Writing/ Fiction Puzzle
I was thinking that it might be helpful to look at the process of learning to write using the idea of a puzzle. I am really thinking of two comparisons here: learning to write generally and learning to write a particular novel or story.
I think that when you first start to write you struggle and part of the struggle is you don’t have the right pieces. You force pieces where they don’t go because you need to do something. Also there are many holes in the puzzle which you try to overlook, though you feel something is wrong. Your puzzle is, in short, a mess.
Writing just takes time. You have to write a lot and finish some things—most of us anyway have to do this—before your completed puzzle looks like anything resembling an accomplishment. You have to struggle through a couple of very ugly finished puzzles before you do something that fits together. You learn how to write by writing (and to a lesser extent reading). An important part of this is finishing a story or novel
so that you know what that's like--and revising.
What happens after that, when you reach a certain level, having worked on the different aspects of craft (character, language, dialogue, plot, setting, voice etc… the different puzzle pieces) is you begin to be able to put a puzzle together that creates a coherent picture of varying interest. What our challenge is at this point—and it’s a challenge that never ends—is to improve the pieces of the puzzle and the way they fit together in a particular story. Writing is ultimately about connection—about making all these pieces fit together in a way that makes an interesting—at the basic level—story. WE hope for more, of course; we hope for surprising, brilliant, exciting. We hope for transcendence, power, beauty….More.
I think some writers become competent with the puzzle and they’re fine with that. They’ll continue to create interesting stories that fit together and they will be similar in content and structure and that’s ok for them. They don’t keep struggling to learn more because they’ve mastered what they need.
Others struggle on. They keep learning. They try different things. Their work may be a bit less polished than the writer who does a similar thing over and over, but they also have a better chance of creating something...More. I try to be this kind of writer.
Every writer faces the second kind of puzzle every time they begin a new work. They must discover the pieces of a new puzzle and how they fit together. Since every story is different, even a writer who writes similar stories will likely struggle with this. It will be easier, of course, but it will still be a challenge.
OK, enough with the puzzle. My point is pretty simple. No matter how long you’ve been writing, you can always get better if you keep fighting to find new ways to improve your skills. This fight and improving skills put you in a position to reach higher levels with your work. Sure, writers are born with different levels and kinds of talent. That we can’t change. What we can change is our skills and these skills can give us the opportunity to create works we would otherwise be unable to create.
Put it another way--Successful art comes from hard, steady work and from being in the right place at the right time. The poet, Randall Jarrell, once said he stood out in the rain hoping to be struck by lightening. Poets can be a bit gloomy but he’s right that writing is about constantly trying to learn more so that you can be in a place where, if the right connection is made, if the right strike of lightening hits, you can use it in a way that gives you the chance to write the best story you’re capable of writing.
Or so I think today.