Monday, December 11, 2006

Getting lost for the sheer pleasure of it

You may have noticed that there isn't a hell of a lot of writing advice on this blog.

That's not because I lack ideas about How It Should Be Done. However, I want to be careful about what I say to new writers, each of whom needs to discover his or her own way to tell a story. I see so many bad examples of advice for new writers.

The best kind of writing teachers seem to me to be the ones who foster the journey of other writers without placing them in harness. They suggest a variety of approaches, they work to motivate and inspire while still providing practical tools and exercises that help with skill-building. I don't mind when someone gives nuts and bolts advice on ways to find agents or shows others how to put a manuscript into a standard format.

But sometimes I read another writer's proclamations about what one must do within the text of a story, or how one must construct its framework, or how one must go about the process -- and frankly, I find myself wanting to laugh.

I'm talking about the folks who seem to believe they picked up their stone tablets at a nearby burning bush. This is how I do it, so you must do it this way. By the way, all three of my best friends in my mutual admiration society write this way, too. Hello, hubris!

As if the universe of creating literature could be distilled into a set of Rules that Work For Everyone. What boring places libraries would be if that was true. Thank God the proclaimers get ignored.

Would we ever think of trying to convince painters or musicians that they must do x, y, or z to create true art? I don't doubt that those artists also have the "EZ Way to Paint a Portrait" or the "EZ Way to Play the Piano" folks in their lives, but it seems to me that uninitiated writers are inundated with advice that consists of oversimplified rules that simply do not hold true for everyone.

Here's my own simple advice to you new writers, so laugh if you will: one of the hardest parts of this endeavor of writing a book is finding your own path and having the courage to stay on it, while still staying open to the possibility that there may be another, better way to get where you're going. How will you know which way is best for you? Keep writing.

Explore. You may end up lost, or you may make fascinating, unexpected discoveries. Personally, I will take being lost (revision allows this to be a relative term, after all) over treading only on the well-worn, previously mapped grid, but you may find the grid is the best way to get where you want to go. Whatever works -- just start stepping.

'S all good....

Photo above, " Stream on the trail of Swift Camp Creek area" by Don Corbin, used with his kind permission, from


Anonymous said...

Brilliant, brilliant advice, Jan. I hate it when a writer tells me what I must do to write a book, but I enjoy hearing from writers I admire how they work.

What happens is that I take a little bit from each person that sounds like it might work for me and eventually develop my own system.

And then of course tell everybody else how they MUST do it.

Jan Burke said...

Thanks, Bryon!

Anonymous said...

Your best writing advice to me started something like "Step One: Apply Butt To Chair." It just got better from there.

I've been meaning to drop you a line to let you know that I was on a recent road trip, and had only a copy of "Kidnapped" to keep me company...what a terrific read. I almost bailed on the meetings I had driven 6 hours for, because I didn't want to stop reading. Way to go, Jan. Another winner.

All the best,

Jan Burke said...

Elaine, thanks! I hope our paths cross again soon.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jan,
Very well put. I too have been a big fan of your advice for aspiring writers. Like another posted put it - I enjoy taking coaching tidbits from the various writers whom I admire. Now I'm not one of these guys who throws around sports methaphors ad nausem, BUT, one pearl of inspiration that I always (not just when writing) refer to is one that famous NY footbal Giants coach Bill Parcells once reportedly said. It has been documented by several well known players from their championship seasons ('86 & '90), and it goes like this; It was near seasons end when the Giants were facing a arch rival in a crucial game with several key players out on the DL. At a team meeting right prior to the game, Coach Parcells reponded to worries & concersn of most playesr that they faced overwhelming adversity with those key players out. He said " all this is true, XXXX is out and so is XXX, but gentlemen, it matters not. We still have to find a way to get it done".
Rumor has it that "get it done" became the team chant for that game (which they won - just barely) and the remainder of that season.
I know, it sounds very corny and very 'Hollywood', but there is something inspiring and motivating in those few simple yet powerful words - at least for me.
Just get it done.
I use it all the when facing daunting tasks, everything from balancing my checkbook to forcing myself to finish a chapter.
OK, I've rambled long enough.
That's my .02 cents

Dave (no relation) Burke

BTW - It was after reading 'Bones' that I finally decided to 'get it done' and write my novel

Jan Burke said...

Dave, thanks. I loved the story, and that's a great motto for any writer.

I'm truly flattered to learn that Bones inspired you!

May the Muse be good to you. And if she isn't, kick her ass out of the chair and get to work without her.