I love my GPS. Last week I drove two hours to Grand Rapids, Michigan for an evening book signing. I’d never been to the bookstore before, and I knew I’d be driving through the city during rush hour. So I was extremely grateful for the navigation voice alerting me of my exit, directing me to the side of the highway I needed to be on, showing me exactly how many miles and minutes I had left, etc.
The GPS (global positioning system) got me to the hotel in plenty of time to refresh before I needed to go over to the bookstore. Or at least I thought it was my hotel. As it turned out, I’d punched the wrong address into the GPS. I was naïve to assume Grand Rapids had only one Country Inn & Suites. Somehow in the time between reserving the hotel and looking up the address, I’d landed upon the wrong one.
Anyway, with some phone calls and mad dashing, I made it to the right hotel and eventually to my book signing. I had a great time, especially because my daughters came along and we got to have a fun girl’s night together.
I didn’t really need the GPS on the way home. Once I navigate somewhere, I can usually find my way back home without too much difficulty.
In using my GPS, I’m realizing there are times when the precision is necessary and times when it isn’t.
Which is a lot like writing. Sometimes we need precision and sometimes we don’t. The dilemma is very much like the old question writers toss around, “How closely do we need to stick to the writing ‘rules’ and when is it okay to break them?” Should or shouldn’t we use adverbs, dialog tags, dumps of backstory, describing emotion, telling instead of showing, etc.?
On the one hand we’re given a lot of advice in fiction technique books and from blogs (like mine!) about how to write. On the other hand, we’re told to make sure we tell the story using our own unique voices.
Do we need to be so nitpicky? Or can we give ourselves some leeway?
How much leeway we give ourselves depends on how familiar the route has become. Like I said, when I’m traversing a new route I need the precision, the help, the guidelines. When I have the assistance, I'm able to get to my destination without the worry of getting lost or meandering too much off course.
With a first book, I suggest that writers enjoy the creative process, put aside any thoughts about rules or publication, and just learn how to develop a good story. But by the second book, a writer can travel the publication road more smoothly by using the navigation system of writing craft books and putting into practice more precise fiction techniques.
Once we’ve written several books and have become familiar with our style and voice, then we’re ready for a little more flexibility. We can try new things and veer slightly off trail. As I’ve put into practice the basics and foundations of writing fiction over the years, now I’m much more comfortable with how to manipulate them for my purposes. I’m able to discern when it works to break a ‘rule’ and when it doesn’t.
In navigating through the fiction world, it’s easy to take extremes. I’ve met some writers who are too precise, who stick too closely to the writing ‘rules.’ Being overly nit-picky can often lead to a cold, heartless story that reads too much like a road map.
I’ve also found some writers who reject any fiction-writing GPS help altogether. They’re determined to get to the end their own way. That can lead to writing that is equally hard for readers to get through.
What’s your opinion? Do you think writers need to spend time learning to navigate with fiction-writing techniques first? Or do you think writers should set their own courses and do whatever works for them?