Here’s a link to a published article of mine on the truly great novel, Watership Down. Hope you like it!
Realism Seems Simple enough, but…it’s not.
Everyone knows what’s real, right? So why have a movement over it? Why even wonder or discuss it? It’s just a natural thing, isn’t it? Realism. What’s the big mystery?
Well, the term Realism itself is problematic. It depends so much on your conception of what’s real. And that depends, as so much does, on how sane you are. And sanity is a slippery term too, isn’t it? Some people are so sane it drives them insane.
If you think too much about this crazy world, you’ll go nuts. Just look at some of the radio and TV commentators and talk show hosts. They’re so “sane,” so rooted and obsessed with the political “realities” of life—as defined by them—that they’ve become ranting lunatics. Thanks to such extremism, Realism has effectively lost its meaning.
Write down to earth
Back in the day, Realism was a revolutionary way of thinking, living, and writing. It developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with America’s rise as a superpower, thanks in large part to capitalism and industrialization.
A rather well-off middle class loved their new prosperity and having more money. They no longer wanted to read fiction unrelated to real life.
So the fiction writers—all at once almost—turned from fanciful, Romantic plots and language, to real life material and words. Prior to Romanticism, most fiction writers tried their damndest to sound more educated, distant and aristocratic in their vocabularies and stories.
Realism made it okay to write about everyday people in everyday words. Truth be told, it’s my favorite way of writing.
Today’s generation of bloggers are Neo-Realists. The best ones write like people speak. They write about what exists in the world around them: work, social media, making money, being successful.
They’re fun and entertaining to read because they waste no words. Their writing is clean, clear, crisp. Right to the point. And often very funny. Brevity is, indeed, the soul of wit.
This same Neo-Realist style can apply to fiction. You want to write about dragons and vampires? Okay, fine. Some of the best stories are about real life fire-breathing “loved ones” and blood-sucking friends.
Whatever your subject, say it fast and sharp. For starters, ditch the adjectives and adverbs. Trash the hype. Respect every word and every second of your reader’s time.
Be objective, cool, detached
It might not be you. You might be highly subjective, emotional, and frantic. That’s fine, I guess. But try the opposite on for size.
Get yourself out of yourself. 30 minutes before you sit down to write, pop a Xanex if you have to. Frazzled fiction grates on the nerves after a few pages.
What’s really intriguing is a story that’s tense and roller-coaster wild, yet written in ice-cold, steely-eyed prose. Tell just the facts, ma’am. The remarkable, amazing facts. With no expression and no hyperbole. Like Trump negotiating a deal. Or Moneymaker over a $1m pot at the World Series of Poker.
Emotionless narration chills a reader to the bone.
Plot around complex ethical choices
One of the hardest parts of being human is making tough decisions. That’s reality on hyper drive. Do I do this? Do I do that? Geez. It’s gut-wrenching. And riveting reading.
- Huck Finn was torn between helping Jim, his black slave friend, escape to freedom, or doing what Aunt Polly and the Widow Douglas would want him to—turn Jim in. After a prolonged, agonizing fight with himself, Huck decides to side with him Jim and help him escape from slavery. In his moment of decision, Huck says, “All right, I’ll go to hell then.”
- Howells’ Silas Lapham, who’s broke and needs money, still refuses to sell the mills.
- Earning his Red Badge of Courage, Crane’s Civil War soldier, Henry Fleming, despite formerly deserting, returns to his regiment and leads a triumphant charge against the enemy.
The real world—whatever that is—lies all around you. You’re in it, my friend. Your best stories are growing inside you right now, in the struggles you’re having with difficult choices, but you need to be grounded, objective, cool, and detached to write them into existence—before they write you out.
That’s right: the stakes are high. If you want to be a great novelist, you have to face the present reality: you’re not one yet. So get real before real gets you.
If there’s a better poet than Yeats, I don’t know him. Some as good, maybe, but none better.
“But I’m a novelist, not a poet,” you say. All the more reason to study poetry. You use words, right? Poets use them with more concision, precision, and figurative beauty than any other human beings. Yeats also had plenty of ideas, concepts, and thematic depth that can inspire your thoughts and get your own words flowing.
#1: Be a Bard
Don’t talk, do. Don’t say you’ll write, write. Make yourself into a Bard—a famous purveyor and showman of words.
“Art is but a vision of reality,” said Yeats. By the power of sheer will, you can create yourself into what you want to be. The little lost lizard “Rango” did. (Terrific movie. More for adults than kids. Great script.) He declared himself to be a hero and, thereby, became one. He forced himself to live up to his own invention of a “self” he wanted to be.
Look at the many great rappers and DJs from the hood—guys who had two strikes against them from birth, thanks to their environment. They picked themselves up, created personas, and used words—their powerful rhymes—to turn themselves into Bards. Their vision of the reality around them became their art.
#2: Explore a belief system
If you’re lost in space, with no moorings, no belief system, then write about that. But it’s not much of a credible or admirable sort of life—chaos and anarchy. Though, admittedly, it may make for some good stories.
Let’s say you’re a Catholic. Flannery O’Conner wrote some brilliant stories incorporating Catholic theology. Maybe you’re Jewish. Have you ever read Bernard Malamud’s astounding brand of magic realism? His novels and stories are permeated with his Judaic faith.
Maybe you’re not religious at all. That could work for a writer, too. Yeats explored various traditions of esoteric his whole life: mysticism, folklore, spiritualism and finally symbolism.
He was a pretty disenchanted, skeptical guy, imagining a “rough beast…[that] slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”
He was always seeking what he called “There,” with a capital T. That’s pretty cool, isn’t it? “There” is some center, some ultimate spiritual reality that made sense, that held everything together. Where is your “There”?
#3: Use symbolism
Yeats’ first volume of poetry was “The Wind Among the Reeds.” Published in 1899, it ushered in the Modern era in poetry, characterized by a highly self-conscious use of symbolism.
Yeats believed that symbols have a mystical effect of evoking the Spiritus Mundi, the memory of Nature itself, that would allow many minds to flow together and create a single mind, a single energy.
He was a pretty heavy dude. Always exploring occult traditions; always seeking some unified explanation of the world and the soul. Symbols are his theosophy; he found belief in God through mystical insight.
What’s your heavy side? What deep, far out—forgive the 60’s slang, but no early 20th century writer was any closer to the hippie 60’s than Yeats—ideas do you have?
#4: Ponder life’s interpenetrating opposites
One of Yeats’ main symbols is the gyre:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
That’s the first stanza of “The Second Coming,” one of the 5 best poems ever written. (I’ll share the other 4 with you some other time.)
Life is a journey up a spiral staircase: the trip is both repetitious and progressive. Gyres rotate, whirl into one another’s centers, merge and separate. They come in shapes of paradoxical mysteries: time and change; growth and identity; life and art; madness and wisdom. They go together. They’re interpenetrating opposites.
How can you practically apply this concept to your writing?
- Through conflicts. All consciousness is a conflict of opposites.
- Identify and set the opposites in your life—or in yourself—against one another. Show how they interpenetrate.
- Think Batman in “The Dark Knight” or “Spiderman” in his dark moments: characters conflicted by their superpowers and their humanity, their love and their hate, their social consciousness and their desire to say “screw everything.” Those opposites merge into one being.
#5: Do you “get it”?
All outward things take their character from being internalized. Have you ever stood under the stars, walked through a forest, or gazed at the moon and been in awe, feeling that sense of wonder and amazement at it all? And have you ever done so with someone who couldn’t care less and thought you were nuts for being so moved by the experience of gazing, of “getting it”?
That’s what the writer in you must do: Get it. Find “There.” Be a Bard with a belief system that you set to lyrics or characters and stories that resonate with symbolism through your exploration of the paradoxically interpenetrating opposites.
Got that? Get it and you’ll write a masterpiece.
How great is Heart of Darkness?
I don’t ordinarily rate works of art. However, in my opinion, Heart is the greatest novella (short novel) ever written.
Conrad was inspired by his trip to the Congo (now known as Zaire). At the time, the Congo was a Belgian colony. Perhaps the greatest insight Conrad learned there was that the “civilized Europeans” were anything but that in their domination and enslavement of the natives.
#1: Write about Imperialism and Colonialism
You think you know nothing about those subjects? You think they’re irrelevant and absent in your life? Think again.
Heart is an expose into the Belgians’ exploitation of the “savage races.” One of its subjects is racism and the degradation and demoralization of one people at the hands of another. Ultimately, the exploiters and degraders themselves were destroyed by their own actions and attitudes.
Now…doesn’t that ring a bell?
- Do you know anybody who acts domineering and tries to colonize people? How about your ex-boyfriend or ex-spouse? Or, worse yet, your current “love” partner? Feeling dominated, used, or abused?
- Have you ever experienced or witnessed people or an institution wield its power and authority in a vicious, selfish, exploitative way?
- Know any pimps?
- Know any thugs?
- Know any criminals?
- Know any racists?
- Know any hypocritical, unethical, or corrupt cops, politicians, teachers, leaders, pastors, or others in positions of authority?
- Know any just plain old assholes?
If you haven’t experienced any of those things or known any of those types, you’ve lived a charmed life. Or you don’t get out much. Or maybe I’ve been out too much…I don’t know…but I do know that all those situations and people make for great plots and characters.
#2: Tap into your subconscious
Heart is a psychological masterpiece about the subconscious mind. Influenced by Dante, Conrad takes his readers on an Inferno-like descent into the underworld of human existence—searching for lost idealism, a center that holds, a meaning to life, and the essence of our existence.
Take your readers deep inside the underworld of your life. I’ve mentioned this before: the best stories are the ones you don’t want to tell about yourself. You don’t want anybody to know just how bad or twisted you really can be.
“I’m not bad or twisted,” you may be saying. Okay. Have it your way. You’re a veritable saint. You oughta be canonized.
Come off it. You lost your idealism somewhere along the way. Write about it.
- Your center sometimes nearly rips to shreds and flies apart.
- In your shadowy or shaddy moments, during your worst experiences, you’ve wondered if life is meaningless.
- What’s the point of living?
- Maybe writing about those darkest days is exactly what you need to do to achieve some self-awareness and a catharsis.
#3: Apply some epistemology
Conrad explored the boundaries and limits of epistemology: how it is that we know things. How do we know what we know is one of philosophy’s greatest unanswered questions.
What’s the exact mental and emotional process we undertake in learning and understanding “reality”?
- You could have a character always questioning things.
- A philosopher type playing off a foil—someone’s who’s the opposite, who questions nothing or disagrees with everything, or who answers with non-answers.
- Epistemological dialogue can be extremely funny.
- I’m not talking about having your characters go on and on like two boring know-it-alls.
- Make it short, snappy, ridiculous even.
One of Conrad’s greatest achievements was his ability to write self-aware, meta-novels—stories that call attention to the art of story-telling itself. You could try that by having a character who declares that he knows he’s a character in a book, or in God’s story, or that he’s treated like he’s not even real. Maybe he questions whether he’s even alive or it’s all a dream.
- Like Alice down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.
- Or the Who’s calling out for help on their speck of dust world, and only Horton hears them.
- Or “Young Goodman Brown” sneaking off into the woods late at night to consort with the devil and his crew.
- Or the entire 6 seasons of LOST—lives in limbo. Limbo, purgatory, anywhere between two dimensions is a Twilight Zone popular plot.
#4: Tell a twice-told tale
Conrad’s stories are often told through other people’s accounts of them, which are themselves often twice-told tales passed down orally, from several conflicting viewpoints or perspectives.
Conrad employs narrators who confront themselves, both in other characters and in telling the story of their own pasts. The narrator of Heart, Marlow is on a spiritual voyage of self-discovery, where he meets up with his own flawed, fatalistic nature and discovers the darkness in his own heart.
Thus, the reader must take an active role in attempting to discern among the ambiguous and competing versions or accounts of unreliable narrators.
- Making a reader wonder ‘What the heck is going on? Who are these people?’ creates great curiosity and suspense. If you want answers and you want them now, you’re hooked on sticking with it until you get them.
- You might have a character tell a story to a group around a campfire, or stuck in an elevator, or, better yet, somewhere mysterious.
- A vague and ambiguous setting. We’re not sure where they are. We don’t know who the group is, or who the story-teller is, or why he’s telling the story—until the end of the story.
The reader is hooked into hearing this story within a story. The outside story is just as mysterious and page-turning as the inside story. Both stories are meta-stories. And I’ve never met a reader yet who isn’t fascinated by meta-stories.
#5: Try writing an apocalyptic story—they’re always bestsellers and blockbusters
The end of the world. Earth invaded by aliens. A meteor striking New York City. Hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, tornados, tsunamis, riots, war. They never fail to attract an audience—provided you have characters caught in the middle of them.
Apocalypse Now, the extraordinary Francis Ford Coppola Vietnam War movie, is based, in part, on Heart. After reading Heart, watch the movie again, or for the first time, and you’ll have an insightful and fruitful intellectual experience noting the similarities (and differences) between Heart and Coppola’s masterpiece.
#6: Study and work hard like Conrad did
Conrad was born in Poland and didn’t learn English until he was 21 years old, which is a remarkable fact considering he’s one of the very finest prose stylists in the history of English literature. How did he pull that off? Hard work.
That’s the final point of this chapter: Read great books, watch great movies, and write every day.
Study the art of storytelling. Study like you’re studying for the most important final exam of your life. If you want to be a great writer, you’re taking a final exam every time you sit down to write.
And you should sit down to write at least 3-4 hours every single day. Not every other day. Every day.
Existentialism is a philosophy espoused by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, adopted in great measure by the Modernist authors—most notably Hemingway—and followed, if not fully understood, by many people throughout the 20th century and even today.
It’s pretty controversial and very interesting. Its 5 principal aspects have comprised the personalities and driven the plots of hundreds of characters and novels. Many writers and readers alike have found an eerie fascination with and attraction to existentialism. You might too.
Life is Absurd
Existentialists say that they believe that there is nothing lasting or real, no absolutes, no final purpose, or anything worth any effort. This ironic and somewhat disingenuous position is undermined by their own insistence upon its absolute truth. If there is nothing real, absolute, or meaningful, then neither is that claim itself. So, they deconstruct themselves.
Nonetheless—petty semantics aside—believing that life is absurd is a darkly comedic place to start in fashioning your protagonist’s personality. Read “The Underground Man” by Dostoevsky. What a ride!
If a character believes life is absurd, it probably is for her. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. She may live in isolation and frustration, never satisfied or happy, since nothing means anything. So why bother to try? She could end up paralyzed by her own absurdity. A walking, talking joke.
Absurdity, after all, is the collision between the rational and irrational. Is it not crazily absurd to try to reason with a lunatic? I’m sure you’ve experienced such close encounters, and they make for delightfully comedic scenes—though not necessarily much fun when you’re actually playing a part in them.
Let it Be, Let it Be
The antidote for such absurdity is the character focusing on just “Being.” Read Kosinski’s Being There. What a book. (And what a movie, starring Peter Sellers in his last role.)
Truth, with a capital T, resides in striving toward, in becoming. People attain meaning in their lives not in stasis, but rather in flux. Change enervates; movement defines.
And yes, the Beatles wrote many existentialist lyrics about many intriguing fictional characters. There was Eleanor Rigby “wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door.” There was Rocky Raccoon, the walrus, that mean Mr. Mustard, the girl who came in through a bathroom window, the taxman, the helter skelter crew (Manson’s lunatics), Mr. Kite, Prudence, Rita the meter Maid, and Lucy in the sky with her diamonds. Absurd characters, one and all. And all fascinating, all classics—all because they just focused on being themselves, living in their own worlds.
Face the Dread
Is there a better word than “dread” to describe that black hole depression, those moments of awful, utter clarity that life may, indeed, be meaningless? In Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Kurtz stared into the abyss and saw “The horror. The horror.”
Existentialists believe that people must face the dread of existence, popularly known as angst, the German word for “anxiety or anguish.” Dread is an awareness that anything is possible, that insecurity is infinite. If accepted, dread destroys all faith in finite ends and prepares the individual for the infinite faith of “Positive Nothingness.”
Characters in the death grip of dread palpitate with authenticity. Try to author such a character. Authorize him with a paradoxical positivity in his nothingness. He knows he’s nothing, but he’s down with that. He can cope—that is until he implodes or explodes.
Make Conscious Choices
Taking charge of your meaningless existence by making deliberate, decisive choices is another strategy characters employ to create a meaning in life when they believe there isn’t one.
Note again the deliciously paradoxical nature of existentialism: only through choosing do we define and construct our individuality. Though all is absurd, meaningless, and dreadful, one must move purposely through life, not drift through it. By choosing, we create our “selves.”
Commit or be Committed
Finally, the existentialist must make commitments or go utterly insane. It’s Orwell’s doublethink that Winston Smith couldn’t quite grasp, and so he was defeated and committed to a life of dreadful meaningless. One simply must accept the pointlessness while refusing to be pointless himself. That’s the point of life: effort and accomplishment become the reasons to exist.
This formula for survival is Sartre’s “Doctrine of Engagement.” Talk is cheap; there’s no individual reality except in deeds and actions. That’s all that means anything—that is if anything means anything. Said Sartre, “Freedom is responsibility.” Have your characters mull that one over awhile.
When the absurdity of life is recognized, just being alive is enough, the dread has been stared down, choices made, and responsibility assumed, your existence claims a value in and of itself. In the end—our only friend, saith the Lizard King–nothing else makes sense or is real except existence itself.
America’s main man when it comes to philosophizing, Emerson made philosophy accessible and even fun for people. We can learn a lot from Emerson to use in our writing. He’ll make you think, that’s for sure. Here’s 5 philosophical ideas to kick start your writing.
#1: Defy stereotypes
If you’re looking through his writing for an organized manifesto, don’t bother. His style is rambling, anecdotal, analogical, and allegorical. He’s all over the place. But there’s big fat six carat diamonds of ideas everywhere you look throughout his writing.
He can’t be labeled or pinned down. He’s much bigger than any one idea:
- A Romantic in his pursuit of the unattainable reconciliation of opposites
- A Realist in “speaking the rude truth” about life
- An Idealist in believing there’s a deeper truth behind all appearances
- A Naturalist in depicting nature as a force that determines your fate
He’s all those things and so much more…
One of the key developers of Transcendentalism—a philosophy with roots in the Europeans Carlyle and Kierkegaard—Emerson forged its American brand. A transcendentalist:
- Looks for a reality beyond materialism and reason
- Aspires to a high idealism, transcending this world
- Holds to a “moral law” through which man can discover the nature of God
- A living spirit of God, not—Emerson believed—the conventionalized, formalized, fundamentalized God of Christianity
- God reveals himself everywhere and at all times
- Nature is the revelation of God
- Uses intuition as the primary faculty for perceiving and understanding the world
- Seeks his Over‑soul: the universal, collective unconsciousness, or Spiritus Mundi. He believed we all share common thoughts and ancient, mythical properties that our intuition can tap into.
By organicism, Emerson meant “the marriage of thought and things.” You can make use of this theory by:
- Choosing just the right word, “not its second cousin,” as Twain said.
- Using physical things as metaphors or images of unseen spiritual forces, loaded with extra meanings, such as:
- Melville’s Moby Dick
- Wordsworth’s lakes and fields of wildflowers
- Twain’s Mississippi river
- Composing stories with a transcendent unity:
- Where the Me and the Not‑Me are joined
- All of nature, including the body, is Not‑Me; only the soul is Me
- 60 years later or so, W.B. Yeats called this “There”, where the opposites interpenetrate.
#4: See and Be “Sublime”
Beautiful word, “sublime.” It’s a feeling you get when things aren’t just pretty or picturesque, but when they strike you as “awesome.” I put quotation marks around “awesome” because we’ve worn that word out so badly, it’s lost its meaning. When something is truly “awesome,” you’re struck dumb beholding it.
Try for the Sublime, in your writing through descriptions that are:
- Like a child seeing something for the first time
- Written with an “innocent eye” or a “transparent eyeball”
- Emerson felt we all need a “general education of the eye”
- As in movies where an innocent, helpless character wanders through a dangerous hood, looking all around with unafraid curiosity
- As in a trusting and mellow state of mind
- Fresh with dazzling, surprising details
- Appreciative of the wonder of creation
As Emerson’s protégé, Henry David Thoreau, said: “Wisdom does not inspect but behold.”
#5: Live a Life of Self‑Reliance
Emerson took Calvin’s work ethic, common sense, and man’s need for sheer survival instincts, and rolled them up into his principle of Self-Reliance. Nothing really new to human history, but new to philosophy, new for a piece of writing. His essay by the same name is at once philosophical, witty, wise, and full of excellent advice for all people— including writers. How so?
- No one’s going to hold your hand at the keyboard. If you want to write great works, you have to do it yourself.
- Heroic characters are almost all self-reliant. Who doesn’t like stories about heroes, small or large, famous or anonymous? They make for great plots and compelling reading.
- A terrific way to get an idea for a story—a springboard or starting off point, a theme or inspiration—is to start with a great quote. Read these incredible Emerson quotes and tell me you couldn’t write a story about any of them?
- “Society everywhere is a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.”
- “Speak the rude truth.”
- “Whoso would be a man must be a non‑conformist.”
- “Trust thyself.”
- “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
- “To be great is to be misunderstood.”
- “Traveling is a fool’s paradise”
Read and absorb some Emerson. He’ll inspire you to rely on yourself, identify and break through stereotypes, thereby transcending your environment and organically growing your mind and senses, your talents and strengths, all the while seeking, appreciating and living the sublime life.
Romanticism was born in 1799 with the publication of ”Lyrical Ballads,” a collection of poems by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Those dudes could flat out write.
Don’t reduce Romanticism to just love. Love can be romantic, but romance is so much more than just “come on baby, light my fire.” (Yes, it’s true, Jimmy boy was a Romantic, through and through. But that’s a subject for another day.) Romanticism is larger than life—a wistful, world-weary, wise, and wonderful way of looking at ways of looking at things.
So let’s have a look at the 6 main aspects of Romanticism that could inspire your imagination and light your writing fire.
Be a seer, a New Visionary
Easier said than done, but that’s what the Romantics did. They innovated. They broke all the rules.
Write about the commonplace, about the world around you: your hood, your job, your friends, your experiences. Write them new. Say what’s never been said before.
Listen for, as Wordsworth said, “the unheard melodies” of your imagination.
You’ve got words inside you. You just have to listen for them, hear them, and write them.
Be an idealist rather than a materialist
Write stories about people sticking to their ideals and principles.
“The world is too much with us,” said Wordsworth. “Late and soon/ Getting and spending we lay waste our powers;/ Little we see in Nature that is ours;…..”
I’d say there are probably at least 100 stories all around you of people who fit this bill. People wasting their lives “getting and spending.” People lost in material pursuits—empty headed, self-centered , out of touch with what’s really important in life.
By Nature, Wordsworth doesn’t just mean flowers and forests. He means human nature: what we think, feel, understand; how we behave, relate, cope. The basics.
Study and write about the basics. .About “The human heart in conflict with itself,” as Faulkner put it.
It’s a matter of mind over matter
The artist recreates a new reality. Try to rearrange the world. Make your reader see things in a new way.
Take your subject, whatever it is, and look at it upside down and sideways. It’s all just stuff. Throw it up in the air and see where it lands.
Chill and then write
On some days, you’re all fired up or pissed off. Something happened to you that would make a good story.
Chill first. Here’s Wordsworth’s writing method: “emotion recollected in tranquility.”
You felt a strong emotion—fear, anger, embarrassment, despair. You wanted to kill somebody, you were so mad.
Wait until you calm down. Get into a tranquil mood. Then recollect that strong emotion. Bring it back inside your head. Imagine that feeling all over again.
Then write the story that triggered the feeling.
Take a long walk
The Romantics did just about every day.
Seriously. When was the last time you took a long solitary walk? It focuses you, clears your head, helps you introspect.
Take a notepad and pen with you. That’s right. No iPad or laptop. And no texting! No interruptions.
Ideas will come to you. Walking releases imagination. It’s true. Try it.
Just walk and think. When you get ideas, stop and write them down.
Plot around contradictions
People have trouble with contradictions. They usually get all self-righteous and scream: “You’re contradicting yourself!” As if that automatically makes you wrong and them right.
In many cases, the contradictions are great conflicts. Great conflicts are the essence of great plots.
Look for contradictory people, topics, events, experiences. Examine them.
Maybe you’ll discover there’s a logic in the contradictions: the logic of multiple perspectives. Of our inherent confusion over what to think and how to feel.
Contradictions, mixed up people, confused situations—they all make for good characterization and plot elements
Contradictions abound. Life isn’t all unity and harmony.
Grow an organic writing garden
Coleridge had an organic theory of writing: like a seed in the imagination, the idea grows out of itself; self‑originating and self‑organizing.
Start with a seed and just write. See what branches take shape. Let them grow where they go. Let your leaves sprout where they want to. Like a tree, all the branches and leaves of your writing are connected to the whole tree.
Coleridge wrote some crazy good stuff, such as “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” about sailors on a ship lost at sea with “water, water every where/ Nor any drop to drink.” And “Kubla Khan”: “His flashing eyes, his floating hair!/ Weave a circle round him thrice,/And close your eyes with holy dread,/For he on honey-dew hath fed/And drunk the milk of Paradise.”
What poetry. Written by an idealistic seer who stirred his imagination on long walks, chillin after bad experiences, and then writing organically about life’s contradictions.
So, you want to write genre fiction?
You’ve always loved to read, but your tastes tend toward Clancy or Asimov or Rowling, rather than toward Hemingway, Faulkner, or Melville.
Nothing wrong with that.
But if you want to write in the genres, here are three things that you can do to make sure you have a good shot at getting published.
1. Know the genre inside and out, and don’t repeat what’s already been done, sometimes to death. Nothing will upset a book editor more quickly than seeing a 300-page manuscript that starts off with a young wizard attending Blogwartz. Been there. Done that.
2. Do your research. If you’re writing about, say, space travel, know everything there is to know about the subject before you begin. Genre fiction readers are smart, and so are the book editors. Get your facts right.
3. Show the protagonist at work. You’d be amazed at the number of stories about, say, spies, that cut away just when there is about to be a scene that shows the spy at work. Nothing gives away your lack of knowledge more quickly than not showing the protagonist doing what he or she does.
If you follow these three rules, you’ll be sitting at the head of the class.
–Dr. Doug, www.edit911.com
I grew up on a farm in North Carolina, and my mom always reminded me of the simple beginnings that North Carolina native Billy Graham came from. His life and message can inspire and inform your writing. Graham’s simple message gives a helpful model for writing, thinking theologically, connecting to the biblical text, and living out the truths you hold dear. Check out the following.
1. Heart and integrity matter. Billy Graham is evidence that God can use those of humble state to do great things. This theme is found throughout the Bible, describing the type of person God uses. Look at David; his own father did not summon him to meet Samuel when asked to gather them to anoint one as the next king. Jesse may not have considered David to be kingly material, but God did. God saw through the ruddy exterior to David’s heart. David focused on his relationship with God, again and again, through mistakes and great moments alike. Your heart and integrity matter in your writing. It will enable you to write with authenticity and passion.
2. Keep it simple. Billy Graham focused on a simple gospel message in his evangelistic sermons and crusades. Every sermon had a clear presentation of the Christian gospel, founded upon the message of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He sent His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him would not perish but have eternal life.” That message was the heart and soul of every evangelistic crusade, everywhere he went. There was no need to reinvent himself every so often. Sometimes the best writing avoids contrivances, complex language, and complicated research. Certainly not all writing can be simplified for a popular audience but don’t think that complex subjects always require complex presentation.
3. Don’t overlook the biblical text. Listen to any sermon that Billy Graham ever preached and count the number of times he said, “The Bible says … .” He didn’t begin many sentences with “I think” or “I feel” or “I believe.” In that regard, Billy Graham, like the Reformers before him, believed Sola Scriptura. He spoke it, lived it, and preached it. Jews and Christians have longed been called “people of the book” because of the importance placed upon the scriptures held dear. Theological thinking should always deal first with an examination of biblical text. Not to do so ignores a huge portion of the Christian community.
4. Don’t get sidetracked by tradition and popular opinion. Billy Graham was a student of the Bible and was not swayed by opinion polls or church traditions that didn’t match biblical content. I have seen this error too many times in my own Understanding the Bible classes. Undergraduates know what they have been taught about the Bible, what others think about it, especially how others have used it in outrageous and terrible ways to justify actions that were anything but godly, yet so rarely know what the Bible actually says. Many times we look specifically at famous stories from the Bible, such as Genesis 1-3 or Jesus’ birth accounts in Matthew and Luke. Students are looking for Eve to bite an apple or wise men to show up at the manger and are often surprised as much by what the Bible does not say. Popular portrayals and church traditions do not always match what a fresh read of the Bible will reveal. Set aside your preconceived notions and hermeneutic of the moment. Anchor your writing to the biblical text first before moving to tradition, then evaluate tradition in light of the biblical text.
5. It’s about God. Graham was not just armed with biblical authority (The Bible says …) but a clear systematic theology grounded in the God of the Bible. To Graham, the Bible is indeed a message of God’s love, God’s invitation, God’s searching for lost coins and lost sheep, waiting with open arms like the father of the prodigal. You did not find God, but God found you and offered an invitation to join Him and become an adopted son or daughter in His kingdom. Those invitations at the end of his crusades were not marked by extreme use of emotion, drama, or sales pitches. Graham thought that a clear understanding of God, His love, and His sacrifice would move people to respond. His invitations reflected this thinking. He most often used the hymn Just As I Am for the time people were given to respond to the message, which reflects the invitation to respond to God just as you are. Writing that responds to others in their current life situations will similarly be on target every time.
6. Emphasize freedom. In that regard, Graham taught that the message of God brings freedom based on your identity in God and the salvation work of Jesus. Graham preached and lived and breathed this message. Seek knowledge and truth in the same way. God is pleased with those who do so, recognizing the search is pleasing, not just an end goal. Graham’s argument clearly taught that a relationship with God frees one from bondage. If your writing liberates, empowers, and transforms, that is the highest goal you can attain—to connect with readers in a way that changes their lives.
7. Personal purity strengthens a simple message. Bringing this discussion full circle, Graham’s life reflected what he thought, believed, and preached, bringing power to his message through living it out every day. I remember hearing about how Graham had rules about not riding elevators or having a meal with a woman alone other than his wife. His purpose was to avoid any appearance or possibility of anything inappropriate. He kept a close circle of friends who kept each other accountable. Likewise, his children and spouse testify of his godliness and life and its consistency with his message. Living out your passions brings life to your writing and will inspire others to share in your journey.
How do you really learn the ins and outs of your subject matter? Nothing makes you know material better than teaching it. That’s why Freud’s Introductory Lectures makes such an interesting read. They are his lectures presented on psycho-analysis (Freud’s original spelling), which would have been fascinating anyway. But Freud keeps in his writing a key aspect of this lecture, literally interrupting the flow of his explanation with key questions that others may be thinking (and may have actually asked him in objection or skepticism). Discover how this book is more than a transcript but captures an introduction of the subject matter in a way that is helpful for your writing.
1. Intrigue your audience. Freud found an interesting way to delve into the subject of psycho-analysis. He started with some the most common and perhaps most interesting mysteries of human behavior and experience: parapraxes and dreams. Parapraxes literally are “faulty acts,” including the infamous Freudian slip or slip of the tongue. Freud presented these common mistakes and dreams, offering a fascinating theory for why they happen. Freud used these common mistakes as a doorway into the subject matter and built on this theory to construct a methodology for the treatment of neurotic disorders. So from the most simple, everyday experiences that are intriguing to people, he grabbed attention of listeners and readers alike and did not let go.
Likewise writers can grab their audience with this level of interest. Writers are often told to hook the writer with an interesting story, put them at ease with a joke, or involve them conversationally to win them over. Freud intrigues the reader with examples of slips of the tongue, which is a mystery that can leave even the person uttering the comment scratching his head as to why he said those very words. I wanted to know Freud’s answer as I read. Leave your readers wanting more and turning the page for the next nugget!
Along the way, listeners had to apply Freud’s theories to their human experience. Everyone has slips of the tongue. Everyone has dreams. Readers cannot help but start thinking, do Freud’s theories fit my reality? Why did I have that slip of the tongue? What does that dream mean? Freud’s theory became the subject matter of conversation about the topic, whether people agreed with him or not.
2. Identify possible objections. Freud had already experienced criticism for psycho-analysis as his treatment model. Perhaps this criticism put him on guard. Perhaps he had carefully debated all of these objections previously. In any case, with each point of his discourse Freud dealt with objections that people might be thinking among his audience. With humor at times, Freud took on possible critiques and made a stronger argument as a result.
In years of answering critical letters of the publishing products I work with, I have learned that sometimes people just want to be heard, understood, and validated as having a noteworthy argument, even if the discussion ends with both sides agreeing to disagree. Freud truly had a talent for noting objections in a way that validated questions and arguments just before he dismantled the argument.
For all of these reasons, I would argue Freud thought through his theories and their implications to a greater degree than most writers spend thinking about their topic. Every writer can learn from this type of clear thinking, noting grey areas or possible objections, and addressing them head on. Perhaps the possibility of being asked a question or being faced with an objection is the reason why every teacher learns his subject matter better. Anticipating objections and questions may actually cause you as a writer to think more clearly and succinctly in how you present your material and make your argument.
3. Provide examples to illustrate truths. Freud was the master of the case study. Freud’s case studies illustrated both his methods and the successful use of those methods in curing neurotic behavior. Freud’s case studies made his theory and treatment come alive. On a smaller level, Freud gave memorable examples of parapraxes and dreams that beautifully illustrated the heart of each type of slip and its connection to his model of interpretation.
There is a reason why most cultures told stories to pass down their history and beliefs from generation to generation. They are powerful tools in teaching and bringing alive truths that would otherwise be missed. Even in the most theoretical paper, your argument will be strengthened with examples. Illustrations give a concrete example of the theoretical.
4. Examine your deepest thoughts and dreams. Most people do not realize that Freud’s first patient was himself! He psycho-analyzed himself to discover the reasons for his behavior and actions. There is some validation in theories that powerfully help you understand your strengths and weaknesses, especially those areas of life that trouble you, where you can’t explain your own behavior. Freud specialized in those areas of life. Literally, he delved into the world of dreams to help free people from the obstacles that held them enslaved.
Some of the best writers explore their own issues, thoughts, hopes, dreams, difficulties, and successes to infuse their writing with emotion and reality. Don’t be afraid to go places in your writing that others consider taboo. Sometimes taking on one’s greatest fears and areas of frustration turn out to be the most freeing experiences.
5. Be willing to apply concepts to other areas of life and learning. Freud did not stop at the development of psycho-analysis and the examination of the human psyche. He used his methodology to explore group psychology, cultural anthropology, the development of art and religion, and the birth of the consciousness of the human species. Freud was a master at using his theory to other studies and areas of life.
Likewise never limit your thoughts and writing to one field of study. In today’s race to specialize in a specific field, we sometimes overlook areas that overlap and connections that naturally occur outside of our area of study. Similarly, don’t limit your writing and expertise. Life is a journey much like writing is a journey. Enjoy each step along the way!