My friend Saveau has a great saying. “You Deserve The Gods You Worship.”
Likewise, I’ve long said that you deserve your social media streams, email inbox and many other areas of your life that you forget that you control. But let’s focus on one of these input streams in particular – your artistic diet.
The art on your walls
The music on your playlists
The books on your shelf
The background on your desktop
That thing dangling from your rear-view mirror
The colors and embellishments in any personal spaces you alone control
Essentially, all the art in your life that you consume on a regular basis.
“What kind of dining set defines me as a person?”
These things say something about you, in the same way the lines in your skin speak to a palm reader. It reminds me of what the main character of Fight Club says,”What kind of dining set defines me as a person?”
But is this Nature or Nurture? Prescriptive or Descriptive? Do you define your artistic choices, or do they define you? And how can you use this to make your writing better?
How Artistic Input Affects Artistic Output
At the 2015 4th Street Fantasy Writers Convention, Marissa Lingen brought up the concept of ‘story beats.’ I asked her if she had any sources of wisdom on the subject. Where can one learn about timing and story beats in fiction? How can one get better at them in their own writing?
After a bit of discussion, we determined that experience within your specific writing genre was a better teacher than any book on the subject. The main problem is that each genre has its own norms and audience expectations. The pacing and story beats of a high fantasy written today may be different than a horror story, or even a high fantasy written thirty years ago. The more you read within a genre, (paranormal romance novels, for example) the more you will develop a ‘spider sense’ or intuition about how a paranormal romance novel is supposed to be paced. You will be able to identify when the story sections are too long, too short, or just right.
This effect is more obvious in fixed-time media. The pace of movies and music are locked by the artist. Text is different, because the reader can effectively change the novel pacing, for example, by slowing down their reading speed – immersing themselves in the romancy bits and skimming over the fighty bits, or vice-versa.
This has certainly been my experience. In fact, I’ve seen enough horror movies now that I’ve developed a keen intuition of when things have sat too long, and I have a handy phrase for this phenomenon. “Someone needs to die now.”
Score one for nurture. It’s safe to say that what you put in is what you get out. So, fill your artistic diet with your own genre until your inner editor develops a database of timing and story beat references. Then apply them to your own writing. Yet another good reason you need to read within your own genre.
Now, let’s take this concept up a notch, but first, a revelation…
Advanced Artistic Diet Tactics For Authors
…I hate Diet Pepsi.
Growing up, when there was pop (Here in the midwestern US, we call it pop, not soda.) in the fridge, it was whatever happened to be on sale. So I had a wide variety of experience in this area. (Remember Tab? Ugh. Liquid Aluminum. Remember Tab Clear?) My mom said they were all sugar water, but my taste buds don’t lie. Eventually I migrated to diet pop and now I like Diet Coke and I don’t like Diet Pepsi.
However, on rare occasions, I will intentionally drink a Diet Pepsi. (And even more rarely, a Tab. Thankfully, they don’t make Tab Clear anymore.) I do this to remind myself why I drink Diet Coke. When I experience that difference, it reminds me where my palate sits.
Likewise, you should read things outside of your genre. Yes, even if you don’t like them. Maybe especially if you don’t like them. Why would you do this?
Writing ‘rules’ such as timing, pacing and story beats are not really rules at all. They are norms, or best practices. They can be bent, broken and otherwise played with. But you can only do that (intentionally) if you understand them. Earlier, I told you to read within your genre to build up your understanding of timing within your genre. Once you have that skill established, I’m suggesting that you read outside of your normal genre to advance that skill.
For example, let’s pretend you write horror fiction:
Read a bunch of horror stories, and you’ll get a feel for the timing within your genre. You’re learning the rules.
Pick a new and different genre to research: cozy mysteries, action/adventure, noir fiction, or hard-boiled pulp. Read deeply and widely within that genre. Understand how that genre ticks, literally. You’ll walk away with a new set of timings, pacings and story beats to work with. You just learned some new rules.
Go back to reading horror stories. You’ll FEEL the way they are the same and more importantly, the way they are different. Now you can break the rules.
This is an awesome way to fuck up a perfectly good story. Mess with the norms too much and you’ll hear about it in your book reviews. This is an advanced tactic that I’d recommend using sparingly, like a spice. Once you can bake a good quality quiche, then you can start adding unexpected flavors like cayenne pepper, or peanut butter. Just make sure you have a grip on your own recipe first. Then experiment to make your writing stand out in a good way.
This technique can be used for more than just pacing. You could apply it to structure, characters or other aspects. This is the mad scientist lab where mashups like Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter were hatched.
What you eat affects your body. What you read affects your writing. #WritingTips
Reading within your genre will help you get a feel for story beats. #WritingTips
Learn the rules… so you can break them. #WritingTips