Monday, October 4, 2021

Let Me Not Tell You How to Write

 Q: Not everything works for everybody. Give us some examples of writing advice, given to you in good faith, which just didn’t work for you. Tell us why you think it didn’t work.

- from Susan

Yes, these pieces of advice are always given in good faith by people who have benefited from finding them and are being generous in sharing them with other writers. But our brains work differently, and so the tricks and mental dances that spark our creativity, help us sweat out the stalled moments, and give us a measure of success are going to be as varied as we are.

A writer whose productivity and long term success I admire shared his foolproof system of outlining his novels before writing them. Real outlines with numerals and indents – the whole thing. I can see by his sales and fans that it works perfectly for him. I could no more do a formal outline for my stories than I could ride a horse bareback. (That would be a no.) My brain simply doesn’t work that way, and it's more than just being a “pantser.” I don’t think in such an orderly way. I also can’t diagram a sentence, so my spatial understanding of my own language is obviously deficient.

Another excellent and immensely popular crime novelist has explained that she does not submit to an editor’s desire to cut and trim. She has said we should trust our talent She makes all her own modifications and because she is a Really Big Name, she can do this. However, her novels, good as they are, are long and the physical books are about twice the thickness of about ninety percent of the rest of the shelf. She has earned the right to make her own rules, but I wouldn’t dare to try that, even if I had an editor who wouldn’t laugh out loud, because my confidence in the importance of every word I submit isn’t as high as hers is.

Other tips? Don’t get me started on the three-act and the five-act issue. I once asked why, if in the three-act formula, if you had your big turning point in the middle of the second act, you didn’t just call it a four-act form? A puzzled silence ensued. I’m not very good at fractions either.

There’s lots of good advice that I’ve learned from, and I actually learn a lot about writing from the advice that doesn’t work for me. I do try to remember, when I’m the one giving the advice, that my take on what works is only guaranteed to work for me, however. And any stated rule is worth breaking when your gut says to go with your instincts and creativity. 



Terry said...

OTOH, I'd love to see you try riding a horse bareback. Okay, I'm with you, I've tried outlining and the best I can do is a sort of rough sketch that changes the minute I start writing.

Susan C Shea said...

When pigs fly, Terry!

Josh Stallings said...

Yes! And Yes! I agree one writer’s method regardless of their sales stature won’t help me if it doesn’t fit into my winding twisty working ways.
I just finished a massive edit, after my agent said we need to lose 30,000 words I had a melt down, followed by a tantrum, followed by a need to tell my brilliant agent I was sorry, and finally followed by a hard cold look at the draft. I didn’t promise a shorter draft, buuut I saw so many duplicated ideas it became easy to cut it down. I’m lucky I’m not so powerful that I wouldn’t be willing to listen.