Wednesday, May 5, 2010

When The Teacher Is Ready

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.)


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sarah, that is so true. You learn by teaching!

Ellyll said...

Interesting that you should ask that. I have a folder that holds cut and pasted blog posts or various useful bits of knowledge that I picked up on the web and keep as reminders to myself. A few of them are from this blog. Mind, I've only been following you lot for a couple/few(?) months.

So yes, in addition to being entertaining, you as a group are also instructive. :) And I'd be happy, if you liked, to point you to those posts that have been useful to me.

C Kelsey said...

The trouble with self help books isn't that they harm or are helpful, but rather that altogether too many people today don't question what they read or see.

Hmm, an MGC book. Depending on how it's structured I think it could make a fantastic reference when trying to figure out what, exactly, I'm trying to do in a given story.

Jonathan D. Beer said...

I love the idea of a Mad Genius book. In the (six months? More, I think; maybe nine since I met John at a book signing and he pointed me this way) you guys have been a constant source of entertainment and inspiration, illuminating that which was impenetrable and showing that, yes, even established writers still face the unassailable mountains of writing and tackle them one bloody-knuckled grab at a time.

As to which specific posts... umm, that might take a while. So many are filled with the golden nuggety hints of acquired knowledge I'm not sure where you would begin. I look forward to it though - I will have a hunt back through your cavernous archives and see what springs to attention :)

Amanda Green said...

Ellyll, please do let us know which of the posts you've found most helpful. Thanks.

Amanda Green said...

I've bought and borrowed my fair share of self-help books. There are few I have read from cover to cover. Some I've quickly discovered won't work for me, as a writer, because my process of writing isn't anywhere near what the author says it should be. I simply can't do a 10 or 12 page character development, going back generations to describe the character's family, genealogy, etc. To me, that's like doing a 50k word outline for a 120k word book. By the time I've done it, I don't want to work on the book any more.

Still, there are nuggets of ideas, prompts, rules that these books have that I've found useful. One of the best comes from a book Sarah recommended to me: The Artist's Way (iirc -- I'm too lazy to walk to the bookcase to read the title). One of the exercises it recommends is to spend a few minutes each morning hand writing 2 pages. Just 2. It can't be on your current wip. It can be your to do list, grocery list or even just free association writing. But it is writing and it has gotten me past those periods where writer's block is so very bad.

The argument that these self-help books take away your unique voice is the one that has me shaking my head. The only way that happens if if you let it. That is where you have to decide if the information the book gives is valid for the way you write. If it isn't, then don't use it.

Most of all, these books should be considered aids and not the hard and fast rule on what you have to do. As Dave, Rowena, Sarah, Chris and Kate have said before, you have to know the rules to know when to break them.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Isn't it? I think that's one of the best things about a writers' group, too -- more than the critiques -- you see what other people are learning, and sometimes you can reverse engineer it.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Well, we probably would have to polish the bits some. For one, I'm not sure if we can do the ebook for free or will have to charge -- I honestly don't know what form it will take yet -- and would hate for you guys to pay for things you can read for free.
And yes, Ellyl, a list of posts you'd be interested in seeing included and other topics you want treated would be very interesting to me.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris K
I think we'd structure it as a "panel". I know we've all tackled the same themes over and over. Say, plot. Rounded Characters. Etc. The fact that we all -- beyond some fundamentals -- have very different approaches would possibly save readers from taking the whole advice with no thought. And I think we have enough different -- for lack of a better term -- temperaments that no matter who you are, you'd find an approach that works for you.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Thank you. :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I agree with you on these books. All of us, I think, have one "gift" in the writing realm. At least most beginning writers do. I can't imagine getting it in your head you're going to be a writer without early encouragement, and early encouragement USUALLY comes from someone seeing and recognizing the gift. However, most people have gifts for ONE thing. I've yet to meet a fully-sprung writer, as it were, one who can do everything well NATURALLY. Most people are good with one of the following: characters, plot, wording, setting, pacing.
Myself I had characters. Wording, but only in Portuguese, until I transitioned. Everything else was learned. And at first you do it by the numbers, of course, until you learn to fly. The good news is that you CAN learn. (Or at least I can, and if I can, everyone can.)

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of a writing book coming out of this. Some blogs, say, about the state of the publishing industry are best left as a blog, they'll age to fast for a book.

But all the advice about hooks and plotting and characterizations are ageless. Along with getting past the blocks and doldrums, how to fit writing time into a busy schedule. Business advice about agents, publishers, contracts. The difference between self-publishing and vanity publishing.

Genres and their requirements/suggestions/exceptions.

I'll run through the archives and send you a list.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


You asked our blog readers which posts they've found useful.

Trust you to give them homework!

Jim McCoy said...

Well, I'v done my homework. Here are some of the posts that I've found useful and a little blurb about why. Hopefully my comments make sense. For the sake of time, I've only gone back about eight weeks or so. That doesn't mean that there was nothing useful before that, but I just ran short of time and I can never remember who posted what when, so I had to go back and look to make the list make sense.

May 3 Transitions and avoiding the boring part.

May 1 How to use myths/importance of doing so. A great way to find new source material and (hopefully) figure out how to use it correctly

April 28 Promotion is important

April 21 How to get published/importance of continuing to try

April 17 Writing Process

April 13 After reading this post about prologues I'm thinking about changing the beginning of my WiP. Definitely worth thinking about.

April 3 Religion in fantasy....some of my favorite characters to read and write about are fantasy priests/paladins

April 1 Very important to writing stories with an evil overlord, but I had never thought about it this way

March 29 - What NOT to do. Something we should all keep in mind.

March 25 (both posts) Plotting is something I need to work on. This is a good way to think about things

March 20 "The line that the character will not cross" This seems obvious, but it's important to keep in mind

March 19 Fleshing out characters. Very important. Bad characters = Bad Book

March 18 - See notes about March 19

March 17 - Different take on how to build a character

March 11 (Kate's post)- A good take on not just the problems of writing a book, but of the problems experienced by the characters IN the book

March 4 - Again what NOT to do, but a different list of stuff

February 28 - Good reminders of how to get things done

February 25 (Kate's post again) Word choice. Very Important

February 24 What to write, why and how to decide. 'Nuff said

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Hey, I'm recovering from pneumonia and it was near midnight. Foremost in my mind was getting people workign for me, I guess.

Actually [g] I used to be a very demanding teacher!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

well, I think we have a good group and being Heinlein's child, I believe in paying it forward.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Jim -- A with a star.

Guest posts are a bit of a puzzler, as we'll have to ask the guest [g]

Chris McMahon said...

More hints on cooking magical creatures please:)

Synova said...

I seem to have a terrible time with antagonists. I feel like they ought to be vital to propelling the plot along but they never seem to want to do anything. Uncooperative bastiches. ;-P

On the subject of listening too closely to "how-to", I think that one of the most useful things I've ever heard was a fellow talking about his process who described it in a way that would be impossible to follow. He said something (author at a con, I don't remember who) to the tune of... I write a hundred pages of them trying to solve a problem and then throw a new problem at them, I throw a bomb in there, "boom!", and then a hundred pages after that, "boom!", and a hundred pages after that, "boom!"

That's impossible "how-to" advice and maybe that freed me from any possible compulsion to try to follow it but that was one instance that actually felt like a light-bulb moment. I didn't think for a moment that it had to be a bomb (boom!) or every hundred pages or anything. I just suddenly realized that I could DO stuff to my characters... anything I wanted.

It was a very cool moment.

(Now if I could just talk the blinking antagonists into throwing some bombs.)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris Mc,

You're a bad man. Think shame on yourself. Or do you truly want my younger son and Dave to speculate on which part of the mermaid to cook again?

For the unenlightened that "Chimera cordon Bleu" conducted by Dave Freer AND my older son was the funniest panel I have ever attended. And if you had a strong stomach, all the hints on how to cook magical creatures -- with a lot of curry, seems like! -- would have you rolling on the floor. It had one of their co-panelists turning a lovely shade of lavender, though. ;)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

um... that process sort of describes how I wrote Draw One In The Dark... um....

Guys did I do a post on "the rolling plot" (which to be honest, if you read the first HP could be called The Rowling Plot)? If not, I'll do it later.

Villains. Uh... okay, Kate has done this and I guess I should cover my method. The short version is: care as much for them as for your hero, have as "good" at least for them reasons for what they're doing. Mind you, you might go through years and years of books flipping on you. Don't let them. Anti-heros get tiresome and they're sometimes hard to sell.
Consider making your villains admirable people with a fatal flaw a MILE wide. ;)

Synova said...

Hm... my antagonist, whomever he or she is, knows about my protagonist because she left three henchmen on the walls and ceiling of their laboratory.

Obviously, something would be done about that.

(Heh... this has helped already. I suppose it's one of those "know it but need to see it written" sorts of things.)

I sort of like the idea of a single POV character. Has anyone tried writing to develop the villain and then taking her out?

Rita de Heer said...

There's quite a lot said about beginnings these days, where to jump in and begin a story ... but nothing much about endings. Where, how, when to end. Any posts about that definitely appreciated.

Kate said...

Maybe I should post the chocolate-coated fairy recipe? To be fair, it starts with "first, catch your fairy".

Rita, I think there are some posts in the archives on when/how to end, but more could show up any time. Not my post this week, though :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


ARE you look for a free copy of Darkship Thieves? [VBG} Send me your snail mail!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


And the endings are VERY important. It's what makes you reach for the author's next book or not.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Yes, Kate, you are correct,t his has to do with market pressures. It's so hard to keep an agent's or publisher's attention these days that everyone is looking for the magical "perfect beginning." Rita is correct nonethless. If the end is "something goes here" the READER (who should always be our focus) will not buy the next book.

Ellyll said...

Okay, I'm way behind here. (Sorry, life, etc. got in my way again.) My short list of things I kept:

Dave Freer - Transitioning
Sarah Hoyt - Books on Writing
Sarah Hoyt - Rules of the Sarah
Sarah Hoyt - The Thing and the Half of the Thing
Amanda Green - What you need before you query (actually, this one was part of a post, and I snagged the bit I needed)
Rowena Cory Daniells - Prologues, do you Skip Them?
Amanda Green - Critique Groups
Kate - Overthrowing the Evil Tyrant
Sarah Hoyt - Watching Yourself Go By

Mind you, these are just the ones that I thought I'd want to keep for future reference. There are a lot of others that I just found interesting, but I didn't NEED them in the same way. And some were just fun. :)

Generally, I find you all an interesting read all the time. You're pretty much the only blog I follow religiously at this point. Not sure if that says more about you or more about me. ;)