Sex, Violence, Death, Toil: A Brief Primer On Fiction Writing, Prt. 1

I like what I do. Some writers have said in print that they hated writing and it was just a chore and a burden. I certainly don’t feel that way about it. Sometimes it’s difficult. You know, you always have this image of the perfect thing which you can never achieve, but which you never stop trying to achieve. But I think … that’s your signpost and your guide. You’ll never get there, but without it you won’t get anywhere.

– Cormac McCarthy, Jun. 1, 2008

Fiction writing is often perceived, and subsequently spoken of, as if it were some magical art, some eldritch and impenetrable ability of numinous convocation which arrives and departs from the conscious mind like a furious blast of ball-lightening (which, interestingly enough, are theorized to be responsible for the numerous cases of real spontaneous combustion throughout history!). Whilst reaching towards (and ultimately grasping) the numinous should be the end goal of all of the higher forms of fiction, it is a mistake to view the craft as solely the providence of arcane geniuses, as a venture which can only be undertook at the precise moment of inspiration.

Inspiration is all fine and dandy but it is wholly insufficient in and of itself to create a substantial work of art. A work of fiction which is nothing but inspirationally driven is one which is wholly impulsively driven; it is much the same as a grand and beautifully crafted ship without its rudder! It might well inspire a kind of awe but it won’t be able to move an inch and will invariably capsize in the coming storm, lost to all and every man beneath the thunderous swell of bio-hum. There is also the problem of time in relation to a work of fiction; whilst it is never wise to make haste when writing a novel or short story for the sake of speed itself there must also be reasonable timetables set forth for the writer if he or she is ever to finish the project upon which they are so arduously plying their talents. It is a highly romanticized conception of the writer as a powerfully minded yet tragically underappreciated soul which ultimately leads to nothing but stagnation. If you aren’t a genius or a consistent partaker in Ginsbergesque ritualism then it is highly unlikely that bold and evocative inspiration sufficient to carry the entirety of setting, plot, characters and theme will oft strike; this is, in no wise, a bad thing!

Contrary to the romanticized American conception of the fiction writer, he treats his work in much the same fashion as might a lumberjack or gas station clerk. He gets up early, takes notes, watches his time, writers consistently (preferably daily) and passionately and has a distinct objective in mind whilst he is doing so. That is, if he wishes to be a successful writer in the total sense of the term, meaning, successful both financially and, far more importantly, artistically. It is here I would offer some mild advice to those amongst you who aspire to write fiction in any wise (hopefully without being too boorish in so doing).

  • Purchase or borrow a note book or journal (I much prefer leather-bound journals for their superior aesthetic appeal and durability) and take notes whilst you are away from your computer (unless, that is, you still do the work on a typewriter!). This helps not only flesh out already established ideas, but also preserves new ideas that might otherwise perish in the bottomless marsh of forgetfulness
  • Don’t read whilst you write. Meaning: do not take up another work of fiction whilst you are engaging in your own work. The reason for this is simple; originality. Whilst one should most certainly shun originality for its own sake there is a tendency for the “voice” and style of more powerful and skilled writers to overtake the minds (and thus the page) of those, less versed in the craft. It is extremely important for the avid writer to read and read widely and deeply, but not at the same time he plies his trade as this threatens the authenticity of the piece.
  • Concentrate upon the theme of the story before everything else. A story, no matter how exciting the action, plot or characters will ultimately be nothing more than a mere confection of the intellect without philosophical grounding; without ideas which one wishes to build upon, expound, communicate and spread.
  • Don’t overly fret over grammar and instead focus on authenticity within the framework of the world which you are creating. That is to say, if you are writing a sentence and find it pleasing and perfectly suited to describing some situation crucial to the plot then do not there deviate to grammatical puritanism. After all, any true blunders you do make will be fixed by the editor upon the completion of the manuscript.
  • Most importantly, actually practice writing. Set a schedule and stick to it. The simplest, but hardest of “skills” for a writer to master (I include myself in this criticism!)

Now that we have that out of the way we shall turn our attention to the actual structure of a story and what it is that makes certain stories standout, that is, what makes them good. To speak not at all about any particular theme, a truly great work of art will always deal with three things: sex, violence and death. It is my opinion that any work of art which deals not at all with this omnipresent trio of human universals is not worthy of one’s time or, indeed, of really being called a work of art at all.

[to be continued in prt.2]

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