Saturday, April 02, 2011

For Writers - Write, not Right with Maureen McGowan

This week's tip comes to us from author and all around fun person Maureen McGowan, who is celebrating two book releases - Cinderella: Ninja Warrior and Sleeping Beauty: Vampire Slayer. Maureen spent years following practical pursuits such as auditing, engineering, managing, and directing before giving in to the dark side and letting her creativity take over. When she's not writing, she can be seen in the throes of passion over music, art, film, fine handcrafts, and - naturally - shoes.

Here are the official blurbs for Maureen's brand spanking new books:

Sleeping Beauty is more than just a lonely princess waiting for her prince—she's a brave, tenacious girl who never backs down from a challenge. With vampire-slaying talents that she practices in secret, Sleeping Beauty puts her courage to the test in the dark of night, fighting evil as she searches for a way to break the spell that has cut her off from her family. In a special twist, readers have the opportunity to make key decisions for Sleeping Beauty and decide where she goes next—but no matter the choice; the result is a story unlike any fairy tale you've ever read!

Cinderella is more than just a servant girl waiting for her prince—she's a tough, fearless girl who is capable of taking charge of a dangerous situation. Seeking to escape the clutches of her evil stepmother, Cinderella perfects her ninja skills and magic talents in secret, waiting for the day when she can break free and live happily ever after. In a special twist, readers have the opportunity to make key decisions for Cinderella and decide where she goes next—but no matter the choice; the result is a story unlike any fairy tale you've ever read!

You can find Maureen online on her website, facebook, twitter, or her blog.

Maureen says:

It’s Write, not Right

No, this tip isn’t about spelling or choosing the correct word; it's a post about the highly subjective nature of writing and storytelling.

Writing is an art, not a science. Sure, like any form of art, there are techniques. There are basics to be mastered, skills to be learned. But like art, writing and storytelling would not exist, or be so popular or stimulate so many people's minds and hearts, if everyone painted, drew, sculpted, told a story in the same way. Similarly there's no right answer to whether a piece of art or a particular story is "good". What one person loves, the next will hate. It's subjective.

In art schools, budding artists learn by first drawing and painting mundane things, all in the same manner using the same media. They start with cylinders, balls, cones and other shapes, first with pencil, then charcoal, then conte or ink then paint (if they are painters) or clay (if they are sculptors). Then they move onto apples, oranges and pears (an art school favorite) then on to more complex still life compositions and the human form.

After this, in most art programs, the students learn to imitate. They copy the old masters, the impressionists, the great modern artists. They learn techniques by studying and imitating the artists who have gone before them.

But then? After those skills are mastered? Artists are expected to forget all that. No, not to forget—to put all those skills and techniques in a toolbox and start creating art in an entirely new way. Their own original way. Being derivative isn't rewarded, even in the more commercial areas of art. What everyone loves and rewards and gets excited about, is someone who does something different and interesting. Whether something is "good" or “horrible” is entirely up to the viewer of the art. In fact, whether or not it's original versus derivative is also up to the viewer. It's entirely subjective.

I believe that all these things hold true with writing. Writers learn the basic building blocks of sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters, acts, novels. They learn about careful word choice, avoiding redundancy, clean writing, the advantages of using an active voice and when they might use a passive voice for effect. They study other writers and perhaps do some imitation at first. They learn other skills of storytelling like escalating conflict and point of view and managing the release of information to create the desired emotions and experiences for the reader. They study theories, developed by those who've analyzed storytelling, like: "The Hero's Journey" and "Goal, Motivation, Conflict" and "Three Act Plotting".

But how to best use these skills once they are learned? Entirely subjective. If it weren't. If there were one way to do these things, then reading—particularly reading more than one book within a given genre—would be hopelessly boring for the reader. Readers usually don't notice the writer's technique unless it's dreadfully poorly executed. (Occasionally, if the story's great, they don't even notice when it's poorly executed, or care—evidence that religious thriller that did pretty well a few years ago. And some might argue that YA series about sparkling blood drinkers.) Readers know when they are drawn into a story, when they are pulled along so they can't put the book down. When they are entertained. So whether another writer might pick apart some elements of technique in popular books, there’s no denying that the authors told great stories and kept their readers’ entertained.

All that said, there *is* a lot of skill involved in writing well and crafting tightly told stories. Skills that need to be learned and honed. I’ve heard it said that you need to write a million words before you’re ready to be published—which is a lot of words! But I think there’s some truth to it. I also think that while there is no “right”, it is important to study and understand the rules of good writing.

Once you’ve done that, then go break them.

Right and write may sound the same, but they have entirely different meanings.

This Week's Link roundup:

What's in a name? (OpenBookOntario) Naming Characters

Where characters come from (YA Muses) Cabbage patch or stork?

5 Tips for Writing Better Scenes (JodyHedlund)

5 Reasons to Make Lists (The List Producer) Not specifically for writers, but interesting.

Hit it Big & How to Do It (StirYourTea) Don't quit.

Multiple POV (Flogging the Quill) Avoiding Head Hopping

Happy spaces (HappyWriter) Creating the perfect space to write.

More on writing spaces (Beyond the Margins)

Description (kidlit) Issues to avoid.

Kurt Vonnegut on Drama (Derek Silvers) Love.

To Revise or Shelve (Lisa Schroeder) How do you know?

Finding the "just as much" (Adventures in Children's Publishing) Excellent.

Tempo and Pacing (Gail Carson Levine) Keep the reader engaged.

Fact and Fiction ( "logical madness"

The struggle for a rising plot line (Writer Unboxed) Revise, revise, revise

The Best of the best. (Adventures in Children's Publishing) Best of collection of links on POV, setting, syntax, theme, voice tips & techniques. Fantastic.

Now go. Write!