Write great protagonists!
I'll be at LDSPMA
Tips organized by topic
Read about me
Editing Services
Read Testimonials
Learn the "bones" of story

Monday, July 22, 2019

6 Skills Fiction Writing Will Give You

Pursuing writing long-term changes you. In fact, pursuing any skill long-term will change you. At least in some way. Whether that's self-discipline or physical dexterity. Often the life benefits of writing are far from tangible, so they can be hard to measure. But on days where writing and editing feel like the worst, it's helpful to look at how they can lead to valuable skills. Heck, it's helpful to look at that even when writing feels like the best!

So today I want to share six skills that can develop from fiction writing. (Though I'm by no means a psychologist. These are just my personal opinions.)

1. You Can Come Up with New Ideas

A lot of writing is brainstorming. A lot. The older I get, the more I realize that our minds really are similar to muscles. The way we think, and how often we think that way, strengthens that thought process, and from there we develop thought patterns. They've done studies, and people who complain a lot literally change their neural pathways, and if they do it long enough, it creates a figurative "rut," making it more difficult to stop complaining. (BTW, the opposite is true--those who think more grateful thoughts have more grateful thought patterns.) How and what you think matters.

Now turn this another direction. When you are a writer, you have to come up with lots of ideas. Over time, you may gain certain insights about the process of doing that, like how the first ideas that come to mind are usually the most cliche (that's why they come first), and how you have to ask and address a lot of questions to hone a usable concept. As you brainstorm over and over, through hours, days, months--years--you may learn (if only subconsciously) to consider things no one else in your circle has even thought of. You may come up with ideas and perspectives that may sound brand new.

I'm not saying that all of us become magically innovative and that it's quick and easy--brainstorming new ideas can still be rather difficult (because they are new ideas!) and definitely can feel like work. But if given the time you need (almost every first idea is a cliche), you can probably come up with new ideas.

2. You Can Ask Questions No One Else Thinks Of

Part of writing a story is asking and addressing a lot of questions. This happens in the brainstorming process, it happens in the writing process, it happens in the editing process, and it happens in the beta-reader process. Some of the most important key elements of brainstorming are to ask, "How?", "Why?", "What if?", and "So what?" This bleeds into the writing processes. How does this magic actually work? Why does that character act that way? What if X event happened? Why do we care about this goal (so what?)? Not only do you need to ask and address questions for content, but then you have to ask and address questions the audience is going to have, based on how you tell the story. You have to consider the different thought processes that different types of readers will have, and subtly speak to those.

Beyond that, you also have to consider what I think of as "negative" questions. Instead of asking how your magic works, you also have to ask how it doesn't work, and why. What are the limitations? What if this character doesn't behave how most people would? What if that villain wasn't actually evil? What if the protagonist doesn't get what she wants? Then what?

You have to consider and ask a lot of questions (even if some of them happen subconsciously). And then solve or find answers for them.

Outside of writing, this skill can help you become more insightful. When you ask questions no one else thinks of, you find answers and information that no one else realized they needed. You might be able to solve or prevent problems others didn't foresee. Or you may come to realizations, connections, and epiphanies that were inaccessible before. All in all, you will probably become sharper than you were before pursuing writing.

3. You Can Bring Specificity to Vagueness (Something Highly Undervalued but Extremely Important)

When you first get an idea for a story, the idea is usually vague. It might be a small concept or insight, or a notion, or even just a general aesthetic. And guess what? From that point to the point you finish writing the book, you are essentially taking vague concepts and notions and trying to make them specific and concrete. The warm, fuzzy, love feeling you got when you had the flash of inspiration that your protagonist should fall in love? Yeah, you actually have to write that into language. That is specific. AND concrete. Because that's the only way the reader is going to experience that same warm, fuzzy, love feeling about your protagonist falling in love. It isn't always easy, but that is essentially what you are doing over and over and over again, day in and day out. (And one of the reasons why some say you should stay true to the vision you have of the story, not necessarily all your initial concepts of it.)

Guess what? In the real world there is a lot of vagueness. Because it is vagueness, it's hard to explain. But what's weird is that I've found that often vagueness relates directly to language. Think about it. When you experience something vague and try to explain it to another person, the reason it often feels vague is because you can't find the right words to communicate the experience. This could get deep into the trenches of linguistics and philosophy, like how how we think is influenced by the language we speak, creating a kind of circuitry; and how we are all limited by the imperfections and figurative "ceilings" of our own chosen tongue. But let's leave that for the college classrooms. Suffice it to say that writing helps you learn how to take vague things and translate them into something more specific.

Other than being equipped with the power of words, this is also done by asking questions. When we encounter something vague, we ask questions to find its boundaries and limitations so we can categorize it. For example, if you saw a new animal you've never seen before, you'd look at the boundaries of it--how many legs does it have? What kind of skin does it have? You'll ask questions until you can categorize it into something more specific. Mammal -- herbivore -- some kind of primate. This is an accessible example to illustrate the point.

Why does this matter? The less vague we are, the better we communicate. The more specific we are, the better we can discern subtle nuances and variations, allowing us to come to better insights, conclusions, and innovations. Imagine a world where all of our emotions were categorized as either positive or negative. Our whole life experiences would be different. There is no concept of "mad" or "sad" or "hurt," only "negative," and there is no concept of "happy," "peaceful," and "energetic," only "positive." It would impact everything of our human existence--how we interact, problem solve, communicate. We would not be able to fully discern all the nuances, like the differences between "happy" and "thrilled." If we cannot discern the nuances, the differences, the boundaries, we cannot progress in our understanding concerning that topic.

This is one reason why I'm slightly annoyed with the new thought process concerning Adam and Eve having to experience everything to be able to tell the difference between good and evil; today, people say, "That's a dumb idea, because the taste of broccoli doesn't change the taste of chocolate." But that's not the point! The point is that until we can grasp differences, boundaries, nuances, specifics--we cannot know new things. And if we cannot know new things, we cannot discern, and if we cannot discern we cannot grow and increase in intelligence and we cannot govern appropriately. (Sorry, tangent.)

It kind of makes you wonder about all the things we don't now know because we lack the necessary specifics to discern. . . . Anyway, that went deep quick. See what I mean about these skills not being tangible? One thing worth mentioning in this category is that you'll also be able to help put specific words and concepts to things others can't explain, which can be really validating and a relief to them.

4. You Can Listen and Communicate Better

On the surface, you wouldn't think this relates to the last section, but it does. A lot. (Notice how much all these things actually relate?) Writing helps you understand language better--that might not be a process you are conscious of, but it will eventually happen. Different words carry different meanings: "happy" vs. "thrilled." They're different. As you pursue writing, you'll become more aware of specific word choice. As a result, when people speak to you, you'll hear the specific word choice, the nuances, the connotations, the implications, because the difference between someone using the word "broken" over "damaged" is very real to you. And you probably won't even have to consciously think about it. You'll be able to hear the difference between "annoyed" and "resentful," and as a result, you'll also have better recall for exactly what someone said--because the specificity meant something to you.

Likewise, you'll be able to use that understanding of specificity to communicate better to others. But it's more than that. When writing a story, it's not just about communicating with words. It's also about communicating through characters' body language and action. It's about what's not being said and the way it's not as much as what's on the page. So you'll probably become more aware of body language and when people are holding back something. Again, it may not be something you are fully conscious of, but it will probably happen.

On the other hand, functioning this way can be a problem and annoying. People may tell me something, and because I hear specificity automatically, I may hear something more than they intend. I once had a brief argument with a family member who said the grill was "broken," when in actuality, it turned on and worked all right, it just didn't get very hot. To that person, that meant "broken." To me "broken" means the grill doesn't work hardly at all and you can't cook anything on it. Once we realized this, we started laughing. But the reverse happens. I'll say something as specific as possible to someone else, but later get annoyed that they "misheard" me--in reality it's ridiculous for me to expect others to hear the exact same things I hear in words (at the time, I didn't realize this is what was happening, but now that I know, things are better). So, specificity is very important and helpful, but on the other hand, you have to keep in mind that most of the world isn't so specific when communicating.

5. You'll Be Able to Find and Predict Intangible Patterns and Outcomes Quicker

Much of storytelling deals with cause and effect, choices and outcomes, events and results, rising action, climax, and consequences. As the famous example goes, "The king died, and then the queen died," isn't a story, but "The king died, and then the queen died of a broken heart" is. Outcomes and consequences make story. As writers, we look at these relationships a lot: Why is this character doing this? (I need to go back and consider what caused this motivation). What if the love interest dies? (What are the outcomes of that?) When the antagonist is defeated, how will that change the world? (Consequences.) What is the origin of my protagonist's fears? (Cause.) Even within writing a scene, we may mentally be jumping to the past, considering the characters' or world's history, the future, what needs to happen to get to the climax, or even sideways, what is happening off page at the same time and how that will affect things. But we may only really be writing directly about the "present." As a result (see what I did there?), we are used to zooming out to look at the big picture within minutes of zooming in to look at the smallest picture. We look at cause and effect and how that result will go on and on into the future.

In the real world, that would seem to result in us being able to do the same thing more easily or quickly. Maybe we don't predict the stock market or weather, but we can probably pick up on cause and effect patterns on more human or societal levels. We might be able to predict more easily how someone is going to respond because it's easier for us to look at their choices and outcomes of the past. Sometimes it might seem like we just know. Factor into this the abilities to consider questions others may not, to listen better, and to bring vague things into specifics, and this can be an incredible and helpful asset.

This can happen on the small scale, like noticing a pattern in your child's behavior that gives you insight on how to parent them. Or it can happen on a much larger scale, like how public events and societal choices funnel into a new zeitgeist (or I guess the term I hear people use today is our societal "climate," which is essentially what "zeitgeist" means). After all, when we are creating our story's theme, we are essentially simulating the same thing.

6. You'll Become More Empathetic and Tolerant

Studies show that those who read are more empathetic. Isn't that great? And it makes complete sense. Literature is pretty much the only medium where you actually put on another person's "mind" and "body."

Now look at the writing process. You are essentially doing that twofold. Writers often have to know more things about their characters than the audience. In some stories, they may have to know their protagonist more personally than they know other people. And their antagonist often has to view themselves as the hero of their own story. Every time a writer is sitting down to write, they have to filter the story through a viewpoint character, they have to take on the thoughts, worldviews, body, and experiences of someone else, whether that person is a hero, villain, antihero, male, female, black, white, biracial, gay, straight, child, parent, thief, scapegoat, priest, drug addict, whatever. Even if the writer fails to convey that perspective exactly right, they are still actively engaging in the activity more often than most non-writers. If you are sincerely, genuinely trying to see the world from other people's perspectives over and over again, what's going to happen? You'll probably become more empathetic and tolerant.

Empathy is like a superpower. How many times do you hear people say some rendition of, "I wish someone understood me"? I hear it all the time. Empathy satisfies that. Empathy enables you to connect with and love all kinds of people as they are on a personal level. And when you are at that level, you can see better how to help others and what their needs are, whether that's with an understanding ear or offering sincere advice. But most of all, you can see better how to be genuinely kind to them. Empathy of course has its place and limitations, but this is one attribute that can for sure change the world. And when you share what you write, you will be helping others develop more empathy.

Like empathy, everything I've touched on here has its limitations, and these are all generalities (and concepts I'm trying to put words to). And I worry that in talking about the non-writing benefits of writing, that I've inspired arrogance. Rest assured that you are special . . . like everyone else. Really, like I said at the beginning, any skill you pursue at long-term will change you, even your thought patterns. So if this post makes you feel more confident, great! But you don't need to go marching around like you are better than non-writers. (Give me a break. The last thing we need in this industry is more elitism.) But my point is, pursuing writing will change you! As a side effect, it may give you skills you weren't even looking for. And that, my friends, is a wonderful thing--whether you publish or not.

There are of course loads of other benefits as well, such as developing perseverance, patience, self-discipline, precision . . . but I wanted to focus on skills related more closely to writing. It does help develop all those, but so do many, many other pursuits. And of course, there are negative effects that can happen as you pursue this, but that's for another day.


Post a Comment

I love comments :)