Friday, March 5, 2021

Learning New Tricks from Published Writers--What Advice to Make Your Own?

I learned early in my writing career that just because a writer was brilliant--well reviewed, published, and capable on the page--that didn't mean they were the best teacher. Or even a reliable dispenser of advice I could use. The lesson came hard.

I'd signed up for a weeklong class with a short-story writer I admired intensely. His story ideas were amazing, his execution of them even more so. I anticipated the workshop for months, rereading his work and listing questions to ask. I wanted to get the most from the week.

It was a total flat tire for me. The instructor had grandfathered in a few of his closest students and he spent most of the five days discussing their work. The little he told me about mine was useless to me at that point in my writing education. By the end of the week, I realized he was thin on patience for the struggles beginners faced. The website for the school didn't list testimonials, which might have helped me change my expectations. As it was, I came away with a demolished short-story-in-progress, a sense of great failure, and a fatigue about the whole educational experience.

A month later, I decided to come out of hiding and misery. I signed up for another--shorter--class with another equally famous writer. Other writers said good things about her classes. Her class focused on developing a story, a more beginner-stage lesson than the other writer's. It was just what I needed.

From that one-day class, a key element of what was to become my first novel emerged. When the novel was published I sent the instructor a copy, with my thanks. I told her how rare it was to find both writing and teaching expertise in the same person.

Looking back, I know some of the flat tire of my first experience was my fault. I chose a teacher based on writing credentials, not teaching expertise. Yes, we can learn by sitting at the feet of master writers, listening to their prose or their lectures. That's a huge part of any writer's education. But to know what you need, as a writer, and choose the teacher accordingly--that's a very important skill too.

How do you know what you need, what kind of advice or skills would help you most? First, ask yourself what stage of the book you're in. I've learned that there are usually three stages that most writers pass through: gathering, structuring, and refining.

Gathering is just how it sounds: you're accumulating material. Gathering also includes research, interviews, site visits, journaling, setting up your electronic files in Scrivener or Word or whatever you use, etc. The bits and pieces of a book are often arrive randomly. Some writers use outlines, some use the "island" method and storyboards. The goal of the gathering stage is to complete the first (often very rough) draft of your manuscript. A typical manuscript draft is 60-90K words. Gathering can take months or years. Some estimate it's 60 percent of the book-writing process.

When I'm in the gathering stage of a book, I take generative classes. This means classes that help me generate more material. I don't need critique yet, just ideas. I brainstorm lists of what could possibly go in the book. I storyboard to get an idea of a possible flow. I read and research. I sketch diagrams and maps of locations in the book. I make collages of characters and place. I sit in my chair and write--a lot, and regularly. I try to crank out a chapter (2000-3000 words) each writing session. When I get stuck, I sign up for another generative class. Most schools now include that in the class description. I avoid classes that include workshopping (peer review) or even instructor review. I don't need it yet, and it can hang me up.

Structuring happens when the draft is done. It's been a wild ride, and I have no idea if anything I've written is close to what will make a book. In the structuring stage, I need feedback--to get distance, to hear a reader's view, to help me see beyond the spaghetti mess of all those words. I use charts to analyze the event, narrative, and location arcs. I go to classes that offer feedback and I reach out to my writing partner and writer's group. I often hire a developmental editor, after I've cleaned up the biggest messes, just to give a professional opinion. Where am I missing the mark? Writers often skip this stage. Refining is more fun. But without a good structure, the book is Jello-O with lovely words.

The last stage, refining, comes after the structure passes go and I feel the story is solid. Here's where I might tap into the Famous Writers who offer advice. I hired one such for my last novel, an expensive venture but worth it for the few bits of excellent advice that helped me wrap up the book.

This week, I came across an article in Poets and Writers magazine which lists advice about writing advice from ten of the famous folk. Fun to read how many writers experienced similar unease as I did, carry similar distrust of writing advice. Check it out, if you want.

My favorite, from Heid E. Erdrich: "'Ah go on. You're living your life'--said to me by Grace Paley when I was not writing every day.'"

Link is here.

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