Thursday, December 1, 2011

Absolutely Right, Except When Wrong

Dean Wesley Smith has got me thinking again (blast him).

For those of you who are writers and haven't read his blog, I recommend that you read it religiously (and be sure to read all the comments too - lots of great discussion there). Dean's blog is critical, especially if you want to make a living in this business.

Dean is a guy who not only makes a very good living at writing, but has done so in times when supposedly midlist writers like him couldn't make a living at all. His schtick is that the only reason writers can't make a living is because they cling to myths that hold them back.

And though I never advise anyone to follow a guru blindly, if you really wanted to follow someone blindly -- adhering to the advice to the letter -- Dean would be the man to follow.

Because Dean is always absolutely right about everything... except when he's wrong.

(And he'd be the first to tell you that. He'll be in the middle of a rant about how you absolutely must not do something and he'll put in an aside "unless it works for you; don't mess with what works.")

I bring this up because every now and then I'll say something in the comments on his blog which freaks him out. I'm not a great person for staying on message, even when I fully agree with you, and Dean is trying so hard to free writers from silly notions which hamper their ability to succeed.

It sometimes makes me feel like a bad influence when I write about what I'm doing. Like I'm passing out joints to the kids on the schoolyard.

So here's the thing: I'm in a very different place than most writers are. I'm doing things which may seem to be the polar opposite of what he advises (more on that when I get to tomorrow's debriefing on the writing of this book) -- but I'm not doing it because I believe in any of those old myths which he hates so vociferously.

I'm doing it because I've been around a long time, I've learned a whole heck of a lot of different practices and methods... and the only thing that dictates what I do now is the story itself. And that, for me, is a part of what it is to be an artisan writer -- like a carpenter listening to the wood.

But I got to this point, where I can listen to the story and what it wants, by doing what Dean tells you to do. (And okay, if I say one thing and Dean says another and you don't know who to believe, just remember that Dean got rich and successful from his writing, and I haven't. And I probably never will.)

But I also think Dean takes a rather narrow view, and it doesn't hurt you kids (or old folks) to experiment, especially in the area where Dean and I differ the most:

Dean believes that your Internal Editor is the enemy, and should be locked in the closet.

I believe that your Internal Editor is an annoying but incredibly useful control freak who needs to be kept on a leash, but always on call.

You won't get anywhere if your Creative Side isn't in control. But there are places you will never get to if you don't bring the Internal Editor along for the ride. And the book I just wrote is one of them.

And we'll talk a little about that tomorrow. Maybe late tomorrow, because my Internal Editor and I will be finishing up the book, and wrestling him is time-consuming -- and I may not actually sit down to write that post until Friday night.

See you in the funny papers.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Interesting debate there. My internal editor does censor me a lot, but that's because I'm writing genre fiction and need to stay within its parameters. I'll be experimenting soon, though.

Sarah McCabe said...

I'm a big fan of Dean's blog as well. (Found yours through your comments there.) And I tend to agree with him on the creative/critical mind issue. Of course, the problem is that most young writers (like me) tend to put their critical mind in charge. They think they have to. They think it's the only way to write a good book. And Dean is fighting against that, for good reason.

However, I also remember (I forget in which post) him saying that editing and rewriting are actually skills that you can learn just like every other writing skill. In other words, you can learn to use your creative brain in a creative way. But I'm sure this takes a lot of practice and experience. And there are probably people who can do it naturally to some extent. Everyone is different.

One just needs to remember that your critical brain and the act of revising and editing is just a tool, not a one size fits all fix-it kit to take stories from good to great. And "polished" as often as not means "lifeless". And that just because you have a critical brain, doesn't mean it's good at what it does.

The Daring Novelist said...

Ironically, Dean's methods of silencing the internal editor and writing full speed ahead can be especially effective when you're dealing with genre restrictions. It both gets you practiced so you do them in your sleep, and it allows you to push past them to be more creative and unique within them.

BUT... you're right that you need it. As I'll mention tomorrow, the puzzle mystery is a special case that requires the logical side of the brain. You can't get around it. You NEED it to do a good job. (You can do a passable imitation without it, but not a full-press Golden Age style mystery.)

Yep, exactly. And that's part of why I wanted to start with a caveat here. I don't want people to read this and start with the thought "Ha, I knew Dean was wrong. This is what I learned from my teacher/editor/critique group." I want people to come to this understanding that Dean has the core common wisdom here, and this is a tangent.

Some people are more ready than others, but I always found that it was good to hear a lot of different voices when I was learning.

David Michael said...

I'm only dogmatic about my own doctrines. :-)

Personally, I think people get too caught up in dichotomies, splitting themselves into facets they can label.

I'm a software developer. It makes perfect sense to me that I design stories in much the same way I design software. I write much the same way I program. Sometimes I charge forward, juggling pieces and parts in my head, trying to catch them and arrange them in proper order--knowing I can come back and "fix" issues later. Sometimes I do a lot of the design work up front, before I start the "real" work.

I edit as I write. I edit as I read. I try to write perfect prose with every sentence. I say the hell with it and just push forward.

I think people, including me, just think about stuff way too much and get in our own way. :-)


a said...

Camille, I discovered DWS's blog via yours -- so there!

(I discovered yours via something you posted on Konrath's blog. You made a hell of a lot more sense than 99% of the people posting on Konrath's comments, and more sense than several of his esteemed author friends/collaborators.)

David Michael makes an important point. My own background in beancounting makes me into a certain kind of writer (boring :D), too.

Seriously, though, I wonder if David Michael's point is more universal than the writing gurus (everyone from DWS to Heinlein) would lead one to believe. What if the modern world of fiction sales has inherently -- without intent or design -- favoured certain types of writers? Between its business practices and the cultivation of certain reading tastes in its customer base, perhaps it's created a market bias (both in the sense that publishers are markets for writers' work and readers are markets for publishers' output) for certain types of stories which are most successfully written by certain personality types who usually tend toward certain writing and creating methods/habits.

Your comments about the puzzle mystery pretty much inspired this train of thought. I'm going to think about it some more before I shoot off my mouth again. ;-)

Angie said...

I think this is another case of a teacher talking to people who are stuck, and exaggerating something because it's the only way to blast people out of their ruts. It's like, people tell beginning writers all the time, "Show, don't tell." That's crap. Sometimes showing is appropriate, and sometimes telling is appropriate. But beginners often show everything, and the hope is that telling them to tell everything will at least get them halfway.

Same with advice like, "Always use 'said' as your speaking verb," or "Never edit as you go," or "Your protagonist always has to have changed by the end of the story" -- someone who's stuck in the standard rut for each of those aspects of writing will probably benefit from an overly-general piece of advice, and settle into the middle. Someone who takes the advice literally and goes to the opposite extreme just ends up with the opposite problem.

It's not only writers, either -- I was lucky enough to start crocheting with even, medium tension, and hearing/reading all the advice about how you should focus on working "super loose" really messed me up for a while. Just because most people start out way too tight doesn't mean everyone needs to loosen up. But the advice is given out as though everyone does.

That's why Dean specifies, over and over, that his advice isn't meant for people who don't have a problem. If you're doing fine, then keep going. If you have Problem X, though, then Solution X will probably help you. I think a lot of the people who sneer and snark at Dean (and I've seen a lot of other NY-published writers do so, including some I otherwise like and respect) do so because they haven't picked up on his caveats. Reading comprehension, anyone?


The Daring Novelist said...

The other thing is that writers are all over the map in terms of where they come from. I'm sure that the people gravitate here are those who need to hear what I have to say.

So I'm not _really_ worried about leading people astray. (Personally, I think the more often you go astray, the better off you are anyway.)

But because so many people do see the world in dichotomies, I want it to be clear that the stage I am going through not are not a repudiation of Heinlein, but rather something that builds on it.

And that makes it a good introduction to where I'm going.

Angie said...

Camille -- right, trying lots of different things gives you that much more of a chance of finding something that works perfectly for you, or of having a technique in the back of your head that'll handle a situation that comes up next year. [nod]

Also agree about the dichotomies. It's easier to present situations as this-or-that, but the easy option rarely covers everyone. Trying to be realistic -- which I do periodically, when I'm discussing something -- often leads to TL;DR and then you reach no one. It can be very frustrating trying to straddle that particular fence.


Hunter F. Goss said...

The issue of the critical mind and how it should be treated isn’t confined to writing. It’s in a lot of other activities as well.

The ability to ignore the critical mind when appropriate allows a transition from pure technique to ‘art’. It’s at the heart of how a musician can practice set pieces for hours on end (the technique part) and then in the heat of a jazz set take off on an ad lib riff lasting several minutes.

It’s also at the heart of how and why elderly kendo (and other martial arts) masters are able to react so quickly to the movements and stratagems presented by younger and physically faster students; there is no critical mind, just an immediate connection to the activity.

The taming of the critical mind and the ability to put it aside also allows athletes of all kinds to enter what’s known as ‘flow’. But poker and pool players experience it too, as do people who specialize in the performance of the tea ceremony and the Japanese disciplines of flower arranging and calligraphy.

But it takes practice. And that's hard. In martial arts we have a saying: the simplest things are always the most difficult.

The Daring Novelist said...

Hunter -- I'm glad you posted.

Yes, I do really think there is an aspect of the zen "Mind Like Water" at work here.

Water is still and peaceful until something acts on it, then it reacts in perfect balance to the force in question, and naturally returns to still and calm.

Of course, that metaphor and some of your examples, are mostly reactive endeavors. It wouldn't seem to help you with the blank page (since the blank page is like still water) -- however, you're right that that kind of mastery is actually the ultimate cure for blank page syndrome.

It gives you power.

ModWitch said...

I'm coming around to the idea that going astray is perhaps most important while you're learning. That kind of seems opposite to what most people think beginners ought to do - learn the rules, then break them - but I think it's really easy to constrain yourself to writing certain kinds of stuff in certain kinds of ways.

One of the things I like most about this blog is that it makes me think about even those rules (like Heinlein) I've decided I really like. My fave, lately is "I don't edit - but what if I pancake rolled a scene?" I've really been using that. Sometimes it's awesome. Sometimes it's a train gone really astray. But I think both results are good experiences.

The Daring Novelist said...

And sometimes you end up with a really awesome trainwreck! (Like my sequel to Wife of Freedom.)

As for going astray: one thing I learned in the midst of all those battles at work is that nobody knows a rule like an anarchist. (I might have a draft of a blog post about this, don't remember...)

Authoritarians don't understand rules at all -- they have no idea where the boundaries really are, and get themselves into deep trouble. Anarchists, on the other hand, can tap dance all over the dang things, and never get in trouble.

ModWitch said...

Tap dancing sounds like more fun :D.

a said...

I've done thinking some more, so I'm going to shoot from the hip again.

Hunter makes a point about an aspect of performance which I grew familiar with via what at one point was called "the inner game," in sports performance theory.

What differentiates constructing a tale from a martial arts challenge is, as Camille noted, the reactive aspect of the competitive sport situation (whether you're reacting to block a jump shot or reacting to the icy rut around the gate ahead of you during your slalom run). Hunter points out the apparent applicability of this mental trick -- for want of a better term -- to artistic endeavours. However, few painters standing in front of a canvas have absolutely no idea where they want to go.

As a great admirer of Stephen King as a creative force and literary personality (though I don't read his work), his comments about the pantster nature of his writing process have always grabbed me. But I wonder if the ten thousand hours idea is essential to the ability to effectively unleash the inner creative genius.

Also, an essential element of permitting creativity and loosing discipline among students/learners, rather than forcing rigorous adherence to reproduction and analysis of others' critically acclaimed creative production, would seem to me to be a requirement to subsequently make the student take a deep breath, gain some distance from the product of the burst of budding genius, then critically evaluate it in terms of where it worked/failed, where it merely gave the impression, in the moment of creative euphoria, of being brilliant rather than merely technically well done (if that).

The Daring Novelist said...

"Inner Tennis" was THE thing back when my folks were coaching tennis and running local tournaments.

I suppose it influenced my way of learning, even though I didn't play tennis, I often ended up giving lessons to people who dropped by.

"Mindfulness" is the place where logical learning kicks in. The secret is to train your inner editor to be still and observe. Heighten your awareness.

Mark Asher said...

I think the inner editor is really needed when copy-editing our own work if we want to improve the quality of the writing. I'm just not convinced great prose sells much better than good prose, or that good prose sells much better than mediocre prose.

The Daring Novelist said...

Ah, Mark. I take it you haven't been reading this blog very long.

Copy editing can't get you above mediocre. Copy editing is a presentation issue, like formatting.

If you want to get to good or great, you've got to move beyond that, and concentrate on VOICE. And voice is sloppy.

Where the internal editor comes in handy is in 1). understanding how that sloppiness works for you -- and thus makes you "mindful" of what's going on with your writing, and 2.) seeing outside yourself so you can tell whether you actually communicated what you want.