It’s funny that Peggy decided to write about the value (or lack thereof) of process advice this week, because I’d been thinking about craft advice.
A couple of weeks ago an article appeared on Slate about Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book, Save the Cat! The writer blamed it for the overwhelming sameness he was seeing at the movies. (The article is here if you want to read it.) Now, I’d seen many many many MANY writers (novelists as well as screenwriters) recommend this book in blogs and on twitter and sometime last winter I downloaded the sample to my Kindle. I was so turned off by the obnoxious tone of the book I firmly put it aside as “not for me” and moved on. But then this Slate article piqued my curiosity again, and two other writing friends started talking about it on Facebook and I caved. I ordered it and read the whole thing. The tone didn’t get any more to my liking, but underneath the casually smug attitude there was some advice that resonated with me about refining one’s idea and how to make sure the structure of one’s story is sound. It turns out it’s a book that I’ll probably pick up again and again.
I had the opposite experience with the book GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon. Apart from Dixon’s use of the Oxford comma in the title, not much in that book really worked for me. Oh, the central idea is very sound, and, in its way, profound, but it just didn’t feel like the revelation that so many writers told me it was for them. I don’t think it’s a bad book at all, it just didn’t have the particular craft advice *I* needed at the time when I was ready to read it. (For those of you who have wanted to try this book out but were turned off by its high price, I discovered while writing this post that it’s *finally* available as a reasonably priced ebook.)
Another book that did work for me is a creative writing textbook, not chatty, not fluffy, dense but readable: Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. I find myself turning to it again and again for good solid reminders about the fundamentals of craft: characterization, pace, structure, setting. This was the first book I read whose advice on removing linking verbs (such as: be, feel, seem look, appear, experience etc.) in order to deepen POV really clicked for me. This is a basic lesson of writing, not something arcane or difficult, but the passage was written in the right way, and I read it at the right time, for it to resonate deeply. I remember closing the book after reading just that page and thinking “I have to re-write everything I’ve ever written. It’s all wrong.” This sounds like it might have been depressing, but I remember the elation of something fundamental and true clicking into place.
Writing is a skilled craft. Doing it well requires both diligent practice and careful study. One could easily spend too much time in either direction. Writing a lot is important, but writing 2k words every day won’t make one a better writer without knowing what good writing looks like. Learning about one’s craft is important, but won’t actually make for a better writer unless those lessons are put into practice.
What about you, do you have some tried and true craft books you keep coming back to? Do you find craft books inspirational or depressing? How do you balance between study/practice?