Sunday, April 26, 2015

Talent vs. Training: Which is responsible for good writing?

"Write. Write a lot. Keep writing. Read a lot. Then write some more."

Every writer, writing instructor, writing class, and writing advice book I've ever read gives this advice. As far as I've seen in the writing community, it's a fairly accepted notion that if you want to be a good writer, you have to work at it. A lot.

But hey! What about talent? 

Interesting question, that. I've heard it bandied about in lots of forms: "You can't teach good writing", "But I don't have the talent of a Tolkien, so...", "You're either born with it or you aren't", "Some people just seem to have IT." I've listened to friends debate the issue, and seen implicit and explicit assumptions made across all sorts of forums about the role of talent vs. hard work and learning. Some people even argue that training, advice and the study of other people's writing and methods will somehow inhibit our natural talent and make us less-than, that it will stifle our creativity. 

And yet, the most successful writers continue to tell us that the secret to good writing is the same as the old joke about getting to Madison Square Garden: practice, practice, practice. No coincidence that it's called a craft, and that we talk about 'working on', 'perfecting' or 'mastering' that craft. 

So who's right? 

As a professor of developmental cognitive science, I studied and researched learning, so I have some thoughts (and knowledge) about this. The quick answer is this: in almost every possible area of life, 'talent' is a product of hard work, learning, and time. You may be born with some advantage and/or your environment may give you some advantage, but that won't replace training, effort, and practice. It may ease things for you somewhat, but without those other things, you won't be successful. And people without that advantage can still work hard and achieve success without it. Stacks of research support this; it's not an equivocal issue. 

But let's put that aside for a second, and pretend we don't know that to be true. Because here's something really telling: People who believe training and hard work is the answer are more successful than people who believe that talent is the answer. 

Yes, you read that right. People who believe you can improve your abilities (or talent) through training and practice have what's called an 'incremental' view of abilities/talents--they believe that these can be improved incrementally with training and work. People who believe such abilities/talents are fixed have an 'entity' view--they believe you're born with it, or you aren't. 

And here's where it gets really cool. If you have an 'incremental' view, when things get difficult (like that plot twist you just can't seem to make work, darn it!), you believe that you can overcome those challenges by learning and working hard; this is called a 'mastery-oriented' perspective. So you write, you read what others have written, you take classes, read books on writing, you go to workshops and critique groups and learn from others--and you persist. 

But, if you have an 'entity' view (if you believe you have to be born with the right 'talent') when the going gets tough, you're in trouble. You believe it's because you don't have what it takes, you don't have enough talent, and if you don't have the talent, no amount of training and practice and work is going to get you there. So you quit.    

Guess which group of people are more likely to achieve their goal? If you guessed the mastery-oriented, you'd be correct. Whether they start with some inborn/environmental advantage or not.

There is over 30 years of research on this, primarily conducted by Carol Dweck, but replicated by many other scientists; you can find a good overview of the work by clicking here; you can also find her seminal book covering the research here, and her book on how mindset influences success here

I believe the take-away message is this. When we throw the word 'talent' around in the writing community, let's use it in the right way. Not as something that you're either born with or not, but as something that is nurtured, developed, and built with time, training, and yes: practice, practice, practice. No author ever sat down at their desk one day and jotted down a fully-born masterpiece. We know this. So let's stop undermining our path to success by continually returning to an entity model of writing skill.  

Let there be no shame in your game. Take that class, join that workshop, pick up that writing-advice book, write a hundred drafts of the same story if the first ninety-nine don't cut it. Do whatever it takes. But what you must never, ever do is look at what you write and think 'this is garbage--I must not have the innate talent to write.' No, no, no. NO.

I personally love the way Samuel Beckett said it: 

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Writing a first draft in 30 days? Fast Fiction by Denise Jaden can help.

Writing a first draft in 30 days? I have something that will help you do it effectively: 

Fast Fiction: A Guide to Outlining and Writing a First-Draft Novel in Thirty Days

Fast fiction by denise jaden
I picked up this book just before NaNoWriMo this past November, along with several other books designed to help people who were diving into the NaNoWriMo pool without a life jacket. But, while invaluable for NaNoWriMo purposes, this book isn’t just about plunking yourself down for thirty days and coming up at the end with a draft; it will help you prep and revise, as well. And, it doesn't lie to you and lead you to think you'll have a ready-to-be-published book in that time; as the title itself makes clear, this is about getting you through your first draft, and then working to improve what you have. So this book is an awesome find anytime you're writing a novel, no matter your time frame. 

The book is divided up into three sections. The first, 'Before the Draft', takes you through the process of preparing to write the novel; it covers everything from ideas to setting to characters to point-of-view to themes to the three-act structure. Each topic within the section defines terms, explains key concepts, and gives clear, concise advice on the topic; there are also questions and/or exercises to help you explore each topic as it relates to the specific book you want to write. The section finishes with several action-oriented chapters that take all of the concepts you’ve been exploring in the previous sections and helps you turn them into a list of scenes, along with a story plan. 

There is an immense amount of information in this first section; if you’re a beginning writer, it will introduce you to all of the basics you need to think about when writing your book. If you’re a more experienced writer, it will remind you to think about things you may be glossing over, give you tips for problem areas, or just help you think about things in a new way. One of the things I love about the book is the linked compare/contrast character charts, and her character interview lists; these replaced a bunch of others exercises I've been using but never found fully satisfying.  

Once armed with your characters, your list of scenes, and your story plan, you’re ready for section two, ‘During the draft’. Here you’ll find short daily readings designed to focus your thinking and your writing, along with a daily task. The task is a loose, general prompt designed to tune you in to some aspect of novel-building, and often includes more specific prompts or probes to get you going. The order of the prompts is designed to guide you through the novel gently: week one is 'Launching in', week two is 'A New Direction', week three is 'Deepen the plot' and week four is 'Race to the finish'. 

There is even a ‘cheat sheet’ that reduces the daily prompt exercises down to their bare bones to help guide you through the novel creation process.

This section kept me jazzed and motivated during last NaNoWriMo. It allowed me to keep firm contact with the forest during an event that can easily mire you in the trees. In fact, I bought this book only a few days before NaNoWriMo started, and didn’t have time to use the first section beforehand at all; I started each writing day with the short reading and the prompt, and finished each writing day by reading a little bit from the first section of the book. 

I like that the prompts were general enough in most cases to fit with wherever I found myself on a given day; there were no overly specific prompts like ‘Your main character finds a note in his backpack—write!’. What I mean by this is, most of the prompts can be used at any point in your novel-writing; for example, a prompt that reminds you to be aware of genre expectations is a good one to have in the back of your mind on any given day, no matter if you’re writing the beginning, middle, or end of your book. 

The final section, 'After the Draft', is short, and gives you some basic advice (along with suggested resources) for revising your novel. The first piece of advice is to put the novel (and the book!) aside for at least two weeks, and come back with fresh eyes; when you return, the book discusses several important issues to keep in mind while doing your read-through and revision.

When a single book covers most of the major elements of writing a novel AND gives you a targeted lesson for each of thirty days, there is a limit to how in-depth the information can be. Entire books have been written, for example, about developing characters, or how to use the three-act structure. But despite the limited space available for each, Jaden gives thoughtful, effective treatment to each. There is more than enough information to get the most novice writer prepped and ready to hit the ground running. 

In my last post I mentioned I’m neither a pure plotter or a pure pantser. I also don't write my novels in order. So how does a book like this work for me? I didn't find the book restrictive in any respect; it's not the sort of book that's going to make you write your first page on day one and your last page on day 30; I was all over the place while reading it during NaNoWriMo. I’ve also been reading it as I revise MMORPG; it reminds me of all the elements I need to be sure are in place as I’m doing my revision passes, and helps me deal with the bumps I find there. In one example, during my second read-through I realized I need to add two more witness characters, and I need them to be distinct from those I already have. The sections on character development and the compare-contrast charts have been very helpful as I work those parameters out.   

So, who is this book for? I think it's useful for anyone doing NaNoWriMo, anyone writing their first novel, and anyone who ever finds themselves banging their head on their keyboard wishing someone would just write a darn manual on how to write a book already. If any of these are you, Fast Fiction is worth a look, whether you’re hoping to write your book in thirty days or thirty weeks.

Happy writing!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Plotter nor Pantser: The evolution of a Pl-antser

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Hello, my name is Michelle, and I have a dark secret. 

I am neither a Plotter, nor a Pantser.

In case you've never heard these terms, a ‘Pantser’ is a person who writes their novel by the seat of their pants, with no preparation or pre-planning. They have an idea, maybe even sometimes only a character, and nothing more; on November 1st (these terms were originated with NaNoWriMo, or at least that's where I've experienced them), they sit down and start writing. On the other side, a ‘Plotter’ is a writer who does extensive preparation before putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard—outlines, character sketches and interviews, volumes of research. On November first, they surround themselves with their prep-work, and then write, write, write.

I’ve discovered I’m neither of these, but rather a hybrid of the two. And I suspect there are more out there like me, who don’t fit neatly into either category, and who aren’t quite sure where they belong. So I’m here today to stand up for all us Pl-antsers out there by describing for you how I pl-ants my novels.

My first novel: Discovering my twisted hybrid nature

Although I didn't know the approach had an official label then (I had no idea what ‘Pantsing’, ‘Plotting’, or even NaNoWriMo was), I started work on my first novel, Hazel-Green, in the ultimate Pantser way. I had an idea nugget and no clue where it would take me. I’d been researching my family tree and kept discovering intriguing ancestors in incredible situations; as a writer’s mind is wont to do, I started making up stories in my head about what their lives were like, and what characteristics and knowledge might have passed down from them to me. Then little bells went off in my head: that would be a cool book! Protagonist finds out about ancestors and it turns out that events in their lives, back to 300 years ago, are relevant to protagonist’s current life in a useful way.

That was all I had.

I started writing scenes based on a few of the ancestors I’d learned about, one in particular who was hanged for two murders. At first, I had a single Word file, with the story I was writing for that character. Then I added a second Word file dedicated to her great-great-great grandmother’s story, based on ancestors I had who immigrated from France to Quebec in the 1600s. At that point I was still firmly ‘pantsing’, and if I had Scrivener then (which I did not), my project would have looked like this:

As I wrote about the second character, I was inundated with ideas about how her experiences could plant seeds that would eventually lead to what my first character had done, and what the in-between generations would need to look like for that to work. The issues got complicated, and I decided I needed organization—time for some ‘plotting’, apparently. I pulled out a notebook, and put together what could (very generously) be called an outline, along with an exploration of the changes that would need to take place over the generations and the characters. In Scrivener terms (which I still didn’t have), it would have looked like this:  

Luckily, shortly after that point, I got Scrivener (and it completely blew my mind—but that’s another blog post). As I transferred what I had written into Scrivener, the ‘outline’ I’d put together in my notebook naturally came to live in the binder. And I was so excited playing with my new toy that I started creating scenes in different parts just because I could. I was ‘plotting’ and didn’t even know it. BUT. My outline was nowhere near complete, and there were whole sections that I had no idea what to do with. Yet, I went forward.

Enter my discovery of NaNoWriMo. That put me right back in pantsing mode—writing, writing, writing, writing, writing, despite the huge holes in my outline and in my thinking about the novel.

The more I wrote, the more ideas came to me about what I wanted to do with the current chapter, or the next chapter, or the themes I wanted to hit on in the book, or even new characters I needed. As I had these ideas, I’d create scenes or chapters or character descriptions in Scrivener as placeholders—sometimes with a sentence or two to capture my ideas on where to go, sometimes completely empty.

And when I’d finish with the current scene or chapter, or got bored or stuck, I’d go write whichever of those other scenes/chapters were calling to me. And as I wrote them, I’d have new inspiration for plot points and themes, and how to work out problems and holes. So I’d create more placeholders. Or I’d reorganize, because I realized a different order would work better. And then I’d write more.

And so it went; lather, rinse, repeat as needed until the first draft of my first novel was complete.  

Novels 2 & 3: Adapting my discovery

My second novel, MMORPG, about a serial killer who finds and seduces his victims in World of Warcraft, went essentially the same way; the one difference was that I had a tiny bit more organization to start with. And when I say ‘tiny’, I mean tiny: I knew there would be at least two murders, some police investigation, and an ending. When I started, my Scrivener binder looked about like this:

Then I started writing, and the same creative process unfolded. As I wrote, I’d get inspiration, which I’d build into my Scrivener binder; when a given scene called to me, I wrote it, which lead to more inspiration, which led to more structure in my Scrivener binder. Novel #3 (Accidental Divination) followed the path of her older siblings. 

And finally: Celebrating my process

I currently have the idea for my fourth novel waiting on deck; I’ve created a Scrivener project for it to record my thoughts until I have time to write it. Because it’s a sequel to Accidental Divination, I'm already aware of some of the elements it will need; the basic structure of the book will be similar and there are some plot points that follow up the first book. I have more than double the amount of pre-pants plotting than I’ve ever had before; there does seem to be variation for me depending on the project. But I know that the true development of the novel will come when I write, and my pantsing and plotting begin their delightful duet.

So am I recommending you try it my way? No, although you certainly can if you like. What I'm saying is, not everyone is a pantser or a plotter, and that’s okay. For me, my ‘plotting’ and ‘pantsing’ work together in tiramisu-like layers where luscious coffee-flavored pantsing seeps into rich ladyfinger plotting. For you, who knows? Try things out. See what works. Adapt. Go with your gut. And put the kabosh on anything that doesn’t work, including general conceptions of process that work for other people.

I’m going to end there, because for some reason I’m really craving an Italian dessert right now...

Happy Writing!


Sunday, April 5, 2015

Three excellent writing advice books

Like most writers, I’ve been writing in one form or another since I was able to form letters.  And even when my academic career demanded mostly non-fiction articles and books, I still found an outlet for the more creative, fun side of my writing. But when I set out to write my first novel, I felt strangely unprepared. And when I decided I wanted to publish said novel and make a career of my fiction writing, I felt adrift in a sea of cluelessness. 

And whenever I feel like I don’t know enough about something, I turn to books. Go figure.

So as I was stealing my snippets of time here and there to write my novel, I also started stealing snippets of time to read advice books about writing. I have many favorites for different subjects within the writing-advice genre, but three stand out in my mind because they did so much to encourage me and ease me onto the path.

Stephen King’s On Writing

On Writing, By Stephen King
On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft This one is no surprise, everyone raves about it. But there’s a reason for that—it’s down-to-earth and incredibly useful. The first half of the book focuses more on his autobiography, the second more on what you’d think of as writing advice.

I found almost as much that was useful in the autobiography material as the rest. It’s easy to think of famous, prolific writers as these untouchable wizard-like beings who birth their creations by sneezing them out. And of course you can never live up to that, so why bother? So to read about the very real struggles of someone who has attained the mega-success that Stephen King has is food for the writer’s soul. All of those manuscripts written and copiously rejected, the manuscript for Carrie tossed into the garbage can—if these things happened to him, they don’t spell the end of the world when they happen to us.

But don’t get me wrong—the writing advice is beyond valuable as well. When I stared writing my novels, I had no idea what sort of process was going to work for me; writing research articles and books, even short stories, is very different from writing a novel. Luckily, I’m a big proponent of asking successful people how they accomplished what they did, and then trying what they say to do—so that’s what I did with this book. Stephen King says set your first draft aside for six weeks, and work on another project? Okay, I’ll try it. So I put the draft up on a shelf, and started playing around with an idea I had for another book. Six weeks later I had the needed distance to begin revising Book One, and I also had a completed draft of a second book. HOLY CRAP. It worked. And so began a cycle of revising and writing that keeps me productive in an effective way.

So much else has stayed with me in the same way. Advice on when and how to get feedback from others, when and how to revise, the importance of a writing routine, and so much more. Whether you’re just starting on a serious writing career or have several books under your belt, you’ll find that interesting and useful information abounds between these covers.

Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird

Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott
This is another blended book, part autobiography, part writing advice. Lamott weaves her life and her advice together to varying degrees throughout the book. Sometimes she gives the advice straight-up, no chaser, like in her discussion of the basic formula for drama, and how to keep  your characters moving forward. Sometimes it’s given lyrically, embedded in life’s wisdom. The best example is the anecdote that gives the book its name. Her older brother had put off a report on birds for months, and was scrambling to get it done for school the next day. Beyond frustrated, he broke down because he had no idea how to get it all done. Their father gave him this advice: “Just take it bird by bird”. This approach has never failed me, in my writing life and out of it. If I look at everything that needs to be done, I want to curl up in a ball and suck my thumb. But if I break off just one piece and work on it…And then work on another piece…It gets done. Today this scene. Tomorrow that one. Before I know it, I have a book.

Simple. Beautiful. Powerful. Just like this book.

Another aspect I find continually valuable about Lamott’s book is the exploration of the writer’s life, the struggles and insecurities. When my self-doubt rears its pernicious head and I’m sure I can’t possibly write anything anyone would ever want to read, her honesty and insight never fail to make me feel ‘normal’. Not ‘normal’ as in the real world (that will never happen!) but ‘normal’ in the writing world. All writers have these issues; it doesn’t mean I’m talent-free and doomed to failure. And that helps me to pick myself up and move forward.

Lawrence Block’s Write For Your Life

Write For Your Life, Lawrence Block
Block has several writing books, most of which are compiled from his past writing-advice columns in Writer’s Digest. I recommend them all—they all give excellent insight over a variety of topics in a fun, engaging way. But Write For Your Life is my favorite for beginning writers, because it deals with the psychological stumbling blocks that beginning writers face (and that return periodically to plague experienced writers). Back in the day, Block used to lead a very successful writing seminar, and decided to write a book based on it. As much as possible, he made this book a written version of what is was like to actually be in the seminar, including meditations, affirmations, and exercises.

Yep, you heard me, meditations and affirmations—that was a revelation to me, too.

A major goal of the book is to get you past the fears that are holding you back and blocking your creativity. Turns out, simply naming your fears and writing them down can help you put them to bed, or at least make them take a little nap. And of course, there's much more dealing with those nasty little imps.

Meditation is an excellent way to allow your mind to disengage from other things, and engage with the writing you want it to do—a tool I’ve found very useful when I need to do my daily writing but my mind doesn’t want to cooperate. This book walks you through how to use a five-minute meditation to turn a potentially wasted day into a productive one.

If that sounds a bit too new-agey for you, don’t worry. There is certainly a new-age feel to much of the stuff. I thought so too at first, but luckily I have that whole try-what-successful-people-do thing going on, so I gave it a shot.  And you know what? It works. Don’t let some silly preconception stop you from getting the benefits. Maybe not every exercise will work for you, but something will, and it will be well worth the cost. :)

So there you have my three favorite writing books for beginning writers! They'll also likely be useful for more experienced writers, too. I have many more favorites in various content areas, and I’ll be reviewing them here as well. But as Julie Andrews sang, the beginning is a very good place to start.

Do you have any favorite writing books?

Happy Writing!