I Began as an Artist and Ended as an Engineer

I Began as an Artist and Ended as an Engineer

I have often been asked, ‘Why don’t you have a blog on your website as do other writers?’ Well, maybe not often. Okay, okay. Never. Still, is there a good reason to do so? Do I have any thoughts about writing worth sharing? I have been working on other books (nonfiction) since Goodricke’s Time; one published, one now in press. Another novel is in preparation. I have concluded that to share what I encountered in writing a novel is only acceptable if I make it clear that what follows are not suggestions on how you ought to write. I really do not like tips about communicating or tips about writing. What I prefer is a process that transforms you and these ‘tips’ then take place automatically. Because this is a more personal process is more personal, as it should be, these tips are a development of your style.

A glut of advice on how we should write, or should not write, exists online and in print. In my view, all this material is a double-edged sword. Some of it may improve your writing yet keep you from discovering a distinctive style. Develop your own. I have seen online the ‘four things” that allegedly made Hemingway’s writing successful. He was, for example, the master of the short sentence. But the author of that advice appears not have known that Hemingway once said that he wished he had written Moby Dick and there are some long sentences there! The point is, that was Melville’s style. Hemingway had his. You should have yours. In the blog posts that will follow, I only here share my thoughts, my experiences about writing. They are not meant as anything other than that. I am not in any way completely unique and many of these will be likely be identified with. What follows is not a repeat of tedious bromides culled from books and applied. Finally, I am not sure what my style is or whether it is fully developed or recognizable. Can every writer tell what you what their ‘style’ is? I think it easier to explain the approach to writing that works for them. Whatever the style is, so be it. Do not be caught up in trying to continuously apply a formula taken from one of these books.

While giving astronomy lectures in higher education I gradually learned that the best time to write a lecture was after I had given it. A lecture is not so much written as choreographed. The order of ideas presented, whether or when to have included a certain visual aid, points left out altogether or points I meant to include but did not, are just some of the thoughts that can rush to mind after stepping away from the lectern. What does this have to do with writing? Similar advice cannot apply to the writing of a novel because one cannot sensibly say the best time to write it is after it is written. The analogy may not work, but nevertheless, there are still lessons learned, insights best known at the outset. In the blogs that follow are some of mine.

The first thing I learned that it was better for me to begin as an artist and end as an engineer. Before writing a single word, I acquired books and DVDs about ‘how to write sentences’ or ‘the strategy of fiction writing’. You get the idea.

This probably sounds familiar. These guides range from the tediously didactic (how to write with ‘Adjectival Steps’ or ‘Coordinate and Cumulative Sentences’) to snippets of writing style wisdom that may well inspire but that I tried to apply as I wrote down a sentence for the first time. Why not?  Barbara Tuchman wrote that she spent eight hours crafting the opening paragraph of her best seller Guns of August to lure you into her narrative clutch. I would do the same!

A similar approach on each successive paragraph meant I would never finish. I learned that crafting every other sentence before going on to the next set writing speed to ‘slow’. Part of the problem was that I had been inveigled by Mark Twain’s remarkable insight that ‘the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug’. I wanted that right word! Each sentence had to be perfect. I was forced to conclude, though, that the early stage of writing a novel was not best the time to search for that ‘right word’. What was important was to first get my thoughts down. Lightning bugs could be later exterminated. This resulted in windy and wordy sentences but polishing them could be postponed. The point was to not to create a stylistic conundrum that needlessly reduced the intuitive flow of thought to a trickle. My ideas were at first couched in somewhat embarrassing prose, but at least they were there on the page where they belonged, not running around in my brain. I concluded that if I had any idea at all of what I wanted my characters to say or how they were to behave, I wrote it down without fussing. Ideas that occurred during the ‘transcribing’ of dialogue were often fleeting. It was best to get them on paper. Deleting them later, if necessary, was much easier than trying to remember them. My sentences may have been out of tune at first but were later harmonized.

Note that I used the term ‘intuitive flow’ of writing. One critic of the overuse or reliance on such an ‘intuitive’ approach advises that when you ‘actually start writing, you’ll want it to be a process where you are consciously considering  the impact every word you type has on the reader’s perception’. This style may work for him, but I felt it a ‘nitpick’ style of writing that bogged me down. You can always go back and edit and consider that ‘impact of every word’. The point is that you will have something worthwhile  to edit. This, then, was beginning with the mind of an artist.

To me, this means trusting your intuition. A full discussion of intuition, what it is and how it operates, as opposed to the intellect, is a bit beyond the scope of any blog. In his book Intuition, K.W. Wild provided thirty-one definitions of intuition. Moreover, intuition is mostly understood by its achievements and less by precisely how it works. It is difficult to therefore provide a roadmap on how to write using your intuition. When I sat down to write Goodricke’s Time, I tried to sense a character’s mood or how the atmosphere of a scene should feel. I ‘intuited’ the spirit of a setting and it this that was then put into words. As will be understood in a later blog, I found this became easier as the novel developed. Some writers contend that intuition can clash with the writing process alleging it is the expression of non-conscious biases that may produce inauthentic behavior in your characters. If you believe that, then fine, but please, no Psychology 101 lectures! Whether, or how much, this is true is not the point to be made here. My own experience says that it is not. I was not so much writing as eavesdropping. For example, in one scene I have two young women sitting in an outdoor café on a sunny afternoon in a London Tea Garden. Both were deaf and communicating by signing. What would they talk about? I felt I was not writing, so much as listening in. If that is writing using my ‘intuition’, then so be it.

This is not meant to dismiss the opposite side of the coin from intuition; intellect. Writing uses both and are complexly related through perception and thinking. In my view, intuition is what happens when we directly apprehend meaning from a scent in the air, the lie of a cat or shadows across a room. It is a property of perception. Such perceptions are nowhere separate from thinking, they have a share in every cognitive act as does the intellect. Its insights might be considered as a gift from nowhere, a type of supernatural inspiration that some consider therefore less valid. But to me they are critical to the creative act in painting, in music and in writing. It was later for me during the editing process that the intellect came more into play. That is when I ended as an engineer.

Engineers think preemptively and see whole systems. A systems-level thinking process would consider how its elements are best inked in sequence, and in function—and under what conditions they work and do not work. For me this approach was best applied only after the first draft was complete to learn whether it worked as a ‘system’, it was therefore not preemptive. Others advise making a synopsis of each chapter on index cards beforehand and arrange them on a cork board, virtual or real. This technique does work better, in my view, for non-fiction and I have used it myself. But if you sit down to write a novel to ‘learn what happens next’, then this approach has little purpose and may even take you down a wrong path. And if I did not know exactly from the outset how the novel would ultimately unfold, how could I fill these cards out? They can be filled out once the first draft is complete, the approach I took. There was nothing stopping me at that point to see whether the novel worked as a ‘system’. It did not. I inserted a new second chapter and swapped two other chapters around. This is what is meant by ending as an engineer.Be

But there was more work to be done! Namely, the editing (and more about this in a future blog). I found that writing a novel was, as much as anything else, a process of continual refinement. My approach was to first get the bloody thing written, then learn whether it worked as a system. And only then could I begin to fine-tune each sentence and find that ‘right word.’