We recently featured a guest post by Thomas Smith on the “4 Things Star Trek Can Teach Us About Writing.” Nothing against Star Trek, but as a Star Wars nerd, I felt it was my intergalactic duty to step up and represent the other side of the sci-fi universe. So here they are, my 8 Things Star Wars Can Teach Us About Writing!
Writing is a constant battle to get the right ideas in the right order in a reasonable amount of time, all while facing deadlines, day-to-day responsibilities, technical glitches, maybe a terrible handle on dialogue, perhaps an inability to spell better than an average sixth grader, or the dreaded and always lurking writer’s block (the Death Star of writing).
But no matter how large the issue, there is always a weak spot, a little exhaust vent tucked away somewhere, a hidden solution to the problem that you wouldn’t think of at first. Even if it means having to blow the whole thing up, there’s always a way to break through your writer’s block.
Maybe you’ve written your character into a corner and you don’t see a realistic way to wrap up the story. Step back a few paragraphs and jot down five alternate things your character could have done or said at that moment. Even if they don’t make sense, write them down. Then back up another few paragraphs or even a chapter and do the same thing. Repeat. Repeat. You will eventually find a new angle—yes, one that might force you to destroy a few chapters of your work—but you will. I once jettisoned 200 pages of a novel into the dark void of space and started over because it was the right thing to do. It’s horrifying to imagine, but once you find the solution, you’ll sigh with relief, just like Luke did after blowing up the Death Star.
But sometimes you can’t see the solution no matter how hard you try, so remember…
2. You Can’t Always Be Your Own Hero
Luke didn’t blow up that space station on his own. He had Obi-Wan Kenobi jabbering in his ear about the Force, and he had Han Solo shooting out the baddies from behind, clearing the way for Luke to do his Jedi voodoo all over that big bad Death Star.
You need to find your own Obi-Wan Kenobi, someone to whisper supporting thoughts in your ear (maybe not literally, that might get weird). And a Han Solo too, someone objective, someone who isn’t a writer at all, a rogue who doesn’t play by the rules but can point out the problem (and maybe the solution) without all of that writerly mumbo jumbo.
Have a plot problem? Run it by your sister for a change. Can’t get the dialogue right? Have your roommate read it aloud with you. When I finish a story, I give it to a friend who is a writer or editor for advice (my Obi-Wan Kenobi), but I also give it to someone who isn’t, someone who is just a reader, an “Average Joe,” and that’s my Han Solo. They almost always find something that sticks out to them but not to me, and fixing this always improves my second draft, allowing me to blast my way through to a happy ending (complete with a medal ceremony with a princess).
3. Get In That Trash Compactor
Yes, get in there. I don’t care what you smell. Writing means getting dirty. It means waking up early and getting at least 300 words down before you shower for work. It means taking notes on the back of your grocery receipt at the stoplight. It means shutting off the TV (and the Netflix, for all of you “I don’t own a TV” snobs like me) and writing instead. And don’t write clean either. Get sloppy. See typos in the last paragraph? Forget them. Keep going. Don’t know how to wrap up a chapter? Say so in boldface, offset it with a few asterisks, and start the next chapter. Go back to it later, but keep pushing. If you don’t dive in and do it, you’ll never do it. Sure, next Sunday will be a better day for writing than today, but guess what? In between, you’re not writing. And if you’re not writing, you’re not a writer, you’re just sitting in a prison bay taking pot shots from Stormtroopers. So dive in, flyboy.
4. It’s Not Wise To Upset a Wookie. They’ve Been Known To Pull People’s Arms Off.
When you create characters, be careful about who you base them on. I know someone who wrote very autobiographical, “fictional” short stories about their childhood, and let’s just say that it didn’t go over well with this writer’s friends and siblings. I’ve struggled with this issue too when I based characters on friends in a novel, even characters who weren’t doing anything “bad.” People ask, “Do I really sound like that?” or “Why did you put that in there?” Once you realize that these people will see themselves in your work, you’ll start second guessing yourself as you write, and that’s a nightmare.
Look, you’ll never make it through a career without offending someone, but be careful with those you care about (and even those you don’t…they can get litigious). Consider changing the jobs and names of those involved, their physical features or even their gender, combine people into one character, have a few characters represent one person, or find a way to make the whole story allegorical while changing EVERY possible detail. Make them all animals. Set that family drama in space. Or on a prairie in 1870. Or write it from an inanimate object’s point of view. Just remember that if you keep things too close to reality, you may end up damaging some relationships, or find yourself in a civil suit.
Or you’ll have no arms. That’s never fun.
5. I have a really bad feeling about this.
Most major Star Wars character have uttered this quotable line, and it’s always true. That bad feeling is going to lead to some nasty events—you know, like being frozen in carbonite, losing a hand, finding out your father is pretty much the biggest jerk in the whole galaxy, or that girl you like is actually your sister. Woof.
Those gut instincts were accurate. So are yours. Don’t like where a chapter is going. Hit that delete key NOW. Don’t think you’re using semi-colons correctly? You’re not. Unsure if this is the right agent to read your manuscript? She isn’t. You think the ending is a little cheesy? That means it’s stinkier than moldy Muenster, baby.
Writing well, finding your voice, and achieving your publishing goals are all about trusting your gut. Listen when it speaks, and act accordingly.
6. Welcome to Mos Eisley
When “Ben” Kenobi needed the right man for the job, he went to Mos Eisley. As the old Jedi master said, “Mos Eisley Spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.” That town was crazy, crowded, and full of colorful characters. We all know a place like that, and you should go there, take notes, and put those people in your story! Take a notebook to an amusement park, a rowdy-yet-friendly Irish pub, to your family reunion (talk about a hive of villainy!), or even to your local Wal-Mart. Some of the most interesting people in town are waltzing around that place in the strangest assortment of clothes imaginable, for good or ill.
And if the place gets you out of your comfort zone and has a sense of danger to it, that might be fun too, but don’t take this advice to mean you should go hiking alone in Afghanistan or make Yo Mama jokes in a biker bar in Detroit. But then again, you might score a book deal out of the resulting story. If you survive.
7. The Force vs. Tricks & Nonsense
And I quote:
Ben Kenobi: Remember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.
Luke Skywalker: You mean it controls your actions?
Kenobi: Partially, but it also obeys your commands.
[Luke gets shot by the remote.]
Han Solo: [laughs] Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.
Skywalker: You don’t believe in the Force, do you?
Solo: Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other. I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny. Anyway, it’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.
In this scene in Star Wars: A New Hope, we see the philosophical dichotomy within this group of heroes. You have the idealistic and solemn believers, and you have the gritty, fun-loving, tricks-and-nonsense crowd. I think the same goes for writing. There are a lot of factions, but the only way to really make an impact, just like in the movie, is to combine those two sides into one.
Writing is a holy thing. It’s the ancient skill of conveying ideas, beliefs, mores, happenings, and entertainment from one person to another, or from one person to millions. It makes us feel godlike, and it’s vital to everything we’ve ever accomplished in human history. Excellence in literature should be respected, pursued with diligence and reverence, and held on a pedestal to be admired.
But just like life in Han Solo’s world, everything about writing is made up of simple tricks and nonsense. If you can’t maneuver the there/their/they’re game, forget it, you’ll be called out as a hack. You’ve got to know the nuts & bolts, the nitty gritty, the hands-on skills, and understand how to play the games to find yourself on the successful side of publishing. But you’ve got to have fun doing it too, and scoff at the rules from time to time. If you do the same thing as everyone else, just as you’re told, you’ll never find your own voice. You need to fly from one side of the galaxy to another with wild abandon, and you need to go through this writing life as if you have a bounty on your head—never stop working, never stop trying new genres, never stop reading, learning, writing.
And of course, you need some…
Solo: I call it luck.
Kenobi: In my experience, there is no such thing as luck.
Again, neither is right, neither is wrong. It’s somewhere in the middle. Every hardworking writer will need some luck in this gig, and whether or not you believe in it, one things is for sure—it isn’t going to come looking for you. You need to find IT instead. When our band of heroes arrived on the Death Star, Luke knew they needed to go into the depths of the prison level to get Princess Leia or she was a goner. Han wanted to wait instead, until Luke enticed him with a reward. The plan worked.
Like Luke, you need to make your own luck and put a plan into action. Get yourself into new situations, go to readings, speak with the readers, shake their hands and look them in the eyes, try guest blogging or writing in other genres, get your work into small press magazines, consumer mags, University presses, anywhere, everywhere, mention your book to people you meet, to coworkers, family, old friends, your bartender, anyone who will listen. Take risks. The most random interaction can put you in touch with a good editor, publisher, or fellow author. You may not want to hear the odds about successfully finding your own luck, but if you keep yourself open to new experiences, stay positive, and be true to yourself, you will find some. And you’re going to need it out there.
Oh, and never forget…
…May the force be with you.
James Duncan is a content editor for Writer’s Digest. He is also the founding editor of Hobo Camp Review, poetry & prose from the road, and is in the process of submitting a handful of novels to agents for traditional representation, just like everyone else on the planet. For more of his work, visit www.jameshduncan.blogspot.com.