All I Needed to Know About Life I Learned from Writing

I wrote a bit ago about how parenting taught me about writing. I got to thinking– what has writing taught me about (other than writing)? So here are a few thoughts on how fiction writing is like real life. By the way, I’m making key lime pie martinis this week.

1. Nothing a Good Edit Can’t Fix. While you don’t get a do-over in life, editing can work wonders. What isn’t working in a story? Fix it. Silly mistakes, glaring errors and a tweak here and there can work wonders with first draft dreck. I realized one day that I had settled for living in a place I really didn’t like living. I had lived there for 10 years! How did that happen? Well, that’s a future novel. But the important part is– I moved.

2. It’d Be Easier If They’d Just Wear the Right Hat. To create effective characters, you don’t want some stereotype of a too perfect hero and too evil villain. The hero can’t wear the pristine white hat and villain the dusty black. The most compelling heroes are going to have weaknesses. Even Superman has krypto-nite. And the most disturbing villains will have something that makes them almost appealing. This is true in real life. Ted Bundy was a charmer. John F Kennedy cheated on his wife. My first marriage ended in a contentious divorce. But there was a time when I thought that guy was my hero. People are flawed.

3. Don’t Let the Subplots Overwhelm the Real Story. When you’re writing you don’t want secondary characters or subplots getting in the way of the story you really want to tell. I just read a book with a subplot that was introduced and wrapped up in about two chapters. I thought that was the most interesting part of the whole book! I think this works in life too. What is the real point to your life? Don’t let the secondary stuff get in the way.

4. Peaks and Valleys. My high school drama teacher, Ms Matney, used this phrase. I remember her coaching me on this particularly well when I was working on a monologue from Medea. I needed to find the peaks and valleys in what- on the surface- was just one big mass of angry, vindictive crazy. Peaks and valleys is also known as ebb and flow or story arc. Even in thrillers, there are moments of respite to catch your breath. It can’t all be one or the other, or the story doesn’t work. Life is like this too. The valleys aren’t much fun to live, but they do make for interesting stories.

5. Know the Rules and Break Them If Necessary. Writing has a lot of rules. There are books, blogs and whole conferences dedicated to teaching a writer the rules. And mostly they are good rules that help make better stories. Life has some good rules: honesty is the best policy, treat others how you’d like to be treated, an apple a day keeps the doctor away… But you can’t get hung up on rules either. In writing, some times the story that needs to be told has to break a few rules. And in life? Well, some times I just don’t want an apple. Or I’ll eat the apple, but I’m dipping it in chocolate first.