Every morning when I open my inbox a landslide of emails from the online writing community pour out. Blog posts, newsletters, classes and programs and retreats. And then I jump on social media and the wave continues: Advice and instructions on character development, plotting your plot, finessing the end and then going back to that first page and polishing your opening hook until it sparkles and shines and catches the eye of every agent with an email address.
The online writing community is built upon the giving of good advice. I totally get that. As a writing coach with a writing blog, I’m one of those writers handing out pieces of that advice. It definitely has a place, and it definitely can be helpful.
I get emails every week from writers who tell me they’re trying to stick to some 7-point plot plan or the method Stephen King uses for writing every day and they keep ending up in tears or despair or both.
I talk to clients on the phone daily who tell me they just got this new writing guide from Amazon and they were really, really excited about it but now they’re questioning their relationship with their own characters because they feel like they’re “not doing it right.”
Fully 80% of my new clients tell me they used to write in childhood but then someone told them the way they were doing it was weird, or bad, or just generally the “wrong way” and they stopped writing, and they’ve been paralyzed ever since.
So it seems that the good intentions behind giving writing advice haven’t prevented the advice itself from becoming distorted along the way.
I believe this is due in large part to the culture we live in at the moment, which is most comfortable with rational thought and concrete ideas. By “rational” I don’t mean “it makes sense.” I mean it more in its mathematical definition:
“Of a number, quantity, or expression that is expressible, or containing quantities that are expressible, as a ratio of whole numbers.”
We like there to be 7 clear points to follow. We feel safe if there are 3 things to check off on the creative to-do list. We feel secure if we are sure that our book includes a gripping opening hook that’s been approved by our critique group; characters that our beta readers have said are “relatable”; and a plot arc that unfolds in accordance with the most popular method of how to write well currently on the market.
The only problem with this is that the writing of fiction is a completely irrational act.
And by “irrational” I mean this definition:
“Lacking usual or normal mental clarity or coherence.”
The writing of fiction is the commitment to the exploration of human emotion. As much as we would like to believe in our society today that we have a firm grip on emotion—that desire and fear and the almost universal urge toward lust and vengeance have been brought into line by educating ourselves on healthy relationships, healthy boundaries, and healthy self esteem—this is simply not true. Humans cannot control the underworld of emotion that powers our collective soul and we never will. Emotion shows us truths that we can only see through the medium of something that is completely divorced from the rational.
Writers know this, deep down inside. It’s only when we try to follow some ridiculous map of what our artistic work is supposed to look like that we get lost.
Using writing guides is fine. One can learn a lot by reading advice from other people. I do it all the time on a variety of subjects, and I’ve learned a lot. But it always remains just that: advice from other people. To become a serious writer, we have to know our own minds and learn to listen to what we know to be true, for us, regardless of what anyone else might think or say.
No one else can tell you what you need to know when it comes to emotion. No one else can chart the terrain of your subconscious, your belief systems, or your dreams: the beautiful and totally unique irrationality that belongs only to you.
This is the stuff that comes out in the writing of great fiction. The character who is deeply unlikeable. The plot that doesn’t seem to make any sense. The ending that doesn’t wrap up all the loose threads.
The first page that holds out a quiet but expectant hand, inviting in the curious reader softly, slowly, as so many works of brilliant fiction have done throughout the decades—without relying on Reality TV promo tactics to hustle in spectators who really couldn’t give a shit.
This is what writing great fiction is actually like: It’s hard and confusing and there is no map. There is no method that will help you circumnavigate all the dark, festering places in your psyche that you don’t want to see. You won’t come out on the other side with all the answers, or even with any answers at all.
But the journey into the underworld is worth it. It’s always worth it. That’s why writers keep doing it. Because, deep in the most secret parts of our heart, we know we can do nothing else.