Learning as a Writer

Teaching anything creative is very hard. Almost as hard, in fact, as learning something creative.
If you’ve ever tried to look for writing advice or pointers, you’ve probably come across a few pieces of advice repeated ad nauseam (don’t use adverbs, don’t use prologues, don’t use ‘said’, always use ‘said’, the list goes on). Or you get the hedging. “I tend to do this, but if it doesn’t work for you, don’t do it.” “Never use this trope but I guess you could pull it off if you’re skilled enough.” Unfortunately, it’s very hard to give hard and fast advice on writing, simply because any statement on what works and doesn’t work is usually interrupted by someone pointing out a book that breaks that rule and is nevertheless acclaimed and popular.

About the only hard and fast rule I’ve ever seen for learning how to be a better writer is to just … write more. Write more, get people to read it and tell you what worked and didn’t work for them. Collect advice, but don’t follow all of it. Try everything once. It’s hard, and it usually feels at least a little bit like being lost in a jungle, picking a random direction and trying to hack your way out. You might be making progress, or you might only be pushing yourself deeper into confusion. It’s hard, but it does work. It’s about the only thing that does.

And yet, you’ll notice that I spend a lot of time around here trying to give advice and directions anyway. Honestly, while a lot of what I say makes sense to me, there’s no guarantee it will help anyone else.
The first reason I do it is because it might help other people. Even if they try my advice and decide it doesn’t work for them, they’ve still ended up knowing their style a little better. I think that’s worthy. After all, we’re all stumbling through the same jungle. It’s only good manners to say “hey, there’s a river up ahead that way” if you pass another traveler. They might want to avoid the river, they might want to go cross it. That’s up to them. But at least they know there’s a river.
The second is because writing it helps me, too. It helps me think through why I write the way I do. Writing advice is, in my opinion, only half about the actual advice. The best advice doesn’t give you a hard-and-fast rule, it makes you think about an aspect of writing that you might not have thought of otherwise. I find it best to think of writing advice in terms of what problem it’s trying to solve. ‘Only use ‘said’ for dialogue’ is a pretty popular idea at the moment, and I don’t think very many people follow it to the letter. So why do we give it as advice?
Well, beginning writers tend not to be experienced enough to tell how much information the reader needs. It’s one of those things that take time and practice. There are some writers who will give too little information (hi), and there are writers who will overdescribe. You’ve heard of ‘show, don’t tell’? Well, a writer who overdescribes doesn’t do too much of one or the other, they tend to do both at once. They don’t trust their skills, so they add the references and then the blatant statements all at once, which can frustrate the reader because it feels like the author didn’t trust them to understand the subtle hints. One of the most obvious places where this happens is in dialogue, where the character says something, and the reader can tell the tone from the context, but then the author adds a verb or an adverb to the dialogue tag, and it feels unnecessary. So, experienced writers tell beginning writers to only use ‘said’. With practice, a writer who uses only ‘said’ learns when it’s necessary to use other words to get their point across, and when the reader will understand just fine.
There’s also the fact that it’s easier to make sentences flow if they’re simpler – not necessarily shorter, but with fewer parts in them to make things complicated. ‘Said’ often flows better than a longer dialogue tag, which makes for better writing.
Think of writing advice like training wheels. You don’t need them once you learn to ride the bike, but while you’re learning, they take away one of the things to concentrate on, so the process gets smoother.

So what does this have to do with NaNoWriMo?
No matter where you’re up to in your 50,000 words, whether you’ve gotten there already, whether you’re starting to suspect you won’t make it in the end, you’ve stepped into that jungle. You’ve started to work your way through the tangle of vines and you’re starting to make progress. Even if you feel more lost than ever, as so often happens in NaNo, you’ve made at least a little progress.
If you’re at the stage where you’re looking at the wordcount ahead of you and thinking ‘there’s no way I’m writing that much every day to make it to 50,000 words’, that’s fine. Stuff happens. But don’t use that as a reason to stop writing. Keep writing as much as you can by the end of November. 50,000 is just a number to give Wrimos a goal – it’s got no meaning beyond that. So keep forging through that jungle. Chances are, you’ll find at least one useful thing in the last week that’ll make it worthwhile.
Oh, and if you come across any rivers or scorpion pits, tell us about them. Please. Even if we’ve already come across them, we love talking about them.

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