Writers are neurotic. Now, I don't mean that as an insult, particularly since I count myself in that group, but generally, there comes a time in every writer's career when self-deprecation inches its ugly way into our psyche. This happens, it's been my experience, mostly when we're in the thick of figuring out a plot or revising a work post first draft. We tend to doubt ourselves, we question our abilities. When this occurs, the natural resolution is to seek the advice of other, more established, seasoned writers, editors or educators.
Writing craft books are aplenty. There are books on writing a 'bestseller in 30 days!' or 'unraveling the plot.' Some are real stinkers. Some, however are not. I've read several craft-related books in the past. My personal favorites are Stephen King's On Writing, John Dufresne's The Lie That Tells a Truth and Self Editing for Fiction Writing by Renni Browne.
Those books have taught me, rather quickly, that form and function can be learned. Browne explains the importance of ‘showing not telling’ pretty much on the first few pages of her book, using Fitzgerald as an example. King and Dufresne both tell you from the beginning that they don’t have all the answers and that what works for them won’t necessarily work for you. All advice given in these books are great, invaluable, especially when that neurosis is niggling you, making you doubt yourself.
An issue that can arise, however, is whether or not too much advice—be it from publishing greats or that know-it-all guy in your creative writing class—is simply, too much. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone. I’ve been around enough writers to know that we all have a different approach when it comes to getting a story out. Some like to start at the end, ‘having dessert’ before the main course, (writing your ending before you begin). Some outline. Some would rather cut off their fingers than use an adverb. Advice is abundant, even advice in craft books, but the point, the challenge in taking in all this advice, good and bad, is sorting out which is the best for you.
The first creative writing course I took in college was taught by a highly respected, much published professor who is quite a big deal in our little state. He is a genius storyteller. However, during our first class he told us he would not allow ‘genre fiction’ in his class. No ghosts, no fairies (I know, I was cringing at that one), no fantasy of any kind…nothing that wasn’t based in reality. I could have walked out of that classroom and never looked back. I didn’t. I learned. I listened and what I gained was the nuts and bolts skills of writing a great story. I struggled to write literary fiction for him, probably doing a horrible job of it, but I stuck it out. I continued to take his classes over the next four years because I recognized that he had a wealth of knowledge that I could use once I left his classroom and defiantly wrote as much fairy/vampire/ghost/horror fiction as I could.
It’s the same with reading craft books. If you allow yourself to drown in the abundance of ‘you must’ and ‘this is how it’s dones’ then, yes, that advice will overwhelm you. If, however, you take snippets from all varying opinions and advice you can walk away with an expansive base from which you will build your own style, hone your own voice.
What is essential, I think, in organizing those snippets and expanding them, is to have dialogues with others who have a vested interest in the same genre you do. Like minded writers and editors or even readers will help you. Network. Discuss. Branch out and listen. Not all advice may be golden, but all advice can be applied to your own interests. The information overload you fear will engulf you can only do so when you don’t know yourself as a writer, when you’re too afraid to listen to that instinctive voice in your head.
Listen to others, take in what they have to say, but ultimately, the voice that you should hear above all others, is your own.
If you’re still concerned, still leery, I invite you to join myself and a great bunch of writers on ScribeChat’s Book Club to read and discuss craft books. July’s book of choice is Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees.
Hope to see you there!