Wednesday, November 01, 2006

BJH: Do It Your Way

Here at Charis Connection and on other blogs, there's always discussion taking place about the differences in the way writers write. To no one's big surprise, we've discovered that each of us has to take the road that's right for the individual, the road that leads us where we want to go. Some things can be thought of as standard, things that can be assumed: a writer will usually be an avid reader; a writer will--hopefully--want to learn the craft as thoroughly as possible; a writer will spend the necessary time and energy to produce a "finished" product--a manuscript that's as well-written as possible.

Other issues aren't standard and never will be. Some writers seem to work in a firestorm. They write fast. They're prolific. And the quality of their work doesn't suffer from the speed at which they're able to produce. Others (I'm one) don't write fast, indeed can't write fast, even though we sometimes wish we could. It doesn't necessarily follow that slow writers are better writers. We just...write more slowly.

Some writers plot an idea to smithereens. Others don't plot at all. Some plot by outlines and character charts and detailed notes. Others plot through their characters alone--in other words, as their characters develop, so does the plot. Some writers are strong on characterization. Others struggle mightily with bringing their story people to life. Some detest action scenes, while other writers thrive on a plot engine that charges through the story at breakneck speed.

Amid all the differences discussed, however, we've discovered that we share one fundamental quality in common: each of us...all of us...have to write the way that works best for us.

When I first began to write fiction, I experimented with most of the "rules" handed down by "experts"--some of which were included in the writers' guidelines distributed by the publishing houses--about outlining, plotting, characterization, timelines, scene and chapter structure, conflict and resolution, setting, dialogue, theme, style, and voice. I figured if I followed closely the approaches the "experts" took, I'd have to be doing it right. After all, it worked for them.

The problem was that one expert did a 50-page outline or synopsis, another outlined by jotting down a few words for each chapter. One expert couldn't begin to build his setting without staying on-site for at least three months, while another watched a couple of videos and made a few phone calls. One expert did extensive character sheets, so specific he knew what kind of toothpaste his character used and what he usually dreamed about on Saturday night. Others got to know their characters by "living with them" while they vacuumed or took a walk--but never committed anything to paper. One expert said you had to charge through the first draft without ever stopping to catch your breath or look back. Another said she could only move on to a new chapter after carefully editing the one she'd just completed. Some experts said you must write quickly. Others said no, you must write slowly or your work will be sloppy.

Those early attempts at listening to the expert voices in the writing world helped me to realize fairly soon that everyone seemed to have a different idea about what "worked." I also learned that much of what was touted as a sure-fire, 12-step method to writing the novel didn't work for me.

Not that the basic rules don't apply; of course, they do. And the old saying about needing to know the rules so you can break them? Well, some shouldn't be broken. Others beg to be. However, the rules are rules for a reason, and you ignore them to your own folly.

But your writing approach, your way of working--all that goes into making you the writer you are--has to be the method that's best for you. There's some room for change, for experimentation, for trial and error. You can train yourself to be more productive, to learn better work habits, to waste less time. You can build your vocabulary as you go. You can conquer the point-of-view beast. You can delve more deeply into characterization, add more depth and nuance to your scenes, sharpen your dialogue. You most definitely can form the habit of continually improving your craft. But there are some things about the way you work that aren't meant to be changed, and to force change could end up being destructive to your writing.

When it all shakes out, you simply have to be the writer you are, work the way you need to work to do your best, and refuse to be confused or frustrated by the fact that what's effective for fifty other writers on your internet group or the ten members of your critique group isn't effective for you.

That doesn't mean you're going to know all this when you're first starting out. Give yourself the time and patience to find your way, and don't let a few detours discourage you.

BJ Hoff


At 7:54 AM, Blogger Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

BJ--As always, your comments are insightful and helpful. Thanks for sharing. Rules can be confusing. This reminds me of the old saying: "Keep your shoulder to the wheel, your nose to the grindstone, your ear to the ground--Then try to work that way."

At 10:57 AM, Blogger Ann Tatlock said...

What a great reminder, BJ, even for those of us who have been writing for a long while. We do tend to compare ourselves with others (it's human nature) and I always end up lamenting the fact that I'm such a slowpoke. Thanks for reminding me that I'm free to be what God made me to be, and if that's a "tortoise" when it comes to writing, that's just fine.

At 11:07 AM, Blogger Erica Vetsch said...

What a helpful post. Sometimes I can paralyze myself with all the methods out there, when I need to trust my instinct and just write the story.

At 12:35 PM, Blogger Heather said...

This is a perfect post for today. I've been struggling the past couple of days with my new story idea, which is more of a character and a starting event. It's nice to know that just because I don't have everything worked out doesn't necessarily mean it won't work.


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