metaphor, one common problem of hitters going into slumps is taking advice from any and everybody and making so many “adjustments” to their swing that they can’t even hit the ground. It seems to me that aspiring writers are prone to a similar problem, especially when working on your approach to writing provides an excuse for not actually writing.

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