Patterns and Prose

The other day, I stumbled upon a thought-provoking article by Alexander Nazaryan titled Why Writers Should Learn Math.  It was a persuasive article discussing the abstract and imaginative thinking needed for higher level mathematics and how that style of thinking benefits an author’s writing.  Before you throw the book at me, let me start by saying mathematics is so much more than numbers.  It goes far beyond what is taught in high school.  I am not going to recap the article.  It is linked above so you can read and interpret it for yourself.  However, I would like to add a few points to the discussion.

All stories have structure and repetition.  Beautifully complex stories are interwoven layers of the same structure and repetition applied over and over again.  In fact, that is the approach the Snowflake Method is based upon.  Consider how much more meaningful it is if the theme of your story did not just play out in the overall storyline, but also in the details and characters throughout the story.  (In case you didn’t already know, snowflakes are complex geometric shapes that are formed through the repetition of the same pattern.  They are fractals.)

Another mathematical concept that is useful for structuring a story is symmetry.  Repeating the same sentiment at the beginning and the end of the story creates symmetry.  The added depth is a result of the character’s shift in perception in the end.  The character no longer views the context the same, and that implicitly alters the meaning of the sentiment.

The structure of a story isn’t the only place repetition and symmetry work together to add depth and create interest.  When the protagonist and antagonist both have the same values, personality traits, and even the same goal, it produces a sort of symmetry. The line between the two blurs, mimicking real life.  It makes your characters more relatable.  What sets them apart is the lengths to which they will go and the methods they will employ to obtain their goal.

Whether you love or hate math, there is a benefit to understanding the abstract concepts behind the applications and computations that some students learn to dread.

Making Improvements

There is no mythical point at which it isn’t necessary to invest in learning.  There is always room for improvement and something new to learn or understand at each stage.  Embrace it and love it.

The Beginning

When I began to write my first story, I imagined the result and how it would all come together.  I didn’t think about the process of writing itself.  The concept of learning about how to write seemed like a waste of time, time that was better spent working to achieve the result.  After all, it was only logical that if a person knew how to write, then they didn’t need to learn how to write?  Right?

Wrong. That sort of logic is flawed.  There is a difference between knowing how to write (technical execution) and knowing how to write for effect (execution of artistic expression).

Since that time, I have dedicated myself to learning the craft.  My writing is better for it.  Here are a few things that helped me improve (and continue to improve).

Writing Methods

A writing method is how you write a story.  Some people are plotters. Some are pansters.

Pansters have a basic idea of what they envision, and they work from there.  They spend little time and effort on planning before they write.  If it works for you, that’s great.  I tried it when I first started, but it didn’t work for me.

Plotters use a method of planning and outlining before they write.  This approach was the main reason that I was able to go from poems and short stories to a full-length novel.  Before, I found myself struggling to get past the midpoint in a story.  Sometimes, I had the beginning, the midpoint, and the ending but I found it difficult to form the moments that linked the three.   Writer’s block found me at every turn.  And if it wasn’t writer’s block, my story seemed flat in some areas.  All my struggles didn’t disappear because I started planning beforehand.  However, using methods that required me to plan first minimized the problems I had experienced.  It also taught me how to overcome similar obstacles as I encounter them.

I use a combination of the Snowflake method and the approach outlined in The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt.  Both are character-centric approaches.  There are other methods out there.  I recommend finding the one that works for you.

Prose, not Poetry

Writing a story is not like writing poetry.  When you write a poem, adverbs and adjectives seem to be your best friends.  When you write a story, avoid the little devils.  I am not saying you shouldn’t ever use an adverb or adjective again, they will find their way into your writing, and sometimes they need to be there.  But I am saying to avoid them.  Instead, learn to write so that the reader feels their own emotions in the scene.  Show the reader what is happening.  Recreate how the mind deals with emotional situations.  Don’t tell them what to feel.  When you are experiencing an emotional moment in life, are your thoughts describing your emotions to you or is your mind fixating on the situation and the world around you?

Read a Lot

Read stories you enjoy, whether or not they are in the genre you write.  Books that are well received make great case studies for learning how to master the art of storytelling.  If they are well written, it will help increase your vocabulary (a must) and improve your writing skills.

Read about writing.  There is more than one way to approach writing a story, and everyone seems to do it differently.  The best way to find what works for you is to keep learning.  Even if you read half a dozen books or articles on the same subject, you might learn from one what you didn’t learn from another.  I have found this especially true when reading articles and blogs.

One Last Thing to Consider

If you are writing for fame and fortune, don’t.  Few writers ever gain fame and fortune and there are easier ways to achieve it.  If you can even get paid for your writing, it will likely not be much compared to the amount of time you have to put into it.

I spend several hours a day writing, reading about writing, thinking about writing, and working to hone my craft.  I am an unpaid pencil jockey under the control of fictional characters in a world where labor laws don’t exist.  And my boss is a collection of merciless taskmasters I created who emotionally drain me.  But quitting is not an option and fail is a word that doesn’t exist.  Because I love it.

To continue to improve, we must continue to learn.