05 September 2011

A Personal Pet Peeve

The other day I Googled (I just love Google. Can I say that again? I just love Google.) for best books on writing, or something like that. It's easy for me to get rusty on the finer points of writing, even if I am doing it everyday. And when is it a bad idea to stay sharp?

Unless you're supposed to be blunt, that is.

Some of the best books on writing I've read. I own them. I've underlined in them. Others I've heard of an one or two I started and never finished, for various reasons that I won't get into here. One that came up again and again was a book called Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. I'd never heard of it, so I jumped over to my local library web site and put it on hold. A few days later I got an e-mail telling me that my book was ready to be picked up. Yay, writing book!

I kind of expected a commentary on her life. Especially when the reviews said things like, a great view of writing and life. Or something like that. Okay, fine, I can handle someone's view of writing and life all squished together in an overly wordy book. I'm an author (aspiring) so I can dig it.

And mostly I can. The mistake the author made was to tell me, in one of the early chapters, that the ONLY way to write a good story is to create characters first and then put them into a plot.

This is the only way. She left no doubt about it. She was very firm in her belief.

Hasn't she heard of Orson Scott Card's M.I.C.E.? Or does she assume that the M, I or E stories are all bad. This is a distinct possibility. However, I'm pretty sure some of those M, I or E stories have won awards. Sold more copies than most of us can imagine. Made otherwise plain people quite famous.

Now don't get me wrong. Good characters are essential to a story. As a matter of fact I think my first novel suffers from a lack of character development. I've been meaning to go back and fix that for a while. So I believe! In some of it.

I heard another author/writing teacher earlier this year say the same thing. Not about characters, but about writing. He said you can write any way you like, as long as you follow his formula to the tee. This was after he criticized Stephen King for saying the exact same thing in different words.

Uh-hu. Who are you again?

Sorry, I get a little grouchy when people pull the my way or the highway card. Just write. If the characters come first, great. But don't go beating your head against a wall or stalking people at the Wal Mart to try to get great characters to jump into your mind. (Which isn't a bad idea, by the way) And if the idea comes first, dive in. Don't stand on the shore of a beautiful ocean refusing to take a dip because the surfers haven't appeared yet. Who knows, maybe your story is about a jelly fish.

Just over 68k on the latest novel, by the way.


Tohru said...

But truly, the only way to ever write a novel is to follow my great advice! Admittedly, I've never actually sold or even written one, but my advice is pure gold! Trust me! (giggle)

Anthony Dutson said...

Well, that's good news. I had heard about Bird By Bird too. (Can't remember what I heard.)

But it sounds like I can skip it. After all, the grammar books I picked up at the library are REALLY what I need. :/

Melissa Lemon said...

The writing process is so different for every writer, so with those books (and any advice) you just have to take what you can and leave the rest. I focus so much on plot that I need to step back and focus more on characters. But I hate it when books have no plot; drives me bananas. What, exactly, would be the point of a book without a plot?

Antiquarian said...

I ADORE Bird by Bird. I found it one of the best books on being a writer, dealing with that kind of life, and getting the "work" done. I loved that it wasn't just one more book that tried to give you bullet points to follow (LOCK, STAR, etc). My copy is written in, marked up, reread, I've even tipped in excerpts from novels to show me examples from things I read ...*hugs it*

It's the difference between a check list on pregnancy and the humorous book "Pregnancy Sucks". A check box next to morning sickness isn't nearly as comforting or helpful as a chapter containing silly stories about barf and eating cheerios for every meal. Both give you info that can be used, but one is way more entertaining and encouraging.

I'm not an accomplished writer like you all, but as a veracious reader I have to agree with her. You could have the coolest plot in the world, but if your characters are flat/suck the whole thing sucks ... I think a lot of fantasy suffers from this. I've put down a number of books that where "follow the map" or "ohh look a shinny object" quests. The Characters are the way readers connect with the story. You make a character do something for the sake of plot and readers see right through it and put the book down.

It wasn't the Ring or the quest that made the Fellowship - it was the people. Was it Hogwarts or Harry & co. that made the HP books worth reading? Was it the video games or Ender's experiences that make it a "good read"...just saying.

As Harrison Ford once said to George Lucas concerning a very out of character line for Han Solo, "George, you can write this shit, but you can't say it."

*climbs off her box and eats her Cheerios.*

Antiquarian said...

Okay, after chatting with other writing friends I think I know why I love this book and you don't Jo.

I think you like the kind of concise bullet point formulas and I don't. When I read BbB I didn't get that Character was the only way to go about writing a novel. What I got was that it was the most essential element to telling a good story.
I think that a lot of these acronym writing systems are essentially saying the same thing, but they also try to help with the "world building" Anne Lamott's works are all set in the here and now and do not need "world building". She assumes you have the world ready to go when setting down to write.

I hope you finished Bird and didn't just toss after page 44 or so. I really did think it was a good take on dealing with being a writer.

-Jo- said...

Yikes! Easy tiger, didn't mean to strike a nerve there. Whatever an aspiring author can find in the world that helps them should be embraced, loved, stained with Crystal Light or coffee rings and marked up.


Jordan said...

Well, I have to disagree with Antiquarian a bit. First off, Harry & co. were actually quite flat as far as character development goes. People seem to read Harry Potter for the sense of wonder, not deep, three-dimensional characters. Second, there are hundreds of books without deep characters that are still enjoyable to read. I'll admit that the best of books have great characters, but you don't need them to be successful. It just depends on what type of story you are trying to tell.

It is very stupid for an author to say their way is the only way to write a story. I avoid any advice from such people. (Larry Brooks, I'm talking to you!... at least I think that's your name!)

Having said all this, I prefer stories with great characters and great plot. If the Fellowship didn't do anything in Rings, no one would have cared that they were great characters. (I'm still not convinced that they were three-dimensional either).

As Melissa said, you have to take what you can from writing advice books, and leave the rest of the bull behind. If I listened to each point of those type of books I've read, I would have quit writing years ago, since Stephen King thinks you are either born a writer, or will never be able to create a sensible story. What a load of crap! Writing is a craft, and ANYONE can learn how to do it. Talent only gets one so far.

One last thing: character isn't the most essential element to telling a good story... if you're writing an idea, setting, or event story. If your goal is to write a character story, then yes, of course character is the most important. But again, there are many ways to tell a tale. As long as you, the writer, knows what kind of story you're going for, no one else's opinion really matters.

Anthony Dutson said...

I think Jordan is spot on about this! (And puts it much better than I will...)

If lively characters were the end-all-be-all, Tom Bombadil would have been an instant success instead of roadkill. The first 200 pages of Fellowship were a complete snore WITH great characters (and I'm not sold that Tolkien's characters are all that). It wasn't until you got into the plot (200 pages later) that the story took off.

Melissa has a point too. You have to take any writer's 'How-To' book with a grain of salt. Once they get a book published, some suddenly feel qualified to teach. And as for the ones who HAVE published for years (I'm talking to you Stephen King), just because you're successful, it doesn't make your writing style flawless. Frankly, I think you could use an editor with a spine.

I had a similar experience as you did Jo with Bird By Bird. Natalie Goldberg's 'Wild Mind - Living the Writer's Life,' was a great book, but I felt the lessons were few and far between. I've read that other writing books she wrote are far better, but this one was more about writing and life than writing craft. There were lessons to be learned, but you had to look for them.

Anyway, one thing is for certain. I think I'll have to read Bird By Bird. I am exceptionally annoyed when writers say that their way is the only way, but sometimes you have to read their crap just so you know you're doing what can't be done.