Every so often, I get a request from someone to do a guest blog post or answer some questions for a survey article someone is writing. I almost always turn them down; it is hard enough keeping up with twice-weekly posting on my own blog without adding additional writing on top of that.
Some of these requests are general “we will post anything you want to write” queries, but many want a post on a specific topic (usually some aspect of writing). When there’s a topic, the requester often includes a list of questions, presumably intended either to point the article in a particular direction, or to get my imagination jump-started.
Lately, I have noticed a disturbing trend in some of these question lists. They are starting to follow a pattern, which goes something like this:
- -Define (topic)
- -Why is (topic) important to a writer/writers of X-type fiction?
- -Compare (topic) to (other topic); how are they the same? Different?
- -How do you decide where in the story (topic) should happen? How do you get the reader ready for (topic)?
- -What are the best and worst examples of (topic)? What are common mistakes writers should avoid?
Frankly, this sort of list always gets my back up. For starters, it reminds me all too strongly of the kind of assignments I used to get from my high school English teachers, which I do not recall with fondness. But the main problem I have is that this sort of list assumes a lot of things about the writing process that I know are not true for me, that I also know are not true for most of my professional-writer friends, and that I think are questionable in the extreme as a jumping-off point for any article intended for would-be writers.
Knowing the definition of terms like plot, subplot, viewpoint, turning point, climax, plot twist, etc. can certainly be useful, especially for analytical writers who want to discuss their work and/or process with other writers. It is hard to have a coherent conversation when the main topic is “that thing that happens in the middle somewhere, except when it happens earlier or almost at the end.” Having labels to hang on things like viewpoint and subtext can also be very useful when a lone writer just wants to examine their own work.
But they aren’t actually necessary. Most of the writers I know are self-taught; they learned their craft, initially, by being voracious readers and then imitating what their favorite writers were doing (sometimes deliberately and consciously, other times without realizing it)…and then looking at what they’d written and paying attention to what worked and what didn’t work, so that they could do more of the former and less of the latter. In many cases, the “paying attention” part involves running the first draft past beta readers, which does get back to the need for mutually-agreed on terminology for “that thing you always do with the characters that doesn’t work,” but if the writer can’t (or simply doesn’t wish to) use beta readers, this difficulty never arises.
As long as the writer has a way of noticing what works and what doesn’t that works for them, it really doesn’t matter whether they know and understand the terms dialog, speech tags, and stage business and break their work down into those categories, or whether they wrap those three things up together and think of them as “peoplespeak.”
The whole “define-explain importance-compare/contrast” sequence appears to me to assume that this essay-writing system is something that can and should be applied to creative writing. This becomes blatantly obvious with points four and five, “how do you decide where (topic) should happen?” and the whole best/worst/mistakes question.
At least half of the writers I know simply do not work in any way that maps to this neat little sequence. They don’t “decide where the climax/first plot twist/end of Act I/viewpoint change” should happen – not in advance, anyway. Several of my writer friends describe their plotting process as looking at a mist-filled valley with a couple of hilltops poking out of the mist in various places. They know (or think they know) that they are going to visit those hilltops in order to get through the valley, but they have no clue whether they are going to be able to walk down into the mist and straight to the first peak, or whether they’re going to find the mist hiding a cracked and broken landscape that makes it impossible to get to Peak #1 without first visiting Peak #3 and backtracking to Peak #2.
This happens to me all the time. I was absolutely positive, until about five chapters before the end of Mairelon the Magician, that the final confrontation between Dan Laverham and Mairelon was going to happen in a London warehouse, with my three main characters facing Dan and a veritable army of his goons. St. Clair was going to show up at the very end of the fight, just when it was supposed to all be over. None of the rest of the characters were supposed to be around at all. I knew exactly what was supposed to happen…only around six chapters from the end, I realized that I didn’t have a satisfying way of dragging them back to London. And I didn’t really need to, because they were all already in more or less the same place. So that clearly visualized dramatic climax got thrown out, and instead I ended up with the farcical confrontation at the lodge that settled a gazillion subplots in one scene.
But that didn’t happen because I sat down and analyzed my plot and decided that I needed to alter my climax. It happened because somewhere around six chapters from the end, the warehouse scene I’d been aiming for started…feeling wrong. Or maybe not wrong, but not as right as I wanted it to be. I could, perhaps, have made it work, but even though the confrontation part felt right, the place and time and cast of characters felt wrong. So I ditched the plan and let each of the characters behave exactly like themselves instead.
And since I didn’t really decide what the final confrontation was going to look like before I wrote it, I also hadn’t done anything to “get the reader ready for it.” Nor did I go back and revise the earlier parts with an eye to increasing the drama (or the comedy) at the end. The editorial revisions ended up having that effect, but that was a happy side-effect rather than a deliberately planned outcome.
Writing fiction is not something that can be done by the numbers – not successfully, anyway. Even the most analytical writer makes a lot of intuitive decisions about everything from specific word choices in a sentence to the overall structure of the story. Trying to turn every choice into a conscious, considered decision is a good way to make the whole process take ten or fifteen times as long as it should, if it doesn’t simply come to a screeching halt.
The last couple of times I got one of these question lists, I have replied as politely as possible that the questions as phrased don’t make a lot of sense to me, that they bear little to no resemblance to the way I write, and that if I answered them as written, I doubt my answers would be terribly useful to anybody. But just for the heck of it, here’s the generic set:
It’s a writing term.
-Why is (topic) important to a writer/writers of X-type fiction?
It isn’t, really, unless it is something the writer is having trouble with. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
-Compare (topic) to (other topic); how are they the same? Different?
They’re both writing topics. They are different because some people will find one useful and other people will find the other useful. Of course, there are also people who will find neither useful or both useful, which I suppose is back to how they are the same.
-How do you decide where in the story (topic) should happen? How do you get the reader ready for (topic)?
-What are the best and worst examples of (topic)? What are common mistakes writers should avoid?
I don’t have any examples because I don’t classify books that way in my head. Mistakes to avoid: having it not work. If it works, it’s not a mistake.