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.
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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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13 Comments on "The Black and White of Writing"

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Roy Burkhead
Guest
04/28/2010 11:27

Charlotte:

Thought you would like to you that your blog looks and acts great via the iPad. That’s what I am viewing it with now. In both the auto landscape and portrait views, your type pad code handles fine, and the layout and design is excellent.

Later gaiter, Roy

Charlotte Dixon
Guest
04/28/2010 13:07

Rub it in, why not, Roy? Just kidding. So glad to hear that your Ipad arrived and thanks for reporting that the blog looks okay on it. I’m not jealous. Really, I’m not. And if you believe that…

Roy
Guest
04/28/2010 13:14

You should be jealous.:-). It’s mine, and Iam even jealous of myself. I am supposed to be grading papers right now, and I am well…doing other hinge. 😉

Charlotte Dixon
Guest
04/28/2010 13:55

That’s right, just rub it in a bit more, Roy!

Ledger D'Main
Guest
Ledger D'Main
04/28/2010 14:45

Think nothing of it, I just hope your check doesn’t perform the antics of a rubber ball…
You said nothing of weather it is nobler in the mind and on the whitened page to indulge in a Hemingway refresher, with or without ice…

Charlotte Dixon
Guest
04/28/2010 14:59

Hi Ledger, Thanks for commenting, and the answer is yes, of course, everything is always better with a refreshing beverage and I’ll take red wine, please…

Roy
Guest
04/28/2010 15:08

Sorry. Okay, no more rubbing it in. 🙂

I’ll torture you more with it via email!

later..

Ledger D'Main
Guest
Ledger D'Main
04/28/2010 16:39

Drawing the words from the well of a keyboard is best done with the liberal application of aged amber from the territories of the fabled pathfinder. The red, the white and the pale are used when breaking bread across varnished slabs of oak, walnut or mahogany and the lesser pine. 😉

Charlotte Dixon
Guest
04/28/2010 16:44

And by aged amber I presume you mean bourbon. Because if you’re talking Scotch, ick. I’m a bourbon girl all the way.

Jessica
Guest
04/28/2010 17:33
I totally agree, ‘writing is the most nebulous of crafts’ and although writing advice comes free and fast, not all of it will work for your individual writing type. I feel this is a good thing because it results in the variety of material we have today. I wrote a post a couple of months back about choosing the right kind of advice which really got me thinking about the writing advice which mattered the most to me. http://creativitysworkshop.wordpress.com/2010/01/06/cheesy-advice-the-good-kind/ I think the piece of advice I most often come back to was from an article I read on Orson Scott… Read more »
Charlotte Dixon
Guest
04/28/2010 21:35

Hi Jessica, I love your cheese post and it is so spot on. It is like the sister to this post! What I do with ideas that come when I’m working on another project is to put them in my idea card file, telling myself they will be there waiting for me when I’m ready. If they are meant to combine with another idea and become part of the current project, they keep nudging me.

I think you need to try bourbon, I’m telling you its amazing stuff, far better than Scotch!

Charlotte Dixon
Guest
04/28/2010 21:38

J.D., Heeheehee, I love sinister schemes! I think watching the movie and getting what happens down on paper is often what we do during the first draft. And then the subsequent times through are all about using words and creating drama so that the story best comes through for the reader. I do love the movie thing, though, because it puts the emphasis on showing, which I believe is one of the most important hallmarks of good writing.

J. D.
Guest
J. D.
04/28/2010 19:19

I think this is a sinister scheme you’ve dreamed up: taking all this advice and piecing together a book. Well, here is my contribution. My friend Chuck asked me how I wrote. I told him a movie plays in my head and I write down what I see. He said, “Watching the movie may be easy as pie for you. You must use words that enable your readers to see the movie as well as you do.”

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