The Pupil appears.
Which is an inversion of the usual, isn’t it? However, just as true as the other way around. At various times in my life I’ve been a teacher. Not a writing teacher, interestingly enough. I’ve taught German and English composition and French and once long ago math.
One thing I noticed is that every time I teach a subject I emerge from it with a much deeper understanding than before. In that sense my sons have been invaluable to me, because they’re the sort of kids that ask questions. Difficult questions. Sometimes true puzzlers. I’ve read twenty books to answer a question my younger son has put to me about... oh, the Middle Ages. And every time, my knowledge grows.
I think that’s part of the reason we tend to fall into how-to mode in this blog: there is something about the process or how to create this or that, which is not clear to us. It might be something we have particular issues with. I don’t conceal from anyone that plotting was my bette noir when I started writing. I had characters, or at least character voice, but I quickly found out even the greatest hero in the world can bore you to tears if all he’s doing is sitting around angsting about how his eggs were runny for breakfast. (At first I got over that by taking books I admired and outlining the plot, so I could see the bones beneath the flesh.) So I think we write about what plagues us, so that we can learn it ourselves.
The other part of it is that every writer is fascinated by how-to-write. I think because like any artistic pursuit a good part of the work takes place inside, deep, deep inside, at a subconscious level. And we don’t like that, being rational beings. Or at least I don’t like that.
No, that’s not quite true. Part of me loves that. Usually it comes at the end of a novel, when I’m sailing in under full impulse, after I’ve laid all my traps and changes, and set in al my surprises, and suddenly it all starts falling into place, including things I didn’t THINK through. (Like the fact that Thena in Darkship Thieves is named Athena Hera – and yes, Sinistra too, think bar Sinister. I had no clue why till a character made a joke about it, I just knew that was her name.) I love that feeling, but at the same time these “gifts” feel like they come from some untrustworthy goddling and at the root of my culture is the knowledge those whom the gods love they first drive mad.
So that’s the other part of it. Sometimes even things you know really well, you want to take apart and teach someone, so that you know them consciously. And tons of times the fact that I’ve analyzed what works in what I do and what doesn’t, has saved my bacon when I’m on deadline and sick as a dog. Also, once I interiorize some knowledge, I can grow again, around it. My progress started with studying plot, and then my plot was good and my characters looked puerile in comparison. So then I worked on characters, now I’m back to plot. It’s not a straight forward road, more the way a nautilus shell grows in an endless spiral I think.
Laura Resnick resposted on Facebook recently about some article saying that how to books do more harm than good. Is that true? I don’t know. I own maybe a hundred of them. Of those, maybe ten have helped me. Have the others hurt me? Only a little and in the beginning because I believed everything I read. After I gained a little knowledge, I started taking things with a grain of salt. And some of the things I learned in those books I’d never have realized any other way. Like, after reading ... oh, hundreds of thousands of books, I’d never consciously realized what Dave talks about in the post on Monday: that you can cut scenes and skip over the “boring” stuff. I thought you had to stay with the character, so that I’d literally drag my readers up a staircase step by step by – yawn – step. Until I was reading Dwight Swain’s Techniques of The Selling Writer and he talked about how to end scenes and how to begin them, and... well... a lightbulb SHOULD have gone on over my head. It was so obvious, but I needed to see it written down in plain language.
All this to say – we’re considering publishing a book with the most helpful posts in this blog. Eformat to begin with. We’ll put it at some really low price. The problem is, you see, that we have no clue which – if any – posts you guys would consider helpful to have all collected to together to consult in need. Are there any of those? Would you point us at them? And are there any subjects you want us to tackle in the future, with this great, collaborative collection in mind? Or are the mad (mad, I tell you, mad) geniuses more entertaining than instructive? (Oh, yeah, and thanks for listening to us, and for all your answers, which sometimes cause the nautilus to grow another shell as I ponder them.)