Monday, August 24, 2009

Fundamentally Challenged

by David Ellis

I remember my high school baseball coach once telling me that he taught his little league team the exact same things he taught us at the high school level. The fundamentals never stop being the fundamentals. If you keep your head down on a ground ball and your head still, back foot planted on an incoming pitch, you’ve put yourself in a position to succeed, whether you’re 6 years old or 36 years old.

It’s never a bad idea to be reminded of the fundamentals of writing. One of my problems is that I am not entirely sure what the fundamentals are. Like many of you (some of you? most of you? I have no idea), I was never trained in writing. I was a finance major who went to law school. Creative writing was just a hobby when I was younger. Even once it became a devouring passion as an adult, I never really took classes, other than half a class at a U of C continuing ed program which I dropped after the teacher focused too much on poetry. I digress.

Point being, my idea of the fundamentals may just be my idea. I’ve never taught a class like Michael. It’s hard for me to imagine what I would tell them. But one thing I do know is that I have been a little out of practice over these last couple of years (thank you, Mr. Blagojevich), and I need reminders. So while I am reminding myself, I will share with you. And mind you, as I am writing this, I am not even sure what will come next. Like my daughter’s good friend Dora, we will explore.

1. Write what you know. Just kidding. I enjoyed Marcus’s entry a few days ago on this and refer you to what he said. But whatever else, I do believe you are bound to entertain the reader more with topics you know well. I am much better writing about the law than about terrorism. I wrote about a terrorist in one book and I thought it was fine, but I had to gloss over details that I didn’t know and regardless of whether I “got away with it,” the fact remains that what was missing were the little insights and nuance that come with expertise.

2. Just write it. I have suffered some serious writer’s block these past few months—stolen months for me, when the General Assembly is not in session, so it’s about the only time I can write. When I come up to a wall, I need to remember to just keeping writing through it. If you are not entirely sure what will come next, write out of order—skip ahead, knowing that you can go back. Most of the time when I do that, the fog clears. I am surprising absolutely nobody with this piece of advice … and yet, I still fail to follow this pearl of wisdom far too often.

3. A follow-up on # 2 … you don’t necessarily have to write through that wall—you can also rewind and avoid the wall. I know this. We all do. Maybe the rest of you don’t need reminding but I do. If you have written yourself into a corner, you can put the car in reverse. It’s a novel. It’s your story. You can change things. Alter facts. And nobody will ever know that your character, in an earlier draft, had accidentally shot his sister as a child or slept with his law partner’s wife or inadvertently left an earring at the crime scene.

4. Just re-write it. If you are really stuck, it’s always a good opportunity to go back and re-read an earlier part of your manuscript. I have never reviewed any part of any manuscript that couldn’t benefit from a little editing. And I often find that it helps what I am writing going forward; ideas crystallize or the juices flow enough to get my mind straight again.

5. Keep a journal of your observations. I think most of you do this. I used to, and I gained invaluable stuff that never would have survived long enough in my head until I got in front of a computer. I am reminding myself to do this again. If I had a dime for every time I had one of those What-was-that-great-thought-I-had-earlier-today? moments, I would have, well, a lot of dimes.

6. Someone once showed me a technique of picking a scene and simply writing whatever came into your head on a piece of paper—talking pen or pencil here, not computer—without fear of anyone else ever reading it. No worry for grammar or punctuation or sentence structure or anything else. Just write whatever comes into your mind. I tried that a couple of times, especially in my first novel, comfortable in knowing that I could change whatever I wanted later, or scrap it altogether. I did that with two scenes. For each of them, I ended up putting the prose into the novel without changing a single word. Verbatim. From that scrap of paper to the bookshelves. That taught me a lot about raw creativity and how we mess with it by filtering it through our emotions and insecurities and egos. So, reminder to myself—do this more. Like once every five books, at least.

7. Time is not on my side. I am happiest when I have a thick block of time carved out to write, by which I mean a few hours. I anticipate banging out a couple of chapters, moving the plot forward with new ideas, the whole nine yards. But I am almost always disappointed afterward. Give me four hours to write, and just as likely I will write more (and better) if you’d only given me an hour. Something about focusing, I guess. Hey, I said these were my fundamentals, not yours.

8. There are five senses, not two. Smell, touch, taste. Three senses I neglect in setting a scene or describing a moment. This is another thing we’ve all had hammered into our heads at one point or another. I guess that’s why we call it a fundamental.

I can’t think of anything else, so I guess that means I have exhausted my list of reminders. Class dismissed. See you in two weeks, when I start reminding myself how to be a father of a newborn again.


Alan Orloff said...

I'm right with you on number 7. We need to find some way to carve up that 4-hour block into 4 "up-against-the-deadline" one-hour blocks.

Libby Hellmann said...

I love this post. Thank you Dave.