Linda Maye Adams

Exorcising Writing How-to Advice


Last week, I wrote about leaving the writing message boards because my writing was getting polluted by a lot of the nonsense advice being passed around.  But I’d also started pulling back from general writing advice from how-to books even before that (some writers were absolutely horrified at this.  Writing advice is a huge safety net).  I was finding that the advice assumed all writers outline and didn’t provide anything really for someone who might not be doing that.

One of the core problems for me is that a lot of the how-to advice is common sense and seems perfectly reasonable.

Until I apply it to when I’m writing, and it turns the story into a freaking mess.  I could not tell this until I tossed out all the outlining-flavored advice, and once I did, the story simply worked.  Writing the story also went back to being a lot of fun.  Using outlining flavored techniques really sucked a lot of the fun out.

But it’s a constant battle, because I’ve been hearing that advice for decades.  It’s like it’s imprinted on me as a default.

I’m currently at the one-third point in my current book.  It’s a place where I always have trouble in every single book.  The story was going great, and then suddenly it’s ‘what do I do?’

LEFT BRAIN: Ack!  Ack! Story is broken!  Story is broken! Go find the problem and fix it!

I wound up stuck at that point, mainly because I’ve been at war with the Left Brain.  It figures all that writing advice out there is useful and maybe a turning point would help resolve the sticking point.

No, no, and no.

Because that wrests takes all the creativity away from my Right Brain that’s actually trying to do the writing.  What’s happened in the past is that when I let the Left Brain dictate what happens next — story beats were one of those things that seemed really reasonable but were horrifyingly bad —  I ended up trying to make the story fit what I’d come up with.  The story, in turn, became very convoluted and twisted because the creative process of discovery as I wrote was not allowed in.  It distorted the story so badly, in fact, that this is a complete redraft from scratch, and I have not used anything from the original version.

I end up feeling like I have to keep giving Left Brain an NCIS head slap to stay out of the story’s business.

The hardest thing right now is that I am literally doing a scene that I do not have any idea what is going to happen in it.  How-to advice and writing rules all say that’s a bad idea, and it’s what I have to do.

It’s trust the process.

6 Comments

  1. For as much as I talk about story structure on my blog, I’m a complete pantser, so I understand. I’ve reached the point where I trust my muse to know what he’s doing, and I just run with it. 🙂

    I figure I *know* all this structure and beats and turning points stuff now, and I just hope my brain has internalized it to the point that I don’t have to consciously think about it anymore. So far, it’s worked for me for 4 full-length novels. 🙂 But yeah, I know plenty of outliners who would be horrified. LOL! (And thanks for the shout out!)

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    • I don’t fuss with structure either. I have the same problem — I end up writing to it and losing the story in favor of the structure. That’s also a really recent trend. While earlier writing authors talked about turning points with different names (set pieces), the first time I saw structure bought up was around 2009, and it suddenly became this huge trend that WRITERS. MUST. DO. Then it became this thing to tell people, “If you don’t have it, you’re doing it wrong. Here’s how you get it.” Never mind that the writer might already have an instinctive grasp of the story, and that adding “structure” might actually break that. Or worse, turning the middle of the book into a large and scary black hole. I’m still amazed at the number of things I run across that assume pantsers can’t tell a good story because they don’t outline. So it’s been a lot better for me to ignore as much as I can.

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      • LOL! Yep, I’m right there with you. 🙂 That’s why I did my “In Defense of Pantsing” post a while back. We don’t need someone telling us our method is broken when it works.

        Will it work for everyone? No, but neither will the outliner method. 😉

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  2. Pearl R. Meaker

    Woo Hoo!

    Hi Linda and Jami,

    I have to leave it alone too. 🙂 And, yeah, for the same reason, it just seems to suck the life out of my stories.

    I do think things through with my stories. I have a program called Inspiration (version 9) that lets you set up thought bubble diagrams and thought bubble timelines and those work so well for me. There’s just something about the rigid structure of an outline – and then having to try to remember/keep track of all of those points and stuff that just shuts my brain down.

    Much better for me to leave room for those characters, scenes and dialog that just suddenly appear and are so often better than what I had in mind to begin with.

    I have the same problem with most all of the writing advice stuff. As soon as I read/hear about something I’m supposed to do or not do, then it’s all I can think about and I can’t tell the story any more.

    It’s always so comforting to find out I’m not the only one. 🙂

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    • One of the biggest problems with that is that people giving the advice don’t understand that it does have that effect on some people. I’d see outright dismissals of things like what you talk about, as if the writer were just making it up to avoid the outline.

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      • Pearl R. Meaker

        Exactly, Linda! For some reason they think we’re making excuses. And there is a very irritating thing about that – that someone else’s reasons are almost always called excuses nowadays.

        I rarely use the word “excuse(s)” anymore. I figure that, like me, most people often have a very good reason for what they do or don’t do – can or can’t do. We are all different and, although there may be others who do things the same way we do, we still most likely approach it in a slightly different way and this needs to be respected – not used as a put down. We all have things we can and can’t do and should be free to do the things we can do to the best of our ability and not have to keep trying to live up to the “remove can’t from your vocabulary” mentality. The pressure to have to be good at everything is one of our society’s biggest stressors. The better attitude, I feel, is to acknowledge our “can’ts”, remember no one can do everything, and focus on our “cans.”

        I’ll get off my soapbox now. 😉

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