brni (brni) wrote,

bad advice

Author Patty Jansen has blog post up about the worst writing advice. It's worth reading. Go on, I'll wait.

~whistles tunelessly~

Ah, there you are. So, let me... What? No, of course not. So you got distracted with youtube videos of cats. No trouble at all. I had plenty of things to keep me occupied. Plenty of things.

So, um. Where was I? Ah yes.

I took a short story writing class in college. At this point, I'd gotten my BA, gone for the Ph.D., abandoned the Ph.D., and returned part time for computer science classes. Every semester I'd take one class for myself. Once it was a photography class. Once it was a grad level course on Joyce's Ulysses. And once it was a short story class.

We read stories, Great Fiction from tomes of Great Fiction. We wrote stories. We handed them in. We got them back, with red marks, and grades. At one point, one of the students (perhaps me) asked if we would be doing crits and getting feedback on our stories.

No. We would not. "No writer ever benefited from reading bad prose," the professor professed. "All you learn is how to write worse than you already do." We would be reading, he explained, not just good stories, but the best stories of all time (which were, coincidentally, all written in English), and learn to emulate the masters.

He was, of course, wrong. Not to say that you shouldn't read great work by great writers, because you should. But you don't learn addition and multiplication by being handed a book of fantastic differential equations. You don't learn to play guitar by studying Frank Zappa solos, and you don't learn martial arts by studying the most complicated moves you can find on youtube. You learn by doing what you can do, and doing just a little bit of what you can't, by always being just a little bit better than you are.

In writing, it's especially important to be able to see mistakes. But we're notoriously close to our own words, to the point where our eyes can miss blatant tyops, and entire words can missing without our notice, no matter how many times we read the damn thing. Even more true about our actual writing: the sentence construction, the dialogue, the story arc, the characters.

If we want to see mistakes, we need to see it first in other people's fiction. We need to read stories that just don't work. Not ones that are just plain bad, but ones that come just short of being good. The stories that are pretty okay, but there's something about them that just doesn't work for you. Then, we need to study those stories and figure out what it was that wasn't working.*

Do that. Do that a lot, until you can identify problems in reasonably decent stories with relative ease. Join crit groups of people who are more or less at your level of writing skill. Read slush for a magazine or anthology. Pay attention to the stories that fail, and pay even closer attention to the stories that are almost there, but not quite.

And then start looking at your own work again.


* On review, I clearly use the word "just" far too often in that paragraph. I should... Ah, screw it. No one will notice.
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