2016 was a year of suck for me as a writer. Sure, I wrote 24 short stories. Some of them turned out pretty good. But, for the most part, they kind of hit the ground with a resounding thud.
On the longer side of the fiction aisle, I also wrote (note: not published) one book. I knew when I wrote it, I wasn’t happy with it. I knew it when I finished it. I knew it when I sent it to my first reader. I knew it when I got the comments back.
Something is broken in my writing. It’s probably been broken since I started, but now, I’m starting to see the fractures. There’s just something missing from my storytelling.
Learning to recognize what’s missing
There is a tricky thing about being a writer. Like any skill, the more you do it the better you get. But, probably like other skills, the more you do it, the more you realize how bad you are. It’s a catch 22, I think.
It took me an entire year of sucking to start to recognize what it was I was really missing in my writing. I wish I could say my navel-gazing was what put me on the right path.
But, it wasn’t.
My first real answer came from a random Facebook comment.
My short stories (and in retrospect most of my writing) was basically pointless.
The quest for “Why”
“But, what’s the point?”
That was the comment. At first, I was outraged. I fumed at the sky.
“How dare you question my meaning” I thundered. “Don’t you recognize my authorial brilliance!?”
Of course, I’m not the type to spend weeks lying around in the fetal position because I got a bad review. (At all. Seriously.) I wasn’t raging at the comment. I was raging because it was accurate.
Most of the stories I tell don’t really have a point. I’m not a “big idea” writer.
Hell, I’m one of the guys who wrote the Alcohologist Chronicles. And that’s a book with a penis joke on the cover.
I think what I’ve realized now—what I’m starting to understand—is that the purpose of a story and the theme are not the same thing. Theme is ephemeral and usually only visible in retrospect.
The stories purpose is a deeper backbone of plot. And that’s where I’ve always struggled.
Sometimes, plots need to make sense
Looking back on the one book I wrote last year, I can now see exactly what is wrong with it. It didn’t have a purpose, and so the plot is really just a series of events that happen.
Normally, that’s not too big of an issue for me. I feel like most of the things I’ve written have stumbled their way into cohesion. It took many drafts, but I got there, eventually.
There is a problem with that for the book I spent pretty much all of the last year working on. I wrote many, many drafts. Each of them was horrible.
Trust me, the most recent (rejected) draft was the best of the lot.
And I still hadn’t found the story. At all.
I think one of the things I was doing subconsciously with other stories was starting with some idea. Deep down inside, there was something:
- Religious zealots vs spiritual people
- Government overreach
- Death gods at ComicCon
- Unsupervised teenagers with dangerous toys
- Weddings are evil and everyone should avoid them
You know, the basic things everyone lives through.
I was doing it unconsciously. I didn’t understand it.
Not being able to understand it kept me from being able to repeat it on command.
And that is the most painful thing I can imagine.
So, what am I going to do about it?
I’m going to study. I am studying, actually.
For the last several years, I’ve devoured as many books on writing and craft as I can get my hands on. Most of them are good. All of them have something to teach.
But, you can’t really develop your weaknesses if you haven’t identified them. Learning everything is great. I will always actively seek to learn everything.
But, shotgunning your way to knowledge is a very slow way to get good at one thing.
So, now I’m actively searching sources, books, classes… whatever I can find to help me focus on the things I suck at.
I’m developing my own, personalized master’s program on Story Telling.
I’ll let you know how it goes along the way.