When I first started writing, way back in the long forgotten era of my misspent youth, I knew nothing about the actual mechanics of storytelling. The little experience I had was with the short stories assigned in English class, and while the teachers praised those early stories, they failed to truly move me. I liked the writing, but the pain and tedium of the forced outlines and the strict rules of form quickly sucked the joy out of my story.
I thought at first, I was doing something wrong because I could not sit down and make an outline.
This caused issues with the teachers because they wanted it in proper order: outline, first draft, edit, final draft. This sequence did not work for me. I am not an outliner, wasn’t then and never have been. I prefer to start writing. The first words come, and then the first sentence, and then I sit back and wait for the story to tell me where it wants to go. I sneakily got around this. I would sit down and write my first draft and then when the story was complete; I would write my outline and turn it in.
I have learned since I was not doing anything wrong.
There are many types of writers:
- Pantsers, like me, who like to write the story as it comes to them.
- Outliners who like to know the main parts of the stories before they start writing,
- Outliners who want to know every detail of what will happen to who and when before they start
- Character developers who do character upon character and then figure out what story they will put them in later, and
- The many in between who take different parts of each group and make it work for themselves.
There is nothing wrong with any of these ways of writing, no matter what anyone might tell the aspiring author. There is no “right” way.
Even through my struggles, I remained intrigued by the art of writing. I devoured books of all kinds, and while I knew the ones that worked well and the ones that didn’t, I did not understand why one was different than the others and more importantly I did not know what that meant for my writing.
I did follow the first piece of advice given to me by my favorite teacher:
If you want to be a writer you must write every day.
The more I wrote, the more I began to hear the true spirit of the story calling to me from beneath all those rigid grammar rules, but I had no idea how to get to it. Stephen King says it is like archeology, you have to work to unbury the story as if it were a dinosaur, and looking back that is the way it seemed in the beginning. I knew it was in there somewhere I couldn’t get it uncovered in the way I wanted. It took many years of trial and error, thousands of gobbled up books and tons of advice from other writers before I began to realize that the rules of writing were flexible and must be used to the advantage of the story, for the story is king.
While I still have a love of grammar and find comfort in the rules of speech and language, as a fiction writer those are not the first tools in my toolbox that I reach for. Those are generally the excellent tools that I use to polish up the bones once I have uncovered them.
There are many tools in a writer’s arsenal, but the essential tool and the one that I think most writers struggle with is the elusive concept of show don’t tell. This tool is one that the fiction writer cannot do without, but it is one that is overlooked or misunderstood by many authors, both new and established. It also comes with a fine line between not enough show and too much information. This tool is made stronger by every other tool in your shed, and it only becomes sharper the more you use it.
Show don’t tell was the first piece of advice that I received from other writers and teachers.
Unfortunately, it usually came with no other advice or instructions. I understood the concept, but I didn’t understand how to make it work. This was like handing someone a welder and saying weld that. I know what welding is, but I wouldn’t be able to make it work without some detailed training.
Much of the advice out there, and not just the show don’t tell rule, can be confusing. Not only does a new writer get vague information, but there is also so much conflicting advice out there, it can leave you dazed and confused. Some writers will tell you that you must follow all the rules of grammar and some will tell you that they don’t matter at all as long as the story flows the way the writer wants it to, and then there are thousands of opinions for everywhere in between. It is difficult for a new writer to find their voice among all the helpful, and not so helpful, advice, and I have spoken with many new writers who get discouraged and give up.
Writing is a dirty business, and it takes long hours and dedication, and it is a job like none other. Without the proper support, either from others or from yourself, a new writer can easily lay their work aside, even if they have every intention of going back to it, and then forget it. One of the things I have noticed most when doing book signings is that there are a lot of would-be writers out there. When I ask what they write they kind of shrug and say they have several chapters laying in a desk or a closet somewhere. I think this is due to lack of confidence, fear in other words.
I think fear is the biggest challenge facing a new writer or an established one for that matter: fear of failure, fear of defeat or just fear of wasting one’s time with a talent that doesn’t exist. I felt a lot of this fear in the beginning; still, feel some today even after several published books and a reader’s choice award.
Always wanting to expand my knowledge and sharpen my skills I considered some classes, but like the advice that was swirling around, there were many different classes and some that seemed to be saying the exact opposite things. This left me unsure as to whether or not I should even take a class. How was I to know if the course would give me the right information, information that was beneficial to me?
I took a deep breath and signed up for several. I thought it couldn’t hurt to learn it all. I had many classes under my belt before I realized that it was like all the other advice that you get in your life.
Advice is only as good as what you do with it, and not all advice is equal.
My most fervent rule in life is this: Take all the advice everyone has to offer, take what works for you and use it wisely, ignore the rest. I put this to practice with the classes and the tips and advice that I received from writers and readers alike. I tried every piece of advice that even remotely fit with my style of writing and if it made my writing stronger I used it, if not, well that too taught me something, what doesn’t work for me.
Writing is not a one size fits all business.
While learning how to use the rules of grammar, show don’t tell, point of view and well-rounded characters is a must when it comes to writing a story that will grab your readers, how you ultimately use these tools and what you create with them is as unique as the writers themselves. And this is a good thing. A unique voice is what you are after.
Check out Dawn’s class starting Monday!
Alex Hollister was always one step ahead of the rumor mongers. As the reclusive A.H. she was a successful horse breeder, an unbeatable jockey and a savvy businessman. As the fair Alexis she was a demure and proper lady. Her life was exactly how she wanted it and her plans were finally ready to be enacted. Everything was running smoothly until her temper landed her in a marriage with a man who didn’t want her, a man who could ruin everything she had worked so hard to achieve.
Marcus Clifton wanted nothing more than to outlive the falsehoods that had ruined his family’s reputation. He had worked hard to get back into the good graces of the elite and had even arranged a marriage that would make the past rumors disappear altogether. He thought he finally had everything that was important to him. His cozy and disciplined life came to a crashing halt when an act of uncontrolled temper ended in a marriage with a woman who could destroy it all.