Write How You Want To
Have you ever felt pressured to write the way other expect you to instead of being able to write how you want to? Do you ever feel crushed by the expectations we writers face?
I saw a video somewhere recently. It was of a hip looking guy explaining how simple it is to write the perfect novel. Just break it up into so many acts, make sure you have an inciting incident, some blah blah blah, a conflict, more blah blah blah, crisis, resolution-wrap-up and boom, welcome to the best sellers list. There were resources for self-editing, craft exercises with helpful dos and don’ts, character arc suggestions—everything you need to find success in the writing biz.
Maybe this works for people. Maybe it’s worked for you. If so, you might want to click on over to the next blog…
But if you’ve ever hit the industry wall and heard how your work doesn’t quite fit, this blog is for you.
In my experience, writing is anything but a formula. Writing presses. It pushes. It insists. If writing is real, it will wreck you. It will pull you to mountaintops and slam you into valleys. It will seat you in first class then drag you behind the horse. By the time you write the end, you’ll climb out of the wreckage saying never again.
But soon, you’ll be sitting down at your computer because you just had another idea. Let’s face it, there is no high like an artist’s high.
A few decades ago, I had a dream to be a legendary novelist. In reality, I was a mailroom worker at Capitol Records by day and a struggling musician by night. The novel flame lingered for twenty years. I remember the day I told my wife.
“I’m just gonna do it.”
“Write that book.”
I don’t remember her response exactly, but it probably involved a tolerant smile and nod. We’ve danced a long time she and I.
And so, it began. How hard could it be? After all, I’d written more songs than I could remember, and I’d made an actual living at it. I’d just lean back into the language, stretch out my thoughts and boom, start adding up those royalty checks. I felt good. I began with a chapter. Then another.
Then started again.
Then…you get the picture.
This went on for a couple of years. Every once in a while, I’d show my progress to someone. One thing I learned is that people never run out of polite ways of saying, “Don’t quit your day job.” Eventually I wound up with what I thought was a finished novel. Maybe it wasn’t Hemmingway, but I had high hopes.
I was excited when a respected Christian writer, Kimberly Woodhouse, agreed to take a look. Kimberly’s feedback was honest and straightforward and, in hindsight, exactly what I needed to hear.
“Buck, you have absolutely no idea how to write a book.” All right, maybe those weren’t her actual words, she’s much sweeter than that, but that’s what I heard. She could have left it there but Kimberly, being who she is, offered to give me some much-needed tips. I found out about a pesky little thing called craft, and I decided it might be a good idea to get the horse back out in front of the cart.
So I had a few rules of the road from a real writer. I followed this up by consuming every book and article I could find on craft. I studied. I wrote. I studied. I rewrote. Then I rewrote some more. Eventually, my draft of The Miracle Man was finished. It was in rough form, but smooth enough to land me an agent and a small publishing deal. In the prophetic words of Tom Petty—the future was wide open.
There is a blind confidence, or arrogance, that comes with youth. At twenty-three I called myself a novelist, at fifty-six I go through periods when I am not sure even with several of my published works on a shelf in front of me.
I’ve made some dedicated fans and received a few Christian book awards. I’ve had good reviews and press. Even more validating, I’ve had bad reviews and press. So why is it when I’m with writers I often feel like the odd man out?
It’s not that I don’t speak the language. I know all the craft catch phrases. I know to frown and look concerned when the term passive verbiage is introduced. I know weasel words are so horrible it makes me feel sorry for weasels. Then there’s the truly unpardonable sin—head hopping (I hate to even say those two words in tandem) (also, don’t ever use parenthesis).
When I’m asked about any of these things, I do my very best to be helpful and give the appropriate answers. I do this because I actually believe craft is important. Craft absolutely has its place. After all, I’m a veteran of Bird by Bird. I’ve even braved Stephen King’s read On Writing.
Voice is precious because voice is unique. I believe our voices as writers are gifts given directly by God. Your voice speaks your heart. Your heart is where the story lives. Hearts speak to hearts. We were made this way and the process is precious. For me, poor writing is not poor because a rule is broken here or there, sure, that can be part of it, but because authors d not speak their authentic self. We become straightjacketed by rules (probably writing for other writers and/or editors rather than readers) or try to mimic someone else’s voice (we like to call this influence) rather than finding our own which rarely comes across as genuine. Know rules. Respect rules, but always make sure rules ride in the backseat and voice is at the wheel.
We writers like to think of ourselves as square pegs, but we’re not square or round. We’re each a shape of peg no one has ever seen or even heard of before. I stumbled on this theory watching Frank Peretti work. Frank is a very odd-shaped peg in the best way. Frank is also a consummate pro. He outlines for months, maybe years. Writing the scenes that eventually become the book is only the last part of a long and involved process.
Which brings us to Planner versus Pantser—another much-discussed craft topic.
Frank is a planner.
I’ve tried to work like Frank.
Couldn’t do it.
I am not like Frank.
Who Am I?
I am a pantser of the highest order. For me personally, the only rule is to start (and even that can be a little iffy). I tend to open the computer, shake hands with a character or two, and see where they take me. I’m comfortable in that space. If there is a Tom Joad of the hobo-pantser camp, I am him.
I am not like Frank. Guess what? Neither are you. You’re not like Francine Rivers or Beverly Lewis or Ted Dekker or fill-in-the-blank either. You are you, and you have your stories to tell. That’s what makes life and art (if there’s a difference) beautiful.
In my life, I see God work the most when I can’t quite get my balance. Maybe you’re the same. Maybe you get that old familiar feeling you’re on the outside looking in. Well, you probably are. We all probably are, but He’s there next to us, arm around our shoulders, looking in. So, we stand in the street and write our heart because He isn’t just in our heart, He is our heart. He is a story that will never settle for not being told.
Maybe every once in a while, leave in a was. Lighten up and give a weasel a hug.
Go really crazy and start a sentence with a gerund, but speak from your pain and your joy. Speak from your crashes and your victories.
Voice over rules, my friends. Heart over how-to. Plan away planners, and pantsers, put on those pants. Be yourself. Indie, Christian author, however you label yourself and whatever your writing process—start. Write, write, and write some more. Write the story.
Buck Storm (http://www.buckstorm.com/) is an award-winning literary fiction author and musician. His books and songs have made friends around the world.
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