DIY MFA Book Club: When ‘best practices’ don’t work for you

Today’s DIY MFA Book Club prompt is about what best practices you have tried and have found not to work for you.

This is something I have opinions about. I love writing books and classes and webinars and podcasts about process and how-to ideas. But I have tried a lot of different approaches as a result. I think that I have learned something from many of them.

There are a few different categories of advice.

Some of these ‘best practices’ are incredibly specific (ie write first thing in the morning or write 2000 words every day). And the more specific they are, it seems to me, the less likely they are to be useful for all that many people. Write when I wake up? Yeah, no. I need coffee and a slow ramp up. I do often write late into the night, though.

And then are more general ideas of how to approach your writing practice. Some of these are still prescriptive (like writing every day), but others are more general.

To go back to today’s actual prompt, about what specifically has not worked for me, I think it is the three act structure for novels. I used it for years for my Nanowrimo projects and, while it sort of worked for me, I often struggled to match the flow of my story to the prescribed points in the structure. I persevered because it seemed so ubiquitous.

But I don’t write short stories like that and they seem to turn out just fine (eventually!). So I started to move away from it, but it wasn’t until I read Lisa Cron’s Story Genius this past summer that it really clicked that I could do away with it. (Roughly, her point is that structure will emerge from a well developed story.) I did this year’s Nanowrimo project using her approach (which is about exploring your characters to find the story you are telling) and I was pleased with the result (I actually had a proper ending!).

I think this speaks to a larger point that (I think, anyway) ‘best practices’ for writing that focus on backwards engineering are the least helpful. By that I mean those approaches that look at the final product and work backwards on how to achieve that, rather than starting from the beginning of the writing process. So, saying “these stories all follow a three act structure that looks like this” or “these stories all fit the Hero’s Journey” are looking at a product and describing what is seen. But that doesn’t mean that the story was intentionally written that way.

So, that’s where I’m at right now.


2 thoughts on “DIY MFA Book Club: When ‘best practices’ don’t work for you

  1. I like your point about the backwards engineering of a piece being not helpful. It does seem so counter productive to try to fit your work into some one else’s ACME Patent Pending Process. Having said that, this DIY MFA process is proving very helpful for me. It isn’t writing toward anything that will get published, but it is writing, and I’m learning about myself and my process by participating.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s