Writers Are Batman

The first thing I learned from RWA Nationals last week was that the Atlanta night skyline looks like Gotham City. That was my husband’s observation. And I’m going to draw a cheesy parallel from that. Think about Batman and Gotham City: They’ve changed over the years, but they have the same identity. Batman still fights evil, and Gotham City still provides evil to fight and good to protect.

It’s a lot like publishing.

Publishing has changed over the years. It’s still changing, and in fact, the only thing that won’t change is the fact that things will continue to change. But for all this change, writing and publishing are at heart the same. Writing is about telling great stories, and publishing is about putting them out there for people to read.

In Gotham City, the crimes become more technological to fit the age. Batman still has to stop them. Publishing is becoming more technological, and writers need to rely on these changes if they want to be where the readers are. I’m not saying I know how to do that; I’m just here to make the comparison. But in all seriousness, I think we tend to look at all the changes in publishing—the venues—and forget its core identity—getting books into readers’ hands.

Not long ago, debate was fiery about whether or not “real” authors should self-publish or publish digitally, and people still have strong opinions on both sides. But publishing will continue to evolve, and it’s not the venues we should hold sacred, but the purpose.

It’s a corny analogy, I know. Hey, I’m a novelist, not an essayist. But of all the wonderful things I learned at conference, I think this was my biggest takeaway Writers love writing no more or less today than they did twenty years ago. Publishing still has challenges, just different ones. But they’re still about the same thing, just like Batman and Gotham City. So yeah. Writers are Batman. :)

Accepting Your Unique Writing Process

Some writers work fast. Some writers work slow. Very slow. There’s a lot of pressure in the writing/publishing world to write on at least a book-a-year pace. There’s pressure from readers, too, as we can see from the way some readers bemoan the length of time they have to wait for George R.R. Martin’s books, for example.

And we unpublished authors don’t escape the pressure, either, as we watch writers we’ve known for years sign book deals and rack up adoring fans. We scramble to squeeze more writing hours into our days, but find ourselves spending less time with the people we love. We skip steps in our writing process, thinking they’re slowing us down, but end up with an inferior product. We cut back on novel reading to give ourselves more time to write, but find ourselves out of touch with the market and uninspired to create our own magic.

Recently, I’ve come to accept the way I work. No two writers work alike, and you have to be true to your own process. When discussing voice and style, we always emphasize the importance of finding your own, a voice and style that is all yours and not an imitation of someone else’s. Why can’t we do that with the writing process? Trying to be more efficient, trying to make your process better, is one thing. Trying to throw out everything that helps you write well just because it’s not “fast enough” is something else.

Chances are that the way you write reflects your personal learning style. I first discovered learning styles while doing research on how to tailor lessons for my kids (who I homeschool), and it completely altered the way I look at myself and how I work. Using myself as an example: I tend to write slow because the story doesn’t reveal itself to me all at once. Writing is very much a layering process for me; I get my ideas on paper, then see connections between them, get those on paper, and see even more connections. It can be very frustrating to realize something that should have been obvious from the beginning. Especially because it triples the amount of time I must put in and work I have to do.

But when I learned about the visual-spatial learning style, it suddenly made sense. Unlike auditory-sequential learners, visual-spatial learners don’t think, well, sequentially. Auditory-sequential learners can take an idea or fact and progress easily onto the next logical step. Visual-spatial learners tend to need a bunch of ideas or facts that they can “spread out” in their minds before they can make connections between them.

I have a theory that many slow writers are visual-spatial learners. I’m sure quite a few faster writers have visual-spatial tendencies, too, but that’s not the point. The point is, our writing process is what it is because it’s hard-wired into our brains. Your writing process stems from a vital aspect of what makes you you. For example, if you were an auditory-sequential rather than a visual-spatial (or vice-versa), you wouldn’t be writing this exact story. Your learning process itself would change the way your work unfolds.

So if you write every day and are dedicated to your craft, but still seem to move at a snail’s pace, don’t beat yourself up–this is what I’ve learned. Embrace your process, don’t fight it. For me, my work has gotten better for recognizing it.

Writing Through Tragedy

Writing through tragedy. I’ve tried to write this post a dozen times. It’s a hard process to write about because it’s a hard thing to do. It’s been said before that writing through personal tragedy can be theraputic, even if you can’t use these pieces for publication. And agents caution against sending them your tragically-inspired but unmarketable manuscripts. I can’t really add anything new to that. What I can offer is my own testimony–one writer’s account of writing through tragedy.

The topic has been on my mind lately because today, my daughter (who was stillborn) would have been one year old. We knew about her severe genetic condition prior to her birth, which in some ways made it easier when the time came, but it also made it a long, drawn-out ordeal. I can’t offer any sage wisdom, only offer up the things I learned along the way. And yes, I found writing theraputic. As writers, it is through the written word that we explore concepts, situations, angles on the world. I think that’s why writing through tragedy has such value for us. I wrote in my journal, I worked on my wip…And any tragedy is going to stir up raw, passionate emotions–the stuff of good fiction. It opens your eyes to deep things you don’t always think about, makes you think of how fragile the world really is. Even if what you’re writing is a different situation than what you’re going through, those dramatic thoughts and feelings can be useful in adding dimension to a book.

In whatever form it takes, I think the ultimate professional benefit of writing through tragedy is to connect with people, even help them somehow. Plugging raw emotion into your wip builds a sense of camraderie between reader and writer, even if indirectly. But as I said, writing was theraputic for me as well. In a tragedy, it seems like there’s this almost universal desire to do something, to help somehow, to contribute in some way–especially when the tragedy revolves around your own child. And one way writing was theraputic for me: I wrote my daughter a story. In that terrible time, there wasn’t a lot I had control over, and even though her genetic condition was no fault of my own, a parent always feels like it’s her fault when something is wrong with her children. Writing this story for her was the one thing I knew I could do right. And that feeling of being in control of something helped enormously.

So no, I haven’t reinvented the wheel with this post, but sometimes examples of experiences carry more weight than rote instruction and advice. And as novelists and fiction readers, we’re always on the lookout for a story to connect to in some way. This is mine.

Technique and the Master Writer

In writing, we tend to think about craft in categories: plot, characterization, dialogue, description, and so on. Like any craftsmen, such is our training. To learn the mechanics of technique, we must learn each technique individually, just as artists learn color and symmetry separately.

But craft only becomes art when those techniques cease to be individual disciplines. You can teach plot and characterization as separate entities, but can you build a successful plot without building compelling characters? Can you create compelling characters without testing their mettle through the plot? A master writer blends his techniques together so that they become completely indivisible, almost impossible to distinguish from each other entirely.

So where do we fall on the craft hierarchy? And how can we reach the next step? Are we the eager apprentices, still learning individual techniques? The journeymen who have transitioned from technique mastery to creating our first masterpieces? Or are we the master craftsmen, with scores of publishing credits to our names?

And why does it matter where we stand? I suppose the name we put on our progress doesn’t matter…but our mindset does. When we’re still thinking of craft as puzzle pieces rather than blendable matter like paint, we still haven’t mastered the craft. And that’s okay. Mastery comes with application. That’s why so many authors have a stack of unpublished manuscripts. Practice novels.

Still, there’s something to be said for categorizing techniques. Breaking them apart allows us to delve deeply into such topics as pacing and narrative, understanding them more fully. We can’t become masters of the craft without such knowledge.

Not only that, but even a master writer must go back to these basics now and then. A true master knows that improving your craft is a process that never ends—one which is built on the foundation of individual techniques. Have you ever loved an author’s first two books only to be utterly disappointed in her fourth and fifth? Review is essential. Technique is an ongoing study.

It’s all about balance. Plot, characterization, dialogue, description: we seek to balance them in our novels the way painters seek balance on the canvas. The individual applications of color theory, symmetry, proportion, shape, and light come together not as puzzle pieces, but as a unified whole.

The master artist uses technique the way he uses paint—he mixes those basic colors together on his palette. We must do the same on the page.