Is Ignorance Truly Bliss?

I miss the good old days before I supposedly knew what I was doing.

Back in the last Century, at the end of the 80’s, I was a happy wannabe writer. A new invention had sprung up and I was having oodles of fun using my secretarial skills that I’d made a point to learn in the 9th grade to help me in my future career as a writer. My skills as a touch typist landed me clerical jobs and my boundless curiosity drove me to learn various computer programs. My dad enlisted my help keeping the books for his company on his brand-new TRS-80 computers. One of the perks was that I could have one of those 8” floppies to store my writing on, and print it up on his dot matrix printer for editing and archival! Those computers spoke TRS-DOS and I became proficient with the language. (If you’ve read SOVRAN’S PAWN you’ll understand the significance of that.)

In those days, I just told stories. I didn’t worry overly much with “hopping heads” or “pacing” or “plot reversals.” I just threw things at my characters and let them deal with them, developing along the way. It was raw and it was fun. It was also very, very bad writing but I didn’t care. Ignorance was bliss.

The 90’s rolled around and computer disks shrunk. WYSIWYG replaced dot matrix, and a magical little thing called Windows appeared on the horizon. That was when I lost my innocence. I went to my first writer’s meeting and I had my very first critique – not only by published authors, mind you, but authors whose books I had read and enjoyed. I was intimidated and terrified. By the time they finished their very gentle, but honest critique, I felt stripped bare, humiliated, dejected and a complete failure. I wanted to crawl away and lick my wounds in private.

I will be forever thankful that my then-husband had the foresight to accompany me to that meeting and sit through the critique at my side, listening to every word. When it was over, he could see how shattered I was. Putting his hand over mine, he leaned forward and said, “May I ask you a question?”

I cringed. He wasn’t exactly the most diplomatic sort. At their nods, he picked up my submission and set it on the table in front of him.

“Please be honest. Do you think she has talent to pursue writing, or do you think she’s wasting her time?”

The question took them by surprise, I think. They looked from me to my husband and then to one another, shifting uncomfortably in their chairs. Slowly the nodding began.

“She has talent…”

“This is an excellent beginning. She only needs to learn a little more about storycraft.”

Then they explained to my husband and to me, because I hung on every word, that the things they had pointed out in the critique were common among newbie writers. I was guilty of passive voice, shifting from one POV character to another within a scene, letting the reader stay just outside the action as an observer and not a participant, telling and not showing.

That was the beginning of my professional writing career. Starting that day, I threw myself headlong into learning everything I could about story craft. From that day, the sheer joy of writing and spinning stories diminished a little more every time I sat down to work. Now I spend more time thinking of my writing as rising and falling action, goal-conflict-disaster-repeat, scene and sequel, plot points, inciting incident, dark moment, resolution, reward, than I spend just telling a story.

I do hate the middle part of the story. That’s where you torture your characters to prepare them for the grand finale. You have to move them ever onward towards that grand decision that makes the climax worthwhile.

Fast forward to 2012. SOVRAN’S PAWN is the first book in a series. It’s Act I and as such, was fun to write. BARRON’S LAST STAND is the Final Act. The big finish and also a lot of fun. Book Two (let’s try out the title THE BROKEN WING) is Act 2 in the overall series arc. I hate the second act. This is where story craft is vital and plot and pacing are of primary importance. The action MUST rise and fall. The plot MUST reverse at the right time or the reader will lose interest.

I stared at my storyboard until my eyes crossed. I filled index cards with scenes and notes until I ran out of them. I had a beginning and an ending, but a convoluted path between the two, with holes large enough to fly a Tau-class cruiser through. I was beginning to despair ever making sense of this story when the advice came in from another writer to stop planning and just let the story unfold.

So simple, yet sitting on this side of the last twenty-two years, it’s much more difficult than it used to be. I sat down, put my notes aside, and just started writing, letting my characters tell their story without worrying about how many words I was racking up or how passive the voice. Since I started doing that, I’ve added more than ten thousand words to the manuscript and I’m falling in love with the characters again. I know much of it will be cut and revised in the editing process, but for now, the story is unfolding and it’s poignant and funny and lovely and sad. I hope I can stay out of my own way long enough to tell it all the way through.

***

How has learning the “proper” way to do things changed your outlook on your work or hobbies?

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23 thoughts on “Is Ignorance Truly Bliss?

  1. I do find it more like work now and maybe a little less fun. I also feel I have more of a responsibility to my publisher and my readers rather than just pleasing myself. But I also find I’m less likely to commit those supposed writerly sins, and also I have people I feel I can rely on to give me balanced and helpful feedback on something if it isn’t working. I don’t write to a story arc but I keep it in mind when I go back over the rough draft.
    I do see it more as a job than a hobby now, even though it doesn’t pay much. I get to do something I love and share it with people who seem to be enjoying it, and who are paying for it. In some ways I miss that same innocence when I wrote without knowing the ‘rules’ but currently it has its compensations. I love what I do!

    1. It’s true. You do find after a while that the rules become integrated into your style and you follow them without conscious thought.

      I also think you bring up a good point in the sense of responsibility one feels to the readers. I find myself taking more care with the structure of the second book than I did with the first because I feel an obligation to give the best story I can to the people taking the time and paying the money to read my books.

      If we don’t love it, how can we expect our readers to love it. The day I don’t love what I do is the day I stop doing it.

  2. I do think it loses a lot of the fun, the more you know about the “rules” you’re supposed to be following. And often, I wonder if we sometimes try to stick to the rules more than we should. I’m reading ENDER’S GAME right now, and the number of “rules” that are being broken is amazing to me for a book that has become such a mainstay of SF literature.

    One of the troubles when our writing becoming more job-like and less whimsical fun is that you start pondering (as I do) whether all the stress and effort is worth it, in comparison to a job…versus writing just for the fun of it.

    1. I think you’ve hit it on the head, TM. I do agree that we sometimes feel a pressure to stick to the “rules” more than we should. I first read ENDER’S GAME shortly after the critique I mentioned in the post and I, too, was struck by how many “rules” were broken.

      I’ve asked many writers and agents about “da rules” and the general consensus is that first one must master the rules before attempting to break them, and if the rules get in the way of telling the story, then tell the story. But if you choose to break the rules, you’d better be a damn good writer and the story you’re telling should be a whopping good one.

  3. For me, I hit that “follow the formula, pay attention to the rules thing” melancholy about twelve years ago. I was in so many writing and critique groups, reading constant articles about craft, measuring every word I wrote against an endless wheel of how-to-do-things-right, I lost the joy of something I loved.

    I was concentrating more on the nuts and bolts than the story and my characters. As writers, we definitely have to adhere to the principals of good writing, but I do think there’s a point when it’s easy to become bogged down in too much advice. Critique partners are invaluable and writing groups are wonderful. I still love involvement with both.

    My debut novel is being released on 10/8 and, although it’s been a steep learning curve with a lot of ‘work’ involved, I’m more in love with writing than I’ve ever been. Maybe because decades of learning and work is finally amounting to something.

    A great, thought-inspiring post!

    1. Thanks, Mae.

      I have to wonder how many amazing writers never make it back from that brink and turn to other things. I’m glad to hear that you were able to work past that melancholy and find your way back to the joy of writing.

      Best of luck on your debut novel! I’d love to have you back here to talk about it.

  4. I read some of my early stuff and cringe. If I’m just writing stuff down, then I may well break a lot of the rules, but occasionally – usually if it’s a short story – my first draft can follow the rules pretty well, so that there is not so much to edit once I’ve done. I think my main “issue” with writing is that I rarely have the time to sit down and let my imagination freewheel so that I can fill in the plot holes.

    1. Laurel, I feel for you.

      I don’t know anyone who doesn’t cringe over their early work. It all goes back to the old adage about practice making perfect. For me, I look back over my early work and cringe over the technical aspects of it, but the storytelling and creativity often leave me in awe.

      Then, I had the time to let my imagination freewheel and it shows. I also had the youthful zeal and optimism and that also comes through. It’s easy to say “Make Time To Write,” but at this point in my life, that’s more challenging than the writing itself.

      Just my luck to be at a point in which I know what I’m doing, but I don’t have the time or the energy to let go and do it with the same abandon I did twenty years ago. As my children get more independent of me, it’s easier to put into practice. I can’t wait to see the kind of stories I’ll be churning out ten years from now!

  5. Like Laurel, my earlier stuff (and the published ones) is cringe-worthy. Ignorance then to the rules of writing blanketed me like a cloak. Now, I can see how much I’ve grown and learned (and still have tons more to learn). I think, ignorance is good to a certain extent. Too much knowledge, sometimes, can be a hinderance, with you worrying over the fine stuff instead of happily writing along and being creative. I think, too, that you learn as you go, and your mind can only retain, develop, and create at your own pace and experience. Five years ago, if someone told me about passive voice, I’d simply TALK LOUDER. Hehe…great post, by the way.

    1. Thanks, TK.

      I can’t tell you how grateful I am that my first attempt at a novel is tucked away and forgotten in the boxes and crates of papers stacked away in the Haunted Hospital like the Ark of the Covenant in the last scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

      I think at times we all get overloaded on the rules. Be honest, though. Even though you’ve broken some rules in your earlier work, don’t you think that not being chained to the rules helped make your story a little more interesting and your voice a little more original?

      1. I think you’re right. I did break a LOT of rules (and still baffled that I got away with them). Like you said, I wasn’t chained to the rules and things just flowed. Now, when I write, I need to ‘think’ more so the scene will represent something the ‘rules’ dictate. Weird thing is, people still love the first book (Lancaster). In the later ones, especially the last, while I still kept to the theme I’d started in LR, it was a lot more ‘restrained.’

        But I’m still learning! 🙂

        1. Technically, you break some (genre) rules in TO CATCH A MARLIN, too. But I think you do it so beautifully and deliberately that it makes your story unique and exciting. I can’t wait for its release to see if everyone else loves it as much as I do!

  6. Max Wyght

    “Da Rules”?

    The only rule I’m aware of is ‘don’t mary sue your character’.
    There’s obviously the character development and general story telling stuff, but I think that’s more of a general guideline than an actual rule.

    1. No, Max, there are rules. Use active, not passive verbs. Don’t “hop heads” within a scene. Show the action, don’t tell it. Engage the reader’s emotions. Put the reader in the action.

      Are you familiar with Freytag’s Pyramid? Three-act structure? All successful stories follow a basic pattern and patterns are established complete with rules. One of my own rules is that if I haven’t reached my inciting incident, (or first major plot point,) by the fourth or fifth chapter, I’m starting my book in the wrong place.

      Within genres the rules vary according to the tropes of the genre. Some genres limit the number of POV characters you can have. Other genres have strict guidelines regarding tense, POV, and allowable content. For example, it would be very difficult to sell a gothic romance set in 21st century Arizona and told entirely in third person omniscient POV from a male perspective.

      For a new writer, critique groups are great places for learning the rules, especially if you intend to write in a genre.

      Once you know the rules, you can play fast and loose with them. If you know that somewhere around the middle of the book, you have to have a major plot reversal, then you can have fun with the action leading you there and then have a little more fun with the aftermath of it.

      Since I’m dealing with a complex three-act structure within a larger three-act story arc, I’ve been getting bogged down with the rules of knowing I need a plot reversal here and I need to have my MC’s goals cross and diverge at this point in the story, sending character A to this place and character B to another diametrically opposed viewpoint, so that by the last book in the series, character A ends up at point A and character B ends up at point B. The technical story craft was in danger of taking all the fun out of my writing.

      At some point, you just have to say “no more diabolical planning today” and go have some fun with it. But yes, there are indeed rules.

      1. Those are surprisingly all familiar to me.
        I avoid doing the first paragraph at all costs.
        I usually write in third person, but it’s not an omniscient storyteller, mostly because I only learn of the particulars as I’m telling the story myself, but also because I just HATE the omniscient viewpoint. it misses so many details sometimes, that singular characters usually can’t miss.

        I’m familiar with Freytag’s pyramid from literature classes, and am well versed in how a story is supposed to play out.
        It’s just that… I’ve never actually had all those put into words for me to remember.

        1. You’re absolutely right about the omniscient storytelling. It tends to be boring and impersonal.

          I wasn’t trying to be patronizing, Max. I was simply trying to illustrate that certain genres have set rules that writers must learn and follow if they hope to sell to a publisher or reach an audience.

          Gothic romances are usually told in the tradition of Jane Eyre, first person limited omniscient, set in a spooky old manor house near the ocean with a brooding, secretive hero, usually some kind of ghost, paranormal element, or mystery. Among mysteries, police procedurals vary greatly from cozies in voice and rules. Cozies tend to be “whodunits” and procedurals tend to be “howcatchems” or the difference between MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Space operas tend to have many more characters with varying points of view and are told as a sweeping quest to save the galaxy and relies on unrealistic technology, while “hard” sf may involve one or two characters, be very technical (bound by the laws of physics) and have the stakes be more personal. STAR WARS versus 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

          The best way to learn the rules is to attend writing workshops and submit to good critique groups. If you want to publish genre writing, it’s a good idea to find a local group of writers who publish in your genre. They’re an invaluable source of information on the market as well as your best critics.

          Even experienced writers with many books under their belt like to hit workshops and writer’s conferences to exchange information, ideas and to learn something new about the craft.

  7. You’re right about learning the rules taking the fun out of writing. I read my early stuff and cringe at the writing, true, but the stories sing for me. There was a joy to writing that is a lot harder to capture now that I know all the rules. I have to figure out how to get my inner editor to shut up long enough for me to get the first draft done. I don’t worry about rules or POV or anything else in that draft. I’m just telling a story. I can take it apart and rework it later with the rules in mind and my inner editor fully in control.

    1. That really is the trick to keeping the joy, isn’t it? To paraphrase Yoda, we have to unlearn all that we’ve learned long enough to give our creativity free rein.

      Thanks for the input, Jaleta!

      1. I agree with Jaleta – one needs to forget everything one learns to get the story down. Then one can rein it in and knock it into shape. I heard really early on that one mustn’t edit the first draft AT ALL until the whole story’s down. I didn’t do that with my first story, and it was four years before I’d written down everything that was in my mind – yet the first part was (so I thought) polished and repolished in the meantime. Clearly not well enough, seeing as I still cringe at it (learned a LOT more since those first few years!)…

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