Is practicing writing different from writing?

How do you make a story worth reading? It’s hard. You can sit around trying to think of “something to say”. You can envision a character and a situation that makes us empathize with or laugh at that character.

Or you can throw dragons and unicorns in your story because you know some people like anything with dragons and unicorns. Or you can pick a non-Earth-like planetary system and begin listing ways that life on it would be different, and write something that might get published in Analog. Or you can write pornography.

That second paragraph is full of things I consider crutches. I often like stories based on those things. But when I started writing, all I wrote was fantasy and science fiction stories that relied on technical ideas, or amazing fantasy settings, and the more I wrote, the more I began to suspect that I didn’t have anything to say about normal, everyday life.

So I read more non-genre fiction, where the author can’t rely on dragons or ray guns and has to talk about people. But again I found it full of crutches. John Irving has written some great things, but he has a tendency to kill someone off when the story gets boring and hope that will liven things up somehow. The other thing people do is talk about romance, which is a worthy subject, but it’s too easy to start spinning a tale about who’s sleeping with whom, or will she or won’t she, without proving that you really know anything about humans at all. The crutches of mainstream literature are romance and death.

I want to be able to write stories that have no dragons, no ray guns, no life and death situations, no romances, and are still interesting. It’s fine to write stories that have those things, but if all of your stories rely on those things to make them interesting, you’re probably not really connecting your readers with your characters, and not writing anything more than entertainment. I would like to be able, like Ray Bradbury, to write a story about getting out of the movie theater before they begin playing the national anthem, or the pleasure of running through grass barefoot.

Sometimes a great story uses death or romance to talk about something else, like Frank O’Connor’s story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (which I don’t personally like very much), or Flannery O’Connor’s story “Everything that Rises Must Converge”, or Charles Bukowski stories. But if you do that, it’s hard to know whether you’re using a crutch. So I sometimes try to exclude those things from a story, just to prove to myself that I’m not using a crutch. So I suppose that makes that story a kind of practice story.

Summary: Sometimes, as a writing exercise, I write a story without allowing myself to use fantasy, science fiction, sex, romance, or life-or-death situations.


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