Why do we writers tend to become extreme in our opinions? Are we just passionate by nature and therefore quick to form strong feelings about certain issues?
Recently I got this comment in response to a blog post about growing in our writing skill: “This is such a lame post. Only shills of trad pubs speak like this. Reading how-to writing books and taking classes only make you write the same drivel as anyone else.”
Wow! Talk about strong feelings against reading writing craft books! And of course I don’t agree with the statement. But it made me realize how often we fall into the trap of seeing things in black and white.
So often we take an all or nothing approach when it comes to many issues within the writing industry. When it comes to the issue of learning how to write, here are two extreme approaches I’ve noticed:
Extreme #1: Writers who read how-to books risk writing the same drivel as everyone else.
How often do we hear, “It’s ALL about the story”?
Well, I’m going to go against the grain and say, NO, it’s not ALL about the story. In fact, we can have the best story known to humankind since the beginning of time, but if we don’t know how to tell it in a way that appeals to readers, we might as well keep our fantastic story for our own personal enjoyment on our hard drive.
We have to learn to craft our stories so that others will want to read them. In order to do that our stories need a framework, or structure, much like in building a house. We can’t throw together a bunch of bricks and shingles, slap some paint on it, and hope to have a house—at least one that’s livable.
Rather, we have to follow some basic guidelines, have a solid foundation, erect beams in correct places, put the floor on the bottom and the ceiling on the top. Yes, every house has those basics. Every house NEEDS them to be able to stand.
Books are built too. They have structure. And it’s within the framework of plot acts, character arcs, and scene & sequels that a writer’s creative and unique story-telling ability should shine. Within the hallways and rooms of our stories, we can color, decorate, and bring our special touch to the words.
We don’t risk writing drivel when we learn to craft stories. Instead, we’re being smart about building sturdy books in which readers can “live” with pleasure.
On the other hand, we do risk writing drivel when we try to decorate our stories like Pottery Barn or Better Homes & Garden (copying other writers) when we really should let them reflect our special personalities, interests, and life experiences.
Extreme #2: Writers have to learn all the “rules” before we can have a publishable book.
However, I think many of us, particularly those with perfectionistic tendencies, get caught up in the need to make our stories technically perfect. We get so focused on writing without dialog tags, trimming exposition, eliminating adverbs, formatting the manuscript, and a myriad of “rules” that we lose ourselves and the beauty of story-telling in the process.
To carry on the house-decorating analogy, we end up with an interior that lacks vibrancy. Maybe we trim so much that our stories have as much warmth as a sterile convalescent home. Or maybe we add so much that our books resemble gaudy, over-decorated Victorian parlors. We get fixed on the details, the minutae, instead of the bigger picture.
The Preacher’s Bride wasn’t technically perfect when I landed my agent and book contract. But I’d taken the time (years) to study fiction-writing basics. My structure was solid. And within that framework was a gripping story.
My Summary: We can go from one extreme to the other. On the one side we can give the story TOO much freedom (and not enough structure). And on the other side, we can let the rules have TOO much control (and forget the story).
My encouragement is to find a middle ground. Know the basics of fiction-writing, the elements that comprise well-crafted stories. But also tell the best story possible without worrying that everything is perfect.
What’s your opinion? Is it ALL about the story? Are writers at risk of writing drivel when they read fiction how-to books? And if you think writers need structure, how can we avoid letting the “rules” have too much control over our stories?