At the 2016 writer’s conference, our keynote speaker was Larry Brooks. One thing he said that stuck with me was that when we sometimes talk about certain things, some people tend to take them as gospel. He called that toxic thinking, or something like that because I’m paraphrasing. I agreed with what he intended and thought about it for a bit, brewed on the implications and thought about all the articles I’ve presented on writing.
There are some things like rules that to me are absolutes. However, there are other things that are techniques and styles that are not. I always make an effort to emphasize that when I’m presenting a technique, they in no way are absolutes. The last thing I want to do is create toxic ideas. My whole motivation is to help writers, not steer them on the wrong path!
We had some discussion about that Monday at the writer’s group and that was partly based on the keynote. One glaring example was Stephen King and his book On Writing. Since Larry Brooks talked about how some writer’s preach seat-of-the-pants writing versus outlining (I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer), many new writers get the impression they have to do it that way or they’re going to suck. Since I’ve never read On Writing, I can’t vouch for what King says. During Monday’s discussion, and maybe even from what Brooks alluded to it at the conference, what King seems to suggest or imply is that seat-of-the-pants is the only way to write. That’s an absolute. That’s toxic talk.
Whether King really says that or mitigates it with outlining I couldn’t say. However, at least two or more people in the past week seem to interpret the master author as preaching that steat-of-the-pants approach as the only real way to go.
Writing rules of grammar are absolutes. Using proper nouns, verbs, sentences in proper form are absolutes.
I’m going off on a limb here and adding what Larry Brooks might call a poison thought. Some might call these writing styles. However, I call some of those styles just plain bad writing. When people have to suffer through that crap to get to that “great story,” I consider it an offense to the reading public.
Lazy writing. Sloppy writing and getting away with it. Using passive and tell and making little or no effort to clean it up. Self-publishing that mess or finding some editor that lets you get away with because you sell well it is a misdemeanor against readers! Go ahead and call that toxic thoughts. I don’t care. If you want to call those things your style, you’re full of it!
THE REAL NON-ABSOLUTES
There are many types of stories and writing styles I don’t personally like. Point of view is an example. I cannot stand first-person. Like many publishers and editors, I don’t like omniscient. I also cannot stand present-tense. I’ve made that plain often enough and gave my reasons why. However, that’s also a personal choice and if your muse takes you there, you have to go for it. I must also include mixing points of view. However, it must be done, separated by chapters or scenes if you’re going to switch points of view, and not within them, otherwise that’s right up in the absolute category of head hopping and lazy writing. Unfortunately, head-hopping goes right along with omniscient. While I consider it and absolute, it’s also a part of omniscient since there’s no real central character – it’s a cast of thousands, more or less. On the other hand, overuse of head-hopping in solid third-person fits in the absolute category above and is right back in lazy writing.
Another thing that is not an absolute is how you get from A to B. I’ve talked extensively about how I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer. All I need is A and B and everything else in-between is a total surprise, part of the adventure and keeps the creative spark going.
Folks, that’s what works for me and has for twenty-one years.
However…that’s just how my brain works. I do not recommend that for everyone!
Some of you are solid in the outline camp and I can’t stress enough: before you listen to someone and attempt a novel by the seat of the pants route, you might want to look into the outline process. Maybe that’s your muse. Don’t dismiss it just because I or Stephen King recommends it. I don’t recommend it for everyone. It just happens to work for me!
There are plenty of outlining classes available on line and in books and if that’s how your thought process work, for goodness sakes, use it!
Some of you might be a hybrid of seat-of-the-pants and outlining.
The key to either approach…and I can’t stress this enough, is that you have to know A and B before you start! You have to know A and B, and especially B.
If you start a story and have no idea where it’s going to end, you’re going to end up with an incomprehensible mess.
The caveat to that is as your writing and the story progresses, you might very well tweak that ending (B). As the story unfolds, things might come out that affect the end, give you second thoughts and cause you to refine that ending. It might be generally the same, but new ideas may enhance it.
Folks, rules are absolutes, techniques are not. Rules are how you create something comprehensible that will not embarrass you, something others will likely publish. Techniques are how you get there. That’s entirely up to you.