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22: ABL

June 1, 2010

This post has been rattling around for a while, but on the heels of Jodi’s list of 21 Tips, today seemed like a good time to try to hammer my disconnected thoughts into something useful.

Anyone who is familiar with the movie Glengarry Glen Ross, high-pressure sales tactics, or ESPN (specifically in relation to relief pitchers), have probably come across the ABC rule: Always Be Closing. In it’s simplest form, it says that to be the best at sales (or pitching) you should make every move or decision with the intent of moving inexorably toward your final goal.

Several years ago, upon hearing to sports fans, discussing the pitching version of the saying, I adapted one of my personal writing credos to parody the rule. So to follow up Jodi’s 21 tips, I’ll ass #22 – ABL: Always Be Learning.

Of all the writing tips I’ve heard over the years that don’t directly relate to putting the words on the page, this is my favorite. And no, I don’t claim to have come up with it on my own. It’s actually a modified version of a rule from an College Professor, who said that people who write ads need to have knowledge that is an inch deep, and a mile wide; that is to say they need to know a little a bit about everything.

For writers (whether they be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, technical, lyricists…) this need is even greater. We create entire people, vast worlds, unusual situations, detailed conversations and so much more. How do we do this? We adapt what we know to the story we want to tell. And how well we do that is critical. Ask yourself how likely you are to read a story where the characters’ actions and reactions are contrived. Or where the detailed fantasy world the author is asking you to believe, unintentionally breaks all the rules of normal science.

So how do we create real characters, with real reactions, real hobbies, and real, well-rounded lives? Simple. We learn about real people, with real reactions, real hobbies, and real, well-rounded lives. Even if you don’t realize you do this, we all do. We people-watch. We eavesdrop. We pay attention to our own family and friends. We collect traits from the people we don’t like and they insinuate their way into the personalities of our antagonists. To an extent, this is an natural as it is unconscious. But it can also be a very intentional process. The notebook I usually carry with me has several pages at the back with lists of likable and distasteful traits, habits, hobbies, expressions…

Of course this doesn’t apply only to people. As writers, we have to take the time to keep ourselves learning. I’ve always found the best way to do this is to constantly tinker with life. You can do this in a reactive way; if you have a character who you think should have knowledge of guns, you can go buy a book, or find a friend who likes guns and sit them down for a good Q&A. Or you could take a proactive approach; go try out new things, and there’s a decent chance that those ballroom dancing classes you took, will worm their way into your stories ant some point.

What have you learned, lately? Can you put that into your writing?

This week Dale is learning about painting, primers, spackle and in-town moves.
2 Comments
  1. June 1, 2010 7:28 pm

    LOL!! I think writing short fiction ( and series fiction with Captain Juans chronicles) has been the biggest learning period of my life. I have made myself extremely knowledgeable on a range of things I’d never considered.. … pigeons, how to make explosives from straw whilst on a ship, migration of geese, a HEAP of things about space travel, firing capabilities of cannons in the 16th century… to name a few things….

  2. adampb permalink
    June 1, 2010 9:06 pm

    I’ve learned that I have a lot more to learn about this whole novel writing thing. I like short fiction because I can focus on one aspect of a character, rather than having to flesh out a character who has likes and dislikes, hobbies and fetishes. I’m in the pre-production phase for my first novel and I can see so many holes in what I need to know and learn in order for it to accomplish what I have in mind. I am beginning to understand authors who say that their character “comes to life.” I am also acutely aware that sometimes is it best to just “do” and learn the lessons along the way. However, best to learn a bit before you start to wash the elephant in the corner (to mix my metaphors).

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