The Black and White of Writing

When I was working on my MFA, I attended a lecture extolling the virtues of not writing.  (I actually think I wrote a post on this topic–ah yes, here it is.) The talk was presented by one of the MFA faculty, a prolific writer herself.  Yet most of the time I exhort people to write every day, or at least as often as possible.

So what gives?

You've also probably heard over and over that you should show, not tell in your work.  Yet pick up any literary novel and you'll read long stretches of narrative, with nary a bit of showing in sight.

What gives?

Some writing experts say that all fiction begins with character, and others will tell you to focus on plot.  Some tell you to read everything you can get your hands on while working on a novel, and others tell you not to because it might influence your own work.  Some tell you to work with a thesaurus and dictionary at hand, and others tell you to think up your own words.

It's exhausting, isn't it? 

You say to-mah-to, I say to-ma-to.  You say po-tah-to, I say po-ta-to (But that's because my ancestors homesteaded in Idaho, and we know the real way to say it).  In nearly every interview with a writer there is always the question,
can you tell us something about your schedule?  Writers get asked this
question wherever they go, number one because non-writers think that
writing magically appears on the page, and number two, because writers want to know their secrets.

But, there are as many ways to write as there are writers.  Those of us who make our living at it have just figured out what works best for us, and enables us to write on a consistent basis.  We've figured out how to make time for it, how to stay motivated, how to connect our work with the public.  For some that might mean staying up late to write and submitting stories to literary magazines.  For others, it is getting up early and confining their publishing to the internet. 

The great, fabulous, wonderful news is that we live in a time when all these options are open to us.  For a hundred years the only way to get a story published was to write it, type it, put it in an envelope with a SASE (I'm willing to bet there are now people reading this who don't know what that stands for) and sit back and wait and wait and wait to hear from the editor.  Some people still do that.  But most of us use email to connect with editors and agents and oh lord is it every easier. 

So here's my best bit of advice on taking advice about writing: experiment with it, and use what works.  Discard the rest.  You'll find many an author who will tell you that writing an outline for a book is death to creativity–but I'm not one of them.  I've learned the hard way that writing without an outline leads me all over the place but never to the end of the book.  The point is, I learned that by trying it out for myself.  And as soon as I figured out it wasn't working, I went looking for advice on how to use an outline when writing a book.  (Loosely, is my answer.)

The thing is, writing is the most nebulous of crafts.  We pull an idea from the air and from it, create a book.  Pretty amazing, and nearly magical.  And because there is that whiff of magic to it, people want to deconstruct it.  They want black and white answers, a definitive guide to writing.

I'm here to tell you there isn't one.  Just a whole lot of good ideas about how you can accomplish it.

Tell me your stories about taking advice on writing.  What are the best pieces of advice you've gotten? The worst?

And thank you to Ledger D'Main for the email query that prompted this post, and to Jessica for discussing it further with me from her new outpost in China.

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