The Write Solution (When Your Stories Run Dry)

02 February 2015

"I read more than other kids; I luxuriated in books. Books were my refuge. . . . And there was a moment during my junior year in high school when I began to believe that I could do what other writers were doing. I came to believe that I might be able to put a pencil in my hand and make something magical happen. Then I wrote some terrible, terrible stories." 
bird by bird | anne lamott

I used to shun books about writing. "Just sit down and write," I'd groan. "Reading about the process won't give any polish to your rough draft. Write and learn as you go." And for a while, I lived on that advice. Violets Are Blue, Rifles in the South Field, Anath's Song, and bits of other novels were all scribbled by the so-called seat of my pants. I had outlines. I had various marked up notes. I did bits of harem-scarem research here and there, sometimes specific (but more often broad). It worked — for a time. But when I realized I was rusty on the basics — when my dialogue failed to carry the story; when my characters fell flat; when the whole business frustrated me with its half-baked approach — I knew I needed to go back to the most basic elements of all.

I'm still not a proponent of self-help books. I still live by the same writing advice I first swore by years ago: read good books and keep at your own writing until you can produce good books. But if you're like me and you're realizing there are aspects of your craft that could really do to be sharpened, well, there are masters aplenty at your fingertips.

Any athlete who tries to run before he can walk will fail. He'll fall to the sidelines and cough in the dust churned by his superiors' pounding feet. That's exactly how I've felt for the past three years: determined to write full novels, but with little on which to go. My plots were in shambles, grown dusty after months of neglect. I once wrote fluidly, but as my essays have improved, my fiction has fallen to the side. My best writing comes in the bursts of spontaneous dialogue and impromptu flash fiction that I scribble down from time to time and occasionally post.

The day came when I decided to put the madness on hold. I'd talked with my dad about my frustration over my seeming inability to produce any decent story material (sound familiar?). He recommended I change my approach to fit reality. Each morning, I've been waking up an hour earlier than usual to read fiction. Currently it's Flannery's Complete Stories; next I'm hoping to begin Anna Karenina. I know if I wait until the day starts, it won't happen, but if I make a point of rising early enough, an hour of leisure reading sounds quite appealing. At night, I read a chapter or two from a book about the art of writing. I recently finished Dorothy Sayers' Mind of the Maker (highly recommended) and have started in with the ever-hilarious Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. I'm imbibing quality fiction, as well as refreshing myself on the elements of good stories.

In short, I've given myself permission not to write a novel right now. Rifles in the South Field sounds too forced when I try to pound out a few thousand words; perhaps, like a good wine, it still needs to mature. After this semester ends and I've gone through my shelf of books and essays on writing, I'll be ready to attack that list of research books: not half-heartedly as I once did, fitting in a chapter a month in the midst of school reading, but patiently and methodically. It's true that we make time for what we want to do, but we do our work with excellence when we're not stretched too thin.

I'm glad to know that the learning process can still be an exciting one. For once, I don't feel anxious over the fact that I'm not currently working on a novel. I look forward to reading Flannery in the morning and Lamott at night, and I've learned much from each. I've pulled away from my own fiction, and as a result, I'm able to see the flaws. It's both humbling and fulfilling to accept the fact that I am still the student, to stop speaking and instead draw up a chair and listen. Youth used to seem an anxious space of time in which I needed to fill files with complete pieces of literature, but the rush to finish high school with so many documents heavy with words means nothing if they're not good words.

So, reader, don't discredit the writing books. More importantly, don't discredit the books. I struggled alone for too long with little to no results. If you've noticed your own words coming stale and flat, know that you're not the only one. The cracks in your prose may have to do with a decline in the words going in. Is your fiction intake healthy? Are you well-versed in the art of the written word? There are good, credible authors at your disposal, and these time-worn gems won't empty your pocket like the newest how-to-write-a-book-fast manual. Newton spoke truthfully when he called these wordsmiths giants, and you'll see so much farther if you step on their shoulders.

6 epistles:

  1. This is good advice! I've noticed that my writing suffers when I'm not reading regularly. There is so much to learn about writing from reading good books, I forget that sometimes.

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  2. Great post! That's what I've learned too. I haven't ever noticed my writing decline because of little input, because I've always read voraciously, but I have always more or less assumed that I won't be able to produce good output if I'm not getting steady, good input. I read for fuel.

    At the same time I've mostly read and thought about fiction and theology and so on and while I've read a few books on writing - and a bunch of blogs - I've mostly learned from authors by example, by reading their work. The benefit of that is, first that I get to learn from the greats, and second that I discard a lot of current writing advice (I only agree with about half of the famous Pixar Rules of Storytelling, for instance). I'm very conscious that some advice is for always... And some is just a fad.

    Anyway. Mega comment. I'll leave it there :D.

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  3. Great post as usual. :-) I used to be one of those people who shunned writing books, thinking that all I needed to do to improve at writing was read a lot and write a lot. Little did I know that one's attitude toward writing has a big impact on the way one writes. I haven't read a whole lot of writing books yet, but one that I've found particularly helpful is Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury mostly wrote science fiction, but the advice in this book can apply to any sort of writing.

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  4. Candice, I agree! Thanks for sharing.

    Suzannah, I think in my case it was less a matter of not reading enough and more a matter of reading only for school assignments. I lost a bit of the pleasure in reading for simple enjoyment (Hardy and Conrad will do that to you). Prior to this point, I had dropped "fun" reading (ironic, considering I'm speaking of Flannery), and it became a chore. Now I seem to be rolling along a bit better. I like what you said about advice: some is for always, and some is just a fad. I think that's what I found so refreshing in The Mind of the Maker: it is decidedly different from most modern writing books, while at the same time relying on age-old storycrafting wisdom. A welcome blend. ^_^

    Hanna, thank you! I'll have to look into Bradbury's book. I've read Farenheit 451 and a few of his short stories, and I find his style intriguing.

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  5. I've always had a love for books about the writing craft because they offer so much advice and I always close one of those feeling extra inspired and motivated to write. However, I think it's very important to strike a balance. You have to balance the writing craft books with classics, and you have to be careful not to read so much about writing that you never actually sit down to write.

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  6. Chloe, I failed to comment back when you wrote this, but I found this post very inspirational and helpful, as I am in the same ol' spot of struggling with my writing, and my last year of school, and learning the craft and feeling young and dry-of-inspiration, and eager to dig into the classic works and the art of writing better.

    Also, with my eagerness to study English Literature in university one day soon, Lord willing like you, I would like to "prepare" a little in reading and studying more ;).

    I loved "The Mind of the Maker" too. It had so many key inspirational and eye-opening points. It's hard to point them all out, but they were great.

    Thank you for sharing!

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"Gracious words are like a honeycomb; sweetness to the soul and health to the body." —Proverbs 16:24

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