Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Tip Tuesday: The Second R

Last week, I started this column to pass along writer tips that I've picked up as I traveled the road to publication. I stated that while it's difficult to come up with a one-size-fits-all roadmap for people, there are some general principles that I think can be quantified into a (hopefully) easy to remember formula:

And, as the little red line indicates, last week we talked about how writers are readers. We devour books, both in our respective genres and out of them.

So what, pray tell, does the second "R" in the formula stand for? Why, reading, of course. More specifically, reading about writing.

Let's be honest, unless you were born with a supernatural amount of writing talent, there's a lot that you have to learn. And I'm saying that, not as someone who has learned it all, but as someone who knows darn well that I still have a lot to learn too! Writing fiction is never as easy as it seems. There are a lot of tips and tricks to pick up, lots of ideas and concepts to master, techniques to squirrel away until you need them.

To learn all of this stuff, you could just surf the web and hope someone is doing weekly writing tip columns on his blog (ahem). Actually, there are a lot of websites out there that offer advice (better than mine, that's for sure), such as Randy Ingermanson's and Jeff Gerke's.

Or you can always go to a bookstore and find the reference section. There's usually a ton of how-to-write books that cover a wide range of topics. You can usually find good ones published by Writer's Digest (although they can also be a mixed bag; some good, some not so good).

Of course, one of the best ways to "read" about writing is by joining a writer's group. For example, my membership in American Christian Fiction Writers has been invaluable, not only because of what I've learned on the e-mail loops, at local chapter meetings, and at the national conference, but also because of the networking I've been able to do.

So there's a lot of advice out there for you to find. Gather it, read it, assimilate it, use it. But do so with a little bit of caution, because there's a trap you can fall into all too easily.

Let me give you a personal example. A number of years ago, I started "getting serious" about my writing (I've done that a lot; seems to be a every-other-year type of thing) and I started gathering books about writing to learn more.

One of the books I got was On Writing by Stephen King. I figured if anyone could tell me about how to write a page-turning spellbinder, it'd be Uncle Stevie. And by and large, this was a great book. I'd recommend it to just about anyone.

But as I read it, I got a little nervous. See, King stated emphatically that the only true way to write a thrilling, unpredictable book was to go into the story with no idea how it'll end. He said that if you figured out the plot step-by-step, it'd be too predictable and boring. So he instructed his readers that the only good way to write was to make it up as we went along.

That freaked me out, because I tend to do outlining before I write. At the time, I thought, That's why my books aren't selling! I've been too predictable! I have to make it up as I go along.

Shortly after finishing King's book, I moved on to read The Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth by James N. Frey. Again, a good book with some great ideas and advice. Only there was something that confused me. Frey said that if you wanted to write a best-seller (which many of his students have gone on to do), you have to come up with an outline first! And not just one, several!

I was so confused. I had Stephen King saying, "Make it up!" on one side, James N. Frey saying, "Outline that sucker!" on the other. So who should I listen to?

In my case, it turns out that I should have listened to Frey. See, here's the thing, folks. Oftentimes, a writer, when giving advice, will try to codify the way they do things as "the only way it works." I think that's what King did. When he writes, he makes it up as he goes along. He has no idea of how his story will end. And that's great! Good for him! But it doesn't work that way for everyone. By suggesting that it does, King is trying to force a round peg into a square hole. It just doesn't work.

Again, that's why I'm a bit hesitant to give out too much advice. I know what works for me, but I'd be foolish to suggest that it's what would work for everyone. For example, I love Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method. I've used this several times and I think it's helped me write some strong stories (Failstate, my upcoming novel, is one such example). But is it for everyone? No, not really.

That's why you should always take advice from others with a little grain of salt. Yes, there are some universal, set-in-stone kind of rules. Spelling, grammar, punctuation. But al;ways be cautious when someone tells you that their way is the only way. It works for them. It may even work for you. But if it doesn't, don't worry about it.

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