Thursday, February 4, 2010

Too much writing advice?

When I first started to realize that a lot of the authors I liked had web sites, I found myself reading a lot of writing advice. Every author seemed to have something to say- from Sherwood Smith to Shannon Hale and Diana Wynne Jones- and each one had their own distinct approach, often contradicting each other.

There were just so many of them! Covering all approaches- from the authors with a story arc that appears in their head and forces them to write it down, to the ones who make it up as they go along (Ellen Raskin of Westing Game fame said she got too bored to write unless the ending was a surprise to her, too), to the ones who outline and plan and brainstorm their way into an organized plot.

So does all this contradiction mean that reading about how to write is a waste of time? Maybe there is no right way. Maybe it's all a matter of personal style.

Maybe so. But I'd like to venture an idea that I've come to, after reading a lot of articles proffering knowledge about writing and the publishing industry. It is worth doing your research, and knowing all the rules, even if lots of authors do things differently. Sort of like grammar- you have to learn proper English, really know it well- and only then can you start playing around with it.

No one says ee cummings was an illiterate ignoramus, not if they know what they're talking about, despite the fact that he breaks all the rules of normative English. If a sixth grader tried handing in work following ee cummings's rules of grammar, he'd get an F, and that wouldn't be unfair, despite how it might seem to the sixth grader. It's because you have to understand what you're doing, and break the rules only when it means something different because you did it.

I'm not trying to say the difference is just in your intent and understanding of what you're doing, because I do also think there is a recognizable difference in the objective quality of your work. To readers - your target audience - who really do know the rules, see what you've accomplished as a work of art, instead of just a lazy attempt to get out of learning the rules, and cheat the system (and failing to actually produce anything worthwhile, in pretty much every case).

What does this mean in terms of writing style- what should you do?

You should learn all the rules. Understand their sources and the effect on your writing when you follow them. Explore all their highways and byways, good or bad or contradictory as may be.

Then: let all that advice wash over you and drift away. You're hopefully now a better writer, but once you've studied and practiced long enough, it's time to stop worrying about emulating the styles of others and figure out what works best for you.