Tuesday, April 30

Writing books, writing workshops

...or how Helen comes off as an utter snob

Let me start out by saying I'm not a snob. I know my shit stinks. I'm not Steinbeck and I'm not Hemmingway.
I don't need to be, those aren't my goals. I just want to write books that people who like m/m romance want to read. My books aren't really fluffy or light, but they're not Wise Blood either. (I'm on a Flannary O'Connor kick, lately).
And it's very possibly my (percieved) snobbery comes from many, many, many years of not only writing (not publishing, just sitting down with a pen and a notebook and filling up hundreds of thousands of pages with stories--most of them bad), but also of reading about writing.

Researching writing.

Researching publishing.

By my very nature, I research everything so that by the time I get to doing it, I know exactly what I want--at least in that moment.

I subscribed to Writers' Digest magazine for years when I was a teenager/young adult. I bought dozens of books on the craft of writing, checked dozens more out of the library, tried to sit through Creative Writing classes in college, and even got accused of plagerism once because my Composition 101 teacher because my writing was "too good". (Seriously. He handed me a paper back with "plagiarism" written across the top. This was back in the day when they just told you to re-write it. So I wrote on a whole different topic, something so totally personal that no one could accuse me of copying it from another source--not that the first paper had been copied. It hadn't been, I just wasn't at a point in my life where I wanted to fight with teachers. When the semester ended, I went to the guy and told him, "Just for the record, I have never plagiarised anything in my life." That's when he told me he just assumed I had because the writing was "too good". I guess I'll take the compliment, but seriously, what a weenie. The writing really wasn't that good. I was all of 20 years old.)

As I was saying... I've been doing this for a while, albeit in a completely unprofessional capacity. And I like to think I've learned a thing or two.

In fact, I know I have.

Every time I consider buying a book about writing, I have to ask myself: have I read this before? Is this just a rehash of the same old stuff, stuff I know already?? 99 times out of 100 the answer is a resounding yes. Honestly, if it's published by Writers Digest Books, I pretty much don't even crack open the cover. I've saved myself a lot of money that way. (Five or six years ago, I re-subscribed to WD; I let it lapse after the first year. They just keep rehashing the same stuff; that's great if you're just starting out, but I've read all that before, I want something fresh!)

So what got me feeling so snobby today?  I was looking at a "Master Class" being offered locally. "Write body language and dialogue like a psychiatrist".  Hmmm.  Okay, there is ALWAYS room to improve one's craft. ALWAYS. But I've been so badly burned by classes that I'm an uber-skeptic. I get even more skeptical when the class offers to teach things like writing for "tone, pitch, and volume"--and yet the "best of the best" advocate the use of he said/she said as dialogue tags. Period. No embellishments, no nasty adverbs, just "said".  (Which isn't to say I follow that rule, I'm merely aware that it exists).

And really, I'm a pretty observant person. I think all writers are. We have to be. So why should I pay someone to teach me stuff I already know about body language? Why should you? If you don't understand body language go to the mall and sit and watch people for a few hours. Watch people at the grocery store and in the bank. Can you guess who's anxious to get out of there, which of your fellow patrons are in a hurry? Can you hypothosize as to why? Is that woman up ahead tapping her foot and looking at her watch? Are the corners of lips downturned? Why? Is she on her lunch and running late? Maybe this isn't the first time she's been late getting back from lunch and her boss is getting pissed at her.  Does that guy in the other line you look unhappy? What makes you think that? His scowl, the way his brow is furrowed? The clenched fists or clipped speech? Why do you think he's upset? Is his account overdrawn? Or maybe he's had a fight with his girlfriend over money.... writers are not only observant, we are constantly making up little stories about the people around us.

And that'll be fifty bucks for that "class".

I've taken way too many classes and gotten absolutely nothing in return to just jump in and take every class that sounds interesting. And it's not because I think I'm so smart or know so much; I've only been published since 2011. What I want is somebody to teach me thing things I don't know. Tell me how to make my writing better, give me the secret forumula, show me where all of my mistakes are what I need to do to fix them...

Oh. Right. That comes with time and experience. It comes with practice.

And this whole episode this morning reminds me of something a room mate once said to me when I was about to buy another Wicca 101 book for my bookshelf. I'd been a practicing witch for five or six years by then and she asked me how many "how to" books I actually thought I needed.

Good question, huh?

Maybe I should have called this "in which Helen gets cynical". 

That said, what are your favorite "how to" writing books? (Because I wasn't kidding, there is ALWAYS room for improvement and just because a how to book can't deliver the "magic bullet" doesn't mean you shouldn't read them)

Mine is How NOT to Write a Novel
There's nothing truly new in it, but I love the way the material is presented.

And I even just bought a WD book:
Revision and Self Editing
because even though there is nothing new under the sun, sometimes it's nice to be reminded of the things you already know. And $7 seemed fair.


Unknown said...

I'm afraid I'm in the same boat. In college, I had a professor tell me, "If I didn't know better, I'd swear a student couldn't write a paper like this," which just made me concerned for the quality of education the university was offering. After nine published novels/novellas, I'm not inclined to think workshops have much to offer me. Yes, I certainly have a long way to go before my writing is really good writing -- I'm not claiming to be a great writer -- and I'm sure I'd learn something from these workshops. But I've gotten to the point where I think I learn more from actually writing (and digesting feedback from readers) than I do from taking workshops about writing.

H.B. Pattskyn said...

I'm just glad I'm not the only one :)

Unknown said...

I probably would go to a workshop, if it was nearby and cheap. But they're always extremely expensive. Do I want to spend all of my advance on one workshop trip? No. I do like books on writing though: On Writing, by Stephen King, Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle, On Writing Romance by Leigh Michaels, etc.

Tali Spencer said...

There's a huge industry in selling writing courses to writers because, as it happens, unpublished or newly published writers are often looking for magic formulas to make them real pros. Okay, I guess I've gotten cynical, too. :-/ But it's true... there's as much money being made giving courses on writing as is being made by writers.

That said...I've been around a real long time. :) Would I take a course? I would if it was being presented by a writer I admire. A writer, not a teacher of writers. Because I don't want to learn how to write. I know how to write. I want to explore the fine points of being a writer.

For my money, the best book on writing I've read lately is "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life" by Anne LaMott.

Unknown said...

Oh, yeah. If Stephen King were giving a workshop nearby and I could afford it, I'd be there. But this is just like the tech industry I've worked in for the past 20 years. There are people who make a ton of money on training and certifications, very little of which is necessary, imo. The best techs learn from experience.