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Robert's Rules of Writing #4: Zip the Lip

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Here's another rule that might be controversial. In fact, I've already run across another writing book that takes the opposite position.

In rule #4, Masello takes a very common position among professional writers. He strongly advises people not to discuss the details of their work out loud. He points out that when writers are interviewed about their current projects, they frequently say something vague, like "It's a novel," and then move onto something else.

The theory here is that if you talk out your book, you'll begin to lose the impetus to write it. All your energy and enthusiasm will dissipate as you explain the plot of the book over and over -- and even worse, you may end up alienating your friends.

I have to admit that I've always believed this piece of advice, until one day I ran across the opposite point of view in the book Crafty Screenwriting: Writing Movies That Get Made by Alex Epstein. Epstein's philosophy is that one should feel free to talk out the plot over and over to anyone you want. His claim is that as you do so, you'll start to get a better handle on the story, and you'll also start to refine it so it gets better and better. In his view, talking out the plot is like doing multiple drafts of the outline, so that eventually you'll have a much better story that you can finally commit to paper.

So where do I stand on this rule? Well, I have to admit that there's another good reason not to talk out one's stories -- the danger of giving something away that you'd rather use. On occasion this isn't too bad -- Lawrence Block once wrote a book based on a plot that Donald Westlake had shared with him. Block couldn't get the plot out of his mind, so he asked Westlake if he could use it, and Westlake, who wasn't as excited about the plot anymore, gave Block his blessing. But I know that I have a few ideas in my head I really want to write one day, and the only other person who is aware of these ideas is my wife. The last thing I want to do is tip my hand.

But I digress. The question is, does talking out the story sap its energy, or allow it to become more refined. And at the moment, I honestly have no idea, as I haven't tried Epstein's method yet -- unless you count bouncing ideas off of the editor of Analog until I find one that sticks.


Not like this is conclusive, but so far during nanowrimo, I've found it depends on the response of the person. People who are like "Wow, that's great, and oh my god this would be so funny" are helpful. People who are all "I think she should go on a quest for the King's car keys, because it's a stupid quest, ha ha" are detrimental. People who hear one facet and are satisfied with that are wonderful, but people who want the entire thing explained to them are horrible.
I think this is one of those cases where there's no hard and fast rule. Sometimes I feel like talking an idea out with someone who is not going to be as enthusiastic as I am can kill an idea if it's fragile enough. But usually it's the opposite; like being in love, your enthusiasm and energy only grow when you get to share your delight with those around you.
I think this would vary by author, listener, and maturity of story. Sometimes having someone to bounce early ideas off of is helpful, but of course the person has to be interested in that discussion. And sometimes you might give away things you'd rather use, but you're talking to someone who'll keep it quiet or isn't in your target audience anyway, so that's ok.

I have often found that the true test of whether I understand something is to try to explain it to someone else. This could be helpful in working out the connections in a large or complex plot, or working out the phsycis of an alien world or the sociology of an alien culture. Of course, you can do that by discussing it with someone or by writing it down -- but this would be a different kind of writing than the actual story, so writing isn't obviously a shortcut here.
I could never write anything if I didn't talk it out with someone. Talking it out is how I sustain interest in longer works. Staring at a blank page while I hash out details is very frustrating to me. Talking with someone is a situation where I can get responses and feedback, keeping the process going to where I return to the project to write again.
See, this is why I really hate books like Masello's, because there are no hard-and-fast rules for writing. What works for one writer will be disastrous for another.

At UberCon, a gaming convention, C.J. Henderson and I are among those doing a writing workshop, and one of the amusing things is our radically different approaches. C.J. cannot work from an outline. It's just not in his nature. If he's outlined the story, he completely loses interest because he already knows how the story goes. I, however, must work from an outline, because if I don't know where the story was going, I'd be all over the place.

In this case, both Masello and Epstein are right -- for some writers, talking about it helps energize you; for others, it's disastrous because the creativity flows out with the talking.
I may be presenting Masello's perspective a little more hashly than he does; like Lawrence Block, he tends to be more gentle in his giving of writing advice.

Like you, I try to work from a very detailed outline. I've even outlined some of my shortest stories before writing them.

I think the vital thing with this rule may be to figure out which kind of writer you are. I suspect, although I can't prove it, that more writers would benefit from Masello's advice than Epstein's.
Heh. You know who I talk to about my stuff. Heck, she reads it in a form that no one else would ever get to.

Would I do it with just anyone? No. But talking with your wife works for me. :)

For me, it depends on the medium.

Screenplays are comprised of very specific, calculated moments. A lot of times I need to talk about it to flesh out those key plot points.

Fiction is more internal. There's a lot more room for the process from which a character evolves. So, I do a lot more free form writing and a lot less talking.

December 2016

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