3 Things That Successful Writers Need To Do
There’s obviously a place for writers just writing without paying any attention to any kind of need to communicate to readers.
First drafts are all about opening up the writer’s heart. If any kinds of qualifications are put on what a writer ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ do in this early stage, then the core of the story may evade capture - the depths may be unplumbed, the centre of the whole thing might not be discovered. First drafts are exploratory, adventurous, free. 'Write until you drop, and don’t ‘self-edit’ on any level', would be the mantra for this stage.
But, as when mining for gold, not all that is unearthed in that initial process is going to be useful or even interesting when it comes to communication or success. In fact, stretching the analogy, we can see that probably the majority of the material turned out into the open when mining in this way is not what one is looking for.
This is when the editor steps in.
He or she is at first (or should be) the proxy reader. A trained editor, though, should be able to immediately sift through the material upturned in the first draft and see the glimmers of gold.
Perhaps the most fundamental error that an editor can make is to let the writer write without regard to the effectiveness of his or her communication - or, in other words, to accept a first draft as a final draft. Some editors can let writers write and write and write and write and run out of ideas and then write some more and write and write and write until one wonders where if anywhere that editor had been trained. Such an editor could not know the meaning of the word ‘communication’ or the process of getting a story from a writer’s heart to a reader’s.
The dictionary defines ‘communicate’ as ‘share or exchange information, news, or ideas’. The word comes from the early 16th century, from the Latin communicat- ‘shared’, which is linked to the word ‘common’. That’s the key: to spend hours writing in order to unearth the raw material of what is in one’s mind and soul is a necessary first step; isolating the gold of the ideas, images, themes and impact that form the heart of a story is a necessary second step - finding out how to share that with others is a vital third step. And the sharing depends on discovering and utilising what the writer has ‘in common’ with the reader.
So it goes:
1. Write without inhibitions to dredge up and bring to the surface the raw material from which a tale can be forged.
2. Using an editor who knows the field, identify the elements which form the nucleus of the story.
3. Using the factors held in common with readers, transfer the essence of the story from the writer to the reader.
Many writers think that all that they have to do is 1. above. Writing the first draft can be an emotional journey, an ordeal, a quest which many never succeed in accomplishing because either logistical barriers get in their way or the thing is just too damned hard to complete. But that’s really only the beginning.
Largely because a first draft is interwoven with the emotional experiences of the author, it is difficult to accomplish step 2. on one’s own. Step 1. has usually been so exhausting that the idea that a great deal of that work has succeeded in doing nothing but upturning material which needs to be thrown away is something that many writers find difficult to accept. Also, editors who can reliably differentiate between ‘gold’ and rubbish are rare. But the more that those elements which make a story successful can be separated out from those which do not, obviously the easier the next step will be.
Moving on to step 3., unless the writer is able to identify and use those things which the reader holds in common with him or her, then the first two steps will have been largely wasted. They may have had some therapeutic effects upon the writer, but few readers will want to read the work.
What is meant by ‘held in common’ in this instance?
Well, it starts fairly obviously: writers must use, for example, an alphabet of symbols recognisable to readers. Writers must also use a vocabulary of words which readers will grasp without having to reach for a dictionary in every sentence; the syntax and grammar and punctuation will also need to be things which are accepted by both parties.
That’s just the surface mechanics, though. There is another level of elements which writers and readers normally hold in common: things which are perhaps more intangible and elusive until you glimpse them for what they are. Once you see them, you also see that they are virtually universal.
I’m talking about the character archetypes and plot devices used by master authors throughout the ages. From the ‘Wise Old Figure’ to the ‘Dark-Hearted Antagonist’, and from the carefully established opening to the climactic conclusion, these elements crop up in almost every story ever written: they are in fact so woven into the fabric of fiction that they are often completely invisible to the naked eye, like the fine weave of a tapestry when viewed from a distance.
Even writers who rebel and defy the existence of such things usually end up using them in some way. Why? Because unless they do, stories never manage to bridge the gap between the writer and reader and a story fails. Use these things skilfully and a reader will not quite consciously notice their use while busily accepting everything that you are transmitting to their minds and hearts through them.
It’s all rather fascinating. And the bare bones of it are covered in my book How Stories Really Work.