More from my upcoming book on the spiritual aspects of writing:
One of the most crucial skills you’ll want to learn as an artist is what I call “finding root.” The term comes to us from the engineering world. “Root cause analysis” or RCA attempts to get to the bottom of a problem that causes other problems. In medicine, we’d call this treating the root cause and not the symptoms.
People have probably been performing root cause analysis since we crawled out of the muck, but it only developed as a systematic approach in the modern era, spurred by engineering disasters like the the Tay Bridge collapse in Scotland in the late 1800’s. The modern computer landscape developed the ideas even further. Troubleshooting without RCA in the tech world is literally impossible. Often a machine acts up and a sys-admin identifies what he thinks is the issue, only to have the machine continue to malfunction. The techie only found a secondary issue but he failed to find the real cause of his trouble and so his trouble persists. He found what’s called a “dependent issue.” A dependent issue links to the root problem, but fixing it only fixes that single issue and never the thing that’s causing the general breakdown.
The same tree of problems exists in fiction and in life. An abused woman may have any number of issues. She might have low self-esteem, live in fear of making mistakes, and feel shame as she covers up for her husband. If she concentrates on building her self-esteem through seminars, self-help books, socializing or pretty much any other method, her results will remain short lived. She might feel good for a time, but then her husband goes off and she’s back to feeling low again, all her hard work crumbling. She failed to find root. She has only addressed the symptom. All of the problems trace back to her abusive relationship. There’s only one solution to her real issue: leave the relationship. This is, of course, the hardest road to take or at least it appears so. The magic that powers the principle of finding root holds a special treasure. The hardest solution always proves to be the best panacea because it makes the problems go away. It makes them stop. When you treat the symptoms you remain perpetually sick, feeling better only to feel terrible again. In other words, the right solution gets you to an end point and the wrong solution keeps you trapped together.
Let’s take an example from my fiction. In my first book, the Scorpion Game, early drafts contained a very different villain then the multifaceted person you can empathize with, despite his horrible crimes. Instead of a person readers could relate to, I had an evilly grinning, card carrying villain. He even had a goddamn cane. Writing is always an iterative process. A book almost never comes out perfectly from the writer’s brain to the page. It’s possible that some non-fiction books work that way, but I’ve never seen it. Legend has it that Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in a few weeks, on a long roll of paper in his typewriter, while hopped up on speed. It’s not true. Well, he was on drugs and there was a roll, but like all great books he had missteps, problems, re-writes.
Each iteration of your work, each re-write, winds you closer to root. You fix problems, but find you fixed the wrong ones as you work through draft after draft. My card carrying villain needed to drop his cane, stop grinning so goddamn much, stop saying stupid things to sound brilliantly evil, and stop kicking the dog just because it was fun. Eventually, I chipped away at the dependent problems, chasing his character to the base of its stem and ripping it out of the ground. To do this I kept asking questions: What traits make him a card-carrying psychopath of the Slasher movie variety? Make a list. How the hell do I get rid of them? Write them all down and get rid of them. What do I put in their place to make him more human, more real? Design those ideas, and then try them on paper. Fix them if they don’t work.
Root problems cause stories to fall apart fast, which means readers put the book down or deliver a bad review and maybe even tell their friends how much they hated it and that they shouldn’t waste their money. Not good. Root problems in fiction fall into the following categories:
– Characters that don’t work
– Plot arcs that fail to develop to their full conclusion
– Long, slow pacing
– Terrible dialogue
– Boring and uncompelling subject matter/premise
– And the number one root problem of all: not writing or not writing regularly
That’s not an exhaustive list, but any one of them means ruin for a book. Two is an absolute disaster that no book survives. The last one deserves its own mention specifically. It’s the ultimate root problem. If you’re not writing, you are never able to solve any of the other challenges on that list. If you write only sporadically you won’t get very good and you won’t make a career of it. The world has a perfectly accurate feedback loop. If you don’t write, then your results are guaranteed failure.
Now, a very, very few books might still become popular missing one of these major elements. Dan Brown has made a hell of lot more money than I have with his writing, so who am I to tell him that his evil characters in the Da Vinci Code are card carrying, wooden cut outs of people? But the fact remains; characterization is not one of his strong points. Notice that he had most of the rest of the things on that list working for him: a compelling premise that teaches readers about a world they’ve never seen, originality, fast pace and sweeping plot arcs that come to a satisfying conclusion. But this is not about who sells the most books. We are concerned with only one thing here: becoming the best writers we can be. Fame and fortune will take care of themselves if you come up with a truly compelling, original book that readers love and tell their friends about, spurring a deluge of sales. It starts by writing a book. I can tell you that Dan Brown probably didn’t set out saying I don’t give a rat’s ass about characters, who the hell cares about that? He might have fallen short on that front, but the research and effort he put in are self-evident. Focus on what you can control. You can always get better at the Kung Fu of your art if you keep throwing punches every day.