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No Magic Bullet

Many years ago, my day job was in bookselling, where I worked for a major UK High Street brand, whose name started with “W” (that’s actually harder to pin down than you might thing — there’s two who fit that description!). I admit that customer service was never my thing, really. I loved talking about books, but the sheer number of interactions everyday was mentally exhausting, so while I was sad to leave parts of my job behind, I was very happy to go into editing, where you still talk about books and storytelling, but you also deal pretty much with one person at a time, and also the majority of that is by email!

What has struck me over the years (I’ve been freelancing now for almost a decade) is that writers often feel afraid to discuss the process they use when writing, or to pick apart the structure of their story, as though doing so will somehow expose them (And I understand that fear: imposter syndrome is essentially my middle name*)

But I also think we need to talk about how we write more. We need to start breaking it down and looking for the ways in which we can strive to keep improving our writing as we move forward. And one of the ways to do that is to keep talking about and discussing techniques and tricks and tips from other people.

There’s a tendency to distrust “how to” books on writing. There’s a fear that somehow they give you a rigid “formula” that keeps you from creating anything new and/or unique. One of the books I’ve seen most often accused is, of course, “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder. Snyder passed away some time ago, but his work lives on in books like “Save the Cat Writes a Novel” by Jessica Brody or “Save the Cat Writes for TV” by Jamie Nash. They all expand on and take new approaches to Snyder’s “formula” or “rules” of storytelling, and I know a few writers who dismiss the STC method as simply producing cookie cutter fiction.

Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody cover
That darn cat ain’t ever gonna be saved, are they?

And I get it. Slavishly obeying some pre-defined set of rules without taking the time to experiment or explore your fiction, your story, your characters, feels soulless, like you’re just going through the motions. But that isn’t what these books are doing at all. Yes, they’re arguing passionately for their approach, but what they don’t say is that there’s no harm in taking another route forward, if that works for you, and there’s nothing to say that you can’t take one element that works and leave the rest behind.

For example, I almost always talk about the “primal urges” of characters with authors, now. These “primal urges” are the specific motivations of characters that hark back to something more universal. They’re what make us empathise (not “sympathise”) with characters and want to see them succeed in their goals, because we understand them on some level.

Look, none of us have ever had to stare down a cannibal in a jail cell before (especially one who’s eaten the liver of a census taker with some fava beans) but we have had to walk into a situation we didn’t believe we were prepared for, and that’s why audiences almost immediately identify with Clarice Starling at the beginning of Silence of the Lambs: she’s afraid she’s not ready to do this, and she’s afraid she’s going to look like an idiot in front of the superior who sent her in there. That fear gives her the courage to push through and try to show everyone what she’s capable of. We understand the EMOTIONAL element of her actions, even if we’ve never experienced the specifics.

So Snyder’s talk of PRIMAL URGES was an eye opener for me. How we can relate what our characters are doing with things that we all have in common, and this creates the chance for the reader to connect with the character even if they can’t articulate why (They may not be able to, of course, but the author damn well should!)

However, there were other aspects of the book that didn’t work for me. I don’t agree with the way his act structures quite break down or what kind of beats we look to use in a story (the opening/closing image stuff leaves me a little cold the way STCers talk about it) but that’s MY opinion. That’s what doesn’t work for me, and so I take my inspiration from elsewhere.

Another book I found changed the way I look at writing was Robert Olen Butler’s “From Where You Dream”. Now, Butler is a pulitzer prize winner, and some of the book feels a little theoretical to me (I like something rather practical) but his chapter where he talks about prose being “cinema of the mind” and then shows us how Dickens used cinematic imagery and language changed everything I knew about writing. His idea of fiction writing being a series of “sensory impressions” changed how I approached point of view in prose. And yet other parts of the book didn’t work for me. And that’s fine, because I still tried to engage with them.

I should also that Mr Butler had some very nice things to say about my J McNee novels…

In fact what I found with both Butler and Snyder was that the advice that didn’t work for me… worked for other authors. Sometimes I’ve talked to an author who’s stuck on certain point about something I read in one of those books that didn’t work for me but I think they might understand and… BAM! They were off, with a new approach and a new energy.

What I’m saying is, that when it comes to advice on writing, or learning techniques on writing, there is no magic bullet (Bet you were waiting for me to get to this: finally, he mentions that damn title!) that will make you automatically and effortlessly able to produce perfect prose and perfect story.

But its possible to use a number of these techniques, some of them maybe even seemingly contradictory, to help you as a writer. You can use them to experiment, to evolve your voice, your story, your understanding character and all that good stuff, but you won’t be doing it the same as anyone else, because there is no magic bullet. There is no singular solution. There is only the writing journey, and the willingness to experiment, to keep that passion, to keep that joy of learning as you go. No good writer was ever stagnant. Keep learning. Keep practicing. Keep listening to other people. And then take what works for you, and discard the rest.

In a future post, I’ll do a roundup of some of my favourite books on writing that you can check out. Some are just tremendously practical. Others are inspirational. And one or two may even be a little unexpected…

*Obviously Imposter Syndrome is not my middle name… it doesn’t start with “D” for one thing…

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