Wednesday, June 14, 2017

5 Excellent Pieces of Writing Advice I NEVER Follow

Writing is an intensely personal endeavor. Most people are aware of this, even if they've never written anything besides a term paper, but on the surface, it just seems to make sense. Writers are sitting at their computers (or notepads if they like to kick it Old School) and pouring their souls into their work, so of course what they produce must be personal.

And while that's true, it's really only a small part of how intensely personal and individual writing is. Writing is solitary, and as such writers rarely employ the same process for producing quality work. Of all the arts, I think writing is one of the strangest, in that the process of creating a thing can be very separate from the thing itself. In visual art and music, there tend to be some fairly discrete skills that people need to learn in order to produce a finished product; certain ways you hold a paint brush or train the vibrato of your instrument, for example. There's far less of this in writing. Sure, mastering certain skills are important, but I think it's more of a toss up whether or not a particular writer ever chooses to employ that skill.

Simply put, one writer's key to success might just "not work" for another. This makes teaching writing incredibly difficult. It's already such a subjective discipline, it can be super frustrating that so little experience actually transfers well across different writers. You almost can't learn from the mistakes of others because what were mistakes for them might be your golden ticket.

And so to that end, I've compiled a list of excellent pieces of writing advice that I don't use. There's nothing inherently wrong with the advice, and some of it might solve your writing problems. But for me, they're so useless, the opposite is often truer. And maybe that will inspire you! Either way, call this a celebration of how unique the process each writer goes through to create something is.

#5: Create a plot outline before you begin your novel. This will stop you from getting lost in the middle, where your book may die a slow, tedious, plotless death.

I've put this one at #5 because, while this is incredibly common advice, there's some acknowledgement within the writing community that it's fairly split down the middle whether your a "plotter" or a "pantser." These terms are used to refer to the two main modes of preparing to write a story - Plotters make sure they've got an outline banged out, usually in a fair degree of detail before they get started and Pantsers... well, we just wing it. The term comes from the expression "flying by the seat of your pants."

Now, it might sound like a situation where the Plotters are the harder workers and the Pantsers are just over-excited or lazy, but that's not how things typically work out. I've tried plotting books before starting them. The idea of having an outline to guide me sure sounds appealing, but this is the reality:

I have never finished a book I outlined before I started writing.


Those books I over outline are the ones that - for me - die in the middle. They might not be plotless, but they are lifeless and the key is usually that I've focused on the plot and structure first, rather than finding the natural voice, characters and world for my book to inhabit. Once I've spewed some pages of rough text, I might sit back and outline a few things, but I've always free-written a large chunk of my books before committing myself to any kind of structure. For me, it's how I suss out if the characters and their stories are worth investing in.

For some people, outlining saves them from the mires of their writing nightmares, but I also know people mired in outlines, who I wish I could convince to just write until they FEEL the words. It sounds airy-fairy and ridiculous, but for certain people, it really does work. Sure you will have to revise later, but you're going to have to do that anyway. Might as well have the book in front of you so you can do that.

#4: Don't tell people too much about your novel before you write it down in scene. You want the ideas to be fresh when you get going, and holding details in keeps you from losing the magic of them while you write.

I was given this advice right when I started school and luckily, knew write away this would be suicide for my writing style. You know that whole point about NOT outlining? One of the main reasons I can get away with that is because I always have a friend or two who will let me yammer at them when I need to work my way out of a plot hole. Talking things out helps my ideas to flow naturally.

As for whether or not I've taken the "zing" out by talking about it too much - I'm sure I could do that eventually, but for me, those conversations usually get me excited and make me fall more in love with my book. And that gives me energy I can channel into the writing, often improving it.

Or at least I sure hope that's the case. Because seriously guys, I don't think anyone is ever going to stop me from talking about my books, no matter how well-meaning they are.

#3: Write everyday. This keeps momentum up and how else are you going to finish that novel?

This is one of those points where I just end up staring at the person who gives this advice, holding in the desire to scream, "BUT HOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWW?????"

Seriously, HOW!?!?!? How do you find time literally EVERY DAY to write something? How do you not end up with conflicts? How do you not end up with family yelling at you for bringing your laptop to a reunion? How do you ever feel like you ever have a day off? I mean, I love writing, but it's also work. I don't WANT to write every day, and I don't mean that in the way where you're just in a funk and you can't find the "magic" or whatever. I mean, I genuinely want days off where I don't have to perform the mental gymnastics of thinking about writing while I'm also busy gardening or singing or jet-skiing or whatever the heck it is I do when I'm not writing.

I've often wondered if this advice is related to multi-tasking. I'm not a very good multi-tasker. But I'm VERY good at focusing, and these limitations aren't just of the kind where I can't do one thing with one hand and another thing with the other at the same time. It's also mental. I need days that are "WORK" days and "WRITING" days and "FAMILY" days and so on and so forth. I learned years ago that Christmas vacation would always be a terrible time for writing, no matter how many hours I took off. My brain won't go there. So instead, I use that time to read, because it doesn't take as much focus. I catch up on my reading, and wait for the new year when I can become a writing hermit again, down in my hermit hole.

And yet I still finish projects. I don't have any kind of rigid work schedule, but I set my goals and I slog towards them and I get it done. Often it means breaking things up into monthly or quarterly chunks, rather than tasking myself with something specific daily, but for me, that's enough. Given enough time, I WILL get antsy and I WILL make time to write. But I find I don't function well as a human being unless I also give myself time to focus on other things.

Then again, I do see the appeal. When I do get into a writing groove, I can write pretty much every day. I live in times of boom and bust. Famine and plenty. I wish I could write every day, because holy crap! I bet I would get a ton done. But all told, I think I do okay. Generally speaking, most of those people who do write every day are speaking to a need to write at least SOMETHING, rather than pages and pages of text every day. It's how they keep the energy and the dream alive. And I can absolutely be happy for them for doing that. 

#2: End your writing day in the middle of a scene, so that when you pick up again, it's easier and you aren't starting from scratch with a new scene. Remember, keep that momentum!

This piece of advice sounds great in theory and I would LOVE to hear from someone who follows it because good heavens, it is not me. Sometimes I do end writing sessions in the middle of scenes, due to time constraints or other factors. But I hate doing it. Without fail, I fall prey to the opposite of what is SUPPOSED to happen.

Nothing kills momentum for me like opening a book I'm working on and having to pick up mid-scene. Somehow I have to get back in that headspace I was in that seemed so real a few days ago, but now just looks like squiggles on a page. The words feel meaningless and I have to read and reread them a lot before I rediscover the energy I was following through the scene. I would much rather have a fresh, new scene to start. Something that allows me to craft a nice beginning, middle and end sequence and leaves me feeling accomplished.

It can take forever for me to pick up on scenes that I stopped in the middle of. In fact, I am writing this blog post because I was drafting a scene while on the bus to work this morning and the freakin' bus got to my stop before I finished and baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!! I don't want to look at that half-finished scene!!!!

But seriously. Some people swear by the purposefully half-finished scene method. Go figure.

#1: Find what works for you - whatever it is - and stick with it.

This, to me, sounds like the very best of advice. Find what works for you and do it! In fact, I lied. I DO follow this advice! I follow it all the time! In fact, I am constantly finding what works for me and sticking with it for... well... for at least a day, I guess?

I really do try to use this advice. I stick with my "new found thing that works" for as long as it keeps working but for me, eventually, it stops. Maybe it's because my life circumstances have changed. Maybe it's because that methodology has grown stale. But in my experience, it's dangerous to "find a thing that works" and then marry yourself to it, because you never know when that thing will no longer be there for you.

I used to do all my writing in the evenings, but a new job made that impossible, not because I didn't have time in the evenings, but because I was zapped for energy. So writing on the morning bus to work became the one place I could get writing done. Except sometimes, if I stay up past midnight, I'll get another new wave of energy and I'll be writing until the wee hours of the morning.

I used to ask for feedback from critique partners on my rough drafts, so I knew they were going the right direction. Now? Not so much. I plot and outline more than I used to (even if it is after some freewriting). I seesaw between times where I read a lot and write very little and times when I write a lot and never find time to read. But in school, I had the writing vs reading balance just right. Go figure.

My point is yes, find what works to you. Hold onto it as long as you can. But if it stops working, that's not the end of the world. There's more advice out there. In fact, there's advice that stands in direct opposition to that thing that used to be your motto.

If I could give one piece of advice to writers that I do think is universal, it would be this: Do whatever it takes to get your story out there. If what you do now works for you then great! Don't fix it. But if you're feeling stuck, comb the internet for ideas and try every freakin' thing until something works. Throw noodles at the wall until one sticks. Then you'll know your pasta is finally cooking the right way.
(Pasta is a metaphor for novels. Erm... just in case you were wondering...)

Thursday, June 8, 2017

World Building, Observation and Crackers

I'm eating crackers tonight. Crackers I purchased yesterday from Walmart because I'm classy like that. To be precise, I am eating Stoned Wheat Thins which I would lovingly describe as the very best boring cracker out there. They're like the big sister of soda crackers - a little wider, a little heftier and substantially more crunchy. When I want to eat some cheese or a spread but I don't have the time or resources to properly pair toppings and cracker, I shrug my shoulders and say, "well, a Stoned Wheat Thin won't taste WRONG with that" and off I go. A well-paired Triscuit might taste superior to a stoned wheat thin, but you can get a Triscuit wrong. That's a lot of pressure.

Stoned Wheat Thins also happen to be my personal favorite metaphor for perspective shifting, which I think is one of the most underrated skills when it comes to world-building.

The Pittsburgh Cracker Caper

Image result for stoned wheat thins

It all comes down to a night where I was in a Giant Eagle grocery store in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvannia. I had some fancy goat cheese I'd never tried before and needed a good, solid cracker to pair it with. The problem was, I wasn't confident I knew what that cheese tasted like well enough to pick out a truly sophisticated cracker. Plus, I'd already blown my wad on the cheese. (Like most MFA students, my desire to eat overpriced, fancy food was not proportional to my ability to purchase it).

But no matter. I knew that in a pinch, a box of Stoned Wheat Thins would do the trick, plus they would go fine with hummus and whatever else I picked up after the cheese was gone. I entered the cracker aisle, scanning for a nice big box only to be greeted with a wall of Triscuits and Pepperidge Farm and hundred other crackers I couldn't afford.

I honestly can't remember another time I've ever been so confused in a grocery store. Maybe the first time I went shopping in the UK and there was only one type of peanut butter on the shelf, but I expect cultural dissonance when it comes to the British. America, I figured, must have Stoned Wheat Thins, because what on earth did they do when they wanted a cheap cracker that didn't instantly dissolve under the weight of dip? You can buy massive boxes of Stoned Wheat Thins in Canada, yet in America, the very land of large boxes of carbs, there was nothing.

I scanned the Triscuit section, hoping some equivalent would appear. By now, I was deeply worried for myself and my cheese. Was I going to have to develop a taste for Melba toasts?

Luckily, this story has a happy ending. After about ten minutes of pacing the aisle, I spotted a tiny box that held a single sleeve of crackers, packaged in a box that wasn't blue, which was weird for Stoned Wheat Thins, let me tell you. I laughed, relieved as I realized that some idiot had put them in the International section, next to all the fancy Italian and French crackers.

Then I looked at the box again and saw it stamped to high-heaven with REAL CANADIAN WHEAT labels. And bam, there it was. The paradigm shift.

In America, Stoned Wheat Thins are a very fancy cracker and they are priced accordingly. It was, like, $3.50 for a sleeve of crackers but I'd just spent ten minutes looking for them and I was an MFA student, and it's always a little exciting when you over spend on food if you're an MFA student.

On Paradigms and World Building

One of the things that experience reminded me of was that Canadian things are almost always much more exotic to Americans than American things are to Canadians. The exception to this might be those American cities that hug the Canadian border, where the people are often from smaller towns than the cities just north of them in Canada and they're likely to visit and shop up there frequently. But drive just a few hours south of Canada, and the reactions to meeting a "Canadian" start piling up.

People in Washington never comment on my accent, but people in Utah and Pennsylvania absolutely do. Sometimes it's annoying, sometimes I enjoy the attention, but in the back of my mind is always this sense of wonder that they find me interesting at all. They are so ordinary to me. I'd never put their crackers in the International section.

Intellectually, I get why this is the case. We live in a globalized world where unequal distributions of wealth and power impact the rate of cultural exchange, but what catches me off guard are the small, personal ways that impacts life. Since that instance in the cracker aisle, I've had a few more of these, like when I realized I'd never seen a gas station in the States with open bins of loose, five-cent candy. Those exist at bulk food stores and a couple other small enclaves. But on the whole, kids in the US are not going to 7/11 so they  can hand select a bag of gummy frogs and coke bottles with a hard earned Toonie.

In writing, I tend to be the most impressed with world building when it documents these small moments. Any writer can tell you "the Queen sits on a throne of carbuncles" or that "the council is made up of yeomen from all the villages round about" but the ones who can capture the inner lives of different people are the ones worth paying attention to. Those are the ones that have the ability to bring you down to a character at eye level.

Here are just a couple of examples of fabulous authors who have found ways to strike that balance:

- In the first chapter of Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, the narrator is struggling to grow a proper mustache and very self-conscious about it, because he's trying to impress a girl from another culture and is convinced she'll be into good facial hair.
- Early in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Junior takes a few paragraphs to rhapsodize about why he loves fried chicken so much and why it's such a treat for his family, making every time chicken shows up in the rest of the book unexpectedly poignant.
- In the Oryx and Crake series by Margaret Atwood, fictitious brand names litter the pages and provide a good indicator of how off the rails society is going. Jimmy's evolving acceptance of ChickieNobs (chicken parts grown in a lab without an actual chicken. What is it with books and chicken, exactly?) is a particularly good example.
- During the scene in the second Harry Potter book where Draco first calls Hermione a Mudblood, she and Harry have no clue why Ron reacts so intensely to the insult.

Aside from being about the small details of life, the other thing all these examples have in common is that they're really well filtered through the viewpoint of the characters. They show a personal relationship to the worlds the books take place in, whether those worlds are fantastical or real. If those moments were told through someone else's eyes, they'd read completely different and perhaps wouldn't have any impact on a story at all.

Not everyone is going to relate to crackers the same way I do. I've come to accept that over the years, as I've retold my cracker tale to anyone who has the nerve to open a box of Stoned Wheat Thins around me. But it still strikes me as an example of how our world is built up of small things and even smaller moments. Switch the country a box of crackers is in, and it becomes something fancy and exotic. But even if it is sitting next to a selection of French and Italian crackers, it can still be the most boring, ordinary, glorious cracker out there to a homesick Canadian.

It all depends on whose story you're telling.