Saturday, September 27, 2014

Too much of this and that

It's been a month since my last blog, but that isn't because this has become another one of those blogs that the writer gives up on after a few tries. I've been nose to the grindstone cranking out a few more stories so I could get to 150 page manuscript. I entered it in this:

I went to graduate school at University of Illinois-Chicago in writing from 2002-20004, and immediately quit writing afterwards. I was tired of being broke, already in a lot of debt, and realized that there were far more talented writers than the market could support. So I decided to really make a break from writing. I deleted all my work, threw away hard copies. I didn't even read much for a long time, at least nothing that could be called "literature." I focused on work, once I found a grown-up job.

Last October, my work closed for four days. I asked myself what I wanted to do with my life if my job went away. I was surprised to find that the answer was "I want to write," and that it didn't really take much time to think of that answer. So I decided to set aside as much of my free time as I could in a year to write, to study the craft of writing, and to read really good fiction. Since the deadline for the Iowa short fiction competition was September 30th, that seemed like a good end-of-year goal to meet, so I pushed hard at the finish line so I could meet it.

Anyhow, on to the next subject: the potentially negative effects of reading too many "how to do X" fiction articles. There are a lot of people who (often for free to the general public, and seemingly out of a sense of mission) give out good writing advice. An example of the kind of thing I'm thinking about is K.M. Weiland's blog. Every day, there's some new piece of advice, like "the wrong way to write a smart character," or "how to find your character's breaking point." Useful stuff, and I've no problem generally with how she goes about it. There are, of course, tons more examples out there, and everyone has their favorite. I'm not here to pick on or praise one or the other.

There is something about the whole "area of writing to focus on today" method that I think might be dangerous to a writer, though. When I was a teenager, I fell in with evangelical Christianity for a bit. Well, about seven years. I was pretty into it. I went to church Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. In between, I listened to a lot of sermons on the radio. Every one of those sermons picked a Bible passage and delivered some message that was part exposition, part exhortation to apply the passage in our lives.

Funny thing about a new sermon every day is you can end up being all over the place in your life trying to apply them. One day, the sermon is about how we need to think of the world as a valley of tears, and the next day is all about the joy of the Lord. You hear "turn the other cheek" one day and "tolerate no evil" the next. It gets a believer a little discombobulated.

The same thing can happen in writing. If you just read a helpful article about how to imagine scene, you might end up spending far more effort on scene in your story than the story merits. There are a lot of elements to every story to keep in the right balance, and you can easily be misled about what that balance is based on the proximity in time to the last time you read an article on one of those elements was.

Better is to have a general grounding in most of the elements a writer uses, then step back and write your story. If you think one element is really in demand in your story, then gingerly look up good advice on how to handle that element as it relates to your project.

I'd hate for writers to suffer from bad timing, and hear a "the meek shall inherit the Earth" sermon just before meeting the playground bully.


  1. I didn't realize you also went to Chicago!

  2. I graduated in 2003. December. I only really went there for a year. 3 classes in fall, 3 in winter/spring, then a one-on-one with Chris Mazza and one final poetry seminar with Luis in the fall, and I was done.

  3. I went to UIC, not University of Chicago. Although I never correct people who think I went to UC. I think I may have gotten my job based on the recruiter not realizing the difference and being unduly impressed by me.

  4. Ohhh ha. I think you're smart enough for UC though.