At the library a while back I picked up a writing book purely because its cover was interesting. (Highly scientific methodology for choosing what to read, I know.) The book had an interview with GRRM that made clear the interviewer wasn’t paying attention to a damned thing the man said, some strange essays including one arguing that genre authors are less likely to have writer’s block than other authors because they aren’t concerned with making something great and meaningful (if anything, I’d say sf/f writers are MORE prone to it, probably because we’re such an over-analytical bunch. Centipede’s dilemma, you know?), one campaigning for a return to infodumping because the world is what interests people in science fiction and fantasy (yes, you read that right), and lots of writing exercises. (Oh, and lots of art, most too surreal for my tastes, but some was quite pretty.)
Now, I know some authors actually find things like this useful, but for me things like the following are utterly unhelpful in making me a better writer:
- Write no more than 500 words about what’s going on in the picture
- Taste something you never have before and describe it
- Go to the grocery and note the five strongest smells and describe them without naming them
- Write a scene from the point of view of a distant observer, then rewrite it purely in dialogue from the point of view of the participants, making sure not to contradict anything from the previous versions
They’re are, in fact, far from helpful. Instead they force me to think in ways I find completely alien.
I can see how describing a picture could be helpful for the sort of weirdo who thinks infodumps are a good thing. But I, unlike the apparent target audience of this book, care a hell of a lot more about the characters than the setting. Yes, I admire good description. I’m pretty sure I’m not exaggerating when I say I’d kill to be able to describe places half as vividly as Louis L’Amour, but that probably works better for people who don’t have such poor direction sense that they sometimes get lost in their own house. It is really hard for me to describe places because my brain flat-out refuses to store things like what’s on the left and and what’s on the right. Also, some of his best descriptions were of places he’d been. I’m writing about alien worlds. Obviously I haven’t seen them. But! L’Amour’s descriptions enhance the story, they don’t take you abruptly out of it by just being description, which is what I’ve always known infodumping to mean.
As for the exercises involving taste and smell, yes, I understand they can help things feel more immersive. But, in real life, do you tend to note more than whether something tastes salty, bitter, sweet, etc., or whether it smells good or bad? Probably not. So why do I need to practice describing things in more detail than that?
What does Bilbo’s hobbit hole smell like? What did the food he served the dwarves taste like? If Tolkien said, which I don’t believe he did, it’s certainly not what’s stuck with me about that scene. No, what I recall — even on those occasions when I let it be years between times I read The Hobbit — is what that scene looked like, how the characters acted, and the general feel of it. Those are the qualities that make fiction immersive, not whether arbitrary sensory details are included or not.
As for the last exercise I mentioned . . . look, I frequently choose the wrong POV for a work, but even I know you shouldn’t just arbitrarily write a scene like it’s being observed from a distance. There is very rarely a time when that’s the correct narrative choice. And the second part . . . why? Is this supposed to be one of those exercises demonstrating the correct way to do something by making you do it the incorrect way first? I’ve always detested those. (Possibly that was the intention of this exercise. There were seven more things involving that scene, but I was too fed up with the book by then to keep reading and discover what they were.) It strikes me as a waste of time to have to write bad versions first. The length requirement was 1500 to 3000 words. That’s, depending on the day and whether I’m writing by hand or on the computer, between one and eight hours worth of work per version. For that much time and effort, I’d at least like to know what the purported purpose of the exercise is up front, you know?
I’m, in general, in case you somehow hadn’t gathered it from my other rants on this and related subjects, not a big believer in writing exercises. Despite what my 11th grade English teacher wrote in the margins of my journal in response to a rhetorical question I’d written, you can’t force creativity. It either happens or it doesn’t.
“But . . . but how do I improve without doing writing exercises carefully crafted to improve certain skills?!” I hear you asking. Easy. Read more. Note how authors you like do whatever it is you suck at. Maybe even, and I know that this is anathema to some people for some reason I can’t understand, accept that what makes a book great isn’t anything that can be taught. Writing is an art, not a science . . . and even science should allow room for “this is probably crazy, but what if?”