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.