Thursday, February 20, 2014

The good and bad of writing advice: one size does not fit all

If you're a writer who has published, then you get asked to speak or be on panels and talk about the various aspects of writing. Many writers are teachers or teach now and then. In the modern writing world, writers often articulate their process, their thoughts about character and so on to audiences or classes. This can be very helpful to inexperienced writers--but not always.

I am not talking about responses to specific work by a new writer (the direct responses that speak to a person's work)  but the more general advice writers give to other writers. When a writer gives a talk or talks in general about an aspect of writing, he or she is really talking about something that they've built a lecture around. They're making a point. They're making a point that they feel at that particular moment.

Voice is the strongest thing in fiction
Characters make the story.
Never outline.
Always outline.
Outline sometimes.
Write fast.
Write slow.

It's not just that different writers have different opinions about many aspects of writing. The same writer (I speak from experience here) will feel differently about their writing process etc... at different times. They'll focus in on an aspect and maybe get carried away by how they view it at that moment because they're learning something new or relearning something or simply excited about some approach to writing.

I think it's good for the person who is listening to writing advice to be aware of that. The writer may be talking like he's convinced of something--and he is--but that conviction isn't necessarily going to last a life-time. Writing is complex. The continent of writing is vast and writers are constantly stumbling upon new things.

On the receiving end: what's good advice for one writer may not be good advice for another. For example, I teach a creative writing course sometimes and I tell my students to slow down within a scene. That's generally good advice because inexperienced writers tend to rush through a scene. But it is not universally good advice. I may have one writer who includes way too many details. They get so bogged down in details that the reader falls asleep trying to slog through them. AND/OR that writer may be giving the wrong details so the whole scene is out of focus and harms the narrative drive and character development. So that writer hears "slow down" and they try to stretch out their scenes even more, and their writing not only doesn't improve, it actually gets worse.

SO, if you're taking a course, listening to a lecture, in a workshop, my advice is to listen to whatever the writer, writer-teacher, writer-speaker says AND THEN see if it works for you. In other words, writer beware. All writing advice is not for you. One size does not fit all.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Writers have time to get better

As a writer all I can do is what I can do at that particular place and time. Write what interests me, what gets me excited, what moves me. If I do less than that then I think it comes through in my writing. Anyway, where's the fun in doing less than that? But what I can do can always be more. I have time to make it more.

I try to learn, try to do what I do well better and try to do what I don't do as well better. I feel lucky that I'm a writer. I get to keep trying to write better until I can't write anymore. That's a gift. Think of being a professional athlete and the short run they have at doing what they love.

Writers have time to get better.

And you don't have to be the best writer in every way to be a good writer. In fact, even the great ones are not the best in every way. Good writers do some things very well and others maybe not so well. Some are very good with description or dialogue or characterization name it. Find what you do well, what you love to do, and do it. And then try to do it better. And then try to improve the things you don't do as well.

We can get better. We have time.

You will never figure it all out. How fiction works. Why some novels come alive an others don't. Nobody has it figured out. That's a blessing and a curse. Some days it feels like a curse anyway. But it's a blessing. To be engaged, to be passionate, to love the process--in spite of the days when you hate it--, to love the mess of it all and finding order in that mess and shaping it into a story, is pretty damn awesome. And it goes on, this feeling, this struggle, a whole life because we can't ever "figure it out" completely.

So, I feel lucky. I have time to get better.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Last blog of the year. I love this short inspirational youtube from numerous well-known writers giving  a sentence or two of writing advice.  What is the one piece of advice that almost every one of them gives?

You find your way to your unique way of writing by writing.

Happy Holidays

Thursday, December 12, 2013


I eventually got an MFA in Writing at Vermont College where I had many great teachers.

But before that, when I was an undergraduate, I tried out a few Creative Writing classes. Back in those days, and maybe in some classes these days too, the instructors didn't so much teach the class as talk about writing and then go over a story or two and then--nothing. There was no organized approach to teaching craft, no exercises to help us understand aspects of craft. It was just talk and then workshop. I didn't get much out of any of those classes.

Last night I was having final conferences with my students in my own creative writing class. When I started teaching this class years ago, I vowed to make it different from those useless classes that I had taken as an undergraduate. I would go through elements of craft, give them exercises to practice , get them writing in and out of class, get them reading published fiction and discussing it as writers, show videos of other writers talking about elements of craft. I would inspire them to write. I'd do more.

Last night I was talking to one of my students and he was asking me about majoring in English and I said there was good and bad to it for a writer. "We read differently than English students do," I said. "As writers, you and I read differently, and sometimes English classes can be frustrating for us because we read as writers."

A big smile broke out on his face.

It made me remember something--- how, back in one of those useless creative writing classes, the professor said, off-handedly, that when I finished my first novel I'd most likely put it away in a drawer and go on to the next and I shouldn't worry--that was natural.

A big smile broke out on my face.

I'd forgotten that smile until I saw it on my student's face.

You see I hadn't really believed I could write a novel. I wanted to. I'd written some things. But I didn't know if I could or how I would ever finish a novel. But here was this writer and this teacher of writing assuming I would. It made me think maybe he knew something I didn't. Maybe I really could finish a novel.

Belief is hard to come by.

You never know where you'll find it.

Sometimes even in a useless creative writing class. NOT so useless it turns out.

Thinking of yourself as a writer, finding the belief to do so, is a huge step to becoming one.

That professor/writer gave me an incredible gift.

Thank you, Professor G.

 I'll try to pass it on.

Friday, November 29, 2013

What's Missing In Your Writing?

What I love about this video is it expresses very well a certain landscape most writers must go through:

You've been writing for a while and you've had some good moments --you know that--and you know you have some good stories in you and you know you've worked hard and read a lot and studied the various aspects of writing fiction--AND you know something isn't quite what you want it to be be in your writing, something isn't quite There... but you don't know what.  You know good work; you understand it when you read it. You appreciate it.  You believe you have it in you to write good work but something isn't right in your scenes or sentences or characters, some thing, maybe small, isn't right. It's  a disappointment. Ira Glass articulates this gap  between what you know you can do, what you want to do, and what you're able to do. And we all, at least every creative writer I know, have been in that place. (Not to say there isn't always a kind of gap for writers between what they imagine and what they can actually get on the page but here I'm talking about a different gap, one more specific to writers still trying to find their way and at this place where they understand a lot but can't quite get that understanding into their fiction. )

The video speaks to that and writing your way through this "place".  It has no magic formula to give, but I think it's helpful to know almost every writer has gone though it. You have to just keep writing. It's that simple and that complex. Keep writing.

Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Reading Like a Writer

I read for pleasure first--because the experience of reading is one of the things I love about this world. But I'm a writer so I also read with an eye to how another writer does something well. Really good writers do some--BUT NOT ALL, which is encouraging in a way-- things really well. So I try to learn. 

For example, I look at this sentence that opens A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and I think WOW. And then I think--what makes it so good? It does a lot of things in one sentence, but I think, more than anything it makes me want to know Owen Meany and, to a lesser degree, the narrator. It's a great opening and it immediately attracts me to the characters. I want to know more.

"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."

"doomed" (a powerful word that makes us think of fate and tragedy), a boy with a "wrecked" voice and "smallest person I ever knew"---give the beginning of this sentence almost a mythic quality, and there is something about wrecked that has the echo of forces beyond us. Shipwreck--for example. And he's not just a "small" person but the "smallest person I ever knew"--Here it's a bit like a fairy tale. In all these there is the sense that this story is larger than itself, whatever itself will be. 

And then the next line: "the instrument of my mother's death"--not that he killed her or that he was a part of her death in some way. More vague and yet full of mystery and more involved than just being a part of it --"the instrument". How was he the instrument? What does instrument mean in this context? We want answers to this question and it is always good when a writer gets a reader wanting answers to questions he's posed directly or indirectly in the text. So this is yet another thing that this sentence makes me think about.

Why does the reader turn the page? To get to the next one. This sentence makes me want to turn the page because I want to know more about Owen Meany and the plot. The reader already has me hooked on character and story and I haven't even finished the first sentence.

OK, onward------Then the "but" and we turn the corner. All of these interesting and strange things that Owen Meany is, as interesting and compelling as they are, are not the reason our narrator is "doomed" to remember Owen. This is a thrilling moment in this sentence. We've been brought to it by the choice of words, the compelling information, the rhythm of the clauses...not because, or because, or even because... THEN but because he is the reason I believe in God.

What? I didn't see that coming but when it comes it seems just right...all of this is about faith and this will be a book about faith. You don't have to be a Christian to feel that this is right. Faith or the lack of it is one is at the heart of so much of what it means to be human.

There's more to say about this sentence, of course, but let me just end with this. Here's Mr. Irving's sentence again. 
"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."
Let me just rewrite this for him:
I have to remember a boy with a broken voice--not because of that or because he was so small or because he was part of why my mother died but because he made me believe in God.

IT'S the same information. I just changed a few words. Only a few. But what happened? I sucked the life right out of it--or most of the life. I did. I should be ashamed of myself.  Oh, it's not awful, I suppose, but that's the difference--not awful and something beautiful. This reminds me of Mark Twain's quote, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightening and the lightening bug."

I learn a lot from reading other writers. Sometimes I learn just from reading one sentence.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The book is boss

I'm not a huge Stephen King fan (probably my fault but I've just never loved his work the way I love certain authors), but I like a lot of things he says about writing.  This quote just reminded me not to force the writing. Sometimes a person can be too aware of craft and technique. Ultimately, it's all about being in the moment of the story. You have to just be there. You have to let the story go where it goes. BUT I think that if you do know craft what you know will be there. It's like when a pro quarterback throws a ball to a receiver with perfect accuracy. He can't think his way to that throw but it's the thousands of hours the quarterback has spent throwing passes that makes it possible.

One of the ways the computer has changed the way I work is that I have a much greater tendency to edit “in the camera”—to make changes on the screen. With Cell that’s what I did. I read it over, I had editorial corrections, I was able to make my own corrections, and to me that’s like ice skating. It’s an OK way to do the work, but it isn’t optimal. With Lisey I had the copy beside the computer and I created blank documents and retyped the whole thing. To me that’s like swimming, and that’s preferable. It’s like you’re writing the book over again. It is literally a rewriting.
Every book is different each time you revise it. Because when you finish the book, you say to yourself, This isn’t what I meant to write at all. At some point, when you’re actually writing the book, you realize that. But if you try to steer it, you’re like a pitcher trying to steer a fastball, and you screw everything up. As the science-fiction writer Alfred Bester used to say, The book is the boss. You’ve got to let the book go where it wants to go, and you just follow along. If it doesn’t do that, it’s a bad book. And I’ve had bad books. I think Rose Madder fits in that category, because it never really took off. I felt like I had to force that one.