How Baby Writers Become Big Writers

I’m a firm believer that the best way to grow as a writer, other than writing itself, is by living life. For one thing, how can we hope to adequately write about love and loss if we haven’t experienced it ourselves? But also, the world is full of stories. Every person is a storyteller. To learn to tell a good story, you need to immerse yourself in stories of all kinds. This is one of the reasons I don’t understand writers who say they don’t watch television or movies. My medium is always the written word, but I appreciate stories in all forms. I think watching good television can do just as much for your storytelling skills as reading a book.

There have been three things in recent years that have fundamentally changed who I am as a writer. I mean, there have been many more than three, but there are three I want to talk about.

The first is travel.

My first research trip

A few years ago, 2010 I think, I decided I was enough of a ‘real’ writer to go on a research trip. I wanted to write something creepy, so I picked the creepiest place I could think of to visit, my grandparent’s old place in Wiseman’s Ferry. I gathered my husband and a couple of friends and looked at a map. The Sydney Blue Mountains were kind of (not really) on the way and I’d never been so we decided to head there first.

The Blue Mountains took my breath away. The natural beauty is astounding, and the history, combined with the fog that blankets the place every night, gave the area a tremendous amount of atmosphere and mystery.

The next day we drove on to Wiseman’s Ferry, but it was Katoomba and the Blue Mountains that really stole my heart.

It was this trip that helped me understand one of my biggest drives as a writer and a reader. I’m not satisfied with a story unless it has a firm sense of place. Atmosphere and setting are often the first thing I know about my stories, and until I have that element, I can’t start. To me, setting is so much apart of the tone of the novel. I mean, think of Stephen King’s stories. The forests and towns and people of Maine are fundamental to all his novels. All my favorite stories have a tremendous sense of place.

Until I traveled to the Blue Mountains I really didn’t understand how much setting could affect my stories. Every trip I’ve taken since then has been about gathering ideas, getting a feel for places, understanding what makes places stand out. And now when I start a story I don’t have to waste time wondering why it just doesn’t feel right. I know it all comes down to setting.

The second thing that changed me as a writer is all because of my lovely husband, who introduced me to the world of video games.

My favorite game

The way I feel about video games is pretty similar to how I feel about TV. A story is a story and it’s all helpful to your development as a storyteller. But video games are different in that you are just that much more immersed in the world of the story. Watching TV is a passive activity, and yes, so is reading, but I think as writers we should strive for that video game-like immersion for the reader.

Laini Taylor referred to it as the fictional dream in reference to Stephanie Perkin’s Anna and the French Kiss (which I just read and HOLY MOLY).

I know I haven’t mastered it yet, but video games have helped me understand that feeling a little more. And the more I play games, watch TV and read books, the more I see what works and doesn’t work for me as a consumer of stories.

Lastly, I’ve spoken of my love of Veronica Mars. A lot. Well, that show taught me something that has fundamentally affected my writing.

Girl detective!

There’s this oft-told tale about the first season of Veronica Mars. All the way along, the writers were setting the scene for Veronica and her ex-boyfriend Duncan to get back together. But then Logan Echolls came along. Logan is not a nice guy. He has serious problems and he’s incredibly unlikeable. Veronica and Logan had serious chemistry.

What’s a writer to do? Follow the chemistry, of course.

When you’ve written something big it can be really hard to see past the words on the page. Even when you know something isn’t working, it’s so darn hard to press delete. But you need to follow the chemistry. Take an honest look at what you’ve written, get rid of what isn’t working and figure out how to make what DOES work just that much more awesome.

With this novel in particular, I’ve had to make some hard decisions. I’ve gotten rid of characters I loved because they didn’t work in the story (this would be an example of killing your darlings). I’m currently changing from dual perspective to single. In fact, the main character and concept I originally devised on that first trip to the Blue Mountains are completely different now.

Interestingly enough, the two things that have stayed the same are the setting and tone.

Veronica Mars taught me to follow the chemistry.

So, I’d love to know, what has televisions, games, books or living taught you about your writing?



How Baby Writers Become Big Writers

2 thoughts on “How Baby Writers Become Big Writers

  1. Oooooh, I ❤ this blog post. My favorite part might be the inspiration that came to you through the setting of your trip for your novel, because I'm also very inspired by setting. Getting out and experiencing different things and very important to me.

    Maybe because of that–and because I don't have one of those TiVo thingies–I try to avoid getting hooked into TV shows until I can get the whole season from the library. I hate the idea of not being able to do something else because my favorite TV show is on. But I know this will change when the new Downton Abbey season starts because I got SO HOOKED watching the DVDs from the library. I'm a little afraid.

    I'm not a fan of gaming (or even board games or cards) but another thing I love even more than TV shows is movies, especially foreign or indie ones that go deep. I especially love how you have those 2-3 hours to take the audience somewhere, tear them apart, and then resolve everything (or not). And lots of movies were originally novels anyway, so it's interesting to watch how the screenwriters bring them to life.

    So awesome to hear your experiences!

    1. bethanyrsmith says:

      I loved reading about your love of TV and movies. I’m with you on the getting hooked, though. I try to use media as my reward for writing. Video games especially are so all-consuming and take up so much time that I don’t play them unless as a reward for finishing a draft.

      Oh, and I can totally see the influence of foreign movies and travel in your writing. Iceland next, right?

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