I decided I was a writer at some point during high school. Between ninth and twelfth grades, I cast off the opera singer and assumed the novelist–a natural progression for an extremely ADD and Asperger’s (but ask me about that word some other time; I still have issues there–big ones) young person whose interior mental space was characterized by the movie that played there incessantly. Having shared the contents of the movie with a friend or two, I was convinced that I was sitting on best-seller material. The only problem was to get it out of my head and down onto paper.
You’ll have to take my word for it that my early efforts were bad. I recall a creative writing lesson in 10th grade English in which I apologized to Mrs. Maynard in the margin for my inability to put into words what I was seeing with my inner eye. Something to do with a girl with glassy green cat-eyes, I believe. Ugh. Mrs. Maynard was oblivious and unmoved. I don’t remember my grade on the paper or in the class.
Somewhere along the way came this helpful bit of advice, I can’t recall from whom: “Before you can hope to become very good at something, you have to be willing to be very bad at it.” I would add, you have to be willing to be very bad at it for months, even years, and in public. According to somebody else, quite possibly Ray Bradbury, “The first million words you write are crap.”
I believe it took another twenty years to turn over that millionth word. But I knew it the moment I had done it. The English language was no longer a tangled thicket. It was a powerful instrument, endlessly expressive yet capable of the utmost clarity.
But back to the books. While writing my first million dreadful amateurish words, I was also struggling to understand the architecture of stories and novels. Plowing through the public library’s offerings, I found books that walked you through the process of getting published. Long story short: Know somebody in what they used to call NYLE, the New York Literary Establishment. Now that we all own the printing press, this kind of book is somewhat, though not altogether, obsolete; contacts are good things to have, anytime, anywhere.
I found books that encouraged you in a vague but jolly way to follow your dream. I found books, usually by grizzled old guys who wrote hard-boiled suspense or detective novels, that encouraged little girly-girls like you to forget it. I found academic books about literary masterpieces that were trying to figure out why people were still reading this writer but you’d never be that good so go find something else to do.
Only one book, a find at the big downtown library, gave me what I was looking for: Dwight V. Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, which has gone through several editions from the University of Oklahoma Press.
Swain says that what you are selling when you tell a story is emotion. Emotion is conveyed through units of motivating stimulus followed by character reaction. Stories move through Scenes, which are unified by goal-directed actions that you can visualize happening as though they were on film, and which put characters into bigger trouble than they were before the scene began, because the scene introduces Complications; and Sequels, which are unified by topic and which can span any quantity of space or time, as the character regroups and decides on his next move, which will be demonstrated in the upcoming Scene.
Sequel includes any sequence like this: “It was raining steadily when Josh got off the plane in Tangiers seven months later. He had still not come to grips with the horrible things Myrna had told him back there in Scranton, the things that had harrowed his soul, the things that had changed everything.”
However long it takes, Josh is going to get a grip and decide how he’s going to come back swinging at those things, whatever they were, not to mention at Myrna for shooting off her mouth.
Scene and Sequel–what a difference they made in my reading, reading to write, and writing. (To be continued.)
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