Teach Something No Matter How Small

I know many of you visit these pages looking for the magic bullet to turn your writing into a vehicle of immense wealth production. I also know there are hundreds if not thousands of people peddling books and services promising you that very thing with too small to read fine print saying if it doesn’t happen for you they cannot be held liable. Hopefully you haven’t paid a lot of money to learn that lesson personally.

A chance listen to NPR on the short drive from client site to hotel recently cause this collection of random thoughts to form a cohesive topic. It was some folk/blues music show playing stuff I had never heard saying the album was put out as a tribute to “Blind Willy.” Most of you will have not heard of “Blind Willy.” If it had not been for one of the best shows ever to be put on television I would not know of him either. I also would not know of Yo-yo Ma or countless other things if it were not for that show.

Any writer who has not heard “write the kind of book you would like to read” simply hasn’t told anyone they are trying to be a writer. Even people who aren’t in the business will offer that quip in response. The advice is so pervasive one might be persuaded to believe it is true. Sadly, it is one of those old stand byes which doesn’t hold water just like the “write what you know” advice when offered to fiction writers.

Why is this oft repeated phrase incorrect? It assumes you know what you like.

Before you get all indignant with your response to that statement really think about it. Do you really know what you like? Have you ever picked up a book, or popped in a movie you knew nothing about only to find you cannot look away. It covered ground you had no idea even existed. It pulled you in and made you like, nay, love it.

If you have spent any significant time reading books or watching movies you have experienced this. I could throw out the example of Harry Potter here, but I won’t ask how many of you imagined a child wizard attending a school for wizards before Harry Potter was off to the publisher.

Let’s switch genres and ask just how many of you saw the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street” when it came out. True, when you watch it now it seems quite dated due to the clothes and hair, but, nobody had mass released a story about a demon which could pursue us in our dreams manifesting physical harm on us until that tale was spun. Despite what you might think about the genre, the movie was ground breaking.

Now let us return to one of the best shows ever to be on television, “The West Wing.” Even today there are people with strong opinions as to what made that show great. Some say the acting, others say the cast, but I say it was the writing. The best cast and acting in the world cannot pull off a bad script no matter who is directing.

So, you followed the advice of writing what you know and writing what you like and after you got done crossing off all of the items in your list you read your child as objectively as you could only to find it was flat. Now what? It’s missing something but you don’t know what. You have a few close friends read it and realize it gets only tepid feedback.

Everybody wants a one word answer to what is wrong. Well, here it is, depth. You dutifully built a house according to plan, but inside of that house you left bare walls painted a vibrant shade of beige. All of those little nuggets scattered throughout a story give it color, character and depth. They give reason for a person who has no interest in your writing to buy into the story and spend time reading it.

Let us return to the discussion of Josh and the space program. The story itself had little to do with the actual main story. In fact, I don’t even remember the main story.

Josh Lyman: Voyager, in case it’s ever encountered by extra-terrestrials, is carrying photos of life on Earth, greetings in 55 languages and a collection of music from Gregorian chants to Chuck Berry. Including “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” by ’20s bluesman Blind Willie Johnson, whose stepmother blinded him when he was seven by throwing lye in is his eyes after his father had beat her for being with another man. He died, penniless, of pneumonia after sleeping bundled in wet newspapers in the ruins of his house that burned down. But his music just left the solar system.

Donna Moss: Okay, that got me.

That one brief exchange did everything depth does for a story. It allowed the reader to paint the characters with a brush of their own choosing while teaching them something both true and touching. Without using any words to discus them, it caused the minds in the audience to consider all of the stories which _had_ to exist for that one brief exchange to happen. How horrible this person’s life must have been. The mysterious government agency consuming their tax dollars which hired someone who cared enough about a human story to say “this song will be one of the limited set we send forth to let ET learn about who we are.”

As I said, I do

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