When people ask me for writing advice (and God knows why they ask me in the first place) the first thing I tell them is: go find some books on craft and read them. There are plenty of great ones:
- On Writing, by Stephen King
- The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, by Jack Bickham
- Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
- The Art of War for Writers, also by James Scott Bell
And so on. I firmly believe that passion and intuition will only take you so far. There is a craft and a design to good fiction, and it’s not always subjective and elusive. Not every piece of fiction should slavishly follow a wildly complicated, Robert McKee-esque diagram — but there is, all the same, a formula, and even if you don’t want to follow it, you’d be well-advised to at least know what it is.
But there’s a limit.
Like a lot of writers, my shelf groans with how-to books on writing. I have more of them than I’ll probably ever read in their entirety. I have more still in my Amazon wish list, and have gone so far as to ask people not to buy them for me because I already have too many, thus defeating the purpose of a wish list. Now it’s a list of dread and moral horror.
The first four books I put on my Kindle? How-to writing books. All free, because man, if there’s one thing we writers know how to do, it’s how to give our advice away for nothing.
I’ve spent many hours reading up on craft, and it’s served me very well. But there comes a point where you have to set the driver’s manual down, get behind the wheel, and start causing some accidents.
Learning Can Be Resistance
I’ve talked before about Steven Pressfield’s notion of “resistance,” the sneaky deceiver that creeps into our subconscious like Gollum and cranks out excuses for us not to write on its tiny jack-in-the-box of failure. As Pressfield points out, resistance isn’t always obvious. It can take the form of things we think are productive, like:
Creating elaborate filing systems
- Drawing up a four-page backstory for that cabbie in our novel who shows up in one scene and is immediately shot
- Drawing plot diagrams
- Reading about drawing plot diagrams
In other words, self-education on writing craft can itself become an obstacle.
Learning Can Paralyze You
A lot of writing advice is flat-out contradictory, especially when you read around the blogs of your writing peers. Everyone has a process that works for them, and while some elements of fiction are universal and axiomatic, others are highly subjective. If you take everything at face value, you’ll soon find you can’t pen a single paragraph without violating someone’s deeply revered First Rule of Writing.
Does all that information you’re absorbing convey any benefit if it paralyzes you into not writing? Not really, no.
Learning Takes Time
As I said above, you can read the driver’s manual all you want, but you’re not going to really start learning until you get behind the wheel and start the engine. Theory is just theory. It doesn’t mean anything until you put it into practice. I think it’s vital that writers learn the tools of craft, but every hour spent reading writing advice is an hour spent not using those tools. The rubber’s got to meet the road sometime.
How Do You Know?
So are you learning, or stalling, or possibly both? Fortunately, there’s a handy measure that can, beyond any doubt, determine whether all that sassy, irreverent writing advice is doing you any good. Ready? Here it is. In your mind’s eye, check one of the following boxes:
If the answer is “no,” then yeah, you’re stalling. Shut down the browser, put down the book, and get to work. It’s as simple as that. Optimally, take some of the stuff you’ve just learned and kick it into play. Find out if it works for you — because hey, maybe it doesn’t.
Just keep writing. That’s the game we’re all out to win, and, to butcher a WarGames quote, the only winning move is to play.