Thursday, May 22, 2014

How to Solve for Why, or where to look when an advice giver points a finger at the moon

Back in 1991, I was scrambling desperately to figure out the whole novel writing thing. My college professor was worse than useless for teaching me, or anyone, anything about storytelling other than the dreaded story rises up to a peak and then falls off shortly. So I was left looking for writing advice books on my chosen genre, fantasy.

Note the date, and try to remember back before the Internet provided a tsunami of advice like it does now. Before instant ordering of books with a click of a mouse. Before websites. Not before Usenet or bulletin boards, though. HTML just being developed (and not released into the world for another two years). I know some people can't remember that world, but I do. I wrote my first novel on a Mac SE in a college computer lab. Internet? I didn't even have email.

I had to find books, actual books in actual bookstores, and quite honestly, I didn't find many until I ran across Orson Scott Card's How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. (Yes, I know, the Card problem. Please remember it was 1991, and I was in college.) This book changed the way I looked at story, looked at worldbuilding, looked at point of view. Not only was it the first book I found that dealt with MY genre, but also dealt with process, with creating that didn't just wave a hand around and say vague things that made no sense.

Even more, he said WHY he came up with the MICE story foci. He explained WHY the POVs worked the way they did. In that how-to book, Card pointed at the moon, and I saw what he was pointing at. Not his finger.

I picked up Stephen King's On Writing soon after the book was published. While I didn't care for King's storytelling, I had (and have) a lot of respect for his legacy, his audience, his skills, and his dedication. But I couldn't make it past the first chapter before I wanted to wallthump the thing. (Bookstores frown on doing that, so I refrained.) What King talked about in On Writing made no sense to me. He was pointing at the moon, but I couldn't see anything but his finger, no matter how hard I tried to look beyond.

The list of advice books goes on: Maass, yes; Lamont, no; Bradbury, no; Obstfeld, yes, Friedman, barely, Sellers, yes, so on and so forth.

I got to the point with advice that I had to start solving for why. Why did this bit of advice work for me? Why didn't this one? Why does the advice giver believe in this information? Why did they accept this advice from someone else? Why did they pass it on?

As the Internet grew, as I moved in various circles throughout the the last two decades, I noticed trends, especially one very frightening one: how many people (but not everyone by any means) accepted advice at face value and tried to apply it, even if that bit of advice countered another piece of advice. Worse, I found myself doing that very thing, and, well, no. Bad Gera. No biscuit. Or cookie.

Then I found William Golding's wonderful essay "Thinking as a Hobby". "There is still a higher grade of thought which says, "What is truth?" and sets out to find it." I realized when I read that phrase, that I had already set out to find the truth without realizing what I was doing.

In my search for what is truth, I discovered I had a much more pressing question than just what. I needed to know WHY it was a truth. I needed to put that truth in relation to other truths. I needed to know what that truth described, and where in the hierarchies of truths did it belong.

Now, I'm still on this journey, but I think I've got enough to finally start talking about the varying, sometimes wildly contradictory truths, falsehoods, and in betweens that I've stumbled across, fell into, or sought out.

But one truth stands out above all else that I've discovered:

Your Mileage May Vary.

I can only point at the moon in my way. My way often involves lots of jabbing and various angles. If my way works for you, helps you find a path, resolve an issue, or see the moon, awesome!

If my way doesn't help you at all, awesome! Why awesome? Because now you know what doesn't work.

So, let's all go do some moon watching together, shall we?