Dorothea Brande’s “Becoming a Writer”

I read Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer right after reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. The two books share a theme of self-exploration. Becoming a Writer was originally written before meditation and Buddhism were established in the west, and Brande still makes her case for self-exploration through “meditation without calling it meditation” exercises. I’d offer that Becoming a Writer is a prelude to Writing Down the Bones.

Both books contain exercises. Becoming a Writer‘s exercises are different; while still self-exploration oriented, they are directed towards perfecting one’s craft. There is a definite goal to the exercises and that goal has two parts: Determining if you have what it takes to be a writer first then developing the necessary discipline to become a writer.

Specific to that discipline, Chapter 14 “The Practice Story”, should be engraved on every author-wannabe’s brow. It is ten pages rich in getting a story out (and not necessarily a “practice” story. Her suggestions hold for any point in storycrafting, me thinks).

Becoming a Writer is not a how-to book. I’ve reviewed several how-to-write books and most of them are mechanic’s dreams. Those books deal wondrously with how to revise, how to handle POV, character, and the like. Such books are journeyman’s books for the most part, helping people develop their craft. Becoming a Writer is about developing yourself into a writer.

Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones”

Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones is not a book for everybody. I’m not sure how many authors, writers, and author-wannabes will take to it.

Did I take to it?

Oh, yes. But I’ve studied mystical traditions, perform regular meditation, and enjoy learning different teaching methods.

There are good exercises in the book and they’re really about learning about yourself as a writer, not about being a writer, not about writing better.

I’d offer that Goldberg’s primary focus is you being better at being yourself writing, not necessarily writing better. Consider it “Zen and the Art of Writing.” It even has an endorsement by Robert Persig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on the back (another book I recommend for self-discovery. Or reading about someone else’s self-discovery).

The chapters are short. The longest is just under five pages. The average length is probably 2.5 pages. There are no “conjugate verbs this way” or “the best form of the participle clause is…” What there are are beautiful suggestions and insights into the writing life.

Long ago and far away I self-published Reading Virtual Minds V1: History and Science (trade-technical). Left-brained thinkers hated it. Right-brained thinkers loved it. It didn’t explain how to do things (left-brain), it explained how things were done (right-brain) and invited readers to decide if they wanted to learn how to get things done or just do them.

Writing Down the Bones is much the same kind of book; it’s not about doing it, it’s about getting it done.

Personally, learn how it’s done. Once you’ve done that, you’ll know how to do it.

“Your Writing Seems So Real”

Okay, not real so much as believable. Fiction has to be believable at some level or the reader won’t be interested. Readers tell me my characters are believable. When I ask some questions it comes out that readers feel (empathize) with the characters.

Great! Excellent! Yowza!

Ask a few more questions and readers tell me they can relate to the characters.

Again, Great! Excellent! Yowza!

I love your stories because you tell a good story.

Being a researcher, I ask more questions. Readers tell me my fiction seems real to them and it comes down to six things I didn’t realize I do:

  1. My stories are easy to understand – I write about people, not about technology. I’m not an Hard SF author (makes it easy to not write about technology). I enjoy some Hard SF, not much. Hard SF well done is basically a logic puzzle and I enjoy solving puzzles, so there you go.
    But I write about people. Technology may serve a plot point and most often I use it to reveal character than move the story forward.
    The end result is readers don’t have to be technically adept to enjoy my stories, hence they’re easy to understand.
  2. I do unexpected things in my stories – This, I admit, is one of the most fun comments I receive from readers. Even Susan (who’s been reading my stories for 40+ years) says I still catch her by surprise even though she’s use to how I write and what to expect in a given story.
    So even loyal fans get a pleasant thrill when reading my work. Some tell me they read just to get the surprise. They still finish the story, but the surprise makes it all the better. Like a box of CrackerJackTM, I guess. You finish the caramel coated popcorn and peanuts even though you took a moment to open the prize inside.
  3. My stories are simple – I use simple language (except when describing technology or expertise. Then I use jargon and buzzwords) and the story’s message (if any) is plain, obvious, easy to understand and apply to their own lives.
    When readers tell you your stories touched them, moved them, made them think, anything like that, it’s a win.
  4. My stories are always based on some truths – Thank god I hope so and yes. Simple truths. Don’t hurt people, for example. A simple truth. Be kind, another truth. To me these are truths. Evidently such truths attract a specific kind of audience.
    Would a bigger audience be better? Sure!
    But not if I have to give up truths to do it.
  5. Readers feel something reading my stories – Thank god I hope so and yes, again. I’ve said many times such is my goal. I want my readers to respond emotionally. That’s how I know they’ve shut out the world and entered into the story’s world.
    Bravo to me, there.
  6. You tell a good story – okay. This one, to me, is whimsical: I love your stories because you tell a good story.
    To me that’s kind of like saying, “I’m only eating it because it tastes so good.” Well, I certainly hope you’re not eating it because it sucks! What are you, some kind of penitent?
    Here’s to hoping I continue to tell good stories.

And please do comment directly on the stories I share. I love receiving emails and DMs, and comments are your opportunity to let the world know what you think.

Orson Scott Card’s “Characters & Viewpoint”

First and up front, I’ve never enjoyed an Orson Scott Card book. I could never get into them. They didn’t interest me. When a reviewer favorably compared my The Augmented Man to Card’s Ender’s Game, I scratched my head. Grateful, of course, and still confused.

However, Card’s Characters & Viewpoint?

Another story (forgive the pun) entirely.

Although titled “Characters & Viewpoint”, the subtitle is “How to invent, construct, and animate vivid, credible characters and choose the best eyes through which to view the events of your short story or novel.” Tear that subtitle apart and you get (or, at least I got):

  • Character
  • General story building elements
  • Story concept
  • Scenes
  • Story structure
  • POV
  • Narration

I so dog-eared this book my folded pages made it twice as thick as normal.

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Four pieces for a workshop

I’m taking an online writing workshop. For several reasons.

First and foremost, I know I can improve.

Second and notquitemost, I enjoy learning.

One assignment had four parts, shared here (to give folks a break from The Goatmen of Aguirra):

Write a Character Description where the Character isn’t happy with their appearance
Mary said yes.
I can’t believe she said yes.
To me!
Why me? My god, does skype show all those wrinkles? Or the gray? How come I didn’t trim my beard today?
And I smiled a lot. I should have spent that extra $100 for the whitener the dentist suggested.
But she said yes!
My eyes are bloodshot. I can’t believe my eyes are bloodshot.
At least she couldn’t smell my breath over Skype.
Or can she?
Maybe that’s why she was smiling so much. Her pretty, whimsical smile. All teeth and curls.
She wasn’t smiling at saying yes, she was smiling because she could smell my breath, knew I just woke up, hadn’t even had a coffee yet, hadn’t brushed my teeth, combed my hair…
Why did I take that fucking call?

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Describe something from nature
Cool, night air.
The musk of woods swirling about our feet like hungry raccoons pecking at our toes.
Bright, Autumn moonlight leading Orion through the sky, away from dawn.
Wolves howl, owls hoot, loons call.
The gentle touch of my lover’s hand in mine.

Describe someone’s perception of nature
What’s wrong here?
The trees are at their posts, the rivers course on their ways, the clouds dance correctly overhead.
What’s wrong here?
The bees buzz on their flowers, the ants carry leaves to their nests, the spiders sit lazily in their webs.
What’s wrong here?
The snakes slither after toads, the toads snatch hatchlings on the wet, wet bottoms, the salamanders spread their toes like firewalkers on parade.
What’s wong here?

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Show People Realizing they’re not where they should be
I catch my wife’s eye and nod towards the end of the vegetable aisle.
“What’s he doing?”
“I’m not sure, but the two people with him don’t look happy.”
“She’s trying to calm him.”
“That boy’s getting ready to scream.”
“Should we alert the manager? Does this store have security?”
“A place with food this expensive in this neighborhood would have disguised Pinkertons walking the aisles. They’ll act if they have to.”
“Bullshit. Look at the clothes they’re wearing. They’ve got money. Nobody’s going to throw them out.”
“How come everyone’s ignoring them?”
“How come we’re not going up to him, asking him if there’s a problem, asking him if he needs help?”
“Because he’s a fucking lunatic, the way he’s behaving. You want to get near that?”
“I don’t want that boy – “
“Oh, my god! He whacked that boy!”

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