Thursday, February 21, 2013

the auto mechanic and the cello: when writing advice goes wrong

As INTERN, I wrote plenty of writing advice posts on this blog. As Hilary-the-bumbling-novelist, I've sometimes found myself at odds with the very kind of advice I used to give. Most writing advice is geared towards a certain kind of linear, straightforward book, and lately I've been realizing how few of my favorite novels fit that description, and how tragic a mistake it would be for aspiring authors to let the available writing advice dictate the kind of novels they write—to let the tail wag the dog, in other words.

If you were an alien surveying online writing advice, it would be easy to believe that all earthling novels consist of "scenes and sequels" or that each one needs a "main character" and an "impact character" or that scenes must alternate between positive and negative or that x must follow y. If you were an alien with the good fortune of being beamed into a library, you discover that in fact there are a plethora of fine novels in which there are no scenes whatsoever, or that the impact character is a kitchen sponge, or that x never follows y at all.

In celebration of the beauty and diversity of the novel form, here are some rules that deserve to be broken.

Advice: "Scene = goal + disaster."

When You Should Ignore It:

Some novels, such as The Hunger Games, lend themselves well to the goal + disaster pattern, where each scene looks something like this:

            "character needs to reach her wounded friend BUT she falls into a snare"

            Or like this:

            "character needs to get to his best friend's wedding BUT he gets pulled over for             speeding."

Plenty of great books have been written in this style. But plenty of novels do not work through a string of clearly identifiable goals and disasters. If you read a few pages from The Perks of Being a Wallflower or Where Things Come Back, you'll encounter narrators who seem to meander, talking about their friends and families and favorite books, weaving a story through a process of subtle accumulation rather than scene after straightforward scene.

If every writer subscribed to the goal + disaster scenario of novel-writing, we would not have The Edge of the Alphabet or Near to the Wild Heart. We would not have Holden Caulfield. The goal + disaster pattern lends itself well to a certain kind of narrator and a certain kind of story, but not to every narrator and every story.

Advice: "Conflict on every page."

When You Should Ignore It:

After reading this sort of advice, it can be tempting to fire off a novel that consists of nothing but characters arguing, falling into snares, and experiencing setback after crushing setback. There is no time for self-indulgent things like description and philosophy and character development—on to the next flight of poison arrows!

Novels need to breathe. What would Life of Pi be without its discussions of zoo animals and swimming pools? What would Infinite Jest be without its digressions on just about everything? Great novels have a richness and texture that come from more than just conflict, conflict, conflict in its most obvious sense. Tension can be created in all sorts of ways, on all sorts of timelines. The literal, "conflict-as-plot-setback" technique is not the only one—nor should it be.

Advice: "Raise the stakes."

When You Should Ignore It:

Sometimes, we use so-called high stakes situations to distract readers from a weakness in our writing. The protagonist's voice isn't working and the plot is unoriginal, but hey, there's a meteor hurtling towards earth and we're all going to die!

Most people can make a car crash or an invasion of enemy warlords exciting, but some of the most beautiful and interesting novels manage to create devastatingly high stakes in tending an apple orchard or trying on a pair of shoes. Alternatively, a novel can show the emptiness and confusion of a world in which there are no stakes—in which goals and their achievement are themselves an ambiguous and problematic terrain. The thing at stake may not be the lives of millions or the outcome of a war, but a worldview or question of existence.


There are millions of ways of writing novels, but the vast majority of writing advice applies to only a handful of common techniques. You won't find a blog post or magazine article that teaches you how to write The Tiger's Wife or Look At Me or House of Leaves; this is the problem with reading too much writing advice as opposed to conducting your own studies of actual novels you admire.

This post isn't to say that the novel-writing advice in books and on the internet is useless or wrong; but neither should we let it blind us to the infinite possibilities of form and structure, or make us adhere to patterns and formulas that may not be appropriate for our own particular projects. Would you look to an auto-repair handbook for instructions on tuning a cello? Why expect any and every piece of novel advice to apply to your story and writing style?

Trust yourself. Take risks. Be curious. Above all, don't let anyone fool you into thinking you need to treat your cello like a Toyota.