Friday, September 09, 2016

Growing as a Writer

I've been thinking about the question my colleagues have been discussing about what is required to become a competent writer -- innate talent, hard work, acquiring craft-related skills? As I was thinking about that I read Donis's post yesterday about the challenges of a long-running series.

My Lizzie Stuart series is only up to the fifth book. In fact, after the fifth book was published back in 2011, I wrote two Hannah McCabe books. In July 2014, a Lizzie Stuart short story (inspired by some research I was doing) was published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. But the short story did not move the characters forward. They have been in limbo for five years.

And now it's a few months later in series times, and I'm at work on Lizzie Stuart mystery Number 6. I'm writing this book because I have a story that I really want to tell. I'm also writing it because I hear from readers who they love the series and when am I going to do another book? Was that the last? What writer can resist when readers care about her or his characters and are waiting to find out what's happening in their lives?

Donis raised the issue of the character-arc. If the characters' lives are changing over the course of the series, how does one make each book in a series a stand-alone? I have always struggled with that. I can truthfully tell a potential reader that she can pick up any book in my Lizzie Stuart series and read a murder mystery that is complete in itself. No, one need not read the first Hannah McCabe novel before reading the second. But if a reader says that she likes to read a series in order because of the evolving relationships, I don't try to talk her out of that approach. As a reader, I have often picked up a book mid-series and then gone back to "catch-up" before moving on. I like relationships and back stories. That's one of the reasons I read any book, including a mystery.

But even though I struggle with the character arc dilemma, I have gotten better at dealing with it. I can now slip in back story here and there, without having Lizzie stop to say, "Two years ago when I was in Cornwall, I was involved in a murder case and that's when . . ." I'm a bit more subtle these days.

That brings me to the discussion we've been having about innate talent vs. hard work to acquire craft. I know I started out with imagination. From the time I was a small child, I told myself bedtime stories with recurring characters. When I was older, I started to write those stories down. But the process of becoming a functioning writer required that I discipline my imagination and hone any innate talent I may have possessed.

Aside from the basics of grammar and story structure, I had to learn the discipline of getting out of my comfortable chair (where I was thinking about my book) and going to my desk to get it down on paper. I had to learn the discipline of revising and revising and revising. I had to learn the discipline -- and develop a thick enough skin -- to sit quietly and listen and then ask lots of questions when someone I had asked to critique what I had written gave me an honest opinion. I had to learn the discipline not to rush the story, to let it evolve, and take wrong turns, to wait for all the pieces to fall into place.

I think that may be the difference between talented amateurs and professional writers. Having talent and imagination means nothing until one learns discipline. It's hard and frustrating, especially when working hard doesn't mean that one rises to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. But, on the other hand, discipline is good for the soul. And writing may be the one area in my life where I manage to consistently do what I should do.

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