For my first #writerlife101 post, I was asked to talk about best writing advice. After some careful consideration, I’ve hit upon what I think is by far the advice that has resulted in the most growth for me as an author. Think of everything you learn about the craft as a tool in your writing toolbox. You won’t use every tool for every job, but it is wise to have as many tools as you can gather, lest you find yourself in need of a tool you don’t have.
Why was this advice so crucial to my development as a storyteller? To answer that I have to go back in time a bit, to gaze upon a younger, less confident yet strangely more arrogant at the same time, version of Aaron Volner.
As a teen, I pretty much thought I was god’s gift to storytelling for a brief period. While I’m self-aware enough that I quickly realized how stupid that was and adopted a creed of personal growth and improvement as a writer, one aspect of that bag of chips mindset stuck with me into my twenties. A reluctance (i.e. stubborn refusal) to read books on craft.
Taking classes and learning directly from other writers was one thing. In my mind, I figured that a class was a way for me to vet the people giving the advice so that I would know whether the said advice was sound and should be followed. But a book? How could I know whether the advice in the book was worth following if I didn’t personally know the author? I had a deathly fear that reading the wrong book on craft would ruin me creatively, inflict irreparable damage on my process that I would never recover from, and damn me to a life of creative ineptitude.
I had made one exception in this time. After hearing him speak at my first writing conference, I had read and loved “Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons From a Writing Life” by Terry Brooks, and taken much of Terry’s advice to heart. However, I figured that book was the exception to the rule, and safe since I knew Terry was a good source of information, even though I didn’t know him personally. However, that book did open me up to the possibility that I was restricting myself in my quest for growth and improvement as a storyteller.
Enter, another Terry.
I don’t recall if it was one or two years later, but one conference I was determined to attend as many workshops on craft as I could and simply work on improving myself since that year I had nothing new to pitch. To that end, I decided to attend a workshop on story structure by Terry Persun.
Choosing that workshop was an exercise in overcoming reluctance for me. I had learned by then the value of choosing conference workshops based on the presenter rather than the topic and had picked Terry’s session based on a recommendation from Lindsay Schopfer. Still, I was a bit hesitant about hearing yet another hackneyed version of, “This is the one and only true story structure and anyone who deviates from it is a blasphemer!”
Much to my surprise, Terry Persun didn’t do that. Instead, he presented us with several different story structures that various authors have used. He pointed out that great works of literature have been written using three-act structures, seven-act structures, circle structures, and many more. The one thing that made all of them work was that they made sense to the author.
“The important thing,” he said, “Is not what structure you use for the story, but that it has one.”
He then went on to give the advice from above: that every structure is just a tool in your writing toolbox, and you want a variety of tools to work with, even though you won’t use all of them for every job.
“I’m always reading seven books,” Terry said, “And one of them is always a book on writing, because I want as many tools in my writing toolbox as I can get.”
This advice came at exactly the moment in my life when I most needed it and was most receptive to hearing it. That workshop was, for me, one of life’s crystallizing moments. With the utterance of those sentences Terry broke down negative mental barriers I had been hiding behind my whole writing life. The implications of how this applied to everything growth wise, not just the use of structures, hit me like a flood.
Shattered were the insane notions that learning from others was an exercise in selective development. From the ashes arose a new truth; that every opportunity to learn about the craft had value, and I was in full control of how that learning would affect my work.
I took home three books on writing that conference. I’ve read many more since, and I’ve not hesitated to read freely from the advice of authors I’ve never heard of in the hopes I might glean some gem that I can use in a future project.
That day I took a huge step toward becoming a professional rather than an aspiring amateur, and I’ve never looked back. I still try to keep that advice close to my heart as my writing journey now ventures into publishing. So I’ll repeat it, just so anyone who’s read this far doesn’t forget:
Think of everything you learn about the craft as a tool in your writing toolbox. You won’t use every tool for every job, but it is wise to have as many tools as you can gather, lest you find yourself in need of a tool you don’t have.