Tuesday, July 6, 2010

On Writing

By Jay Stringer

I've been thinking a lot about craft lately. Or rather, I've been struggling with it.

I have a few projects that are overdue, with people waiting on me to get my ass in gear, and it's been a fight to try and get them done. It's not block. The stuff is in my head and I know most of what happens to the characters. It's more a lack of form, a lack of the structure that will make the work sing.

I've caught flack before for saying I don't believe in writers block. I still don't. What I do believe in is distraction. And right now I'm cornering the market in that. This month I visit New York and turn 30. I have a couple of health issues and, king of them all, I'm getting married. The gurrl and I are planning the whole thing ourselves, down to writing the wedding service and vows, and that's taken a lot of doing.

So amid all of that, I can cut myself a little slack about all of the work I've not finished. I know I'll get back on track. But in the meantime I decided to explore craft a bit more, to try and give my scattered brain a little more focus. I bought a handful of books about writing, and started looking up more interviews and documentaries on the subject.

Some of the books come highly recommended and I look forward to reading them. There's a King, a Maass and a Stein. Each suggested by people that I trust. The first one I'm reading is STORY by Robert McKee. Here's my first thought on the book; I know you can't judge a book by it's cover, but can you judge one by its size?

I look at the others in my pile, and they seem a decent size. The Stein is 224 pages and the Maass is 250. Okay, so the King is 384, but he does have a tendency to go on for too long. The McKee is 455, excluding the index. 455 pages on how to write a story. That's a couple hundred more than the Stein and Maass books, and almost a hundred more than the King. If your book is longer than the one by the guy who wrote THE STAND, you maybe need to rethink that delete button. The shorter books feel right somehow. As if i can imagine a 250 page book on writing will help be to refresh or learn a few things and then go and apply them to my work. But a 455 word book is time spent away from the blank page.

One thing I notice very quickly in books is whether I think the writer is using too many words. I like to use as few as possible to tell a story (though my agent still finds a way to do it with fewer,) and generally if I feel the writer is overdoing the word count, I stop reading. McKee mentions many times that writers don't get to the point quickly enough, and yet the first 31 pages of his own book don't really need to be there. The same information could have been presented in around five pages of concise writing.

A great example of getting to the point comes in William Goldman's THE PRINCESS BRIDE. In presenting the 'good parts version,' Goldman is giving a running critique on self editing. Each of the scenes he laments cutting are scenes that added nothing to the story. I think a writer needs to be brutally honest with themselves, and if a page doesn't need to be there, then lose it.

I don't want to get sidetracked onto criticising STORY because I've not read all of it yet. There may well be something buried away in a later chapter that blows my mind, and McKee obviously knows more about craft than I do.

But every time I pick up the book and start reading, I feel it's size and weight, and can't help but wonder why I'm reading a book about how to write, when I could be spending that time writing. And it could be as simple as me making a snap judgement, because the Stein and the Maass are much shorter and I'm looking forward to reading those.

But I can't help but wonder about writing advice. This website has been up and running for almost a year, and you'll notice we rarely stray into giving out direct advice. Instead, we review things, we analyse, we discuss general topics and give opinions. Buried away in these posts you'll find tips and ideas that work for us, but that's not the same as giving out direct advice. I do give out advice to friends or via email to the fools....ummm...i mean.....folks who ask me for it. But on a blog like this, it wouldn't feel right. Part of that will be because my books aren't published yet, but I get the feeling that even once I get a deal, I'll still feel wrong to be giving out public advice.

A friend recently asked me for advice on how to get work finished. I write him an essay-length reply with various different tips on how to get his ass into the chair, and how to get work done every day. Just before hitting 'send,' though, I realised it was all irrelevant. The best advice I could give him was to not worry too much about my advice. I told him to find a couple of rules that worked for him and to stick to them. Ignore everything else.

I'm not saying there is no place for books on writing. I'm sure i will find some of the books in my pile very useful. But surely there comes a point when writing is like murder; the best way to learn is by doing it.

So how about you guys, what books have you read that have helped? Or do you avoid them? Do you come to sites like this looking for advice, or for random football and TV talk?


David Cranmer said...

Well congrats on getting married!

I have a tendency not to go to sites for advice. That doesn't mean I couldn't use the help but I have about two dozens books On Writing scattered along the book shelf. When I need to be educated I reach for them.

I come to sites like yours to hear how you are doing in the writing department, what's next on your agenda, and what you recommend to read for leisure.

floydmcmondo said...

Saying, "I have writer's block," is merely a way of removing blame from yourself. Advice isn't nearly as important as the relating of your experience. Advice is set, where an experience can be read (or heard) and interpreted, which can make it more widely understood. Stephen King's "On Writing" is fantastic by the way.

Karel Segers said...

Your site is on my daily reading list and I often enjoy your insights. I also recommend sites like this one to my students and clients. Reading the experiences of fellow writers is a huge privilege of our times.

As to McKee... What can I say. Everybody's read it and everybody's got an opinion. I think there are a few nuggets in that book but you're right: there's probably way too much fluff.

I really like Paul Gulino's SCREENWRITING: The Sequence Approach. It's only 20 pages of theory and then 10 movie analyses, focusing on Anticipation in the tradition of Frank Daniel. Great, great stuff.

Thank you for your great blog, guys!