Be a Rebel
A long time ago, back when I walked to school uphill in the snow both ways, I was taught to write in MLA format. Modern Language Association, for anyone who doesn’t know. Along the way I also managed to learn the American Psychological Association (APA) format. Not sure how that happened, must’ve been in college.
I still have A Writer’s Reference: Fourth Edition by Diana Hacker, which an English professor made me buy. The front cover boasts that it’s updated with both the MLA’s and APA’s 1999 guidelines.
Do I ever use it? Nope.
How about that copy of Elements of Style, by Strunk and White? Nope.
Haven’t touched either of those books for years. More than a decade, in the case of A Writer’s Reference. Grammar, spelling, and standard word usage are all useful for clarity and good writing. Learn the rules of the game… syntax, punctuation, how to form paragraphs, etc.
After these basics are mastered, you can begin to learn how to write stories. By this, I mean plotting, character tags, dialogue, pacing, emotion, sensory depth, setting, and so much more.
After some years have passed, you’ll understand you don’t really know crap about storytelling. There is simply no ceiling to how much can be learned in our art, and no way to truly master it.
Keep learning. Every day when possible.
So why don’t I use my reference books anymore? Partly because I’ve moved beyond them. Over the course of my life I’ve had enough practice with punctuation, grammar, and proper usage that I’m comfortable sitting down at a computer and typing one word after another. I make mistakes, sure. But I know how to fix mistakes, too, especially after a trusted first reader points them out.
The other reason is I’ve learned that good storytelling has nothing to do with pretty words and grammatically correct sentences. The words and rules are just black marks on the page, so we can all agree on what stuff means. Storytelling happens below the surface of the words, in the guts, hearts, and minds of readers.
Storytelling is an act of mind control. You, the writer, control the reader’s experiences and emotion as she gets lost in your tale. A very hard skill to learn, for sure. The mind control is done not with word choices; but with skill at building tension, pacing of scenes, point of view depth, and myriad other tools the best authors use.
Perhaps you’re still learning the basics of grammar. So what? Write stories anyway. Write many stories, one per day if you can. Call those stories practice sessions, and give them to a trusted reader who will not be overly critical of your work. Keep practicing, keep studying, never stop learning even when you think you’ve learned it all. You haven’t.
The market is full of writing advice books out there. Not hard to find bloggers who are willing to share their knowledge of the craft and the business. Information is easier to get than ever, all without necessarily leaving your home.
Some advice is good, some is outright bad, much of it falls somewhere in between. Perhaps you found my book unhelpful, maybe even dangerous to the process you want to follow. At least you know what not to do, and that’s okay.
The difficulty is in deciding who to listen to. I’m afraid I have no useful advice here, except to explore with a mind that is both open and skeptical at the same time. Try out different ways of doing things, much like you’d try on different clothing styles to figure out your style.
And that is what voice is. The pesky little thing you can neither see nor hear all too well, but know deep down it’s there. Your style of writing and seeing the world, that is your voice. Only you possess it and know how to use it. No one else can exactly imitate it.
To find your voice, you must decide what methods and processes work for you. I’ve tried to keep my own methods behind a curtain, because I know many of my tricks flat won’t work for many people. But in writing a book about voice, I’ve had use my own voice. If I hadn’t, this book would’ve been dull, like a college paper written in MLA format.
You’re not writing a novel to please your English professor, so don’t use a “standard” format like MLA, APA, Chicago, etc. Just write what’s on your mind, in the form of a story told by a character in a setting. Let the character come alive through the black marks on the page and, with enough practice in the craft, your voice will shine through.
Be a rebel. Don’t follow the herd or the pack. Don’t let others tell you what you should be writing. Never follow market trends or any such silliness. Write to your passions. As Stephen King says, write what scares you.
Much of the advice floating around the NaNo forums doesn’t work for me. So you’re not supposed to go back and fix things? Right… I write out of order all the time, and I have to cycle backwards in my story to be able to go forwards. I don’t even consider my cycling as “editing” or “rewriting”, because I’m usually adding new words. Scenery, sensory detail, Chekov’s gun, character tags, etc. Adding this stuff in while it’s fresh in my head helps me keep the story moving. Adding it later, after the first draft, is just drudgery in my humble opinion.
How about using the Traveling Shovel of Death when I’m stuck? (Note: the TSoD is an ongoing tradition on the NaNo forums. It’s a plot device some folks find useful when they’re stuck.) I have no problem with killing off characters, which is how the TSoD is normally used, but if I need a laser cannon and a tripwire, I’ll pass on the shovel. And again, just more drudgery to edit the damn thing out later.
(Editing bores the crap out of me, if it’s not obvious already.)
I could go on, but if you’ve read this far then you’ve already seen a little slice of my bag of tricks, which I don’t normally share in public. I don’t share, because I’m in the minority opinion on many things. You’re unlikely to find many people like me on the NaNo forums or at write-ins, and when you do you won’t know it. We’re just as happy to keep doing what we do, whether you know about our methods or not.
Like I’ve said way back at the beginning, take what works and leave the rest. Your mileage will vary from mine. Every writer is different, with a unique skill set and a special viewpoint. Use your uniqueness to an advantage.
All of us, in the beginning years of learning the art of fiction, look for rules to follow. Here’s a rule all should follow, and never forget: Be yourself.
Same advice given when dealing with first date jitters. She’ll like you better if you pulled the stick out of your ass and remain calm, even when you’re convinced you’ve made of a fool of yourself. Readers are the same, too.
(Now you know the extent of my dating advice. I won’t be writing a book on that topic.)
So be different from all the rest. Be a rebel soul and use your own voice to tell the stories only you can tell.
Copyright 2015 David Anthony Brown
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