Learning to Write My Way: A Cautionary Tale

Don’t do what I did.

First, I learned how to write. Then, I learned how not to write. Then, I had to relearn how to write again.

woman-thinking writingWhen I first started writing, each story was a new adventure with new characters and settings. Stories ideas would come into my brain, marinate for a few days, and then I’d start working. I didn’t make a conscious plan to create stories in any particular genre. I wrote stories for me, telling the stories I wanted to tell as the ideas came to me. Having analyzed and written short stories during my education, the process came naturally to me. I simply sat down and began working, knowing the story needed a strong opening, rising action, a climax, and a dénouement.

As I grew more confident in my work and began submitting my short stories to magazines, I thought I’d figured out how to write. So I challenged myself to complete a novel length work, 60,000 words. I decided to write a mystery novel.

WritingMessyBut although I’d analyzed novels previously, the only thing I’d written of any great length was a nonfiction honor’s thesis for my undergraduate degree. I had never studied how to craft a novel. While I knew the story still required the same basic pieces, the idea of creating something so long and complex without preparation seemed daunting. I decided to read books about the process, to learn what I needed to know before diving in blindly.

Unfortunately, I chose the wrong books to direct me. Though the books came with great reviews and were highly recommended for learning to craft mystery novels, they all espoused one particular style: a carefully plotted method that involved mapping the book in detail in advance. Recognizing this as the method I had been taught to produce nonfiction, I thought, “Oh, I can do this. I’ve done this before. This must be the way to produce book-length works.”

All of my short stories had been written in a free-flowing, organic style with minimal advance plotting. I scribbled down a handful of notes and ideas on character or plot and started working, letting the story come to life on the page as I went. When I tried to write my first novel, I dropped that spontaneous process and tried to plot everything as the books I’d read suggested.

leave-839225_1280And thus, I shot myself in the foot. I inhibited my writing process by trying to follow someone else’s methods.

The joy went out of my work.

I was unable to get beyond a chapter or two before quitting.

After reassessing the situation, I began looking for other ways of crafting novels. This search lead me to discover the “pantser vs plotter” approaches. “Pantsers,” people who wrote “by the seat of their pants,” making things up as they went, were a whole category of authors. Their approach was fundamentally opposite to the “plotters,” authors who planned and outlined all the details in advance. Once I learned about these basic style differences, I found other authors who advised beginners to find their own method for writing books and not try to use anyone else’s. I found blogs and quotes from successful authors that said the only rule for writing was to actually put words on the page. How you arrived at that point was irrelevant.

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All pictures from Pixabay

So I took another stab at writing a novel, having finally understood that I had to write “my way” and not somebody else’s way. I finished my first novel, a second, and a third, and now the fourth will be coming out later this year. So, learn from my mistake. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to follow their method to write a book. Find your own process and start writing.

Writing in an Atmosphere of Intimidation

Most writers, like all artists who create work for public consumption, have to overcome their own inner critics to create a finished work. The voices of doubt are strong and loud in their heads. Will anyone read it? Will anyone like it? Will people hate it? In the past, that inner voice of self-doubt was the main voice an author had to overcome.

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art from Pixabay

But today, writers face an additional level of fear and doubt between themselves and their goal of reaching publication. They face an online atmosphere of intimidation. They face a world in which a work may be torn apart by a Twitter mob or Facebook mob before it’s even published.

In the last few years, several YA novels (Blood Heir, A Place for Wolves, The Black Witch, and The Continent to name a few) have been delayed or pulled from the publishing process before their publication date because of online criticism. Someone found what he or she considered to be a flaw in the advance reader copies of the works and cried out loudly enough to enrage mobs of people echoing the criticisms.

In one case, someone was offended by a character’s racist ideology. The character was designed by the author to be racist and to grow to recognize their own racism as the story progresses. That was a point the author was trying to make. In another case, an Asian author, who wasn’t raised in the United States, wrote a fantasy story drawing from her own perspective and background which touched on the history of indentured servitude and human trafficking in Asia. She was charged with being insensitive to U. S. racial history and U. S. cultural context.

The authors were vilified online, attacked personally and professionally, until they or their publisher felt driven to pull their books from the publication schedule. Their stories were prevented or delayed from reaching an audience by mobs who hadn’t even read the books.

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art from Pixabay

Authors’ voices of self-doubt are already strong. Throw a harassing mob on top of that inner critic, and many authors, especially debut authors, will fold under the weight of the criticism. Because of the fear of online mobs harassing, attacking, and vilifying them, some authors are censoring their work as they write it. They are looking for ways to avoid offending anyone. These authors decide to err on the side of caution. They think, “Perhaps if I avoid this subject altogether, I can avoid offending someone. Perhaps if I don’t mention (fill in the blank), no one will attack me.” And, so begins the self-stifling of free expression out of fear of mob rule. Differing points of view vanish. Stories go untold out of fear. Difficult subjects are avoided completely rather than discussed.

Still other writers deal with the issue by asking someone else to review their work, looking for potentially offensive material. They hire “sensitivity readers” in hopes of catching any potential problems before publication. They hope that one person’s opinion of what’s acceptable will work for everyone, an idea that is doomed to failure. Authors can’t control what different readers see in their words because every reader’s inner vision, life experiences, and point of view will be different. What one reader sees in a story, another may not see at all.

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art from Pixabay

It’s not merely harsh reviews these authors fear. They fear being trolled. They fear their phone ringing with obscene calls and incessant threatening texts, their web pages and Facebook pages being overwhelmed with threatening comments. They fear receiving death threats. They fear nonstop harassment of their families. When mobs consider offending someone akin to physically harming them, authors who write about difficult subjects risk sparking nonstop attacks with every work they release.

We are living in a Fahrenheit 451 world, a world in which the crime of accidentally offending someone can cause a book to be pulled from publication before it ever reaches a single vendor. We live in a world in which the crime of offending someone is punishable by online lynching. We need these attacks to stop. We need all voices to be heard and debated, not silenced before they ever reach publication by people who deem themselves to be “woker-than-thou.”

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N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Most recently, she has been writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories, the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017) and its sequel coming in fall 2019. Learn more at www.nmcedeno.com or amazon.com/author/nmcedeno

Sit Down, Shut Up, and . . . You’re Invited

 

M.K. Waller

 

 

by M. K. Waller

 

Friday evening David said, “Should I wake you at nine tomorrow?” and I said, “Why?” because I never know what day it is, and he said, “You’re going to Saturday writing practice at the Yarborough library,” and I said, “At the Yarborough,” and he said, “Yes, the Yarborough,” and I said, “The Yarborough, the Yarborough.

So the next morning I sat in the parking lot of the Twin Oaks library for nine minutes, until I knew it was open, because I didn’t want to wait outside and freeze, and at one minute after ten, I went inside and found the meeting rooms dimly lit and empty, and I said to myself, “The Yarborough.”

Then I considered what route I should take to the Yarborough: Lamar St. and be extra late, or Loop 1/MoPac and fight traffic. I decided on MoPac because it was Saturday morning and there wouldn’t be as many nuts on MoPac as there are on weekdays.

Fizzing about the nuts on MoPac, I turned left out of the Twin Oaks parking lot—I should have turned right—and wandered through a neighborhood, and came to a semi-dead end and then another, so I had to turn left again, twice, and by the time I got back to civilization, I had decided I was on W. Oltorf Street, where I wanted to be, and from which I would turn onto S. 1st.

But I wasn’t on Oltorf, I was really on W. Mary, where I didn’t want to be, because the left turn from W. Mary onto S. 1st is unprotected and there’s always oncoming traffic. But I didn’t know I was on W. Mary until I got to S. 1st and saw the light with the unprotected left turn. I was lucky and turned without incident.

From S. 1st I made my way to MoPac, which was almost completely devoid of nuts. Then I had to ruminate over which exit to take, because Burnet Rd. doesn’t have an exit, and the Northland exit goes to the acupuncturist, and Research is too far north and goes somewhere else, and that’s when I decided I should have driven up Lamar to 45th and been extra late. And then the little light above my head came on and I said, “Forty-fifth.”

So I took the 45th St. exit and went to Burnet, where I turned left and headed north to Hancock Blvd. and the Yarborough library. However, even though I went to the Yarborough on the second Sunday of every month for two years, when the Sisters in Crime chapter met there, and I knew exactly where I was going, I overshot Hancock. I wasn’t certain I’d missed it, but when I got to Northloop, I knew I’d missed Hancock, and when I passed the Monkey Nest and then Karavel, I knew I’d better turn around immediately before I found myself in Waxahachie. So I turned around in the Mephisto parking lot.

This time I managed to turn onto Hancock, as I would have done before if I’d recognized it, and about half a block down, I turned into the Yarborough library parking lot, and parked, and went inside and got to the meeting room only twenty-eight minutes late. Five other members sat around the table writing, and I was so glad to see them, and they said they were glad to see me and that they’d just begun a fifteen-minute writing.

And then I did what I’ve done one Saturday morning a month for the past twenty years: I sat down and shut up and wrote.

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I wrote this last Saturday after I finally arrived at the writing practice group Fifteen Minutes of Fame, to which you’re all invited. I’m posting it as proof that quality is not our middle name. I did edit a little so it would make sense.

Please read on.

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A Formal Invitation: Please join us at 15 Minutes of Fame

15 Minutes of Fame meets once a month at Twin Oaks Branch Library (unless it meets at the Yarborough), from 10:00 a.m. to noon. No dues, no fees, no RSVPs. Just show up.

We are not professionals. We are not English teachers. We just like to get together and write.

What we do: We sit around a table and write for a specified length of time–fifteen minutes is the default–and then read aloud what we’ve written.

We read aloud if we want to. No pressure. Passing is perfectly all right.

All you need are pen and paper. Or you can bring your laptop.

We don’t care how you spell or punctuate. You don’t have to punctuate at all if you don’t want to. You don’t have to live in Austin.

We offer no critique. We don’t comment. When something is funny, we laugh.

Our schedule is posted at http://minutesoffame.wordpress.com.

(If we meet at the Yarborough instead of Twin Oaks, we’ll announce it there. The Yarborough is scheduled to close March 2 for renovation, but it might still be open then.)

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M. K. Waller writes short stories of mystery and suspense. She’s been published in the anthologies Murder on Wheels and Lone Star Lawless, and online at Mysterical-E. Find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kathy.waller68/ and on Twitter @KathyWaller1. A member of the Writers’ League of Texas and Austin Mystery Writers, she blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. She lives in Austin.