Alastair Luft’s Blog

07/25/2016

Know Your Start point

When I decided to start writing, the one smart thing I did was not go off half-cocked. One of the benefits of military service is that the importance of having a plan is drilled into you almost from day one. Even winging it can be a good plan, as long as you consciously make that decision and adjust your actions accordingly. For me, I realized I knew little about writing creative fiction, so I took a course.

The first course I took was very basic, full of fundamental rules and conventions; things like what constitutes theme, grammar and punctuation, and everybody’s favorite maxim, ‘show, don’t tell.’ Although I hadn’t written fiction since high school, I had written both academically and professionally, so it wasn’t long before I realized I was familiar with many of these rules (or at least thought I was). Predictably enough, I started telling myself the rules didn’t apply in certain situations and could be broken – after all, there are tons of exceptions. Problem is, the first few times I tried to break the rules, I failed miserably.

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I can’t believe I’m thinking of being a writer…
This prompted the second smart thing I did, which was to take stock. I realized that while I knew where I was going, I didn’t know where I was. That’s where three lessons I learned in martial arts came into play.

  1. Learn the Form (or the crawl stage). This is all about figuring out the basics.
  2. Master the Form (the walk stage). All about learning how the basics apply in various situations. For example, how does applying ‘show, don’t tell’ vary between different points of view?
  3. Break the Form (the run stage). This is about breaking the rules, but in a deliberate manner as opposed to not knowing any better. Maybe sometimes it’s okay for characters not to want something, and maybe in some instances it’s better to ‘tell, don’t show’. With all due respect, it’s conceit to think that a newbie can do this with repeatable success. Even some of the masters probably don’t consciously know what they’re doing when they break the rules, but I’ll bet they sure as hell have a feel for what they’re doing – that’s why writing is an art.

Once I considered these lessons, I realized I was firmly still learning the form. So, I silenced my interior braggart and signed up for another course. And while I realized I may not have been as far behind as I thought (or maybe it’s more accurate to say I wasn’t starting completely from scratch), I still had a ways to go.

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Theoretically, you could triangulate your start point, but then you’d need two or more known points of references. Also, is your declination set correctly?
Still, it doesn’t matter. The point is, I know where I am, I know where I’m going, and I have a plan to get there. Sure, it’s no flashier than learning the basics until I get better, but the more important thing is to make sure my ego and my attitude are in check with my skill. That way I won’t miss important lessons because I think I already know better.
​Will I ever get to the point where I’m re-imagining the rules of writing? Who cares – right now I have enough to worry about in sticking to my navigation route to become a better writer. Anything else is getting ahead of myself and deviating from my plan.

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