WARNING: This is a no-edit zone…
A writer asked me a question yesterday that I’ve been asked many times:
“Of everything you’ve learned about writing, what is the most important thing? What’s the secret?”
My response: “The magic.”
That answer was as simple to me as a new writer as it is now–though for very different reasons.
As a new writer, I knew that a story I wasn’t wholly invested in didn’t captivate me. I liked the story, I was interested in the story, but it didn’t keep me up at night or worm its way into totally unrelated conversations on topics that had nothing to do with the story.
That made the writing more work. It required more effort and discipline and I wasn’t as eager to get to my desk or wherever I was writing to get back to it.
I won’t say it was a drag to do; writing has never been that to me. But I didn’t feel the irresistible tug to write my heart out. And when I didn’t feel it writing it, I didn’t feel it reading the book. It didn’t evoke that bubble in the gut that insists you keep going.
So I quickly learned not to write those stories. And I tore the stories up trying to figure out why they were more difficult and less fun to write than the others.
What I discovered was that while I was interested in them, the difficult stories just didn’t have the magic.
What is the magic?
The magic is that x-factor in a story that ignites and captivates the storyteller in the writer.
For me, the work lacking it was competent. The story fair enough. But writing it, I got stirred, not shaken and tumbled and all tangled up.
That’s when I set the criteria on what I would write. I share that criteria as “I won’t write a book I don’t love.” But the more practical (to other writers) explanation of that is: Don’t write a story that doesn’t totally grab the storyteller in you and shake you like a dog shakes something by the scruff until you’re breathless.
If the story doesn’t intrude on your thoughts, if you’re not eager to get to the writing to see what happens or how things actually work out (versus the way the writer in you thinks they’re going to work out), if you aren’t awakened in the middle of the night with thoughts about some element or character in the book–if you don’t feel that bubble in your gut–then the story lacks the magic. So do something to infuse it, or write something different.
Instinctively, I got the importance of this early on. Now, there isn’t an atom in my body that doesn’t know that gut-bubble is critical.
You see, there is only one aspect of creative writing that can’t be taught. It’s storytelling. You either have it or you don’t. Everything else you need to do this can be learned–structure, mechanics, grammar… But just having the gift of being a storyteller doesn’t mean you should tell every story that comes to mind. No, be more selective. The time it takes it write is your life; be very selective.
Maybe you’re not prone to intuitive reactions, or you can’t relate to gut-bubbles, so let me try to explain a little differently.
In selecting/writing stories, you know you’re on the right track when…
1. You’re shopping for food and see a jar of pickles. The first thought that comes to mind isn’t how the pickle tastes, it’s that the brine it’s in would make a wicked brew to die for–or to die from. (Right track? Absolutely. Your mind is wide open and in receive mode. That’s a very good sign.)
2.You’re getting your car repaired and while it’s up on the rack and you’re staring at its underbelly, you don’t ask the mechanic about the car or bill. You ask him how you can screw up the steering without ditching the fluid–so there’s no trace of tampering. (Um, be sure to tell the mechanic you’re a writer. Otherwise, expect a visit from your local police. [Yes, been there, done that.])
3.You’re in with your doctor having a checkup and you brush right past your condition and ask him if you were to kill someone using a specific method how long would it take them to die. Will they be lethargic–if so, how soon–or shouting? And on a pain scale of one to ten, how would he rate this method? (Be sure to tell the doc you’re a writer. Otherwise… you know what happens. And, yes, really have been there and done that, too, though I honestly thought he knew it before I started asking questions. And another tip, if you bring people like this a copy of your books, it spares you from this type of thing.)
4.You’re in the shower and the perfect–I mean, the perfect–solution to a problem with a plot element strikes you… If you have to get out, wrap in a towel and run to look for a pen, you’re probably new at writing. If you write it on the wall with a bead of shampoo or conditioner or shaving cream, then you’re learning. You know ideas flittering through your mind can be lost forever if not immediately captured. If you’ve got a pen stashed within reach, you’ve been at this a long time. And if you discover you’re out of paper and write on the shower stall wall, you’re a pro and don’t need to be reading this. 🙂
5.You attend a party with people you really like and you still sneak into the bathroom to write. You’re definitely on the right track.
6.Your need to know outweighs your reluctance to ask. Never been to the place your book’s set? Snag a phone book, call a stranger and ask. (Do mention you’re a writer, and do remember to thank them in your book’s acknowledgements.)
7.You’re in create-mode, one of your beloved children interrupts, and the first thing that goes through your mind is someone had better be bleeding.
8.You’re in create-mode, the phone rings, and your beloved spouse/significant other answers, takes a peek at you, and without a word tells the caller, you’re not there. You’re in la-la land. Extra points if the person phoning doesn’t require an explanation and knows what “la-la land” means.
9.You forget to eat, to run important errands, to pay taxes on the due date. Or if you so much as consider writing on your novel and fake taking notes while sitting on jury duty. (Please don’t do the jury duty thing. That you’d think about it is the “right track” sign.)
10. You’re so caught up in the work you agree to do something you’d never do if you weren’t. (Writers beware: your loved ones will catch on to this quick–and they’ll use it!)
There are tons more indicators that let a writer know s/he’s on the right track. Most of them, writers tune into instinctively. A few are learned as we go. Regardless of how you tag them, when you lump them together they translate to the work having the magic.
It fires the imagination and fuels the creativity in you, the storyteller. You feel it, are eager to express it, and few things will inhibit you from doing so.
So get selective, storytellers. Don’t settle for stirred when shaken and tumbled and tangled up is there just waiting. The difference for you is remarkable.
The difference for your reader is immeasurable.
Capture the magic, and then write.