Love of the Writing Craft

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Love of the Craft Q & A

Looking at Your Preferences and Passions

A quick, two-step exercise to take a conscious look at your preferences and passions.

By Writing Coach David Duggins | Posted May 1, 2008 | Updated August 3, 2019

Chance favors the prepared mind." — Louis Pasteu

Q: I want to write. I do write. I don't finish anything. So, when my friend emailed me your article about unfinished projects, I dictated it into a tape recorder and I will listen to it while falling asleep each night, to get it drilled into my head.

The other problem is genre. Dorothy Bryant believes the writing chooses the author. I wish it was that simple. I read from a broad subject range, but I'm not sure what I want to write. How do you decide on your next projects?

A: It's wonderful to hear that you're using my article as an affirmation. Thank you! I'm honored.

I read broadly too. I appreciate good writing, in all forms. As editor of Spacesuits and Sixguns, I read lots of genre short fiction, but I'm also a big Tom Wolfe fan. I love the sanity of Peter Straub's prose and the lunacy of Allen Ginsberg's poetry. It's all good writing.

I travel, visiting a variety of fictional places, but I always return home — which, for me, is the darker side of speculative fiction — horror, dark fantasy, and science fictional dystopia. I'm a pretty happy-go-lucky guy, but I'm intrigued by the darker side of human nature. I used to think it was because I had "issues." Now I think it's just "mine" — like my eye color, my hair color, my smile. Spooky stuff is "my subject."

I don't mean to be openly disagreeable, but I think Dorothy Bryant is right. Your subject is in there, waiting to break out in words. It's certainly nothing to stress over — the journey is pure joy, with all kinds of side benefits that can help you find happiness in every aspect of your life.

Lots of writing books aimed at first-time writers endorse the idea that you should write what you like to read. If you like Agatha Christie, write a murder mystery. If you like John Updike, write literary fiction. It's a valuable tool for learning craft, but my approach is a little different.

In my e-book, The Art of Creative Centering — which will be available as a free download from my coaching website, if I can ever finish it (the site, not the book) — discusses the idea that we must have clarity to communicate effectively. You have to be clear on who you are, what you're about, and what you want before you can act. When you're clear, your subject will be, too.

2-Step Exercise

Here's a quick two-step exercise you can use to take a conscious look at your preferences and passions. It's simple: just write down the names of your three favorite movies, books, and short stories.

Here's mine:

Movies: The Wizard of Oz, the original King Kong, Star Wars

Books: Logan's Run by William Nolan, The Shining by Stephen King, Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp

Short stories: Sometimes They Come Back by Stephen King, Repent, Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman! By Harlan Ellison, Red Nails by Robert E. Howard

What can you tell about me from looking at my list? Mine's pretty easy, really. The genre preference is clearly fantasy, with a strong element of action/adventure (the Roderick Thorp novel was the basis for the movie Die Hard, and Red Nails is one of Howard's Conan the Barbarian stories).

What can you tell about yourself from looking at your own list? Maybe it's not as easy to nail down as mine, but there will be common elements. What do your favorite stories have in common? What kinds of characters do they feature? Are the protagonists all strong women? Men? Anti-heroes? What themes are explored? What places?

Many of the items on my list have been favorites since I was a kid, which supports Dorothy Bryant's idea: long before I knew I wanted to create art, I had a subject.

The second step in the process takes a little more evaluation and introspection. This is where I depart from the idea that you should simply imitate what you've read. Imitation might teach you something about writing, but you have to bring that subject home — into your heart — if you expect anyone else to want to read it. It has to be passionate. It has to be true.

So, first you find the stories you love the most. Then you find yourself in them.

What makes you care about the favorite stories on your list? What is your personal investment?

My personal investment is usually in the people — even in stories about fantastic environments and events. I love the characters in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy is an open-hearted dreamer who feels first and thinks last, yet never loses her love for the place she calls home — even when tempted by the spectacle of a Technicolor dream world. She is a dreamer, but she's grounded. That's the appeal for me as an adult.

I love he Shining because Jack Torrance is just a regular guy — a screwup, you might even say — who's tossed into a terrible situation and does the best he can. For all the clankings and clatterings and ghostly visitations, it's a completely human story. Joseph Leland in Nothing Lasts Forever is the same kind of guy — normal, messed up, full of holes. But he does heroic things.

You couldn't ask for a more "everyman" sort of hero than Luke Skywalker — an anonymous farmboy on a backwater desert world who dreams of being a hero. I was that small-town kid seeking greatness.

Star Wars is known for its outrageous action set-pieces, but my favorite moment in the film is a quiet one — a shot of Luke staring out across the desert at the twin suns of his remote world, the yearning expression clear on his face, the desire to be somewhere else. A romantic, melancholy musical theme sweeps up behind him, and I know intimately how that kid feels at that moment. I've been there myself. It's beautiful, and never fails to raise the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck.

The stories I've chosen stir emotions in me. I get emotionally involved in stories — even TV shows. I laugh, shout, cry. I cry every time I watch Dorothy say goodbye to The Scarecrow. I'm getting choked up now, just writing about it. Who hasn't had to say goodbye to someone they love?

I feel Logan's righteous indignation at the "rule" that says his life must end at 21. What the heck kind of society makes up a rule like that? It's ludicrous. When his mission to shatter Sanctuary becomes a mission to shatter the lie at the core of his society, I'm right there with him. It's wrong and I know it. I want him to bring it all down.

I feel a mixture of admiration and sadness for the Ticktockman. I laugh when he throws jellybeans in the walkways and jams them up. Yay! Score one for the little guy. But I'm sad for him, too, because the Ticktockman is not Logan. His society will get him in the end, and his petty acts of rebellion may not even be remembered.

Those are the moments you need to find in the stories you love — those moments that stir something inside you, that make you want to laugh or cry or scream or jump up and down with excitement. Those reactions — emotional, raw, without forethought — let you know you're dowsing close to the pure water. It takes time and effort, but once you find it, the supply is inexhaustible.

Yes, I believe your true subject does find you. But you can do some looking, too. Maybe you'll meet each other halfway. In the meantime, you'll discover amazing things about yourself — things that may very well influence you to change your behavior, and therefore change your life for the better.

©2008 David Duggins. All rights reserved.

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