Five Sideways Sources for Writing Instruction

This post recently appeared on Girlfriends Book Club 

Since I don’t have an MFA, my learning curve offers a unique perspective on the subject of writing instruction, including less conventional resources that may not get coverage elsewhere. Here are five sources for important lessons I didn’t learn in a formal program:
  1. Gossip: Understanding how individuals operate under pressure is a prerequisite for creating empathetic characters and a grasp of the complex world of human psychology is expected from the get-go. Fortunately, my grandmother, a professional counselor, shared her expertise with me–her oddly attentive granddaughter–from an early age. We lingered at the table long after meals, solving the the problems of in-laws and outlaws, leaving no unseen pressure under-analyzed. If you don’t have a professionally trained grandmother, an observant girlfriend will do. And if the term gossip bothers you, just call it material.
  2. Other Writers’ Work-in-Progress: The best way to learn about my own work was in a writer’s workshop while reading someone else’s unpublished manuscript. And the most important lesson I learned was to recognize filler: major obstacle to reaching the next level, notorious killer of newbie writers. Filler is not only a problem; it comes with deep denial that is difficult to penetrate. But here’s the good news: mistakes not visible in one’s own work are perfectly obvious in someones else’s. Once I recognized filler in another manuscript, I was able to transfer the skill to my own work and cut without regret.
  3. Critical Reviews: I don’t wast time on one-star reviews since they all seem to have been written by the same sour person, lamenting trees sacrificed, announcing a cure for insomnia, etc. But reviewers who write with less venom and greater discrimination can provide helpful insights from the perspective of the next level. Published novels have different flaws than amateur manuscripts and good reviewers taught me what those flaws look like. Again, recognizing flaws in published work allowed me to apply it to my own and cut, cut, cut.
  4. Famous Authors: Rather than waiting to attend conferences, hoping to glean writing technique from celebrity authors, I simply open celebrity authors’ books. This summer I was working on revisions, acting on my agent’s advice concerning the need to pull story threads forward into my first chapter, but I was afraid of creating speed bumps for readers, introducing too much back story in the early pages. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, I deconstructed the first chapter from Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder to see how she did it. Now, when I get stuck, I open a book or turn on my Kindle and read my way out of problems.
  5. Dave and Bob: My job is to figure out what I don’t know, learn it, and use it to improve my work. Problem is I don’t know what I don’t know. Imagine my delight when I discovered David Madden and Robert McKee who explained everything I needed to know about writing (but didn’t know to ask). I am truly embarrassed to admit that before reading David Madden’sRevising Fiction, I thought description was used to describe things. Madden provides a list of 185 questions a writer can apply to their work–and provides the answers. Robert McKee’s book, Story, is my other go-to resource for craft questions. I don’t leave town without one of those guys in my satchel.

I’m still trying to figure out what I don’t know and I would love for you to share any particularly illuminating sideways resources you may have encountered in your writing journey.

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2 Comments

Filed under Cindy Jones, My Jane Austen Summer, The art of writing...

2 responses to “Five Sideways Sources for Writing Instruction

  1. Cindy, I am enjoying your posts. I have been following you ever since I met you at our Jane Austen Festival. Wishing you much continued success with your novels.

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