by Jeff Lyons
Two weeks ago, we looked at five of the top ten creative writing myths responsible for much of the pain associated with failed writing and derailed storytelling. We examined, in reverse order of destructiveness, myths ten through six:
#10: Show don’t tell.
#9: The blank page is the enemy.
#8: Write what you know.
#7: Real writers write every day.
#6: Storytelling and writing are the same.
This week we look at the top five myths, the worst of the worst, and break down the lie at their core to reveal the truth. Let’s bust each myth together, once and for all.
Top Ten Myths in Creative Writing: (in reverse order of destructiveness: #5–#1)
#5: Writer’s block is real.
The lie: Duh—writer’s block is real.
The truth: No, it’s not (well, kind of).
What most people perceive as writer’s block isn’t writer’s block, it’s just generic blockage. The feeling of being blocked has nothing to do with writing process. A writer might feel blocked because their lover left them, or they have financial trouble, or life has them depressed—and while this might affect their ability to write, the blockage itself has nothing to do with writing or creative process. The solution to the blockage is also unrelated to writing process (i.e., find a new lover, get a job, get therapy).
Writer’s block is only valid if it sources from your writing process, and there is only ONE circumstance where this might occur—when you have so much in your creative pipeline that you can’t prioritize and make informed creative choices about what to do next. A writing problem (blockage) needs a writing solution. Getting therapy, or taking a yoga class, or going to watch TV, or walking in the forest are not going to work.
Writer’s block is 99.9 percent smoke and .1 percent substance. The .1 percent is the only part you can do anything about. The danger of this myth is that, as with myth #3, it gives your power away to some mysterious “other” that is controlling your process and productivity. Take back your power and know that being “blocked” from time to time is just a part of the normal story development process, not some writing road hazard that you will drive over, stalling out your car. Falling back on your story structure craft skills is the royal road to busting writer’s block and freeing your productivity. It is the only way to clear the pipeline and get writing again.
#4: There are no rules when it comes to creative writing.
The lie: Nobody knows anything (as screenwriter William Goldman once said). There are no rules to creative writing, so don’t get distracted by all the how-to experts out there. Just write.
The truth: Of course there are rules. The universe runs on rules. Physics has rules, chemistry has rules, mathematics has rules. How does creative writing get a pass on that?
Writing and storytelling follow the rules of classical story structure and established language usage (grammar, syntax, and rhetoric). Every so-called story expert or creative writing teacher teaches the same basic stuff. Yes, they all have their own proprietary theories and ideas, but at the core of every guru’s “teachings” are the same basic concepts.
As Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.” Learning the rules is part of the craft of storytelling and creative writing. The danger of buying into the “no rules” approach is that writers think they can just fly free, unhindered by best practices, and everything will work out. This is another form of giving away one’s power to the process, rather than taking responsibility for it. Learn your craft, learn the rules, then break them like a conscious writer.
#3: Good stories and good characters write themselves.
The lie: Good stories will talk to you and take over, and you will be lead by the story, rather than forcing it yourself. When this happens it will feel effortless and flow easily and you will be “in the zone.” So get out of the way and let the story find it’s own voice and expression.
The truth: You are the writer; you write it all—it’s all you and your subconscious mind.
When you are in sync with your subconscious mind, and with your creative process, it will feel effortless, easy, and flowing. You will be “in the zone.” But, it is not the story driving the process, it is you.
I state again: You are the writer. You are in control, but that doesn’t mean dominating, containing, and forcing (i.e. controlling). Being in control means harnessing, directing, and co-creating with your creative process. “In the zone” occurs when you are in sync with your creativity and in balance with your talent and craft. You are the creative force. You give the story its form and its characters their voices.
Buying into this myth is another form of giving away your power to the process itself, rather than taking total responsibility for it. Ironically, this is one of the reasons writers fear the blank page, because they sit waiting for the story to take control and tell them where to go. When that doesn’t happen, they get anxious and often despairing, “Why isn’t the story talking to me?” Well, it’s not talking because you’re not giving it anything to say! You’re its voice, not the other way around.
#2: Outlines and story structure kill creativity.
The lie: Outlining, planning, structuring is all too controlling of the story. When you do these things you limit yourself and kill the creative process, which has to flow unfettered to be most effective. Be a pantser (go with the flow, by the seat of your pants), not a planner.
The truth: Just the opposite is true.
Story development and creative writing are reductive processes, not additive. What this means is that as you develop your story you have to make choices: make Joe the hero, set the story in New York, make the genre sci-fi, give Joe a love interest, etc. Likewise you make writing decisions: tell the story in first person, use flashbacks, keep chapters under three pages, etc. Every choice you make reduces your options and limits your set of resources that you can draw on for scene-level material. If you choose “A” then you eliminate “B through Z.”
Development and writing reduce your options, they do not increase them, but this actually opens up your creativity. When you have direction, form, and structure that work together, you generate new ideas and possible scene material. Those new ideas are then in harmony with the choices you have made, so everything holds together dramatically and is internally consistent.
In other words, development is planning, outlining, and structuring. Everyone does it, even the ones who say they don’t. For example: You choose scene A over scene B. What do you do next? You think about it and have to decide: what is scene C? What makes sense? You look at scene A and figure out what preceded scene A, i.e., why does scene A make sense and how does it lead to scene B? Because scene C has to be consistent with both the other scenes.
Even if it’s only three scenes deep, you’re outlining your story. Just keep going every three scenes like that and you’ll end up with a book or screenplay. It’s not about how many scenes deep you go, it’s the function of what you are doing—you’re outlining/planning. Everyone does this, EVERYONE. And this frees you to be more creative, not less creative, because it quiets the chaos of unlimited choices so you can see the trees for the forest.
Buying into this myth sets you up for the next myth, which is the most destructive myth of all, and is at the heart of many of the previous myths.
The granddaddy of all creative writing myths; the one that is responsible for most failed writing:
#1: Just do it; just write.
The lie: Writers write. Just get a first draft, don’t worry about the content. Everyone’s first draft is crap. Fix it later.
The truth: This is without doubt the single most harmful piece of writing advice ever conceived. Yes, everyone’s first draft is crap, but it can be really good crap vs. really really bad crap.
Buying into this myth almost universally results in failed writing; voluminous pages of useless manuscripts; despair and depression; and huge sums of money lost in the form of wasted writing time, or third-party services hired to fix the voluminous pages. Writers who fall prey to this advice almost always end up lost in the story woods, or drowning in the story flood plain.
I say “almost always” because there is a small subset of writers who appear able to “just do it.” These are the writers who are naturally gifted and talented with what I call the story gene. They intuitively know story structure and can naturally avoid getting lost in the development woods, but they don’t know how they do it. They are not aware of what is saving them. Savant-like, they instinctively know what not to do, and so stay on track. They are often the ones who are most vocal about “just doing it,” because it works for them, so why not everyone?
Most writers are not so lucky, consequently “just doing it” is a recipe for disaster. Missing the story gene, most writers have to improve their story development craft skills. Once strengthened, writers can successfully navigate the development and writing processes with less fear of getting lost in the woods. Whatever first draft they end up with will be more structurally sound and cohesive as a narrative—thus making the rewrite process much more productive. But, getting to the point where a writer understands their vulnerabilities to this myth is often a painful process.
This is where becoming a conscious writer can save your creative life; so, hone your abilities of assessment, discernment, and informed choice. Learn that story structure is your personal super power, and story development is your closest friend. The evil villain is blind writing at the service of some twisted definition of creativity. Once again, it is about being in control of your creative process, not being controlled by it.
The toolbox of conventional—and oh-so-generic— creative writing advice is chock full of easy to digest bromides that will soothe a writer’s nerves and calm shaky confidence. Sadly, any palliative effects don’t last long, and the pesky shakes always return, usually with a vengeance.
The solution to lasting relief is not more sound bites and bromides, but rather information, critical thinking, and trust in our own creative process. Do not listen to these ten Sirens on the rocks, because they will only lure you to your doom with their promise of quick fixes and feel-good stopgaps. Tapping your ability to assess, discern, and make creative choice based on those abilities, i.e., being a conscious writer, is the only long-term solution to the anxieties and angst that are unavoidable in the creative writing process.
Don’t ever give your creative power away to anyone, certainly not to the myths of creative writing.
What other writing myths have you busted? Tell us in the comments!
Jeff Lyons is a published fiction/nonfiction author, screenwriter, editor, and story development consultant with more than 25 years’ experience in the film, television, and publishing industries. He has worked with literally thousands of novelists, nonfiction authors, and screenwriters helping them build and tell better stories. Jeff is an instructor through Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio, University of California at Riverside’s Extension Program, and is a regular guest lecturer through the UCLA Extension Writers Program. He is a regular presenter at leading writing and entertainment industry trade conferences, as well as a contributor and advisor to leading entertainment industry screenwriting and producing fellowship programs, such as the Producers Guild of American’s “Power of Diversity Producers Workshop,” and the Film Independent Screenwriting Lab. Jeff is also a regular guest blogger on major writing industry blog sites like Script Magazine and Stage32.com. Jeff has written on the craft of storytelling for Writer’s Digest Magazine, Script Magazine, The Writer Magazine, and Writing Magazine (UK). His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, is the only book available devoted solely to the topic of story and premise development for novelists, screenwriters, and creative nonfiction authors. His new book, Rapid Story Development: How to Use the Enneagram-Story Connection to Become a Master Storyteller, will be published by Focal Press in summer 2017.
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