Saturday, October 20, 2007

Writing: Whatever Works for You, # 1

In one of the most popular items ever posted on this blog, I offered the opinion that we should all stop listening to the "rules" about what you absolutely must do if you want to be a successful writer and accept that the only thing you absolutely must do is find what works.

The flipside to that, of course, is that no one can offer you the magic formula. You can cheerfully ignore seasoned writers who tell you that you have to outline everything twice, or that you can't write meaningful fiction unless you answer to your character's name for six months, or that if you speak the title of your book aloud, the spell will be broken and you'll have to scrap the whole project and start something entirely new. On the other hand, you also have to invest the time and effort to figure out your own formula for success.

A lot of new writers, however, are reasonably uneasy about ignoring advice from the experts. The "Whatever Works for You" series aims to chase away that fear by demonstrating how consistently the experts disagree. My purpose isn't to show that the experts are wrong--quite the opposite. It's to point out that for every wildly successful writer who says, "NEVER try to write while wearing black socks!" there is another who says, "I'm helpless without my black socks. Couldn't form an English sentence without them."

And guess what? The guy wearing the black socks and the guy making sure there aren't any black socks in the room where he writes both go on to sell their books, get tons of fan mail, and rake in a boatload of money. You can too--even if you never give a moment's thought to your socks.

As I mentioned in an earlier post (or two, or three), I saw Jacquelyn Mitchard speak at the Midwest Literary Festival earlier this month. Despite my constant harping on (um, I mean, commitment to) the idea that no two writers are alike, I was stunned to hear her say that she works out the plots of her novels by talking them through with people in detail.

"What helps me is either to outline it or to tell it to someone."

That one line was enough to leave me aghast. I'm no fan of outlines, but to actually talk about your story before it was written?
I was kind of sputtering internally and mentally saying, "But...but..." while she described how she bounced plot events and character actions off of other people during the creative process.

You see, if I tell a story before I write it, it weakens the story. Once upon a time I wouldn't have been able to write it at all. Time, practice and professional discipline have changed that a bit, but the first telling is the truest, for me, and if I talked a novel through with someone before I committed it to paper, that lucky soul would be the only one who ever heard it in its finest form.

But Jacquelyn Mitchard has written eight best-selling novels, so she must know what she's doing. Does that mean I'm wrong? That maybe if I were a bit more practiced and professional, I'd be able to chat about my novels and incorporate feedback into them while I worked?

I can't rule it out, but in any case I'm in good company. Here's what Louis Sachar, whose young adult novel, Holes, won a Newberry Medal and a National Book Award, has to say:

I never talk about a book until it is finished. It took me a year and a half to write Holes, and I never told anyone anything about it during all that time. I do this for a variety of reasons, but mainly motivation. By not allowing myself to talk about it, the only way I can let it out is to finish writing it.

Sachar's statement shed a little bit of light, for me, on the possible reason that I need to keep a novel to myself until it's actually a novel. Alice Hoffman's explanation is a little bit different. She told the New York Times:

Sometimes I have the urge to talk to Faith [Hoffman's editor], to tell her what I'm thinking, but unless it's down on paper, I don't think I have a strong position. Without writing, without style, what is it? Plus there's a certain point where I feel I wouldn't want to be too influenced by someone else, even Faith.

Just one of the many ways, it seems, that successful writers differ in their process. I believe that's true for virtually every area of writing. I do. I REALLY do.

But it's still something of a relief to me when I discover that an author like Louis Sachar sees it my way.


suburbancorrespondent said...

I remember reading some rules for writing for children many years ago, and I realized that my favorite book (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) violated every single one of them. So much for rules.

Peter said...

Hi! I read this post and its first link with great interest. Up until about 6 months ago I'd hadn't written a thing that others could view on the net. It took something of a personal matter to get me started and I have enjoyed every moment since. I admit that it's clumsy and poorly written but I look forward to getting better as I read articles like yours in the hope of being a better writer.


MS said...

The writer in me agrees with you, but the teacher in me wants to add a caveat. Unseasoned undergraduate students sometimes seem to think they can make up all the rules, even ones that say they don't need to print out drafts and proofread. So do many bloggers. Your advice applies to people who know what a good product looks like in the end. What about those many people who can't tell the difference between good and poor writing? I'm not even talking about interesting versus boring here. I'm talking about those who slap together sloppy papers and don't seem to know it.

Jenn Thorson said...

Ah- nice to know I'm not alone in the Louis Sachar "don't tell anything about the story or else it, and the motivation, will vanish forever" technique.

PS- Black socks in winter, only. :)