The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Third Commandment of Writing

3)Start with simple before you try complex.

I really can't overemphasize this.  Let me give you
a physical example from weight training.  Did you
know that you could work out every day, become
the strongest person in the world, and yet never
win a championship?  Simple.  All you'd have to do
is put just one pound more than you can lift on the
bar.  And the bar won't move.  The guy next to you,
more savvy about his limitations, places an appropriate
but smaller amount--and lifts it.  You lose.  He wins.

It's not fair, and it happens every day.  You are just
beginning your career.  More likely, you are in a stage
of "advanced education"--not actually in your career
yet, just learning.  You've spent the last ten years
reading complex, challenging novels.  Now it's your
turn.  Shall you write a complex, challenging novel?

NO!  This would be like training to run a marathon by
running 25 miles, your first time out of the blocks. 
You'll kill yourself.  Only a "natural" marathoner can
do such a thing (if they even exist!).  But almost
anyone can train to finish that full distance if they take
it slowly.

And this is what you must do. Start with the well-plotted
story before you go for the literary flavor.  Write short
stories before you try novels.  Use single protagonists
before you try multiple POV.  Use simple structure
before you try something fractured and experimental.

I know, I're bursting to show the world all
you can do.  But if you want to learn to juggle, do you
start with six chainsaws, or three scarves?  Beware
your death instinct, the part of us that (in a healthy
person) exists to kill our egos.  It can also motivate
you to self-destructive behaviors, including
over-stretching your skills. 

For your first five published stories, or your first
novel--seek simplicity.  You have a lifetime to show

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