This was written for someone that asked me for writing advice once. I’m only posting it now because I have been told it was helpful. I don’t feel qualified to give writing tips. I have written a few terrible technical books, okay tutorials, and a popular blog post about being mentally ill once. That doesn’t make me feel qualified to give writing advice at all, but I guess no writer ever feels qualified.
One time someone asked me “who are you?” and I replied "seventh". They laughed and one of them said "I feel that". They thought I was making some deep commentary on the middle school experience, but really my brain had malfunctioned. I had been constantly asked what grade I was in that evening and I had lost the ability to distinguish questions. For weeks and even years after that humans at youth group called me "seventh".
Questions about who you are just get harder. No one knows what to put in the “About Me” section. When confronted with it, we long for times when we could describe ourselves as our grade. Who are you?
The most powerful lesson you will ever learn for writing is that everything is a story; even non-fiction. I don’t mean that everything is magical or fantastical, has swashbuckling pirates and dragons, puns about King Arthur, a princess named Buttercup, or time traveling women hooking up with hot bearded Scottish men. I just mean that everything fits a story, even stuff that doesn’t have a story is given one by the reader.
Take the driest most non-fiction information imaginable, for example, the weather; none of us looks up the weather for the weather, we look it up because it fits into a story, our own narrative. We might plan to ski on Sunday, or go to the beach on the Friday, or want to dance with a girl in the rain on Thursday. We give the weather meaning. We know that if it is cold we will need a sweater, if it is going to be hot we might need to skip the skiing, and if it is going to rain we will need to change our romantic gesture to win over the manic pixie rollerblading dream girl from a picnic to like meeting under and umbrella at 3:30. Weather is just the information we use tell our own the story. Non-fiction is just as much as a story as any fiction, non-fiction just lets the reader tell more of it.
Non-fiction questions like “About Me” are hard because readers come to you with a thousand expectations. Who is this human? Where are they going? Why do I keep seeing these gnomes? Do I have ball cancer? Is it gonna rain? IS NO ONE ELSE SEEING THESE GOD DAMN GNOMES?!!! I hope they give a talk and open up about how they two see the gnomes. Or maybe at least some tips on folding paper towels or something.
Non-fiction stories are the hardest to tell. You cant just throw in some gnomes, some dragons or like a mysterious delivery of yellow bouncy balls every month for 8 years followed by a single red one at which point the delivery stops. Non-fiction has to answer questions. The first step, is to figure out the questions then tell a story around them.
All the tools you would use to tell a story are the same ones you should be using to write non-fiction.
I think most struggle with non-fiction because they are terrible at picking out the real questions. When asked “who are you?” The default response is; I’m a male hominid, have four limbs, from the planet earth, 6’3, 240 pounds, loves animals and helping creatures, likes pizza and sushi, eats too much pizza.
When we ask dry questions we are inspired to write dry things. Good writing is about asking the right questions. Once you ask the right questions then everything flows. The right questions for anything are the same questions you would ask for fiction, only about you or the thing.
How would a novel answer "who is x"? They wouldn’t tell us with facts and stats, they would show who they are through a story.
This can be hard, because few of us our taught to be good storytellers. Fortunately, all of us have heard a lot of stories, because as you might recall, everything is story. All we need is a few pointers to pull out storytelling techniques and everything just "clicks". We know what a good story looks like (which is why we suffer from blocks, if we didn’t know the story was bad we’d have no blocks, we’d just write the dry versions). All it takes is a bit of practice to bring our taste and skill closer.
Every character story is a hero’s journey. Every story about anyone ever can be broken down into the following;
- A character is in a zone of comfort,
- But they want something.
- They enter an unfamiliar situation,
- Adapt to it,
- Get what they wanted,
- Pay a heavy price for it,
- Then return to their familiar situation,
- Having changed.
Read this for more http://channel101.wikia.com/wiki/Story_Structure_101:_Super_Basic_Shit
Even non-fiction fits this, especially personal narratives. Take for example, a college application.
- Bob is stuck at home
- Bob wants to save and help animals
- They intend to enter college
- Learn to adult
- Change the world
- Get student debt
- Return to their life
- With world changing skills and a lot of debt, like seriously a lot of debt
I know, this all sounds way oversimplified. Even stories can come with huge writer’s block. That chick that wrote To Kill a Mockingbird took like 40 years to write a sequel. And that guy that wrote that book about that angry teen catching things in a wheat field? He like never wrote another thing, like ever.
The secret to every story is that it is made of smaller stories. The smaller the story the more obvious it is to write. You just have to break up the story into smaller and smaller parts. Get the story small enough and it will write itself. Anyone can write what the weather is.
We are all storytellers. Figure out the story. Try to tell a good one.
P.S The essays by Chuck Palahniuk are the best things I have ever read on writing