We live in the age of click bait, sound bites and viral memes. On any given day, hour, minute, or second on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, you can find any number of cat videos or fortune-cookie platitudes meant to bolster one or another emotional cliché or bubble-gum metaphysical insipidity. They reflect our moods and emotional states, reinforce happy thoughts, or confirm our darkest vulnerabilities. We read them, consume them, have a laugh or a wistful shrug of self-reflection and move on to the next one, invariably saying to ourselves, "Oh, I'll have to remember that one", but we never do - it's always in one ear, out the other.
Sometimes though, these little fortune cookies linger and gnaw at us and ultimately solidify into calcified truisms. These insipid notions, memes and banalities take on a substance they were never meant to have and as a result, find a level of acceptance and 'truth' that endures and endures. This phenomenon is everywhere, in all endeavors of creative life, but is most easily seen in the world of creative writing where, for many, clichés have become the lifeblood of creative process.
"So what?" comes the obvious reaction. Who cares? Buying into the big myths and clichés of creative writing hasn't done any real harm; people keep writing, books and screenplays are still being published and produced, more creative writing is happening now than at any time in human history. So what's the big deal?
The big deal is that lots of harm follows these myths and clichés: wasted time, pointless writing, lost money, unnecessary struggle, missed opportunities, just-plain-bad writing, the list goes on. Abandoning the myths of creative writing is essential to maturing your creative and practical writing processes. When you buy into the myths you go on creative autopilot and shut down the greatest gifts you have as a creative person: your ability to discern, your ability to assess and your ability to make informed creative decisions. Reviving and relying on those abilities are at the heart of being a conscious writer, for example, a writer who knows what he/she is writing, why he/she is writing and how he/she is writing. Being a conscious writer honors our true creative process and is the only path to achieve deep, authentic and meaningful connection with readers.
I have written a great deal about what conscious writing is all about and how to become a conscious writer, but busting the biggest myths of creative writing has to rank as one of the most important first steps onto the road to becoming a conscious writer. So, let's take that first step here and now and bust the top 10 myths of creative writing.
Top Ten Myths in Creative Writing: (in reverse order of destructiveness: #10 -#6)
#10: Show don't tell.
The lie: If you are not writing visual scenes, or giving the reader a visual experience, then you are failing.
The truth: It's not either/or, it's both. You have to tell and show. Telling is called exposition. Showing is giving a visual expression to character behavior. The implied sub-lie here is that exposition is not your friend, so you should avoid it as much as possible. Not true. Exposition is a tool and you have to learn how to wield it effectively. Showing is not always the best solution. Take a simple example: the teenage geek who is put under the tutelage of the grizzled martial arts master, whose job it is to turn the geek into a ninja killer and he has 15 years to do the task. The 15 years that pass cannot be shown to the reader in detail. It would take an entire book to show how the boy or girl goes from geek to killer. You have to tell it in exposition and cut it down to a manageable amount of prose. Showing, in this case would be pacing, which is death to any story. You have to use telling exposition to economically reduce the 15 years down to a few paragraphs, or maybe a few pages and then move on to the mainline story with minimal digression.
In the movie world, the tool for doing this is called the montage. Screenwriters splice together a series of shots showing the passing of time (usually just a few) to demonstrate the passing of time and the evolution of the change taking place, then jump back into the mainline story after the montage. Prose writers can do the same thing with well-written exposition, for example, telling. Writers tell all the time, in fact we have to tell a lot, sometimes more than we show. The key is knowing when to do one versus the other. This is where the abilities mentioned above come in. You have to discern the context, assess the purpose of the scene and make an informed decision which best serves your purposes as a writer. If you are on autopilot, you will blindly follow the myth and miss the opportunity of writing the best scene possible.
#9: The blank page is the enemy.
The lie: When you sit in front of the blank page (or screen) you are in for pain, anxiety and angst. The blank page will resist any attempts to fill it and it is your biggest obstacle.
The truth: It's just a piece of paper. It's just a black word processing document. Get a grip. The 'obstacle' is not the blank whatever, the obstacle is your head - or more correctly, what's inside your head. This myth actually ties into the #5 myth about writer's block, because this and #5 have to do with having so much going on in your head, that you can't prioritize and order your creative process enough to be productive. You are so jumbled and crowded with ideas that you can't break the logjam. The danger of this myth is that it conditions you to give your power away to some inanimate object (piece of paper or blank screen) and hold that 'other' responsible for your inability to be productive. It doesn't have the power, you do. Clear the mind, clear the logjam, order your creative thought process and the ideas will flow, because they are there - you just have to get out of their way. More on how to do this in #5.
#8: Write what you know.
The lie: If you can only write what you know, then you will be limited and constricted in what you can write. Writing what you know is restricted by your own life experience and if you only know your life then how boring will your writing be?
The truth: This is actually a very good piece of writing advice, but people get the purpose of it all wrong. Writing what you know isn't about writing about things that happened (necessarily), it is about the emotional content of what happened in your life. If you felt abused, write what you know about that. If you felt loved, write about that. If you felt afraid, write about that. The actual events might be part of that, but it's what's under the emotional hood that will grab readers and only you can write about that from your own emotional experience. This is what makes your writing relatable to readers, because those that felt abused, or loved, or afraid growing up will relate accordingly. The other truth here is that you can't write about stuff you don't know. In other words, you are forced by circumstance (for example, life itself) to only write what you know, because you don't know what you don't know. Even if you make everything up in a story, it can only be sourced from what you know as a writer you have no other experience other than your own. So, writing what you know is unavoidable, but it is also important to be reminded of the truth of the sentiment. The danger of the myth is that misinterpreting the meaning of the advice can artificially restrict or constrict your ability to write, whereas the real function of the advice is to do just the opposite.
#7: Real writers write every day.
The lie: The best way to be productive and accomplish success is to always exercise the 'writing muscle,' so that means never losing momentum - write every day.
The truth: No, writers don't write every day. This myth ties into the #1 myth of 'just do it.' Just keep writing, because that's what writers do. It also feeds into the next myth about storytelling versus writing (you can see how all these myths actually reinforce one another and can derail you as they gang up on your creative process). The truth here is, you don't have to write every day. I'm not sure who made this rule up, but it is total bunk. Other than eating, sleeping and going to the bathroom, there are few things we have to do every day. Writing is certainly not in that list. The fact is, most writers are not writing every day and because they buy into this dumb myth, they beat themselves up and feel guilty because they're not writing, but they are doing something else (probably every day): they are thinking about writing and thinking about story. So much happens when we writers stop writing and just mull over ideas in our heads. We're thinking about story all the time (I certainly do).
This is actually more important than writing, because it is what gives fuel to the writing process. It's called story development and this is something writers do almost daily and certainly more often than physical writing. The danger of this myth is that it might make a writer discount their internal story development process as less valuable than physical writing. Just the opposite is true. If you write every day, fine, have at it, but, know that doing so doesn't make you more of a writer, or even make you more productive as a writer. The writer that thinks and ponders more than physically writing, is probably going to produce more useful work product than the one that blindly writes every day hoping for real productivity.
#6: Storytelling and writing are the same.
The lie: Writing is storytelling and storytelling is writing. There is no difference and any perceived difference is just semantics.
The truth: Storytelling and writing are two different things and they have nothing to do with one another. Storytelling is about story. Storytelling is about us. Story is what we tell ourselves about what it means to be human. We've been telling ourselves stories for 40,000 plus years. We've only been writing for six or seven thousand. Writing is about language/rhetoric, it is about the rhythm and musicality of using language to convey meaning, thoughts and ideas. There is nothing that intrinsically connects writing to storytelling. Storytelling preceded writing and a story doesn't need to be anywhere near the written word in order to be told. Think about it; stories can be: danced, mimed, painted, sculpted, sung, spoken, or written. Stories need storytellers, not writers. This is a hard one for people to wrap their heads around, especially if they think writing is storytelling. No, writing is just one way to render a story.
In addition, writing and storytelling, because they are different, also represent separate kinds of talent and separate kinds of skill sets. Because you are good at one, does not mean you will be good at the other. In fact, most writers are good at the writing function, but bad or poor at the story function. Storytelling is usually not the strongest skill set with most writers. This is why learning story structure and story development craft is so critically important for creative writers. The danger of buying into this myth is that writers will assume that because they can string two sentences together and turn a nice phrase, they can tell a story properly. The myth gives them a false sense of security in their own skill sets and talents. Writers have to learn how to do both well, that means learning the craft of story development and the craft of creative writing.
The previous six myths are the least destructive of the 10 overall myths, but they are each still capable of derailing your creative process and hampering your productivity.
As you read Part two on Wednesday always keep in mind the idea of the conscious writer and the abilities you have as a conscious writer to bust these myths and re-empower your personal writing process: the ability to discern, the ability to assess and the ability to make informed creative choices.
In Part two we look at the last five and most destructive, myths:
#5: Writer's block is real.#1: Just do it; just write.
#4: There are no rules when it comes to creative writing.
#3: Good stories and good characters write themselves.
#2: Outlines and story structure kill creativity.
#1: Just do it; just write.
About Jeff Lyons
Jeff Lyons is a published author, screenwriter, editor, and story development consultant with more than 25 years' experience in the film, television, and publishing industries. He has worked with literally thousands of novelists, nonfiction authors, and screenwriters helping them build and tell better stories.
Jeff is an instructor through Stanford University's Online Writerâ€™s Studio, University of California at Riverside's Extension Program, and is a regular guest lecturer through the UCLA Extension Writers Program. He is a regular presenter at leading writing and entertainment industry trade conferences, as well as a contributor and advisor to leading entertainment industry screenwriting and producing fellowship programs, such as the Producers Guild of American's "Power of Diversity Producing Workshop," and the Film Independent Screenwriting Lab. Jeff is also a regular guest blogger on major writing industry blog sites like Script Magazine and Stage32.com. Over the years, he has been a trusted story development consultant to many indie producers, produced screenwriters, production companies, and VR and new media content developers.
Jeff has written on the craft of storytelling for Writerâ€™s Digest Magazine, Script Magazine, The Writer Magazine, and Writing Magazine (UK). His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, is the only book available devoted solely to the topic of story and premise development for novelists, screenwriters, and creative nonfiction authors. His other book, Rapid Story Development: How to Use the Enneagram-Story Connection to Become a Master Storyteller, will be published by Focal Press in late 2017.
In addition to his nonfiction work, Jeff is co-authoring (with Stephen David Brooks) the Jack Be Dead Series, the first volume of which was published on Amazon in March 2016, Jack Be Dead: Revelation. This, and his other genre fiction work, is published through Storygeeks Press.
Jeff's author site can be found at: www.jefflyonsbooks.com
Jack Be Dead can be found at: www.jackbedead.com.
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