Saturday, July 17, 2010

Write Noise

In my endless pursuit of practical writing advice for the working writer, I have to plow through a lot of material online, in books and in the trades. A good chunk of it seems to be written by academics with impressive credentials but little to no industry experience, near or current retirees who like to reminisce about the good old days (which, remind me, were when?) and, of course, the newbie who has it all figured out before the ink dries on their first contract.

In reality it doesn't matter to me who offers it up. I don't care how many books are on your brag shelf, what is or isn't on your C.V., or if you even have a writing career to speak of. I'll listen, and if it's really good, I'll probably use it. As we all know, the Publishing biz has very little to do with the art of writing, and not all writers pursue publication. But this advice? Had better be real, and useful, and not something else in disguise.

What don't I want to read? Top of the list: Self-promo dressed up in a flimsy advice costume and holding out its empty goodie bag. Trick or treat, buy what I'm really selling: my book/workshop/seminar/editing service etc. Or the career mini-memoir. Yes, I'm sure that walking barefoot forty miles through the snow to mail a query letter by Pony Express to NY was a horrific ordeal, but knowing this helps me how? I'm especially tired of the rule issuers; I think we should make them fight cage matches: Write What You Know Nick vs. Don't Write What You Know Donald. Slow Is Better Than Fast Fanny vs. Fast Is The Way To Go Gloria. Plot it Paul vs. Organic Arthur.

Now that I think about it, the rule people would make pretty cool action figures, too, wouldn't they? Plot It Paul could come with his own whiteboard, fifteen notebooks, four hundred sticky note pads, a bottle of Mylanta and tiny bundles of index cards stuffed in all his pockets. Organic Arthur's accessories would include a little broken comb for his beard, a Jack Kerouac T-shirt with the sleeves torn off, wee empty whiskey bottles to pile around the base of his desk (if you can find it under all those dusty, unfinished manuscripts) and a button on his back you could push that makes him say, "I can't do that, I'm an artist and it would ruin the story for me."

Sorry. Sometimes I can't help myself.

But if all else fails, please, God, give me some ancient, threadbare, outdated, endlessly recycled and quoted gem o'wisdom that I've heard a couple trillion times, uttered by some Big Name before they had to worry about tax shelters, 12 step programs and botox injections. I mean, really, how can I go on if I don't make my writing mantra what Big Name thought was relevant back when Laurie McBain was raking it in?

Who is Laurie McBain? See? You're already feeling my pain.

When I consider offering writing advice, the first thing I think about is how helpful it will be to someone in the trenches. I can talk shop all day long -- who can't? -- but if it doesn't provide some kind of workable insight, what's the point? Once I feel like I have something that is worth talking about, I then attack the topic from a working writer's perspective, and ask myself a lot of questions, like: how practical is this? How much is it going to cost in writing time, resources, income, creative energy? Is it efficient and user-friendly? Does it provide real methods and/or tools the writer needs? Most important of all, does it really work?

I probably need to take a break from how-to for a while, especially the writer trades. Don't get me wrong, now and then I don't mind reading an open love letter from an author to an imaginary/nameless/highly-idealized reader, a glossary of lofty literary terms I use maybe once a leap year, fond memories from more successful writers on what the biz was like back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, or yet another pointless viewpoint on the Amazon-Publisher e-book pricing wars. But is it writing advice? No. Can I use it for myself or the blog? No. Should I pay for it? Why?


  1. I remember Laurie McBain. So there.

    I read a lot of how-to in the beginning, trying to figure out process and structure and workable business guidelines, and I found that most of it came down to "this is what I do so it's the right way". And right next to them is somebody else doing the opposite and saying the same thing. Helpful? Not.

    That said, I still find Ansen Dibell's Plot a valuable how-to resource. Maybe because it's more a collection of things you can try than a set of rules.

  2. I soooooo want Paul and Arthur dolls now.

    But seriously, this is why I read your blog, because of your (fairly unusual) approach. It's not about you, it's about your readers.

  3. And that, my dear, is why I come here every morning.

  4. I remember Laurie McBain too. What happened to her? Does anyone know?

    And count me in as another person who comes here for your real world perspective. Not to mention John and Marcia. (Hint, hint.)

  5. I am wary of any advice that deems itself to be "universal." My sister (also a writer) reminds me almost daily that my process and goals are not hers, and no two writers work the same way.

    Writing is a balance between one's own ideas and goals and communicating with the readers... and each balance, for each writer and audience, is somewhat unique. I am glad your blog does not attempt to push us all into some generic box, nor does it waft some academic nonsense at us, either. That's why I keep visiting!

  6. Gabriele1:21 PM

    My problem with that kind of rule is, it's usually worded in this one-size-fits-all kind of way. What I'd love to hear is, why does a rule work the way it does, what kind of person does it typically work for, what are the exceptions to this rule, in what exact way does (whoever) apply this rule... Perhaps it's just me, but a rule that works for me is either very specific, or it's not a rule at all, simply something I observe someone do a lot. In either way, a rule isn't worth much if it's lifted out of its context.

  7. Well, I'll be honest and say that I had no idea who Laurie McBain is/was. I see on her bio that she was big in the early to mid '80's, a time when I had two very small children on my hands and a DH who was working 80+ hours a week and I didn't even have time to read the newspaper. (a very low point in my life, that)

    I love your advice and comments because you don't write them in stone. I never feel guilty if you do something different than I do. I can't tell you when I first started writing seriously, how guilty I felt every time I read something akin to "Don't change POV in a chapter. Each one should have only one character's POV" or "never use was, been, had" and a few others that I found impossible to follow.

    I needed encouragement that what I was doing might not fit the rules, but it worked for me and actually worked in the story.

    You give me that every day.

    (and a little John and Marcia is a great idea...)


    Word ver. cultr I haz it! *snort*

  8. eh, i don't read trades.

    Don't tend to read books or the like that are geared toward improving my craft.

    I do read a few blogs, have picked up a few books on characterization and stuff, but that's it.

    I rarely spend money on them because they just don't help me much.

    Reading what I like to read is what helps me the most. And um... it's more enjoyable... *G*

  9. Honest. Practical. Application-oriented. Love it!

  10. "Or the career mini-memoir. Yes, I'm sure that walking barefoot forty miles through the snow to mail a query letter by Pony Express to NY was a horrific ordeal"

    Oh boy, that is SO true. At least one specific author has perfectly ruined her quite likeable novel for me after I was stupid enough to follow her numerous adverts to "find out more about the world of ..." and instead of finding character bios or background info or something related to the world of her novel, I found her rambling on about a fabric design workshop where she designed the shirt her character is supposed to be wearing. Of course it looked completely different in my head when I read the novel. Oh, and she also painted a picture. In oil. Okaaaay.....


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