What is it that sets apart one author’s work from another? If we take into account that the average person typically uses only 5,000 words in day to day speech and about twice that in writing, with a college-educated speaker having a vocabulary of on average 80,000 words, it seem likely that we all have the essential building blocks to write a great novel.
So what is it that makes a great novel? According to a vast number or ‘How to’ books on the market, it must be the technical element of writing – the grammar, spelling, punctuation, story structure, inciting incident, story arcs, character development, plot, setting, conflict, symbolism, point of view, exposition, theme, dialogue … the list goes on and on.
But these elements and the experience that a writer accumulates after writing a few full length pieces (estimates are that you will be getting really good once you break the one-million-words-written mark) are the mechanics of writing. This is the down and dirty theory of how a story is told. If you were a guitar player, you’d have to practice your scales (all us guitar players hate that) but since you are a writer, this is your grunt work. Skip it, just like skipping your scale practice on guitar, and you aren’t going very far.
But what about that other something else? That elusive ‘je ne sais quoi’ that separates the boys from the men, the girls from the women, the Prousts from the Pattersons, the Burroughs from the Browns. What is that crucial element that Jane Austen has and E.L. James so sadly lacks? The stuff that makes J.R.R. Tolkien a master of fantasy and George R.R. Martin a master of distaster?
Let’s call it the Writer’s Mind. I have heard variations on this topic for years. ‘Write what you know’ – ‘Live life so you’ll have something to write about’ and a miriad of other diatribes on the subject (quite often given by those that teach rather than those that do.)
This thread came about as a result of picking up a friend’s book and reading just the first five pages or so. Now I will admit that this is an internet aquaintance who I consider a peer, someone who I greatly respect for his work as an Indie writer and a person who has been a great inspiration and source of confidence … he always has an encouraging word for me even though I barely feel my work falls in the same league as his.
But his work is weird. Speculative fiction in fantasy realms and things of that nature. Sci-fi and the like. Not at all like my work. So when I picked up one of his novels today and opened it, I was expecting something well written but not something I could relate to – how wrong I was.
The first five pages deal with …. life and death and our beliefs about the afterlife. Nitty, gritty, down-to-earth stuff that everyone thinks about at one time or another. He managed to make the genre irrelevant. And it was all laid out in a fashion that everyone could relate to if not agree with. And it got me to thinking – how did he go about setting these universal truths down on paper?
The ‘how’ is that he has a writer’s mind. A true writer looks at all things from all sides of the equation – objectively and subjectively. From the unbiased point of view and the prejudiced point of view. And from various different prejudices at the same time. Writers must be journalists reporting on the state of affairs of the day, telling the truth and lies at the same time. We must turn that apple in the garden of eden over in our hands until we imagine the apple pie, the apple sauce, the snake, the banishment and the arsnic at the core of that apple seed. And let’s be honest … some of us have that intrinsic analitic nature and some … well they just don’t.
Can a writer’s mind be developed? Definitely. Can we step beyond our ideas to see the world from other people’s perspectives? Well it is possible but I would hazard a guess that many or most people have been indoctrinated in a particular dogma to the extent that they aren’t even aware they have it. Also in play will be a person’s passion and compassion. Their basic understanding of the human condition – what makes us all tick? What about psychology? Does the writer understand the motivations and foibles of his characters? What will be the consequences of his characters’ actions? How well does he observe the behaviour of those around him?
And how well does he understand his reader? Will he be able to step beyond his own passion about a subject and see what about it will draw the uninterested into the topic? How will he get a person who has no previous contact with his subject matter to invest their time in his work?
Can the writer build enough tension and conflict to make any and all readers care about his characters? Is there anything at stake in the story that the reader might draw on to create a parallel to his or her life?
I have two very strong advantages in life and in writing. One, I was born Canadian. Not that there is anything wrong with other countries but luckily I was born in a country that teaches its children that the correct thing to do in the case where the authority is WRONG is to disobey. This made me a skeptic and an avid observer. Secondly, I left Canada and came to Mexico and had to trade in my ideals for another way of life. Talk about a kick in the teeth! So I developed yet another way of seeing the world.
I’ve also always been a fan of a good debate. Call it an arguement if you like, I love to hear another’s point of view. And I live to bend that other person to seeing my perspective. Call it a superiority complex if you will, I love to dominate and prove that my way is the better way. Socially this is a death knell – even I’d really dislike that characterisic in another person, (especially on the losing end of a debate) but as a writer it is a great ability to have.
All of these so-called talents have built up a trick-bag of riffs and licks that I can throw into my work, into my characters and situations to make them real. It’s one thing to describe the mean streets of Mexico the pastel and muted earth tones of the houses and to describe the cobblestone streets. It’s but it’s something else altogether to have your reader smelling the fried onions and cilantro of the corner taco stand. This is what I strive for in my work and it will only be achieved by honing my writer’s mind. (That and a ton of editing)
In closing, I hope you all find your inner writer, turn on the consciousness of your mind’s eye, get intimate with your muse and tap into your writer’s mind.
David Gordon Burke
Find my books here.