Hope the weekend treated you well. Writer and editor Nann Dunne posted this link on a Yahoo discussion list a couple days ago and I’m sharing it here because Larry Brooks knows whereof he speaks.
In this particular blog, Larry points out 7 things that will make you a better novelist (and, by extension, writer).
It involves WORK.
So let’s have a think about this.
Here’s a quote from Larry’s blog (linked to above) that sums up what he’s driving at:
“Just write” is, in my opinion, one of the most misguided, even toxic pieces of writing advice ever given air time. It’s like telling a surgeon to “just cut.” Just keep digging around in there until you find something you think might be malignant.
Nobody wants that doctor.
Craft is nothing if not a big ol’ pile of tools and principles. And like any tool, you can hit yourself on the thumb as easily as you can drive a nail home with one informed stroke, even after reading the same how-to manual. Craft doesn’t really shine a light on touch and sensibility… which is the golden ring of writing spectacularly.
Writing craft, my friends, is indeed a big ol’ pile of tools and principles. And like Larry says, somebody can hand you a box of those tools and principles, but unless you know how to use them, they’re not going to do you much good. And you might end up hitting yourself on the thumb.
So I read Larry’s blog a few times, and I got to thinking about my own journey, and here are the 5 things I came away with:
1. Get some lessons on wielding craft. And like Larry says, do this BEFORE you self-publish anything or try to get something published. He’s absolutely right, that there are many, many novelists out there who just start writing (see Larry’s quote, above) without the foundation or infrastructure in place to support all the elements that make a good story. And that, he notes, is like writing your own rejection letters.
I was fortunate in that I got foundations about fiction writing in high school (SRSLY — they used to teach that back in the day in public school) and college and then got even more foundations about different styles of writing in grad school. My journey as an editor (from apprentice to professional) has also been key in helping me with the foundations of craft.
So when I started writing fiction in earnest — that is, started really taking it seriously — I dissected good writing and tried to figure out what made it tick. I’m one of those people who likes to know HOW THINGS WORK, so dissecting writing is something I enjoy doing anyway. I read (and still read) guides on all the moving parts of writing and I’ve participated in workshops and writing conferences because when all the moving parts of writing work, it’s a joy to behold.
Now, obviously, a lot of us started writing before we started really thinking about craft (I’m guilty), and I, at least, have learned that that’s not the best way to do it. Larry’s right. Again, I was fortunate because I had some basics under my belt, and I learned quite a bit about writing through my editing career, but I have learned quite a bit more since I started writing fiction seriously, and it was because I realized that in order to improve as a writer, I had to study writing.
So, in essence, if you’re a writer starting out, find yourself a writing coach who can work with you on the fundamentals of craft. Ask around for recommendations on books that deal with craft. Take writing workshops (there are lots of options online these days). Go to writing conferences and attend panels that deal with craft.
In other words, if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, get serious about writing.
Larry mentions that screenwriters are way better about learning craft before writing than novelists. To that end, try these resources:
Screenplay, by Syd Field (Larry recommends this, as do I; it’s a classic that’s gone through several revisions)
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (another revised classic)
On Plot and Structure
More Structuring Coolness
And don’t forget Larry Brooks’ guides, especially Story Engineering
2. Craft includes proper grammar and spelling. OMG, you’re so bummed right now after reading that, aren’t you? “Dammit, Andi, here I was all into the elements of writing that include plot, structure, point-of-view, setting, characterization, and pacing and you had to go and mention that!”
This is my editor self speaking, darlings. Grammar and spelling are part of the foundation of writing craft. If you don’t know what the parts of solid sentences are or how they work, how can you possibly build solid sentences that will then support the overall structure of your story?
I was fortunate in that I got lots of grammar fundamentals in high school. That is, I was able to take classes in advanced grammar (which involved lots of sentence diagramming) and the derivations of words. For real. Those classes were offered at my public high school and because I like to know how things work, I took them. Plus, I grew up with parents who were big on correct spelling and grammar. So that helped.
But if you weren’t as fortunate as I was in high school and/or college, do consider learning these basics part of your craft toolbox.
Start at places like this (for English speakers):
Daily Writing Tips: English 101
Grammar Definitions (comes with some quizzes)
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation (new, updated edition)
Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students (love this one)
3. Don’t write every idea that shows up. Larry covers this pretty well and for the most part, I agree with him. I’ve had many, many ideas over the years for stories that tried to entice me into dark alleys. Some I went with. Many I didn’t. What happens to me in this regard is if I get a really strong idea, I ponder it. I don’t just sit down and start pounding away on my keyboard. Rather, I think about the characters in the idea and where they go and what drives them and what potential conflict might be. Is the idea something that can carry the weight of a good story? Or is it just a tease, trying to make me give up time and energy into writing something that isn’t going to pan out?
So I carry the idea around for a while and poke at it. Remember, I like to see how things work, so I take the idea apart and look at its inner functions before I consider taking it for a spin. Like Larry says, I play hard to get while I’m also getting to know the idea and its nuances. If I decide that I like how all the parts seem to be working and I like the characters and the various plot arcs, then I’ll try it out. But I rarely, if ever, get hit by an idea and immediately start writing it. That not only leads me into a dark alley, but leaves me there with no cell phone or ride home. So I tend to be picky about what I’m going to work on.
Plus, I have a day job. So I have to schedule my writing around that and the other stuff that life throws at you, in addition to the mundane tasks of each day. I want to make damn sure an idea is worth the time I have to spend with it before I go wandering around in vast writing thickets and brambles. Not that there’s anything wrong with that approach. Maybe you like hacking your way through that sort of writing landscape. I don’t, so I’m picky.
4. Think about your writing process and how it works for or against you. Larry notes that if you want to start a debate in a writing arena, bring up outliners vs. pantsers. Many people swear by one camp or the other, but the reality is, the result of either approach should be the same: strong story, vetted draft, publication.
What’s key here is STRONG STORY. It doesn’t matter which process you use. What’s important is how you apply it to get a STRONG STORY and a structurally sound piece of writing. So your process — whatever it is — needs to do that. You can be a pantser ’til the cows come home, but if all you’re doing is throwing everything at a manuscript and not working on structure or plot or the strength of your story, your process hasn’t served you. Same if you’re an outliner/prepper. You can do that until the sun falls into the ocean, but if it’s not allowing you room to explore your story and strengthen it or even get started on it, then you need a new approach in your process.
With experience comes recognition of where your strengths lie in terms of process, and also recognition of what you’re doing wrong. If things aren’t quite working for you, consider your process, too, as something that might need tinkering.
HINT: the more you learn about craft, the better you’ll get about recognizing your strengths and weaknesses and, by extension, your process.
5. Write with intent. What that means, in my book (see what I did there?), is that you don’t jump on every idea bandwagon. Be mindful of craft and how that’s expressed in various stories. So if you sit down to write an idea that came to you in the shower, what’s your INTENT behind that idea? If you want that idea to shine, to become something awesome, then you need to take some time with it and let it grow and develop a bit.
Larry also talks about writing for your audience. Sure, we’ve all heard “write what you know” (which actually keeps you sort of limited) and “write what you want to write” (which, again, keeps you limited). And there is some truth to both, but the fact is, if you’re writing seriously and you want to be taken seriously, then you need to understand the genres in which you’re writing and the audiences that read them.
Again, Larry Brooks:
And yet, how do you distinguish story within a genre in which the tropes and expectations have been defined for you?
The answer is to accept that genres are, by and large, formulaic. The tropes and expectations unfold within the same basic structure that drives any and all genres (structure is universal, it is not genre-dependent, while content-focus with a genre differs from other genres, and is pre-ordained). Your first order of business is to give readers what they expect, what they come for.
And yet, the trick is to dress up the expected tropes with something fresh, a new twist on the familiar, an exotic locale, a thematic arena that pushes buttons (like a love story among nuns, for example), or the source of unexpected genius colliding with an unlikely source of darkness.
Be the same, genre-wise… but be different, style and set-dressing-wise and exposition-wise, with powerful themes and a narrative full of shock, awe, surprise and warm hugs in the right places.
Successful genre stories break out for two reasons: they deliver the expected with stellar vividness and sensual resonance, and they change things up with the delivery with fresh ideas that plow new ground… all within the tropes of the genre itself.
Boom. My work here is done!
Writing is a balance between following your creative path but also recognizing that there are certain expectations within the genres you write. Especially if you are interested in being taken seriously as a professional writer.
So approach your projects with INTENT. Write to strong structure and story, and ultimately, to your audience.
And subscribe to Larry Brooks’ blog at Storyfix 2.0. Cuz the dude has mad skillz and knowledge.
Happy writing, happy Monday!