Advice from writing books that’s getting a little old

Last week, I wrote a post on the five(ish) writing books that have resonated with me most as a creative writer in the course of my investigation into creative research. As I said in that post, most writing books are basically the same in terms of the advice they have to give. The differences are more in the author’s style and their approach to sharing that advice.

If you’re someone who only picks up a book about writing now and then, this is good news because it means you can never really go wrong with your choice. But if you’re someone like me who’s going to read more than 50 of these things as part of your research study, reading the same thing over and over again gets a little old after a while.

Below are some of the pieces of advice I encountered over and over…and over and over again. These mostly pertain to fiction writing but there are a few that also came up in books on other genres as well.

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My favorite books about writing

In the course of my scholarly investigation into the role of research in creative writing, I’ve spent a lot of time reading books about writing. Like, a lot. About 30 such books made it into my final study, which will be published in portal later this year. I’ve since read 7 more to include in a follow-up that I’m hoping to publish somewhere in the writing studies field. And there are about 10 or so that I’ve read that weren’t included in either study because they didn’t meet the criteria. So, in all, I’ve read 45-50 books about writing. Most of them were specifically about fiction writing, but a few were more genre agnostic while some of the more recent ones are about poetry and nonfiction.

I’ve learned a lot about creative research from these books (at least, the ones that talk about it). But what I’ve really learned is that when it comes to books about writing, most of them are kind of basically the same. If you’re someone who’s going to read 50 of them like me, that’s bad news because you’re hearing a lot of the same advice over and over again. But if you’re only going to read one or two, that’s good news because it means you can’t really go wrong in your choices. The information you learn from one book will probably be basically the same as any other book, so it’s better to pick based on the author’s approach. For example, are you looking for a how-to or more of a literary analysis? Do you want a wide survey of all of the craft elements or a deep dive into one?

Below are the five writing books I read that happened to resonate the most with me as a creative writer. (In no particular order.)

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What I’m reading: May 2022

Some bite-sized thoughts and reflections on the items I’ve been reading, listening to, or watching this month.

Also: Did you read, watch, listen to, play something this month that you particularly enjoyed? Feel free to share in the comments! I’m always looking for recommendations.

Note: The following post contains spoilers for Russian Doll (both seasons), Black Sails, and for some reason Muppet Treasure Island. 

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Why I write this blog

Lately there’s been some pressure at my institution to stop doing things “just to do them.” In other words, as the focus shifts toward an emphasis on things like student recruitment and retention, you have to make a case for how the things you do contribute to those goals. If they don’t, the implication is that you shouldn’t be spending time on them.

I have a bit of a problem with the assumption implied in the idea of doing things “just to do them.” But I also acknowledge that I’ve had an unusual amount of autonomy in my work up to this point and that that autonomy has allowed me to work on a lot of enjoyable side projects like this one.

I started this blog in March of 2018 and have published at least once or twice a week since then. In that time, my readership (which I measure by the very basic stats provided by WordPress) has gone up from approximately three views a week to closer to 100. Maybe. On a good week.

The thing is, no one writes blogs anymore, unless that blog is attached to a larger publication. It’s quaint. It’s antiquated. Chuck Wendig, whose blog helped inspire this one, recently compared blogging to “putting your podcast on vinyl.”

No one writes blogs anymore. No one reads blogs anymore. Who has the time? And it’s unlikely to blogging like this contributes in any direct way to larger goals like recruitment and retention.

So why do I do it?

A couple of reasons.

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Summer projects and that “fresh start” feeling

Image by Larisa Koshkina from Pixabay

Things have been pretty stressful lately. There’s been a lot of upheaval at my institution and the road ahead looks pretty rocky, at least for those of us here in the library. I’ve drafted some posts about how some of this has been affecting me, especially given my new leadership role as the head of my department. But honestly that stuff gets pretty depressing. I still might share some of it but I wanted to focus instead this week on something I’m looking forward to: summer projects.

There’s nothing better than the “fresh start” feeling that comes with the end of the school year and the start of summer. The campus is starting to get quiet again. Soon, us twelve-month employees will have the place more or less to ourselves. Things with slow down, at least theoretically. Best of all, there’s vacation time within sight on the schedule.

Of course, some of this is a mirage. Everyone knows that summer is “slower” so that’s often when you suddenly get piled with committee projects and trainings and other odds and ends that you’re supposed to suddenly have time to do. Plus there are the projects that can only really happen during the summer, like updating tutorials and websites while the potential for disruption is relatively low, so sometimes it’s a mad dash to get all of that done too.

So it’s easy to start out with some goals in mind and easy to let those goals fall by the wayside. By stating some of my goals and projects here, in a public if not particularly high traffic area, I’m hoping that will give me some accountability.

Here are what I’m hoping my priorities for the summer might be:

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Guitar playing as creative research

Image by Kari Shea from Pixabay

So a few weeks ago I talked about my new adventures in creative research, something I’m taking on to supplement my scholarly investigations into the role of research in creative writing. Long story short: creative research (i.e. research to enhance a creative work) is something I’ve never engaged in much myself because the creative writing I do is more for fun than Serious Work, but I wanted to try it out as part of a revision of a novel-length story I completed the first draft of a few months ago.

I talked before about how two of the characters in that story work in a bar and how I ended up doing research using internet sources like YouTube and Liquor.com to try to add a little authenticity to the work they do in the story and how they each think and talk about their work. In this case, I wasn’t able to go to the location the bar in the story is loosely based on because of COVID and time issues, but I was able to learn enough from the internet to improve the generic BS about bartending and cocktails that was in the original draft.

So I’m still working on that same project. In addition to working in a bar, the characters in question also play music. Specifically, guitar. One is in a band, the other is just starting to learn. This has been another area of research but it’s one where I’ve managed to reap the benefits of hands-on, in-person research rather than just scrolling the internet.

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Isn’t all research creative?

Image by Joshua Woroniecki from Pixabay

I’ve spent a couple of semesters now teaching students about different research contexts, including academic, scholarly, creative, personal, professional and scientific. For the most part, they do really well with understanding the idea that research works differently in different situations and what some of the differences between each context might be. They seem to especially like learning about personal research because they like hearing that all of the Googling they’ve been doing all their life to fulfill their personality counts as research, at least by the standards of our particular course.

There’s one type of research they have more difficulty with than others, though, and that’s creative research.

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On productive(?) procrastination

So about a year ago, I finished a six month sabbatical in which the main research project I worked on was a literature review on creative writing pedagogy (as well as related topics such as the history of creative writing as an academic subject). This project was meant to strengthen my foundation of knowledge on the topic so that I could write an article exploring why creative research is not a standard part of creative writing instruction. I wanted to know enough so that I could publish my work in a journal outside my own field without looking like a complete idiot.

Admittedly, I didn’t get as much done with this project during my sabbatical as I was perhaps hoping for when I first conceived it. Mostly this was because when I applied for my sabbatical in fall 2019, I wasn’t expecting that by the time it actually started in fall 2020, the world would be in the middle of a global pandemic. But also I ended up working on a book project that I hadn’t entirely planned for, either.

Still, by the time my sabbatical was done I’d read about 11 books and 20+ articles on the topic. Based on what I’d read, I managed to complete a draft of my intended article by the end of spring 2021. I knew that what I had needed a lot of work but I thought I was in good shape to submit the thing by fall 2021.

Now fall 2021 has come and gone and spring 2022 is under way. My article continues to go unsubmitted.

It’s not that I’m not working on it. There was a short period of time where I did have to put it in a drawer for a little while to focus on other, more urgent things. But I’ve been working on it steadily for about three months now and, if anything, I feel further from being ready to submit than I was last spring.

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My approach to creative research for fiction writing

Image by Bishwas Bajracharya from Pixabay

In the few years I’ve spent investigating the role of research in creative writing, I’ve started thinking a lot about the role research plays in my own creative work, and how that’s changed as a result of my scholarly work.

I write fiction for fun, which I know is a statement that is likely to make a lot of professional writers grind their teeth at least a little. In saying that writing is a form of play for me, I’m not trying to trivialize or diminish what professional writers do or how much work it is. But in this life there are people who knit without the goal of one day becoming a fashion designer. There are people who run without the goal of one day becoming an Olympic athlete. And there are people who write without the goal of one day becoming a bestselling author. Or even getting published.

Because fiction writing is a form of play for me, I don’t focus that much on the quality of what I’m writing. Questions of authenticity and accuracy are pretty much moot. Which means research is pretty moot too. So except for a quick Google search here or there, I have always tended to paper over gaps in my knowledge with imagination or, frankly, BS.  What does it matter? No one’s ever going to see any of it.

But in studying creative research, I thought it might be interesting to start practicing some of what I was trying to preach. Or at least attempt to explore the role of research in my own work so that when I talk to authors about their creative research, I have some experience of my own to work from.

So I recently finished a novel-length story that I’ve been working on for roughly a year and a half. I have a drawer full of stories like this—finished drafts of works that I have little or no intention of returning to. This time, rather than moving on to the next idea or the next project, I felt compelled to go back and actually try to revise what I had done. If nothing else, I wanted to spend more time with these characters and, after spending a lot of time reading about revision, I wanted to see what the process was actually like.

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