Monday, September 12, 2005

Now, I like Rabbit...

I went to Borders yesterday to look for a new writing instruction book, but I'm finding that very few books have anything new to offer me that I haven't already read in the books I have. I'm pleased with this. I encountered the same phenomenon when I was teaching myself to program in C++ and in Java. I learned to program in these languages almost entirely from these "how-to" books, but eventually I found that the new how-to books on the subject were basically covering the same material. There was no point in buying another book. Everything else had to come from just working on the projects I had assigned to myself to learn the language.

Learning to write is, I think, much the same way. There is a core set of "instructions" that everyone needs to learn. Things like protagonist vs. antagonist, conflict, dialogue, scene changes, etc. There is also the "business end" of writing that all neophytes need to learn. Things like proper manuscript form, the relationship between editors, agents, and publishers, how to write a query letter, etc. There are also genre-specific things to learn. In the case of science fition, things like world-building, technology design, extrapolating the consequences of an idea, etc. All of this has been covered in the books I have read to date. And if you think about it, it has to be that way. Any book that proposes to teach writing had better start by teaching the basics. There is another level of books for me to explore, but all of those require that I have a finished draft of a novel to work with. My short stories just won't work for that purpose. I've started a novel and am having a lot of fun with it, but it's going to be a while before I've got a first draft ready to apply some of these new ideas to.

In the meantime, I've discovered that I have an attraction to the "inspiration books." Some are about writing and the writing life, but some are just writing techniques and wisdom condensed down to a couple of pages per topic. I'm reminded of a scene in "The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" (can you tell I have a toddler?). Pooh, thwarted in his effort to get honey from the honey bees, goes over to mooch some from Rabbit. As walks over to Rabbit's house, he comments to the viewer, "Now, I like Rabbit because he uses short, easy words like 'How about lunch?' and 'Help yourself, Pooh.'" I guess I, too, have a fondness for "short, easy words," at least in my attraction to the mini-essays inthese little books. I'm currently reading Scott Edelstein's 100 Things Every Writer Needs to Know. Now admittedly, I haven't yet found a lot of new material here, but having things boiled down to one page (or sometimes half-page) statements serves as a great reminder of the things I've read. It might not mean much to me if I hadn't already studied the 100 topics in detail elsewhere. I find, however, that reading the book is relaxing and enjoyable, but more importantly, serves to get me thinking about each concept in the context of my own writing. I'm not reading to learn the concept anymore, I'm reading to apply those concepts. It helps to cement them in my mind. I read somewhere (probably in another one of these inspiration books) that when you learn a new technique, you should practice it faithfully -- and then forget about it completely. It will then be used spontaneously and invisibly in your writing. While I don't think it's quite that simple, I do think taking time to reflect on your writing is critical to gaining control of it. We all know people who can write both really good and really bad pieces. Often they don't know how the good piece was created because they don't have conscious control of their writing. There are two excellent ways to build this control. One is through the kind of reflection I describe here, the other is through regular critiques of someone else's work.

But that's a topic for another day.

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