Behind the Curtain
Discovering the tricks of the writing trade
August 9, 2018
Whenever you get a chance to watch a really good magician, it’s easy to get caught up in the wonder of what they're doing. But if you're an adult, and driven by curiosity and the urge to pull all things apart, you know that a large part of every magic trick is actually imperceptible to the audience. But if you can find someone to explain it to you or slow the trick down so you can really see, you discover there are a number of steps that are accomplished so quickly that your eye and your mind couldn't follow it. Or you may learn there were things taking place in spots you couldn't observe that made the trick work. Magic has a lot of moving parts. So does writing.
If you've ever been around someone who is really gifted with numbers then the things they do can seem like magic. They approach a math problem that would take most people a bunch of steps and some muttering darkly and they simply skip to the end and tell you the answer. It's spooky, and sometimes annoying. But there's an interesting thing about gifted people. Sometimes their brains actually work so fast in that specific area that they don't actually know the mechanics of what they're doing either. So sometimes if you ask a really gifted person to explain how to do something, they falter and fail because, it's a bit of a magic trick to them too. They trust that a rabbit comes out of the hat every time they reach in, but they’re a little fuzzy on how the rabbit got in there in the first place.
Sometimes writers can be this way. Some seat-of-the-pants writers are naturally gifted, and they simply sit down and let the gifting flow, knowing that the elements they aren't gifted at will be cleaned up in the revision process. They don't necessarily know why story pours out when they do this, but it does. And if you drag those folks up to a podium and demand that they share how they do what they do, they'll often give really poetic, totally incomprehensible answers about opening a vein and bleeding on the page or connecting to their muse or something similar. That's the closest they can come to telling you how they do what they do because it's all going on in a brain that is so skilled at processing the steps that even the person owning the brain can't follow it.
Sometimes folks with this kind of gifting will simply say, "I don't know." And they aren't trying to keep secrets. They really don't. To their perception, writing just kind of happens. Which can be really intimidating to those of us who are not loaded up with that kind of gift.
There Are Still Steps
Now, gifted magicians performing slight-of-hand are still doing all the steps needed for the trick, they're just doing it too fast to perceive. People gifted with numbers have brains that are doing this same trick. So are writers. They're working the steps, they just have never slowed the process down enough to analyze those steps. In school, gifted math people can be forced to slow down, look at the steps, and "show their work" (which pretty much drives a gifted math kid to frustrated muttering right away). But they can learn to do it. Gifted writers can do the same thing, but there's an added problem. Analyzing your gifts can be really, really scary.
I love magic and the engineering behind it. So I love learning how things work (even though I will never even try to be a magician). But there is one absolute truth. Once I know how a trick works, I'll never see it with the same wonder again. I'll enjoy knowing how it works. I can admire the skill of the magician. But the wonder is gone. And that fact can scare a writer senseless. What if looking too hard at your gifts, picking them apart, and looking at all the pieces actually kills the wonder? What if what you create afterwards simply isn't as good?
That lurking fear stands behind a lot of resistance to learning. What if learning the mechanics of grammar better makes my prose clunky? What if knowing how plot works makes me build predictable stories? What if knowing what meter is makes me a less spontaneous poet? Let's be honest, writers are a nervous lot at best. Those who create a great book worry that they'll never write another great book. Those with a career of great books worry that they'll turn to the creative well one too many times and find it empty. We worry about a lot of stuff. So it's no surprise that we can worry about whether too much learning will be detrimental.
Is understanding how writing works valuable enough to take the risk? I think it is. Let’s look at why. One of the problems with not understanding how we write is that it becomes much harder to improve when you don’t know what you’re doing. Practice all by itself will make you a better writer, but it will also cement bad habits that could be standing in the way of your success. For example, if we refuse to learn the rules of grammar, then doing lots and lots of writing that is filled with grammatical and punctuation errors will make those problems worse because the mistakes will feel right. In fact, reading lots and lots of badly written prose can actually work against your skills as well (something editors and writing teachers sometimes painfully learn). You can counter that problem by filling as many hours as possible with reading really good writing. It's one of the reasons professional writers like Stephen King link good reading and good writing in their tips. Reading well helps keep our personal writing weaknesses from forming practice ruts in our writing brains.
Still, that's not necessarily the surest way to combat the problem with practicing your mistakes. Knowledge is. That's why so many people suggest a good critique group or a good mentor or writing class. It's simply because we need to know what our weaknesses are before we'll stand any chance of correcting them. Realistically, the best formula for improvement goes something like this:
Read widely and well.
Plus, seek help identifying weaknesses.
Plus, put effort into overcoming weaknesses.
Plus, write, write, and write some more.
These four things aren't done in any specific succession. In fact, it is likely to work best if you're doing them all at the same time. We read. We write. We do what is necessary to identify and overcome weaknesses. As long as we don't stall in just one spot, our gifts won't automatically lose their wonder because we'll be constantly surprising ourselves with our own work. Learning is part of growing, so we can’t let anything scare us away from doing it.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.