Follow Your Arrow (Part 2): Stay Gold, Ponyboy

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Stay Gold, Ponyboy…

I started writing in 2011. It took me four months to write the first draft of my first novel. Ever since then, I’ve been working on getting better as a writer. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was: “Don’t let schooling change how you write” She was talking about my voice as a writer, but I think that line of advice can be applied to any sort of lesson or instruction you may receive on how to be a writer.

I know plenty of people, great authors, who pay good money to attend writing classes, or workshops, or writing boot-camps,  and I think if you can afford them and have the time, go for it. The concern in taking classes and instruction is that you may take every lesson as a “how-to” manual. The problem there is that, for some writers, you begin to think that anything that doesn’t go step-by-step the way you were taught is somehow wrong.

Writing is more than that. There is definitely some structure involved. It’s not an “anything goes” venture. Not everyone can or should do it (even though Amazon says you can). You have to have an idea about how a story should flow, how to bring characters to life, write dialogue, and have a decent grasp on grammar. I believe the best way to learn is simply to read. Read your favorite authors, read the classics, and mix in some riff raff. Yes, you can learn plenty of what not to do by reading through those bad books, too. The key is to find a few authors you truly enjoy and marvel over, and note in your writing brain what they did that worked so well for you. And likewise with the bad ones–what really killed the book? Where did it all go horribly wrong? I read like crazy. I read more now that I’m writing than I did before.

I like to look at learning as taking advice. Use what works for you. Use what you’re comfortable with. I often will send my pieces to another writer friend or an editor and ask them what they think. More times than not, I get a great piece of advice in return, or some little nugget that I never thought about. When I first started the process of using beta readers, I took everything I was told to heart. Besides, the rules and suggestions were coming from professionals. Then, I began to notice things in books I love that went against the rules. I didn’t like that. I didn’t like the move from innocent reader to writer/reader, but this enlightenment is inevitable. After a while, it got a little better.  Like anything in life, we go from not knowing, to thinking we know, to understanding.  I started to see that what we are taught, the advice we are given, is just that–advice. Yes, the lesson is coming from a professional, someone who has been there, done that, but that does not mean you must play strictly by these rules.  Your story doesn’t have to fit into the Writer’s Box.  Some of the ones that fit perfectly in that box are heartless. Almost like someone was doing paint-by-numbers with their book.  That is the travesty.

“Permission to Boogie”

Writing is about heart and soul. You can learn how to build the robot, but can you make it move? It’s about finding your voice. To do that you have to use what moves you to move the reader. What scares you? What breaks your heart? What makes you trust somebody? Hopefully you don’t have first-hand experience in disemboweling people (unless maybe you’re a doctor, or a mortician), but you need to use what makes your blood pump in real life and transfer that into your story. When you succeed in doing this, the magic comes to life. Your book comes alive. Your robot begins to boogie.

So yes, take the class, do the workshop, take notes when someone explains what didn’t work for them or what they would like to see, but don’t let it erase what makes you special. Apply the advice to what you already do. If your story doesn’t fit exactly into the manual, if your colors don’t stay in the lines, so be it. Art is about doing your thing, expressing who you are.  Readers will find you through one of your books or stories, but they’ll keep coming back to you for you.

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