Advice on writing used to be precious. You had to scrounge through the local library, if you were fortunate enough to have a good one with a good librarian, for little gems hidden within the pages of irrelevant essays and memoirs. Today, all you have to do is Google the words “writing tips” and presto! You are smack face to face with a title like “21 Harsh But Eye-Opening Writing Tips From Great Authors“. You think you are in cyber heaven until you scroll through the list and find at the bottom the advice from Lev Grossman: “Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously.”
There, in a nutshell, is the bane of information abundance. When you were scavenging through the darkest corners of libraries and book stores in search of the vaguest hints on how to write fiction, you thought you were in the jungle cutting your way through the underbrush with a dull, undersized machete. Today when you are faced with an avalanche of advice-bites, and wade through the deluge of conflicting instructions, you realize you are in the jungle again, this time a very different one, but once again you must cut open your own path.
Read 20 Writing Tips from Fiction Authors, 23 Tips from Famous Writers for New and Emerging Authors, Ten rules for writing fiction, (and its part 2), and be bewildered at the conflicting opinions. Leave home. Stay put. Go to New York. Go to Paris. Write fast. Write slow. Write sober. Write drunk.
“Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique,” says William Faulkner. “The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory.” Barbara Baig says that you should practice writing as you would practice baseball, and promotes focused technical practice. “Practice, not randomly or mindlessly, but strategically.”
Writerly advice spans the scale of “mystical” and “artful”. “Mystical” is the school of thought that says that writing cannot be learned, or taught in schools and seminars. You are either born a writer or you are not. The idea paints the writer as some kind of a wizard or a sage, not anything like a craftsman. “Artful” is the way of thinking that presents the writer as a skilled artisan, the kind of people who get to Carnegie Hall through practice. The former was once the dominant view on what writing is. The latter view is relatively recent.
Once upon a time there were no editors. The earliest books were copied by hand. Paper, or whatever material they were written on, was precious. Therefore, few books survived and those that did were abridged and condensed through the passage of time as they were copied a page at a time. Time was the ultimate editor, and it still is. Eventually, professional editors came onto the scene and their job was to keep the attention of the book buying public, thus insuring higher sales, and to cut typesetting costs. In short, the mother of editing is economy and time.
Eventually, we came to understand “good books” as books that withstand the test of time or demonstrate high sales figures. Again, economy and time. If you judged books by neither, and only by the impact they had on the readers, books like Sangetsu Monogatari, believed to have been lost for centuries (though a plausible copy was recently discovered), that was known only through references in other books, might be considered “good”. In many societies there were books written that were meant only to be read by the king and no one else. In some cases, these books were burned once the king had read them. The objective of such a book was to deeply influence the reader, and not to gain public acclaim or immortality. They could only be judged by the influence they had on the reader. Such books are the “mystical” ones. You cannot teach people to write them. “Mystical” books will deeply impact its few readers and influence their writing, or even alter the course of their lives. But they can neither survive through time nor produce sustainable sales.
If you embark on the writing of such a book, you may find only one reader in the world who will “get” it. And you will have to resign yourself to such a fate. A great man once said “All I need is for one person to understand.” If that is the kind of book you want to write, then no one can teach you how to write it. It does not mean that the book has no value. Many great movements and ideas started out from the writings of long forgotten authors.
Later on, when book production became easier and mass readership came into existence, the most expensive and laborious process of making a book was type setting. Once the type was set, you could make a tin cast of the type and preserve the printing plate for the next printing. In order to publish a new manuscript, you had to set the type from scratch. Thus it was cheaper to print the same book from an old plate over and over. A publisher was more profitable if they had a stable of books that sold for long periods of time. Book critics were instrumental in deciding which books would have their tin plates stored and which plates were to be melted down.
That was the nature of book criticism when, in the 60’s and 70’s, new innovations made type setting more economical and efficient. Meanwhile, the cost of keeping old books in print remained the same. Publishers began to prefer explosive best sellers to long selling classics. This also coincided with the shortening of expositions in scene descriptions of novels.
To critics, who saw their mission as sifting the gold from the sand, this trend was not agreeable. They thought the abridged expositions of the new novels were a method of pandering to readers with shorter attention spans. They also accused blockbuster writers of crowding out more worthy books from the market. King, Ludlum, Benchley, and Grisham took the blunt of these criticisms.
Historians now understand that the kingdoms along the Silk Road lost their prosperity because shipping routes were discovered that bypassed their territory. The Golden Age of Islam faded simultaneously because the Silk Road ran mostly over Islamic regions. But for those caught in the upheaval, it was all the fault of some evil group of people of one persuasion or another that their kingdoms crumbled. They never realized it was all about new developments in the economy.
The same can be said of the revolution in publishing. The book critics blamed the popular writers for the decline of the kind of books they were trained to praise, when in reality it was the result of technical innovation.
If you are trying to write a book that has the greatest chance of becoming a bestseller, or one that might be remembered by many, then you are an artisan. You are no different from a furniture maker trying to make the perfect chair. There are many techniques that can be learned and practiced, even perfected. And there is plenty of room for innovation and individuality. There are also a variety of practical templates that your creations might fit into and from which you can develop your own shapes and styles.
So that is the difference between “mystical” and “artful”, but it is not a dichotomy. It is a scale. No single book or author ever completely belongs to a single school. No matter how good or bad your book, you can be anywhere along this scale. Consequently, even if your book belongs in the “mystical” end of the scale, there are some elements to your writing that can be taught, learned, and honed.
Books on how to write fiction exist along another scale that spans between “inspirational” and “instructional”. “Inspirational” books on writing do not teach you how to write but merely tries to motivate you into writing. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is representative of this group. “Instructional” books actually teach you how you should be writing. Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King are instructional. Again, every book is partly instructional and partly inspirational.
Depending on your mood and your developmental stage as a writer, you may find one more useful than the other. Some writers, who are desperately seeking instructional books get frustrated when they can only find inspirational books, or vice versa. Many writers tend to go back to their favorite inspirational writing books time and again, but also go back to reading their instructional books.
The attitude of writers can also be grouped into “plotters” and “pantsers”. This is a very recent jargon created by the participants of the National Novel Writing Month. “Plotters” are people who plot out the flow of their story before starting to write. “Pantsers” are people who “write by the seat of their pants” without outlining their stories in advance, letting the story take them where it may. James Patterson is a meticulous plotter who plans where every critical twist, every obstacle and every keen piece of dialogue will fall before the first chapter is written. Stephen King is a famous pantser who will let the story carry him from beginning to end. John Irving is in the middle of the two extremes. He plots a sparse outline, and decides on how the story will end, then lets the story carry him as he improvises between the bars.
Instructional books on writing will either tell you to plot, or improvise, or do something in the middle. They all land somewhere on the axis that spans “plotter” and “pantser”. About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews by Samuel R. Delaney is definitely a pantser book. Structuring Your Novel by K. M. Weiland is a plotter book.
So now we have three vectors with which to sort all writing guides: “Mystical – Artful”, “Inspirational – Instructional”, and “Pantser – Plotter”. On this three dimensional graph, we can place almost every book and essay that educates you on how to write fiction. This will help you sort through the jungle of conflicting literary opinions.
But of course, that will not be enough. Stephen King says that he writes only two drafts. His second draft is about ten percent shorter than his first draft, and is ready for publication. This is quite incredible and not recommended to anyone but King himself. Most writers must go through five or six drafts before completing something remotely publishable. Not all writing advice is applicable to every writer. Some advice can even be harmful.
There are only four things about writing that all writing advice agree upon:
1. You must read a whole lot.
2. You must write a whole lot.
3. The first draft is never the completed work, and
4. Writing is very difficult.
These four must be the only universally agreed truths to writing fiction.
All other opinions are partly a matter of objective, partly a matter of style, and partly a matter of temperament.
In the age of digital publishing, we have to decide for ourselves what “good” books are. The internet has made it possible to reach micro-audiences. There are some readers out there who still prefer to read books with lengthy expositions, wandering digressions, and philosophical ponderings. Digital publishing enable these books to stay in print indefinitely, so books designed for long shelf life instead of instantaneous mega-sales are making a comeback.
Today, almost everyone tells you to ditch the expositions and cut straight to the action. That is not how The Lord of the Rings is written, or any of the Dickens novels. Since the economics of publishing have once again changed, there is a possibility that such books are now viable. Which means that the “Artful-Instructional-Plotter” end of the spectrum is not necessarily the direction that all literature is going, although it is where the lemmings are headed. There is nothing to be ashamed of if lengthy expositions are your thing. Your place on the three dimensional plot graph does not have to be the same as everyone else.