Monday, September 12, 2011

Five Sideways Sources for Writing Instruction

by Cindy Jones

Writing instruction is the subject for this round of blogs and since I don't have an MFA, my learning curve offers a unique perspective on the subject, including less conventional resources that may not get coverage elsewhere this month. Here are five sources for important lessons I didn't learn in a formal program:

  1. Gossip: Understanding how individuals operate under pressure is a prerequisite for creating empathetic characters and a grasp of the complex world of human psychology is expected from the get-go. Fortunately, my grandmother, a professional counselor, shared her expertise with me--her oddly attentive granddaughter--from an early age. We lingered at the table long after meals, solving the the problems of in-laws and outlaws, leaving no unseen pressure under-analyzed. If you don't have a professionally trained grandmother, an observant girlfriend will do. And if the term gossip bothers you, just call it material.

  2. Other Writers' Work-in-Progress: The best way to learn about my own work was in a writer's workshop while reading someone else's unpublished manuscript. And the most important lesson I learned was to recognize filler: major obstacle to reaching the next level, notorious killer of newbie writers. Filler is not only a problem; it comes with deep denial that is difficult to penetrate. But here's the good news: mistakes not visible in one's own work are perfectly obvious in someones else's. Once I recognized filler in another manuscript, I was able to transfer the skill to my own work and cut without regret.

  3. Critical Reviews: I don't wast time on one-star reviews since they all seem to have been written by the same sour person, lamenting trees sacrificed, announcing a cure for insomnia, etc. But reviewers who write with less venom and greater discrimination can provide helpful insights from the perspective of the next level. Published novels have different flaws than amateur manuscripts and good reviewers taught me what those flaws look like. Again, recognizing flaws in published work allowed me to apply it to my own and cut, cut, cut.

  4. Famous Authors: Rather than waiting to attend conferences, hoping to glean writing technique from celebrity authors, I simply open celebrity authors' books. This summer I was working on revisions, acting on my agent's advice concerning the need to pull story threads forward into my first chapter, but I was afraid of creating speed bumps for readers, introducing too much back story in the early pages. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, I deconstructed the first chapter from Ann Patchett's State of Wonder to see how she did it. Now, when I get stuck, I open a book or turn on my Kindle and read my way out of problems.

  5. Dave and Bob: My job is to figure out what I don't know, learn it, and use it to improve my work. Problem is I don't know what I don't know. Imagine my delight when I discovered David Madden and Robert McKee who explained everything I needed to know about writing (but didn't know to ask). I am truly embarrassed to admit that before reading David Madden's Revising Fiction, I thought description was used to describe things. Madden provides a list of 185 questions a writer can apply to their work--and provides the answers. Robert McKee's book, Story, is my other go-to resource for craft questions. I don't leave town without one of those guys in my satchel.
I'm still trying to figure out what I don't know and I would love for you to share any particularly illuminating sideways resources you may have encountered in your writing journey.
Cindy Jones is the author of My Jane Austen Summer, the story of a woman who dreams of living in a novel. She lives in Dallas where she is almost finished with her next book. Follow her on:


  1. So, Bob and Dave in your satchel. Do they get along, Cindy? Seriously, you've touched on great points we all need to take into consideration when we write.

    Who do you recommend first, Dave or Bob?

  2. Hi Susan,
    I don't know...Bob and Dave are so different, it sorta depends on what you need at the moment...;-) (Bob first)

    Thank you, Maria!

    Hi Sharon, Thank you for finding my blog!!

  3. Oops! The responses above were posted by me, Cindy Jones

  4. Love your points! Especially "gossip"...what you describe it pretty much what I label "observations" to justify my A: in-depth analysis of everything and everyone whenever I get with my best girlfriends, B: shameless people-watching in public places, and C: equally shameless 'observation' of friends fb activity ;o) haha...You learn a lot about story and characters just from engaging with the stories and characters around you! :o)

  5. Hi Rebecca,
    So true! When my sister commented that she loved to imagine stories for the people around her in a restaurant--I knew--she'd been bit by the writing bug. Thanks for reading!

  6. Thanks for this! Am sitting here in my office, writing, and have STORY on the shelf, right next to me. Very instructive read. And, like Rebecca, love the point on gossip!

  7. Cindy, love your point about critical reviews! I hope no one reads one-star reviews and decides to change their writing style based on them (egads!). I definitely look toward novels that I adore when I need inspiration. I don't deconstruct them, but I do re-read to remind myself of how magical prose can be when it truly sings. Great points all! Good luck with Book #2!

  8. Fun post, Cindy. I just ordered Dave. Never heard of him but I do have a deep relationship Robert; he's a genius.

  9. Hi Sandra, Congratulations on your release yesterday! I've ordered your book and can't wait to read it.

    Hi Susan, Thanks!! For me, one of the most amazing thing about being published was learning how to process reviews. Glad to say, I've learned a lot.

    Hi Karin, Yes, Robert is a genius. Dave is older perhaps, but very helpful.

  10. LOL, Cindy! I loved your definition of "gossip" = "material" -- and you're making me want to call my grandmother ;). I have STORY, too, but Revising Fiction is new to me -- will check it out!

  11. Hi Marilyn,
    Glad I made you laugh! Maybe we should start a Bob and Dave fan club!

  12. Cindy,

    Great points. Love the conversational tone. I know Bob, but now have to go find Dave.
    And the comment about seeing your problems in others' work is on point. kind of like that projection thing in real life.
    Thanks for posting.

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