Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
A writer recently left a comment about the amount of information available for writers, saying that it’s overwhelming and implying that it’s difficult and both frustrating and confusing to figure out what a writer needs, determine which information is relevant and even what information is valid and true.
There is a lot of information available for writers today, a whole lot. You can learn about genre and the fiction elements and poetry and non-fiction. You can learn about grammar and punctuation and theme. You can learn about character goals and motivation and dozens upon dozens of other topics concerned with writing.
Between the Internet and books, between forums and writer’s groups, between special interest groups of every kind and a course at a local college, you can get a wide-ranging education in writing.
And the hundreds of possible sources of knowledge, each with their own slants or approaches or emphases, on top of the breadth and depth of the information itself, may have you pulling your hair out.
When faced with so much material, so much to learn and master, you may not only feel overwhelmed, but inadequate as a writer. You may feel that you’ll never catch up, never know enough, never be able to do everything a writer should be able to do to produce entertaining and involving fiction.
Yet I hope to convince you that the choices and information can make you feel more secure as a writer, not less.
If you are overwhelmed, I don’t want to make light of your worry, but I assure you the feeling is temporary. And while it may recur over the course of your writing career—yes, you’ll face new challenges at every stage of writing and at every stage of your career and with every manuscript, and you’ll need to keep learning skills—you’ll also experience the satisfaction of mastery when you gain proficiency of each skill, when you produce dialogue that rocks your readers, when your stories touch both hearts and minds.
The amount of information you have to choose from can be so intimidating that you might not know where to start; you could literally be immobilized with indecision. But your writing experience doesn’t need to be like that. You can find a method or system to help you sort through the facts and the recommendations and the knowledge you need to begin writing or to continue writing or that’ll give you that one answer you were looking for in the first place.
Your answer is out there, no matter what the question may be. What you need, no matter where you are in a story or in your career path, can be discovered. That information is available and is what you should be searching for.
Focus your search on your current need without letting yourself be distracted by everything that’s other. Yes, the other stuff may be cool and fascinating, but if it keeps you from solving your current problem or issue, it’s in the way. And when you search through piles of information that don’t provide what you need—that could never provide your answer—then you set yourself up for frustration.
If you spend hours searching bargain bins of contemporary paperbacks looking for a rare classic novel, you will be frustrated. And discouraged. It’s the same with information of any kind. There’s lots of it out there, but not all of it is pertinent or useful at this moment.
So when you delve into the wonderful, messy mass of material available to writers, know what you’re looking for. And be prepared to ignore anything that doesn’t meet your need.
Make options and choices work for you rather than allowing them to overwhelm. Don’t be crushed by the weight of the information. Instead, put the power and heft of all that knowledge toward your writing needs.
One way to make sense of the variety of choices and the variety of topics is to make time yearly or quarterly (or more often if you can) to study a writing issue or fiction element or two. Expose yourself to something you know nothing about or delve deep into a subject you know only a little about. The point is, don’t wait until you need to learn about a topic to learn it. Get ahead of the game. In this way, the volume of information, the sheer variety and scope of it, will be less overwhelming.
You won’t learn every single detail about fiction and the craft of writing before you begin your first novel. And you don’t need to. But this is one way to get a handle on the unlimited information and the tips and suggestions and rules.
You’ll learn specifics, but you’ll also be exposed to terms and issues and other topics. Familiarity with the craft in general will make you more comfortable when you’re faced with an issue or challenge you do need an answer for.
This study is a task you take on in addition to your writing projects themselves. This is training. Career enhancement. It’s ongoing.
Not only will familiarity reduce that feeling of being overwhelmed, but you’ll be building your skill set. You’ll learn how to wield the tools of the craft.
And you definitely need to learn how to use your tools before you intend to use them. Of course you don’t need to be an expert with all before you begin using some, but recognize that you will need multiple tools and will need to be proficient with them.
Recognize as well that you’ll be naturally proficient with some tools more than others. You’ll like using some more than others.
If you’re building a house, not every job can be completed with a hammer. You have to learn which tools work for specific tasks and you have to gain experience using those tools properly.
If you’re writing a novel, not every chapter is all dialogue. You have to know more than how to have your characters speak to one another to create a novel.
And not only will you need different tools, you’ll also need to know there are different kinds of jobs that require different approaches.
For a house, you need an architect for the design and plans, builders who actually put the raw materials together into the house, make it a solid structure, and painters and other finishers who make the house look like a home.
Writers likewise need to plan. And then they need to construct. And then they need to make a story look and feel good, a place where readers will want to spend time.
But it’s not only just about jamming the pieces into some spot and making them look good. Just as architects and builders make connections between rooms in a logical manner, adding flow patterns that work for those who’ll live there—building doors and hallways, private areas and public spaces—so must a writer as well. Stories need connections, chapters and events in logical patterns that make a story flow. Characters and readers must be able to move from scene to scene and event to event in not only logical ways, but in smooth ways.
As an architect wouldn’t design a door on a third floor to open into air, causing those who unwittingly opened it to plummet to the ground, or put in a door that leads only to a wall rather than a room, a writer shouldn’t include digressions and paths that lead nowhere.
This all means that you need to know how to design your story as well as build it in a way that will hold up—your foundation has to support whatever you put on top of it. If you included issues and story events that weren’t built on your foundation, the result would be the same as a builder who tried to construct a room outside a house, with nothing to hold it up, nothing to frame it, nothing to connect it to the rest of the house—the room wouldn’t stand. And it wouldn’t belong to the house.
Story events or digressions with no connections to the plot or characters in a story don’t belong in that story.
Everything you include must connect in some way to the other story elements. If you have a lot of connections, you have a tight story.
And while you’re connecting elements, you need to know how to work with them. Thus we’re back to tools and choosing the proper ones for the task.
Not only are the tasks different at different stages of construction, but there are different groupings of tools. So while architects use one set of tools, builders use other tools and painters use even other tools.
Novelists need to learn how to use all the tools from all the tool sets. If you’re writing a novel, you’ve got to do it all—the planning, the building, the finishing.
So all that information out there will eventually be useful to you.
However, however, however, you don’t need it all at the same time. And you shouldn’t allow yourself to be confused by all the rules and recommendations and options when you’re working on a specific issue.
Yes, pick up information whenever and wherever you can get it. But don’t let the vast amount of that information shake you up or smother you. Don’t be defeated by the prospect of having to learn it all. You don’t have to learn it all at the same time.
You don’t need every tool for every task you face. You don’t need every bit of knowledge before you begin to write. That means you don’t need to research a locale or an industry or a period in history for two years before you begin a story. That means you don’t have to know everything about self-publishing before you’ve written page one. That means you don’t have to possess the equivalent of a master’s degree in writing to write a novel.
Yes, you need knowledge and skills. Yes, the more you know about what goes into a novel, the stronger your first draft is likely to be. Yes, the more experience you have with plotting and dialogue, the more adept at both you will be.
Yet, when you’re searching for information about pacing, you don’t also have to learn about every other writing issue at the same time. Granted, the writing elements are connected, so you’ll be exposed to more than tips for pacing. You’ll discover how word choice and sentence construction (and thus grammar) affect pacing. You’ll learn how dialogue can be manipulated to alter pace. But you wouldn’t need to dwell on topics such as character goals and motivation, theme and subtext, conflict and symbolism and back story.
Concentrate on what you need (keeping in mind that you’ll also be doing some general learning about your craft throughout your career, as anyone who wants to improve at his job does). Don’t be overwhelmed by everything a writer needs to know; don’t assume you have to know it today. Instead, concentrate on the need of the moment.
Some of what’s out there isn’t for you, at least not at this moment.
When you see writers in a heated discussion about a single point of grammar, don’t think you necessarily need to be concerned about the issue. If it’s interesting to you, by all means jump into the fray. But don’t let yourself be frustrated if you don’t even know what they’re talking about. You may be stuck trying to get your antagonist into a better position to harass the protagonist and care nothing about dangling modifiers, not even know what they are. And that’s okay for now. When you need to know about them, perhaps because your critique partner says your first five chapters are rife with them, then you can learn about them. And then the topic will make sense, won’t seem like just another thing, one more stupid detail you have to learn or have to keep up with.
What I’m saying is that not everything is for you. Not now. If you’re a beginning writer, you need to start with the basics. You can’t build on the basics if you haven’t learned the basics.
Even if you’re an experienced writer, you don’t need to be distracted by every issue. If you’re writing a first draft, tips for editing won’t serve you well. I won’t say they wouldn’t be useful, but your internal editor shouldn’t be involved with the creative phase of your writing. He’s too critical, too concerned with the fine detail on the bark of one tree when you’re simply deciding where to place the forest.
I’m not telling you not to learn whenever the opportunity presents itself. I am suggesting you not let the current needs and questions and concerns of other writers get in the way of your current needs.
If a group is arguing about subtext, making it seem to be the most pressing topic in the world, and you have no idea what they’re talking about, don’t be concerned. They’re discussing that topic because it relates to something they’re working on. You’ll notice they aren’t talking about point of view or where to go with a second chapter or how to convey dialect. They are concerned with a topic they need to work through. If that’s not your concern at the moment, don’t sweat it.
Don’t be distracted or overwhelmed by the abundance of information available. Don’t think you have to have an interest in every topic on writing—you’ll be interested when you need that information. Or you’ll make a point to learn about it in one of your career enhancement periods.
For the present, focus on your needs. Reduce frustration and deflate the confusion. Don’t let them stand in your way.
NOTE: Always check multiple sources when you have a specific question or when you’re searching for information—yes, some information out there is incorrect. If there’s a true difference of opinion between experts about a matter—such as whether or not it’s okay to include semicolons in fiction—you may have to dig deeper. Search out the reason for that difference of opinion. You may gain some insight that will help your own writing.