A Writer's Basic Ingredients

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by Stella

I never planned to be in this strange business of giving writing tips. (I say "business" in the sense of activity rather than commerce because I'm currently not making a cent.) When I first started to write – before it dawned on me that I'd like to do this professionally – I had no master plan, no goals. No novels, no screenplays, no short stories, no searching for the perfect word or phrase, no characterization techniques, no point of view experiments, no plot structuring, no…

Sorry. I got dizzy there for a minute.

There wasn't method to my madness – just a vague notion that I was pursuing a new hobby. But over the years, as I've developed my skills, my sense of what you need in order to be a writer has developed as well. The list of ingredients has varied from time to time, and I'll probably revise it again in the future. Before unveiling my current theory, here's a little flashback to what I thought waaay back at the beginning, circa ten years ago – Stella Year 0, if you will…

Imagination 70%
Skill 30%

Perfectly simple: You make up stuff, you write it down. Also, it reflects my previous (somewhat elitist) notion that, "You can write or you can't. End of story." Thankfully, I've progressed from this superficial standpoint. Flashforward a little to Stella Year 2.67…

Imagination 45%
Skill 30%
Discipline 25%

Okay, imagination has taken quite a loss in favor of discipline – a fact which would probably give psychoanalysts a field-day – but the idea is that I started to figure out that the writing process was more complicated than the imagine-it-write-it system. Part of that is writing even when you're not in a particularly imaginative mood and forcing yourself to review what you've already written. Flashforward a little more to Stella Year 5.33…

Imagination 25%
Skill 25%
Discipline 25%
Education 25%

Once again imagination has taken a hit, and there's a new kid on the block: Education. It seemed that reading, and not just the six novels written by Jane Austen, was useful for all kinds of reasons: a) realizing that I wasn't Jane Austen; b) that there's more than one way to tell a story; and c) that there's still so much more out there that I didn't know.

I may not be the fastest of learners, but I do eventually learn – and that's the important part. Anyway, flashforward to the present, Stella Year 10.44789. By now I'm so finicky sophisticated that I've separated the list into two sub-lists, emotional and technical.

Emotionally, these are the key ingredients for being a writer:

Humility 44%
Passion 44%
Ambition 12%

Passion and ambition might seem synonymous, but I like to distinguish between the passion to write and the ambition to succeed as a writer. This undoubtedly varies a lot from writer to writer – everyone has different emotional makeup. I place ambition at 12%, putting it at slightly less than the polite percentage for tipping – just enough to keep me going but not so much that I begin to hate writing. (I was also going to factor in insanity, but that's for another post – honestly.) Humility, for me, is probably one of the most important qualities to have, because it reminds me that I have to keep trying, no matter how confident I feel about my skills at a given moment.

It's also supposed to keep me from thinking I know everything, which is bad in general, but especially bad when you're talking about creativity. Speaking of which, here's my other sub-list consisting of technical ingredients:

Creativity 13.6%
Empathy 14.6%
Observation 15%
Introspection 15%
Knowledge 14.6%
Concentration 13.6%
Discipline 13.6%

As you can see, the rather vague terms imagination and skill have broken down into more specific elements. I've given observation and introspection slightly higher numbers because they respectively refer to examining my surroundings and analyzing my own self. Empathy, you might say, belongs on the Emotional List, but in this case I treat it as a technical skill which enables getting into the mind of another person. If I put it on the Emotional List, then I'd mean it in the be-an-understanding-human-being way, and I think humility covers that.

By knowledge I mean pure book-learning, as in knowing technical definitions and having at least general background information about literature. I don't think anything will happen to you if you haven't read this play by Shakespeare, that essay by Pope, this poem by Whitman or, yes, even that novel by Austen, but being acquainted with your predecessors is a decided advantage.

So, it's two lists and three paragraphs later, and I'm now in Stella Year 10.447891. Hopefully, by the time I'm in Year 20.447891, I'll have finished that novel and a screenplay or two, and may possibly be enjoying financial and/or critical success. In the mean time, I have to work on the discipline bit, which has to counteract a fair share of procrastination. One day I will be able to kick discipline off the list, but I suspect it involves a number my unmathematical mind won't be able to grasp. Fortunately for me, math skills will never be on the list.


Anonymous said...

Oh I love this Stella, AND it made me laugh. Isn't it just the case though? Sadly I wrote 40,000 words of my 'first' novel (to date my 'only' novel) when I was still at year 0.5.... hmmm. Isn't it so, "the more you know, the more you know you don't know"...you know what I mean.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this, Stella. I found myself nodding in agreement at the start, then shaking my head later. Discipline is a must. some days writing feels like any other job and you have to knuckle down. I often write for a good half hour then the turbo kicks in and I'm writing from the heart or I'm off on one. Before that moment it can feel like wading through...through something thick - and I don't mean myself! Nice article, had me thinking on a pleasant sunday afternoon.

Stella said...

Jen & Gary - glad to have entertained you :)

Jen - I do know what you mean! It's so true. It's beyond true. It's post-true, or something like that.

Gary - I agree with you. I meant the zero discipline thing as a utopian vision of myself wherein writing is as easy and as natural as breathing in and out. (Did I just say utopian vision of myself? Yeesh.)

Mike French said...

I Think creativity should be higher at 13.7% Stella or even 13.75% -

great article and I fully expect that in 5 years you will have 10 sections each with 10 points each then subdivided into 10 again and so on and so on!

In fact it could even be a pop up book - and you can make your fame and fortune and prob distort space and time in the process.

Stella said...

I sense a mocking tone in your words, sir.


Unknown said...

Humility should not be on my list, because I'm already convinced I'm no good. In fact, I allow 1/2 hour for arguing, "Come on, you can do it! Put your badness to the test or nobody's gonna believe it."
Nonetheless, at first my ambition was overwhelming. Now it's dead or possibly cryonically frozen. I don't expect to be published in a book. If people read what I write on the internet: Well, to me, that's the real miracle of technology!

The rest are critical. Except I don't think the formula needs to add up. Imagination is infinite. With enough discipline, education, skill (and practice), anyone can tap into it. Imagination's out there, waiting for us, and free for all. (Even if you're so bad you're riding that trajectory till the apocryphal day when opposites converge.)

Mike French said...

See our side bar poll to vote for which of Stella's ten ingredients you think are the most important!

Stella said...

Kathleen, you really shouldn't argue with yourself about posting. Just post! I'm sure everyone here would agree you don't need to be shy :)

I never really thought of the formula not adding up. Then again, my reasoning isn't exactly empirical...