In the weekend threads of Ask A Manager, there are always one or two about writing. The writers always have solid tips…and they always rankle me. On the face of it, it’s ridiculous because it’s good advice, such as, have a set writing time, make sure your sentence structure is varied, and have beta readers. There is nothing objectionable in any of that advice, but I have two issues with it. One, it makes for bland and safe writing. Two, it doesn’t work for everyone, and it’s tended to be presented as The One True Way of Writing.
Addressing the latter first, I used to freak out any time I read these kinds of lists because I inevitably fell short on each one. I don’t plan my writing. At all. This is one of the near universal tips when it comes to writing–have an outline. Me, I laugh at your outline! I don’t, actually, but I’ve never written one. Anytime I try, I give up after one or two bullet points. I write mysteries, and you’d think that would be prime fodder for lists. It is, but not for me. The way I ‘plan’ a novel is by having the idea come to my mind or fixating on something and thinking it’s a good idea. I let it marinate for a day or ten, and the ideas slowly start flowing in. For example, the idea of a protagonist who follows her boyfriend because she thinks he’s cheating on her sprang to mind. The first scene of her seeing him snuggle up with a blond in front of his apartment as the protagonist sat, fuming, in her car immediately came to me, and I wrote it in a fairly short amount of time. As I was writing, the idea that she was from his past seemed logical, and the details started filtering in as I was writing. He went missing, and I knew from the very beginning who did the taking. That’s something that has been a constant for me when I write a mystery–I know who the perpetrator is from the start. I may not know exactly why or the reason may change as I’m writing, but the perp remains the same.
I guess you could say I do an outline, but I do it in my head. That may not be an option as I get older, but it’s easier for me that way. It also keeps things fresher, and whenever I try to force my characters to adhere stringently to my plan, they rebel by becoming flat on the ‘paper’. Yes, I’m an Old. I still think of writing as pen on paper, even though neither of these things is true any longer. I know it sounds woo-woo to say that my characters shimmer when they’re fully realized, but it’s true. There’s an energy that emanates from the paper when I keep true to their spirits. When I don’t, there’s nothing I can say or do to coax them to be real people. That’s why I like to say that I’m merely a conduit for my characters and not the actual writer. I don’t feel as if I have control over them, even though I do shape their worlds.
Side note: Not everyone can be a good writer. I know the new trend (in America, and it’s so American) is to believe that anyone can be great at any creative endeavor if they try hard enough, but it’s not true. I think it’s worse with writing because most people do some kind of writing on a regular basis. However, writing emails or reports is not the same thing as writing creatively, and this is a hill I’m willing to die on. Yes, anyone can work to be a competent writer–but without the talent, it’s not going to be anything more than that. One of the downsides to the liberal belief in treating everyone equally is that they (we) tend to conflate fair and same. Treating everyone fairly is an admirable goal, but that does not mean treating everyone the same. By extension, we are all equal in a macro sense, but we are not the same. I’ve given this example before, but my brother is a fantastic photographer. He’s put a lot of time and practice into it, of course, but he also has a knack/eye for the best shot. We could put in the same amount of time and practice, and have the same equipment, and he will still come up with the better photo every time. I know it feels like a very illiberal thing to say, but we are not all created equally in every way.
Another thing I do ‘wrong’: I don’t have a set time to write every day. I do have a set amount of words, but that’s not the same thing. I also don’t have a regular job or a family, so it’s easier for me to write when the spirit moves rather than at a set time. I do think making it a habit every day is a stellar tip because the one thing that makes you a better writer is to write frequently and regularly. I will also say, however, that writing many words has never been an issue for me. In addition to writing three posts a week, I write 2,000 words of fiction a day. Once during NaNoWriMo, I wrote over 200,000 words for the month. My current novel, I’m 130,000 words in, and there is no end in sight. My weakness is editing. I do it as I write so I never truly have a rough draft–which is also not advisable, apparently, but I hate doing the after edits.
Let’s talk feedback. I know it’s a good thing to get feedback, but one thing to learn is how to separate good feedback from bad feedback. Or rather, feedback that is helpful and feedback that is not. I’ll give you an example. I have a short story I wrote called Chasing Red. It’s unlike anything else I’ve written in that I hate descriptions in prose. I prefer to use my imagination to recreate a scene as I read rather than have it fed to me spoonful by spoonful. It’s probably one reason why I prefer books to movies. So, show don’t tell is good advice overall, but I deliberately break it because a lot of showing bores me to tears. Anyway! Back to my short story. I actually had descriptions in it because it’s about the color red. It’s hard to write about a color without actually having descriptions, it turns out. One of the critiques I got about it from my MA writing cohort was that I needed to include more backstory about the protagonist to understand why she does what she does. It’s funny feedback for me because I’m usually all about the backstory. I write backstory out the wazoo, and I car cheerfully write backstory until the end of time.
Side note II: One reason I really liked The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya (which I reviewed) is because there is very little backstory in the stories. I was talking about this book the other day with my BFF, Kat, who was the one who gave the book to me for my birthday. We agreed that it’s not in our top five books of all time or top five favorites, but as she said, the one thing it did well was be unlike anything else. Kat mentioned she hadn’t read anything like it in quite some time, and I would agree. The writing is sparse, and Motoya trusts the reader to accept whatever premise she establishes without much if any backstory, and I really appreciated that. In addition, the magic surrealism was presented as normal, which I’ve found in other Japanese-related pop culture as well. One of my favorite authors is Banana Yoshimoto, and she does this as well. I love Studio Ghibli, and Hayao Miyazaki (the other H. Miyazaki!) is a master at this as well. Speaking of Hidetaka, he does this is his games, too. One thing I love about the Dark Souls series is how hard you have to work for the lore. Also, the fact that Miyazaki has an uncompromising vision, and he expects the gamer to be able to meet him on his terms. The one thing all of them have in common is that they trust the consumer to grasp what they are doing, and they remain firm in their visions.
I took the criticism about Chasing Red to heart, and I diligently worked on a backstory for my main character. As I wrote, I could actually see the shimmer from the story fade away until there was nothing left. By the time I was done with the edit, the story was dead. I had killed my story by listening to that piece of critique. Heartbroken, I put the story in the metaphorical shelf and grieved its death. I couldn’t read it again, and I couldn’t think about it without wanting to cry. Many years later, I pulled it out again and ripped out all the backstory. I restored it to its former state, and I watched as the shimmer came back again. I was exceedingly happy that I was able to resurrect the story, and it taught me a valuable lesson about criticism and feedback. That lesson, by the way, is not to disregard all feedback. It’s that I needed to be more discerning about what is helpful to me and what is not. I had to look at what I was trying to accomplish with the story and remain true to it. I had to trust that the point I was trying to get across was there, and if it wasn’t, oh well. I don’t mean that flippantly, and I don’t mean you should never consider how the audience will receive your work, but I do think a writer has to be satisfied with their own work before they can even think about their audience.
I’ve read thousands of books, many of them mysteries. The ones that stick out are the ones that have a solid core to them, even if it’s not traditional or the acceptable way to write. A strong and consistent voice is more important than any set of standards or rules, and I think a good writer deliberately breaks rules. I like to think I’m a good writer, and I break rules all the time. I have good reasons for doing it, which is the important distinction, I think. Rules are a good guide, but they aren’t written in stone. So, my off-the-cuff advice would be to write as if no one is watching to free up the creativity inside.