348 – Process Advice
Sure, most of us know how to write. But do we know how to write? This week’s post is all about the different ways writers try to help each other’s process, and why that doesn’t work so well. Should you write every day? Should you do Nanowrimo? What happens when you get writer’s block? We discuss what process advice is, how it works, and why it’s so context specific. Plus, a little tidbit about what it’s like to edit our work.
Generously transcribed by Anonymous. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. With your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, West Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [Opening Song]
Oren: Welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren. And with me today is
Oren: All right. So I’m trying to get good at podcasting and I’m trying to figure out, should I record a little podcast every day, or should I set aside an entire day for podcast recording? And should I listen specifically to other writing podcasts, so that I’ll know how people do writing podcasts in the genre that I want to do or should I listen to all kinds of podcasts and have a wide base?
Wes: These are good questions, but no matter what, the second you hit record, you finish that podcast Oren because only quitters quit.
Oren: Admittedly, it would be pretty weird to stop in the middle of a podcast. Jokes on everybody else, I don’t even listen to podcasts anymore. I used to, but now if I have time to listen to something, it’s going to be an audio book. You got to make choices. So today we’re talking about process advice. You may be wondering, what is process advice, cause I don’t think anyone else uses that term, which is a problem because it’s a very important distinction between what process advice is and what craft advice is.
Chris: Have you seen any other term used for this?
Oren: No. People just seem to use all advice. Like it’s the same.
Wes: Yeah. That’s all I’ve seen too. It’s like writing advice. It’s like, whoa.
Chris: Process advice must be a term I came up with. I don’t even remember when I started using it, probably pretty early.
Oren: You make up a lot of useful terms, so that seems likely. I probably just started using it and forgot because I don’t like to credit people for their ideas. So process advice is anything for how you should write your story rather than what should be in the story. Things like how often should you write? Should you write every day? Should you use specialized writing software? Should you do your rough draft with long hand on a spiral notebook? Should you do NaNoWriMo? That’s all process advice as opposed to craft advice, which is stuff like your story needs to have a complete through line with a problem, a turning point, and a resolution because that’s craft advice. That’s telling you what needs to be in your story, not how you should get the words on paper.
Wes: Craft advice is harder as we’ve found out. Process advice can be pretty much anything you really want it to be.
Chris: I do think that’s one of the reasons why process advice is popular is because it’s often easier, but also more tangible, right? There’s so many people writing without knowing what they know. They have intellectualized what is good craft as far as stories are concerned. Whereas they do know usually what happens in patterns that happened to help them. So it’s easier to talk about that than it is to talk about craft advice in many cases.
Oren: Right? Well if you are presumably honest, and you’re trying to tell someone else something useful, it’s hard to give craft advice if you aren’t specifically trained for it because what results are you using to judge whether or not your story was successful? What data do you have to indicate that, for what reasons? Whereas, it’s not that hard to be like, “Well, I did these things and I was able to put a lot of words on paper. So those things were probably related to me, putting words on paper.”
Wes: Process advice kind of has that interview vibe with it. It’s like, “I don’t have any documents in front of me to show you examples of how this is bad craft”. Right. It’s like, “Oh, you know, off the top of my head, I wake up and I go for a jog and I have my coffee and then I write for eight hours solid and that’s how I’m a millionaire author”.
Oren: Yeah. And I also think it probably has something to do with the fact that writers are both constantly searching for one weird trick, but also don’t want to be told what they can and can’t do. So there’s this idea that if they can just find the perfect process that will let them write their novel and they don’t have, as opposed to craft advice, which often tells them that they can’t do things they want to do and nobody wants that. And this is not to say that craft advice is always good, right? There is a lot of room for bad craft advice.
Chris: Yeah. We haven’t talked on the podcast you had about romanticism, it’s just something I’ve been talking about in a blog and that’s a whole nother discussion. So, I don’t want to go too deep, although it’s hard to avoid it when we’re talking about things like why are people giving lots of process advice when maybe in some cases they should be giving craft advice. But the whole cultural romanticism includes the idea that great works are made when somebody who is inherently genius, just cloisters themselves in a cabin in the woods and cuts himself off to all influences and then just spontaneously generates stuff from their subconscious and then puts on page. And then it’s like, “Oh, the great novel”. But that’s basically giving up on the idea of understanding storytelling and saying that we shouldn’t understand, we shouldn’t try to know, we shouldn’t learn intellectually. It all has to come from the subconscious. And so if that’s what you’re going by, all you have left is process.
Oren: Which segues a little bit into why we don’t normally give process advice on the website. That’s one thing that separates us from a lot of other writing advice, blogs, and what have you, is that we have almost none of it. I have an article where I talk about things that I do to beat a writer’s block, which is specifically prefaced with the idea that this is something that I tried. I’m not guaranteeing it will work for you and that’s the reason why we don’t give a lot of process advice is that the writing process is very personal and individual. What works for one author very well might not work for another. And it also depends a lot on your situation and what your income is and what you can afford to do and what you can’t. So telling someone to take an entire day to write is worthless if they don’t have a day, right. That doesn’t help them. It’s like, well, take a day to write. And it’s like, hang on, but I’ll find one between my two jobs and taking care of my kid. Where’s that time going to come from?
Wes: I think because it is so individual and personal, like you were saying, that does give a kind of false credibility to process advice that is bringing up that romantic notion of express yourself. If you speak your truth, your book will be amazing. Don’t let anybody tell you what the story should be. Write your story. And we’re here sitting there like you can write whatever you want. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be good.
Oren: That is us in the weird position of telling people that, sorry, your hero’s journey formula doesn’t work. But also you can’t just write whatever you want. Both sides are always mad at us. It’s hilarious. So another thing that comes up a lot in process advice is the concept of this helped me get more words out, so it must be good. And here’s the thing about that. It’s not true. Writing is the eventual goal, but technically speaking, you can get more words on paper by just rolling your face over on the keyboard. We all can see why that is not the actual thing that you want. How that isn’t going to be helpful. And so there’s a lot of Tumblr memes and that’s just Tumblr. I shouldn’t pick on Tumblr, but there’s a lot of social media memes that boil down to this idea of if you spent a year making 100 pots, you will be better than the person who spent a year trying to make a single pot. That was perfect. And I have my doubts as to whether that’s even true for pots, but at least with pots, there’s a very obvious way to tell if it’s good or not. You have very obvious criteria and you can be like, “Well, I tried it. It didn’t I’m gonna try again. And by process of elimination and trial and error, I’ll eventually hit on a way of making a pot that looks like the thing it’s supposed to look like”.
Chris: I think that a lot of process advice is designed to help a person with a specific issue that not all people have. So for instance, the idea that you have to finish it. Well, for some people that would be like an important lesson they would learn after abandoning too many stories, right? Another new shiny story idea comes along and they start working on a new story instead of finishing the one they were working on and the result they never get stories done. And then for them, the lesson that they needed to learn was just finish it. Finish a story. Right? But like somebody else could have a situation where they spend 10 years trying to fix their first novel and they have to learn how to let go and not finish it. And that’s the problem when we hear so much of this process advice without context, right. It’s people could have opposite advice and for them that was absolutely the vice they needed to hear, but their context and their situation and what obstacles they were dealing with were different.
Oren: Yeah. And when you look at, when pros are asked for tips or rules on writing, a lot of it is process advice. Some of it’s craft and the craft stuff is often bad too, but a lot of it is process advice and that’s just so situational. And it’s not being written that way. It’s being written like a hard truth. I have an article coming up around Neil Gaiman’s eight rules of writing. It might be out by the time you listen to this podcast and almost all of those are processed tips. Those could be useful for somebody, but they’re just as likely to be detrimental to somebody else.
Chris: I do think that process advice can be helpful if it’s like, “Here’s a bunch of ideas you can try”, right? Without it does become a problem when somebody is like, “You have to write every day and every day you write, you get to call yourself a writer”. First of all, don’t let other people tell you when you get to call yourself a writer, that’s bad. Put that, put that away. But that’s also just way too absolutist when this is too different, but you can put out ideas for people to try. Then as I said, sometimes there can be process advice or process-like advice that’s designed to address common issues, especially, I was talking about all the different issues and writing culture that create common problems like people starting on novels when it would probably work better for them to start on short stories. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad to start with a novel, but it just means an overabundance of people are doing one thing when it would probably be more helpful for them to start another way. So addressing the cause of people, writing novels as their very first story and pointing that out can be helpful.
Oren: Sometimes process advice can feel really obvious to you, like fancy writing software. To me, it just all seems like an obvious scam. I have never seen fancy writing software with any tool that was actually helpful. Most of it is just useless. And then they charge you a bunch of money and then they make it harder for you to export your story. I’ve actually worked with clients who had a hard time giving me their story because they didn’t know how to get it out of a Scrivener, but I’m not going to tell people they shouldn’t use specialized writing software. I know writers who swear by it and I am willing to believe them because I have no reason to think that for them, it wasn’t helpful. Instead, what I tell people is like, see if you can try it out first, because it’s going to be $60 and you don’t want to pay $60 for something that doesn’t help you. Using note cards might also be helpful but if they were going to charge you 60 bucks for the note cards, I don’t know, see if I can get a note card demo or something. “Can I borrow a few note cards for free first?”
Wes: Is there a note card installment plan? Process advice frustrates me on the level of it’s just focused on production and I think that that is kind of wasteful and needless and speaks more to like kind of an issue, like a broader issue that we all kind of face. And we’ve been raised with this idea that just making stuff is good. It doesn’t matter what you make as long as you make it, it’s good because you produced something and therefore accomplishment, you can point at it. And it’s great. And to that I say, no, It’s the whole Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours to mastering a craft lie. It’s a lie. And I mean the idea that adage that practice makes perfect. And that’s not true if you’re not bettering your practice. If you practice something and then review how you practiced it, or you had a coach slash editor review your stuff and point out areas where you could suggest, and then you practice those suggestions, you will improve. But this idea of just going it alone and outputting something will not make you better. It’s the pot thing you were talking about Oren. If you’re learning after you tried, that’s fine. But you probably wasted a lot of clay. That’s what I’m thinking. You’re just wasteful.
Oren: You might be able to save some time if, for example, your teacher actually showed you how to make a basic pot before just dumping you with a bunch of clay and whatever that spinny thing is that you put the clay on and like a ghost to erotically guide your hand.
Wes: The ghost is key there.
Oren: Ghost is very important. But with writing, it’s worse because it’s so hard to judge whether your writing is working and if it is or isn’t, why? What part of it is or is not working? Right? It’s so complicated. And most of us, even if we write a story that’s very good, will just statistically not see many sales. The market doesn’t seem to be able to support that many successful writers. And so it’s very difficult to get the feedback on your own anyway, to be able to make the improvements you need from just rushing out draft after draft. So it can be, in my opinion, just as viable to spend more time perfecting something and learning what it needs to have in it and fixing it and making it good. To me, that’s just as useful a time as rushing out 10 manuscripts.
Chris: I’m not going to say that it didn’t work for anybody to rush out manuscripts. For some people who write a fresh draft way faster than they revise and get feedback on their first draft so they have some lessons to learn and then just prefer to just keep going. I’m not going to say that’s not a bad way to go. I’m sure for somebody it works, but it’s just that more output is not necessarily better because the quality of that output matters too.
Oren: This is another place where we can be kind of led astray by listening to the pros because professional writers are just that. They are professional. They depend on writing as their income. They need to write a certain amount or they will not be able to pay their rent or mortgage or whatever it is. So for them, having a certain output is the most important thing, but that’s not necessarily the only way to be a writer. I’m never going to be that. That’s not ever going to be me. But I still want to write a novel or two, and I would like them to be good just because I’m not getting my main source of income from them. So following the pros craft advice, which is focused on getting a certain amount of words out, because they need to do that to put food on the table may not apply to a lot of people. Just to be clear, being able to financially support yourself on your writing is cool, but it is not the definition of whether or not you succeeded as a writer. Your success as a writer is what you want out of it. What kind of writing do you want to do? If you want to write one good novel and say, “Yep. I wrote my cool novel. That’s it. I’m done.” That’s a perfectly valid way to be a writer. You’re not a worse writer for making that choice.
Chris: I think where I personally get the most frustrated with process advice is when it’s used in circumstances where craft advice is called for. So if, basically you go to an editor and the editor comes back and just tells you activities, you should do instead of what they saw on the page. Like, “Your dialogue is a little rough. I think you should just listen to people talking for a while.” It’s like, okay, but what’s wrong with my dialogue? Right. At least getting some markup, even if they have trouble articulating patterns, at least getting some comments on your dialogue, that kind of thing. They should be able to tell you what’s actually wrong on the page because there’s no guarantee that that process advice is going to work for you. And you need to actually learn to look at your work and evaluate it and know when you’ve actually succeeded in making it better. And if you listen to people talking and you try to change your dialogue based on that, you don’t know if you fixed the problem or not.
Oren: Especially when listening to people talk, if you do nothing but copy the way people talk your dialogue is going to sound horrible. I have encountered some dialogue with some of my clients that I do think would actually benefit from trying to make their dialogue sound more natural. And in some cases, listening to the way people talk, if they know what to listen for, could be helpful for them because they’ll have a character who will bring stuff up completely unprompted a bunch of times in the manuscript, in one conversation, just because the author needs to have some exposition and it sounds really unnatural. In that case, listening to the way people have a conversation and realizing that that’s not typically how most of these conversations go, unless there’s a really urgent thing. Like, “I need to tell you this right now”, then that could be helpful but if they don’t know what it is that they’re missing, then they’re just going to be like, “All right, well, I listened to a lot of people talk and they say ‘um’ a lot so I put that in my dialogue cause that’s very realistic.”
Chris: Again, it’s not like getting ideas for process is bad, but it should never replace craft advice. And sometimes it does because again, if an editor gives you process advice, then if they feel like there’s something wrong in your work, but they haven’t put in the work to identify exactly what it is, because it’s a little hard for them to put their finger on, which completely happens with editors. Then that might be their way of getting around doing that work, but that’s not very helpful for you.
Oren: Process advice should never replace the craft. Sounds very spooky when you say it that way. And I am totally excited for the remake of The Craft. That’s about four writers trying to give each other process advice until they snap and murder each other..
Chris: Another place in process advice where people get really contentious is outlining versus discovery writing.
Oren: My big exception. I mean kind of, kind of a little. I’m of the strong opinion that you can absolutely discovery write a great story and you don’t have to outline, but the big caveat that comes with that is that you do have to be willing to revise. Because you can’t, it’s almost 0% possible that you will discovery write a great story. The first time there are going to be a lot of problems that you’re going to have to go back and fix. And most writers I work with hate revising. They hate it. Not all of them. I have met some writers who don’t hate it. They’re weird and I don’t understand, but they do exist.
Chris: That’s true. Outlining is a great tool for just producing revisions, but there are some people who are willing to do revisions and they love having a blank page where they feel like there’s so many possibilities for what I can put down on it, or the tension of wanting to know how the story ends is what motivates them to write that draft. I think the biggest reason to sometimes emphasize outlining just a little bit is that there are people who initially don’t want to outline, but definitely benefit from outlining once they actually give it a try and be like, “Okay, yeah, this actually did make my writing a lot better.” So there are some places where writers don’t want to do things and you have to poke them a little bit. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t anybody who discovery writing is the right choice for them.
Oren: Just in my experience, it’s not the discovery writing as a bad thing. It’s that a number of writers who would really do better outlining want to discovery write usually because of some romantic notions about it, little ‘r’ romantic notions. And of course then there is the series problem, where, if you are going to write a series of books and they’re going to be published one at a time, you probably want to do a little planning. I’m not saying you have to plan out everything, but have some idea where you’re going. You can’t go back and revise it once it’s published. At that point it’s fixed. So it can be helpful to do just a little planning ahead to make sure that you don’t write yourself into a corner you can’t get out.
Wes: So some process advice that bothers me is advice that the second you hear or read it, you’re just like, well yeah. In that article that Oren mentioned that that’ll be coming out about Neil Gaiman’s list of eight is full of those. And The Guardian article that that list came from was also full of those. I particularly like this one from Margaret Atwood that says hold the reader’s attention. Well, yeah, that’s the goal.
Chris: My first writing rule: Write good.
Wes: Write good.
Oren: One of Gaiman’s rules is that too. One of his is find the right word and it’s like, okay, well, thanks Neil. I was going to use the wrong word, but now I know better.
Chris: I’m pretty sure the problem is that both Gaiman and Atwood have a symptom that many writers experience in that they want to be clever. So they’re just being cheeky and subversive a bit instead of like, somebody asked them, they’re like, okay, here you go. I’m gonna be cheeky about it instead of trying to give useful advice.
Oren: Right? I mean, I guess if a Guardian reporter calls you up and is like, “Hey, can you distill your career into 5 to 10 bullet points?” That might be challenging and maybe you’re not going to be able to give a great answer. In my opinion, the correct thing to do there is to say, “Sorry, I can’t do that” rather than allow The Guardian to publish these things as your rules of writing that inexperienced writers are going to go to and be like, “Oh, I should try to do that because like the pros that I look up to said I should”.
Wes: Or the author could just scream back into the phone. “You and your best reporters could never uncover my secret process” and then hang up. Then, you’ll have something to tell.
Oren: Call us The Guardian. We’ve trained for this.
Chris: You got to put up an act in your home that makes your writing process look really weird. Like I hope no secret reporter comes in, takes snapshots of me and my secret writing process that involves rubber chickens.
Oren: Why does his secret writing process involve a fire ax? We’ll never know.
Wes: We’ll never know. Yeah. So Oren talked about Neil Gaiman talking about like, you got to find the right word and that’s just delightfully subjective to put it lightly, but then you see Atwood talking about how you probably need a thesaurus, like a grammar, and a grip on reality. I don’t really know if she’s probably trying to be cheeky there, but then Stephen King is also on record in his own writing book talking about if you need us a thesaurus, you’re already wrong. And it’s like, okay, so as far as resources go to possibly improve your craft they’re just all over the map here.
Oren: Schrodinger’s thesaurus.
Wes: A thesaurus is so helpful for just trying to go and it brings me back to, well, I like the idea of having resources, obviously like a copy editor here. References are good. They help you get unstuck. They help me get unstuck, but the whole the right word focus brings it back to what you guys have been saying about the reluctance to revise and or outline, but particularly like revision here. And once again, I’m going to harp about producing things because there’s this attitude that I already made that, why do you make me go back and fix it? And saying that you have to find the right words you can’t trust a thesaurus is undermining very valuable effort is required to go back and improve it. And it really is frustrating, especially when you’re copy-editing something and there’s a word there and it’s not the right word, but you’re getting paid to advise so you then have to think, what’s the nicest way I can say that this is the wrong word in my comments. Right. And then they’re like that’s fine. I’m like, okay. It’s not though, but yeah.
Chris: Working with writers, one of the interesting things is how different they are and how particular they are about what they wrote. Some writers you could just rewrite a whole paragraph and it’s all good, and like some writers, if you try to make the tiniest changes, you’ll go back and forth with them 10 times until you finally agree on a revision.
Wes: Yes. And it is fascinating how in some cases I will line at a paragraph and not get anything and then I’ll change one word and just suddenly get into a passionate discussion about the connotations of that word and why you should not use it. Yikes. It’s rough stuff. It’s tough. When all the advice is telling you to just unleash your beautiful genius on the world.
Oren: When I’m getting my actual words revised, I’d find myself to be very easy going until suddenly I’m not. It’s like, yeah, you can change that, whatever you can rewrite that paragraph, and yeah you can move that sentence around. That’s fine. And then it’s like, oh, well, I moved this here to avoid passive voice. How dare you!
Wes: How dare you. I wanted that passive voice. I need it.
Oren: How could you do that? We are now enemies for life.
Wes: This is just a great way to say how wonderfully weird we all are.
Oren:All right. Well ending with that weird confession, we’re about out of time for this podcast. If anything we said piqued your interest. You can leave a comment on the website, mythcreants.com and you can ask us for process advice if you want. We do have a question thing. We’ll tell you that it’s no guarantee, but who knows, maybe something will be helpful. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week. [closing song]