Duct Tape and WD-40
The old joke is that these two items are all you need to fix anything...
If it moves and you don’t want it to, use duct tape.
If it doesn’t move and you want it to, use WD-40.
I look at “Writing & Running” as the “Duct Tape & WD-40” of creative work: The answer to almost any creative dilemma can usually be summed up as either Write! or Run!
At least, as long as we understand the metaphorical meaning of these terms as they relate to any art form…
Writing = Capturing an idea and fixing it in time and space by doing creative, authorial work in our chosen field. Other examples of “writing” might include: painting, playwriting, sculpting, screen writing, songwriting, etc.*
Running = Unsticking our creative processes by doing a repetitive, relaxing, typically non-thinking activity. Other examples: Hiking, cycling, washing the dishes, mowing the lawn, walking the dog, showering, driving, etc.*
[*Please note that none of these is prescriptive. Someone’s “writing” could just as easily be designing a house or creating a lesson plan for an upcoming class. And their “running” could well be shooting hoops, or maybe puttering in the yard. Or any other version of the “creation” mindset and the “recreation” mindset.]
In an ideal world we would have adequate amounts of time for both, as they tend to feed into each other: Doing work can make us feel like we deserve some play, and playing can help us generate creative ideas for our work. Although I don’t think of them as “work” and “play.” I tend to view them as simply two different methods of thinking—one more conscious than the other—but equally valuable, and usually synergistic.
And on the flip side…
[*BTW, NFW do I think anyone’s actually required to write half a million words be a writer. You write? You’re a writer. Period. Same with the 10,000 hr. rule. But the concept exists for a fundamental reason: We get better at that which we spend time doing. You’d think this would be obvious, but we still see people who spend a lot of time talking about the book they’re going to write… maybe even more time than they actually spend writing. Unless one is a Mozart-level savant, one is unlikely to create great works right off the bat, regardless of age, education, or chosen art form. Everyone seems to grasp this concept with music—no one thinks buying an instrument automatically makes them a good musician without practice—but maybe because we can virtually all “write” to some degree, some people seem to expect that the first things they write will be on par with the work that results from significant practice. This may not always be the case.]
There’s a master music educator named Mike Johnston who will sometimes challenge his audience at clinics and workshops to ask him a question which cannot be answered with the word practice. (“How do I get better at double paradiddles?” “Practice!” “How do I incorporate more jazz phrasing into my improvisation?” “Practice!” “How do I play with intensity at lower volumes?” “Practice!”)
Same thing with writing. Want to improve some aspect of your craft? Write. Need to remind yourself that you’re a writer? Write. Want to have a completed manuscript to shop around? Write.
Need to refill the well with creative ideas to help you accomplish all the above?
The Three E’s
The “Three E’s” of novel writing—as I see them—are Events, Engagement, and Execution. They form the three-legged stool on which a strong manuscript depends, and we can get in trouble if we’re leaning too hard on one while ignoring the others.
Let’s break this down a bit…
Events = The storyline aspect of your novel. The concept, the pitch, the premise, the plot. This can include the setting and time of the story—if important to the concept—but overall it can be thought of as “What happens to whom, and when.”
Engagement = The aspect of the story that allows you as the author to become connected to it, and which also acts as the emotional point of entry the reader needs if the story is to resonate with them. Various aspects of a story can provide this connection, but humans are hardwired to care about humans so the most visceral connection is usually through your characters.
Execution = Not only how you write it (style) but how well you write it (craft). Is the story told in such a way that it not only conveys the concepts in your head, but gets them across to the reader in a way that carries emotional weight? (It’s sort of like 1 + 2 = 3. How do you get events to affect a reader? Usually by focusing on how they affect a character with whom the reader has identified.)
Clearly these aspects are not mutually exclusive, and sometimes overlap. (Style and craft are often blurred together for me, and both can certainly affect the engagement of the reader, hopefully in an intentional way.) But to one degree or another they all need to be in the mix.
However, it seems like lately we might be putting more emphasis on the “Events” leg of the stool. Which can be great—I mean, who doesn’t like a well-plotted novel?—except it seems to be to the exclusion of the other two legs. Which can be a problem, as we’ll see.
But first, why is this happening? I think it’s a sign of the times, a byproduct of the information age. We’ve gotten used to answers at our fingertips—the quicker and soundbitier, the better. And we like things laid out in easy-to-follow listicle fashion: Do A, then B, then C… then arrive at Success!
This “just add water” approach doesn’t work well with the “Engagement” aspect of fiction. This is a subjective, emotional component to our writing, really nuanced and usually requiring multiple iterations to arrive at something that will actually move our readers in an emotional fashion to the point where they care deeply for our characters and are willing to follow them anywhere.
There’s no paint-by-numbers approach to “Execution,” either. Take everything we just said about characterization and expand it to include every aspect of the manuscript: voice, description, setting, theme, dialog, action, interior monolog, vibe, etc. There is a TON of finesse and nuance here, requiring a lot of time and energy to make it as good as it can be. Sounds like a long, hard process, I know, but (in my most humble opinion) this is the shit, right here, that will set your work apart from the myriad of other works cranked out without the care and attention the written word deserves.
So what’s left? “Events.” They dovetail nicely with the Boolean how-to concept of Step 1, Step 2, Step 3. And a dizzying number of guidelines are available, varying in granularity from “Have some events… and maybe a beginning, middle, and ending” to “Here are the five… or seven… or nine… or twelve (up to fifteen in some cases) essential plot events for your story!” Because I spend a certain amount of time reading online about publishing and writing, my social media feed is full of ads promising to help you “Write your novel!” A quick perusal shows that most of these teach almost nothing about the craft of writing, but are mainly a fill-in-the-blanks template meant to give you a perfectly plotted plot-ish plot (from which you magically create a meaningful work of art almost as an afterthought). One I checked out just this morning had a timeline for creating an 80,000 word novel via their method. After filling out the plot creation template, the calendar allotted you something like three weeks to draft it. (“It’s simple! You just follow the plot we’ve created, so it’ll flow from your fingertips!”)
Okay, it’s way too easy to burn that straw man to the ground, so moving on…
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with knowing exactly where you’re going ahead of the journey, including all the little way-points along the path--if that works best for you and your creative mind—but thinking a story-beat template automatically makes for a well-crafted novel is like thinking that having a cookbook automatically makes for a great meal… there might be a little more to it than that.
The potential problem is, if you don’t apply equal attention to the actual crafting of the thing, you’re likely to end up with a book that reads like a litany of ideas, concepts, and plot events, as opposed to creating an emotional experience within the reader’s mind that has the depth, complexity, and nuance of actual lived experience.
Because that last part—having the feel of actual lived experience—is what ultimately grabs the reader. And if it’s not there, having all your story-ducks in a row isn’t likely to keep the reader turning pages if they don’t care about the people involved.
But interestingly, the opposite can often be true: you’ll rarely see a really well written book with engaging characters fail simply due to a lack of approved story-beats. When NYT bestselling & Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead was asked about the plot of his novel Sag Harbor, he said, “Well, nothing much really happens.” Which is true. Yet the critics fell all over themselves praising it, using words like: Carefully observed and beautifully written. Delicious. Enchanting. Lyrical. Hilarious. And, perhaps most telling, He can write sentences like nobody’s business (“Execution”) and, Stokes our emotions and intellect at once (“Engagement”).
(Oh yeah… and people bought it. And read it. And loved it. Lots of people.)
I need to stop here and reiterate that I’m not saying plot is secondary or unimportant or anything of that nature. Plot is fundamental—it’s the framework upon which we build our work.
So why am I bringing all this up? Simply because more and more I see aspiring writers mistakenly thinking that plotting is it. That writing fiction consists of knowing where the beats lie, and nothing more. And I understand why—we’re inundated with the concept these days, because it’s far easier to sell a “system” than to engage in a nuanced discussion around the art and craft of writing. (Although there are some great books that discuss the nuances of the art form. Three of my favorites are On Writing, Bird by Bird, and Hope in the Mail.)
And when one of these aspirational efforts fails (for whatever value of fail has significance to you—commercially or artistically or fails to land an agent or editor) it’s usually not due to a lack of Events, but to issues with Engagement and Execution.
It’s pretty rare for a rejection letter to say, “The writing was wonderful and I was so invested in your character, but… I just wish more stuff happened!” (Partly because this is eminently fixable, and may result in a request to R&R… “Revise and Resubmit.”) On the other hand, “I just didn’t feel connected to the main character” (Engagement) and “I just didn’t love the writing” (Execution) are probably the two most common reasons agents and editors give for passing.
So… by all means, do all the event-planning and story-boarding you need to do to be able to write your book. But if things aren’t working out, don’t automatically default to thinking you somehow need a newer/bigger/better system to follow. There’s a good chance the fix may lie in giving the second and third “E” at least as much attention as the first.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.