Opinions and Elbows

Brief Commercial Message

Kate Flora, Julia Spencer-Fleming, and I are presenting Make Your Own Mystery in Room 102 of Wishcamper Hall at USM on Saturday April 1, 2023 from 1 to 3 PM. It is a free presentation and parking in the USM garage is free on Saturdays. Books will also be on sale. Would love to see you there. If you’re unfamiliar with Make Your Own Mystery, here’s a description:

Using suggestions from the audience, three mystery writers (who write very different types of books) build a mystery novel on the fly, demonstrating some of the ideas and techniques that go into plotting and creating the stories. Audience members suggest character names, weapons, motives, geographic locations, and other pertinent information for the writers to build from. It’s an interactive event and generally results in hilarity, at the same giving readers a view into how writers work.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming:

When I first started writing, I was hungry for advice. Until I saw how much of it there was. There were so many people with the one key to success, whether you wanted to write a novel to compete with Dostoevsky or with Stephen King. It was tough to filter through all of it, even if your intentions were clear and you knew what kind of writer you were. The books and programs and workshops could be opaque, contradictory, overly didactic, and sometimes just plain wrong.

I got to the point where, while I read for advice avidly, I only believed something I heard three or four times from separate sources, preferably (but not necessarily) reputable ones.

In that spirit, here are three bits of advice that have stayed with me through writing seven books.

E. L. Doctorow—“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

This probably applies only if you’re the kind of writer who prefers not to work from an outline or other detailed plan. As I am. When I’m tearing my hair out, sure that I’m never going to get to the end of a book, flailing in the words, I take a small comfort in this.

Of course, one key to this advice is not to get distracted by what’s going on outside the beam of your headlights, what dangers lie, what distractions might dislodge you from the road. Because, yes, you can follow your headlights right into the ditch if you’re not paying enough attention.

Ursula K. Le Guin—I once heard Ursula Le Guin in a workshop delicately chastise a young writer who was glorying in the twists and turns of her plot to the extent that none of us could quite follow what story she was telling. With the faintest gleam in her eye and the experience of sixty or more years writing serious fiction, she said “You must be able to explain your story to your dumb cousin Bunko.” I think of that every time I am tempted by a multisyllabic word or attributing a polymorphous perverse motive to a simple action. If Bunko doesn’t get it . .

Annie Dillard—I can’t locate the actual quote at the moment, but I recall a story in which a student wrote to her to ask if she thought he could be a writer. Her reply: “I don’t know—do you like sentences?”

Because as much as we are captivated by the stories we want to tell, the characters we want to bring into the world, this is what the writing comes down to: the sentences. The first sentence of a story starts to close off the possibilities and the last sentence is, in a great story, inevitable. In between, each sentence must work on its own, and with its siblings, toward the ultimate expression of the entire story. If you don’t like sentences, you’re going to have many bad days as a writer.

Of course, opinions are like elbows—everybody has a couple. Embrace or ignore, but also understand that for all the advice out there, no one can teach you to write but yourself. Do you have a particular bit of advice that has helped you, either to write or to live?

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6 Responses to Opinions and Elbows

  1. matthewcost says:

    I agree. Keep it simple. Take advice that works for you. Realize that for every rule somebody says is a must is broken by a best-selling author. Write on.

  2. Brenda Buchanan says:

    Opinions are indeed like elbows, but these are darned helpful reminders. Thanks, Dick!

  3. Katherine says:

    Great advice!

  4. kaitcarson says:

    Get out of your way and do it! That bit of advice is right up there with Butt on chair fingers on keyboard.

  5. jselbo says:

    Love “do you like sentences?”

  6. Hona Longstaff says:

    It is not easy to think of “Art”, whether it be writing, painting, sculpture as a real job. If you have the patience to put your Censor in tow, who knows what miracles will happen.

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