Writers Need Other Stories

I met a friend for lunch the other day who has been working on the same novel for close to twenty years now.

This friend is an excellent writer. When I saw some of the chapters from the book six years ago it was funny and a great opening. But my friend queried the book and was told it had a pacing issue and so has spent the time since then going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole and following critique after critique changing the novel trying to figure out how to fix this issue.

The one thing my friend has not done is…read a book in their genre.

They’ve been so busy with their work and kids and life that they don’t actually read any books anymore, not even in audio, which when trying to fix an issue like pacing is working blind, IMO.

They won’t follow my advice, but what I told them they needed to do was set aside this novel, read ten novels in the genre they’re trying to write back to back, and then pick up their book and read it like it’s the 11th novel they’re reading.

If they do that, they should then be able to see the pacing issues because they’ll have established the pattern for that genre in their mind and it will catch them out when that pattern isn’t followed in their own novel.

(I also told them to stop working on the same damned novel and go write two other novels and come back to this one later, but they won’t listen to me on that one either.)

Now, granted, I’m high Strategic, so I see patterns that maybe others don’t, so this may not work for my friend.

But the idea is that most books in most popular genres (romance, mystery, speculative fiction) have a certain flow and pace to them.

Differences do exist between books in genres, it’s not set in stone, but you can get a very good feel for what to include/not include and when the action should peak or ebb for each genre by reading a number of books in the genre in quick succession.

Even if you don’t have time to read, there are other ways to absorb story. Taylor Swift came out with her latest album today. Each of her songs is a sketch of a much larger story.

She’s a great one for that. Kenny Rogers and Jim Croce are two others that come to mind. They can tell an entire life in one song.

There are important lessons that can be learned from music about what to include to create this sense of a much bigger story.

(Same with poetry. Kahlil Gibran distilled so much about life and relationships into very few words.)

I love music and if I could sing a lick I would’ve probably thrown everything I had at being a singer, but to use music as a tool to improve writing requires not just listening to songs, but then asking yourself, “Why does that lyric move me? How is it appealing to my experience? How is it lifting me up? Or bringing me down? What have they done with the words they use to get that effect? Why do those words trigger a reaction from me?”

Writers can’t use every tool that songs use like background vocals and instruments, but we can learn from the lyrics of songs.

If you had to distill your story down to a song, are the elements there? The emotions, the characters, the setting, the outcome? Are you hitting the core of the story enough times throughout the novel like a song repeats a verse?

Speaking of, I love some of the Masterclass courses and the latest one I really enjoyed was by John Legend on songwriting. It was excellent even for a non-songwriter like myself.

The approach he takes to writing songs isn’t necessarily something that can translate to writing a novel since he starts with the the music behind the words, but perhaps in a sense it can if you focus on the feeling you want to give the reader before you start.

Is this going to be a fun story? A dark story? One that ends in triumph? One that ends in defeat? How high will the characters get? How low will they get? What tone are you going for?

What would be the soundtrack if you had one for this novel? If this novel were an album, what ten emotions/experiences would you want to distill from it? Do you even have something you can distill from the novel or are people just moving around on the page?

Bottom line: writers don’t write in a vacuum. If you’re not bringing in new experiences and material then you may be mining past experiences and material, but at some point you need to feed more in.

And if you’re still learning (which I’d argue we all are always), then you need to occasionally go back to the type of stories you write and read a bunch of them to see how others do it. You’ll see something new each time you circle back because of what you’ve learned in your own writing in the meantime.

Anyway. Just a few random thoughts to share. Off to record some audio if my dog will let me.

Author: M.L. Humphrey

M.L. Humphrey is a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 M.L. has also been a published author under a variety of pen names and across a variety of subjects and genres. You can contact M.L. at mlhumphreywriter [at] gmail.com.

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