Learning from Writing Guides Part 1

Last week, I gave you my top writing book picks.  But having and reading craft books is only a small part of the picture.  After considerable trial and error, I have come up with a few tips on how to make the most of the advice you collect.

This week, we're going to talk approach.  These are things you can do to maximize your benefit before you even open a craft guide.

#1 - You have to be writing in order for any of this advice to be useful

Note that's present tense, not past or future tense.  Without actual ongoing practice, advice means nothing.  You can't improve until you start.  You can't tweak imaginary words on a blank page.  The story in your head will always be imprecise and incomplete, because you can't fit the whole story up there, much less every individual word of it.  You have to write it down to make it real.  And once it's real, then you can see what the next steps are.

Let's assume you know all that, and you're already writing.  If this isn't the first writing advice you've ever read, you'll have heard the standard "butt in chair" riot act*.  You're either doing it or you're not, so let's move on!

#2 - Forget about perfection

We aren't chasing perfection.  In fact, I don't think anyone even knows what perfection is.  Can you point to a single story or novel that you consider perfect?  Does everyone else agree with you?  No.  Because perfection doesn't exist.

I know all the arguments for waiting, for reading first, for trying to gather all the tools before starting.  Believe me, I didn't read so many writing books because I was spending all my free time writing.  I'm a perfectionist, and I always want to learn as much as I can before I do something.  My goal is always to do things "right," and that often means to wait and think first.

But writing isn't like that.  You have to play to win, and you have to make peace with the mess and imperfection that is your story.  Because (surprise!) the mess will never go away.  Not in the next draft, or the next book, or twenty million words from now.  You can improve, but that just means identifying and tidying new messes.  In fact, really good writers recognize that there is a place in fiction for every type of mess.  Each story has its own needs, and the sooner we leave legalism behind, the better.

#3 - Not all advice is for everyone, but all advice is worth hearing

Unless you're completely new and innocent, you've probably got some strong opinions on what is right and wrong in writing.  You can't teach writing, you can only write.  This structure is better, that topic is deadly, adverbs are soul sucking pits of despair invented by demons, second person doesn't sell, planning ruins the ART... the arguments go on and on.  

But step back for a minute, and you'll see that there are published stories in second person.  Nearly every topic has been covered in literature, even (especially?) controversial ones.  I have yet to read an author that didn't use even ONE adverb.  You might not like oddly structured stories or stories about mean people, but that doesn't mean it can't be done successfully.

So if the opportunity presents itself, learn about the things you dislike or disagree with.  Listen to conflicting opinions.  There is probably some kernel of truth there for you to find.  At the very least, you'll have the opportunity to really examine and test your own opinions.

I'm not saying adopt everything you read.  In fact, that's a whole separate problem - coming up later.  It might not be the right approach for you, or it might not be the right time to address it.  Heck, it really could be wrong.

Still, in this area, an open and thoughtful approach will serve you best.  Try to work through defensiveness - remember, no one is saying you actually have to DO any of this.  Just consider it.  Because if you can't, if you are so adamant on a point that you can't even listen to other options, you're probably holding yourself back in some way.

#4 - Three stages of learning are ignorance, hypersensitivity, and internalization

OK, if you just searched wikipedia, you found out I made that up.  If there is a psychological theory out there that explains this, I'm not familiar with it.  But this tip comes from observations of myself and others, both in the writing field and out of it.  Here's how it goes down:

Ignorance: Johnny thinks he is the bee's knees.  He doesn't know there is a problem.  He doesn't even know he doesn't know.  And then something comes along and bursts his bubble - through a book, critique, class, or failure.

Luckily, Johnny doesn't just find out about the problem, he's presented with a solution too.  Usually this takes the form of a "rule of thumb" - some flag that signifies a larger problem, often a word, phrase, or punctuation mark of some kind.  When a concept is new, we like to boil it down to the simplest terms.  A problem with passive voice becomes a problem with the word was.

Hypersensitivity: Now that Johnny knows what to look for, he sees it everywhere.  He prunes it out of his prose ruthlessly, even if it means damaging the text in other ways.  Because Johnny has conquered the greater evil - be it adverb, passive voice, repetitive pronoun, incomplete sentences, exposition, or whatever.

(In fact, Johnny might be so aware of the flag that he starts to see it in everyone else's writing as well.  I went through a period where I had trouble reading published books because seeing things that I was removing from my own text derailed my experience as a reader.  For example, I'd run into the word was and automatically start puzzling out how I would get rid of it.  Kind of takes the fun out of reading.  This can also be an issue when giving/receiving critiques, but we'll talk about that later.)

Thankfully, it doesn't last forever.  Johnny begins to unconsciously solve the problem as he writes, before he even knows it's there.  He differentiates between the flag and the problem it represents.  Johnny becomes less reactionary and more discerning.  He'll notice that there are places where he wants to leave the adverb/exposition/whatever - either because he sees the damage left behind when he removes it, or because he likes what it does for the story by being there.  He relaxes a little, and suddenly that flag doesn't bother him so much.  He's internalized the solution, and now Johnny is free to obsess over the next thing.

I think it is important to be aware of this cycle, because it is possible to get stuck.  If you get stuck in the ignorance phase, then that's probably a product of complacency or conceit - we all know that our work isn't perfect.  It's up to you to get out of that tar pit.

But let's say you get stuck in the hypersensitive phase - that can really muck up your creativity.  In most cases I've experienced, it's because I didn't reach the point where I understood the big problem behind the cue I was reacting to.  When I figured out what was holding me back, I was able to search out the explanations I needed, and that got me back on track.

Just keep in mind that it might happen over and over again, depending on how quickly you go through these phases.  I've had battles with was and ly and looked and had and telling.  The cycle has sped up as I've become aware of the problem - was took about 6 months, while looked only took a few weeks.  But it isn't over.  My campaign against it and but is only just beginning.

So that's it for this week - next week we'll talk about application and focus.

*If you haven't, or you need a refresher, brace yourself for a lot of creative foul language and then check out Chuck Wendig's blog TerribleMinds.  This is the strongest metaphorical kick in the pants I am aware of.  If you want a real kick in the pants, which will motivate without all the swearing, you may want to request it from a dedicated (but slightly sadistic) friend or family member.

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