What do new writers need to know?

Note: The WritingEssentials blog is on hiatus. Meanwhile, favorite posts will be published with updates. Ellen ~~

I am revisiting posts that deal with what it means to be a writer, including this post originally published about what new writers need to know. In the previous post about what it means to be a writer, I discussed a number of works containing the phrase “So You Want to Be a Writer” in their title. Though each had their own perspectives and contributions to the discussion of being a writer, they had similar advice about reserving time, sitting in the chair to write (Ribe Tuchus), facing the terror of the blank page, and using strategies and exercises to get writing and keep writing— all of which I touched upon in the post about becoming a writer.

There was one article that I saved to deal with separately in this post, “So You Want to Be a Writer: Essential Tips for Aspiring Novelists” by the writer and teacher Colum McCann, which consists of excerpts from his book Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice.

Though focus is on novel writing and in particular young novelists, many of his points can apply to writers of all ages and genres. As with the other pieces, McCann also deals with making time, sitting down to work, and facing the blank page. But he also goes into detail about certain aspects of writing, as well as some taking on some platitudes.

Rules for writing

Early in the article McCann presents this quote by W. Somerset Maugham:

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Other writers have expressed similar sentiments. E.L. Doctorow likened writing to driving at night in the fog: “You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Anne Lamott says, “Very few writers know what they’re doing until they’ve done it.” Even published writers acknowledge that they know how to write the book they’ve written, but not the new book they’re working on. This can and does apply somewhat to non-fiction writers, including memoirists: though they know their own story, knowing how to present it, as well as being prepared for the discoveries along the way, can offer challenges.

In the article, McCann continues riffing on Maugham’s quote about “rules”:

“There are no rules. Or if there are any rules, they are only there to be broken. . . .

To hell with grammar, but only if you know the grammar first.

To hell with formality, but only if you have learned what it means to be formal.

To hell with plot, but you had better at some stage make something happen.

To hell with structure, but only if you have thought it through so thoroughly that you can safely walk through your work with your eyes closed.”

Does this seem contradictory or even confusing? McCann goes on to say “Embrace these contradictions. You must be prepared to hold two or more opposing ideas in the palms of your hands at the same time.”

Let’s take a look at a couple of these elements and his recommendations, beginning with plot and structure.

Plot and structure

Under the subtitle “Seeking structure,” McCann likens this literary element to the shape for the story, “a house slowly built up form the foundation up.” A structure can be “envisioned beforehand” or it can emerge as the story is written, sometimes it’s not found until the author is halfway or even almost through with the book. This relates to what novel writers call plotters vs. pantsers: people who plot or outline their work at the start of writing vs. those who discover the plot as they write “from the seat of their pants,” using experience and judgment as they go along. Writers who fall between these two styles are sometimes called “plantsers.”

McCann warns, however, that “[E]very work of fiction is organized somehow – and the best are more profoundly organized than they let on.”

Plotters (or planners) not only outline their plots, but they create detailed descriptions of their characters and their story world (worldbuilding). Plantsers may start with a loose outline and ideas of some story elements to include, but then let the writing be a process of discovery. However, for those who write as plantsers and especially as pantsers, they will need to go back and fill in structure and other details in subsequent drafts. This is the reason that Cheryl B. Klein, manuscript editor and author of children’s and writing books (in particular The Magic Words), recommends that all authors fill out a bookmap. This tool serves as a checklist for writers to ensure that they include important elements in their books.

Grammar and punctuation

As quoted above, McCann believes it’s important that writers know grammar, if only to break the rules. He feels the same about punctuation. In fact, he makes a strong assertion: “Punctuation matters. In fact, sometimes it’s the life or death of a sentence.”

He goes on to qualify this statement. He acknowledges that grammar and punctuation rules change over time and depend on one’s approach—prescriptive or descriptive. As with plotting and structure, you do not want to overthink grammar, you can and should break the rules, and people who read a lot can somewhat intuit grammar and punctuation.

Readers of this blog know that grammar and punctuation “rules” not only can be broken but are arbitrary in themselves. This is the belief expressed in writingessentialsbyellen.com – that there is a difference between correct vs. good English, and that writers have choices in grammar and punctuation depending on their audience and purpose.

Write what you know

One platitude McCann discusses is the perennial writing advice, “write what you know,” He counters with, “Don’t write what you know, write towards what you want to know.”

He likens the writer to an explorer: “She knows she wants to get somewhere, but she doesn’t know if the somewhere even exists yet. It is still to be created.” Carlos Fuentes said it similarly, “In literature, you know only what you imagine.”

Again, though, McCann himself is contradictory:

“In the end your first-grade teacher was correct: we can, indeed, only write what we know. It is logically and philosophically impossible to do otherwise. But if we write towards what we don’t supposedly know, we will find out what we knew but weren’t yet entirely aware of.”

This reminds me of a T.S. Eliot quote: “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring. Will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.”

Ribe Tuchus

Finally we end with Ribe Tuchus which is covered in the post on becoming a writer.  McCann touches on many other subjects, but he adds his own take on the importance of getting to the work, to the writing: “A writer is not someone who thinks obsessively about writing, or talks about it, or plans it, or dissects it, or even reveres it: a writer is the one who puts his arse in the chair when the last thing he wants to do is have his arse in the chair.”

McCann’s article, indeed most writing advice, is often vehement, and sometimes contradictory. As with so many decisions a writer makes, it comes down to personal taste and style, as well as cultural norms and hierarchies. You will find the advice and methods that work best for you based on your values and style. 

(For further information: McCann’s article, “So You Want to Be a Writer: Essential Tips for Aspiring Novelists”; McCann’s book, Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice; Cheryl B. Klein, The Magic Words.)

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