Well, ho-ho-ho and I hope you’ve all had the merriest of Christmases! As a lot of my Web colleagues have apparently decided to take the Christmas season off from their various publications, and as I haven’t penned an original piece these past few days and have begun to feel a bit “backed up” because of that, I figured I might as well throw a few hundred words at this dive. You know, to see if any of them will stick. But — you knew that was coming, didn’t you? – in keeping with the spirit of the season and my generally good mood, I’ll avoid the subjects of politics and public policy. The rest of the year is sufficient for that sort of bilious crap, isn’t it?
So let’s see: what shall I address? The weather? No, no....My health? Good God, no! Unusual egg nog recipes? I think we’ve had enough of those for a bit.
Nope. Got to be fiction.
If there’s a most plaintive question I get from aspiring writers, it would be this one:
(I’ll allow that there are a lot of possible replies to that one, some more sarcastic than others, e.g.: “You want to be a writer but you have no idea what to write? Hmmm...” However, as I’m a famously sympathetic soul with a heart of purest gold who absolutely lives for the chance to help others with their deepest and least tractable problems, I try to respond constructively. Believe me, a lot of thought goes into it.)
Most of us who are entranced by fiction and the power it has to shape men’s thinking have some central passion we can call on to direct our efforts. In the usual case, such passions become our themes: the ideas that envelop, power, and shape the stories we write. Mine are Christianity and freedom. A writer who lacks such a passion has a harder time getting started.
Nevertheless, there are substitutes. If you can become fascinated by any kind of human problem, you can find within yourself the fuel and the material with which to write. Caveat: It must be a tough problem. No one will take much interest in a story about how hard it was for you to decide which shirt to wear to work this morning.
But stories are not about “problems,” per se; they’re about what people do about problems. More specifically, they’re about how addressing a problem changes the people confronted by it.
The great problems fall into a total of categories:
- The quest for love and acceptance;
- Threats to one’s well-being, or the well-being of one’s loves;
- The discovery of one’s own convictions, priorities, capacities, and limitations.
That’s right, Gentle Reader: only three. A problem worth a reader’s time will always come from one of the above categories. As they’re very broad categories, that’s not a problem for most of us.
The process by which a chosen problem becomes a viable story involves matching that problem to a character or characters:
- What sort of protagonist would find the problem both important and difficult?
- Does the problem require an antagonist?
- Does the problem require other characters with whom to interact?
The first two questions define the Marquee Characters. The third one defines the Supporting Cast.
The above concisely outlines my personal approach to beginning a new story, whether it be a short-short or a multi-volume saga. In the usual case, an appealing protagonist has been in the back of my head for some time, waiting for a problem worthy of him. Presently a problem occurs to me that works well against his definition. I choose from among the settings I prefer, combine the three, dress with subsidiary characters and a bit of sass, toss lightly, and serve.
Innocents, my most recent novel, conforms to this pattern in all particulars. Larry Sokoloff had been “sitting on the shelf” since mid-2011, when I released Shadow of a Sword. The poor guy simply screamed for a story properly mated to his character as I’d envisioned it. It took some time for me to come up with a problem he could get his teeth into.
As I wrote the above, an important codicil to my procedure became clear in my head: The problem must be one the protagonist must change and / or grow to solve. The solution can’t be obvious and immediately applicable, nor can it be in the protagonist’s “wheelhouse.” There are some interesting implications to that codicil.
The first implication is that the protagonist will likely be frustrated at first. Change and growth are hard. They require both acceptance of one’s “incompleteness” and the willingness to put forth effort to extend oneself. Most persons who confront such a challenge do a lot of hairsplitting, rationalizing, and general farting around to avoid facing the problem directly.
The second implication follows from the first one: The protagonist will expend a fair amount of his time and effort dealing with matters other than the central problem. In part that will be because those matters are more easily solved by a man with his abilities, but in equal or greater measure it will be to avoid confronting the core of the problem. That provides opportunities for interaction with Supporting Cast members, and time in which he can experience the sharpening tensions and conflicts the problem presents.
The third implication is my favorite of the bunch: A problem the protagonist cannot solve easily with his defined abilities and resources makes room for reader misdirection. It allows the writer scope for mystery, and for the development and emergence of an “unsuspected hero:” the seemingly secondary character who contributes the real solution, whether or not he’s the one to implement it.
Quite a lot of fiction conforms to this pattern. That the pattern is so common doesn’t render it banal. It’s common because of our common human nature. That’s just the way we are. It’s also common because reality is a real bitch...just in case you haven’t noticed.
I wrote some time ago:
The distribution of writers attempting the e-publication channel goes something like this:
- 90% or more: Persons who cannot write and should not try.
- ~7%: Persons with a fair command of English, but who have no stories to tell that anyone else would want to read.
- ~2%: Persons with a fair command of English who have stories to tell, but whose styles and preconceptions are unsuited to telling them in a winning fashion.
- ~1%: Capable storytellers, including a significant number who could crack the “traditional” publishing channels (or who already have).
If I may go by my experiences in reading other indie writers’ stuff, that distribution remains accurate. But that doesn’t mean that you, Gentle Reader, should consider yourself pre-assigned to one of those bins and therefore predestined either to fail laughably or to experience roaring success. If you have a story bouncing around in your head, a little time to give it, and a taste for adventure, you have little to lose by trying to write it. The opportunities to garner a readership have never been better.
So if you’ve been tempted to try fiction but have been wondering “Where do I start?” consider the above piece my Christmas present to you. No, no, don’t thank me; just buy, read, and review one of my books. I’ll take that quite happily.
(Cross-posted at Liberty's Torch.)