Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The How of Writing

Why is it that some professions are the ones everyone thinks they know how to do? I mean, I do not assume for a minute that I could just walk inot the local firehouse and be a firefighter, or pick up a stethoscope and be a doctor, and yet plenty of people, maybe most people, assume they could be a published writer or a teacher -- can't be that hard, right? And yet if you put those people in front of a blank page or a class full of students waiting to be taught, it quickly becomes clear that people who do these jobs have expertise, experience and methods that aren't just pulled out of the air.

I bump into this with teaching more than writing -- many people are clear on the fact that that they can't write, but just about everyone who knows anything believes they can teach. But teaching is a profession, and those who have done it for many years will tell you, in the same way we learn about writing over the course of years, this is not a profession for the weak of heart, and it requires experience and specific skills. No, not just anyone can do it -- in fact, even experts in a field may be lousy teachers because they may not be able to communicate what they know in concrete ways that other people can grab on to. Knowing something, and helping someone else to know it, are vastly different things.

That's not to say we can't each share what we know and help others -- of course we can, and we should, we all have knowledge to share -- but when someone takes on the job of teaching in any kind of formal environment, it's a whole different thing.

For instance, I just bought a new writing book that people have raved about for years. I was hopeful, as it seems to address some of the issues I am facing in my writing life at the moment. I don't want to name names because I'm not that far into it, but within 40 pages already it has me annoyed. Typically, I don't buy a lot of these kinds of books for exactly this reason -- the writing industry is awash with "how to" books that make all kinds of promises to tell you how to do something, but in the end the books don't live up to their promises because they don't know how to teach. In my most cynical moments, I think they know they are duping me out of $25 with their "how to" promises; in reality, I think it's just that good people want to share what they know, but they don't really know how to do it in a useful way.

After teaching writing for so many years, I find the downfall of many "instructional" books is that they really aren't instructional at all, but more like motivational speaking. I crave the concrete. I know many of you out there have also taught, and you know that teaching means breaking things down to method, not just describing a general quality. It's not enough to tell a student their writing needs to "flow" -- you need to describe flow, show them examples of flow, and then help them to work in order to see flow in their own work in concrete ways, through transitions, linked passages, themes, etc (and of course, you may have to back up, show them what a transition or a theme is, how to find it, how to execute it, etc -- this is not easy analysis). Only in this way can someone really learn to do what you're trying to show them how to do.

Disappointingly, most writing books that advertise themselves as "how to" with "how to" titles end up really not telling you "how to" at all. They don't live up to the promises of what they say they are going to help you do. They lack the concrete. Part of the problem is that they attempt to do everything within one book -- how can you teach someone, really teach them, to write a novel in 180-300 pages? This is a comment we writing teachers make on the part of new writers: you are trying to take on too much, do too much within a short space, and so it forces you to fall into generality. Narrow, focus, be more concrete.

There are books that do this. Elements of Fiction series actually came up with a nice series of little books that focused 150-2o0 page books on just one element, or a small set of closely related elements -- plot, character, beginnings & ends, etc -- these are very good books, with exercises and examples. Taught by writers, and often by writers who have also taught professionally, and I think it makes a big difference. I could imagine seeing this series drill down even one more level, and have an entire book devoted only to writing romance characters, or how to set clues in a mystery -- really digging in. These are my fantasy writing books, I guess.

One of my very favorite writing books of all is Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, which appears to be a literary meditation on writing (which it is), rather than a "how to," but there are loads of concrete lessons housed in beautifully crafted paragraphs that demonstrate good, sharp writing. I also like Joseph Williams' Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, which actually is a "how to." These two writers are also teachers. They know how to break it down.

I also find most books address a general or beginning writer audience -- for many of us, we don't need a lot of the beginner stuff, we need things that talk about writing and publishing at a more advanced level, but most writing books are targeted at novices -- am I missing some secret cache of expert writing references?

However, perhaps the real truth is that all the how of writing is OTJ (on the job) training -- you learn as you go, the lessons come from failures, hard work, and screw ups, and there really are no books that will take the place of that, because in the end, it comes down to figuring out what works for you, and making it happen. Dammit. While some may try to take this experience and teach it to others, the truth is, we all have to find our own way through it.

So, there's a lot of "how to" out there -- how do we know what to listen to? Experienced writers will know what they need, but it might be hard to find. What about new writers in the field? What advice to give them when seeking information and lessons? What are your favorite qualities in a writing "how to"? What's your opinion of writers using "how to" books, and what are the qualities of good ones?



Sally MacKenzie said...

I don't read many "how to" writing books, but when I was getting back to fiction writing I read through Nancy Kress's column in my old Writer's Digest magazines. I also have her Beginnings, Middles & Ends--one of the Writer's Digest The Elements of Fiction Writing books. (It's been years, so I don't know if these are still available.) I read these things more just to see what resonates with me, I think, rather than as a real "how to." And yes, I think teachers deserve medals. There is NO WAY I could stand up in front of a class of grade or middle schoolers--and probably not even high schoolers--and try to get and keep their attention long enough to impart any knowledge.

JoAnn said...

Oh, this is a hot button for me!

I have to admit to being one of those writers who tries never to look beneath the hood if things are working. I'd probably written 50 books before I even found out there was something called a dark (or is it black?) moment. Which is also why I avoid how-to-write books.

I do, however, love Story, because I can open it to almost any page and discover something about structure I'd forgotten I knew.

As for writing books, my favorite, which I keep within reach, are Walking on Alligators and The War of Art. And I also, during a tough time, got a lot from Coaching the Artist Within.

You'll note these three are about the internal process of writing, not the external nuts and bolts of craft itself. Because when it comes to that, I follow W. Somersett Maugham's dictum about there only being three rules to writing fiction; unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

This is also, btw, what annoys me no end about a lot of well-meaning fellow writers who, because of the power of their personalities, training, and/or their own convictions about how to write, convince novices that their way is the only way. When, because writing is such a personal thing, it might be the totally wrong way for someone else.

What worked for me in 1982 no longer works. Heck, what worked for me yesterday doesn't always work for me today. My methods change with my stories, what's happening in my life, maybe some alignment of the stars, and even my hormone levels. *g*

I don't try to analyze why things may stall; I just remind myself that I've been in this spot before, will undoubtedly be there again, but none of my books have ever written themselves, even those nine gift books, so I just keep writing and eventually things fall back into place. Which is pretty much what I tell new writers -- to just keep focused, and plugging away and the story will come.

Then I'm quick to assure them they're free to ignore my advice, because, did I mention that while learning craft basics is a must (which I learned by reading thousands of books over my life, not by any writing course, which I've never taken) I don't believe anyone can really tell anyone else how to write their book?

And Sam, your next to last paragraph, about on-the-job training and each of us having to find our own way, suggests to me that you're probably a super teacher!

Nancy Morse said...

I don't tell aspiring writers "how to" do anything. All the how-to books in the universe won't make a damn bit of difference if you don't sit down and write the book. Write it submit it and see what happens. Let an editor tell you what she loves or doesn't like about your work. The reality is that you can read a million how-to books and still not be able to write a good story. Or you can read none of them and write something great. Writing good fiction is more than just learning how to plot and knowing the difference between a colon and a semicolon. It's also about knowing how to translate good dialogue and emotions onto the page. There's something that comes from inside. I don't know, maybe it's a kind of innate thing that makes you a writer. Sure, you can learn techniques, but if you don't have that inner thing to begin with that makes you a natural born story teller, in my opinion, you don't have a snowball's chance in hell. Write and submit. Write and submit. It's called paying dues. We've all done it. Behind every over-night success is years of dues-paying. And if nothing comes of it, then maybe writing isn't for you. If I could do anything in the world beside write it would be sing, but I can't carry a tune for the life of me. Sure, I can take voice lessons, but what's the point? So why would someone who wants to write just assume that they can? Who knows? Maybe it's arrogance. Or maybe it's for the same reason that I imagine myself alone on a stage under a spotlight, sitting on a stool, strumming my acoustic guitar and singing like Joan Baez. It's called dreaming.

Samantha Hunter said...

Sally, thanks for reminding me, it's Elements of Fiction, not Elements of Style (though that's good, too). LOL

Joanne, yeah, it's an issue for me, too (obviously). I think I was a good teacher, when I did it. The academic politics got to me, but I loved the in class bit, and when a student finally "gets it" there's just nothing like it.

Nancy, LOL -- well, I think you're right, but I guess I was thinking that if books are going to make the attempt to teach, I wish they'd do it better! LOL I think for those of us who aren't aspiring, in the "beginner" sense of the word, technique books can help us move to the next level or play around with new things, but it's so frustrating to open a "how" book and read about how characters need to be relatable -- well, no duh. ;)


I went through the "helping new writers" phase in the first couple years after I sold -- it's a desire to give back, I guess. I still don't mind advising or encouraging where I can, but I tend to agree with you -- people have to find out for themselves, because even when you do try to share a lot of the time they may not be in a place t hear it or we could be wrong, because who knows really what a writer needs except for the writer? . .in which case, should any of these how to books exist? LOL I've found there are other ways to give back to the writing community, and tend to focus on those now, too.

Maybe we just like to have the "how" books so they can remind us what we already know? Hmmmm. Maybe comfort in it...


Terry Z McDermid said...

Thank you, Sam, for your thoughts about teachers and writers. As a teacher who's not in a classroom right now, I've always been frustrated by how many people feel very comfortable telling me 'how' to do but job but then end with . . . 'you couldn't pay me enough to do what you do!' Being on one side of a desk does not mean you know what it's like on the other side (I did use that sentence as an article idea one time).

I'm not as much into 'how-to' writing books as books that give me insight into other writers and how they write. I like knowing I'm not alone in this crazy writing world. I did learn through OTJ training and whenever I've tried to follow other people's ideas or think too much about what I'm doing, I lose my way. Probably similar to what happens when we're swimming or riding a bike. Thinking about it makes us sink or fall off.

So, I'll keep going along, writing and submitting as was suggested.

Sally MacKenzie said...

Sam, you DID write Elements of Fiction--I just had a brain fart, I guess. And I have to agree with JoAnn, I don't "look under the hood" now. I hear GMC and think cars.

JoAnn said...

I have to admit that as much as I like and admire Deb Dixon, I never got GMC. My mind just doesn't work that way. Yet I know about a gazillion writers who swear by it.

Then again, I'm one of those seemingly few people who couldn't wrap my mind around The Artists Way, either.

Samantha Hunter said...

ROTFL Sally -- no, I actually did write Elements of Style and then went back and edited when I saw your response -- who's on first? ;)

Hey Terry -- yes -- that's exactly it. :)

My mind doesn't work that way either Joann -- I went to her workshop, and she's a lovely person and a great speaker, but I can't say I've used the method, or any method. In fact, while I read technique books to see what I can gather from them, I found out the hard way that I actually messed up my book when I tried to apply a method too tightly -- it looked great on index cards, but then the book read like a bunch of characters moving around a chessboard.

I guess it's just different strokes for different folks...

Sam :)

Sandra K. Moore said...

Sam, I loved The Writing Life! (I'll not tell you how frustrated I was when I learned Dillard was 24 when she wrote that.....)

I have only ever used one writing book with any success and minimal annoyance, and that was Dwight Swain's Techniques of the Selling Author. It's pretty dry, but the great thing about it is that it covers many, many aspects of writing. I'll read a page and have a Eureka! moment over a concept, and then go off to see how I can work it into a story. It's less of a "how to" book and more of a "check out this really cool idea" book, I guess.

I got a real leg-up on the whole "being a new writer" thing because I graduated from a creative writing program where we workshopped each others stories and novels weekly. So I learned early on how to "see" the text as a whole and then how to give decent critique -- by being supportive, specific, and offering suggestions.

I also love love love Richard Hugo's The Triggering Town, which was written for poets, because he talks about telling the emotional truth the poem (or in our case, the story) wants to tell. That alone changed entirely the way I think about storytelling.