You didn’t think there were only five, did you? Naw …
If the pen is the extension of the body, writing is the extension of the self. Writing is creative mimesis; it’s semblance and resemblance. Between the writer and the reader lies an experience of mutual recognition or awareness or awakening originating from two discrete minds. Somewhere out there are readers with minds already honed and ready for that moment. It’s up to the writer to find those pathways between. So let’s cut to the chase:
1. What is it about home that creates place?
Notice I didn’t say what is it about place that creates home? Think about that for a bit. In composition rhetoric theory (the study of writing non-fiction with power and authority), the place that formed you bears a tremendous amount of weight when it comes to writing authentically. It is a well from which the writer draws insight, meaning, and both shared social familiarity and recognition.
For fiction writers this does not necessarily (but can) mean that you must write about your home town, subdivision, block, or building environment. What it means, and what this question suggests, is that if you can pare out the pulsing heart of the culture that made you you, it will provide the truest raw materials of group dynamics you will ever have available, and these are the same raw materials and group dynamics familiar to your readers about their culture. The rest is just pretty ribbons and bows that represent different units of humanity. The numbers on this are pretty solid if you’re aiming at making a big or lasting impact. Just look at the works we still read from every genre to the most complex literary masterpieces.
In Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, the author takes readers through a physical landscape of India’s oppressive sights and smells and tastes that always seem balanced by equivalent beauty. This is Mistry’s home, the culture that made him, and through it he gives readers an orienting place, almost like the needle of a compass: this is where something horrifying and alien can resonate with such truth that it ultimately becomes a transcendent reflection of all our places – physical, geographic, cultural, familial, and deeply personal.
Let’s call it homing. How do the details of the place you know best create orientation, so that readers can find their own direction?These home factors make place believable. It tells the reader that you understand how landscape and history and social development can make not only an identifiable peoples, but people – the enmeshed group and the individuals comprising it.
If you understand your home, you can give readers their home. If you understand what gives home a sense of place then no matter where your stories are set, they will bristle with enough foreign/familiar energy to draw readers who 1) enter attracted to a context they know only to find out they don’t, and 2) enter attracted to a context they don’t know only to find out it’s more familiar than they imagined. Horror, SFF, thrillers, romance, literary – all the best possible because the writer started with the most fundamental features of a home that birthed identity, then formed character, then opened a pathway to a place for readers to say yes, this is It. This is home.
2. What are your philosophies?
Even Harlequin romance writers have a philosophy: love conquers all, love is the essence of life, something along those lines. The deeper and more individual your philosophy, the more intense the connection with the reader can become.
So what do you believe about life? Write it down. Make a list. If your storytelling makes no philosophical sense, the discord and pretense will bulge through like a hernia. If you don’t know your own philosophies, you might find it hard to locate your story’s center or through-line. In fact, you might not even be able to cogently define your theme.
Make no mistake, though: you do not have to write about philosophy here. That’s not what this is about. It’s about permeating your writing with something that will feel true to the reader because it’s true to you, whether it’s a straight-up detective story or the next Finnegan’s Wake. If you’re trying to write about a cynical detective in a noir-ish novel, and it’s not working, maybe it’s because you are at heart a glass-half-full kind of person.
See how that is?
Your emotional core is a built-in component of your psycho-emotional make-up, and something that’s extremely hard to change. Philosophies, however, are completely of the mind and can be changed with new information.
Writing is an extension of you. This is how profoundly your philosophies can influence your writing. Writing begins, to as much an extent as it is possible, with the Delphic know thyself. Once you have half a clue, then you can understand how you see the world, and how much a filter your ideas about life provide for your experiences. And your writing.
3. What has life taught you?
Ah, so close, yet so far from a philosophical position or an emotional core. This can be the catalyst for all those things, the reinforcement, the proof. Has life taught you that people can’t be trusted? That’s not a philosophy, it’s not an emotion – but it is an experiential truth.
Again, think about what you’re trying to write. The heart of your story must ring true because it must be true to you on some level. When you know it, you can control it in your writing.
Now, life might have taught you some things, but it’s inside the narrative where you put it to the test. Set it on fire. Cajole it. Pound it flat. Then see how true it is for your fictional creation. Narrative is not where you punch your reader in the brain with certainties. It’s where you find out how real they are.
4. Do you have the courage to question yourself?
Okay, so now you understand what makes you tick and maybe what’s making your writing not tick. You have figured out the emotional, philosophical, and experiential prism through which you interpret the world.
Now let’s talk about refraction, where the story enters the prism and breaks apart.
Instead of thinking about your own philosophies, emotions, and experiences as a way to decide between right and wrong, pick apart what happens when your ideas about human experience and life become shattered by some unexpected reality. Be wrong! Kick your perspective in the teeth, then go straight for the ‘nads. Then when your belief system is curled in pain, just haul back your writerly steel-toed boot and send its internal organs flying out through its gaping maw.
Gross? Sure. But your readers will thank you.
Proof? Let’s go with some of the most popular dramas on tv recently. The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, True Detective. Why do we keep coming back? Is it because we see ourselves reflected in the characters or situations? Is it because we see our ideas about life reflected – then torn to pieces – through the characters and situations?
Oh yeah, baby, you aren’t feeding at that trough because the writers are confirming everything you believe to be true. Oh no. You go there because every minute of every episode is a public autopsy of the human psyche. Your human psyche.
Write the kind of story that leaves readers to think about their own feelings, thoughts and positions. But that only comes when you know what you think about the world yourself. Only then can you pull it apart. Expose the most authentic fictional world you can, and let the reader explore its brilliance and darkness and refracted pieces on their own.
So if you want an audience that stands around a cooler talking about your story or your book or your script, then you’d better snap those surgical gloves on and grease up the rib-spreader, because you’re going elbow deep into your own guts. If you can’t get past the black/white binaries then perhaps writing is not for you, because it isn’t the narrative assertions of life’s black and white that make characters and storytelling interesting, it’s when those certainties break apart into all their refracted components. A character whose creator isn’t bullying and tormenting and knocking them face down into the muck of life makes a story nobody will care about.
5. Who is doing the talking?
In a previous post I wrote about storybombing, which is like photobombing except instead of some goofball poking his/her face into your wedding photo, it’s the author poking him/herself into a story. This is related, except it’s about differentiating voices and narrators and characters so that they don’t all sound like you.
If you don’t understand your own emotional and philosophical and experiential cores, you will have difficulty creating characters that spring from the page with a force and vitality that makes an audience’s blood start chugging through their veins.
Always ask yourself whether it’s your character’s or narrator’s words and ideas or your own. Can you even tell the difference? If not, ask yourself why.
If you write from one voice – yours – you run the risk of never getting more than one semi-autobiographical narration out of your career, or narratives that sound the same no matter what or who the story is about.
Whose idea is surfacing during thoughtful moments? Whose feelings, politics, morals, theology?
Whose voice is speaking?
Have you created a unique enough set of characters so that none could be mistaken for you (the authoring part of yourself, not the elements of your personality that you might give to your characters)? Or for each other?
No matter what it takes, if it’s a complex chart or a binder four inches thick, define each and every character. Define yourself. Then provide unique and recognizable quirks, intelligences, moral/value positions that can be aspects of you without being only and always just you. And best of all, make all those features act as subtextual reflections of their character. Jean Valjean is not given an almost preternatural strength for no good reason. It’s what makes him capable of change. It’s his salvation (and that of many others) on so many levels. His physicality is symbolic, and provides more life to his character by supporting his spiritual, emotional, and intellectual strengths.
Great writing is about offering better questions than answers, and giving audiences a place to come home to.
Write that and Sign. Me. Up.
Read the first post in this series: 5 Important Questions That Will Help You Find The Story You Were Born To Write
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