I do believe I have mentioned that I love reading “How To” books on writing. I have three shelves full of books with authors ranging from Chris Vogler and James Scott Bell, to Donald Maass and Robert J. Ray. But, in all of these wonderful works, I have yet to come across a discussion about the process we all undergo, the transition from being avid readers to burgeoning writers.
Now, I must tell you, I went from reading to dissecting and discussing stories in school, and fell in love with the works of Joseph Campbell and the whole process of comparative literature. How I frolicked when it came to the close reading classic books, how I got so caught up in analyzing and dissecting the characters to understand their emotions and how their stories evolved.
So when it came time for me to begin writing fiction, I would never even think of “pantsing” just sitting down and writing what came to me, I would always have to arm myself with charts and diagrams, plot points and progressions before I felt comfortable creating my stories. That’s me in a nutshell: I could never just do anything, I would always have to think it out first (Drives my mom crazy as she is a classic “shoot first, ask questions later” kind of woman). To be honest, I am a control freak and all of this planning is done because I am so scared to death of falling flat on my ass and screwing up. It’s taken me years to realize that is our screw-ups that make us stronger.
Thus, I’ve had to think about this whole process of what on earth possessed me to think I could write fiction. It stems from a love of reading, a love of getting lost in a good book, a desire to park my own crappy life at the door and experience the wonders of a good story well told. I know what happened for me, I read a lousy detective story and said, “Hey, if this junk got published, I know I could do this better.”
And so the journey begins. I set out to write fiction and found myself in the driver’s seat of my new work. Learning to write is a lot like learning to drive. There’s an engine in there somewhere, you’re initial spark that fires it, but then there are all these pedals and knobs like plot, character, point of view. You got this car started, but it isn’t really going anywhere.
So, you read some writing books and find out you need plot points, an inciting incident, you need the Hero’s Journey, you need structure. You go back to the book and you realize you had hints of all of this, and your so excited because now your engine is revving and the car is moving, you have a road map to follow, oh boy, now you are going somewhere!
But then you look around and you realize, “oh what kind of car am I driving anyway?” and discover there are lots of models to choose from, and here’s where you think about your genre. Are you writing a nice cozy mystery? Then your car could be fitted out like a classic Rolls Royce, with real leather and fine wood finishes. Or, are you writing a Thriller, your car becomes a Ferrari Testarrosa that speeds you down the road, the wind in your hair the story zooming along. Ah, you say to yourself, now we are getting somewhere.
Now, you’ve picked out your model, you’ve filled the tank with gas, the mirrors are clean, the spark plugs are firing. But wait a minute. What’s that? Before you even get in the car, you look in the backseat and lo and behold. There’s someone there. Who is it? It’s your reader.
Ah, the circle of life is complete. It’s fine and good to have a road map, to have a set of plot points for you to follow. But does your reader care about that? No, they are looking forward to being taken on a journey and that is your job. Not to just make a set of plot twits and turns, but to create an emotional journey for your READER. You are now a chauffer, you are the taxi driver, you have precious cargo, your job is to think about the experience you are creating for the reader. Then it becomes more like,” oh, we’re just about to reach plot point one, where are we going to go next, I think I’ll turn down this lane, what will we encounter here?
You want to gain your reader’s trust, they want to know that you know what you are doing so they can just relax and enjoy the ride. If you do it right, they could care less about looking at the road signs, they are lost in the literary landscape of your invention. They are falling in love with your characters and feeling all the emotions you are putting them through. They are on the battlefield as you march out your troops; they are smelling the gunpowder and ducking when they hear the whistle of the bomb launched over their heads. Or they are right there in the room, bearing witness as two wonderful people come together for that first momentous kiss.
I mean isn’t that what you signed up for? To have a front row seat when your characters first show up in your consciousness? When you get to figure out “oh, that’s why they had to kill him.” As writers we are the lucky ducks who get first glance, the first taste of the unfolding drama. And that drama becomes so much more vital; when we realize that it is not just for us that we do this. We do this in service to our readers; we enter into a sacred bond, just as all the writers who came before you did with you.
That’s how we write it forward, that’s how we pay homage to our literary heroes, how we thank them for the service they rendered for us, we render it on for our own readers. So, there’s nothing else left to say, but “ladies and gentlemen, START YOUR ENGINES!”
Now here are some posts from some fellow travelers, amazing writers who look at the process from very different points of view. First off, the delicious Gene Lempp, our archeology expert, who tells us more about the Zoo Arcane.
Karen McFarland offers an amazing message of what we can learn when we are stuck in the mud.
The inimitable Kristen Lamb talks about what it takes to be a writer in the digital age.
Here’s one strictly out of left field, August McLaughlin, embracing the cycle of creativity.
Jenny Hensen’s great article on using the 12 steps of Intimacy to add conflict to your work.
And Sally Driscol’s remembrance of theater outings past.
Thank you all for stopping by, I love hearing from you. When did you make the move from reader to writer? What do you remember most about the transition? Does my driving metaphor take you places? (sorry, couldn’t help that last one.)