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Ask Alice: Is writing advice bad, actually?

  • 7 April, 2022
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Ask Alice is an online column produced by the #LoveOzYA team, and written by our Secretary, Alice Boer-Endacott, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay.

Ask Alice is designed to unpack all aspects of the Australian young adult literary scene, so if you’ve got a question, go ahead and Ask Alice!


You’re a panster. No wait, a plotter.

You should force yourself to write everyday. You should only write when you’re excited about the prospect. Write about what makes your soul bleed. Refrain from writing about anything too personal. Write by hand. Write by candlelight. Only write when the wind is blowing in a north-westerly direction and there’s a full moon and the secrets of the Muses are swirling through your thoughts like Delphic smoke.

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: there are as many axioms about how to write as there are people who do it. And look, I count myself in that company. I’ve stated in the previous iterations of this column, where I’ve focused on writing technique, and on questions of creative practice, that everybody writes differently.

But to put it in a gory fashion, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. There’s more than one way to tell a story. Heck, there’s more than one way to describe the way the afternoon light seems to tumble through the window on days when the sky is free of clouds and the air holds the promise of summer. See what I mean?

So when is writing advice good, and when should you listen, reflect, thank it for its time, and get on with writing however and whatever you like?

It’s not a neat formula. But in this month’s Ask Alice, I intend to give you a sense of the red flags to look out for when perusing writing advice, and offer up some of my preferred sources of wisdom.

 

When it’s telling you there’s only one TRUE way to structure or plot a story

I mean, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. There are some fundamentals to story. Several years ago I crashed the year 7 English class of a good friend. He asked his students to find him a story that didn’t have a problem.

Being a smartass, as soon as the class concluded, I walked up to him and immediately told him there were heaps of stories without problems. With a calm smile, he asked me to nominate one. You can guess what happened next. I think about this often and not just because it was a moment in which I was so spectacularly wrong (but that, too). 

It’s a long way of saying, there are some elements in stories that are always there. How we order these elements is where things can get a little more contentious. 

John Yorke wrote an excellent book called Into the Woods in which he rather deftly pulls apart many of the defining components of story including, but not limited to, structure, narrative arc, and characterisation. He even goes so far as to claim that “the essence of all drama is built on [is] change, and the internal struggle a character must undergo in order to achieve it.” Sounds like some kind of problem to me. . . 

Yorke examines the various ways in which we arrange stories, ranging from a three act structure, my favourite — why yes, I have a favourite structure — the Freytag pyramidal five act structure, the construction of an inciting incident, to crafting expository scenes and material.

But here’s the thing: it’s all down to choice. To further complicate, consider Kurt Vonnegurt’s excellent breakdown on the shape of stories into a three act structure. Does it perfectly fit (I mean, probably), or is that a bit too neat of a delineation (again, probably)?

If you attend a spectrum of writing classes, or read a bevy of writing advice, you’ll find conflicting and contrasting advice on how to lay out all of the ideas within your story which should then inform the structure you ultimately choose.

Beat sheets, timelines, mind maps, colour coding by character, theme, timeline . . . the list is truly endless. And frankly, despite being a cerebral person, I can tell you that there’s a real case to be made for working off good old-fashioned instinct.

These tools or structural techniques are there to help rather than prescriptively tell you exactly how you should get your story onto paper . . . or laptop screen.

 

When it’s telling you you HAVE to craft sentences in a certain way

But what if we look at the micro? Some writing advice will tell you that prose which is too purple or baroque, can alienate your reader. Other writing advice will tell you that language which is too spare has no character. Helpful, right?

Obviously, your writing needs to be sensical. But the instruction manual for my vacuum cleaner is sensical, and hardly a page-turner. So the question becomes: how do you craft appealing and engaging sentences?

In honesty, the text I’d most likely recommend on this theme is On Writing by Stephen King. It’s a memoir as much as it is writing advice, except for the ‘Toolbox’ chapter in the middle of it. King has a number of personal preferences when it comes to writing technique (such as an avowed hatred of adverbs — which admittedly didn’t stop J.K Rowling) and frankly, I’m disinclined to say we should contest the validity of such an approach given his rather spectacular record.

However, within this chapter, in addition to discussing some of his own preferences — and the why behind them — he looks more broadly at various ways to consider approaching or framing sentences and phrases instead of offering prescriptive advice.

The only really prescriptive comment he makes is that when it comes to the question of knowing the basics of grammar is: “You must learn to use it well if you are to write well. What this means is lots of practice.”

Of course, even here, you see writers break the rules — often to great success. Cormac McCarthy’s inexplicable loathing for quotation marks (among other generally standard conventions of grammar) has seen him hailed as a literary genius. Less radically, a plethora of authors have people doing all kinds of interesting things to words instead of adhering to the standard dialogue tags. But (hopefully) most of the time, the bending of these rules is done with a knowledge of the rule in mind, and a reason for departing from it. 

 

When it doesn’t invite you to listen to, and develop, YOUR voice

To be honest, I think the way I write now, despite being more technically sound, isn’t as raw or honest as my earlier work. In part, I think that’s because I’ve read so much more writing advice that it’s kind of gotten in my head. There was a sincerity to my early writing that was all mine because I so flagrantly wrote on instinct. 

Australian author John Birmingham in his how-to-author book, ‘How to Be a Writer’ has a chapter entitled ‘Find Your Voice.’ His central suggestion is that authors read voraciously and widely in order to find styles they like, emulate them in the way all developing writers do, and refine from there:

“You will find your voice from listening to the voices of those writers and authors you most admire . . . and the more you read, the more influences you allow to play upon your own style, the richer and more interesting it will probably be.” 

My favourite piece of advice from Birmingham on voice, though, comes next: “Learn to place one word after another without embarrassing yourself […] When you’ve mastered that, you can go wild.” 

I like to think I’m working my way back to going wild with the manuscript I’m currently working on.

 

So, I guess that means my key advice about ignoring writing advice is. . . 

Ignore it all except for this column! 

I know, I know — my next foray is into comedy writing. 

Jokes aside, I don’t think anybody’s going to be shocked by me ultimately landing on a recommendation of, listen to everything, think about whether it serves you, consider if it might serve you in the future, and then make your decisions accordingly.

Beyond that, I would recommend you read, a lot, and widely. I don’t love nonfiction books (the irony given that one of my professional hats is being an academic), but some of the best writing tips I’ve ever gleaned have been from reading nonfiction texts (Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is a particular standout to me).

Read what falls into your hands with a sense of curiosity, think about what makes it engaging, what makes it work, what makes it suck! Let that reflection inform your own writing. 

So follow my advice.

Or don’t. 

But whatever you do, just keep writing.