Saturday, August 6, 2011

Back to Basics

On impulse when packing for a recent vacation, I stuck into my suitcase a beginner's guide to writing fantasy that had been sitting on my to-read bookcase for years. I'm currently in the planning stages for two novels, one of which is a fantasy. I thought a review of the basics might dredge forgotten knowledge from the backs of closets and bottoms of drawers in my brain and bring them into consciousness again.

I was surprised to discover how many of the basics I had forgotten. For years, I had routinely read writing books and magazines to reinforce what I knew and keep it fresh. Somehow, sometime, I got out of the habit. I wanted to spend writing time writing, not reviewing basics. Bad idea.

As I read, I was even more surprised to find myself learning new things. Many Beginner's Guide to Writing [Genre X] are generic writing books with examples taken from the genre named in the title. Not the book I packed. It got right to business by analyzing why J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books were successful.  It then spent considerable time defining fantasy and its subgenres, with reader expectations for each and examples from many works from many decades, before focusing on specific aspects of writing fantasy. Many of the concepts and advice I had never come across before.

Soon, the book was sparking ideas for my fantasy novel. A more dramatic opening scene materialized. Then a twist on that scene revealed what the hero's quest would be and his core strong and weak traits. A villain appeared, with evil motives completely unknown to the hero. Luckily, a surprise traveling companion also showed up.  She does know what's going on—but she demands a high payment for helping him, and her morality is ambiguous.

There's still much I need to figure out about my characters and plot, but I came home ready to write the first few chapters. And I didn't have to do any work to shape them—I merely transcribed each new idea into my notebook as it popped into my head.

There was even lagniappe. I didn't come home with only a planned-out first quarter of my fantasy novel. I also have a page of scribbles for the characters and plot of a complete short story, also sparked by something I encountered in the how-to book.

Just think how much planning I could have gotten done if my husband hadn't insisted on seeing the sights and walking along the beach!

Dancers take lessons throughout their professional lives so that their skills continue to expand and grow. I think "continuing education" is good for people in all of the arts. I've heard some professional writers remark that they don't go to writing workshops or talks or RWA annual meeting sessions because they wouldn't learn anything. Perhaps that's true for them; I can't imagine ever knowing so much about writing that I couldn't learn more. So I plan to revive my old habit of reading writing books.

I'll be blogging again at Novel Spaces on August 21. See you then!

—Shauna Roberts


Charles Gramlich said...

that's one reason I joined a critique group of less experienced writers. It never hurts to review the basics. Forgetting happens so fast.

KeVin K. said...

A timely post, Shauna. I'm discovering myself that I've forgotten things I once knew. I've been mining my rejection collection recently in search of good ideas gone bad and have discovered a disturbing trend. In many cases I was clearly trying to develop a new skill or learn the tropes of a new genre, and in the process forgot the basics. To often I filled in the foundation -- the substance and texture of the story -- with shorthand sketches or (far, far worse) info dumps, not taking the time to properly weave the elements together.

I think I'll take your advice and slow down a bit, take the time to remind myself -- and reteach myself -- about what I already know. Thanks.

Liane Spicer said...

I haven't read - or reread - any writing books lately. Time indeed to get back in the habit.