Monday, February 15, 2010

Book Gargoyle's Advice for Young Writers (including To Outline or Not To Outline)

An eighth-grader wrote to ask me for some writing advice this past week, and I thought I'd share my response to her request here. ***

There are many books, classes, websites, etc., that teach about fiction writing, but I think that all the best advice boils down to these things:

1. Read a lot, and
2. Write a lot.

Those are the basics, and without that, any other advice is pointless. "Write a lot" can mean writing a lot of fiction, but it can also include poetry, essays, journals, articles, etc. Any writing that you do develops your facility with words, sentences, expressions, description, metaphor -- the building blocks of language. And writing develops your ability to think, reason, argue (a point), teach, explain, and inspire.

Read for enjoyment and write for enjoyment. Find books you love, and read them over and over. Savor them. Write what makes you smile, makes you laugh, or makes you swoon, but write something that moves you in some way. Maybe it's dark and gloomy and macabre, but if you enjoy that, you'll write it well.

Once you've gotten into a groove of reading a lot and writing a lot, the final step I would add to my list is this:

3. Begin to think seriously about how to improve your writing. Study what makes great writing great. When you read a book that seems fantastic to you, try to articulate why. (This is the benefit you can gain from school essays and book reports. If you can explain what you like, and what is working, as well as what is not working, in a book you read, then you have learned something.) When you receive critical feedback from a teacher on something you've written, analyze the feedback and see what it can teach you. The best teachers of writing are good readers who know how to spot what's working and not working in a text. There aren't clear-cut right or wrong answers about how to write well, but we do have some good solid fundamentals. Your use of grammar and language should be solidly correct. (There are many great resources that can help you master these; the golden bible of language and grammar is THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by Strunk and White.) Your writing shouldn't be confusing. Read over what you've written and make sure you didn't leave out details that help us understand who shot the sheriff or where the magician was standing when the lights went out. Love your characters, even the bad ones, and make them interesting. Your story needs a beginning (where characters and the problem are established), a middle (where characters wallow through their problems and things get worse and worse), and an end (where all heck breaks loose, until things are finally resolved, for good or ill). Don’t be afraid to let your writing sparkle. Use breathtaking words and outrageous comparisons. Pour on the descriptions, the excitement, the suspense, the jokes. (If need be, you can always trim them later.)

You asked about outlines. Do I think it's best to use them, or not? I don't have a definitive answer to this. The first few books I wrote, I did not use an outline. I have begun to use them more, especially as I write books in series. When plotting really matters, as with mysteries, they can be very useful, to make sure you don't forget to reveal important clues and tie up all your loose ends. With almost every novel I write, I end up using a single-subject spiral-bound notebook that I use to jot down important details like timelines, character names, problems I stumble upon and must fix before I can proceed, maps, etc. But while a bit of planning may ultimately be necessary for any writing project before it's done, I'm inclined to think that for writers who are starting out, it's more liberating not to use an outline. Start with a glorious beginning that excites you, create some characters, and see where they lead. If you reach a blocked tunnel and you think you might need to outline your way out of it, fine, do so, but know that often an outline kills the fun. Particularly if you feel like your outline must be very formal and proper with correct margins and Roman numerals. Just say no to outlines like that. In this, as with most kinds of writing advice, let your own instincts be your guide. If you feel like an outline would help you, give you a roadmap and a plan, then outline away, but if it sounds like as much fun as taking standardized tests at school, skip it.

1 comment:

  1. Although I admit you didn't have my full attention while I was overseeing the activity room yesterday I very much enjoyed your presentation. Lots to learn. I'll pay better attention next time.