Q&A With Aaron, February 2019

By March 1, 2019 Writing

All answers can be found on my Quora here.

Q: How can a fiction writer balance between contrived actions and natural unfolding?

A: The answer to this is simple (but hard in the execution):

It’s all in the writing.

We understand that fiction must be more believable than real life in order to be believable at all, so I understand the problem of making a more interesting “contrived action” believable when it wouldn’t otherwise happen, or it’s likelihood is…well… unlikely.

But improbable things happen all the time. The only thing that defines what’s “contrived” or “natural” in your book (or short story, poem, whatever you’re writing) is how you’ve written your characters, how you defined your world, and how the universe you created is being presented to the reader.

My recommendation to balance contrived actions and natural unfolding is to begin with your characters. Do you have well thought-out characters that are living, breathing people? You can test this by imagining hypothetical situations in which you can place your characters, and seeing how they would react. If you’re still not sure how they would react, then you still have some work to do on their development.

A reader will feel an action is contrived when it is unnatural to the character (not in their natural behavior) or “uncharacteristic” of them, or the world they inhabit.

A good writer will be able to present even the most fantastic of actions or events in such a way that the reader will pass through it un-phased.

If you know you’re building toward a big climax, or an important scene that you feel might come off as contrived, you must begin the preparations many chapters in advance. Lay breadcrumbs of your characters’ though process, habits, and personality so when you finally get to the big moment, both you and your reader go, “of course!”

 

Q: I am able to write very convincingly and confidently. However I am poor at doing the same when speaking, especially on the spot — how can I improve?

A: Practice. Practice. Practice.

How did you get so good at writing convincingly and confidently? I doubt you just sat down one day and realized you were a pro. I’m guessing it probably took years and years of practice and making mistakes, the same is true for public speaking.

The reason why it’s much harder to do with public speaking is because you can’t print out your performance and analyze it like you can a manuscript. Sure, you can record your voice, or make a video, but we are naturally averse to listening to ourselves, and we can’t objectively critique our voice or performance. Also, the “little things” in a performance, the pathos, the feelings, are lost in a recording.

What you need to do is get at least one or two other people, or even a large group if you have the opportunity, and just speak. The key to getting better, however, is to ask for critiques. Do this in two ways:

  1. Ask the people listening beforehand to listen for things that you can do better. What mistakes do you make regularly? What words trip you up? Do you have a nervous tick you repeat over and over again? While small things like that may not seem big to you, they can really stop an audience from listening to your message, instead of focusing on how you’re presenting.
  2. Ask those listening to tell you what your strength is. This doesn’t mean to get them to compliment everything you did well, it means to find your strength. Are you good at telling stories? Do you have impressive inflection? Do you channel emotion into your speaking? Whatever your strength seems to be, focus on that, make it the core of your speaking, then once you’re comfortable with that, branch into other areas.

For example: my nervous tick is putting my hands in my pockets, I didn’t notice it myself, but once someone pointed it out to me, I notice it each time I do it now and immediately stop. I find something else for my hands to do. On the other hand, I was told I’m very good at drawing an audience into somber or serious stories, that I use whispering very effectively. When they told me that, I used it more and more, and focused on it until it came naturally in my preparations.

If you can do these basic things, it should be just like improving any other talent or skill and can prepare any public address quickly, and speak confidently when put on the spot. It’s really no different.

 

Q: How does a good writer keep himself/herself from regurgitating the same ideas every time he/she writes?

A: There are lots of tips and tricks, hacks, and “one thing great writers do” in order to get great inspiration every time they sit down to write. But if you’re going to get any help with your problem (regurgitating the same ideas) you’ll need to realize something first:

No writer has ever avoided reusing old ideas. Go read the comments by C.S. Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Neil Gaiman, or any other author. They all have complained about writer’s block, reusing old ideas, or hating what they write. No author has sat down and had a bolt of pure inspiration every single time.

Anybody who says they have is lying.

I like to imagine Homer (in my opinion, the greatest author of all time) banging his head against a column because he didn’t have any good ideas for weeks.

But there is a simple solution that works, every time, and for everyone: write more.

Think about writing like using a pump or a hose after it has sat around unused for days, weeks, or even months. When you turn it on for the first time in a long time, there will be dirt, debris, air, and even living things that come spurting out, followed by dirty, warm water, which is finally followed by the cool clean water.

The longer you go without writing, the more the same ideas circulate in your head, you muse over a great line you wrote, or the event you’re trying to resolve. All the authors in the world got over this by sitting down, pumping out those old ideas, and kept writing until the new, cool, clean ideas finally appear on the page.

The longer you write, and the more frequently you write, the less time there will be for the dirty “build-up” to fill your mind. Instead, you will be a clean, fresh-flowing pump of ideas (not always good, but at least new).

 

Aaron J. Webber

Author Aaron J. Webber

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