“As a fiction writer, the act had an immediate, recognizable weight to it; the imagined reality Jay had created in the act felt like the embodiment of good fiction writing. I began to consider the connections between the two crafts of magic and fiction writing, wondering what might be gleaned about the process of creating living fictions. The suspension of disbelief required by both reader and audience member. The inherent tension between believability and deception. The materialization of something where there once was nothing.” – Gabriel Urza
At her Helping Writers Become Authors blog, K.M. Weiland has shared some marvelous insights for both writers and readers. It’s her latest in a series of posts analyzing the success of Marvel comics and movies, and as a long-time fan of both, I must agree with all of her major points. (Hint: The secret is not the special effects, not the marketing, not the acting, though those elements are outstanding. It’s the writing.)
Bottom line: You’re cheating yourself if you don’t read Weiland’s post. It’s well worth your time as a reader and writer.
I was especially impressed by her second point, that the most engaging, emotionally satisfying stories arise not from pandering to the audience, but from remaining true to one’s vision as author. As Weiland puts it:
Sometimes you’ll hear fans talking about getting the story “we deserve.” To this, I say phooey. The only thing audiences deserve is a good story well-told. They don’t deserve to have all their personal theories or wishes validated.
While there’s no formula for crafting a good story, there is a fundamental principle you can’t ignore, and that comes down to the author being in control of a story they find compelling. In Weiland’s words, the author “must be the story’s single greatest fan.” Yes! Write stories you want to read. And the strange thing is that the most personal works achieve the greatest public appeal.
Of course, there are those other little details in learning and perfecting the craft, such as reading a lot and writing a lot. But without the author’s emotional investment, a work lacks life, lacks purpose. Our job is to make the story real.
“The point I would make is that the novelist and the historian are seeking the same thing: the truth — not a different truth: the same truth — only they reach it, or try to reach it, by different routes. Whether the event took place in a world now gone to dust, preserved by documents and evaluated by scholarship, or in the imagination, preserved by memory and distilled by the creative process, they both want to tell us how it was: to re-create it, by their separate methods, and make it live again in the world around them.” Shelby Foote, author and historian
Writers, says writer and iron-pumper Ross Mcindoe, often express their craft through the sports they play. Think: Hemingway and boxing, Mishima and karate, John Irving and wrestling. Oliver Sacks, says Mcindoe, found challenge, fulfillment, and self-expression in weightlifting. Like boxing, weightlifting reflects many characteristics of the craft and discipline of writing. Says Mcindoe:
Lifting is at once highly solitary—a solo sport in which most of your time is spent in competition with yourself—and highly communal. Even as each person pursues their own interior quest, the weight room makes everything public.
Sound familiar? We can attend writing workshops, go to critique groups for advice, meet with beta readers and benefit from other people’s expertise, but the act of getting the words right and putting them down is a solitary act. And yet, it’s communal, too, because our ultimate goal is to communicate something meaningful and personal to others.
More important, the lifter or boxer or runner cannot help but compare themselves to others. This can be instructive, but it can be a trap, too, not just for the athlete but for the writer:
When we look at the person lifting next to us, all we see is the weight on the bar and how easily they can move it. We get a rough, visual sense of how their size compares to ours but we don’t see how long they have been training in the sport or how intensely. We don’t see the other factors in their lives—work, health, money—which can contribute or detract from their success.
It’s the same in writing. We see only the results, not the work: snapshots of success with all the necessary failures left out beyond the frame.
Admit it (I will!) — we see other writers and wonder why we can’t get published. Why did such-and-such get a lucrative publishing contract while I can’t even get a poem published in a non-paying literary magazine?
That’s when the sports connection comes in. When you feel that you’re not succeeding, you need to remember that the real contest is the old you versus the you you’re becoming. Like Oliver Sacks realizing he had only fooled himself about what he thought was his best effort in weightlifting, the writer should strive for nothing more than to make himself better than he used to be. Failure is NOT having your manuscript rejected; failure is when you stop trying.
As Sacks realized, there’s always something new we can explore. Try a new genre, read a book on improving your writing style, sharpen your grammatical skills. That’s winning, and there’s nothing quite like discovering how many ways there are to win.
“All the great poets should have been fighters,” Muhammad Ali once said. “Take Keats and Shelley, for an example. They were pretty good poets, but they died young. You know why? Because they didn’t train.”
Ali had a point, but that jab missed its target. Not only were both Keats and Byron handy with their fists, many writers have found themselves attracted to sparring. Rod Serling, who got his nose broken while boxing, wrote the screenplay for Requiem for a Heavyweight, THE classic tale of both the allure and mental and physical hardships of professional fighting.
Josh Rosenblatt, a writer, ex-boxer, and former editor-in-chief of Fightland, suggests the seemingly disparate arts of writing and fighting have much more in common than one would think:
At the root of the sympathetic connection between writing and fighting lies solitude. Fighters have their trainers and cornermen and opponents, and writers have their editors and publishers and subjects, but in the end both are out there on their own, wrestling with themselves every time. Ask any trainer and they’ll say a fighter’s greatest obstacle isn’t his opponent but his own fear. The same is true for writers. The terror of physical destruction and the terror of the blank page are the same thing.
I think all who’ve struggled with the writing craft can identify with that observation.
I’ll add another thought on how the disciplines of sparring and writing can interact and enrich each other. Both help sharpen one’s awareness of the world around us. One cannot enter the ring with a rigid, prefabricated plan that cannot be altered when circumstances change. As General Kutuzov reminded his officers in War and Peace, “Before a battle, there is nothing more important than a good night’s sleep.” Alertness trumps planning in a world full of surprises.
And it’s the same with writing. We need outlines, but as the story evolves and grows, we have to listen to our characters and modify the narrative as circumstances dictate. That’s the key to crafting a story that feels fresh and alive.
Finally, as Ali noted, staying in shape is vital, especially for wordsmiths who sit for hours in front of a computer.