This summer, I got a new car. Well, new to me – it belonged to Dad for several years, until he decided that with Mom gone, he didn’t really need two cars and he liked the other one better.
Anyway, it’s a 2008 model, with lots of snazzy bells and whistles that I’ve never had on a car before. Lots of bells and whistles. I had to drag out the owner’s manual in order to figure out how to open the gas cap, and I had to dig through a stack of paper, including maps and a really fat maintenance-and-repair manual, before I found the bit of paper I was actually looking for.
A lot of the rules and recommendations about writing (you knew I was going to bring this back around to writing eventually) are like those different maps and manuals, except they don’t come with neat labels that actually tell you that this batch is for normal operations and this other list is for hard-core repairs. They just give you a list of do’s and don’ts. And applying the wrong set of instructions and/or data for what you want to do is very likely to make your problems worse instead of better.
The very first thing you need is a car. You do not, however, need a Porsche or a BMW or a high-quality racing car. They’d be nice to have, and they’re not as likely to break down on the trip, but you don’t need them. Just something that runs.
I’d say that the writing equivalent of this is a story to tell, and maybe some of the basic components like plot, characters, etc. Most writers begin with the equivalent of the junker car that they bought for $500 used when they were in high school or college – something that works well enough most of the time, but that really needs a lot of tinkering with to keep it running smoothly. This is not really a bad thing; one generally learns a great deal from tinkering, whether it’s with a car or with one’s stories.
Most people don’t need or want a manual in order to pick a car to buy, though many people do a bit of research to find out which cars are reliable, what their safety record is like, how much they cost, etc. Most writers don’t need or want directions on what to write about, though some will try to do market research to find out what’s selling. The trouble is, there’s a lot more good information available about the cost and reliability of cars than there is about what editors are buying at any given time.
Once you have a car, you need is somewhere you want to go. That’s the writing equivalent of the road trip plan for getting from Chicago to Denver. You may not know where the road construction is, and you certainly won’t be able to predict where the accidents have backed up traffic for ten miles along your route; you may not even have chosen a route, but you at least have some idea where you’re trying to go. For writers, this would be a direction, a structure, a plot, an ending – whatever prewriting or outlining the particular writer needs in order to start writing.
In a car, what you need for this is a map. Same thing for writers; the trouble is that there are dozens of “this is how you get started” systems around, but nobody’s ever organized all of them into a map that shows all the possibilities. Because the thing about a map is, it shows you where Chicago is relative to Denver, and that I-80 is the most direct route, but it doesn’t say that you must go that way if you’d rather swing north and take a long route through the back roads of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and South Dakota.
The next thing you need to know is how to drive the car (unless you’re planning to hire a chauffer/ghostwriter, which most people can’t afford). You don’t need to know how the car works in order to drive it; you just have to know a few things like how to work the steering wheel, gas pedal, and brakes, which switches are for the headlights and turn signals, and where the gas-cap release lever is. The owner’s manual will tell you where things are; the actual driving part requires practical experience.
This would be the basic writing and storytelling skills: grammar, spelling, punctuation, syntax; some sense of how plot and characters work; a basic understanding of dialog and narrative and pace; etc. And, of course, actually writing. Most writers pick this up from reading and experimenting and maybe from books and English classes, and figure out how it all goes together by practicing.
Sooner or later, even a Porsche or BMW needs basic maintenance, like oil changes and tire rotation, and they do eventually break down and need fixing after a certain amount of use. For cars, that usually means taking them to a mechanic to be fixed, but most writers don’t want to hire a book doctor to fix their novels even if they can find and afford a legitimate one. So sooner or later, all of us have to figure out how to repair our own stuff, for which one wants the repair manual. That would be the editing and revision stage, where you really dig into every aspect of the story to make sure it’s in tip-top shape.
A lot of writers are trying to use the repair manual to decide where they’re going or figure out how to turn on the windshield wipers. The repair manual won’t help at all with figuring out where to go or how to get there, and it’ll drive you mad if all you need to know is where the heck they put the wiper controls. On the other hand, if the wipers aren’t working and you need to know which part to get and how to replace it, the nice little diagram of the dashboard in the owner’s manual that labels the switches really isn’t likely to be much help.
Knowing where you’re going doesn’t help you drive the car or fix it when it breaks down. Driving the car around at random is unlikely to get you anywhere useful or interesting. A great car that’s in perfect condition but up on blocks because you can’t drive and have nowhere to go…well, it may be pretty to look at, but again, it’s not going anywhere. You have to start by looking at the right document for whatever it is you want to do or are having trouble with.