Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Two Kinds of Writing Advice

As a writer, I've been on the receiving end of plenty of writing tips, strategies, how-tos, and how-not-tos. Looking back at this wealth of opinion on how to craft good stories, compelling characters, believeable worlds, etc., I see some patterns. In particular, two overarching approaches to writing stand out: the blueprint approach and the intuitive one.

Let me preface this post by saying that writing advice was important to my growth as a writer. When I was learning the craft (and when aren’t we?), I plowed through a lot of how-to manuals (I still pick at them). I got my Writer’s Market and read all those articles (well, almost all of them). I checked out volumes from the library and worked through them. I wouldn’t go back now and undo that—even for the advice I’ve rejected. When I started reading advice, I’d already written a lot of stories, and these manuals taught me about revisions, preseverence, inspiration, what works and what won’t, and more. The more advice you can get when you’re starting out, the better.

But after you read a lot of writing advice, you realize that some kinds of advice work better for you than others. I suspect other beginners have experienced this. I’ve identified two general approaches, and I’ll first discuss the one I encountered first. Since I was working especially on “how to write fantasy,” and especially novels, I’ll focus on that kind of advice.

1. The blueprint approach. The first approach to “how to write a fantasy novel” is to tackle the pieces, or elements, of the novel. These would include the world in which your story takes place (including the type of magic in that world, and its role in that world), the characters and their personalities (plus what kinds of creatures will exist in your world), the dilemma those characters must face, the way that dilemma unfolds (the plot), and such smaller pieces as “scenes” that occur in the larger story arc.

Proponents of the blueprint approach often advise us to build exciting, interesting, and believable worlds, populate them with exciting and interesting characters (not too perfect), and throw them into a situation that is also exciting and interesting. They might tell us how to construct a kick-ass plot line, how to make dialogue zing, and how to give depth to characters. If you follow their advice, you can (perhaps) build something readable or at least something halfway there.

2. The intuitive approach. The second approach begins from the other side, so to speak. If the first approach builds the story like a house, the second feels its way into it by a door or window (or perhaps a crack in the foundation). In the second approach, there is a house but no blueprint, because the writer does not know where she or he is going. Probably the most widely read description of this approach is Stephen King’s On Writing. King disavows plots altogether, claiming he is not (nor does he ever desire to be) a plotting person. He starts with an idea (an intuition), a new combination of two things, and he describes the unfolding of the story as a discovery, not a construction project.

But other writers say similar things. Ursula LeGuin informs us that she did not know what existed on the islands of Earthsea until she “went there” with her characters. She too seemingly intuits, discovers through writing. Jane Yolen tells us that she writes like a reader, not knowing what will happen next (and interested to find out).

This intuitive approach to writing is less commonly encountered in how-to guides, and for an obvious reason: it’s hard to give concrete advice about following your intuition. (Though Stephen King did a pretty good job.) What’s more, writers who take this approach tend not to gravitate toward “how-to” thinking in the first place. They aren’t blueprint sorts of people.

Which brings me to the impetus behind this post, and its final point. If, like the second group, you’re an intuitive, idea-oriented person, you’ll probably find the blueprint approach mechanical, devoid of excitement, turning the writer into a typewriter. If you’re the blueprint sort, you’ll probably find the intuitive approach overwhelming, lacking focus or direction, confronting the writer with an intimidating blank page.

The point is, then, to discover which kind of writer you are. I wish I had known sooner; I would have spent less time trying to pinpoint the exact beginning and end of a scene in my novel, and more time thinking inside the scene. Maybe this post will help you avoid a similar pitfall.



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