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Write What You See: Thoughts on Writing


We all know we're not supposed to wait around for inspiration. Write, dammit! Butt in chair, pen in hand, tablet on lap, digital recorder to mouth ... Whatever your technique, get down to it. Write a couple of thousand words a day and Bob's your uncle.

Fair enough. That's probably still the best advice going. If you've got a brain in your head and you truly enjoy the process of writing, doing it every day will likely make you better. But for me, all writing advice goes to the same place: the back of my mind. I like taking in advice—even conflicting advice—from various quarters and letting it sink into my gray matter, where I can call upon it later while working. It becomes almost subconscious.

With one notable exception. Jane Yolen invites us, in her book on the craft of writing, to take joy. In fact, that's the title of her book: Take Joy. In the end, that joy may be all you get out of the arduous process of writing and trying to publish. So that's advice worth thinking about right up front. Maybe even every day before you sit down to begin smithing all those words.

But technical advice is best left on the back burner, I think. There's no reason to give more weight to reasoned opinions about the craft of writing than we do to thoughtful essays about other aspects of literature. We can't sit down every day and cogitate over every little point that's ever been made or we'll run out of time to write. But we do well to give the thoughts and opinions of professional writers a certain amount of tenancy in our brains. Who knows when we might find their assertions applying to a scene in our own fiction?

In this vein, I would like to offer a thought or two on how I know when it's time to start writing out an idea. I don't wait for inspiration. I always have plenty of ideas pushing up against the window of my story shop, vying for attention. But there does seem to be a right time to start that first draft. The decision, for me, has resolved into a threefold consideration. Again, I don't measure this out scientifically. If I feel like writing, I write. I don't wait around for inspiration! But I've observed that my strongest fiction has come about in the aftermath of a collision involving three components:

1. What I thought were two separate ideas suddenly merge and present themselves as the premise for a single story.

2. Character development is strong enough to dictate plot.

3. I have an almost photographic sense of the overall structure.

I don't work from a strict outline, even when writing a novel. I have notes, which mostly consist of ideas that may or may not prove useful. Some are character possibilities, background tidbits, and so forth. But I like to write my way through the morass of a story. I want to be surprised and excited by the unfolding of events, just like I do when I read someone else's work. But you can't work blind. Maybe you can in the first draft of a short story, but take it from me, you're playing with fire if you wander into the dark expanse of a novel with nothing more than a guttering torch to guide you. Know that there are chasms ahead. Know where they are if possible. Then send your protagonist spelunking with his little torch. But get a grasp of the shape of the thing, or else halfway in, you're the one in danger of falling into a hole from which you won't easily extract yourself.

That is why the title of this little piece is an alteration of what is perhaps the most repeated bit of writing advice out there: write what you know. I think I understand what that means, and on some level I agree with it. But you know what? If I really wanted to write what I know, I'd be writing non-fiction. I write fiction to entertain myself and others. And that means writing what I see, because the reader of fiction does not care what I have to say unless I also show.

So don't take all of this with a grain of salt, by any means, but don't fuss over it either. If any of the above becomes part of how you think about your writing, I'm happy. If it's literal advice you need, get your butt in that chair and take joy.

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© 2016 by Pete Mesling