Monday, March 15, 2010

Conflicting Advice

There seems to be no shortage of writing advice. You could fill a bookcase with the amount of books telling you how-to, when-to, how-much-to write.

We are exhorted to:

Write the mother of all outlines.
Some books advise writing outlines so meticulous they strike me as the same thing as a first draft - but in point form. "You're nowhere without an outline!" these books declare, "Every good writer always prepares an outline!"

Never write an outline.
We also have the books that promote eschewing outlines. These books put forth the argument that a real writer can just sit down and write. Any outline would stifle the creativity. You must trust in the process and the road will become apparent as you travel along it. Every good writer never prepares an outline.

Write comprehensive descriptions.
Physicality is important and therefore it is the writer's duty to impart every speck of detail in their writing. Rooms must be dissected and meadows must be discussed as well as frolicked in. There is no detail too tiny. Put it all in.

Write broad descriptions.
Descriptions of places and characters should be limited to the important, not the mundane. Meaningless detail adds to nothing but the word count. Leave most of it out.

Every plot line must be concluded.
If there's a plot, there must be an ending. Leave nothing up in the air. When a reader closes the book they should have all the answers.

Open-ended plots are valuable.
Like in life, your book does not have to have endings to every plot. Minor plots can be left unresolved or have conclusions hinted at but not confirmed. This is especially important in any series. When a reader closes the books they shouldn't have all the answers.

There are, of course, many many more. I've imagined new writers eagerly reading all of these books and ending up totally confused and never actually writing a thing. I've learned to take all the advice with a large grain of salt and know what works and what doesn't work for me.

I try to write strong character-driven plots simply because that's the sort of book I like to read. As a reader I will skip over long descriptions; as a writer I don't put them in. I outline, but not to excess. I don't start writing until I know the ending and who the main characters are. But I don't know every step along the way. I will tie up my main plot, but there might be a few minor ones whose conclusions are only hinted at.

Do you have shelves of how-to writing books? Do you follow them?


  1. Elspeth - "Conflicting" is such an appropriate word for the kind of advice one gets about writing. I've read some wonderful advice and been glad I did; at the same time, though, I tend to shy away from too much "how to" stuff. The reason is that writing is a very personal, very individual thing. Of course there are some things that every writer benefits from knowing. Solid characters, strong plots, etc. are very important. But the process of writing? That variers too much, I think, for there to be a "one best way." I find it more productive to be open to advice, and then to adopt the advice that works for me. Perhaps I'm missing out on some very fine development tips that way, but I find that listening to too much advice freezes me into immobility and makes me doubt myself.

  2. Margot; Surely one doesn't need to read a how-to book to know any book needs solid characters and a strong plot? Doesn't every writer get to the point of knowing what does and doesn't work for them? I don't think you'll be able to find that knowledge in a book.

    Karen; This is why how-to-write books drive me crazed. Everyone must find their own path - there is not such thing as one size fits all.

  3. Yeah, I've got lots of "how to" advice books, but no, I don't really follow them. You have to feel your own muse and how IT works best. So no one advice is good for all writers, hmm? I DO re-read Stephen King's "On Writing" book, his style resonates with me (not his genre, too gory for me, but his writing style)so I've gotten a lot of use out of his advice.

    Marvin D Wilson

  4. You've given perfect examples of much of the conflicting writing advice floating around. I do have shelves stacked with how-to books and though I have read useful tidbits, I generally don’t mess with my no outline writing style.

  5. I have a shelf full of these books, too. After reading a few cover to cover, my head was ready to spin off like a wayward top. I've learned what generally works for me, and when I have a problem I go to the books to search for answers.

  6. I have a few how-to's, but sometimes they mess me up. I tend to overthink things when I have too many reference books.


  7. Stephen King's "On Writing" and Donald Maass's "How to Write a Breakout Novel" workbook are precious to me. That said, I've never been a "how to" girl. That's why I don't cook. Couldn't stand to follow a simple recipe!

  8. Old Silly; Stephen King's book seems to be a favourite for many.

    Jane; If that's what you've discovered works for you, then you're right to stick with it!

    Carol; It does make your head spin, doesn't it? I have one book I go to if I have a problem - but other than that I do it on my own.

    Elizabeth; I have the same problem! Overthinking tends to lead to underwriting.

    Debra; I cook - but I've cooked long enough I don't need a great deal of recipes - I know how to cook. Perhaps the same idea should be applied to writing...

  9. Balance is the only way to go for me. I let my characters wander around in my head for a bit before I start to write. That's the extent of my outlining. I do like to read the advice, then I just pick and choose what works for me. :)

  10. I despair of absolutes in writing advice. Even in my editing blogs I qualify what I say about content editing as just one way to approach the writing. When we are writing we should be focused on the story and letting it flow, not being concerned with whether we are doing it right.

  11. At first I bought every one I could get my hands on, and scoured the shelves for more. Now, I take my advice from you wonderful writing bloggers. Who needs a book when one can go right to the source?


  12. Jemi; I'm glad that works for you - it would never work for me.

    Maryann; The story should be the focus - getting it down. All the rest is fine-tuning.

    Michele; Isn't this blogosphere a wonderful place?

  13. I write exactly like you. A bit of an outline, but knowing the ending and my characters is the main thing. Too much description puts me to sleep. When it comes to books on writing, and all things in life, I take the advice that resonates with me and ignore the rest.

  14. I have a few books, but King's On Writing is still my favorite. I write with a very broad outline, and fill in the scenes as they come to me. Then I go back and fill in the missing pieces towards the end.

  15. You know what I've found? All those writing books I read make me want to write and try new things...I try to take that lesson alone from each book and consider it motivation to do what I love.

    I try to ignore most of the rules that are always so contradictory and go with my gut. Sometimes the fire and determination of the authors of these books is enough to invigorate me as a fellow author. Does that makes sense?

    I take away the passion more than the lesson if that makes any sense at all...

  16. I love books on writing - like some of the others I like Stephen King. I've had a lot of good help from James Scott Bell's book Plot & Structure. He is the opposite of an absolutist - lays out the process helpful for an outliner and a non-outliner and encourages both parties to move towards the middle! For hear encouragement Annie Lamott's bird by bird cannot be ignored. I just got a new one from a friend - very small - This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley (author of the fantastic Easy Rawlins mysteries. He lays it out pretty well I think. Basically, his advice, like King's and Lamott's and my father's (!) is to show up EVERY day and you will produce and get better. I think I'd better go do that.

  17. What a useful post. I have not read a lot of books on this, but I read a loooong article with ten different (famous) writers´ best advice recently. I don´t know if they have put me off advice for ever, or just for this year, but it was very clear to me that the trick is to select authors whose style you LIKE - and then see if you agree with them on how to get there.


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