Sunday, May 19, 2013

The How-to versus the Know How To

In critique groups, we occasionally step on each others toes. Understandable sometimes. We're all eager to improve and are all striving to understand how to make our work better. In doing so, we often ask burning questions that challenge. This week, a fellow writer asked me why I wasn't doing certain things in my writing that are mentioned in his how-to-write books.

When do we follow the rules and when don't we follow the rules?

There's a fine line between being unique for unique's sake and knowing what you're doing in breaking the rules. Voice is our own, and sometimes voice happens when rules are bent a little. But the problem is, you have to know the rules first so you know when it's strategic to bend them . . . and aren't perceived as a novice not knowing what she's doing.

All too many times I've heard unpublished writers say, "Rules are made to be broken." Not only are they a walking-talking cliche, but they are broadcasting that they are not comfortable with the rules. 

How-to books are a point. We all need to read a handful. However, I find more education in reading good books that have gone before mine, via authors who've made their mark in the world, than someone telling me how to do it. The old SHOW DON'T TELL works here, too.

Osmosis is a remarkable subtlety that takes place when we immerse ourselves in well-written stories. I even go so far as to say that we learn more by reading excellent works in the genre we write than any class or how-to book on the market. I'd rather spend an hour reading remarkable writing than sitting an hour in a classroom or an hour highlighting text in a how-to.

Too often, we fear the DOING part of our work. 

We want to know all there is about how to do it before we start. We hate making mistakes. We hate appearing the novice. We want to know the terminology and recognize verb tense, point of view and head-hopping so we slide into a writers group and appear knowledgeable. We want to be able to sling terms around like Internal Monologue or Beat like we've known it all our lives. When is a prologue acceptable? What are the rules so we aren't caught with our pants down when challenged by others who ask why we didn't follow them?

I taught a group one time in which a woman bragged about having 28 how-to books on her shelf and got excited when she found a new one. Her favorite reading was how-to-write books. And she's never published a single book of her own. She said she didn't want to start until she'd learned how to do it properly.

Quit trying so much to be the writer. Try harder to write.

Personally, I think voice is the most important part of a story, not which part of the book certain things are supposed to happen. The minute I spot A Hero's Journey in a book, I'm done with it. Too predictable. Give me a good, well-honed, creative voice all day long, and I'll be patient to see how the story unfolds. And voice only comes from hundreds of thousands of words you've written, edited, and thrown away to find the gems worth keeping. And how-to books don't give you those.


Janet Hartman said...

After a certain number of how-to books and articles, content gets repetitive.

I recently learned enough is enough when I perused the downloaded advice I dutifully saved and categorized over the years and found the same advice I'd just read somewhere else.

Scratched searching for advice time off my list. Time saved = more time to write.

Julie Musil said...

I totally agree! And there are so many how-to books, and so many people raving about them, I feel bad when I haven't read one of them.

I do have a favorite, which I use each time I plot a book. Other than that, I keep learning from great books, and learning from my mistakes. (By the way, Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell is my favorite!)