Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Secret Ingredient

Recently I’ve seen a lot of forums, websites and discussions talking about the “secret ingredient” in fiction; the elusive element that will instantly turn any schlock into a best-seller and bring the author fame and fortune.

Is it angst? Is it dystopia? Is it an emotionally unavailable vampire? Or perhaps some idiot with a zipper mask? What do I need to insert into my novel to make it suddenly awesome? What formula do I follow to create this ‘secret ingredient’ that will bring readers running, handfuls of their hard-earned money clutched in sweaty fists to be enthusiastically thrown in my direction?

The answer: You don’t.

Why? Because there is no secret ingredient.

In my deeply limited (probably stupid) experience, there are three things you need to write a good story.

1: You need a modicum of talent. And by modicum, I mean not very much. You need to have ideas, of course, and perhaps an ear for the way people speak, and an eye for how that might translate onto the page.

2. You need a butt-load of work ethic. Despite what people will say to the contrary, writing is hard. It’s a job. It’s a craft. It’s a skill that can be learned, but you really have to work at developing it. It doesn’t come overnight, and you have to get a lot of words down before they start to look good.

Besides the labour intensive development of your craft, writing a story takes a lot of work. To get down one hundred thousand some odd words, then spend the rest of your life editing them until they begin to take the shape of something resembling a story, is no easy task. People will claim “Oh, writing is easy for me!” And I would be willing to bet their stories haven’t been edited properly, and probably look like they should have been written in crayon.

3. The final ingredient you need is honesty. Big heaping, steaming, pulsating piles of honesty. Firstly, you have to be honest with yourself to know when your story sucks and you need to re-write it. Secondly, and more importantly, you need to write your story in an honest manner; meaning, you have to be true to yourself.

Being honest means writing the story that you want to hear in the manner you want to hear it. If the story that speaks to you loudest is a rollicking tale about a purple elephant named Dave, who hands out cupcakes and fatherly advice, then write that damned story. Not everyone is going to want to read it (I’m afraid I probably don’t want to read about Dave), but that story is going to speak to someone else just as loud as it does to you.

There is no secret ingredient. There is no magical formula. There is no grand cosmic handshake that is going to make you an instant success. The only things you can rely on are, sweat, effort, and ink-stained blood.

Or that’s the story I keep telling myself anyway.

As always, thanks for reading.

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The Reasons We Care

A conversation I just had with my wife prompted me to start thinking (always a dangerous thing for me) about friendships; about the reasons we care for people.

All of us have close friends; those people, without whom your life would not be complete. Your spouse, your siblings – whether they are assigned to you (blood relatives) or whether you pick them yourself – that mentor who has been the guiding voice in your ear for as long as you can remember, are all important to our existence. They are people we simply could not do without.

When these people call us, we answer. If they need us, we go running. When they are having a rough time and need to be shorn up, we reach out our hands and make it happen – because we know they would do the same for us.

As I was talking to my wife I had to ask myself why we do this. Is it because friendship makes us altruistic, and we do this simply because it is the right thing to do? Do we go running because our personal moral code demands it?

I think not. I think when we reach out to our friends, we do it for ourselves. We do it because we are selfish.

The way we treat strangers is decided by our morality, but the way we treat our friends is purely for our own pleasure. Seeing a loved one comforted, seeing a smile on their face, making sure they are all right, all make us happy. Knowing that our loved ones are cared for and at peace, in turn brings us peace and a deep sense of satisfaction. It is a purely and completely selfish act.

I think the same can be said, and probably should be said, for our writing. When we write a story, we do it first for ourselves. We do it because we have something inside us that needs to get out, a tale we need to share. We get our story down because it makes us happy to see it take shape on paper (or a computer screen), and it is something that we would want someone to tell us if we were listening for it. 

Then, when we share that story, it makes us happy to see that people liked it. It brings us joy to know that we touched someone with our writing in a positive way, whether it brings them a few minutes of entertainment, or prompts a life changing epiphany.

Telling our story is a purely selfish act, and I think it has to be this way for it to be any good.

So, when you’re telling your story – getting out that thing inside of you that is churning to be set free – remember that is has to be for you, and not for anyone else. Otherwise, it will be false, it will be a lie, and it will fall flat. But your inner truth will always turn out well.

As always, thanks for reading.

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