Back of the Envelope

Hi, everyone. You guys had quite a bit of fun tracking down the lost methane. We should do an open floor more often.

Quite a few years ago I worked for a geotechnical consulting firm. I’m a chemical engineer, and my work for these guys was all in the environmental area. Most of the engineers who worked there were of the geotechnical kind. At one point a graduate geotechnical engineer started at the firm. To say this young guy was brash would be an understatement. The first thing he did was walk into the offices of both the Principals, experienced and very serious men who walked around with an invisible neon sign saying “GOD” above them, and give them both a small white envelope. He then asked them to write everything they knew on the back!

Condensing all the things you’ve learnt over a career can seem well-nigh impossible, but it’s an interesting exercise to thing about the most valuable insights.

As writers we gradually extend our skills and accumulate bits and pieces of knowledge. Anything of worth seems to come pretty hard indeed. The question I was asking myself was – what is the single best thing I have learned? It’s a hard question to answer, and probably impossible because everything in writing seems to be interrelated. The knowledge and realisations that will enhance one person’s writing will not work for another. Some people do some things instinctively and everyone has unique ways of working – and blind spots.

For me, the first insight was understanding the importance of plot. My first novel draft ever was written off the cuff with just the smell of a story. That was fun, but it quickly derailed into a mess that was going nowhere. After that I spent more than four months writing out (by hand) a sketch for every single scene, right down to key pieces of dialogue. This enabled me to play with subplots and get a sense for overall arcs. I don’t go to that level of detail anymore, but I do plan the whole story by chapter and scene.

After that, the biggest penny drop was at a short workshop on story writing. The presenter outlined a simple framework of three interrelated elements: CHARACTER, SETTING, CONFLICT. That really enhanced my writing, particularly short story writing. I think this was when I realised that Setting has to be integral to the story – so integral that integral that to the story that if you took it away, you would have a different story – or would not be able to tell the story. The character also has to be unique to that story, formed by that setting, primed for that conflict.

So what would you put on the back of your envelope?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s