Blog | craft
December 17, 2015
By Jan Fields
My husband is a woodworker. As a result, our garage is filled with things
that can be really dangerous if you don't know how to use them or if you use
them too casually. Since I'm not a woodworker, I've lived in terror of all
of the tools in there for years now. But lately, I've been slowly
discovering that there are some power tools that I can learn to use and that
make my own hobby (wood burning) easier. It's been scary, but fun.
In a lot of ways, writing is like my garage. There are writing tools that
can simply make a mess of your poetry or prose if you don't use them
purposefully or correctly. As a result, many new writers simply live in
terror of them and will spout truisms like, "Never use being verbs!" Or
"Flashbacks are evil!" Or "Cut out all adverbs!" The truth is that every
tool in the writing toolkit has value including backstory, adverbs, passive
voice, viewpoint switching, or any of a truckload of things you've been told
to avoid. The key isn't to keep your hands off; the key is to learn how to
use the tool well.
So how do we do that? First you can seek out instruction. Now, you can take
a writing course or find lots of instruction online. But not every bit of
instruction is created equal. When you see someone say, "No being verbs" or
"Search and remove all adverbs," know that is not going to be instruction to
teach you how to use these more tricky elements. Look instead for the daring
voices that show you how the things work.
When our children are very young, we say, "Hot stove! Don't touch!" But when
they mature, we invite them in and teach them how to cook and bake. Seek out
the instruction for maturing writers, rather than the ones designed to keep
beginners safe. Sure, if you venture outside the safe place, you might get a
little singed, but you might make a truly fantastic story too.
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Second, read many, many, many books. You'll find writers who do every single
thing you've been told not to do. Instead of becoming frustrated, look at
the writing and ask yourself: "They used this, did it work for them?"
Sometimes you might really feel it didn't, and so that book won't be a
mentor text for you. Sometimes though, you'll find yourself saying, "She did
a lot more telling than showing, but I loved the book." Or "he kept
switching viewpoint but I was completely engaged and never got lost!" When
that happens, you're seeing a tricky tool in the hands of someone who has
learned to use it.
Study the work and poke it with your brain, asking yourself, why did it
work? What's different about how this author used telling or backstory or
passive voice or adverbs from the way I use them? When you start to see the
difference, that's when you're beginning to learn how to use that tricky
Third, try it. This is one reason I love writing short stories. I write a
lot of them, and they give me an opportunity to try using tricky tools.
Maybe I'll write a story in a fairy tale voice that is far more telling than
showing. Can I do it and make it work? If I can, then I've expanded my
writer's toolkit. If it doesn't work, well, at least I haven't invested
months in the exercise. One of my favorite short stories, one I just entered
into a writing contest, came about because I wanted to try out a totally
different kind of voice from any I'd used before. The result struck me as
beautiful. Now, I'm not yet ready to try to sustain that type of voice for a
novel, but I'm closer. I've grown.
So as this year is rushing towards its end, think about those things that
you've been told never to do as a writer. Maybe put a few on your New Year's
resolutions list as tools you want to study, research and tinker with. Who
knows, mastering a few tricky tools may be just what you need to take your
writing to the next level. It can be challenging, but isn't that why we're
writers in the first place?
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