Friday, June 13, 2014

Are There Any Tips Left?

By Art Taylor

The problem with wrapping up the week's discussion here at Criminal Minds is that I have to find something fresh to add—especially with a question like this one: What three tips would you give to a new writer to help them along their journey? But no worries, I thought, I can just pad out my own post a little by recapping all the great advice that my fellow bloggers have already offered, right?

And then I read Alan's post yesterday.

There's been tremendously good advice in this week's posts, and if I'd been starting out the week instead of finishing it, I think I would've zeroed in on several of these: Write a lot (and read a lot); get involved in your writing community (join critique groups, join local chapters of MWA or SinC or other organizations, go to readings, attend conferences, etc.); and don't take rejection—or other people's successes—personally. 

So what can I offer beyond that?

There is no "perfect"—which doesn't mean to settle for sloppiness, but....

I'm a huge advocate for revision, which I see as not just an integral part of writing but the most important part of the process. And when I talk about revision, I don't just mean tinkering with the sound of a sentence or finishing up some copy-editing, but being open to tearing something apart and putting it together again—to re-visioning it in a completely new (and hopefully better) way. But while I encourage my student to be open to the possibilities of revision, I've also seen the other extreme, where beginning writers get paralyzed by the idea that it's not good enough, never good enough, no matter how many times they've rewritten and restructured and re-everything'd their draft-eternally-in-progress, aiming for the one, best, right way to do it. I used to do this; occasionally I still do; please don't do this yourself.

One of the most liberating stories I ever heard was about sculptor Alberto Giacometti's work on the 1956 series Women of Venice—the nine elongated bronze sculptures seen below.

Each of the figures here is distinct, and while I'm sure art historians and critics may champion a favorite or two among the bunch, I'd argue that each is wonderful in its own way. But the story behind their creation is what's always stuck with me. As I understand it, Giacometti worked with a single batch of clay, shaping, reshaping, crafting, and then he'd stop and ask his brother to make a mold of what he had. Once the mold was made, he would jump back into it and start shaping and reshaping and crafting that same piece of clay again until he'd gotten something else that seemed... interesting? worthwhile? Certainly perfect isn't the appropriate word, or else why bother with the other eight, right?

There are nine ways to do anything—a hundred ways, a million ways, and more. Don't let the quest for the one way to write something paralyze you.

Find yourself as a writer—and find your reader too. A lot of beginning writers dream of being on the bestseller list—of becoming the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or whomever—and as most writers will caution, that's probably not realistic. But the focus in that advice is often on the expectations of fame and fortune. Instead, I want to focus on craft. While you can learn a lot from writing a pastiche of your favorite writer (I talked about this in an earlier post), trying to write like Stephen King long-term—in terms of plot or style, subject or theme—will never make you Stephen King and may even work at cross-purposes to the writer you truly are. My wife, Tara Laskowski, and I actually talked about this earlier this week: the fact that sometimes we ourselves have been so focused on the writer we thought we wanted to be (or thought we should be) that we've missed seeing the strengths of the writers we are. For several years, Tara worked on a novel that spanned three decades in the lives of its characters, and while the book was wonderful in many ways, it ultimately didn't capitalize on many of Tara's greatest strengths as a writer—succinctness rather than sprawl, the focus on a precise moment rather than a panorama, introspection as much as an accelerating plot—strengths which truly came to the forefront when she begin more earnestly writing flash fiction. In my own case, I labored for years as well under the idea that writing short stories was just an apprenticeship toward writing a novel—until I finally came to recognize that maybe writing short stories was where I actually had some real talent, was the way my mind worked, was where I too should be. And fortunately there's a whole community of readers out there who enjoy a good tale like that.

And as a final word, how about this? Don't follow other writers' tips (at least not too religiously). In writing that, I don't mean to discount anything offered this week—again, it's all great advice. But echoing what I've already said here, I do think that it's important to find your own way every step of the way. In the academic setting, I've had writer/professors tell me that I had to write daily or else—and specifically that morning was the best time to write. I've had others suggest writing long-hand first because you feel the words in a different way. And I've seen myriad tips on craft: what to do, what not to do, and why—some of it good (to my mind) and some of it not... also to my mind. The point is: Listen to all the advice, sure, and take what you can from it, but ultimately find what works best for you, even if it means breaking the so-called rules.


Meredith Cole said...

All great advice for aspiring writers, Art. I knew you could bring some great, new advice to the table (despite going last this week...).

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Meredith! I tried.... :-)

Catriona McPherson said...

You've done it, Art - come in after 12 tips and delivered a belter - nine ways to do everything is spot-on!

And the ignoring tip too - absolutely. I'm bashful about admitting this but I've never been in a critique group or a writing class.

Dana King said...

This has been a great series. I've been around a while now, and while I can't say I saw much that was "new" to me, it's always good to have things expressed differently, and to have some ideas of my own validated.

Thanks to all.

RJ Harlick said...

Good for you. Art. You managed to come up with some good ones that none of us had mentioned. I particularly like the one about the need for revising, not just editing.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, everyone! Glad y'all enjoyed!

Susan C Shea said...

True stuff, all of it. That last bit is important. If I hear once more there has to be a body on page one, I will scream. When we're new, if we don't have the confidence, we try to follow every bit of advice and wind up with a slushy mess. My sweetie, an artist who did things his way, always said "Ignore alien orders."

Clare O'Donohue said...

Great stuff Art. I like the idea of going back to that clay - not that one is bad and the other good, but that each time it's a bit different, changed by what came before. That's what keeps the discovery interesting.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Art, what a terrific post with some excellent advice I needed to hear. Many thanks!