Tools, Not Rules

Many blogs offer advice on how to write. Often these blogs are didactic, as if the author is right and anyone who does things differently is wrong. These authors, I’m afraid, don’t understand the difference between process and product.

Let’s assume that all novelists have the goal of writing  a saleable novel. That’s their product. It doesn’t follow that they must all use the same process in order to reach that goal.

For instance, many authors recommend that you set a weekly word count goal. That’s great advice, if you’re goal-oriented or tend to be unproductive without intermediate milestones to track your progress. But if you write every day, and you’re happy with the progress you’re making, then a word count goal is just one more worry to interfere with your creative process.

Whether setting a word count is a useful goal for you may depend in part on your personality type. SJ writers may like the structure that word count goals give them. NPs may find themselves getting caught up in research or going off on tangents without word count goals to keep them focused. NJs and SPs may find such goals helpful, or they may find them restrictive. A word count goal is a tool, and the purpose of a tool is to make your job easier. If the tool doesn’t make your job easier, then stop using the tool.

Note, though, that process differs from craft. Show, don’t tell is an example of craft. “James was angry at his brother” is telling. “James kicked his brother’s Big Wheel into the bushes” is showing. Showing is more vivid and involves the reader viscerally in the story. That’s why show, don’t tell has become a mantra of fiction writing. It’s difficult to write successful fiction without employing this technique.

Understanding the difference between product, process, and craft is key to developing into a confident and competent fiction writer. Here are some examples of advice relating to each.

Product

  • Happy endings: Romance novels must have an optimistic ending. This isn’t true for other adult fiction.
  • Likeable main character: Some people will tell you that you’ll be more successful if your main character is likeable. Others will tell you that the main character must be engaging, but not necessarily likeable. It depends on the kind of novel you’re writing. Know your audience.
  • Dissimilar character names: If character names are too similar (like Kevin and Steven), readers may get them confused.
  • Title: Selecting a title has less to do with craft and more to do with marketing. That’s why publishers often choose a different title than the one the author had in mind.

Process

  • Write first thing in the morning: Okay, there may be some science behind this. But if you’re a night owl, or you have kids you need to get ready for school in the morning, this advice might not be right for you.
  • Don’t edit while you write: Sadly, some writers become discouraged and stop writing if their first drafts aren’t beauteous. For these people, slogging through the first draft without reading what they’ve written may be great advice. Also, if you’re tempted to wordsmith each scene until it shines like platinum, only to realize after you complete the first draft that half the scenes should be deleted, you may want to force yourself to keep moving rather than getting caught up in revising too soon. But many writers find it useful to edit the previous day’s work before they start drafting new material. This serves the dual purpose of cleaning up the first draft and immersing them in the world of the novel.
  • Write every day: There’s a reason that “Remember the Sabbath” is one of the ten commandments. And it’s not just to keep grocery stores from selling wine on Sunday mornings. Humans need to take a break from work to feed their souls. As long as you’re productive, you don’t have to write every day. But if you need that habit in order to stay on track, then maybe this is good advice for you. Just don’t feel guilty if you take a day off. God said it was okay.

Craft

  • Three-act structure: The three-act structure has been the basis of storytelling in the Western world for millennia. It’s so ingrained in us that we naturally follow this pattern when telling stories. Chances are, if your story is working, then it follows the three-act structure, even if you’re not aware of it. Chances are, if your story isn’t working, then it’s not following the three-act-structure. Figure out what parts of the structure are missing so you can fix the story.
  • Conflict: Nearly every successful story consists of a main character who wants something, plus obstacles that the main character must confront in order to reach that goal. If your story consists of happy, satisfied characters doing interesting things, then no one but your mom will want to read it. The momentum behind a story is frustrated desire.
  • Engaging the senses: This is an element of show, don’t tell. Part of your job as a fiction writer is to immerse the reader in the fictive world. It isn’t enough to appeal to the intellect. You must create a sensual experience. “Flowers lined the sidewalk” doesn’t draw the reader into the landscape. Include sensory details: “Golden lilies spiced the air with fragrance, and bees hummed as they hovered over the blooms.”

Learning which advice to follow and which to ignore is one of the toughest challenges that beginning writers face. I recommend this simple guideline: If it makes you a better writer, then it’s good advice. If it doesn’t make you a better writer, and especially if it paralyzes you or keeps you from writing, then it’s not good advice. Listen to your heart, listen to your gut, and keep writing.

For more information on the three-act structure, I recommend Screenwriting Tricks For Authors (and Screenwriters!) or Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors II by Alexandra Sokoloff.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Tools, Not Rules

  1. Pingback: Fiction and Word Counts « bardicblogger

  2. Pingback: Quick Tips for Character Creation « Perfectly Prompted!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s