Writing with Substance

In the aftermath of the XPRIZE writing contest I have been wondering about the substance of fiction writing, about how stories resonate through a life, about their importance.


The four part format that I came up with to evaluate writing seems to be useful for writing as well: subject, structure, style, substance. It's that last one that has a few questions bouncing around inside my head.

When you read great writers like J. K. Rowling, George R. R. Martin, or C. S. Lewis you encounter ideas, concepts, and situations that can lead you to new questions and realizations. Their writing has a resonance to it that can reverberate throughout your life, or, to put it another way, it has substance. Writing without that substance seems kind of boring to me. I've read some of those books, but usually only if they were light, I needed a break from the heavy stuff, and they involved something I like (for instance, the Percy Jackson books). The question becomes, how do I write with that kind of substance?

That is a huge question. It seems that oftentimes the substance comes into the writing as a happy accident. Stephen King doesn't concern himself with a theme, and it seems most good writers don't, but when he goes back through the work he usually sees a theme and builds and clarifies it on the rewrite.

It's interesting to note that Stephen King, George R. R. Martin, and C. S. Lewis all talk about coming up with ideas for stories in much the same way. They see a scene in their mind, then they start to build a story around that picture. That's how Narnia was born, and "A Song of Ice and Fire," and many of King's works. There are other ways to approach writing, but you can't do better than learning from Martin and Lewis. They are/were both deeply educated on Medieval history and literature, and they both started epic fantasy series with a spontaneous image of a single scene. Maybe that is a better structure than the classic way of breaking down a work into characters, plot, setting, and conflict. Maybe just viewing it as an interaction between character and situation is more authentic, maybe it is more truthful. That is basically what King explicitly states in "On Writing."

My mother really liked "The City of Peace," that's what I named the short story I wrote for the XPRIZE writing contest. She's never complimented me so much about writing before. She suggested I turn it into a series. Now, I did set it up for that on purpose, but I'm still wondering why I'm writing it. Where is it going? What substance does it have? Do I have a message to go along with it? What is my destination? I'm still not sure on my destination as a writer in general.

I like Stephen King's nonfiction writing more than his fiction. I like how he writes about his own life, I like the style. When he was young he wanted to write an epic Western fantasy, and eventually he was able to do that with "The Dark Tower" series, but he couldn't do it when he was young because he wasn't ready for it yet. I wonder . . . is that what I want? To write an epic fantasy series that will shake people to the core like "The Dark Tower," "A Song of Ice and Fire," "The Chronicles of Narnia," and Harry Potter? It may be, but I'm probably not ready for that yet.

So, where does that leave me? Should I work on developing in that direction? Does every piece need to have substance to it? Or can it be left aside at times? Should it be in the design? Or should it be found along the way? I will keep looking for those answers.

Jerry Seinfeld shared an interesting perspective in an interview I saw. He said that he's trying to find as many bits as he can. That's his purpose now, that's his destination. Maybe something like that could work for me. To find as many interesting characters as I can, to find as many interesting situations as I can, to reveal as many interesting characters through stories as I can. Something like that.

Substance has to do with how important something is. The most important thing to people is people. The most important thing to a person is themselves. Maybe that's where I should focus. An exploration of human nature, of social nature, of the nature of the self. I like that idea, I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time studying sociology, psychology, philosophy, economics, history, violence, epistemology, cultures, human ethology, and humans in general. Maybe this is what it has been leading to. Some of my favorite books, that I go back to over and over again, are about charismatic personalities, or just the study of humans as the creatures that they are. Books like "Prophetic Charisma" by Len Oakes and "The Human Zoo" by Desmond Morris. Many of my favorite books have good plots, but I find the character to be the truly fascinating part. Books like: "Heart of Darkness," "The Dice Man," "Zorba the Greek," "Candide," and "Siddhartha." Human nature seems to be primarily concerned with the dynamic interaction of cooperation and violence mixed with the unique mental characteristics of the human which allow for both logic and magical thinking. Those are all things that I find fascinating.

Stephen King mentioned another interesting concept in the introduction to the second "Dark Tower" book. He said there are two types of writers, (classic false dichotomy logical fallacy) those that write for themselves and those that write for an audience. That's something I'm going to think about some more.

Maybe fiction is about exploring the limits of human nature. We explore the physical and mental limits in a variety of ways, but we have to be careful with the emotional limits. Except, in fiction, we can push those emotional limits because there is a degree of safety. Maybe that's the real key to understanding the appeal to, and the obsession with, fiction. Maybe that's why we need it.

These are all concepts that I'm going to keep exploring. You are welcome to join me at JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

You are also welcome to take your participation to the next level and help fund these creations at patreon.com/JeffreyAlexanderMartin

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