Six impossible things

Back to basics

Every skill, including writing, starts with a bunch of things that are really basic. If you want to be a carpenter, you learn to hammer nails and saw wood; if you want to be a writer, you learn how to write clear, coherent sentences. After a while and a lot of practice, you don’t hammer nails in crooked or bend them any more, and you can saw a nice, flat, straight edge without using a table saw; you can write grammatical sentences that get your meaning across. So you move on to the next set of basic things: learning how to use those super-basic skills to build walls or tables or plots and settings and characters.

This second level of basic things is more complex, on the face of it. It’s not just a matter of nailing two two-by-fours together; you have four or five of them, and they have to match up and fit each other, and eventually fit a door or window as well without falling down. Similarly, plot and characters and setting interact and cross-fertilize; what looks like a small crack in one can result in a gaping hole in a completely different area.

Because of these multiple interactions, you start having more choices in the way you develop your skills. You can focus on expanding your abilities in one area while leaving others at an acceptably workmanlike level for the time being, or you can try to level up everything at once. You can work at improving your weakest areas or you can ignore your weaknesses in favor of showcasing your strengths. You can aim for complexity, or elegance, or practicality; you can depend on clarity and simplicity or depth and profundity.

This is the point at which a lot of up-and-coming writers stumble, for one of three reasons: first, because they think that mastering the basics is as much as they’ll ever need to do. They’re comfortable where they are, so they stop developing. Since the field of writing is full of people who haven’t stopped growing, sooner or later these folks find themselves falling behind.

Second, because they get to the point where they have a reasonably good notion of the basics, and they look up to take a breath…and realize just how much they still don’t know. They get discouraged and quit, or they decide that this is really just too much work and they’ll stick to composing fantasy Christmas letters to amuse a few friends and family.

And third, because they get to a certain minimal point with the basic skills, and immediately want to jump ahead to super-advanced techniques. They are, in short, wildly over-confident (and often equally wildly ambitious). They don’t want to work on the “simple” basics; they want to do fancy razzle-dazzle magic, right now. They don’t realize that without the underpinning of those basic skills, they can’t pull it off. If they’re lucky, what they get is the equivalent of a dud Fourth of July firecracker. If they’re not lucky, what they get is the equivalent of one of those firecracker disasters that explodes on the launch platform and seriously injures people.

The thing that I’ve slowly realized over the years is that this whole picture of building up your skill from the basics is both right and wrong. You do, for instance, have to be able to write clear, grammatical sentences and develop plots and characters at some minimal level if you want to construct a novel. That’s the part that’s right.

The part that’s wrong is that none of the “basic” writing skills stops with the basics. You can construct plain, clear sentences…or complex ones that are equally clear, or elegant sentences whose structure reflects the actions they describe, or sentences that have the impact of a punch in the stomach regardless of length or elegance. The interactions between plot, characters, and setting can be similarly straightforward or tortuously complex, as can the interplay between narrative and dialog, action and reaction, description and dramatization.

Yes, “the basics” are important because they are the foundation on which everything else is built, but they’re also the materials out of which one builds the more advanced stuff. And on top of that, there are a lot of more advanced things that one can do with “the basics,” just like the difference between writing a simple sentence and writing one that is elegant in its simplicity. Or knowing that if you’re making an omelet, you can beat the eggs together any old way, but if you’re making a soufflé, you have to separate the whites and whip them into great stiff white peaks before you carefully fold in the yolks and any additions like cheese or veggies.

It took me a long time to realize this, and even longer to begin to articulate it. Also, I’ve noticed that every couple of years I start making obvious mistakes in really basic stuff that I’ve known for years. I have to revisit the things I’d begun to take for granted, that I thought had become ironclad habits I don’t have to worry about. (Because they never, ever really get to that point.)

So that’s what I want to do in my next series of posts: get back to basics (plot, characterization, dialog, action, setting, description, pace, structure, etc.), with a view toward looking both at the fundamentals and at where and how far one can take them.

I’m hoping to get a new angle on some of this myself. Also, I don’t have any particular order or list of “useful basics” in mind, so if there’s a particular thing you’re having trouble with or just especially curious about, please do mention it in comments (or drop me an email, if you don’t want to go public).

8 Comments
  1. I feel like plot will always be something I need help with. Leaving that aside, I’ll nominate “description” as something I’d like to see a post or three on.

    One other problem I have, that doesn’t seem to fall into a neat pigeon-hole, is the way words and sentences will often seem to twist and squirm in my mental hands. They don’t want to say what I want them to say, but instead want to hare off on a tangent, and into the weeds.

  2. I ALWAYS want help constructing plot.

  3. Strongly thirding the request for more about plotting. It is my bete noire.

  4. Plot plot plotty-plot plot!

    Additionally: I don’t know if this counts as “basic”, but I would love to read a post on effectively using scenes and narrative summary to tell a story, i.e. choosing which one to use when, how they interact, etc. It’s one of those things that sometimes seems intuitive, but when it isn’t…

  5. Choice keeps coming up here. I’d love to see a post on choosing how much description to use at different points in the plot. There must be a point between yawn-inducing detail and what I’ve seen called “naked characters sitting on clouds”, because the author hasn’t told us what they’re wearing or on what they’re sitting. Though actually, naked characters sitting on clouds could be an amusing story idea.

  6. And seconding (fifthing) on hearing about plot

  7. Might not be the type of basics you meant, but I’d like to see a (few) post(s) on self-editing and revision

  8. I too would be interested in hearing your thoughts on descriptions, particularly of setting and characters. How to do it, when, where and how much are things I struggle with. I am not a very visual person myself.

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