On Writing

On a whim I downloaded the sample chapter for Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which is actually a book about writing. And I am howling through the whole thing. (For example, talking about writing bad first drafts, she talks about writers she has known “Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her.”)

It’s not a book on technique or anything else, but then again, I don’t read many books on technique. I think I’ve read three books on writing in my life–On Writing, by Stephen King, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card (back before he lost his shit) and…um….okay, maybe I’ve read two books on writing. No, wait! The intro to the book of poetry that we used as a textbook in Freshman Writing in college had some stuff about how you should just call snow snow, goddamnit, and calling it “pulverous silver essence” didn’t make snow any better. There. Three.

It’s not like art, where you can learn various techniques about layering colors and different media and all that. Writing is all words on the page, and you can’t do the equivalent of jumping between encaustics and watercolor without torturing the hell out of a metaphor. (You leave that poor metaphor alone! It didn’t ask to be here!) Writing advice tends to either be so specific as to be generally useless (“Ursula, it looks like you filled a shotgun full of commas and fired them at the page.”) or so general as to be specifically useless. (“People like action!”)

About 30% of writing books can probably be summed up as “No, really, there’s not a secret or a trick that writers all know. You just sit down and write what happens next, over and over, until it’s done. That’s really what they do. Honest. That is all it is. No, there is nothing that makes this easier or go faster.” and the other 30% is “No, really, if that’s how you get yourself to sit and write what happens next, that’s fine. Do that. Seriously. No, it’s okay if that’s not how Hemingway did it. Do the thing you do if it makes words happen. It’s cool. No one will yell at you.” Then the other 30% is padding and inspirational quotes and a suggestion that you buy the Manual of Style, and then a recap of the first bit, with the addition “It’s okay that it’s bad. Everybody writes bad stuff. It’s cool. Just keep practicing.”

You can read all kinds of suggestions on how to get the ideas flowing. If you need to get the ideas flowing, fine. Very few books seem to have been written for those of us who suffer like the guy in Sandman from ideas that never bloody stop, probably because nobody wants to hear about it, but possibly because there either is no cure or the people who know about it are too busy writing their paranormal romance about night-gaunts to write the book about how to shut your brain up and focus on one idea at a time, or maybe the answer is blindingly obvious and there’s a common kitchen tool that fixes it and nobody told me because they all thought I knew, like getting through the foil on wine bottles.

After a point, though, I’ve always felt that writing technique is pretty much between you and your god. This is not to diss workshops, support groups, how-to books, or anything else—if they work for you, great. Do that. That is a good thing. Just don’t talk to me about it, because I will glaze over quickly and look around for the gin. Technique is the thing that happens when you sit down and your heroine has to get from here to there and then you get bored and add ninjas. I don’t know HOW it works. It just happens or it doesn’t, kind of like a bowel movement, and if you try to force it, you’ll end up with an aneurysm, and at the end of the day, I don’t want to hear about how you poop* and will assume the feeling is mutual.

If you must talk about it, it is best to employ a specialist.**

Having said all that, I will now share the one bit of writing advice that I actually remember from a how-to book that has stuck with me, which was “You can use unlikely coincidences to get your character INTO trouble, but if you use it get them OUT of trouble, the reader will think that’s cheap.” I felt this was good advice and have attempted to adhere to it ever since. And also I think Ursula K. LeGuin said that if you try to fake your way through a language, one of the readers ALWAYS speaks it like a pro and will catch you, so either make the language up completely or bloody well learn what you’re doing, and this absolutely includes Ye Olde English, so either thee and thou correctly or not at all. This was also excellent advice.

None of this has any bearing on anything, except that I’m really enjoying Bird by Bird, because it’s full of actually useful statements that have nothing to do about writing technique, like the fact that everybody wants to get published and once you do, it doesn’t actually change the world and make you suddenly happy and fulfilled and you do not run toward your self-esteem across a field of flowers. Which is totally true and made me laugh a lot and then go put my head in the oven. Then I realized it was an electric oven and felt stupid. (Side note, I always heard about sticking your head in the oven as a form of suicide as a kid, but only ever having had electric ovens, I just assumed that you were dying because it got so hot your head cooked and it seemed sort of unpleasant, but I was really impressed at the sheer dedication of the people involved, because dude, that’s hardcore. I do not want to admit how old I was when I realized that wasn’t what was going on, but I’m pretty sure I was at least old enough to vote.)

But anyway, I digress. Time for ninjas!



*Unless you tell it really really well. And if you’re going to tackle that, you better write like an angel with wings of wine and orgasms.

**Unless you have an interesting parasite. I am always up for an interesting parasite story, like the one comic about the guy with the tapeworm at the restaurant. That was awesome. I’m not actually sure if we’re talking about writing any more, though.

8 thoughts on “On Writing

  1. Wolf Lahti says:

    Neil Gaiman said it best:

    I tried to think about the best advice I’d ever been given by another writer….
    And then I remembered. It was Harlan Ellison about a decade ago.
    He said, “Hey, Gaiman. What’s with the stubble? Every time I see you, you’re stubbly. What is it? Some kind of English fashion statement?”
    “Not really.”
    “Well? Don’t they have razors in England, for Chrissakes?”
    “If you must know, I don’t like shaving because I have a really tough beard and sensitive skin. So by the time I’ve finished shaving, I’ve usually scraped my face a bit. So I do it as little as possible.”
    “Oh.” He paused. “I’ve got that too. What you do is, you rub your stubble with hair conditioner. Leave it a couple of minutes, then wash it off. Then shave normally. Makes it really easy to shave. No scraping.”
    I tried it. It works like a charm. Best advice from a writer I’ve ever received.

  2. kat says:

    Oh, crap, that does make more sense than their heads cooking! Crap. Um.

    … I’m past thirty, aren’t I? (In my defense, it’s not something I think about a lot.)

    (Also, that Gaiman quote is hilarious.)

    About the only book on writing I routinely recommend to people is LeGuin’s “Steering the Craft”, because it’s a book on writing. The mechanics of writing, for non-beginners. It starts with stuff like punctuation and sentence length and goes straight through to points of view and what LeGuin calls “crowding and leaping” — what to put in, what to take out, how to tell the difference. It goes about a thousand miles past your high school grammar class and it’s LeGuin so of course it’s brilliant. Every time I read a book or comic with a great idea and absolutely godawful execution I have to fight the urge to send the creator a copy of “Steering the Craft” with the note “MEMORIZE THIS. Then try again.”

    (Because I can’t afford that many copies of the book. That’s why.)

    But when I tell people this they tend to say something like, “no, I don’t want a book on that kind of writing! I know how to write! I want a book on, you know, WRITING.” Which is a whole different thing, and a difficult one, and there are almost no books that are any help with it. It’s so hard to quantify that capitalization.

  3. Hawk says:

    Bird by Bird is an amazing book and one the few helpful ones out there :)

    My sister was asking me for writing advice the other day. I think I might link this blog post to her…

  4. Veena says:

    I mostly agree with you save that there was one and only one book on writing that I did find useful, if not as an actual technical aid than at least as a reference and a reassurance – Jack Hodgins, A passion for narrative.

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