Shortly after the release of my first novella as an ebook, I went to a local romance writers’ meeting. Afterward, at lunch with a trio of aspiring writers, we whiled away a few hours chatting about the biz. It was heady stuff, my first experience being appealed to as a published author in the know. But I quickly discovered I had no idea how to answer their questions – not because I knew nothing about writing (though that may be more true than I’d like to admit) but because their approach to writing so wildly differed from my own.
They wanted to know how I got the brass publishing ring into my hot little hands, but their first question wasn’t about how I researched which editors and agents to submit to or how I plotted my multi-pronged attack on the publishing industry, but rather which workshop I thought was most directly responsible for my publication.
Erm… I don’t know. I, uh, I’m not really such a big fan of workshops. I attend writers’ workshops and conferences for the sense of camaraderie I get with other authors – writing is a solitary business – but I can’t go to “craft” workshops. The idea that there is One Right Way to Write makes me break out in hives. I have a little too much rebel in my soul to believe listening to someone tell me what to do could ever make me great.
I tend to think workshops suck the heart out of writing. Not that mechanics and technique aren’t necessary, but if they take up too big a chunk of your brain, there’s no room left for randomness and inspiration. I couldn’t take it if I was writing and there was a little voice saying, “That verb is weak” and “Passive voice is eeeeevil” in my head. I think I’d need a padded room pretty damn quick.
Next on my eager trio’s list was to ask if I analyzed published books. Being a naturally analytical person, I answered that I absolutely did. Turns out, their idea of analysis and mine differed quite a bit.
My idea of analyzing books is to become highly aware of my own reading habits. Did I just zone out during that lengthy description of the heroine’s home? Okay, I’ll use shorter, more evocative descriptions in my writing. If I find myself engrossed, I may pause to think about how the author caught me so thoroughly. My analysis centers around the impact of the work, rather than the minutiae of composition.
The aspiring trio looked at things differently. To them, analysis was breaking a book down into pieces. How many words in the average sentence? Sentences per paragraph? Paragraphs per page? Pages per chapter? How many point-of-view shifts were there in the book? How many pages into the book did the first kiss occur? How many pages from the first kiss to the consummation? No detail was left undissected. It was clinical.
Yes, I believe you should study the “masters” of your craft, but study the poetry of them. The beauty. Study what makes them art (if it isn’t too weird for me to use the phrase “art” when talking about writing a romance novel).
Let’s run with the art analogy for a second. Say you want to be a painter. You can analyze every line in the Mona Lisa, figure out the exact proportions and color palette. You can memorize each brushstroke, but when you put your brush to canvas, all you are going to end up with is a wooden, lifeless imitation of the Mona Lisa.
Maybe that’s all you want. Technical skill. The ability to parrot what you see. Maybe you want to be able to paint family portraits. There may very well be a solid career in that. But if you want to make art, copying the Mona Lisa isn’t going to help you unless you feel it.
Too many aspiring writers get sucked into the workshopmania. There is comfort in doing things the
Right Way. But the Right Way is a formula. It’s about doing what’s expected. But what’s expected isn’t original and fresh. I often write humor and, for me, laughter is found in the unexpected. Doing things always according to Hoyle would suck the funny right out of it.
Locked in that workshopmania, it’s all too easy for writing to stop being joy, passion and creativity, and turn into POV, GMC and rules, rules, rules.
I don’t have anything against the rules themselves – they’re tools which can be used to great effect. But they are just tools. Just because you use the same kind of paintbrush as Da Vinci doesn’t mean you can paint the Mona Lisa.
I don’t believe in workshopmania. I believe in the unique, the fresh, and the pure joy of writing something no one else could have written. Sure, go to workshops. Learn the mold. Then break it. Break it hard.
The workshops are trying to show the shiny new writers the magic formula that will launch them to bestsellerdom. The big problem with that is that all of those magic formulas leave out the most crucial ingredient: magic.
What you love about a book isn’t the POV or GMC. Find your love for words again. Your love for story. It isn’t in the ingredients. It’s in the mix. The magic.
(My original question--What is a major writer's condition that *doesn't* apply to you? Is there a conventional wisdom that you don't follow or that you think might be actually bad for some writers?)