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Friday, February 25, 2011

The Dangers of Looking For/Taking Advice On Writing, Part II

Here is one example of how listening to the Ironclad Rules of Writing can be dangerous:

In the last week, I read a blog post where the blog's author summarized the openings of 3 manuscripts they had received. In essence, she was using those openings as examples of books that opened in an action/high stakes moment but did not allow the reader an opportunity to get to know or care about the characters before launching into that action/high stake. In other words, these openings did not work for her.

Like a doctor who is reading abnormal lab results and immediately zeroes in on the diagnosis behind the readings, I knew instantly what had happened to these three writers. The probable cause of a less-than-satisfactory opening was very likely that these writers had been crushed under the weight of the Ironclad Rules of Writing.

I was very grieved by this. Now I must be clear on this. I do not know the writers (they and their writings were anonymous). I do not know their writing journey, if this was their first manuscript or their fifth, published or unpublished. But it seemed crystal clear to me that these writers had been stamped by the rules of writing.

Specifically, they'd been crushed under the hammer of the rule that is taught everywhere that "you must begin your book in the middle of the action." This is taught so often that we've come to take it, pardon the term, as gospel.

That blog post and the assessment of those writers' openings impacted me very deeply. I was grieved for the authors of those works and for myself and other writers they represented. I was reminded of the times and countless hours I have spent arguing and going rounds with myself on the best opening for a book, and most often succumbing to this "start in the middle of the action" rule.

How would I feel, if I wrote and rewrote a manuscript, designing it to the consistent instruction of the industry, only to then be told my opening starts too far in the action and that it doesn't allow us to get to know or care about the characters? It would be annoying to say the least.

These authors represent the masses of writers who probably spend months and years on a hamster wheel because they were steam-rolled by the Ironclad Rules of Writing.

Think of it for a moment--what is the one comment you hear most often from writers who submit their work? Aside from complaints of how long it takes to get a response from the agent, editor, etc., probably the other thing you will hear them say is "they gave editor or agent X what they wanted, and STILL they were rejected." There are a whole host of very valid reasons for being rejected, and we can't digress to discuss them here. But in our example, these writers listened to the well-meaning advice of literally tons of people in the business, both online and in craft books, and get a "opening doesn't work, I need to care about the characters" type rejection of the opening. From there, they either spend more months and years writing and rewriting their openings or, sad to say, throw in the towel and give up.

Don't get me wrong. "The buck stops here" applies to writers. Ultimately, we are responsible for the quality or lack of quality of our stories. And the real kicker? We NEED to study our craft to improve, including listening and screening vast amounts of writerly advice.

But if there is one piece of advice I'd give new writers (there's that dreaded advice again), I would say listen, learn, absorb. But above all--


This gets back to the idea that writing is extremely personal. We know our stories better than anyone. And while we must always be receptive to feedback from others, we must also listen very carefully to our own instincts. After all, isn't one of the reasons we write due to an innate desire to be heard? So isn't it counter-productive to ignore our own deepest instincts about our story?

And this leads to my second bit of advice for new writers:

Industry blogs and books will become addictive (the writer's drug of choice), so learn to limit your intake FROM THE START.

There is much valuable information on craft, marketing, business, trends, and a million other topics pertinent to writers out there on the Internet or in books. Go into your writing career keeping your reading of these sources at a manageable level. Set limits. In addition to being bogged down by rules, you can easily spend hours a day keeping up with the industry. You will provide plenty of time for yourself to craft the best novel possible if you don't allow your industry reading to become a monster in your life.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I really do wish I had written several manuscripts first and THEN gotten immersed in studying the craft. That way my own instincts would have been honed to a much deeper level and I would have been better prepared to mesh my instincts with the rules. All I can do from this day forward is be bold. I need to be teachable, but I also need to trust my instincts. That takes boldness.

Two more posts to come on this subject. Next we'll look at some of the most annoying Ironclad Rules of Writing and then we'll look at ways we as critiquers can challenge ourselves when evaluating another writer's work.

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