Ray Bradbury started early as a writer, penning his first story when he was 11 years old. He began the habit of writing each day and kept submitting his stories to popular pulp magazines. At 22, he succeeded in getting a story published. A long writing career followed, with 27 published novels, including the popular Fahrenheit 451, and 600 short stories, including the collections The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. His writing helped shift the focus of sci-fi from the monsters from outer space to the scarier monsters within ourselves and our society.
Years later, as a famous, respected author, Bradbury distilled his thoughts about the writing in a series of essays, collected in the book, Zen in the Art of Writing. I recently read it and enjoyed his enthusiasm and confidence.
The title is based on a book, Zen and the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel, a German philosopher. While teaching in Japan in the 1920s, he took lessons in Japanese archery, which combines physical and mental skills. One day, he discovered a ‘shortcut’ that enabled him to hit the target, again and again. However, his teacher chastised him for relying on his ‘much too wilful will’ rather than functioning within a state of being ‘without purpose’, in the zen of the moment.
Get good story ideas
- Read the works of authors who write like you and the ones whose writing differs from yours.
- Read poetry each day. Poems provide story ideas, expand your senses, and provide powerful, beautiful metaphors and similes.
- Read practical non-fiction articles, but do so as a dilettante. Rather than trying to understand or learn, let your reading connect with your subconscious, your memories and beliefs. A travel article about an isolated beach may lead you to recall a childhood experience. Or start you brainstorming about what could happen there, and to whom and why.
Develop a rich, successful writing habit
Write for readers’ needs
Bradbury believed that after the first draft, writers should shape their material by focusing on their readers’ needs:
- Provide sensory richness. Help readers use their senses. Your story will seem real if you include rich sensory details—colours, shapes, sizes, smells, sounds, textures.
- Energise your story. What do your characters want? What do they dream of doing, becoming?
Knowing their focus helps readers understand your story’s dynamo or energy. Your characters will then develop much of the story for you. Incorporate:
- Emotions and passions that drive your characters
- Tensions, which come from conflicts and differences between your characters. Bradbury writes about making characters ‘fly together in a great clang.’
- Release. End a story with a crucial action that releases all the tension that has built up. The action must also ring true in terms of your characters, and what they desire and need, or think they need.
Herrigel, Eugen. (1953, pdf file of English translation). Zen in the Art of Archery.
A few months ago, I was at nearby Lyrebird Dell, doing my monthly volunteer bush regeneration. While grubbing out invasive weeds, I found broken beer bottles, a pair of deteriorating panties, and this train ticket.
Only the ticket is memorable. Why? Because I pulled it out of the mud on 2 April, the same date as the ticket, although given the Monday date, it was probably issued two years ago. What an amaaaaazing coincidence.
But what if I wanted to include a similar incident in a story? A woman is desperate for money to pay off a bad guy but can’t get the funds. She finds a dirty slip of paper—a lottery ticket. Checking the lottery website, she discovers it’s the winning ticket! Need more of a coincidence? How about if the day she finds the ticket is the deadline for collecting her winnings?
Coincidence works better in real life than in fiction. We’re like hearing about real examples. Like an acquaintance who journeyed to remote Easter Island, only to run into a work colleague. We tell each other these true tales and comment on how amazing life is, six degrees of separation, fate, and so on.
But the allure of coincidence diminishes in fiction, particularly when it breaks the sense of authenticity readers expect. It’s not that writers eschew coincidence. It’s common in genre fiction such as crime novels, where it can help mislead readers. In comic writing, coincidence can up the humour, as readers wonder ‘what else can possibly go wrong?’ In the movie The Great Muppet Caper, Miss Piggy needs to stop a jewel heist but is stranded on the side of the road. Guess what? A motorcycle fortuitously falls out of the back of a passing truck. As she puts it, it’s the perfect most ‘unbelievable coincidence’.
If a movie or novel is fast-paced and/or complex, viewers and readers may not notice the coincidences piling up until later when they can reflect on the story. But use one ill-considered contrivance crucial to the plot, and readers can no longer suspend disbelief. Examples:
- A character is looking for someone, and uncanny as it seems, that person shows up precisely when most needed.
- Something (spaceship, car, boat, walking boots) malfunctions, threatening disaster. But lo and behold, the character has some little thingy that is exactly right to fix it, thus saving the roadtrip/escape plan/planet.
- A note falls out of a book, and amazingly, it provides the most important clue. Or a character discovers the very information she has been searching for when she overhears two people discussing it.
- Two individuals both fall in love with each other at first sight. (Contrast this with the richer story possibilities when one character falls in love and the other doesn’t know or care.)
- A favourite from a forgettable movie I saw. A young woman spills something on her blouse and chooses to walk to the laundry, way at the back of a dark, spooky yard, to clean it, where, as fate would have it, the murderer waits.
- A woman who takes an interest in a young woman’s career discovers that this person is the baby she gave up for adoption years ago.
How the above items play out depends on how awkwardly or cleverly they are slipped into the story. And my point is not that writers should never use a coincidence. But rely on it too much, or use one to to create an unbelievable revelation or plot twist, and your readers may give up.
If the incident is crucial to your story, you can foreshadow. Making your mild-mannered teacher suddenly go a killing rampage leaves readers bewildered. But if small examples of the teacher’s inability to control himself are included earlier, his later meltdown becomes plausible. Some movies and books do this very well, escalating the seriousness of each subsequent incident so that the final, major outcome makes perfect narrative sense.
Today in Australia it’s the 4th of July. I celebrated the occasion with friends at a restaurant in Hartley Vale, with a lovely lunch in front of an open fire—great on this cold winter’s day. I asked everyone to wear something red, white or blue, and for the table centrepiece I brought two miniature American flags picked up last year when I was the 4th of July parade at Flagstaff Arizona, a sister city to Australia’s Blue Mountains, where I live.
Because the word HOLIDAY has many deep associations for most of us, it provides a writing prompt rich in possibilities. Have a go.
First, pick a particular holiday that you have personally celebrated.
Secondly, consider it from different perspectives, using the following prompts. Start freewriting or jotting down ideas. Either stick with one prompt, try several, or go through the whole list.
- How was the holiday celebrated when you were younger? Be specific: foods, activities, traditions and rituals, the people involved, entertainment.
Was there anything unusual about how it was celebrated?
- Does any particular year for the occasion stand out? Why is it memorable? What did, or did not, happen that year? What was the outcome for you? For others?
- How did you once feel about this holiday? Why? Do you feel the same way now? E.g., Although I have great childhood memories of Christmas, a friend hates the holiday due to his father’s alcoholism.
- Did the holiday change for you when you matured? As you moved from childhood to adolescence? In your early adult years? As an older adult?
How has it changed, or not? Have some traditions been abandoned or revised in some way? How do you feel about the difference?
- Have you ever been in a very different situation (e.g., different location, different people involved) during this holiday? If so, was the holiday celebrated traditionally, differently, or not at all? Why? How did you feel about this?
- Do you think it important to commemorate this holiday? Why or why not? Who would think it important? Who would not?
- Was this holiday particularly sad, comical, disturbing, or exciting one year? What made it so?
- From your perspective, what’s the worst aspect of this holiday? What’s the best aspect?
Thirdly, go through your written results and highlight any items that jump out at you as strong and interesting. Then, drawing on these major items, try writing 500-1000 words.Maybe it will turn out to be a fictional story, a reminiscence, or an essay of sorts.
The University of Chicago Press offers a free e-book each month from its list. The e-books can be downloaded in a variety of formats. But if you have a Kindle, only Kindle Fire is possible. I usually download it to my computer.
Last month the selection was a biography of Liberace. This month it is The Reprisal, which is set in an Italian village in winter 1943. Local fascist supporters capture a pregnant woman they think has collaborated with the partisans and hold a trial to decide her fate.
The author, Laudomia Bonanni, drew on real incidents to explore ‘the overwhelming conflicts between ideology and community, justice and vengeance.’ Publishers Weekly described it as a ‘profound, gritty novel’, one that for too long has been available only to Italian readers.
Elizabeth McCracken, in her article, If Strangers Talked to Everyone Like They Talk to Writers, makes the humorous but true point that people consider writers to be fair game. People ask questions and make comments that they wouldn’t dream of addressing people in non-writing jobs.
Source: Electric Literature online magazine.
Personal drive can help you move closer to reaching your writing goals. But even passionate, dedicated writers will find the writing path hard if they lack solid writing skills and knowledge.
Luckily, writing help is widely available and comes in many forms—classes and workshops, books and magazines, mentoring, blogs and websites. Writing education is a huge, lucrative market, with few quality controls, so heed the classical warning, caveat emptor—buyer beware.
When checking out educational opportunities to improve their writing, people tend to focus on five factors:
1-Costs & benefits. Prices range from freebies to exorbitant. What are you willing to spend? More importantly, what do you expect to get in return, in terms of increased knowledge and skills?
2-Delivery mode. Sometimes we choose an educational mode because it is convenient and comfortable, and other times we look for something unusual, taking us out of our comfort zone. Do you want the ‘any time, any where’ convenience of an online class, or a traditional classroom experience? Do you like the individualised attention a mentor can provide? Does independent study appeal, such as creating your own must-read list of writing articles, websites, blogs and books?
3-Duration and selectivity. At one end of the spectrum are the short, basic writing workshops, open to anyone. At the other end are specialised offerings, such as long-term masterclasses, often with selective enrolment. In terms of your current writing skills, experience and knowledge, where are you on this spectrum?
4-Content level and scope. Some writing-based subjects take a broad focus, e.g., the history of the novel, and some have a narrow focus, e.g., your novel’s first 20 pages. In terms of level and scope of content, your educational needs need to align with your writing goals. Do you like writing for the sheer fun of creating? Or do you pursue writing primarily as a personal investigation, to make sense of your life and explore ideas that interest you? Or is writing a major passion that you hope to turn into a major career?
5-Teaching expertise. Writers, editors, writing educators—all offer workshops and other educational opportunities. What kind of expertise do you expect, and why? Remember, not every writer is a great teacher, so investigate.
What is your preferred learning mode?
Positive learning experiences depend, in part, on how well they align with your preferred learning mode. When you process information, do you depend on the visual, aural, kinesthetic, or logical?
I once enrolled in an Introductory French class where the first fortnight focused on aural immersion. The textbook was withheld while the teacher spoke French. As a predominantly visual learner, I was adrift. When I was allowed to open my textbook and see the dialogue, French started to make sense.
Occasionally, you can gain insights when you move away from your dominant learning mode. Most of my uni assignments in literature required me to write research papers. But one professor let me submit an ‘artistic’ project in lieu. I had a great time creating a visual response to my chosen novel. The process, by taking me away from my usual learning mode, gave me insights that I would not have thought of.
- Visual. Do you process information best when you see it? Relevant learning activities include reading, note taking, observing, and getting visual information (charts, maps, pictures, diagrams, demonstrations).
- Aural. If you are hearing-oriented, you may prefer learning via talking books, CDs, lectures and discussions.
- Kinesthetic. Do you learn best through doing? Action-oriented activities include roleplaying, making models, and interviewing.
- Logical. Do you process information best when you identify a subject’s underlying ‘system’ or logic? Find learning activities that highlight explanations, well-structured information, and the theories and developments that underpin a subject.
Interpersonal or intrapersonal?
We also differ in terms of the degree of interactivity we feel comfortable with. People who are strongly interpersonal tend to learn best when they participate with others, e.g., informal discussions, question-and-answer sessions.
People who are strongly intrapersonal ted to prefer educational opportunities where interaction with others is minimal. Examples: Structured online or traditional classes, books on writing, individualised help via a mentor. I’m happier and achieve more when learning on my own or when I’m in a structured learning environment, such as a formal class that has a subject matter expert as leader, a syllabus, specific tasks, and clear outcomes.
What type of writing education best suits you?
What if you had the chance to have famous writer as your roomie and mentor?
In the ’60s, when writer Jenny Diski was 15, she was expelled from school and, as she puts it, ‘stuck in a loony bin where no one knew quite what to do with me.’ The person who took her in and ‘saved’ her was the famous British writer, Doris Lessing. (Click this link to read Diski’s article in The Guardian.)
1. Call it working, not writing.
Lessing showed Diski what it means to establish a purposeful writing life. For Lessing, being a writer held no glamour: ‘When I’m writing, nothing else happens here.’
Perhaps this is why Diski prefers the term working rather than writing. In a way, it makes sense. Saying you are writing sometimes gives people the wrong idea.
It’s like the term gardening. I live where there are many show gardens. The people who maintain them do hard labour—weeding, hanging off a ladder to prune trees, fertilising, mowing, replanting. But I suspect that for some non-gardeners, the term conjures up a restful image, of trailing along perfect garden paths, stopping to cut a few flowers or make minor decorative changes.
2. Shorten the mental distance between your thoughts and your writing.
Diski remembers the ‘sharp clatter of keys hitting the platen’ when Lessing was working. Lessing drafted her work on her typewriter, Diski does the same at her computer. Diski believes touch typing creates ‘the shortest possible distance’ between thoughts and writing.
3. Know thyself and just get on with writing.
Lessing wrote in order to earn a living but also to ‘fulfil her need to be what she was.’ It was Lessing’s ‘implacable understanding of what it is to be a writer’ that showed Diski what matters most in writing.
It has nothing to do with the decisions about how and what to write. All of that comes later. For Diski, a writer’s elemental focus, ‘before anything else’, is ‘knowing that you are a writer and getting on with it.’ Your writing identity grows out of process, not product. And although writers need to pay attention to both, but it’s a matter of weighting.
I admire process-oriented individuals, who get on with what they love doing. Like my friend who is a botanical illustrator. Her process activities include attending workshops, experimenting with and improving her technique, collaborating with others, setting goals. She also pursues ‘product’, entering work in exhibitions. But she does not let the judges’ decisions define her as an artist. After all, such decisions sit in the laps of the fates.
Putting undue weighting on product can skew writers’ sense of achievement, to the point that they measure that their growth, participation, and success solely in terms of external approval and recognition.
© Marsha Durham, Writing Companion blog on WordPress, 2014.