Learning From Writing Guides part 2

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Back in December, I posted a list of my favorite writing craft books.  Then I started to share some tips for using those books.  Well, here is the long-awaited continuation of that topic – how do you make the most of your writing guide experience?

While Reading

Take Your Time

These books aren’t stories; even the best written are information dense.  If you slog through them, you’re not likely to get much out of the experience.  Don’t be afraid to skip to another section or put it down for a while.

Don’t Skip Stuff because you’re awesome at the discussed topic.

Bouncing around the book is fine – in fact, reading a particularly interesting or timely topic first can be more useful than pedantically reading from front to back.  But if you are tempted to skip because you “don’t need to get better” in that area, beware!  Complacency can turn strength into weakness.  Besides, you might need that warm smug feeling you get when you read advice you already apply.

Resist Discouragement

I think most writers are a little insecure.  I know I am.  So when I read a book full of things I need to work on, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the task ahead.  That’s perfectionism rearing its ugly head.  So, when I start to feel discouraged, I try to recognize that I’m taking dead black ink too personally, and putting unreasonable expectations on myself.  I don’t know what pep talk will work for you, but find a way to beat that discouragement!  It’s impossibly hard to grow when you’re squashed under a boulder.

Take Notes

Sometimes I have a major “ah-ha!” moment, only to forget about it after another two pages.  Prevent this by having a place to keep especially pertinent insights!

After Reading

Let it Percolate

It is OK to “just” read a book.  They don’t always have to trigger a massive overhaul of your life.  Just having read the book will do you good.  It will add to your troubleshooting toolkit and your vocabulary for discussing writing with other people.  One reason I read so many writing books is because I find they expand my peripheral awareness of the industry, and keep me from getting a) depressed or b) a big head.  So passively allowing the things you’ve read to impact your work is a viable strategy.  Don’t knock it.

Focus

Reading isn’t osmosis.  Therefore, expecting yourself to automatically absorb everything mentioned in a book isn’t reasonable.  You’ll freeze, overload your system, if you try to apply everything you learned at once.  Besides, not all the advice will be appropriate for your brain.  This is where patience and focus comes in.  Fully understanding and developing good habits around a few topics is infinitely better than trying to pull your writing in a thousand poorly planned directions.  It’s just like the proverbial pickle jar – try to grab too many pickles, and you’ll get stuck in the jar.

So how to pick what you’re going to focus on?

Maybe start by asking yourself what excited you the most in the book.  What do you most want to implement right now?  What would be easiest, or change your work the most?

Another option is asking external sources – namely, other writers – what would most improve your work.  This is one of the reasons I’m so strongly in favor of writing/critique groups*.  It’s almost impossible to objectively view your own skills.  Some of the things you think are strengths might actually be weaknesses, and vice versa.  Other people often see this more clearly, and if they’re writers too, they might have experiences that could help you.

Practice

It makes sense, right?  If a musician wants to improve her phrasing or intonation, she’ll do exercises specific to those skills.  You can do the same thing with your writing!

There are thousands of exercise ideas out there, from writing prompts to free association.  The exercise you choose will depend on what you want to focus on.  What I want to talk about are some tips that will help, regardless of the specific exercise you choose.

  • Be Specific.  Don’t just focus on dialogue.  Focus on dialogue tags or pacing or voice.  The more specific you are, the better you’ll be able to judge your progress.  Small steps add up to big ones.
  • Don’t use your current project.  I find it incredibly difficult to do exercises involving my current project.  It just matters too much for me to play around as much as I should.  So when I am practicing a specific skill, I’ll use a piece I don’t care much about, or I’ll start something new.  The cool thing is that sometimes (especially when I’m working on structure or character things), this results in a salable** short story.
  • Develop flexibility.  Writing is a fluid process, and skills are rarely black and white.  Often, expertise is deftly navigating a continuum.  You want to be so comfortable with the concept that you can slide from one end to the other whenever you need to.  So if you are looking at pacing, do your exercise trying to get it to go as fast as possible, as slow as possible, or start fast and end slow, etc.  Practice along the whole continuum, not just one end.
  • Go wild.  Write something strange, a style/tense/voice/genre you don’t normally write in.  Experiment.  Don’t let your preconceptions limit you.  You might discover something fun or deep, or you might decide that was the worst idea you’ve ever had.  The good thing about having tried it is that you’ll recognize it later if it comes up again by accident.
So there you have it!  Go forth and make the most of that enormous library of writing books!  Suck them as dry as a carrot after an encounter with a vampire bunny.
I hope you found something useful – feel free to share your own tips in the comments!
*There are definitely things you need to be careful of, though.  Just because someone tells you something doesn’t mean it is true.  There are a lot of horror stories out there about writing groups, and while I can’t point everyone to a solid group of people, I do think I have some thoughts that might help… in my next set of posts.
**By salable, I mean something I’m willing to send out.  So far, none of them have actually sold!
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Learning from Writing Guides Part 1

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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 wordwas.

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, whilelooked 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.

11 Essential Writing Guides

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I am always reluctant to provide writing advice. I’m happy to share anecdotes, revelations, or techniques that help me, but actually advise people? No. I’m not published, and even if I were, there are many more qualified writers out there that you should listen to.

However I think that on this particular topic, I am qualified. In the past 2 weeks alone, I’ve read 4 writing craft books, which brings my all time total to somewhere between thirty and forty.

I read exhaustively in any area I happen to be interested in (this includes user manuals, btw), but not everyone is like me. And besides, not every book is full of unique information. If you want basics, go to the writing guide section of the bookstore or library, close your eyes, and grab something. If you want more than that, read everything and then retrospectively decide what you could have skipped. Or… read on and trust me.

What follows is a list of books I’ve found particularly invaluable. Put together, they cover all of the information contained in the many books I’ve read that I did not list. These are the books that I keep on my reference shelf. I’ll add more as time passes, but I think what follows is enough to be getting on with.

Basic Plot & Characters

Plot vs Character by Jeff Gerke or Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
Both cover three-act structure and how to tie a character’s arc to the plot.  Plot vs Character includes an extensive section on building a multidimensional character, while Plot & Structure discusses some techniques that add flexibility to traditional three-act.

Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
So far, the best character book I’ve come across.  Others cover the basics, but Card has a unique way of breaking things down.

Prose Techniques

Description by Monica Wood
So much more than “just” description, Wood believes that relating a story IS description.  Her discussion is thorough, applicable, and interesting.  One of my favorite craft books, period.

Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
Grammar.  Word choice.  A unique discussion of voice.  Absolutely not boring.

Advanced Story Techniques

The Fire in Fiction or Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
Maass makes really important points about big ideas like stakes, tension, and theme.  I read both, you probably don’t have to, as their content overlaps significantly.  I liked Fire in Fiction better, but that might just be because I read it first.

Between the Lines by Jessica Page Morrell
Filled with advanced and subtle techniques that really aren’t covered adequately anywhere else – things like foreshadowing, flashbacks, pacing, suspense, epiphanies, and cliffhangers.

Self-Editing

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King
Exactly what it claims to be.  A classic for a reason. 

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman
Invaluable for identifying specific areas to work on – if you’re getting rejections and don’t know why, read this.  But beware – it’s a book of extremes.  All the flaws in your manuscript will suddenly jump out at you, which will either be a sledgehammer to your motivation or trigger an adjective-killing spree that could ultimately cause just as much damage to your prose as the adjectives did.  So I suggest waiting to read this one until you’ve done enough writing to know who you are on the page.

Mushy Stuff

The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
Ms. Lerner is an editor, and though this book does talk about the publishing industry and “what editors want,” I found it more valuable for her insights regarding the psychology of writers.  There’s real wisdom in those pages.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Want someone to make you feel warm and fuzzy and special?  That’s this book.

The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell
Closer to a rally or a challenge, Bell uses fewer warm fuzzies than Lamott, but manages to be equally motivational.   More so if you’re goal-oriented like me.

There are three additional books I want to bring up, because although they aren’t for reading cover to cover, they are useful references for plot/character archetypes. There are many options, but my favorites include Character Traits by Linda Edelstein, Story Structure Architect and 45 Master Characters by Victoria Schmidt.

So there you have it.  My list.  I hope you find it useful.

Still, it’s one thing to collect information, and an entirely different thing to use it. So stop by again next week, and I’ll share some of my tips for sorting, choosing, and implementing writing advice without losing your mind.