The Miracle of Writing requires Guts and Hard Work      Dec. 5, 2011

I have a reoccurring nightmare: I am about to go on stage (I did some acting in high school and college), but I’ve only memorized about 10 percent of my lines.

I suppose this subconscious fear is related to our culture’s pressure for perfection and performance. I felt something eerily similar when the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society agreed to my suggestion that I read to them my movie script about the close relationship—and later falling out—between authors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Next week would be great, the president told me. I had made it sound like my finished screenplay was ready for prime time. In fact, the three months I’d spent in England were so far mostly about research. I had only written about ten percent of the script.

I will get to rest of that story in a minute. But I do think these kinds of fears are part of the reason many aspiring writers never quite hammer out a finished product. Let me share at least three insights I’ve stumbled across over the years that may increase your craft and confidence and perhaps move you closer to the finish line.

Forget perfection.

Writers are not technicians. They are more like artists than engineers. I talk to many hopeful scribes who think they will never amount to much because they have terrible grammar, ridiculous spelling, and even sloppy penmanship. But, in fact, none of that matters.

Writers supply content. For a small fee—maybe $300 for a book and $25 for an article—copy-editors are hired to correct spelling and grammar, re-arrange sentences, and even update factual errors. They are a dime a dozen (try Craig’s List). Writing talent is much harder to come by. Those supplying content, ideas, imagination and insight need not worry about perfection. It would be like the company’s super salesman refusing to meet with major clients due to an inability to change the details of the verbal agreement in a word processor—or change the numbers in Excel. Leave perfection to the detail experts. In fact, the sloppy grammarian may have a better chance of being a great writer, as the talents for artist and technician tend to be mutually exclusive.

I also ghostwrite books as part of my work. Recently, two potential clients showed me the manuscript they had been working on before they found me. The first one, like many I’ve seen, basically sucked. But since it was spell checked and corrected and polished and typeset, he was hopeful for a good report, which he didn’t get. I expected a similar result from the next potential client. His manuscript was full of run-ons, mismatched tenses, and other embarrassing grammatical faux pas. But, to my delight and to his surprise, the material was excellent. He didn’t need an expensive infusion of content, just a competent $300 copy-editor—maybe $500 at the most. So don’t let mistakes and imperfection keep you from stepping up and taking a swing on your laptop. Babe Ruth was crusty and disheveled and struck out a lot, but he also hit a lot of home runs.

Add conflict.

We long for peace in our lives. But when we finally get it, we are bored to tears. It’s just the nature of the human condition. News headlines are about crises—if it bleeds it leads. The greatest book in the world, after a few verses, gets right to intrigue, temptation, conflict, downfall, and impending death.

Conflict is what makes writing soar. My first launch to the next level of writing came after reading The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lahos Egri, a classic on the craft (although it is disputed by experts—the book promotes character over plot, while others insist plot trumps character). Regardless, Egri pounds home something both sides can agree on—the absolute need for conflict to drive the writing process. It should start with the very first line.

The conflict doesn’t have to be monumental. It can be small or subtle or hidden within the thoughts of a character. Any conflict will do. But until the conflict emerges, people’s attention wanders. Watch children listening to a bedtime story. They may listen patiently through one or two sentences about a prince or a castle, but you will soon lose them until wicked stepsisters start mocking someone or kids get lost in the woods.

Most of my writing has been non-fiction. Granted, using conflict for this genre is much more difficult, and sometimes unrealistic. But every effort should be made to utilize the magic of unresolved events whenever possible. (Notice I found a way to do it for this essay.) Doing so will take your writing from informative to entertaining, the difference between the technician, Jimmy Carter, and great communicator, Ronald Reagan. As Stephen King notes in his book On Writing, something very unusual happens when character and conflict are put on the printed page and a stranger reading a continent away is swept up into a new world. King calls it a miracle.

Details, not generalizations.

In my experience, the greatest mistake made by most writers is generalizing rather than providing details. Details invoke images and remove bits of plaster from the sculpture, revealing character and helping advance the plot line.

Columnists generalize and reporters provide facts and details. (Actually, the best columnists provide more details than opinion.) This is why reporting publications sell far more copies than opinion driven outfits. I started my own news publication in the 90s with the idea of pontificating my ideas regularly in the editorial section. To my surprise, I acquired a taste over time for the investigative reporting side. Details trump opinion. And that may be why slander and libel lawsuits only apply to the reporting of actual facts. Opinions are exempt.

Most of my ghostwriting clients have difficulty getting to the details. I interview them for hours. Only after constant badgering for details am I able to get the real story. One client said she and her husband’s relationship got a lot better later in life. How? It took a long time before she could give a specific example. Another guy said he was too focused on money early in his career. What did he mean by that? After many questions, he told me about how he would come home after work each day and secretly count large piles of $100 bills to measure that day’s success.

One of my clients was the opposite. Zella, age 75, couldn’t hear very well and wandered all over the place during her interviews (nothing that cutting and pasting couldn’t fix). What she did provide were constant, vivid details without my prompting. Her grandmother was her best friend. She slept in her room at night, never talked about God, but Zella could hear her praying and crying to herself every night. She made dresses for Zella from the colored fabric used to sack flour and rice. “MeMaw” got married at age 14 to a mean man more interested in her work as a field hand. She got up before the rest of the family, put on her best dress, made biscuits, and refused to sit during the meal while watching like a hawk for any opportunity to serve more food.

I just sat and listened, amazed at the myriad of gems falling into my lap.

Another example comes from Bennie. I was editing his story for a Christian video website. He told me that one morning he just decided to cry out to God and his life was changed.

“Hold on,” I said. “What do you mean by that? What happened.”

“Well, I was at home and just started praying.”

“Why were you praying?”

“Well . . . ” Pause. “I was involved in a bunch of affairs and knew I was living a bad life.”

“Where were you in the house when you cried out?”

“In the shower.”

“Then what happened?”

“It’s kind of a blur, but the next thing I knew I was laying face down on the bathroom floor, naked.”

“Then what happened?”

“My wife heard me crying out to God. She came in and placed her hand on my head and started praying for me.”

Well, there’s a good story. But it took much questioning and prodding before we finally got there. I find many examples in many places of generalizations of stories and content that don’t quite get to the actual story. “I gave my life to God” or “My wife came and prayed for me in the bathroom” just doesn’t measure up to “Overwhelmed by guilt from sleeping with other women, I cried out loudly to God and fell naked on the bathroom floor. My wife placed her hand on my head and prayed for me.”

A well told story with the right details doesn’t even need generalizations. Bennie’s story communicates what happened without the need for ambiguous words like “sinner” “conversion” or “testimony.”

Try this example regarding the story of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. “Although Lewis helped Tolkien find a publisher for his mythology, when Lewis wrote his own mythology, Tolkien was critical.”

Now for the detailed version: “Tolken spent 15 years writing his mythology with not a soul aware of it until he revealed it to his best friend, Lewis, seven years after they met. Lewis, already published, spotted the genius of Tolkien immediately and championed his work to the powers that be. Lewis was arguably the sole reason for Tolkien getting noticed. Yet when Lewis wrote his Narnia series, the sensitive genius who invented 15 languages could not accept Lewis’s other close friends. He denounced Narnia as ‘cheap allegory’ and barely interacted with Lewis the rest of his life.”

Details drive the story. 

When it came time for me to tell this story to Oxford’s C.S. Lewis Society, I ratcheted up the work ethic and spent my week and half of preparation time writing half of the script. Then what? I wrote a treatment, or general outline, for the second half and presented it orally at an evening session at the faculty commons at Magdelan College at Oxford where Lewis had been a professor. In attendance, among several others, was an Oxford professor of medievil languages, an American professor of Anglo Saxon, a retired editor of Oxford University Press, a doctoral candidate in Gothic history, and a guy who corresponded as a teenager with Tolkien about his elvish languages. Not the easiest crowd.

Thankfully, the presentation was well-received, likely due to a heavy dose of conflict throughout the screenplay. The president formally endorsed my script, which has helped for promotional purposes. (A couple top producers have shown interest, but the script has not been picked up yet. That’s okay. Babe struck out, too.)
This story about the C.S. Lewis Society relates to perhaps the biggest factor of all for successfully finishing a project: perseverance. Many writers are just plain afraid to start. My suggestion: just start. Tell yourself you won’t use the first draft. Convince yourself it will take ten rewrites. But just finish the first attempt. I think you will be surprised how well the first go-round works out.

My favorite quote on the subject: “The art of writing is the art of putting the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” If you follow that maxim while adding conflict, utilizing vivid details, and ignoring the perfection myth, great things can emerge. Maybe even a miracle.

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