Method Addiction

I suppose this should have been a comment for Cindy Harrison’s blog, but she turned her comments off after spam attacks. It also could have been a private e-mail, but what she’s going through now happens to a lot of writers, so I’m going to address it here.

Right now Cindy is pulling her hair out over revisions to her current WIP. Under the influence of Jenny Crusie, she cut three chapters from the project, decided she hated it, and looked to Jenny for more information on how to fix it. More Crusie advice showed the plot was sagging, and that a turning point was needed at the 30,000 word mark. Guess where Cindy’s turning point would have been had she not cut those three chapters out?

Now poor Cindy is talking about her manuscript in the kind of language that I don’t use in books anymore.

So what happened here? I guess it’s time to give this phenomenon a fancy Faustian name. I thought about “Authority Svengali Syndrome” or “The Neophyte Influence Effect.” What I’ve settled on is “Method Addiction.”

As writers we’ve all been there. When we start out, we want our novel to be the best we can make it, but we’re not sure of our footing. So we look to people for help. And if that help is in the form of a New York Times best selling author (as Crusie is), so much the better.

The problem sets in when new writers adopt the methods used by their expert as their own. And to be honest, there are some experts out there who don’t help matters any because they tell writers that “their way” is “the way” to write a book. I don’t know if Crusie does this or not, so I’m not going to get on my soapbox about it.

New writers are vulnerable to this because they think that the Author Who Made It knows of which they speak, and therefore the rules apply to them. I know that first hand, because when I broke down and started my first novel, it was with the conviction that I would never be published as a real author because… *gasp*… I wanted to write my book without the guidance of any kind of outline.

See, that is what had been drummed into my head for years. Yet to me, the idea of outlining was unimaginable. What makes the novel fun for me to write is the discovery of where the plot and characters take you. It should also be noted that every project that I ever outlined first was never written. The mystery was gone because I knew how it would all turn out, and I lost interest. Yes, I do write an outline, but that’s something I do as I go, starting around the 200 page mark of a typical manuscript.

There’s a difference between sound writing advice and methodology. Want some sound writing advice? Check out this essay by Elmore Leonard that I linked to yesterday. Want methodology? Okay:

Sit down at your computer. Put on some music. Open your file and look only at the last paragraph or so of what you wrote the day before (if you’re starting a novel, you should have an idea for the opening in your head, and the closing you’re shooting for, along with a general idea of what the book is going to be about… that’s all). Either way, your brain will know the voice and will tell you where to go. Now start writing. If there’s a piece of information you need to research, leave a blank along with this *** so you can come back to it using the search function. Write at least one page a day, but make five your goal, push for ten. Don’t look back unless you need to know the name of a minor character or the color of a car. Anything that’s broken you can fix during the edit. While you’re writing, leave out the parts that you need to know to write the book but the reader doesn’t need to know to enjoy the book – and by leave out, I mean don’t even write them down. Just keep them in your head. And if you change the name of your main character 150 pages into the manuscript, that’s okay. Just remember to fix it in the edit. Drive yourself with impossible deadlines… then miss them but still get the book done in a reasonable amount of time.

You say nobody in their right mind would write a novel that way? Smile when you say that, pardner – because it works for me.

But I don’t inflict this method on anyone else, because I suspect it would drive most people crazy. Hey, I listen to Jandek, too, but I wouldn’t put him on at a party (okay, maybe one cut, like War Dance). Notice that in Elmore Leonard’s essay, he doesn’t talk about his writing habits at all. He simply gives rules that everyone should follow to produce a clean, readable story.

My one piece of writing advice to new or struggling unpublished writers is to just sit down and write. And write and write and write…

It’s okay to look at the methods of others to see if they work for you, but the only writing gospel you should follow is the one that works for you. And how are you going to know that if you don’t write and work it out yourself? As for me – well, my writing methods seem to be evolving. Yes, I still recklessly charge ahead, starting without an outline, but as I get into a book, I sometimes use plot points on file cards to sort out the dramatic order of things – something that was unthinkable in the early years. Hey, you write, you learn, you grow.

So Cindy, I know Jenny is your ideal for where you want to be… but dig those three deleted chapters out of your archives (um, you did keep them, didn’t you?) and work on writing the book your way. Because that’s the only way you’ll get it written. Listen to us crusty old pros only on general matters. You’ll be much happier that way. You might even start liking your book again.

NP – Jandek, Chair Beside a Window

Postscript: I recently received an e-mail from a reader specifically asking my opinion about another of Crusie’s methods. Apparently she also advocates stripping down manuscripts to the point where there’s nothing left but scenes with conflict in them to drive the plot along. I can see the wisdom in doing that – it’s what Steinbeck called “leaving out the Hooptedoodle.” However, I’m still thinking about its usefulness. I used to advocate cutting out anything that didn’t drive the plot and ended up being accused of having flat characters. Plus, I’m 850 pages into Neil Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and I’m not sure if there’s been any conflict in it yet (but there’s plenty of Hooptedoodle). Let me think about it for a while longer and I’ll get back to you.

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