Writing Lessons from the BBQ Pit

A guest post by Art Holcomb

One of the great things about being a writer is that you can find inspiration anywhere.

The world around us and the vibrant nature of our daily lives can give you great insight into your art if you can just see the connections that exist everywhere.

As it’s been awhile since I’ve been back on these pages, and since summer is right around the corner, I thought I’d share with you some of tips that I’ve learned about writing . . . through the fine art of BBQ:

#1: THE SWEETEST MEAT LIES NEXT TO THE BONE: The best stories I’ve ever worked on happened once I learn to dig deep into my own story.

My first success was a play years ago that was inspired through my coming to grips with my mother’s death. Through the years, I’ve explored issues of the death and the afterlife in my story 4EVER and my play AS NIGHT. I used the nature of man’s physicality in my story SUMO DANCING, as well as my struggle with my own beliefs about God in my story THE CHRISTIAN ROOM.

Writing must be about the stories that are uniquely ours. Dig deep and don’t be afraid – the best stories come from our own fears and doubts.

#2: SEASON LIGHTLY: BBQ is best when you let the natural flavors come through.

Many of us dive headlong into the genres that we enjoy reading, and work the tropes and traditions we find there very hard. Take a moment and free-write every day. Try writing a piece that just flows from you – just close your eyes and “pants” your way through something basic and pure in your life.

Like the artist who paints the bowl of fruit or landscape, take a moment to describe and explore the world outside your window. You will be surprised at the new skills you’ll develop.

#3: THE SECRET LIES IN HOW YOU CONTROL THE HEAT: Learn to become the master of creating powerful conflicts in your stories.

All stories are about some manner of conflict – without it, it’s just typing! Escalate the conflict in your own stories. Raise and lower the heat. Explore the hotspots on the grill for better control. The more masterful your conflict-writing skills become, the better your stories shall be.

#4: KNOW WHEN THE MEAT IS DONE: Stop being so precious about your own work.

Are you rewriting the same piece over and over again, and finding less to improve after each successive pass? Life is too short! Learn to type THE END, then just send the damn thing off and start on something new.

Remember: PERFECT is the enemy of DONE.

#5: CHICKEN IS FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT THAN BEEF: Just as each type of meat requires a different type of seasoning, temperature and technique, different genres have specific requirements that bring out the best flavor.

Learn as much as you can about the genre in which you’re writing. Larry has some EXCELLENT sections on genre, and gurus like JOHN TRUBY and MICHAEL HAUGE are considered experts on how to exploit genre for the best possible writing.

Become an expert in your own given world. Your fans will thank you for it.

#6: THERE’S MORE TO THE MEAL THAN JUST ONE DISH: What is a BBQ without side dishes?

What is a writing career without variety? If you’re a novelist, try your hand at a screen or stage play. The best things I learned about my own writing have come from experimenting with other forms. For me, playwriting led to screenwriting, which lead to animation, and then to comics – and then back to playwriting.

If you need to work on your dialogue and direction, try writing a play. If description is where you need work, try writing a short movie or comic book script. Examples and tutorials abound on the web for each form, so instruction can often be found for free. By simply trying to write in a different form, you see things about your own writing that never occurred to you – and you might just find a new passion and a new place to shine.

So . . . saddle up and get the fire going. And let us know what you “cook up” in your writing.

Happy grilling!

*****

And… adds Larry… stay hungry.  

Always great to see anything from Art Holcomb on this site.  If you’re new here, use the search function (it’s on the right of this column, near the top) to find wealth of gold under his name.

*****

ART HOLCOMB writes in many different forms, and is a well-known writing teacher at the University level as well as writing workshops. His most recent play is “DEATH IN THE DIGITAL AGE.” His new writing instruction book is “SAVE YOUR STORY: How to Resurrect your Abandoned Passion Project and Get it Written NOW!” (which, Art is pleased to say, will have a Forward written by our Storyfix host, Larry Brooks).

11 Comments

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11 Responses to Writing Lessons from the BBQ Pit

  1. I love it! Barbecuing is one of my passions. Right up there with playing stringed instruments and drinking whiskey.

    I’m sitting here slow-cooking chicken in my Big Green Egg and roasting green chiles on my other grill that I plan on stuffing and serving with the chicken.

    Great advice. My scenes became tighter after studying screenplays and writing a few, where saying it with an economy of words is everything.

  2. Jason Waskiewicz

    Whenever I think “different genres”, I think “action” or “drama” or “fantasy.” I forget that screenplays, poetry, and short stories are also genres. That means #5 and #6 are vital.

    I’ve really learned a lot about writing from my teaching. The whole idea of planning ahead of time has been a big part of my teaching. Why not my writing? Planning created what is, by far, my best novel.

    When I look at my actual writing, I see lots of dialogue. What I need are more descriptions and action sequences. I can do a great job with descriptions (all modesty aside). My description of a ship sailing into an archipelago that has been destroyed by fire is giving me goosebumps right now just remembering it. Trouble is, I don’t do much of this. I’m a science/math guy. Finding clever wording isn’t something I have ever valued. I have too much dialogue. For some reason, that particular scene of a sailing ship slipping through the fog and smoke in an archipelago really struck me as dialogue free. In fact, even after the ship docked, I kept going as the characters explored a destroyed monastery and library in silence. It was magic, and will appear in the final version. Why can’t I do this in other scenes?

    Maybe poetry would help me?

    This really is an interesting notion, and the more I think about it, the more interesting it is. I think I’m pretty good about escaping the science fiction/Christian ghetto. I’ve been concerned that my writing doesn’t fit a neat slot. But, the writing itself is an important concern. Dialogue is important, but it’s only part of the story. I caught myself writing dialogue in which one character described spaceship breaking yards to my hero. Truth is, my hero grew up working in a breaking yard. Why didn’t I simply describe it? What I was doing, was writing dialogue along the lines of: “As you already know…” It may have been less obvious, but that is what I was doing.

    So, maybe I need to “stretch my legs” by writing something unrelated, especially in an unfamiliar format.

  3. Oh, good–Art’s back! I especially like that part about “PERFECT is the enemy of DONE.” Isn’t it so true? I should pin that by my computer, as a reminder to just keep moving forward.

  4. Art Holcomb

    @Jason: I think you’ll be amazed at what you can find out about yourself and your abilities once you stretch your legs and try another format. Poetry and screenwriting might be an excellent fit, but you might consider writing a play as well. What all three have in common is a love for the sound and power of the individual speaker’s voice, and learning the basic format can come very easily for experienced writers. Perhaps, try starting with the classic ten minute or one act play at first. Find a scene or situation that you find compelling and give it a try!

    @ Elizabeth: Thanks for the kind words. And remember, what we’re all looking for here is the body of work!. You have some much more inside you than you’ll ever know.

  5. trudy

    I like your last point about the side dishes. It’s like, cole slaw is everywhere. But most are drippy and eh so so. But you find a good slaw and you can’t get enough. And it goes so well with that pulled pork. ummm

  6. Loved this. I like the idea of trying writing in other forms, such as plays.

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  8. Robert Jones

    I agree with Art 100% in terms of trying out a media that sets dialogue apart from description. What you’ll see most of the time if you remove all discription is very bland exchanges, cliches, and even arguments that don’t really do what they’re supposed to do because learning dialogue is an art all by itself. Even most professionals could stand a little more time figuring out that people in an argument aren’t always answering one another’s questions directly–if at all. Good dialogue, like any larger segment of a story, builds toward something, can fly at the speed of a bullet, or become a curve ball that changes direction at the last instant. And like every scene in your book, dialogue should characterize and/or move the story forward…otherwise what is doing on the page? All too often it’s used to get exposition across and TELL the reader something instead of SHOWING.

    I’ve heard some very good writers say they will re-write their dialogue more times than anything else on the page in order to get it right.

  9. Pingback: Monday Must-Reads [05/26/14]

  10. MikeR

    @Jason –

    I’m reminded of the observation that “the best writing asset that Stephen King has, or has ever had, is: Tabitha King.” Someone =else= who knows how to provide the objective viewpoint of someone who is =not= “too close to” the story.

    A similar role is filled, in film-making, by the continuity staff: the folks who are paid to inform the director (who is, of course, shooting scenes in a non-linear sequence) that “you can’t have the gun on the mantelpiece in this scene, because Audrey will have removed it twelve scenes earlier.”

    The same concern very-definitely applies when you are blending dialogue with description. Both are equally-valid ways of presenting vital information to the reader, but you must always be mindful of TWO points-of-view: that of the character who’s speaking, and that of the reader who’s reading. The reader will immediately sniff-out any time when the character “is privy to Impossible Knowledge.” She will also be sensitive to “the MacGuffin.”

    As “the Almighty Omniscient Author,” you have Perfect Knowledge. But you must see to it somehow that none of your characters do, =and= that the reader never requires it. For that, you just might require a “Tabby’ King.

  11. Robert Jones

    @Mike and Jason–Within a novel, there can even more layers than what the character is saying and what the reader is reading. You can also add what the character is thinking. And this can be played as something thinking one thing and saying something totally different. Few people say what they really mean–which is a beautiful think to keep in mind for dialogue. So the inner and outer dialogue can be in conflict. Layer upon layer think of opposing viewpoints.