Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Lessons from Skydiving

At a Southwest Mystery Writers of America conference a few years ago, Laura Joh Rowland, author of the Sano Ichiro mysteries, talked about the lessons she learned from her new hobby, glass-blowing, and how they applied to writing. I thought, "How cool. Someday, I'm going to do that." Not glass-blowing, but apply the lessons from my hobby to writing.

At that time, my hobby was skydiving.

I don't skydive anymore, but the lessons I learned stayed with me and still inform my writing.

Lesson one: practice is everything. If you want to be good at skydiving, you have to practice. It doesn't require much practice to go out the door of an airplane, anymore than it requires much practice to put words on paper. But, to master body flight, you have to do it over and over again. Likewise with writing, mastery of the complexities of plot, character, and language takes practice. Air time for skydiving, seat time for writing.

You will never hear skydivers talk about a talent for skydiving, because there isn't such a thing. Where would it come from? We are not descended from people who fell out of the sky. If you want to improve as a skydiver, your only option is practice. Now, I don't know if there is a talent for writing but I write as if there is no such thing. That is, I practice. What choice do is there? Practice will improve on talent, if you have talent. If you don't have talent, practice is all you have.

Lesson two: don't be afraid to let go. To skydive, you have to get off the ground, go out the door, let go of the strut. You have to push outside your comfort zone. The same is true with fiction. Good fiction requires letting go of reality. Too often neophyte authors fall into the trap of creating main characters like them. Same age, same sex, same occupation, same hometown, same belief in love and goodness. Boring! In Shame the Devil by George Pelecanos, one character has this comment on a book he read: "In the end, the writer had been afraid. In general, thought Farrow, that was the flaw in most people, a timidity that separated them from those who were strong." Writers who are afraid to let go of what they know, will not be strong writers. Ken Kesey said, "Don't write what you know. What you know is boring. Write what you don't know." Fear to go where they've never been has probably doomed more writers than the complexities of grammar and spelling.

Lesson three: trust the wind/imagination. This is the corollary to the preceding lesson. Skydivers soar on the wind., writers soar on their imagination. Trust it. Whenever someone tells me a character in their story thinks, speaks, or acts exactly like some real person they once met, I know I'll be reading a flat, boring character. The writer is too timid to create something new, doesn't trust his/her own imagination.

Lesson four: planning prevents later grief. Skydivers dirt-dive their maneuvers, rehearse emergency procedures, check their equipment, and monitor conditions aloft and on the ground because, let's face it, if they don't, they die. For writers, a failure to plan doesn't have such dire consequences, but planning can help prevent dead-ends, rewrites and embarrassing errors. You don't want to put several years of work into a project only to have it die. Planning doesn't mean outlining. Even a seat of the pants writer can profit from planning. I recommend making copies of all the forms in Hallie Ephron's Writing and Selling the Mystery Novel. The writing will go a lot easier after you've filled them out.

The main lesson I learned is that the ride is exciting, no matter how it turns out.

For a vicarious skydive, you can read my short story, Drop Dead Zone, published in Mystery Buff Magazine in 1998. It is now available on my website.


Travel Writer said...

Lesson number two was very inspiring. Thanks for such a cool post. WOW you skydive,.. that's super cool

Morgan Mandel said...

You are certainly a thrill seeker!
I don't even like flying, much less sky diving. Kudos to you!

Morgan Mandel

Nocturnal Intellect said...

Sky diving was always a thrill I was excited about to hear from others, but I am not sure I would ever do it. If I had opportunity back when I was in my early twenties when I was the dare devil, I probably would jump and forget the parachute. Since my first born came to my life I developed sudden fear of height and jumping off the plane is not in my life time calendar. Not this lifetime anyways.
It is wonderful that you have tried it, and sharing your lessons with the readers is a great thing. Im sure some might actually consider that wonderful experience after knowing you did it and lived!

Marilyn said...

I love to fly but never, never would I sky dive. I have a fear of heights (not affected when I'm in an airplane), don't like the Grand Canyon at all because of the height factor.

Great post, thing it in with writing.


Ben Small said...

You won't catch me doing that. Oh sure, I've done my share of dangerous stuff, mountain climbing, spelunking, moving to Arizona... But no way am I jumping out of an airplane.

Exciting no matter how it turns out? Yeah, I guess being a two foot deep divot would be a lot of fun... :)

Better you than me. My feet are already flat. I don't need to hit the ground at 240 mph to flatten them any further.

Mark said...

Skydiving, spelunking, or hiking to new places. It doesn't matter what you do. Getting out of your comfort zone changes your perspective in ways you can't imagine until you've done it. I don't skydive anymore, but there are times when a blue sky dotted with a few white clouds will spike my adrenaline and energize me for whatever task is at hand.

Skydiving got me over my fear of heights. It made me realize that altitude is your friend. It's the ground that hurts you. :)

L.J. Sellers said...

I'm a bit of control freak most of the time, but I love a good adrenaline rush too. Skydiving was the most thrilling adventure I've ever taken. It is the ultimate in "letting go." I'll keep that in mind when I write my next standalone thriller.