by Catherine Hedge
One of the cruelest myths of writing is that if you are a really good writer, you start with “Once upon a time…” and reach “The End” in one free-flowing, unstoppable, lyrical explosion of brilliance. Perhaps the novel appears complete in your brain, like Athena bursting from the head of Zeus. Or the characters come to life, take over your spirit, and force the words through your compliant mortal form. No need for erasers or delete keys. No dead-ends, rewrites, writer’s block, or dropped scenes. Beware! For those are hallmarks of the Wretched, the Unpublishable, the Hacks.
If you are truly great, you will be able to write just exactly like your teacher, or professor, or writing coach, and use exactly the same processes that they have bestowed upon you. This is the foundation for traditional writing exercises such as an entire freshman college class writing on the same topic. If you’re desperate, you can buy a thousand books wherein the author describes a fill-in-the-blank outline or 12-step solution to marketable writing. The only problem is these don’t work, unless you find the author whose brain is precisely like yours.
I have a homey example of why this one-size-fits-all approach is a disaster.
This week, I was playing Legos with my five-year-old grandson. We decided to count how many people characters we had. I thought this was a good chance to help him practice his grouping by ten. So, I counted out 10 and put them in a pile. (Exhibit A) Then he counted out 10 and lined them up neatly. (Exhibit B) I counted out the next 10 and encouraged him to clump them together. He counted out and lined up the next 10. This continued to 80. No matter how I encouraged, he crafted rows and politely refrained from organizing my stacks, though I’ll bet he wanted to do so. If I wax poetic on the beauty of the flowers, he takes an appreciative sniff and explains that bees use nectar to make honey. I like reading picture books. He likes sight-word flash cards.
I can predict, I believe accurately, that he will become a vastly different writer than I am. I enjoy the messy discovery of writing, the random insights that make the plot twist like the Snake River, and the eager anticipation of rewriting so everything fits together…eventually. I’m sure this approach would be inconceivable to him. The time I spend in my first draft, he will use to create an outline, a clear direction, and a defined end-point before he begins writing. (I’ve known authors who craft 50-page outlines before they write the first paragraph.) I predict we can both be creative, but the paths we take to get there will be incomprehensible to the other. How could we possibly find a writing teacher who could reach both of us?
A writing coach is powerfully influenced by his or her individual writing style. It is natural to feel, “Hey, this works for me, so it must be right!” Someone who thinks random and abstractly will love brainstorming, sharing bits and pieces from “writing prompts”, and celebrating a thousand starts, perhaps with little ever finished. Others will insist on outlines first and lists of rules, “Never change viewpoints in a scene” or “Never open with a weather report”. One list I saw had 45 “nevers” for the start of a novel. Writers can be kept busy for years doing various writing exercises for the group, entertaining themselves with the weekly assignment, and dodging the difficult task of writing their own, meaningful work with the excuse, “I’m not quite ready yet.” (Sometimes with the writing coach’s corroboration!)
However, if you keep searching, you will encounter a teacher (like Vicki Spandel), a professor (like Elizabeth Dodd), or a writing coach (like Leonard Bishop) who sees beyond her or his ego. You can identify them by some key characteristics. They say, “Yes, writing is hard. But if you really want to do it, there is nothing better in life than to write!” They will tell you when you’ve done something well, but unrelentingly push you to try something new. When you hear their students read their work, each piece is vastly different like jazz improvisation…skilled, flowing, a unique creative expression. They do this by teaching us the strategies to use, elements that must be used to make our writing come to life.
For example, it doesn’t matter if Charlie is writing about an eight-foot tall warrior elf, the 23rd president, or a sentient squid. He still needs to characterize the subject with details such as:
- physical description (including setting)
- what the character thinks, says, or feels (and why)
- what the character does to others
- what others say about or do to the character
Fine writing teachers are able to step back from their own styles. They see that it really doesn’t matter which process the writer uses, messy or tidy, outline or free-form. The outcome is what matters; writing that is interesting, dramatic, and original. They find great satisfaction in the individuality of our ideas. Great writing teachers are masters who lift their students to the top rung of the ladder and rejoice when they start to fly.
This is so well stated, Cathy … strategies, not rules! I like to think of each piece of writing as an organic whole that has its own rules. To critique it, you have to study it and determine what those rules are. What works in one manuscript might not work at all in another.
Thanks, Donna. I love your description of writing as organic!
Thank you! Excellent words that are very encouraging and the best reminder that at some point in time – to each voice her own! I really liked this!! Maybe – I’ll write some today!! Hugs!!
You should, Francie! You have the most unique voice! Love, Cathy
I am writing my first novel. I told my husband the other day that every time I look for advice, there is someone who contradicts it. Don’t start with the weather/do start with the weather to paint a picture, never write in the first person/write in the first person but know it is difficult & worth it, write X amount of chapters, only use X amount of characters, etc. It goes on and on. I no longer look for advice. I write it my way. Writing is an art. Musicians do not create music in the same way, visual artists do it their way. Some people will like our stuff while others will not. But at least we can say we got to the end our way, and not by a way that is unnatural to us.
I agree completely, Janine! Best of luck on your novel. Isn’t it exciting? If I’d recommend any book, you might look at Leonard Bishop’s, Dare to Be a Great Writer, which you can get used for a few bucks. He will give you specific tips (In a pretty random fashion) but not tell you, “Do this! Do that!”. He was the writing coach who let us discover our personal way which I wrote about. Thank you for your input! Enjoy your writing adventure!
Well, you know how I feel about “the rules” – we must think of them as guidelines!
You’ve captured what a good writing teacher should be: “They see that it really doesn’t matter which process the writer uses, messy or tidy, outline or free-form. The outcome is what matters; writing that is interesting, dramatic, and original…lift their students to the top rung of the ladder and rejoice when they start to fly.”
I never took creative writing, nor had a ‘teacher’ who encouraged me to write. I benefit so much from your experience with Leonard & others. You, Mark & Marie definitely lift me up. 🙂
Thank you, Char! We were so lucky to have him in our lives…and you add beautifully to our writing experiences.
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I can understand rules. I have read, and obey, certain ones in writing. But I’m more of a free-form kind of writer, eager to let my characters lead and surprise me. I know some rules are meant to be broken, once you understand them, and some shouldn’t be, and I embrace that.
I would guess that my mom is a tidier writer. Those kinds of writers make me wonder, but I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with that style either, as long as the direction works. And at least their first drafts are less likely to have plot holes, or forgotten elements to their stories, like mine have. But I really couldn’t bring myself to be that organised!
I’ll bet when the two of you share your writing, all kinds of good ideas pop out! Thank you for looking in on us. Sincerely, Cathy