Monday, February 9, 2015

Write What You Don't Know: The Art of Literary Cross-Training

by Paul Krueger

[My esteemed colleagues here on FTWA have previously covered the topic of creative cross-training in these informative posts here. Today, I'm offering up my own experience with the phenomenon.]

I’m not purely a novelist. Prose has always been my most comfortable home, but about once a year, I’ll suddenly find myself thinking in terms of scenes or verses instead of chapters. I always end up wandering back into my copy of MS Word (yes, I’m a serf who doesn’t use Scrivener; COME AT ME, BRO), but every sabbatical from prose has actually made me a stronger prose writer.

I studied screenwriting in college. My school didn’t have a screenwriting program, so I MacGyvered one together by taking a Communications major, a Creative Writing minor, and spackling them together with a healthy helping of parental disappointment. For three years, everything I wrote was in present tense, twelve-point Courier New. But one day, I got an idea too big for a screenplay. I realized that for the first time in forever, I had a novel rattling around upstairs. And when you’ve got an Athena sitting pretty up in your head, you’ve got two choices: let her spring out, or try to stop her and immediately fail, because she’s the goddess of war and you are but her feeble mortal shell.

I let her out.

To my surprise, this attempt at novel-ing went far smoother than any of my others. But I was able to pinpoint the reason right away. Screenplays are, by nature, incomplete works of art. They’re skeletons upon which the bones of artistic direction, production design, and unwelcome studio meddling can be hung like California-tanned flesh. So it stands to reason that anyone who wants to write a screenplay worth a damn has to know their story structure cold.

(Which isn’t to say that a novelist shouldn’t, but a novelist also has other tricks they can fall back on. A screenwriter’s main tricks are Joseph Campbell and a bunch of guys who say all the same things he did.)

So there I was, knowing my story structure cold. And once I’d opened my brain to the idea that storytelling principles could be refined in one art form and then applied to another, I found myself casting about for every other trick I’d picked up. My semester in a poetry workshop taught me how to make every sentence of my new project shine. My experiments with stage drama keyed me into character voices, which helped me bring even the most incidental spear-carrier to life on the page. Even a radio play I’d once written proved instructive. In that form, I only had a single sense to convey my ideas with. Knowing what it was like to have no sensory information made me that much more thoughtful in how I doled it out to the reader.

There’s no better practice for writing a novel than writing a novel, but writing almost everything else first shifted my mental feng shui for the better. Drafting that project was like being Daniel LaRusso at the moment he realized all his house chores had made him black belt material. I saw small but significant improvements in my technique that I don’t think I could’ve ever achieved if I’d stuck to prose alone. Years of hard-earned wisdom from so many different crafts coalesced into a single work, then calcified from a draft into a manuscript. It was, without a doubt, the single best thing I’d written up until that point.

It was summarily rejected by seventy-eight agents, and cheerfully gathers digital dust on my hard drive today.

But conveniently enough for the purposes of this narrative, right next to it in my trunk folder is another document. That other document is dated to the day I received both my Calls: the one telling me I had an agent, and the one telling me my newest manuscript was going to be a book. It’s the document I created to celebrate those Calls, because I didn’t know how else to celebrate a deal except by writing something.

It’s a TV pilot. And it took me to school.

Are there non-prose pursuits that have given you insight into prose writing? Of course there are! So why don't you share them in the comments below, eh? C'mon. You know you want to.

Paul Krueger wrote the upcoming NA urban fantasy, The Devil's Water Dictionary (Quirk Books, 2016). His short fiction has appeared in the 2014 Sword & Laser Anthology, Noir Riot vol. 1, and in his copy of Microsoft Word. You're most likely to find him on Twitter, where he's probably putting off something important.

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