April 3, 2009: Everything I Knew Isn’t True Anymore

When I first started writing on a serious, regular basis, I had almost no formal understanding of the craft of fiction writing. I knew enough about grammar to be able to construct clear sentences and paragraphs, even if I couldn’t name all the parts of speech or explain why I’d structured a particular passage the way I had, and I’d been exposed to storytelling, through books, movies and TV, my whole life. But I hadn’t even heard of things like POV or three-act structure, never mind being able to use them.

The next few years were my apprenticeship. Despite a crash course in just about everything, I was able to finish and — mirabile dictu — sell two novels. And then my education intensified, and that’s one of the things that reduced my output to unfinished fits and starts. It was as if I was bounded all around by “you have to do this,” and “you can’t do that.” The conviction that I was doing everything wrong kept paralyzing me. It’s been frustrating and maddening and nothing I tried was able to break the grip of the have-to/can’ts.

Until now. I’m not entirely sure why things have changed, but these days, “I want to” trumps “you have to do this” and “you can’t do that” every time. I’m tempted to credit BSG, because that’s the most recent creative influence and the one I’m presently most conscious of, but I don’t see any real connection. It might be that breaking one have-to/can’t — “I have to write in order/I can’t write out of order” — made the rest of the have-tos/can’ts too weak to hem me in any more. Whatever it is, I’m grateful for it.

I’m mentioning this because I know I’m not the only one who this has happened to: craft overload leading to working paralysis. You go through a stretch where you don’t know how to write any more: the stuff you used to know doesn’t work, and the stuff you’re learning is too alien to use. If you’re in that maddening middle place, this is to tell you it does come to an end.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. barb
    Apr 05, 2009 @ 11:05:17

    Katy: You are absolutely right about craft overload. I’m a believer that eventually you have to stop trying to learn the craft and simply write. We spend too much time creating writing rules. What I’m learning is that if you tell a good enough story, the rules that matter will fall into place organically while those rules that don’t matter won’t. In other words, we should all simply focus on the story and let the characters tell it.


  2. katycooper
    Apr 05, 2009 @ 14:37:59

    I don’t regret all the time I spent learning craft — I definitely think it has its place and I believe it’s made my work stronger right out of the gate. But I also think you need to learn to recognize the signs of craft overload so that you don’t need an intervention before you put the how-to book down and step away from the workshop tape listing.


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