About 1: Well-Developed Muse Seeks Stable and Mutually Rewarding Relationship with Craft
Oh, about a year ago, I decided it was time to get on the stick and fix all the problems with my story writing. I'd been writing fiction since kindergarten and I'd learned a lot by doing, but I felt that the time had come to learn by understanding. Late bloomer.
I knew my biggest issue was characters. I had great ideas for premises, themes and plots, and I could do a reasonable job with settings, but a lot of the roles in a lot of my stories could be played by anyone with a birth certificate, a brain and a ninety-percent functional anatomy. My characters did not walk off the page, and between scenes they leaned against the walls backstage, waiting to be blown over as the curtains rose.
Back in the 80s or 90s I'd read Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoint, so I knew about backstory and all that , but I never really took it to heart, I'm ashamed to say. Other elements of narrative intrigued me more. And I frankly rebelled against all that work that wasn't writing. I wanted my stories to flow from muse to pen without the encumbrance of thinking in a concentrated fashion.
That isn't to say that I didn't write the occasional remarkable character (such as the nominal girlfriend who became the chief protagonist in a story about a young man whose father's ersatz ghost won't let him move on in life) or enjoy the occasional epiphany (such as coming to understand a deal more about the experiences and feelings of a stay-at-home wife while writing from the point of view of a woman who suspects her husband might be having an online affair). No, I did progress as a writer of character, but fitfully, stumblingly, without any real sense of what makes characters tick in the mind of a reader.
As I pondered my failings as a raconteur, I realized that what I wanted was the ability to engineer my narratives. I did not want to scrawl in the dark. I wanted to know exactly what I was doing and to do exactly what I wanted. Yes, yes, I'm a great believer in the subconscious, what, what, and I have always paid close attention to the promptings and demands of that darkly veiled muse, but I knew that at some point in the process of putting together something publishable, I needed articulate expertise. I needed savvy that went beyond a feel for things. I needed craft. I needed knowledge.
First, I headed to the local library. I live in Kaohsiung City, Taiwan, so the local library isn't exactly awash in the arcane tomes I sought, but it does have a book that changed my view of story: Paul Gulino's Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach. For the first time in my life, I had the sense that narrative could be systematic, that it didn't have to be a matter of hit-and-miss, shoot-from-the-hip, leap-and-trip fumbling. You could actually divide a story into pieces with specific functions and be certain that at least your plot worked properly.
This whetted my appetite and I got online. As I said, I wanted to be able to engineer my stories, so I googled "story engineering"--and found Joanna Penn's video podcast interview with Larry Brooks. And bought the book. And learned a ton. Primed by Gulino's discussion of sequences, I was especially receptive to Brooks' tirade on milestones. Lovely stuff. Exactly what I wanted: the divisions between sequences.
I tend to read widely when I can--and go on reading binges when the right books are at hand. David Baboulene (The Story Book) and Roz Morris ( Nail Your Novel) soon joined my coterie of detached distance mentors. In combination, the five volumes I've mentioned left me reeling with insight. I was ready to approach the craft with craft.