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When the term “fledgling writer” is used, the mind’s eye conjures up a fresh-eyed college graduate ready to conquer the literary world. Yet that designation fits a retiree fresh from the working world as well. In the latter case, all of the energy stored up from college lies dormant during a career, until the prospect of free days without end leads back to that wellspring.

In the mash of feelings about literature—an aspiration and/or admiration shared by a wide body of the public—opinions about what constitutes a good story can meld with a lifetime of related experiences. I once talked to someone, for instance, who equated writing a human resources manual with writing a novel. While this is an extreme example, I commonly come across novels packed with material that seems bereft of true soul.

If the process of learning how to write can be likened to approaching a tiger, it is not surprising that inexperienced authors fall back on old standbys as they forge their uncertain way forward. A former banker, for instance, might portray a young character who approaches a mentor with questions about what banking really is, or what constitutes a good loan. A former journalist might go on for pages about the inside doings around the nation’s Capitol—without any character required at all. Meanwhile, the tiger is still growling.

That’s because wrestling with the tiger means exposing tender feelings that most people spend their careers hiding. A primal yell will not be well received in a quarterly meeting, even when the boss deserves to be drawn and quartered. All of that suppression, the sucking up to get ahead, leaves a heavy imprint that is not erased merely because boss and employee move on to Florida. Humans are reflexive animals, after all, and after years of training we too sit up and beg.

A writer fresh out of college tends to err on the side of expressing too much spirit, unbridled by the needs of the characters. The mature adult suffers the opposite problem. They must start first with a lead character. The central question is: what makes the character tick? Forget about the surroundings, the life lessons. Who is this person, and why would anyone else care about what they do?

Older writers have a tremendous advantage: they know all sorts of character types. When the writing starts from inside one single character, the rules of banking are instantly replaced by: the fear of making a terrible loan. One aide in the Capitol has just stepped way over the line. Start there.

Exercise: An inexperienced author too often conflates the desires of the lead character with their own desires. That leads to writing about external circumstances. Instead, spend a week writing about life experiences of the character that have nothing to do with your experiences—and why the character would do such crazy things.

“You don't think anyone who lives an ordinary life has plenty of trouble and torment to write about?”
—David Shields

Copyright @ 2020, John Paine

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