You might find this hard to believe, but I don’t really feel like writing today. Or at least I don’t feel like “just” writing. The pursuit of greatness sometimes involves sitting still and thinking, and I’ve done my share of that this afternoon. I want to present something that might be a bit unexpected from me.
You might be shocked to see the picture of gemstones on this page, or more surprised that I spent about half an hour researching various famous gems before drafting this up. What do gemstones have to do with the writing process? Everything, it turns out.
Raw minerals are the source of these valuables, the unrealized ideas of the jewelry world. Extraction of crystallized rock, and it’s appreciation the inspiration. Rough shaping the first draft. Faceting is editing, and polishing is the final presentation. The cover, the blurb, the setting.
I’ve been struggling with a story idea for years now, a story that I feel only I can write, a story that nobody else can possibly tell, because it requires a certain set of skills, training, and work. I think that every masterpiece ever created fits somewhere into this category. A way that a writer can reveal the same idea in stark contrast to everything else on the shelf, because she knows each critical piece.
This isn’t about ego.
I’m not saying that I’m the best writer, far from it, but I’ve spent ten years learning my craft, and only recently have I become optimistic about my ability to put up the needed prose. As for the other essential elements of the story, it isn’t that I’m the definitive expert on any one of them. I couldn’t be, because each angle, each facet that I need to cut, could be studied for a lifetime and never perfected, just as writing cannot be perfected.
But, the collage of ideas, ideals, philosophies, and observations that I ultimately hope to present to the reader in my future Magnum Opus are all elements that I show proficiency in. In other words, it isn’t about being the best person to write every story, it’s choosing a story at which I am expert enough in every element to write.
Do you guys ever think about this?
Since this blog is mostly read by other writers, I wonder how many out there consider this before starting a draft on a new book. Have you actually shaped the story or idea in such a way that you are the perfect, perhaps the only, person who is qualified to write it?
In today’s (actually yesterday as this is posted) meditation, I’ve gone back to an old idea and re-examined it. In a way, I chose the story, but in another, it’s chosen me. I’ve shaped a rough idea around only important elements of my own lifetime of study. Because of that, the story has evolved in my mind over the years, and it’s been adapted to the point where it’s become a reflection of my own life, my pain, my progress, my triumphs and failures, my soul. I’m the only expert on my soul, and I think I’ve found a way to showcase something both important and perennial in a way that will resonate with readers.
I’ve found my soul mate in a story.
When is it coming out?
Maybe never. I don’t know. To be clear, I’m not talking about Incorporated, Stone’s Shadow, or any of the other titles currently on my writing plate. I believe in all of them. I’m even deluded enough to think that the upcoming horror book may be the best monster story ever written. What can I say? I like everything about that book. Every damn detail. But as great as I think it is, I don’t think it can ever truly be my “life’s work.”
To be fair, I may find another “life’s work” idea after I finish the book I’m talking about, or after scratching out the first draft (still planning on doing that step quickly), it may spend years or even decades in editing limbo until I’m happy enough to release it. I’ll probably put out another dozen or two books and kindle shorts before releasing it. Incorporated was drafted in 2015, just as an example.
How to Create something Truly Permanent
Gemstones like the one pictured above are a lot of work. There are people out there that think they come out of the ground already faceted perfectly and passed on, believe it or not. But when something like the Blue Heart Diamond comes out of the ground, it’s just a shiny lump of rock. That’s very similar to a story.
The reason I urge authors to sort out the first draft quickly, is because it’s essentially akin to digging in the dirt until you pull up the right rock. An idea is great, but a realized idea (a first draft) is something that can be shaped and molded into a final product.
It’s the ONLY way a story can be molded into a final product.
So many details and tie-ups in Viral Spark actually came through the process of iteration. The original short story, the philosophical insight and engineering knowledge to visualize a very different kind of artificial intelligence. The whole novella-making process times three as the series was written. Realizing running threads that were finally exploited and tied together in the final novel version. Etc. The creative process is about iteration and hard work.
It’s about giving a story time to pick out all the details and dark alleyways.
It’s doing the work.
In order for a book to ever become a classic, it needs to be dense enough that it requires a second read, it doesn’t simple want for one.
But all of this starts with an idea and a story.
So refine the idea as much as you can while outlining and researching, and then hit the damn go button, and get a first draft on paper or stored as a file.
Going from First Draft to Final Draft
I plan on finding a few choice readers to help me on this project after the first draft, but ultimately much of the editing process, as always, will be tying every bit of story together as a cohesive whole. With the new work, I plan on doing this to death.
I tend to think of most books as stories, and that’s what they are. A masterpiece, a true literary revolution, can only be cast when every element in the story is in some way important to the whole. With Viral Spark, there were connections that I didn’t make until the final novel version (which it why it took me a year to simply stick three novellas together and call it a novel).
For a long time, I considered that book to be my masterpiece, but now I move on to something greater. Do the same thing again, but better in every possible way.
When I say every element of a story, that’s exactly what I mean.
“Writing” is only ONE part of the writing process. The ability to deliver poetic prose isn’t enough. Neither is memorizing the CMOS. Neither is perfect grammar and the ability to free a text of typos.
A truly great piece of literature requires a deep, profound, and fundamental understanding of some singular component of the human condition or more. What it feels like to be a mother, a priest, a friend, a victim, a leader, a teacher, etc. Whatever element of the human condition you wish to present, you better know it well if you really want to make an impression.
A stance on what you seek to change is important as well. For my book, that’s grit. My stories mostly take place in mundane settings, because I’m very down to earth, and grounded perspectives thrill me in a book more than exotic eccentricity. I want to believe that these stories could very well be real, even if they’re magical. Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but I like real grit, and real life, and as an underrepresented concept in this industry, that is the niche I plan to work. It’s not about selling a billion copies, it’s about making a definitive work in a specific area, at least to me.
Strike that, THE definitive work.
What’s your niche?
Any story can include elements that can be researched with wiki, and that will only be a minor annoyance to most readers, especially non-essential points to the plot. In the story I’m planning, in a masterpiece, a reflection of the story should be seen in the details of the finer points, and that means direct experience (if possible) in each of those details. You don’t need to be the world’s top expert in every field, and nobody is expecting that, but getting your hands dirty and knowing those bits well enough to connect them to the story arc is, I think, essential.
Disagree if you like. I might be wrong on this.
The good news is, this doesn’t have to be something you need to spend five years learning (though in this case, that’s about how much time I’ve invested in study of the principal research area of my book idea). Ideally, if you’ve chosen the story and plot for YOUR masterpiece, these should be areas that you are already an expert in.
I know a lot of authors that can knit some pretty out-there things. Creative people generally aren’t only creative in one facet of their life. Find your areas of expertize, and build the story around those. This will not only reduce research time, but through metaphor and analogy, you will see the connections between them reflected in your own thoughts and actions, and in those of everyone around you.
You won’t have to hunt to see the aspect of the human condition that you should write your masterpiece about.
It’ll be revealed as a part of YOU,
one that you can see in everyone around you.
A problem to solve.
The best way to write non-fiction is to solve a problem. This is why it sells so well. But what if a fiction work could not only point out a flaw or point of suffering in the human condition, but also give the reader a path to solve it or overcome it in their own life?
What if your work of fiction could actually improve someone’s life?
Who Moved My Cheese and Life’s Golden Ticket come to mind. Thanks, John, for the recommendations. While these are stories specifically designed around non-fiction ideas, what if we could iterate from the other direction? Classic works like Scrooge and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde could almost be seen as warnings or instruction manuals for better living, even though though there’s no question of their fictional nature.
Find a problem, and solve it for the reader. Do this while entertaining them, and they’ll likely never forget the story. It’s the kind of thing that should share itself. I love stuffing elements of this kind of thing into my books, but I’m not sure I’ve ever constructed the theme in a way that I’m considering now, as a central running idea. A step by step way for the reader to climb out of their own darkness as much as the main character does. A reflection of the MC’s struggle in the reader, and through overcoming it, the fictional character also helps the reader solve their own internal struggle.
That’s a tall order
Sure as hell is, but I’m not writing all these stories only to amuse myself, and I’m definitely not trying to get rich. There’s easier ways to do that. I love all my stories, even though they aren’t all masterpieces. But.
Every artist, if he/she is to grow, must constantly push their own boundaries. To seek greatness or perfection is to pursue personal development and find the path toward a true masterpiece, even if the seeker never truly finds it. There should always be a masterpiece that you strive to one day create, and through practice, persistence, and gradual perfection of each facet of yourself, every facet of your stories will improve.
Your stories are a mirror of your own accomplishments. As you gain experience, they will get better, so keep writing them. I don’t plan to push everything else to the side for this one book. I’ll work on it as I work on all the others, taking breaks between edits for other things. Gentle refinement, over and over, until it’s right, and then I’ll release it when I think the masterpiece is complete.
And I’ll promptly start work on the next.
I encourage you to do the same with your art.
Crafting a Diamond Heart
In going through all of this meditation today, I couldn’t help but think of the work that goes into crafting anything so carefully. I went on a quest to find a gem that reflected not only the lasting nature of a masterpiece, but the work and pursuit of perfection that goes into such a creation. According to the Smithsonian, the diamond began 100 carat rough stone. It’s shape was certainly a result of not only making a beautiful piece, but most certainly decided on as a way to use a lot of that rough piece. In nature, diamonds don’t always shape themselves well to how we would like them displayed. The final product weighs 30.62 carats, less than a third of the stone it was cut from.
Since it was crafted and polished in 1910, not a single thing has changed with the stone, only the setting, and it remains one of the most famous rocks in the world. Protected by its beauty and value, even if someone swiped or purchased it from the museum it currently resides in, I doubt anyone would break it apart or re-cut it. It will endure. It’s a masterpiece for not only the many jewelers that have made settings for it over the last century, but also for it’s crafter, and even the diggers that pulled it from the dirt, the first ones to see its potential as a single setting instead of busting it into smaller rounds or ovals to minimize waste.
The same care and beauty can be seen in any true masterpiece, from the concept that keeps you up at night, to an exciting first draft, to the tedium of interconnecting every piece of plot and prose until the final product is polished to perfection with an irresistible title and cover. A true masterpiece will always be treasured and loved by anyone fortunate enough to experience it, either as a photograph of a famous diamond, or the first read through a great piece of literature.