James Marry, author of "Shut Up" discusses the six points of a martial arts throwing star as it pertains to the Art of Writing.
Shu-ri-ken: The Art of Writing
By James J. Marry
A shuriken (pardon the gaijin spelling) is a six pointed throwing star developed by Sensai masters of the great Japanese Samurais near the third century. When thrown properly, they are considered very effective at disabling an enemy while not usually killing the target. This seems to be a valued characteristic for the hunter as well since dead meat tends to rot rather than travel well. Essentially, for me to describe what I consider the Art of Writing I look at this goal in a very similar attitude to the attack style of the shuriken or throwing star. In effect, I promise not to kill you with a long explanation or diatribe on my experiences, though I hope to make you feel as though I have eaten your concerns about the beginning of a writing project.
As I may have innocuously explained, there are six important features that I look at when I begin a piece, whether it is assigned or chosen. Assigned pieces would be similar to this one since I was asked to write for your group of readers. Chosen would be similar to my novel “Shut Up” or any of my short story pieces. The concept of art remains the same regardless. Point one of the shuriken is the audience or target for my piece.
For this article, I am writing to a Christian fellowship that is interested in learning more about professional writing. This is a near and dear audience for my work since I fall well within that group by my own humble estimation and on one end of the scale. This is important, though my tool for reaching this audience is by far not a Christian reference and a very ethnic one in the throwing star. It allows me to discuss the merits of the piece in Biblical terms, should I choose to- such as using a reference to Nehemiah for carrying your weapons in one hand while the tools to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls are busy in the other. The shuriken might fall into this reading quite easily when one looks at my other context.
For example, my novel exposes a very gritty and sexual being as a highly moral and righteous human being that balances his world of sin on the pin head of his own beliefs. The audience that I chose for that novel was women aged 40 to 55- a large group of Americans- who read for entertainment. Though, as the author, I know that my beliefs are pertinent and a hard part of the novel, I certainly prohibited myself from using Biblical analogies while interpreting this character’s thoughts. Why? Because the audience would not accept this theorem from the view point of my character and as those of you who have written should be able to guess- View Point is another of our points on the shuriken.
View Point is a more dangerous point than Target because it is easier to forget. Obviously, when I write an article like this one, I purposefully remember that I am writing the article form my own perspective. I am, in essence, the View Point for my writing. Simple enough, and easy to translate to other non-fiction types of exposition.
Another type of non-fiction exposition is when we write the story for someone else- or from their own perspective. Biblical scholars are often challenged by this type of writing with 1Peter when they consider someone may have written it other than the lovable fisherman. A more secular understanding of this would be Caleb Carr’s “Alienist” where he writes from the perspective of a 19th century New York journalist. This is fictional but I believe you see the point. My own experience was a challenged here since my novel uses multiple points of view- first person and third person- that I conquered with a future historian reading a journal of a current day hero.
This leads us to point three of our chosen weapon of the writing quill- the Voice. I think even the best writer can see how easy it is to confuse View Point with Voice, since both are so intertwined. They work very much the way that a ladder works- one side supports the other. I think that from a bible view this might be represented easiest for a new writer from the standpoint of the books of Samuel. His mission, if you prefer, seems very clearly to educate us about God’s favorite son, David, and his trials and tribulations in giving himself to God. Samuel is very concise about David’s pain and struggle with his mistakes along the way but also he is clear of David’s love for the father. Samuel’s character is David with the voice of a reporter on the scene- at least for the most part. Some say that Samuel only wrote the first twenty-four chapters also.
An early attempt at my novel was to write the story of a bar owner whose best friend had been killed. I wrote nearly half of the story in the “He said/ She said” angularity when I realized that the part of the story that was important to me was missing. You see, I had been there as that person or I wanted the reader to believe that I had. So I had to change the Voice of the piece to get the reader to understand that so much of the story was the interpretation of the bar owner and NOT about the bar owner or the events. The reader feels what he feels even if these feelings are not what the reader would feel given the same circumstances. Riskier and harder to write, but necessary for me to take my Target audience where I wanted them to go. Necessary, I think for Samuel as well, since we might not have really cared about his journey with David nearly as much as we needed to know where David was going.
Now, I would like to pause for a moment to compare these three elements- Target, View Point, and Voice- of the shuriken to the Art of Writing. I realize that my audience is probably more accustomed to thinking of “art” in the motif of painting- such as Rembrandt or Renoir, so let’s by all means go there for the moment. Our three points should be considered along the lines of choosing the materials that we are going to paint with then. If I were looking to paint something that will be classical in nature, I would likely choose oils and canvass. For something more popular in nature, I think water color and poster board might be more sufficient. With writing a novel, I think acrylics on a stretched board could epitomize my work regarding the first three points of the throwing star.
From another side of this issue, we have really only given the project a ghost overlay. Yes, I think we can all agree that the story can be told since we have the requirements to tell it, but what are we going to say? Of course, I am not suggesting that I can educate you on this idea in any specific sense. But I think that we can get a little closer to the writing of a piece with the additional three points of the shuriken.
I think that we should get down to some of the dirtier facts of writing the piece before handling the more artistic ones. So the fourth point on my throwing star would have to be Composition. I can hear every writer moaning at the thought. This is the one you learn in school folks, and it is just as important as every English teacher ever told you it was going to be. We are going to whittle it down to the size that should be important to us though.
Writers write. So they should be sure that they have the tools to write. If you don’t think grammar, spelling, format or structure is important then don’t waste your time. You are not a writer because no one can read you. These forms of torture are all being used by any author of any book that has sold before, so learn them or leave it alone. You can’t speak to a child if you don’t speak their language and the same goes for readers. Learn to speak their language and THEN practice the art. ‘Nuff said there.
If you have gotten past that little stream in your path though, there are more important concerns for you regarding Composition. Primarily, I think you must look at length regarding this point of the star. For example, when that hated English teacher gave you the assignment in Junior High School to tell him or her about your summer vacation. Didn’t he or she say how long the composition needed to be? If not, I assure they were new at the job and got assignments ranging from 100 words to 3000 or possibly more.
Professionally, I think this becomes paramount even more. I know that my novel was at one point a 542-page tome. Was my Target audience going to be more ore less likely to read my novel? This was not an easy question for me since “Shut Up” has some very comic book like qualities to it. In other words, I needed to make the story easier for my audience to read and part of that meant to speed up the action. The published version is 298 pages.
That might seem harsh, but consider the writing of an article for, let’s say Writer’s Digest. I can assure you that after the editor gets your proposal and says, “Yes, I want to see this article.” He or she will certainly trim out the chaff, but your proposal or the editor’s request will definitely say- 1500 words or 4500 words or whatever. This will force you to concentrate on the important parts of what you want to say and kill things that you don’t NEED to say. It will definitely define all of the other points on your shuriken.
The fifth point is the one I must say that I like the least and every editor, agent and publisher that I have met seem to like most. That is an exaggeration, in part, but Genre must not be overlooked. It may be where the money is in your future.
First, determine if you are writing fiction or non-fiction. Then categorize that main classification. The process is very simple for those of us with limited computer literacy since our browsers are fine examples of this art. Fiction- Romance might be a good start for a Barbara Cartland novel. But there is more to it on the road of creation. For example, Miss Cartland’s book could be classified further as Historical- 19th Century- American.
On the other side of that, “Shut Up” has been classified as Science Fiction. I have to admit that the theme of much of my novel could easily be seen as meeting that Genre’s requirements, but I do grit my teeth. I have to since the Genre I wrote for was Mystery and the Target Audience pulled me strongly into the Romance Genre. So where do I place such a novel? Please DO NOT say Mainstream, and I will tell you why.
Mainstream is a glossy Genre reserved for the 1% of all of the authors that write a book and find it released in paperback six months later for $5.95 at Wal-Mart. If you are going to write a Mainstream article, then Playboy or Harpers or Cosmo must have asked you to write it. And why would Norman Schwarzkopf be reading this article anyway?
I am kidding, but anything you write for professional reasons will need to be sold. So it will need to have a market. Your market, at least initially since markets change, is your Genre. You need to remember to write to the people who will buy your product whether you like it or not.
The final point on the shuriken that I think you need to address before splashing the canvas with background color is Language. I hope that you know English is not what I mean as opposed to Spanish or Chinese for that matter. The subject at hand is more defined than that. And again it relates to all of the other points.
With Target of 40 year old women with a reading level at the 12th grade, writing a science fiction mystery from the view point of a historian reading a journal of a tough guy 250 years before her time- Language was crucial to my novel. But on small pieces that might only be read by 200 readers, I find that language can be even more important even if not as profitable.
This article was written for audience that the editor informed me was Christian and I assumed from looking at previous writings on the site would be female and in the age group of 35 to 45. I naturally, and with some concern, set aside the writing style that my novel expounds upon. “Shut Up” is free wheeling and fairly sexual with a bit of nasty language due to character considerations. I certainly knew that this would be offensive to this audience, and quite frankly I knew better than to write about writing in that language. You’re welcome.
I also used some references that have been important to me personally and professionally as a writer from my favorite book- the Bible. You may recall my mention of 1Samuel and 1Peter. Though I am very fond of my Bible reading- I find all sorts of plot lines there- I must confess that I used these references intentionally. My audience demanded it in my writer’s eyes, so as the audience’s slave I serve. As any writer will tell you, this is the way of our words.
Additionally, Language becomes very important regarding ViewPoint and Voice for obvious mechanical reasons, but also to Composition. I could not use the Language of a technician to explain building a satellite if I were only allowed to use 200 words in my piece. I might use the Language of a Public Relations person though. Genre in mind, to write science fiction, my Language needs to show that I understand the limits of my science regarding the thesis of my fiction to make the story credible to the audience. So I think Language becomes a factor that has to be considered a shuriken point with very high impact potential?
These six factors of the throwing star are not the most important or the least important in regard to your writing projects. Many others will give you greater headaches. Try Dialogue, Setting or even Denouement for that matter to get your wheels churning. But these six points might just be enough to give your palate the color wheel that it needs to paint. The black and white for the Art of Writing must come from the most important tool that any writer has to work with- your heart.
James J. Marry is published by Writer’s Showcase with his novel “Shut Up” since April, 2001 and has made excerpts available with AuthorsDen.com
SHUT UP is currently being made into a screen play and is being considered for a full length film.